I had not seen my friend Antonio in almost 25 years. We met for the first time in 1984 when I was touring Italy solo, taking trains all over the place, from Venice to Palermo. When I got off the train in Lucca, Antonio was there waiting for me. We’d never met before, but we’d corresponded frequently (in the days before email) and exchanged artworks through a network of mail artist connections. I remember staying at his parents’ house, touring the city, visiting him in his graphic design studio, meeting his girlfriend Roberta (in orange, above). I have not seen him since visiting Lucca in 1988 (Antonio is holding a wineglass in the photo) with Nick and Miriam. Fortunately, Antonio came to meet us in Portovenere when our boat docked there in 2012. It was as if no time at all had passed.
October 30, 2018
Sicily is such a wonderful study in contrasts. The life-loving music and food that enhance day-to-day life. The solemn widows who wear black for the rest of their lives. I remember the trip that Nick and I took to Noto, southwest of Siracusa. Monumental buildings made of local golden stone, richly filagreed ironwork everywhere you looked. Jay and I were in Sicily for a day a few years ago when our boat stopped in Messina, then on past the still active volcanic island of Stromboli that we saw erupting in flames in the dark night as we sailed by.
October 29, 2018
Today: the town that has been the port of Rome for centuries, Civitavecchia. In 2011, when we arrived here, we headed subito to the train station and sped into Rome proper. The following year, we managed to spend some time in this busy port town itself. There’s a market (of course) and also a local flea market to be explored. And we were hoping that we’d be close enough to Rome that the lunch menu at some little trattoria might feature the Roman specialties we fell in love with on past trips: spaghetti cacio e pepe and carciofi alla giudea. Fortunately I not only know how to order both in Italian, but can easily ask for lo stesso ancora. The same again.
October 28, 2018
When I first arrived on the storied Isle of Capri. I headed up, up, up via funicular to the top of the mountainous island. It’s way up top where you’ll find the jet set who turned Capri into a millionaires’ paradise many decades ago. I suspect the real jet set has long abandoned the place to the hordes of tourists that descend upon it daily. When I was there some 34 years ago, I remember walking back paths through groves of lemon trees to the palace of Emperor Tiberius, staring at the cliff from which he threw his enemies to the coastal rocks below. Also, more gently, the kind boatman (a shoulder shrug, a nice tip) who took me into the Blue Grotto after the last official boat had left, affording me a quiet and private view of this natural wonder. I suspect now, more than three decades later, such privileges may no longer still be so easily available.
October 27, 2018
Ah, the golden fried pleasures of arancine. Rice balls that contain, in the classic preparation, meat and tomato sauce, lovely melted cheese, peas. We’d first enjoyed these treats at Galleria Umberto, the Sicilian American pizzeria and tavola calda in Boston’s North End. Because it was a popular item that sold out quickly, the counter man would regularly call back to the kitchen, “Sam! More arancin’!” (And how many times did we have a piece of pizza or two waiting for Sam to deliver?) Here in Sicily, we made a beeline to a busy downtown snack bar filled with university students on lunch break. No Sam, but plenty of arancin’.
October 26, 2018
Oh, look at Dr. Blake, so comfy and cozy, already settled into our spacious stateroom on the Wind Surf. Seven years ago at this time, we’d just sailed out of Istanbul and were headed south to Asia Minor, the Greeks Isles, Athens. The following year, we spent a day sailing around the boot of Italy, ready to arrive the following morning in Sicily. The customary at-sea day on most Windstar cruises provides a nice time to just relax, read, maybe use the fitness center, have tea, do the things you might not normally do when busy in port. Well, it’s almost time for dinner. Better put on shoes, Jay.
October 25, 2018
Six years ago, we sailed into the fjord-like port of Kotor in Montenegro. (I do like saying Montenegro.) I knew little about it beyond the fact that it has been at times ruled by Venetians, Ottomans and a few others. (Sounds good to me.) And that because of its embattled past, the city is surrounded by fortified walls. Also that it has no national currency but uses the euro as its money even though Montenegro is not part of the European Union. And I was delighted to see that we would be arriving on a market day. It seems that every new place I go, I love to head to the market. I see real people (vs. tourists) there, hear the language, watch the interactions. Here’s a small fruit and vegetable market (one of many such) that we visited in Istanbul years ago at this harvest time of year.
October 24, 2018
Along with the Grand Bazaar, the Spice Market is a major emporium here in the City of the World’s Desire. Consequently it’s filled with tourists, filled with the sounds of many languages. But it also serves as a market for locals who know that the freshness of the spices and other wares can be vouched for by the large volume of sales and quick turnaround. That said, there is a decidedly tourist slant to the goods on offer. “Premium” caviar. Belly-dancer costumes. And something called “Turkish Viagra,” a helvah-type of sweet with embedded pistachios.
October 23, 2018
Before sailing into the port of Split. I asked my Croatian friend (and expert home baker) Marin to provide me with the names of some different kinds of Croatian pastries and breads so that I could have a farinaceous scavenger hunt in his hometown, an activity that combines two of my favorite things to do while traveling: hunting down local specialties and eating them. (Here are some finds from our earlier trip to Lisbon. Our time in Split was just as rewarding.)
October 22, 2018
That smiling fellow on the right is our friend Marin. A Croat. Before Jay and I sailed into Pula, Croatia, I had considered asking him how to say a few simple phrases in Croatian, things like “hello” and “thank you.” But I worried that he might teach me words that were, well, naughty instead. Don’t you think he has a playful and mischievous look about him? (We did sail, language-less, into Pula, and then into Split, Marin’s hometown.)
October 21, 2018
Yes, there are pigeons in front of the major cathedrals and in the big squares in both Florence and Rome. But nowhere are they more dense than here in front of the Basilica San Marco. (This picture shows only a small fraction of them.) A lot had changed in the 25 years between my visits here. For example, you now can book your free ticket online to enter the basilica for one euro. Certainly worth it during the peak summer tourist months. Another welcome change, as in Florence, people who feed the pigeons are now fined for doing so. Bravo.
October 20, 2018
When you enjoy your coffee at the bar in Italy, it is relatively inexpensive. When you decide to enjoy it while seated at a table, it is more expensive. And when you decide to sit at a table at Florian, the fabled café here on the Piazza San Marco in Venice, it is most expensive. Even for Venice. Still, these ladies seem to be enjoying themselves, probably listening to beautiful atmospheric music from a nearby string quartet (either one at Florian or at Quadri, the competing cafe across the piazza; a six euro charge is added to your bill is the music plays while you’re seated.)
October 19, 2018
“See Venice and die.” Isn’t that what people say? Here I am, on my first visit to this magical city trying to prevent just that. Or pretending to be a Venetian blind. Or some other sophomoric photo op. When I took Jay there for his first trip, we had only three things on the agenda: Thing #1: Visit the Basilica di San Marco. Thing #2: Visit my favorite painting in the world, the Titian Assumption in the Frari Church. Thing #3: Find zaleti here in the city that first developed them. Oh, and eat. We accomplished everything on the list.
October 18, 2018
I love Halloween. And that year, as in the previous few, I wouldn't be at home for all the fun. (And I wouldn't be able to walk with my friend Vinny through his Waltham neighborhood, looking at the kids in costume, the houses decorated.) Instead, and I’m not complaining, Jay and I were in Italy, in the town of Portovenere, where my friend Antonio, whom I had not seen in 25 years, met our boat and spent the day with us. So I was happy to see that some of my Watertown neighbors had already started to put up their Halloween decorations, including this rather extravagant, inflated death coach. Illuminated no less.
October 17, 2018
Issues and candidates. And endless television ads. “Critical analysis” from so-called experts. It’s too much even for me, who stopped watching television on Election Night 2000: First Gore was winning, then Bush, so this former news junkie went to bed knowing the outcome would be decided upon awakening. Guess what? It wasn’t. The whole Florida ballot mess. I decided I had had enough and haven’t turned on the TV since. Still, I can’t escape political posters, even some that make me smile like this one I passed on my traditional downtown walk in Tucson. (I thought Dean Martin was long gone.) Anyway, I’ve already absentee voted in the 2012 election -- for president, for senator, for local contests and ballot questions. And I’m happy to be leaving the country tomorrow, not back until Election Night. I will, I hope, miss the last three weeks of all this.
October 16, 2018
This beautiful mission church rises from the desert outside of Tucson, seen from miles away on its arid plain within the Tohono O’odham Nation. And no matter how many times I visit, I’m always in awe of its beauty and majesty. This time, Simon and I took a spur-of-the-moment drive on a Sunday afternoon, just because. Magnificent. Can you imagine what this must have looked like to those who approached it back in 1797 when it had just recently been completed? No highway drive for them, approaching by donkey along rough routes dotted with mesquite and cactus with nothing in sight, and then suddenly -- this! Some 200,000 visitors come to pay their respects each year and to marvel at its visual beauty both inside and out. It’s called the “White Dove of the Desert.” And it’s easy to understand why.
October 15, 2018
Because of its reputation (since colonial days) for bucking the status quo, Cambridge has often been given a bad rap by some of its more conservative and narrow-minded critics. And, I’m happy to say as a former long-time resident, it lives up to its rep. Among its many derogatory nicknames, the People’s Republic of Cambridge. So I’m always happy to walk past this mid-Cambridge bar, The People’s Republik, halfway between Harvard and Central Squares, and be reminded of its "in your face" attitude. Love the faux-Cyrillic lettering, the use of red, the play on “party.”
October 14, 2018
Oh, how I wish I had taken a second, better, unblurred shot of this. (The young man seated below the banners thought I was taking his picture, so I had to play it cool and couldn’t risk a second photo. Scusi.) The three panels you (can just about) see here publicize a drawing show (from the previous Spring!) at the Cambridge Arts Council. The first time I saw these panels, I was struck by their simplicity, their extravagance in taking up precious, costly advertising space. (Only later realized that the cost of the placement was probably heavily discounted for the city project.) The second time I saw the panels, they’d been enhanced by a bus-riding “primitive” who’d drawn a silly face (can you see it?), laughing at the zebra in the middle panel. A burst of creative inspiration? A critical comment? Whatever, I love this. (In the spirit of fairness, you can learn about the exhibition here.)
October 13, 2018
Why do all my low-light photos taken in Latin restaurants come out grainy and lacking in color. Oh, well. What’s missing in photographic warmth was made up for by the excellent company provided by my dining companions, Bose-os Mike and Erin, former colleagues of mine at “the most respected name in sound.” We were part of a team that has since (and sadly) been dismantled. So we tried to get together and gossip madly at least once every few months. This night, upscale Southwestern food at this South End fixture. The “tower” seen here, a pretty (and pretty small) portion of Negro Modelo braised pork shoulder with sauce borracha and little “moments” of port and fig jam, baby arugula and garlic whipped potatoes. It tasted good. So good, in fact, that I wanted more.
October 12, 2018
When my late friend Dali first visited Rome (with her husband) and then decided to stay for a long while (without her husband), she knew minimal Italian. But one of the phrases she learned pronto was Quando comincia lo specttacolo? When does the show begin? Going to the movies in Italy is a trip. No matter the length of the film there is an intermission during which ushers roam the auditorium selling refreshments, people go outside to smoke. For me, even the posters are a treat. Billboards for American films (like House of Games, seen here) rewritten in Italian. Phrases like un film di David Mamet. I wonder if these two Grottese kids came up with the 2500 lire to attend.
October 11, 2018
Right around the corner from the cathedral in this fabled Tuscan town is the Sexy Cine. I can’t remember what film was on, but I do recall that in the other cinema in town, the family one, was Disney’s Gli Aristogatti. As my friend Antonio reminded me, “In Italy, we have the pope and Cicciolina.” Indeed. It got me thinking about how American youths learn about sex. A group of friends and I once shared stories about how our parents told us about the birds and the bees. Mine was the most painful: At bedtime, my father read to me from some Catholic tract called Dear Son, as I squirmed and hoped it would soon be over. (My younger brother, under the covers in his twin bed across the room, was laughing and making flatulent noises. I suspect my father was the most uncomfortable one in the room because he only tried this indoctrination once.) One friend, I wish I could remember which one, said that his entire sex education consisted of his father’s saying to him, “Don’t use anything.” He had no idea what that meant and still doesn’t.
October 10, 2018
The first time I visited Boston, Nick and I arrived on an overnight Greyhound bus from New York, stumbled out of the bus station into Park Square around 5am and were accosted by a toxic drunk who snarled, “F*ck both of you!” Whereupon Nick remarked, “How nice of the Chamber of Commerce to greet us upon our arrival.” That same trip, I remember someone had altered with spray paint the incised “Washington” on the base of this statue, adding “Irving, Author.” It’s since been cleaned up and beautifully lit on a recent warm, full-mooned evening. The Public Garden always seems special to me, no matter how often or in what season I visit.
October 9, 2018
When the Obama administration began to open up travel to Cuba again (after the doors had been slammed shut during the Bush years), I leapt at the chance to visit. I went legally with New York’s Center for Cuban Studies, a group that had received a “people-to-people” license from the US State Department. This license allows qualified groups to visit Cuba in order to exchange cultural information, learn about art, music, healthcare and other topics. It is renewed annually. Or not. This year, it seems, not. Reports abound that the State Department has been more than unusually sluggish and the many licensed groups (including National Geographic and many Ivy League alumni associations and other cultural travel organizations) have had to cancel planned trips because they no longer have these precious licenses. You can read more about this here. Meanwhile, I count my blessings that I was able to go when I did.
October 8, 2018
I love bits of overheard conversation. Taken out of context, they sparkle on their own and remain fixed in memory. This is my friend Jacques (the photo taken when he was a student of mine in Summit High School some 35+ years ago.) Years later, when Jacques was walking through Boston’s North End, he heard two women speaking in Italian. Suddenly one turned on the other and snapped in English, “I was talking about the lentils!” Years after that, my friend Nick, Christmas shopping on NYC’s Fifth Avenue, heard someone arguing, “Right? I know I’m right!” It was Jacques mid-fight with his boyfriend. But my absolute favorite bit (among hundreds) was when Nick and I had arrived in Paris on the day after Christmas, 2005, jet-lagged and walking toward lunch at Bon Marché when we heard two young British women (you must hear this in a British accent.) One was making a point to the other: “So she said to me, ‘Go! Have lunch with Lola!’” Maybe you had to be there.
October 7, 2018
My garden was pathetic this year. Six cherry tomato plants yielded a total of, count ’em, six cherry tomatoes. Period. The basil survived, but the parsley withered early. The only things that really flourished were the marigolds, which my friend James reminds me “like bad soil.” Thanks. The curlicues and cages seen here were my vainglorious early-season attempt to keep the neighborhood woodchuck from his eager sampling by creating a kind of fence-barrier. Epic fail, as the children say nowadays.
October 6, 2018
The summer was weird here in New England this year. Record-breaking heat, high humidity, drought conditions offset by heavy rains, you name it. Biblical weather. Consequently the plant life has been somewhat skewed as well. Crabgrass in my neighborhood is rampant in ways no one can remember. And look at this skeletal rosebush in my yard. Some flourishing stems, some desiccated ones, a blossom here and there. Odd as it looks, I like it. There’s something Japanese about it, don't you think? Something that might be found on a kimono, a piece of silk or porcelain, instead of against a stucco wall in an autumn garden.
October 5, 2018
As I mentioned yesterday, I am sometimes known by certain friends as ChiChi. And so I was delighted to visit this pottery studio, Casa ChiChi, on a recent visit to Cuba. And to meet the proprietor, the other ChiChi, while I was there. It seems that all of my good friends have alter egos, or at least alternate names. Marin is sometimes Cupcake, James sometimes Muffin (in their attempts to include me in their bakery triumvirate they desperately dubbed me Little Debbie.) Marin is also Psychine (French pronunciation), James also Crunches. My favorite of Nick's, um, nicknames is Uscita Sottopassagio. My friends Lisa and Pam are LouLou and Coco. Jay is Mr. Spofford (based on his shocking resemblance to that character in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.) But no one has more names than my friend Patti. I sometimes forget her real name, she has so many: Patrice Gizelle, Tapenade Roulet, Taffy Haynes, Miss Piatelli, Chaka Cohen (author of the memoir, White by Mistake), Qué Lástima, the list goes on and on.
October 4, 2018
Back in the 1980s, when I was at the peak of my Italomania, Jay came home from work and mentioned that some visitors from Italy had been to his plant that day. I went crazy! Where in Italy? What were their names?? He hesitated (never good with names) and then said, “I’m not sure, but I think one was called ChiChi Fargo.” Bingo! Of course, the visitor was not called ChiChi Fargo (he was from Assisi, so his name was, of course, Francesco), but from that moment on, I was. It was just too good a name to waste. I use it for online Groupon-type services, Facebook, Instagram, you name it. I am ChiChi to my Puerto Rican friends, to my Spanish tutor, to many others. And so I was delighted to see that my placecard at my friend Brooks’s 30th-birthday dinner was prepared (by his delightful eight-year-old stepsister Mary) as seen above.
October 3, 2018
Did someone say “brunch”? Yes, indeed. My friend Marin, who has a wonderful knack for combining great food and great company, did. To mark the opening of the saison, he assembled an enviably dishy crowd and served a remarkable homemade spread: scones with clotted cream or orange curd to begin; then, seen here, bacon, a homemade paté, a wonderful layered dish of zucchini, herbs and fresh mozzarella. But wait, there’s more. Ham “shelters” cradling poached eggs with mushrooms and chives. And for dessert, a baked blueberry/pecan French toast dish with a lacing of maple syrup. The conversation was intoxicating and non-stop. A perfect "welcome autumn" afternoon.
October 2, 2018
My friend Steven has a thing for publicity-crazed New England Patriot Rob Gronkowski. And so when Dunkin’ Donuts announced its contest with a “Lunch with Gronk” prize, he was beside himself. If the winner were to be decided by the number of photos someone takes of his friends with this larger-than-life cardboard cutout of the promotion-savvy tight end, Steven would be sure to win. (He had taken 23 before he got me into position.) Here I am, a latecomer to the game, somewhat more amused than interested or involved. I wished Steven luck. (And I thanked my late friend Coral Browne for teaching me the “fingers around the side” maneuver seen here and here.)
October 1, 2018
Meet my friend Sam, seen here rocking this venerable old Boston institution upon the occasion of the official launch event for his new book, Ghosts of Boston, Haunts of the Hub. Sam is an inspiration. Was it really only the year before that he was out of work, low on hope, wondering what he’d do next? Then suddenly, an idea to parlay his interest in the paranormal into a book about one of America’s oldest cities (and therefore chock-a-block with ghosts and other spirits.) He wrote a proposal, found a publisher, wrote the book against an almost impossible deadline (two months.) Now it’s been published and has sold out several times already on Amazon. If the famous ghosts who reside in the Old South Meeting House were at home this night, they were respectfully quiet. And rightly so.