Tag Archives: travel

THE THORN BIRDS – Take two

Hot priests

A few years ago, the Roman Catholic Church, in what I can only assume was an effort to revamp their stodgy image, asked for volunteers amidst their priests to sit for a photo shoot that would culminate in the release of a calendar featuring “hot priests”. That’s not exactly what it’s called but, judging from the photos of attractive or ruddy young priests in their cassocks, that’s exactly what it is.

I saw the calendar hanging from a newsstand in Venice on my first day there and, since then, I noticed it on sale pretty much everywhere. I sat on the photo and the thought for  a while, needing some time to contextualize it.

In the wake of a devastating scandal that has spanned half a dozen countries and finally pulled the curtain on what everyone assumed was happening, is it wise to portray those who have vowed to lead a life of faith, assistance to the needy, poverty and, not least, celibacy as pin-ups? Exactly, who is the ideal customer? Who will be hanging hot, sexy priests on their walls? Teen-age girls who never read “The Thorn Birds” but find the ultimate taboo attractive? Young boys (the calendar is featured on a number of gay sites)? Housewives  that find solace in telenovelas and unobtainable objects of desire?

Shouldn’t the Roman Catholic Church aim its modernization at accepting the use of contraceptives? Or divorce? Or to finally end that vow of chastity that was notably broken by Cardinals and Popes over the centuries and has led to the unfolding recent scandals?

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AN (HALF) AMERICAN IN ROME and places to eat

Welcome to Rome where everything is grand

There is an air in Rome that could exist only in Rome. Once you land here, there is  no mistaking the place for anywhere else. I can’t quite put my finger on it and I am certain it has nothing to do with the soft colours of the buildings, the chaotic traffic, the tourists walking around with their noses in the air, or the landmarks one has seen many times over, even without having set a foot in the city. It’s the smell in the air, a mixture of reeds from the Tiber and the sun hitting the stone pavement; the debonair allure of Romans; the crowds spilling out of every cafe and the Vespas constantly threatening one’s life. It’s spectacular. I used to take Rome for granted, often commuting from Milan for the day, cursing the proverbial slowness of Romans and their wait and see attitude. But, when you are vacationing, it can be charming.

If you ask for directions, they will invariably be spotty and approximate – everything is approximate here: from the time you agree to meet, the price of an item, the bus arrival, the way cars are parked. To be able to live here, one has to learn to live with approximation and be happy with it.

For some bizarre reason only newscasters can explain or, maybe because it’s Summer and the news cycle is slow, they have taken to name heat waves here, the way they name hurricanes in the States. As the taxi driver who took my friend Sue and I from the train station to our wonderful apartment in Via del Governo Vecchio, it’s July in Italy, it’s always been hot and, until now, we never needed advice on how much water to drink, to stay out of the sun between noon and 3 pm and all the other common sense crap that the news is constantly feeding us. It’s Summer, it’s hot, drink water and go with the sweat.

While on the subject of keeping cool, a word of advice to my American compatriots, ladies in particular . When you think that packing Bermuda shorts is a good idea that will keep you cool and comfortable, please, look in the mirror and think again. What is it with American women of any age traipsing around in Bermuda shorts? Unless they are tailored by Celine and you look like Ines de la Fressange, chances are you will look hideous in them. If you have a slight belly, they will accentuate it; if they are cut above the knee, you better have perfect knees; if they are knee-length, they will shorten your legs and, unless your butt is as perky as Naomi Campbell’s, no favours in that department either. The same comfort and coolness can be achieved with a nice, wide or pleated cotton skirt – trust me.

Please forgo shorts and Bermudas

I realize that, being Italian, I put far too much emphasis on how I look no matter where I am but, just because we are on vacation and not likely to bump into our neighbours or friends, it  is not a good reason to look subpar. Which brings me to clothes in Rome. Surprisingly, apparel has always been cheaper in Rome than in most places in Italy. Right now, with Summer sales going on, the city is irresistible. So irresistible that a pair of Prada shoes found their way back to my apartment, together with a Max Mara dress – and now, even if those items were on sale, my shopping budget has come to a screeching halt. If you still have money in your pockets, take advantage, especially of the Italian stores in Rione Monti or, for more upscale offerings, around Via Condotti and Via del Babbuino. I came  across a lovely store, filled with fabulous print dresses and handmade jewellery – Officine in via della Stelletta 21.

If it’s your first time in Rome, by all means go see all the sights that have made this city  world-wide famous. But beware – especially in the Summer, the crowds are unbearable. At Trevi Fountain, the tourists were three rows deep. By the Spanish steps, throngs of organized groups were milling around but I understand, it has to be done, if your time is limited.

Eating well is usually reasonably easy to do but here are some tourist-free suggestions from my sister who lives here and whose boyfriend is a true Roman. For instance, every website mentions Baffetto, an old and famous trattoria and pizzeria right outside our apartment. I am told the food is good but the lines need to be seen to be believed. While seemingly every tourist is queuing out there, Romans will go to Francesco in Piazza del Fico, where it’s also packed but the service is extra speedy, the pizza paper-thin, the way Romans make it, and where you will sit at an outside table and will enjoy a great meal. Pastas are also noteworthy. Before pizza, stop for an aperitif at Osteria del Fico just round the corner. Both places are very close to Piazza Navona

Roman flatbread at Eataly

As I live and breathe food, I did forgo a tour of the catacombs for a tour of Eataly in the  Ostiense neighbourhood. If you have seen the NY counterpart, this is even bigger: three stories filled to the brim with artisanal products and drinks, from beer to lemonade, chocolate to prosciutto. The three floors also features a number of restaurants ranging from piadina to fish to panini -you name it. In the land where farmer’s markets still abound, butcher shops and greengrocer’s can actually be found, I am not sure why Italians would go for an American-type experience but, probably because Eataly is so un-Italian, I found it exhilarating and I could have bought everything. The sheep’s ricotta I bought was indeed delicious, as were the cold cuts and the fresh bread For locations and pics

 

A rectangle of pizza at Pizzeria Leonina

If you find yourself in Rione Monti, a charming neighbourhood that looks livable and has a number of pretty stores and an adorable square, stop for a slice (or, rather, a rectangle) at Pizzeria Leonina (Via Leonina 84 – metro Cavour). The place is a hole in the wall but the pizza is fresh and tasty, comes in a variety of wonderful toppings featuring very many vegetables and it’s served either to go or on a wooden board that you can take to a tiny counter and sit on a stool while munching in the heat.

Finally, I am not sure if the ice cream tasted so good at Gelateria Frigidarium right outside our apartment because it was so close to home but the sabayon was spectacular and the lines pretty long. Clearly, I wasn’t the only one thinking that way. The chef- owner is eager to let you try different flavours, especially the more exotic ones like ginger, and is very proud of his product.For address and information in Italian

 

 

 

 

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ROMAN HOLIDAY

The eternal city

The flock of seagulls that have taken residence upon one of the roofs just outside my bedroom window, must have made a pact not to let me sleep past 8 am. They tell each other stories in a loud and guttural dialect and, when I fling the shutters open, there they are, having breakfast, perched upon the red tiles. Every single morning.

When I traipse down the stairs to get paper and croissants, the “portiere”, a haughty concierge from Sri Lanka, lectures me on how to sort the trash if I want to avoid getting a 1,300 euro fine and, when suddenly the electricity disappears and I have to find the breakers in the basement, he doesn’t even think of walking down the stairs with me but, rather, pushes me into the darkness with the promise of a light switch somewhere.

Despite the seagulls and the concierge’s antics, I would still rather rent than be confined to a hotel room. In truth, the apartment is beautiful, in a gorgeous and central part of Rome, a stone’s throw from Piazza Navona and Campo de’ Fiori where a charming farmer’s market takes place every day, albeit a very expensive one. The tiny wild strawberries and the ripe and juicy cherries are too enticing to resist.

It’s interesting the concierge puts so much emphasis on how to sort the recycling when, a couple of blocks down the street, I see a woman amassing garbage on a street corner willy-nilly. That is Rome and Italy for you – I walk around Eataly, the huge steel and glass food emporium filled to the brim with artisanal products and produce and, right outside, on the way to the metro station, the pavements are broken, the smell of urine in the underpass overwhelming and none of the escalators leading to the stations are working. On the other hand, the train arrives on time, it’s pleasantly air-conditioned and efficient. Unfortunately, the only two metro lines that serve the city only cover a portion of this metropolis, leaving the rest to deal with gridlock traffic and buses. Too hot to figure out bus routes and wait for them.

The Eataly behemoth puts New York’s to shame

Unlike Venetians, usually very calm and pleasant, Romans can be a hit or miss. The newsagent is grumpy, the coffee shop lady barely says a word when I place my order but the woman running the shoe shop runs herself crazy trying to find the right size of ballet flats Sue is looking for and, coming up empty, she points to a store nearby and asks us to let us know how it goes. Again, this duality seems to be the trademark of a city that has been somewhat functioning for over 2,000 years. Corruption at government level still abounds but the populace goes about their business as best they can.

Now that I am here, I think nothing of stumbling across ruins every which way and I barely glance at the Colosseum surrounded by a multitude of tourists, too busy looking for a taxi to get ourselves and our groceries out of the intense heat. I have a tactic to deal with both heat and jet lag – I pretend they are not there, a mistress of denial, and I just let myself sweat away, pausing now and then to enter air-conditioned stores. Standing in front of the Carrefour’s dairy case for a few minutes is a life saver (where we also discover a very pleasant, all natural fruit drink we feel compelled to buy).

Castel S. Angelo, Papal residence

It is easy to see the charm of a city that inspired such movies as Roman Holidays, with the hapless American girl invariably swept up by some good-looking Italian on a Vespa. The cliché endures but the reality is a bit more complicated than that. If you look closely, or just read the hysterical papers, it’s not so hard to spot the recession that is hitting the country and that is bound to get worse. A helpful man who owns one of the many beautiful clothing stores we visit, tells us he will be closing his business soon as he can’t even break even. He thinks he will branch out in the tourist industry and is fatalistic about his choices, in a way this city and this country have mastered since their inception. We will just do what we will have to do. But I am afraid the consequences will be harsher to deal with this time. Despite the 40% and 50% sales all over town, most of the stores are empty. Smaller boutiques and moms and pops stores are destined to disappear.

The city, though, remains eternal. Some of the sights Cleopatra saw upon her triumphal entrance with Caesar’s son in tow are still there for us to see. The same combative spirit of defiance mixed with a wish for a good life also endures. And it seems that, for now, it will have to do.

 

 

 

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SOMEWHERE OVER THE RAINBOW

The reasons why I fell in love with Los Angeles, one day at a time, are many and varied. And then there are those sudden moments when I am reminded why I love living here.

We don’t really get Summer thunderstorms on the West Coast – the closest we get to is a gusty wind, humidity in the air and a few, lonely drops of rain. Exactly what happened yesterday. While the sun was getting busy going to sleep, a rainbow briefly graced our sky which was exploding in a riot of colours. I rushed out and took pictures before everything went dark.

And, in the process, fell in love all over again.

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THANK GOD FOR ITALIAN MEN (and other unusual things to do in Venice)

Just another bridge – ducking required when passing on a boat

The construction workers had been busy around the hole in the ground for a few days, just next to the bridge I walked over, first thing in the morning, sleep still in my eyes, to reach Bar Nico for hot croissants. Two days before my birthday, upon my passing, one of them whispered “Sei bellissima”. With uncombed hair, yoga pants and not a stitch of make-up, I strongly doubted his assertion about my beauty and I kept on walking. On my way back, croissants and newspaper secured under my arm, the same worker, undeterred, asked me if I could stop for a minute. I don’t, I am sure he uses the same lines on half  the women who walk by, thereby delaying the filling of the hole in the ground, but I chuckle internally because this stranger, a good 20 years younger than me, gave me the gift of an uplifting  compliment on the eve of a distracting and slightly traumatic birthday.

And so, here I am, with half a century behind me and an improbable 50 more years ahead. If anything could soften the blow, I knew that Venice could. Maybe Stefano, the genial host of Osteria Mascaron where I spent a pre-birthday dinner (I am known to stretch celebrations for days before and after) is right: Venetians are kind people because they live so intimately with and along the water and because having to walk everywhere robs you of any aggression. Venetians are indeed a patient lot, always eager to answer questions, give directions, unfazed by the throngs of tourists who stop abruptly, trip getting on and off boats and generally impede basic daily activities.

I am celebrating this milestone, this clarion call to change what doesn’t work anymore and to keep forever what stood the test of time, with some of the people I love most in the world, in one of the most mysterious and enchanting locales in the world. The light is not as bright as in California but it is softer, warmer. The full moon hanging over the island of Giudecca looks more playful than the one over my canyon, bathing rows of pretty houses rather than chaparral and coyotes. Maybe this light is the reason I am contemplating a possible move over here, some time in the future: it will be kinder on wrinkles. Or maybe because this is a place acutely aware of its past and, as we grow older, so are we.

The biggest surprise of turning 50, an age that, in my 20’s, was synonymous with demure two-piece suits, strings of pearls and bridge parties, has been the amount of energy I still have and the need for change, as if a different chapter were opening. I haven’t felt this exhilarated in years. Now, if I could only hold on to this feeling for the next 10 years…

Here are a few suggestions of unusual things to do in Venice, places to go or eat, that you won’t find in guide books. Some require a boat, that can be rented but it might be easier to befriend a Venetian – they are all equipped with boats the way we are with cars.

For Art Lovers: Scuola Grande di San Rocco. Ok, you will find this in guide books but it might not be at the top of your list. It should be. This sort of trade union of the past commissioned Tintoretto to decorate their building – all I can say is “breathtaking” View some images here

For Book Lovers: Libreria Toletta is a maze of a bookstore  with different rooms dedicated to different subjects. The staff is very knowledgeable and will help you picking books on Venice in very many different languages – Sacca de la Toletta 1213, a stone’s throw from the Accademia Museum

The welcoming cat taking a break

Libreria Acqua Alta is an extremely fun place. Strictly used books arranged in piles, inside bath tubs or in a real gondola in the middle of the largest room. A cat sort of welcomes you outside while the owner, Gigi, will chat you up and offer you free books for a date (if you are a woman). Small English language section but prints and other fun items are for sale. Calle Longa S. M.Formosa 5176 (near Campo S. M Formosa in Castello)

For Food Lovers: Osteria al Mascaron is a Venetian mainstay. Reservations are recommended. The food is incredible. Try the polenta with squid ink for a real Venetian experience. Osteria Mascaron

Caffe ai Frari – an ancient Cafe that serves cold cuts, sandwiches and salads at lunch. Service is slow but the place is so charming, devoid of tourists and the prosciutto from the nearby Dolomites so delicious that is worth the wait – just off Campo dei Frari in S. Polo

Bar ai Tedeschi – on the tiny island of Sant’Erasmo there is a modest bar on the beach that serves the best spaghetti with clams I tasted the whole vacation. You can also swim. But a boat to get there is required.

Trattoria Le Vignole – on the Vignole Island, this can be reached with a vaporetto and I promise there will not be a tourist in sight (other than the ones who read this blog). You order fish at counter and then you eat in the large garden right on the water. Delicious!

Pasticceria Tonolo – for your sweet tooth. Go early in the morning and get a doughnut or, as we call them in Italian, krapfen. Well worth the inches around your waist – Calle de San Pantaleon, near Campo Santa Margherita

Full moon over Giudecca

For the Romantic in you: Take a walk along the Zattere embankment all the way to Santa Maria della Salute church. Enchanting. You will see the moon rise of Giudecca island, sit on the steps of a beautiful church while staring at San Marco, the water lapping around you. It’s what I always do on my last night in Venice.

La Fenice Theatre. Possibly the most beautiful baroque theatre in the world, it burnt down a number of years ago and was painstakingly reconstructed in every minimal detail. Get a couple of tickets for any of the operas or ballets – your jaw will drop when you walk in. You can also visit it during the day with a guided tour but experiencing a performance is way more chic!

If you happen to befriend a Venetian, ask them to take you swimming in Bacan. They will explain and, hopefully, take you

 

 

 

 

 

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THE TRUTH ABOUT VENICE

Your typical Venetian street


Venice’s welcoming embrace turned out to be hot and sticky. The pigeons outside the bathroom window of my apartment in Dorsoduro were looking for respite from the sun under the eaves of a rooftop, too exhausted to take flight again.

When the vaporetto turned the corner and I saw the silhouette of Mulino Stucky on Giudecca island, I knew to drag my suitcase near the exit because the S. Basilio stop was near. The Zattere embankment, on the Southern part of the island, drenched in sun at 2 pm, felt like the inside of an oven. No matter. The unprecedented heat wave that hit Italy early this Summer was not going to deter me from enjoying every minute of my precious time here.

It felt important, this year, to celebrate my 50th birthday, such a milestone, away from home and in the arms of my other home. Finally tired of fighting the duality of places and the sense of not belonging in either, I claimed them both home and called it a day.

It’s hard to contextualize Venice when visiting, so wrapped up the tourist is in taking in the sights, especially the ones that have graced paintings and photographs for over five centuries. It wasn’t until I started spending some serious time here that I forgot about the Byzantine art and the treasure troves and started asking myself questions about how life is here, how things work, how living on the water changes your daily experience. I was fortunate enough to be introduced to an extraordinary Venetian, Dr. Vaccher, who has lived his 7 decades in Venice and who is a mine of information, historical and practical, and who willingly will use his boat to show me those places where the tourist will not go or, simply, cannot go because of lack of adequate transportation. He has been my personal Cicero and has opened my eyes to much more than meets the eye.

Venice, once built on trade and the maritime industry, now derives most of its income from tourism. The tourist is revered, catered to and sometimes swindled but that doesn’t mean that every singe Venetian operates in the tourist trade. Public sector employees, doctors, firefighters, they all live here alongside this chaos of cruise ships, multitudes of people from all over the world – they battle high water in winter, keep their cars on the mainland, go shopping trailing little trolleys that will have to be dragged up long flights of stairs (there are no elevators). No such thing as stocking up at Costco’s here, way too impractical. An ambulance will pick you up by boat and a fire will be fought from a boat. But Venice is not just San Marco and the six sestrieri (neighbourhoods) that make up the main island. It’s part of a large lagoon, with a rich and varied history that predates by centuries the birth of the Most Serene Republic of Venice .

Where Romeo and Juliet could have sat – if they had existed


Visiting the other islands will give you a measure of the different facets of this mysterious city that is so easy to categorize as a floating museum: Giudecca, quiet and originally working class, still boasts vast shipyards where all types of boats get repaired. St. Lazzaro of the Armenians hosts an Armenian monastery and library – the Armenians being a protected minority in Venice who used to own vast swaths of land cultivated to feed the main island. Murano is still famous for its glass while Burano’s lace making ladies have all but disappeared. San Michele has a beautiful cemetery and on San Giorgio the wealthy Mr. Cinti opened a foundation in the name of his dead child, with a wonderful garden anyone can visit. Many of the minor islands that dot the lagoon were fortified in Napoleonic times to defend the city and many forts, ammunition depots, cannon ramps and the like can still be seen. The outer isles were the seats of sanatoriums, plague lazarets  and a madhouse where, in centuries past, more than one woman ended up when her husband was displeased with her or, simply, desired to marry somebody else. Like in many other countries in Europe, it wasn’t hard to bribe doctors that would declare a woman mad and ship her off to a lunatic asylum for the rest of her natural life. Or else, there was always a convent at the ready and convents, around here, seem to be a dime a dozen.

S. Michele island

I gave up on maps early on in my time in Venice – too difficult to read. Walking around requires a large amount of faith, a general knowledge of the desired direction and a willingness to get there. Addresses are not helpful as they are distinguished only by the name of the neighbourhood and the civic number – not a street name. Landmarks are given when asking someone for dinner for the first time, whether they be where two canals meet, a church or a bridge. The vaporetto system works pretty much like an underground and it’s very easy (if not cheap) to navigate.

One night, at midnight, munching on an ice-cream cone while walking home from a tango night in a campo I was not familiar with, I just followed the moon to get myself back. Near my door, a couple of youths from Montenegro were staring at a map and, at my welcome apparition, asked me how to get to Campo S. Margherita.

“Walk over the bridge, turn right, make a left on Campo S. Barnaba, left on the Bridge of Fists and keep on walking. You are not far.” They were trying to follow my directions on the map, to not much avail.

“Trust me. Walk over the bridge, make a right and just follow the noise”.

Have faith.

 

 

 

 

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THE PERILS OF TRAVEL

Photo – howstuffworks.com

Was there really a time when I loved airports? When was it? Because this distant memory is getting more and more faded, without the charm of an old sepia photograph. Forget the cattle call of checking in, undressing for security, being scanned down to our inner organs – all obstacles that require fortitude of mind or, at least, an ability to insulate oneself from what’s happening around us.

There used to be a glamour attached to  international travel that has endured since the times of Columbus, until hopping from one continent to the next became even too easy. This easiness has now turned into hassle, or maybe I am growing old and Ottie’s pleading expression is enough to want me to unpack and stay home.

Sitting at the gate, waiting to board my flight to Italy, I am inflicted a series of platitudes  from the elderly Italian woman who just took a tour of the National Parks and is sharing her conclusions that, in America, the population survives on beef, nobody walks and there is nothing worth buying. “It’s all jungle”, she shrieks, meaning junk.  On the other hand, in Italy, according to her, nobody dies of hunger, everyone gets by with their vegetable garden, the chickens in the yard and the social pension of 500 euros a month. In Milan everybody is too focussed on working and Rome is too congested but in Campo Basso the air is clean.

At the risk of sounding elitist, the problem with mass travel is that too high a percentage of those who trudge through National Parks, the Orinoco river or Piazza Navona, do not even attempt to understand what is behind a pretty sight, let alone getting it.  It feels as if people travel for the sake of saying they have done it, because it’s now required of anyone living in the developed world. Travelling doesn’t stem any longer from a genuine curiosity, from a willingness to be opened and transformed. To be changed.

We carry around our prejudices, our attachments, our habits wherever we go, maybe because distances have shrunk and it’s possible to be dropped in a different culture in a matter of hours, without the adjustment of physically crossing time zones, battling sea-sickness and long days of contemplative inertia.

“I would never live in Los Angeles”, the harpy carries on behind me, “there are too many coloured people”, by which she means anyone from Asia to Africa. “Japanese are very polite”, she generalizes, undeterred. Overwhelmed by shame at my fellow citizen, I toy with the idea of either clubbing her with my laptop or just chiming into the conversation and putting her in her place. I do neither – pretending not to speak Italian and continue in my reading.

It’s going to be a long, long flight.

A few days later, to prove my point, an exchange with an American girl trying to find her way to the Rialto Market in Venice, leaves me baffled. After asking me for directions and still riding on the vaporetto next to me, she feels like she should share with a fellow American that it’s too hot: “The locals are used to it but I can’t wait to get back to Miami where everything is air-conditioned and I don’t have to be outside” (never mind that Miami in July is ten times hotter). She also shares she is a lawyer (which might explain her attitude) and that she is staying at the Danieli, the grande dame of Venice hotels, probably costing her upward of $500 a night (and with plenty of air conditioning). There she is, riding along the Grand Canal and whining – she should have definitely googled the pictures.

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ADVENTURES IN LALA LAND – Son of a Gun

Image from vintagevectors.com

The corner of Orlando and W. 3rd St. in Los Angeles has become a happening one. If, until a few years ago, the only bright spot was Joan’s on Third, the ever popular eatery, now the swanky Churchill hotel has appeared on one corner and Magnolia Bakery, of Sex and the City fame, on the opposite. And then there’s Son of a Gun. Brought to us by Jon Shook and Vinny Dotolo, the masterminds behind Animal, the pair tries to do for seafood what they did for meat, i.e. make it very interesting.

With only a few concessions to a couple of salads and a chicken sandwich (which I saw coming out of the kitchen and looks fantastic, something I would actually order), the entire menu is devoted to seafood. Unfortunately, because the prices are somewhat steep, ordering the entire menu was out of the question but that was my first inclination when I read it.

The L-shaped room is not as minimalist as Animal and it’s filled with maritime memorabilia, with the shortest part of the L devoted to a long, communal table with stools. The tables are a bit too close together, easily promoting conversation with your neighbours and it might not be the right place for a romantic dinner or a first date. It’s also extremely loud. But, oh the food! Everything we picked, did not disappoint.

Most of the dishes are on the small side and it’s worth checking with the server as you might end up hungry if you only order a couple of items.

My friend and I started with poke, served nearly raw, cut in little cubes, marinated with ponzu and served with yuzu and white nectarines. Everything melted in my mouth. This is where the difference between restaurants who serve only top-notch ingredients and those who don’t becomes apparent: the freshness of the fish, the intense sweetness of the yuzu and the pitch perfect flavor of the nectarines cannot make a dish fall flat no matter how hard a chef might try.

The lobster roll, that I had noticed flying out of the kitchen while waiting, is a tiny rectangular of brioche, brushed with butter and toasted, with a slit on top filled with the lobster/mayo salad that has made this East Coast staple so famous. I could have eaten five rolls in a row without missing a beat. The octopus salad was also a standout – tender octopus, grilled and paired with mirepoix and chili.

And then it was time for the Peel and Eat Shrimp boil – half a pound of boiled shrimp served in their shells with a lime mustard sauce. Sounds uninteresting right? Half of the fun was eating with our hands and getting messy (hot serviettes and lemon wedges are provided) and the other half was seeing how such a simple dish could be brightened with the right marinade and a sauce so well-balanced I wish I could have bought a bottle to take home.

What I like about both restaurants is their integrity – only the freshest and best quality ingredients are served, with no fuss but just an apparent joy of cooking them. This means it won’t be cheap but it’s worth every morsel. On the good side, the restaurant purifies and carbonates tap water themselves – which is served in simple glass bottles with jam jars standing in for glasses – and only charges 10c a person for it. No shelling out $7 for some Scottish Highlands water in a fancy bottle.

For desserts, only a few ice-cream selections are available, probably also excellent, but I had purchased a chocolate flourless cupcake with Swiss meringue topping from Magnolia that our server was gracious enough to let us eat, even providing us with plates at no charge. Lunch service is friendly, girly and efficient.

PS – This girl is going on a well deserved 2 week vacation. Might blog occasionally but probably not, unless I can’t fight the urge. Will bring you back news, tidbits and suggestions from the motherland upon my return. Enjoy your Summer!

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VACATION EXPECTATIONS

Most Americans get one week of paid vacation a year, assuming they work for a company that even pays for vacation time, a barbaric practice that makes workers insane, scared of leaving the office for more than a few days because “it’s just not done”, and most make do with a few long week-ends here and there. As I said, barbaric. Believe it or not, Chinese workers get more vacation time (go ahead, Google it, it’s true).

When the company I used to work for offered me a transfer to LA, as part of my compensation package, I negotiated the same amount of vacation I was entitled to as an Italian employee – that would be 30 days a year. I quickly found out that my ritual of taking 3 to 4 weeks in the Summer just would not do in this country until, a couple of years in, I decided to screw it and operate under the assumption that nobody is that valuable and, as I had the time, I was going to use it. How else is one supposed to see the world with the hard-earned money we make?? (maybe not these days, but in those oh so heady times of Clinton yore).

Planning a vacation or deciding where to go and who to go with can be a stressful enterprise all in itself if you, like me, won’t even remotely consider travel agencies or any form of organized vacation. We invest so much, and not just financially, in our planned time off, we imagine all sorts of fantastic relaxation and revelatory opportunities, lazy hours spent on a hammock with a Martini at our side, half a dozen of the tomes we have been meaning to read gone through in a week, reaching the top of Kilimanjaro with no set-backs, meeting the man (or the fling) of our dreams, or whatever it is that we stuff our vacation dream bag with.

I stopped vacationing with my parents at the age of 15 – long sojourns in the United Kingdom, purportedly to perfect my English but, really, to kiss boys and, aside from one disastrous holiday in Sardinia with a bunch of friends from college I was very close to, I  have wonderful memories of each and every trip. Even of when things went horribly wrong in Greece and the boat to my island of choice broke down, or tramping to Mayan ruins at 5 in the morning, trailed by a tour group of Germans shouting “Super”  (pronounced tzuper) at every turn, forever changing my view of the Mayan experience, or of when I was pulled aside in Tel Aviv for a pat down and an interrogation in a private room that had me scared out of my wits and on an on. We all have travel nightmare stories that make for very good dinner party conversation.

But sticking to a few, simple rules has served me very well over the years and, hopefully, will serve me well on my upcoming trip (if I do get to go, that is, and no other disaster befalls me between now and Sunday).

  1. Do not have any expectations. The hotel might or might not be as wonderful as the website makes it out to be. A dark-haired and charming Italian might or might not take you for ice-cream in Piazza Navona. The sights might or might not be all that you hoped for. The kids might or might not behave. It doesn’t matter. If there is a time to truly stay in the moment and go with the flow, it’s when you are away from it all.
  2. Know who you are going away with. And think about it very carefully. For who I am, a solo vacation is preferable to a group where way too many people need to agree on too many things, wasting valuable time and creating tension. Going away with my family is also a big no-no in my book, with just my sister a possible exception. There are people I love more than myself and I still wouldn’t go on vacation with just because I know their habits are very different from mine. I am allergic to mess, to taking too long, to too many hours in a museum, to sticking to plans no matter what. None of these quirks disappear just because we are on vacation.
  3. Do at least one thing or go to one place you haven’t done/been to before. Getting lost, being challenged in a different language, becoming familiar with a previously little known culture can only be enriching experiences. It can be as minor as trying a food I never tried before (but do watch for Montezuma’s revenge..)
  4. Be curious, even more curious than in everyday life.  Ask questions, talk to people. It might lead to the dark, charming Italian taking you for ice-cream in Piazza Navona.
  5. By all means, be safe – a point my mother might find questionable after looking at the photos of the Bedouin camp in the Sinai I found myself in one year (and which might have led to the pat down at Ben Gurion airport) but don’t forego irreplaceable opportunities. A friend travelling on a train in India was invited to a wedding – she felt she could trust the middle-aged people who invited her and had a most amazing experience.
  6. Have fun no matter how wrong things go. Remember, you paid good money, there must be a silver lining somewhere and it all makes for a great dinner party story.

 

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TRAVELLING TO ITALY AND STAYING CONNECTED – PART II

With a vet bill that will take months to pay off and a recovering dog that delayed my anticipated trip home, I was left with the minor nightmare or major nuisance of having to change a lot more than just my plane fare. As I pointed out in Part I of this post, I took advantage of the internet to get a leg on a number of tedious purchases that would have required standing in line in the impossible heat wave that is enveloping both Bologna and Venice.

Trying to make changes or get refunds once again pointed out the good and bad of my native country. So, should any of this ever happen to you, here is what you can expect.

I had purchased a weekly vaporetto pass and wi-fi connection from veniceconnected.com which I was still intent on using but on different dates. What had started as the easiest website to navigate when buying these services turned into an incomprehensible portal when trying to figure out if and how I could make changes. Eventually I realized I could open a ticket with a help desk and, 24 hours later, Lucia answered saying that she had changed my wi-fi usage dates and Marta let me know that I could use my travel pass at any time, up to a year, from the date of purchase. Mind you, none of this was self-explanatory when navigating the site but major brownie points to the Venetians – I suppose they have good business practice in their veins.

On the other hand, if you do want a refund, you are completely out of luck.

trenitalia.it, the website of the national railway system, could not retrieve my confirmation number when I tried to change my ticket. I then asked for a refund and same answer – NOT FOUND. An extremely stubborn and gracious Italian friend, bent on fighting the system, called the 800 number of my behalf. It turns out there are different tiers of tickets these days, much like plane fares: super economy – hard to book because limited and very, very cheap, which clearly state that no refunds are available; economy – which is what I have – that can be changed but only at a train station and with no refund; regular ones, that give you more flexibility. I probably didn’t read the fine print but why couldn’t they state that when I was trying to retrieve my booking? I still recommend travelling by train – in a country where not many things work as they should, trains tend to arrive surprisingly on time and, if your high-speed one is over 30 minutes late, you are entitled to a partial or full refund, pro-rated according to the lateness. All you have to do is to go a ticket counter when you get off the train.

So far so (somewhat) good. That leaves my horrific experience with Alitalia. Frankly, they should just dispense with the whole national airline and let the damned thing go. After changing my outbound reservation for $270 (somehow a sick dog didn’t qualify as a family member, a point I would be happy to argue), I never received the confirmation I was told to expect within 24 hours. 72 hours later I call them again – and I am opening an aside, every phone call requires an average of 10 to 15 minutes wait, listening to some horrid and not very soothing flamenco music – and I am told my credit card was denied.

“Were you planning on letting me know? You have my e-mail address and phone number”

“Well, it’s the week-end” the call center employee ostensibly called Nico replies, while his name is probably Vikram and he is sitting in Bangalore, not terribly caring about my plight. “Call your credit card and let them know to expect these charges”.

Photo – aresexpert.com

Not a fan of credit card companies, the bank nonetheless answers the phone in 30 seconds and lets me know that no charges were put through and much less declined. It figures. After 3 more phone calls to Alitalia, different employees in Bangalore, the constant mention of some mythical back office that is handling my case, this morning I finally received my new ticket.

It all sums up Italy: at times convoluted but functioning, at times bureaucratic and maddening, and often inept and requiring patience and knowledge at how to navigate it. All things I tend to forget in super consumer friendly USA.

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Filed under Italy, Travel, Venice