Category Archives: travel

A Suite, a Swim, a Fish

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Nobody told me there would be a Gulf of Mexico.

It was October 2005. What little I knew about Galveston, Texas, I owed entirely to Glen Campbell. His song of that title, written by Jimmy Webb, was released in February 1969. I was sixteen. I had a girlfriend. The song played on the AM radio in my red VW bug when we bombed around town or drove down to the drive-in theater in Saginaw.  Good song, crappy radio. I never bothered to listen carefully to the lyrics. I hummed along indiscriminately and waited for the sad and yearning turn in GC’s voice when he sang, “Galveston, oh Galveston, I am so afraid of dying…,” missing the references to the sea that came earlier in the song: “I still hear your seawinds blowing,” for example, and “I still hear your seawaves crashing,” for example, and “I still see her standing by the water.”

So when the cab pulled up to the hotel that day, and I found myself at the edge of a wide beach, looking out to sea, I thought, No one told me there would be a Gulf of Mexico. I was not prepared.

My colleague and I were in town for an English teacher conference. We checked into the hotel where registration and the meetings and luncheons would be held, right across the street from the Gulf.  Good location. Crappy rooms. We were on the ground floor. There were bars on the windows and the doors. My room smelled of old mold and a chemical floral deodorizer-disinfectant. Under foot, I was sure the scuzzy carpet would feel damp if I took off my shoes. I didn’t.

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Five hotels up the road was a Hilton. My colleague and I had just published a textbook together and were working on a second book, hoping for years of royalty checks. The week before, we had gone to a conference in Santa Monica, next to another fabled body of water, where we had experienced Hilton comfort.

I called her and told her don’t unpack. Meet me up front.

When we met back in the lobby I said, “Let’s go.”

“It’s not that bad,” she said.

“Yes, it is that bad,” I said. And it seemed clear, the longer we were there, the badder it would get.

We walked up the road. Yes, there were rooms available at the Hilton, also on the ground floor. Yes, they were more money. I thought about those bars, about the bad smell. We made the move.

That was the first of three good decisions I made that weekend.

I was raised with an it’s-not-that-bad ethos. I learned not to make a fuss, not to draw attention, not to be demanding. Maybe it was Midwest. Or maybe Methodist. Or just my parents’ dubious gift to me.  On your birthday, presented with actual gift that you didn’t really like that much, you smiled, nodded your head, and said you liked it. It wasn’t that bad.

In time I learned there was another point of view.

Exposure-therapy

A year or so after we were married, I remember my wife’s reaction to a gift my mother gave her. It was our first Christmas. She opened the package and frowned. She looked at my mother and said, “Do you still have the sales slip?”

On my mother’s face, a quizzical look. I felt an uncomfortable blip in my blood pressure.

“Can I take this back?” my wife said.

Aghast, I asked her later, “How could you do that?”

She shrugged and gave me a quizzical look. “Why would I keep something I don’t like?” she said. “Isn’t that a waste? Wouldn’t that make your mother unhappy?”

“Yes, but…”

But she had made a fuss. But she had made the gift-giver feel bad.

Down in Galveston, at the Bars-on-the-Windows Regency, I said we had decided to make a change and could we cancel? And they said yes. I didn’t want to make them feel bad. Neither did I want to take my shoes off in that terrible room.

The next day in Galveston, in full sun on a glorious afternoon, I was body-surfing waves in the Gulf of Mexico, looking up at my hotel room. That’s right, up. The ground floor rooms we checked into the day before had noisy AC wall units that ran continuously, barely keeping the rooms cool. The sound was deafening. And somehow, I had the idea that Legionnaires Disease and air conditioning units were correlated. I didn’t open my carry-on. Could I do it, twice in one day?

At the front desk I asked if there might not be another room. I didn’t want to appear difficult and demanding, but why should I be unhappy?

“Last week,” I explained, “I stayed in the Santa Monica Hilton, one of the nicest hotels I’ve ever been in.” This one, I added in the most apologetic way I could, was kind of a disappointment.

Evan smiled at me over his glasses. He said he understood.  “Let’s take a look, Mr. Bailey,” he said.

He moved me to the twelfth floor, a suite with a Gulf view.  The AC was silent and sufficient.  I don’t know what the bed sheets’ thread count was. Approaching four digits, I think. Heavenly pillows. What comfort. There was no additional charge.

“You did what?” my colleague said later.

“You just have to ask,” I said.

That was the second good decision I made that weekend.

My default position in most situations is still “it’s not that bad.” A few weeks ago my wife and I were out to dinner with a couple friends. A crowded place. Reservations made a few weeks in advance. We went through the menu, noticing, as we did so, a man sitting at a table outside on the veranda. He was with three women. His shirt was unbuttoned to his waist. Ample belly. Lots of chest hair. Lots of gold.

When our server returned with drinks I asked about the mackerel. On the menu the fish was described as brined, not cooked, with a cucumber relish.

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“It’s in season right now,” the server said. “Light, like ceviche.”

I asked: “Served cold?”

“Warm,” he said. He took orders around the table, heritage tomato salad, carpaccio, eggplant Parmigiana, scallops. When he came back to me, I was still dithering. He said he really liked the mackerel. He was recommending it to everyone.

When our food came, we gestured in the direction of veranda guy with the exposed hairy belly. The server nodded and smiled, said he had noticed him too.

“Would you?” one of our friends said, holding out his phone to the server.  “Take a group photo?”

The server took a few shots of us. In one of them he positioned himself so that the exhibitionist outdoors was in full view. It was a good joke.

The mackerel was nothing like ceviche.  It was an inch and a half thick slab, with a layer of skin on the bottom side of the chunk. Tough as a piece of overdone steak. I poked it, I sawed at it. With a little effort, I found I could tear at it and shred it. But the problem remained.

“So?” my wife said.

“Can you make leather from fish?”

“If you don’t like it, you should send it back. The chef would want to know.”

“It’s not that bad.” I swear I said it. I didn’t send it back.

After a night in the Hilton and a morning of conference meetings down at that other place, my colleague and I had a forgettable conference lunch. Outside it was sunny and warm.  Up in Michigan, I told everyone I saw, the colors were changing. People were going to the cider mill, which seemed charming. It was charming. But I was in Galveston. Outside was the sun, the Gulf.

And I had come unprepared. No swimsuit.

The third decision.

Mid afternoon, after the conference coffee break, I decided to skip the next session. I walked back to the Hilton, went upstairs, and changed into a pair of jeans and t-shirt. Outside I walked across the street to the beach. Lake Michigan size waves were rolling in. I pulled off my shirt and stripped to my skivvies, feeling slightly exhibitionist. I just couldn’t worry about other people.  I waded in for a swim.

That night, when I called my wife and she asked how things were going, I told her, in that weird lingo we use without thinking, that it wasn’t too bad. “Not too bad” is a small step up from “not that bad” and significantly better than just plain bad.

Not too bad? In point of fact, it was actually damn good.

IT'S NOT THAT BAD

A Celebration Lunch

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Serravalle, Republic of San Marino

For celebration lunch today we have Greektown of Detroit, Barbuto of New York, and Howdy Richards of Freeland to thank.

What are we celebrating? Being alive. Being together.   Continue reading

Chics and Tuna

chics and tuna

One of my fondest memories is having lunch at the Buca del Orafo in Florence. My wife took me there the first time–in 1978.  We had a Fiorentina, the giant Italian t-bone steak, which was awesome.

In subsequent visits, we’ve skipped the steak and enjoyed the shaved artichoke and pecorino antipasto, pasta with fresh peas, or ribolitta, finishing, if they were in season, with the fragoline, the mountain strawberries served with lemon juice and sugar, tiny flavor bombs that would put you over the top.

Every year we were greeted by the same waiter, Piero, who was quiet and genial and attentive. Maybe it was the third or fourth time we ate there, we had Tuscan beans and tuna for antipasto. He set the plate down and said, “Now you really should have some of excellent extra virgin olive oil,” and poured out that luscious green gold.

Shown above: an approximation of that heaven.  The dish is good any time of year. Fresh beans, canned beans (drained and rinsed). I used chickpeas today. Shown below: cannellini beans with diced campari tomato.

It’s a question of preference, tradition, and knowing what you like.  For a dish like this I want tomato to be peeled, seeded, and diced. It’s March. The campari tomatoes are in the grocery story and Costco. They are bursting with flavor. Peeling and extracting seeds takes a while. A job made less onerous if accompanied by a glass of wine.

At the Buca, I’m pretty sure there will no tomato.  And given the quality of the ingredients, the ambiance of the restaurant, and what’s just outside the door (the Arno and Ponte Vecchio) it won’t matter.

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In Search Of

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Yakgurt.

There is such a thing, tasting more of gurt than of yak. We came to Yunnan province and the city of Lijiang hoping to see, among other things, yak in the flesh, the great furry, horned beast. We did not close to, but it felt like we did.

This was a trip that began with something of a fool’s errand, which led us to serendipitous yak. Having checked into our hotel, our kids did what they usually do; did, it could be said, what they learned from us to do: look for a good place to eat. Continue reading

The Efficacy of Loud

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The bar is called Speak Low, on Fuxing Middle Road in Shanghai.

My daughter and I have come here on a Saturday night for a few cocktails. This is the third F & B joint (Food and Bar) I’ve been to. All three with ground level entrance, little more than an anteroom with space for a desk and two greeters, and a door that leads to a stairway that leads to second, third, and fourth floor rooms with bar, tables, low light, and a lot of noise. The room we’re in is full of youngish people–tables and chairs for 30 or so–maybe seventy-five people total seated and standing. They have shiny new shoes, important hair, and serious glasses. Shanghai chic. This might as well be Brooklyn. Continue reading

Coffee Ma’am

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“I’m the coffee man,” I say to my wife.

We’re sitting in the kitchen, enjoying our view of the snow. It’s mid morning, a single digit above zero out there, which is bad; but also bright sun on new snow, a brilliant cloudless blue sky, which is good. We’re well into SAD season, long stretches of short gray days, then dark. Sun is the best antidote to seasonal affective disorder. When I mentioned that to a friend the other day, I said sun or red wine. He smiled and said Florida is the best antidote.

Later today we’re flying to Shanghai, to visit our kids. We’re both a little off balance (cranky), nervous about the long flight (about 14 hours), the time change (12 hours), and the bad air in Shanghai. It will be cold there, damp, gray Chinese cold. China will be almost as SAD as Michigan. Maybe SADDER. Continue reading

Pizza, Good Any Time of Day

“Breakfast of champions,” I say to the kid sitting at the next table.

We’re in the hospital bar. It’s nine in the morning. I’m here with my wife, who’s going to have some stitches pulled. (She fell down a stairs, sliced her knee, broke her wrist. No, we say when someone asks, and everyone seems to ask, I didn’t do it.)

The boy takes a big bite from his breakfast pizza, tomato and cheese, and leans toward his father, who’s reading the pink sports gazette men in Italy love. I nod toward the pizza. I imagine he’s thinking, “Weirdo.”

Pizza is a common breakfast food over here. You see them, the size of pancakes, in the pastry cases at the coffee bars.

For me pizza in the morning was always hangover food. Leftover pizza, that is, obviating the need to busy yourself, providing the spicy, oily bulk that seemed to soothe and stabilize a woozy stomach. Usually washed down with a coke.

Both here and at home, we usually opt for pizza on a night no one wants to cook. Over there it comes to the door. Over here I walk two minutes up the street to the main piazza. The bar is called L’insolito Posto, the usual place. Think Cheers, the bar from the television show, only in this tiny village in San Marino. Weekends, if you want to eat inside, you need to make a reservation.

Once it was a coffee and breakfast pastries bar. Now it’s doing what lots of bars do. Coffee and pastries (and probably pizzas) in the morning; aperitivo (a pretty sumptuous appetizer banquet) and drinks in the early evening.

And pizza. Thin crust. Wood burning oven. Last night was one of those lazy nights. It took 5 minutes to cook my pizza margarita, which costs 5 euros. I walked it home and ate half of it, thinking I would eat the rest in the morning. But didn’t. Maybe it’s age. Or I wasn’t hungover.

The statute of limitations on leftover pizza is about 48 hours. Something tells me reheated or cold, that margarita will be the best thing I eat that day.

Food of the Gods

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Persimmons galore.

We’re on our way to Ro e Buni for a fat pasta lunch. This restaurant (called a “tenuta,” meaning an estate), is off the main road that passes through Villa Verucchio. A sign says there’s a golf course back here somewhere. I’d look for it but I’m totally distracted by the orchard next to the road. Orange fruit heavy in the branches. Looks like oranges.  But, no, these are persimmons. In Italian called “cachi” (pronounced “CAH-cky”). Continue reading

Polenta, I’m Coming

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Twice now I’ve chosen not to eat polenta. My wife and I are in restaurants. It’s a choice between tagliatelle and beans or passatelli in a vegetable sauce, or polenta, I reluctantly say no to the polenta.

Last night it happened again. This just has to stop.

Oh, polenta. It comes to the table vivid yellow, this cooked corn flour mush with a sauce ladled over the top of it. Last Sunday, at Osteria del Pisello, their polenta with pea sauce.

You eat it with a spoon. It’s still hot. The red sauce, peas or beans or ragu or whatever, is likely to leave an reddish-orange olive oil sheen, as you stir, mix, spoon, and lift this wonderful food your mouth. To borrow a phrase from Raymond Carver, it’s a simple, good thing. That’s the dominant culinary principle in this region. Simple is good. More likely, simple is perfection.

When she was a kid, my wife says the practice was to pour out the polenta on a large cutting board and put it in the middle of the table, cover it with ragu. No plates. No servings portioned out. Each individual, spoon in hand, having at it.

In one of my undergraduate psychology classes I learned about what researchers call “the just noticeable difference.” We’re talking levels of perception. At what point does one lose the ability to distinguish one sensory input from another that is a measurable gradation less or more in strength. What is the just noticeable difference between the pleasure you take in one dish you love over another you love? That’s the fix we are in when we eat over here.

As we say these days, indulging in cliche, It’s all good. (This is cliche I can live with.) Seen below, last night’s polenta from Trattoria Rinaldi.

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Polenta, I’m coming.

There’s Truffle in River City

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And I do mean truffle, the white ones and the black ones, those gnarly, earthy nuggets of delight, the ones you dream about, their shavings falling like heavenly snow flakes on your tagliatelle. Yes, those truffles. Continue reading

So Many Ravioli…

siamo felice

My wife’s cousin sat a few chairs down from me.  It was Christmas 1984. We were having cappelletti in broth, a typical–and beloved–dish we look forward to at holiday time. After spooning (scarfing) for a few minutes, the cousin looked up, turned to me, and said, “I could kill myself eating these things.”

They’re that good. Continue reading