Tuesday, June 30, 2009
(Hmm, it kinda looks like red wine here, huh? This photo is from lunch
The first time I went to Italy, I was a nut about ice water. I love
how refreshing it is, and I was totally bummed (and rather ridiculous
in that way) about drinking room-temperature water.
I still remember the first time I ordered cafe freddo, having found
the phrase in a guidebook. Finally, ice cubes! I couldn't wait to
savor a frigid chunk on my tongue.
The man at the cafe who listened to my stumbling order nodded and
started steaming an espresso. Then he reached under the counter and
pulled out a ladle full of ice.
I was estastic. The first ice I had seen all trip. Hurray!
I watched as he shook up the coffee with the ice, as one might any
And then I watched with horror as he strained the chilled coffee and
tossed the ice.
Oh no! I exclaimed, trying to motion a retrieval of the ice.
He must have thought I was nuts.
But eventually, I got my ice.
Ah, silly American.
I eventually learned to order it "with ice," a phrase I held dear for
one week in 2003 and then lost.
This trip I was content with cafe freddo chilled. Sweet and delicious,
just as the Italians intended it.
So for lunch today, at the La Bottega del Caffe at the Piazza Madonna
dei Monti, I split a refreshing salad (7 euros) with Carol - mango,
avocado, greens, corn, hearts of palm. All light, sweet, perfect for a
steamy day of walking on cobblestones and dodging traffic.
The Colosseum is awesome, mind-boggling in the huge events pit on there. My guidebook calls it "the NASCAR of antiquity," but I don't remember Tony Stewart being slaughtered last time he lost a race.
Random facts I learned today:
- Emperor Vespaian built the Colosseum in 10 years. He wasn't a super flashy emperor, but one who tried to win the support of his people and who opened more parts of Rome to the public. He was also supposedly witty and liked to hold dinner parties. My kind of guy.
- The Colosseum could hold 50,000 people, who could be sat in minutes because of the efficient design.
- Thousands of various animals were killed here, including bears and hippos! Not to mentioned hundreds of gladiators. To test whether or not a fighter was really dead (and not faking it), they would burn him with a hot iron.
and the breakfasts overseen by an overly friendly owner with 7 cats and a parrot.
(I realize my imagination can be overactive.)
So I didn't quite realize I was booking a B&B in Rome. It was simply a nicely priced place with glowing Tripadvisor reviews. But here weare, in a charming room in a charming apartment building. This morning, we had a breakfast of fresh mozzarella, olive, artichokes,bread and jam, tea and coffee, yogurt. Two couples were there, quietly talking among themselves, but the charming owner was not.
I stand corrected on my B&B notions.
Here is the courtyard near the entrance.
Monday, June 29, 2009
bite of salty bleu cheese with sweet tomatoes. (I bet it would not be
all that hard to reimagine at home, either.) Carol had gnocchi with
pesto and clams. For dessert, we split tiramishu (the most creamy,
luscious version I've ever had) and a rich sliver of chocolate cake.
(OK, and later I had a cup of hazelnut gelato for 2 euro - but it's
Italy! What's a girl to do? :)
I love the mix, the Vespas whizzing by crumbling buildings, a swanky
shoe shop on a cobblestone street. Gelato stores and pizzerias here
have a density to match Starbucks in the U.S.
Tonight - after a long nap post Ryanair travel as an afternoon rain
shower was going on - we took the 64 bus from Termini down to Camp di
Fiori & Piazza Navona, pictured below.
Rome. It was very cattle-call like, lots of messy lines with people
shoving, and a general bit of tension everywhere from the buses to the
airport lines. But it all worked - catching the metro to the Pont
Maillot station at 6 a.m. (after our hotel clerk told us he
accidentally added a zero to the charged credit card - OOPs! Fixed
now, we hope!) to buy a 13-euro bus ticket to the Beauvais airport to
wait by one of four gates (yes, four) to get on the plane where it
seemed you could buy anything. At one point, the flight attendant was
pushing a cart of duty-free perfumes. Then to another bus for 4 euros
to the Termini station - Rome's giant terminal of all things
First thing upon arrival... Pizza!
The glass-protected counter at the pizzeria across from the station
had an array of rectangular sheets of pizza, like uncut cakes. You
pick the kind and the pizza guy uses a knife to ask how big you'd like
it. Then it gets weighed.
This pizza with roasted tomatoes plus a bottled water was 4,70 euros.
And amazingly delicious. Lots of flavorful ripe tomato, with a kick
from the spices that heated up the back of the mouth ever so slightly.
No cheese. The dough was soft and fresh with a bit of flaky butterness
to it. For all the delicious pies I've had in the States, none of them
compares. Maybe the Roman gods are blessing the pizza of the city...
hotel room in Marais, a charming neighborhood in Paris. The Rue Rivoli
was quiet, the sky a yawning lavendar, the light stretching out into a
Carol and I are headed to the Beauvois airport, 55 miles north of
Paris, where we will catch a 9:30 flight to Rome. And go to our hotel
there and nap!
memory from Paris was of macroons. Nothing like American coconut
macroons, these airy confections are formed into circles with a layer
of cream between. They often come in lurid pinks (strawberry), green
(pistacio), orange (guess). Before I left, I bought a T-shirt with a
rainbow stack of macroons. I wore it till it was worn-out.
Here are two giant ones bought this trip for a few euros: chocolate
and vanilla. Yum!
to Paris. From Charles de Galle (which I have absolutely no
recollection of now) I took the train into the city, switched to the
Paris Metro (a fraternal twin to D.C.) and got off at Saint-Paul, in
the Marais district.
The hotel was just two blocks away. I picked up the key from the desk,
climbed 5 flights (Who takes the elevator? Umm, me and Carol for the
next two days.) and collapsed on a twin bed in a small room decorated
in golden yellows and orange.
Carol appeared 15 minutes later, having been at the Musee d'Orsay. I
was so happy to see her, even in my sleepy state. And she had a plan
for our afternoon - the annual Gay Pride Parade was today and ending
at the Bastille, just a few blocks away.
OK! Let's go!
It seemed like the entirety of Paris showed up. The first big float -
really, a tractor-trailer with the side cut off, just the frame
showing, and bedecked with balloons - met an excited crowd. And
then ... That was it?
Not quite. It seems people join the parade as it goes. A mob partied
between each float, slowing the processional to a standstill at times.
So we walked the route, passing floats, brightly costumed drag
queens, shirtless gyrating men. Paris was having a blast!
Not to mention lots of balloons, some quite suggestive. Carol called
this a "Where's Waldo" photo...
something marvelous happened.
My original flight abroad had three legs: D.C. to Tokyo, Tokyo to
Amsterdam, Lisbon to D.C. If you haven't ever looked at flights to
Japan, they aren't cheap. Cheaper than, say, sailing a wooden ship
half way around the world... But not by much.
So when I got sick and had to rearrange things - and switch the three
legs to two, missing pricey Japan entirely - I didn't get a refund. I
got $$$ to use on the new itinerary when I only needed $$.
Hmm. Maybe I could go first class?
Ha! That requires $$$$$$ apparently.
I did get one part of the trip - D.C. To Dulles - switched up a level,
to World Travelers Plus. What does that mean? The British Airways site
mentioned 7 extra inches of leg room. I'm 5-3 but I'll take what I can
get. Hey, maybe there would be such luxuries as my own TV or an extra
bag of peanuts!
Fast-forward to a few days ago, when I arrived at Dulles airport, me,
myself and my one backpack.
The boarding pass (I checked on online at home) said those with only
carry-on luggage could go straight to the gate. Just speak with an
agent there, it advised, for a brief documentation check.
OK, easy enough. I go to the gate. I find an agent. I show her that
note on the boarding pass. She smiles kindly and, in a lovely British
accent, says: "Oh, is that all you have? You're fine; that's for
people with big bags."
Ok, sweet! It doesn't quite make sense that she didn't look at my
passport, but I'm so pleased to be called a light packer that I go off
about my airport errands happily: newspaper, check... Hmm, maybe
dinner? The flight is at 7. Would they serve dinner? I can't recall.
Will it be edible? I pick up a Potbelly sandwich. Then I set about
doing things I forgot before I left, waiting for the boarding line to
Finally, after nearly everyone is on and I've eeked out every last
frantic email I can, I get in line.
The same agent takes my boarding pass and scans it.
The computer screen reads:
"NOT CHECKED IN."
My heart plummets. Oh no. What happened?
The agent skips just a beat before typing quickly. The computer screen
skips around. I can't tell what she is doing. Then she takes out a pen
and scratches a few things on my pass. "Have a nice flight!"
Whew! I'm off!
I practically skip down the entrance ramp to the plane door. There,
another cheery Brit takes a look at my boarding pass and says, "20F -
make a right; it's at the end of the row."
I look down at my boarding pass. It has 31J scratched out. Now it says
Then I realize: The seats are huge. There is ample space to stretch my
legs - maybe 3 feet? The seat next to mine is facing the opposite
direction with a divider between us.
Is this what first class looks like?
I sit down, and a flight attendant comes by with a program of sorts.
It is a menu. It begins with a description of four kinds of wine.
This is going to be awesome.
Would I like a newspaper?
Oh dang. No, thanks. I already bought two.
By my seat are: a real pillow, a quilted blanket and giant ear-muff
headphones. The divider between my seat and the next includes a flat
TV that turns out in front of me, a remote control (because yes, the
seat has that much room) and a little dimmer light that rotates.
How long is this flight?
Not long enough.
As soon as we take off and are calmly buzzing around by the clouds,
the flight attendant comes around with a pile of something. White wash
cloths. Steaming. So we can "wash up."
I find myself watching the distinguished men and one woman around me
to see what they do. It's like being an uninvited guest at a fancy
dinner party with four unfamiliar forks, three spoons and three knives.
I'm skeptical about this towel thing but wow, it feels great!
Alcohol. The steady roll of the bartender cart will be a feature of
this flight. Champagne? Which kind? The man next to me, who gets a
kiss from his wife every time she leaves her seat, orders a gin and
tonic. I ask for a glass of wine, white.
"French or American?"
I think back to my menu. The American wine was a Pinot Grigio from
Oregon, A to Z. I don't know a lot about wine, but I've seen that one
in wine shops before. The French one is completely indecipherable.
"The French, please."
I'm headed to Paris, might as well get in the mood!
It's quite good. It comes in a glass, of course.
Then the flight attendant comes around and asks what we would each
like for dinner. The woman across from me says, "I'd like the fish."
There are choices?
Suddenly the flight attendant is in front of me, poised with her pad
and pen. "And what would you like for dinner?"
"Oh dear," I stutter.
"I'll come back to you," she says.
I wonder if the flight attendants know who has been upgraded, who
doesn't belong here. I feel silly.
And in the menu, sure enough, there are three choices for entrée:
Asian-style braised beef short ribs with wasabi mashed potatoes
Seared Mahi-mahi with a tomato, chili and cilantro vinaigrette,
sauteed spinach and fingerling potatoes
Wild-mushroom-stuffed rigatoni with Fontina cheese and roasted tomato
Wow. Good thing I have a roast beef Potbelly sandwich in my bag.
The flight attendant reappears. "The fish, please," I say.
Fake it till you make it?
First comes "the starter": "fresh mozzarella with roast pears and
balsamic glaze." (photo below)
Sunday, June 28, 2009
(I have photos to post later. Please forgive the separate posts for each one ... it's the downside of sending them from a mobile phone.)
Tonight, we are going to a dinner party in the 14th e, a weekly Sunday dinner thrown by an ex-pat to out-of-town visitors. No, we don't know him, but Carol's friend/co-worker/cousin's dogwalker/I have no idea said it was the highlight of their trip. Can you imagine just inviting strangers to your house every Sunday and seeing what a fun mix you have? It sounds great to me.
(Hmm. Yes, Mom, maybe I should e-mail you his name and address. :-)
Tomorrow, we have a Ryanair flight out from an airport 55 miles north of Paris. Ryanair is one of the discount European airlines, where you can book a flight for as little as 0.99 euros. I kid you not. (The taxes and fees, though, add another 20 euros, and then you have to pay 11 euros to check a bag, etc. etc.) Still, it's a bargain.
Or so it seems.
For our 9:30 a.m. flight, we'll need to take a 13-euro shuttle about 3.5 hours before.
So I think what you save in cash, you pay for in time and inconvenience... but maybe not. We'll see how this goes!
I'm planning on taking my one backpack with me, not checking it, but I've heard horror stories about incuring a huge fee if the weight is over. And I don't know what my bag weighs. Ah, the adventure!
Right, where are we going?
p.s. I have an awesome story about the flight over, which I will post soon...
Friday, June 26, 2009
Airports are all about anticipation. You are on journey, an adventure,
a trip. I love looking out the window and watching the cityscape
become a doll's world, everything thimble-sized until clouds bubble
up. I love the feeling of having nothing you have to do, cut off from
phone and Internet, surrounded by off strangers.
I love buying newspapers and magazines, a little travel luxury. $6 of
wordy bliss. I love reading Sky Mall and marveling over the craziest
An hour till takeoff... I think I spy a newspaper rack...
I wish the dollar wasn't so weak. But we'll make the best of it. I'm hoping for lots of trips to Europe's glorious markets, fresh cherries and peaches and the like, baguettes with luscious farmer's cheese (the cheese is luscious, not the farmer), coffee that doesn't require heaps of sugar to be divine.
Because the dollar is such a wreck, hostels aren't making much sense. At high season, in a good location, a bed can run $45-$60. For ONE PERSON. That seems ridiculous.
So we're "splurging" (saving) with hotel rooms, one for two of us in the same price range. But without the communal bathrooms and random backpacking encounters. I'm a little wistful, actually, at not seeing an uncomfortable top bunk in my future.
In the future, I do see... the chaos and magic of Rome... bright mango gelato on a seaside cliff in Italy... swing dancing on a street in Barcelona... writing long notes at a Paris cafe... staring at David in Florence... wondering if I've had my V8 today in Pisa... biking by the canals in Amsterdam...
Here we go ...
Tuesday, June 23, 2009
Every since I tried fattoush, a Middle Eastern salad, at Lebanese Taverna in D.C., I’ve been on the prowl for sumac.
Ground sumac berries are the secret ingredient — well, OK, not sooo secret — the unusual taste that makes this mixture of tomatoes, romaine, herbs, feta, cucumber, baked pita chips light up your mouth.
Lemon, garlic, mint — that all helps. But sumac, where does one buy sumac?
Not your typical grocery store. Not Whole Foods. Not MOM’s, the organic market around D.C. Hmmm.
The trail seemed to dry up until this past weekend, when Katie and I ate at Cafe Gutenberg in Richmond. (Which, btw, is a great corner cafe with lots of locally sourced ingredients.) One side option: homemade sweet potato fries seasoned with sumac!
Bingo. Where can you buy sumac, I asked our friendly waiter?
Oh, that spice shop down on Cary should have it, he says, as if finding sumac is as easy as pie.
I love Richmond.
"That spice shop" turns out to be Penzeys — a cook’s heaven. The store is a walk-in cupboard of spices and herbs. Each herb, each type of cinnamon (four?!), each spice mixture is piled in a glass jar, ready for you to pop the top and inhale. There are whole sections for curries, salt, pepper. You can buy all sorts of seasonings, already mixed up to perfection for your chicken, veggies, fish, meat, whatever.
And the prices were terrific. A little jar of most anything was usually $2.50-$3.50.
I picked up sumac and also bought zatar, a mix of sumac, thyme, white sesame seeds and salt. The clerk advised: sprinkle zatar on pita bread, along with olive oil, and bake it until crispy. So delicious!
Add in a little jar of cinnamon and pasta seasonings, and I started the restocking of my spice cabinet for $10 total.
Oh, and bonus: Penzeys catalog contains recipes! It’s like a mini-cookbook. A catalog I’ll actually look forward to getting in the mail — smart marketing.
So what did I do with this bounty of spices?
Made a veggie pita sandwich with cucumbers, feta, tomato, red onion, Greek yogurt, zatar and olive oil:
Whipped up pita chips to dip into Greek yogurt dashed with olive oil and zatar.
If you haven't tried Greek yogurt, it's richer, creamier and seemingly much better for you. (Check out the nutritional facts and be amazed.) I don't know how they make the no-fat variety so dreamy, but it is. Mmmmmm ...
Monday, June 15, 2009
1) How is it I have so much stuff?
2) Oh, dang. I don't have that anymore. I need to go to Target again.
(The most pressing matter in a new place: Where is the Target? The grocery store? Wait ... that's a WHOLE FOODS! Score! Hey ... there's no Trader Joe's here??)
(These passionate outbursts are interrupted only by my embarrassed realization that I am geniunely interested in particular chains. As if my quality of life will be significantly better in the vicinity of a Five Guys. Is it possible to escape the life of an American consumer, circa 2009?)
Forget the stores! So far, I am digging Charlottesville. The people are nice, sweet even. They smile at you. They look you in the eye. They make small talk. I shouldn't be so suprised, but each time, I am. It's great!
The air is fresh. The traffic, non-existent. The bagels, spectacular and cheap. Heck, the corner convenience store sells killer homemade peanut butter cookies with a chocolate disc in the middle. Something like 10 for $2.99. Wow.
The downtown mall, a brick promenade with no cars allowed, has free wifi, lots of assorted dogs, random street musicians, fancy restaurants, outdoor seating everywhere.
The scruffy skateboarding-looking dude sitting at the table across from me turns out to be working on his Ph.D. Christian's Pizza down the street has an avocado pizza slice. Bookstores are everywhere.
I think I'm going to like it here.