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Mysteries of Space: Venice

November 29, 2009 Leave a comment

This post is intended to be a complement to my Mysteries of Time: Venice post. Like that one, it may have more to say about my stupidity than about Venice. But if it’s Venice you wish to learn about, there’s no shortage of better places you can turn to. So let’s continue to focus on the minutiae of our recent trip.
Read more…

Categories: Travel

DeRose: Oenology+Seismology

November 29, 2009 2 comments

The Wall Street Journal’s front-page daily feature yesterday was about DeRose Vineyards, notable for both its wine and its location on the San Andreas fault. If you have access, I recommend the article as well as the accompanying slide show and video. As explained in the article,

DeRose Vineyards has become a must-see for geologists, seismologists and science buffs. They come for the San Andreas Fault, which cuts a clear path through the winery’s main building. One side of the structure sits on the Pacific plate, the other on the North American. The fault is moving slowly, and tearing apart the building at the rate of about half an inch a year.

A jagged crack splits the office floor and runs through the warehouse between the fermentation tanks and the aging barrels. An outer wall is warped. A doorway is barely usable. A long concrete ditch is distorted. …

But what scientists consider a geological marvel is an expensive nuisance to the winery’s owners.

“We just keep patching,” says Pat DeRose, who bought the winery in 1988 with another family. In the past 40 years, one side of the building has moved around a foot and a half northwest, while the other side has stayed put. That has required regular fixes to the roof and walls.

The video is narrated by Tamara Audi, the author of the article. She notes at the end that “if you work on the San Andreas, it helps to have a sense of humor and plenty of wine.” One of the staff then notes, “Eventually LA will be here. We’ll have beach front property.”

As for the vineyard itself, the history page at its website suggests that it may be the oldest winery in California. Forty of its 100 acres were planted before 1900 and are “dry-farmed in deep sandy-loam soils on terraced hillsides.”

I’d sure like to visit. Maybe we will, when we take our long-deferred first trip to Monterey. Meanwhile, I’m going to order a couple of their wines. Don’t tell Gail. It will be a surprise.

Categories: Newspapers, Science, Wine

Milan-Paris

November 27, 2009 Leave a comment

Milano Centrale

The last post in my Eating in Paris series described our meals in the short time we spent in Paris between arriving from New York and heading to Grenoble to see Joel. I still need to write about our meals on our return to Paris, which I thought I was going to do in this post, but I got diverted, so I’ve changed the title and have let it take its own course.

From Grenoble, we went to Venice, Rome, Florence, and Milan, completing our time in Italy on Gail’s birthday. I already mentioned a little bit about our short time in Milan in in one post or another: We got into Milan around 2:30 in the afternoon, checked our bags, found the subway, bought tickets, and headed to the cathedral. Then we walked past La Scala to the Pinacoteca di Brera – Milan’s principal art gallery, from which we walked back toward the center of the city, finding a taxi in front of La Scala, and made our way by taxi to Santa Maria delle Grazie in time for our 6:00 scheduled visit with Leonardo’s Last Supper. That’s worthy of a long post, if I ever write it. And then we walked back toward the city center, getting slightly lost as we searched for Trattoria Milanese without benefit of the correct address. It seems I was off by a letter and had found the address I thought I wanted, but it was a deserted block of office buildings. Fortunately, a little searching on my iPhone brought the error to light and the correct place was just around the corner on an almost-hidden narrow street. Our birthday dinner was among the best on the trip. It was long anticipated and did not disappoint. We walked back to the cathedral, it was only 9:00 PM, and after killing as much time as we could, we descended into the subway, bought tickets from the machine, and returned to Milano Centrale, where we re-claimed our bags and found ourselves with two hours before our 11:35 PM overnight train to Paris was scheduled to depart.

Let me suggest that if you are planning a trip to Italy soon, you not include Milano Centrale at 10:00-11:00 PM as part of your itinerary. It was cold, there was limited seating, the first class club room had closed at 9:00 PM, the pigeons had free run of the place, and it was just plain creepy. All in all. I did get to make a new friend. My dear friend Carol in Cambridge shares a birthday with Gail, so I decided it would be fun to surprise her with a quick call, all the more because she knows more about Italy than anyone else I know in the world and I suspected she would be delighted to get birthday wishes from us in Italy. Once I reached her, I gave Gail the phone so they could exchange mutual happy birthdays. But here’s the thing. The few benches available for seating had arms that divided the space into widths suitable for 1.7 people. Gail and I shared such a space. Then when a group of men left the nearby bench, we shifted and each took a 1.7-person space. Gail thought we shouldn’t and I assured her I could move if somebody came. So I give her the phone, I look up, and what do you know, some man is rolling a suitcase about 20 feet in front of us, African in appearance, and looking around. I gesture to him, indicating that he could sit in my bench, and I proceed to stand up so he can have the 1.7 space and I can squeeze next to Gail in the adjacent 1.7 space. He gestures back, no, don’t bother, no problem. But then he thinks better of it, turns in my direction, smiles, walks up to me, and asks if I speak English. I say yes, a little. He then sits down, so now he and I are squeezed into the 1.7 space, since I never did get up fully and move to Gail’s space. Our faces are inches apart as he shakes my hand and asks where I’m from. The US. He lights up. He loves the US. He asks if I’m living in Italy. I explain. Where am I from? Seattle. (He doesn’t seem to recognize it.) Where is he from? Nigeria. What do I do? Teach math. He is in the book business. He tells me how generous I am, apparently moved by my willingness to move so he can sit. What’s my phone number? Um, what? My phone number? Maybe he’ll come to the US. That’s his dream. And then we can get together.

Whoa! This is all happening a little too fast. I hate to be suspicious, but really, what’s the deal here? Should I extricate myself? If so, how? And won’t Gail stop talking to Carol so I can reclaim the phone, excuse myself from my friend, and talk to her? I keep looking her way. She seems oblivious to my situation, as she regales with Carol with stories of our travels. I suggest to my friend that he doesn’t need my number. If he does come to the US, he won’t come to Seattle. It’s a big country. He’ll want to be in New York probably. He isn’t as fluent in English as I may have suggested, and clearly he’s puzzled by what I’m saying. Finally we stop talking and sit in silence for a minute, or maybe a little more. I keep wishing Gail would give me the phone. She does. He gets up and wanders off. I tell Carol about my new friend. We talk briefly, say goodbye, and I suggest to Gail that maybe the train, though it departs at 11:35 PM, might show up earlier and we can board.

So we walk off, even though it’s still only 10:40. We go out to the platforms, study the board, see which train departure platforms are listed — not ours — and continue to stand in the cold, staring up at the board, waiting for our platform to show up. It does around 11:00, the train comes in from Venice, and we board. Privacy at last.

Privacy, and not much more space than we had on that 1.7-person bench. But that’s another story. Somehow we got into our bunks and eventually slept. I awoke at one point as we pulled into a station, pulled up the blind, and saw we were in Dijon. At 7:45, our attendant knocked on the door, waking up Gail, who had to get me (on the lower bunk) to wake up so I could open the door. He waited with a tray that contained awful orange juice, an awful croissant, a roll Gail passed on, and two coffees. I asked for tea instead and got something that tasted more like lemon water. In less than half an hour, we were rolling into Gare de Bercy, Paris. This is not your classic Paris train station. It’s something of a dump. It serves the night trains from Italy, auto trains, and I don’t know what else, but coming through was dispiriting. There was a taxi rank, but people were operating like they were in Italy — general chaos, no line — until some woman started shouting at everyone in French to get in line and get into the lane formed by a metal barrier. That worked, except for one recalcitrant couple that made a break for the next taxi to pull up.

No big deal. Within another 3 minutes we were in a taxi.

Except this was November 11, a national holiday, the observance of the 91st anniversary of the Armistice. And not your ordinary observance. Sarkozy had gone to Berlin two days earlier to participate in the celebration of the 20th anniversary of the fall of the wall. On this day, Merkel was returning the favor. We didn’t know it, but they would be making a joint appearance at the Arc de Triomphe. And this meant that the Champs-Elysées, which they would be driving down, was completely closed to traffic. Of course, our hotel, Hotel Lafayette, is just off the Champs-Elysées, on Rue de Berry a one-way street that runs northward from the C-E. The normal way to get there would be to drive along the Seine, get to the Place de la Concorde, circle around it, get on the C-E northwestwards, and take it to Rue de Berry. I was pretty confused when our taxi driver, heading west on the left bank, passed the bridge that would have taken us to Place de la Concorde. And the next bridge too. He finally crossed over on a bridge that I realized made sense, as it would allow him to cut over to the C-E right about at Rue de Berry. Except as soon as he crossed the bridge, the road was blocked. He had to double back east to Place de la Concorde. And he made a full 360 degree circle around it to confirm that we weren’t going to be permitted easy passage toward the hotel. Another half loop and we headed north, to make a convoluted approach to the north, the west the south, and west again, arriving at Rue de Berry north of our hotel about 50 meters, which was pretty darn good under the circumstances. Our fare, of course, was at least 10 euros more than it would have been via a normal route. But what can you do?

Fortunately, our room was ready, so despite our early arrival, we could go straight up to the room. And now, at last, I can tell you more about eating in Paris. But maybe in the next post. Sorry about that.

One more thing. We headed out at 11:30 AM to begin our day in Paris. And discovered that the C-E was closed not just to cars but also to people. We weren’t allowed to cross from the north to the south, which we needed to do in order to get to my sister’s place. Barriers were up, people were lined up along them, looking down the street more out of curiosity than any apparent excitement. And then, what do you know, a motorcade came by with a Citroën limousine. After a half minute, another motorcade came by. Was this Sarkozy and Merkel? I would guess so, though we never found out. I would imagine they had a ceremony at 11:00 AM, the time of the Armistice (11th hour of 11th day of 11th month). And by 11:30, they would have been ready to move on. So, how about that? We were there for a moment of history. And then we found the stairway to the George V metro stop, descended, walked through the passageway under the C-E, climbed back up the other side, and had made it across the street. We were off to eat and see my sister. More to come.

Categories: Transportation, Travel

Thanksgiving Again

November 27, 2009 Leave a comment

Lefse

[From http://tinyurl.com/ybhlppo%5D

An oddity I’ve discovered as this blog works its way through a second year is that when certain cyclical events come up again, whatever I have to say isn’t as interesting as what I said the first time around. This year’s Thanksgiving, for example, was routine compared to last year’s. A year ago, as I explained in a post, Gail was working part-time as a chef in a residential treatment center for addicted women who had young children or were pregnant, and her part-time duties included Thursdays. Thanksgiving is on a Thursday. That meant she was working on Thanksgiving. I joined her for several hours as she finished cooking and served the food to the residents. See last year’s post for more. After a long day of work, she wasn’t about to cook at home, so we had Thanksgiving dinner at a restaurant with Jessica and Joel plus Gail’s sister and her husband.

After last year’s less-than-memorable dinner, we were eager to return to tradition this year and eat a home-cooked meal. Which we did. Joel, of course, is in Grenoble, which meant that there would be one hole in our tradition. He had spent his first 22 Thanksgivings with us. He would not be spending his 23rd with us. (Joel, in turn, along with the other US students in his program, had his own Thanksgiving dinner, with each student preparing a dish. We haven’t heard how it worked out. Today they went off by bus to Strasbourg, where they will spend two nights. Then on Sunday they will stop in Colmar on the way south for a short visit. I’ve already urged him to see the Isenheim Altarpiece while in Colmar, if he has time, but time will be short and there will be other things to do. And I’m hoping he gets to see his cousin — my sister’s daughter — while in Strasbourg, which has been her home for over five years.)

Joel aside, the rest of our Thanksgiving partners of a year ago came over to the house, as did our friends and frequent Thanksgiving partners the Williams and new guest Nancy. Gail made turkey, mashed potatoes, dressing, and green beans with mushrooms. All wonderful. And a cranberry relish. The Williams brought additional dressing, more cranberry relish, and probably other items I’ve forgotten. Tamara and Jim brought a cold vegetable platter, pickles, and again probably something else I’ve forgotten. For dessert, everyone contributed a pie, resulting in a choice of pumpkin, pecan, sweet potato, and blackberry pies. Oh, and Gail made cinnamon ice cream, a perfect complement. For those who aren’t big pie eaters, it was perfect on its own. No need to serve as complement. (That’s a compliment.) There was, of course, more food than we could possibly eat, and it was a heck of a lot better than last year’s meal.

We don’t seem to have a Friday tradition. We don’t shop. I did look at the Apple website to see what they had going on in their annual one-day sale, but I didn’t buy anything. (A year ago on this day, we bought our three iPhones. I’m ready to upgrade, but I’ll wait until I don’t have to pay the $200 upgrade fee that would be due now because not enough time has passed in our contract with AT&T.) The one special event of the day was the broadcast of my favorite TV show, Monk. It is as good as ever in this, its seventh and final season. Tonight, the first episode of the two-parter that will bring the series to an end aired. Sometimes, the show’s depiction of Monk’s compulsive behavior is intentionally over the top, played for humor, but other times, it is so perfectly rendered that I can almost think I’m watching myself in a mirror.

Tomorrow we’ll make the drive 60 miles south to Lacey, to Gail’s cousin Mark’s home, to participate in the annual extended family celebration of their Norwegian background. I wrote about this, too, a year ago, in passing, in a post about making conversation. It’s a mystery to me why we hold this event two days after Thanksgiving. We’ve already eaten enough and seen enough family, but then we do it again. The day centers on the making of heavy boiled potato balls, some with ham and some without — kumla — and the preparation of flour pancakes — lefse — that late in the celebration Mark gets around to adding margarine and sugar to and rolling and slicing for our dessert. Mark is the oldest of the grandchildren of Gail’s paternal grandparents, a position that makes him, effectively, the patriarch of the family and the keeper of its traditions. I wonder how serious a celebration of Norwegian culture this is. If my old friend Sverre from Trondheim were in town during one of these events and we dragged him to it, I suspect he would be mystified. The best parallel I can imagine is if the extended family on my side mostly still lived in greater New York and got together every year to wear aprons that say “Oy!” (rather than “Uff Da!”), fry potato pancakes, and eat rugelach. Not that that would be a bad thing. Maybe my grandmother could make a surprise appearance from the grave to prepare her chopped liver. I’ll be there. Just say the word.

Categories: Family, Food, Holidays, Television

Eating in Paris, II

November 23, 2009 Leave a comment

I just wrote a post about yesterday’s NYT article in which Tony Perrottet explores the food of Paris in the shadow of the 19th century food critic Grimod. What about our own recent explorations of Paris’s food? I have explained in several recent posts that our trip to Europe both began and ended in Paris. In this post, I’ll talk about our first time through.

We arrived four weeks ago, just about now, except now is Monday night here in Seattle and it was Tuesday morning there in Paris. We landed at Orly and were at the Hotel Lancaster before 7:00 AM. We would leave the next day on the 1:38 PM train to Grenoble, so our stay was brief, and our eating was done mostly with my sister and her husband.

Once we got into our hotel room, I didn’t want to sleep, but Gail did, so I left her around 9:00 AM to walk over to my sister’s place, a walk of some 25 minutes. Just as I arrived, Gail called, refreshed and ready to make the walk herself, which she did. The plan was to have lunch together at my sister’s, but as we sat around talking, I fell asleep in the chair. In any case, around noon, my sister was sending her husband out the door to pick up some food, and I suggested that we join him. I thought the neighborhood stroll would do me good, but more than that, it had been many years since I wandered through the food shops on Rue Saint-Dominique and I was eager to do so again. (My sister lives in the 7th Arrondissement, a stone’s throw from the Eiffel Tower. Rue S-D runs more or less east-west, heading east from the Champs de Mars — the big park that stretches out below the Eiffel Tower away from the Seine — passing under Les Invalides and continuing on a little farther.)

When I had last shopped for food there, with my sister almost twenty years ago, the variety of shops and the quality of their wares was simply amazing. In the meantime, we learned, a number of food stores have converted to non-food stores or to restaurants, which is good and bad, but some of the richness of the street has been lost. Still, walking along there with Gail and Jacques was plenty exciting. And we went farther than we used to, in order to turn south on Rue Cler, a street
famous in its own right for food. Our goal was an Italian meat store that my sister told us had the best ham. (See photo at top.) We bought ham there, as planned, and made additional stops on Rue Clear and Rue S-D for a baguette and dessert treats. In particular, we stopped for fresh Lemoine canelés. I wrote about canelés a year ago, after my sister brought me a box when we met in New York. I wasn’t too sure about them. But they weren’t fresh. This time we would get to try fresh ones.

Oh, before I continue, let me insert photos from some of our stops.

We got home, by which time Gail had made a salad and put out some figs. We then proceeded to have as good a meal as we had during our entire trip: ham, bread, figs, salad, and wine. Then the most incredibly flavorful muscat grapes and fresh canalés. What a meal! Simple, yet spectacular.

After lunch, we walked back to our hotel, rested, napped a little, awoke, and headed back out to catch the 42 bus to my sister’s. From there, we walked around the corner to a nearby restaurant that they frequent, Le Clos des Gourmets. All I remember is that we had another great meal. But fortunately, I made a note of my dishes, so I can tell you what I ate. Oh yes, I started with a whipped egg and ham dish. That hardly does it justice. It was frothy and flavorful, a very special treat. My main dish was chicken and potatoes, again with everything full of flavor. And dessert was a chocolate tart with vanilla ice cream. That speaks for itself. I tell you, one can eat well in Paris. But that’s not exactly news.

Afterwards, we walked to Jacques’ car and were given a lift home. As you can see, we didn’t really do anything all day except sleep, walk, shop for food, and eat. A perfect way to start our trip.

The next morning we had buffet breakfast in the Hotel Lancaster’s restaurant. Excellent breads, pastries, and fruit laid out, with the opportunity to order eggs any style. I ordered scrambled eggs with bacon. After breakfast we packed, my sister came over to visit, and then it was off to Gare de Lyon to validate our Eurail passes and be ready for our train to Grenoble. Validating took a while because of a long line at the ticket counters, but we had also allowed ourselves a lot of time, so we had the opportunity to check out all the food counters before selecting our lunch sandwiches to eat on the train. Not that there’s really all that big a choice. But I couldn’t decide. Gail got a ham and cheese sandwich, I continued to investigate then I tasted hers and decided it would do, so I went back and bought one too. (For the record, the one I bought became hers and I took possession of the one from which I had taken a test bite.) There’s really not a lot to say about a simple ham and cheese sandwich — small baguette, some ham, a little cheese. That’s it. But I will say that they were good. Freshly made and put in little paper bags, as one finds throughout France. Not refrigerated overnight, wrapped in plastic, with the bread getting soggy and with a ton of mayonnaise dripping out, as one might get here. There was no mayo at all, or mustard, or any condiment, but it sure hit the spot.

So that’s that. Our first 30 hours in Paris.

Categories: Family, Food, Restaurants, Travel

Eating in Paris, I

November 23, 2009 Leave a comment

Stohrer, Paris

[Ed Alcock for The New York Times]

I realize my blog’s services are hardly needed to bring your attention to an article in yesterday’s NYT that filled the front page of its Travel section. But its about food, restaurants, and Paris, so how can I resist? The article is Tony Perrottet’s account of his effort to follow the path laid by the great food critic Alexandre-Balthazar-Laurent Grimod de la Reynière two hundred years ago. “Grimod de la Reynière is not exactly a household name in the United States today. … But specialists in the field still revere Grimod. Rémi Flachard, the owner of Librairie Rémi Flachard, Paris’s finest bookstore for gastronomic history, declared that Grimod ‘almost single-handedly invented the genre of food criticism.’”

You’ll want to read about Perrottet’s meanderings yourself (and watch the accompanying slide show). I’ll just quote one passage.

As the days passed, I felt I was getting a feel for Grimod’s taste in restaurants. But where, I wondered, would he have dined in Paris today? I knew he placed a premium on the freshest ingredients, simply prepared, and he liked inventive twists on classic recipes. He detested intrusiveness in waiters, preferring them to appear only when summoned. And as a down-at-the-heels aristocrat, he also appreciated value for money. “Grimod was always short of cash!” Mr. Flachard, the bookseller, had told me. With my battered U.S. dollar credit card, I could certainly empathize.

Fortunately, on my last day in Paris, the past and present seamlessly met, and for a change the restaurant seemed to come to me. I was strolling the Rue St.-Honoré near the site of another long-gone boulangerie when I noticed a tiny row of medieval structures attached to the Church of St.-Roch. One hole-in-the-wall turned out to be a minuscule restaurant complete with original pot-cluttered kitchen. It was called La Cordonnerie (the Shoemaker’s) and, according to the blackboard, it served cuisine de marché, fresh market food. I had accidentally hit pay dirt: the fantasy of a charming French boîte.

There were fewer than 20 seats in this intimate space, which dated from 1690, with blackened beams against the low white ceiling. The chef was a maestro in his cramped workplace, preparing alone the day’s menu of foie gras in homemade chocolate sauce and roast pork with field mushrooms. He was also the owner, I later learned, having inherited the restaurant from his parents.

I eagerly took a seat in the farthest corner, ordered without restraint, as Grimod might have done, and chatted, between sips of muscadet, with an elderly couple at a nearby table. They said they lived around the corner on the Rue St.-Honoré and came here at least once a week to enjoy the fresh market fare. “Always the full three courses at lunch,” giggled Madame. “Then a nap — and no dinner!”

I felt sure that Grimod must have eaten here at some time or another. He certainly would have approved of the setting. Of one of his favorite restaurants, Le Gacque’s, he wrote: “His salons are nothing sumptuous, but the cuisine is good, the wines excellent, and the prices moderate.” Plus, there was a friendly, unobtrusive staff.

Categories: Food, Restaurants

Mysteries of Time: Venice

November 22, 2009 Leave a comment

A weird thing happened three weeks ago today, our first morning in Venice. Perhaps I should set this up as a puzzle, so you have a chance to figure out for yourself what happened. Maybe you’ll be able to do so more quickly than I did.

Let’s start at the beginning, with a review of what brought us to Venice. [You're going to need some patience. It turns out that I don't get to the puzzle for a while.] Read more…

Categories: Stupidity, Time, Travel
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