Overdue Updates

Once friends joined the group it is harder to find the time in the evening to blog, but we are in Miaori on the Costeria Amalfitana and have settled down a bit. Have a gorgeous view of the sea and the church, and yesterday was the Patron Saint’s day. Madonna di Mare. Mary of the Sea. Lots of small seaside communities have shrines to Mary for protection of the fisherman. It was a unique and wonderful opportunity to see a local festival without a cabillion tourists. Fireworks at 5 AM, followed by music from a 20 piece marching band.

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No pix yet from that experience, but these are the vegetable buffet from Bari with 4 types of mozzarella tons of veg and then my frutti di mare pasta dish. It was delightful.


Now THOSE are the Tete di Monache (breasts of nuns) Historically they have been covered in a thin fondant and have a glazed cherry  on top – leaving nothing to the imagination. However, the glaze and cherries seem to be slowly disappearing and these, in a more naked form, usually with powdered sugar are seen more often.  I had a fantastic variation of this, now called Sospiro (a sigh) in Soverato. They had filling of cafe, pistachio, lemon cream,and hazelnut.

Picked up the friends in Rome,  nothing is easy, dropped off my car and all the STUFF I had already accumulated for tasting, and wandered for 1.5 hours trying to find them. Eventually we connected, got our bigger car and headed for Naples.

It takes courage for most Americans to go to Naples, guide books used to warn people away, but I love it there. It feels like NYC in the 60’s before Guiliani cleaned things up and the horn honking is just like back home.  You have to have bravado to cross the street and driving in town is an experience.  BUT, our hotel was a few blocks from the piazza Garibaldi and I just said to my companions, take a breath, relax and sit back. We managed just fine, found our place with Good ol Carmen the Garmin and had a lovely room, with the worst breakfast ever. We just went to a pasticceria down the street and had the best sfogliatelle I ever ate.  The place was 60 years old and everything they make is excellent, we know because we tried quite a few things  🙂  Hmmm, I am not taking enough pictures apparently because I have none of those fab pastries.

When we left the Museo we had to cross a very busy little street packed full with tiny cars all 6 inches apart and moving and honking, with the requisite motorcycles darting everywhere, passing on the left, on the right and at any moment. We were in front of a crosswalk so I knew we could cross at will, but my compatriots were a little hesitant. I took a step into the street and looked back to Margaret who had a wide-eyed look of apprehension but was following closely, a few steps into the crossing and you could see that the cars would stop for you. Felt a little like Moses parting the waters – MGM style.

We did the bright spots of Naples in a day and a half, including the Cafe Gambrinus, a lovely relic of the times when Naples was the last top on the Grand Tour of Europe and the literati gathered there to argue the finer points of life. It is beautiful, gracious and grand. I finally had a nocerino, which is hazelnut cream, coffee and sugar. It was a glass of dessert. Wonderful. I usually park myself at the stand up bar and watch the maestro at work pouring fast coffees from 4 or 5 hand pulled machines typical of Naples. It is a show for only the price of the coffee.

Via Georgio Amedeo, the street that sells nothing but figures for your Presepi – or nativity scene, did some shopping and headed out of town.

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Io Bisogno una Dentista I need a Dentist

Getting from airport to downtown is as simple as pie in Bari, AND I remember how to get to my hotel. Since the day is shot I just plan to settle in and have some dinner and start figuring out the dentist thing. I mention my requirement to the night desk clerk. His response, “In Bari??!!”, with the implied, “are you kidding, in this dump of a city” could have been off putting to someone new to town. However, Bari is a million and a half people, the second largest port in Italy and a commercial center. I felt sure that a dentist would be able to be found. His recommendation was that I visit the hospital, they had a clinic there. Something told me to just wait til the day shift showed up and see what that produced.

Yelp works in Italy I discovered, so I surveyed my choices and settled on a particular dentist, with some level of confidence.  Of course, I also did my medical research online as well about broken teeth and what one might do about it. My particular concern is that I was about 3 days into a 5 week journey and a patch may not be the best solution.  The folks at the Adria Hotel made the call for me in the morning, which was a blessing, since they have at least tourist English and I was able to explain my problem (I have only enough Italian to keep myself out of prison, which is often not enough for everyday life). The dentist could see me that day for a xrays and a look-see, yippee!

I have to admit here that I am a dentophob. Mock me if you must, I don’t like to go and I don’t go often so I don’t know what the modern Alaskan dental office looks like these days, but I now have a very good idea about Italian dentistry. Of course, check in and sit and wait, that’s standard. When it was my turn to go in I had to do the bootie thing. SInce one or two others were before me I got to see the procedure from a distance. You approach a machine that looks a little like a mini treadmill with a handle for gripping. Standing in front of this contraption you insert your foot in a plastic lined rectangular hole and then pull back your foot. Your foot emerges in a blue plastic bootie! You do them both and only then can you enter the inner sanctum of dentistry.

On a side note, at one point a young man came in with a box of booties and reloaded the machine and then left. I saw this as the equivalent of someone loading a printer cartridge for you. It seemed odd that the staff didn’t simply do that task.  It would be in keeping with the detailed division of labor I have seen in this country over time.  I suppose it is to continue to have enough work for people, but I am only guessing. Like union workers, you don’t overlap, you do your  job, they do theirs. It is similar with small shops. If you sell tobacco, then there are certain approved items you can sell, but you can’t just add pens and pencils or throw in some vitamin C tablets for convenience to the customer, that is the purview of the stationery store and the Famicia.

Two lovely ladies got me xrayed, poked and evaluated and the happy result of that was the assessment that it could be patched the next day and off I go on my Abruzzo adventure. 🙂 Not one word of English spoken the entire time.

So, imagine my disappointment when the dentist had a look the next afternoon and he pronounced it broken and a root canal was required. The news is bad enough, but getting the news was real work. Since dentists probably don’t see many foreigner in their regular practice, learning English is not on the top of their list. Soooooo, trying to understand his rapid fire Italian and make sense of any of the words he was using was very disconcerting. I mean there was NO baking or cooking terminology for me to hook into, no tourist Italian, only technical, full strength, full speed dental-speak, at which point he stopped talking and looked to me for a response. I am sure I had a deer-in-the-headlines expression on my face because he launched into a further explanation which may have been the same exact words or a recitation of the Martian alphabet. I have no idea. At this point it was clear to both of us we were stuck. The assistant came over to assist in the explanation. Using, no doubt less technical language, she re-explained the issue.  No English, no comprehension.  Finally the Dr. resorted to sign language and wagging his two index fingers as though they were walking along the strada I asked- Roto?? (Broken?) Yes!

After that he added pantomime to the Italian and I could determine that a patch was not going to be the answer- whatever was the answer still eluded me no matter how many times he repeated it.  Eventually, I turned to the x-ray hanging near my head and pointed to a tooth on the opposite side of my mouth asking if it was this. No, no he shook his head the other side. I hung in with the tooth in question because I wanted to know if it was the procedure he was telling me – root canal, and that tooth had a clear one going on.  Eventually we connected on the x-ray and both were clear – root canal!  Yeah, I got it! Wait, what, a root canal? Holy Crow I wonder what that is going to cost – and I remember my last root canal about 40 years ago, awful experience.  And, he didn’t do the work, another specialist did. I had to come back another day. Things were getting worse by the minute. How long was I going to be in Bari I wondered.  I traipsed out to the front desk – where they also spoke no English.

The endodontist only came in on certain days and those days were Wednesday or Friday of next week. It was Friday today.  Then there would be another appointment after that, one week later.  My head was spinning, my plans were crumbling and I was having to now determine if I wanted to put myself in the hands of a foreign dentist with only Italian Yelp reviews to guide.  Most of my brain capacity was trying to figure out how the heck this was going to work and only enough remained present to try and communicate that I had friends coming from Alaska and landing in Rome by then. Eventually, one of the ladies picked up the phone and called somebody. They had a brief discussion and she returned to our conversation to say the endodontist would be willing to come in on Monday for me.

I was extremely grateful and simultaneous gut-punched, a strange mix of emotions. We settled on a time, the total cost was 700 euro, and I knew it was time for a coffee. I left the office and wandered down the street in search of a cafe and then looked down to discover I was walking in my blue plastic booties.  That sort of snapped me out of my funk a bit and I retraced my steps, deposited the booties at the dental office trash and got on with it.


The coffee didn’t change my mood, neither did the pasticiotti I ate, but I returned to my hotel room, took some deep breaths and asked myself what I had to be grateful for. The list was long, including that these people were so helpful, I was in a big city, I had room on my credit card to pay, I have dental insurance that might cover it, I had time before my friends arrived and a root canal is not the worst thing in the world by a long shot, and they weren’t suggesting an extraction, just to name a few. Gratitude changed everything.

When the day came the procedure was so quick and painless I was surprised it was over. They made a mold and I will return for a temporary, but likely not the ceramic final, since 2 additional appointments are required for fitting and one week apart for each. I just don’t know how I could manage it. For now, stress I didn’t know I had is gone and I am ready for the next town.


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What’s All The Shouting About?

Tonight I am in Sulmona, the small city in the mountains of Abruzzo and the home of the Confetti.  If you are Italian, have ever been to an Italian wedding, or are from the East Coast you probably know what confetti are. You usually get a half dozen bound in white netting as a gift to the guest. It is an old tradition and I don’t know if  it still happens anymore, but I surely remember them from my youth. They are also called Jordan Almonds; a hard white sugar coating over a whole almond, occasionally not white, but never at weddings.

As I am cruising through Abruzzo a little quicker than I planned I learned that Sulmona is reachable by car, and since we have a wedding in the family coming up I really wanted to stop and purchase some authentic-as-it-gets Confetti. But that is not what this little post is about.

While I am sitting on my bed catching up because it is pouring rain outside, there is a shouting match going on somewhere fairly close. I am in the old city center, I mean old as in passed through an arch to get here.  The housing is all apartments, 200 or 300 year old apartments. The original zero lot lines. With this configuration the shouting may be coming from 4 or 5 families away but it is likely not more than 150 feet, cause it is loud, and continuous, and primarily one woman doing all the shouting.  After a good 5 minute tirade a male voice got a few vocals in, although loud enough to qualify as shouting, it lacked the energy and emotion of the female vocalist.

I compare this to last night’s shouting match at a lovely hotel in Chieti – another one night stand for this gal. The Nuovo is a really nice place, and quite full.  Not a single English comment in the reviews so it has the panache of a real old Italian hotel, including the thin walls.  Every bump, bang and train announcement was heard. Fortunately the trains quit about 10 PM, the shouting lasted a bit longer.

It started with a young, innocent looking fellow knocking softly on the door of someone named, Litta, or something like that.  The knocking and the calling got louder, and more earnest, although frantic, as the minutes passed. Apparently,  Litta was not answering and the knocker was expecting she would.  I’m guessing a lovers quarrel, but I have no idea. It got quiet for a nano second and then the tirade began.  It sounded like a legendary  berating. I have no idea what language was being spoken, they were not Italians.  I left for dinner and there was a actual tribe of people puddled in the doorway of the room with someone shouting.  Men, women, babies, the knocker, perhaps Litta, who knows, but it was not a convivial meeting. The alpha male was strident and articulate – and long-winded. He was thrashing someone when I left, and was still at it when I returned. During my dinner downstairs I saw a young  women leave with child in tow. Around 10 pm it all stopped.

The night before that I was in Lecce in a small B&B and yet again there was the shouting and hollering and long diatribes. Then, around 10 pm, it got quiet.

I do not know the social norms of Italy but I am beginning to think that people need to let off steam and it’s all good until 10.


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Stay Awake, Stay Awake, Stay Awake

It was 8 AM when we landed on Italian soil, an hour late – something about a flashing yellow light on the dashboard, no matter. My usual first act is to get a SIM card for my computer so I have WIFI. No Vodafone in sight. OK, I’ll find one at the train station. Foggy with sleep deprivation I choose my path.   Taxi – 95 Euro, Train 13 Euro, Bus 8 Euro. I stow my bag in the belly of bus and wait for the driver to finish his lament to another driver about (fill in the blank), his cigarette, his bus-ly duties and then climb aboard. A pleasant hour later we arrive at the monumental, beautiful Central Station in Milan. It is an experience in itself.

Walking through the portal brought back the memory of my very first trip to Italy. I arrived that day at the huge, empty,  slightly menacing station about midnight. As I headed to the last ticket window I heard movement behind me. I turned to see the two young men who had been sitting on the floor against the wall were now approaching me. I turned and shot them my best “Fuck off, Bucko” look, a remnant of New York City life, and the pair of them literally started walking backwards from whence they came. It’s a different place now and it is morning.  Still no Vodafone, so no WIFI, save whatever anemic connection I would find at the hotel.  Yes, the hotel, I can’t remember exactly how to get there, although I have stayed there before. My mind’s eye can see the exact location on the map, but where am I in relation to the map?  Which door to exit? Which way is north anyway. I need coffee.

Somewhere in the Miami airport my suitcase began to drag a bit. I thought it must be a piece of schmutz I picked up and backed the bag up a little to release it. That seemed to work, but the problem arose again shortly.  Before I boarded in NYC I discovered that one of my wheels was losing it outer tread. I rescued the pieces and put them in my pocket contemplating which negozio (store) in Italy would be specializing in Super Glue and whatever would they call it.

I have no pride around the fact that my luggage was supremely fashionable in 1999, and that now it is not.  I don’t care that I must now tote a CPAP machine hooked to my luggage with no way to pretend it is my computer and I am an important business person, because it says ResMED right on the bag. But, I crossed the shame line with the incessant clickety clack of a broken wheel. Impossible to ignore by anyone in a ten foot radius, unrelenting, and increasing in intensity if you try to just move faster. Resigned to this embarrassment I simply kept walking until I found the Bar I mentioned in my first post. That coffee, the Lindt chocolate, and the KIMBO crew lifted me adequately to assess the situation properly. I was hungry AND tired.

I lost the rest of the outer wheel on the cobblestone streets on the way to the hotel, which was a blessing. Now it rolls along quietly, albeit slightly lopsided.

Milan was a one night stay but I spotted a Vodafone during my museum search and made it a priority for the next morning as I had to be at the airport to fly to Bari at 2 PM.  I took my ticket, number 50 and then looked up at the board to find they were serving number 31A. I settled in a for a big city sort of wait but it went quickly. Handed over my passport, ID and credit card and in a few moments was ready to go, he even installed the chip for me.  I never noticed that he did NOT hand me back my passport until I was on a wild ride to the Airport because in my sleep deprived state I somehow confused 14:21 with 4 o’clock, which it is not. 14:21 is 2:21 PM.

The driver turned around and went back to the Piazza Duomo, waited for me as I sailed past the door watcher who said “You must have a ticket!”, tossed over my shoulder the words “Passaporto & Aeroporto” and marched directly to the counter where the young man who served me produced the document in a flash and an apology, as if he were solely responsible for the snafu.  Of course, I missed that flight, but only by minutes, and I had purchased for $10 insurance in case I missed the flight. Why did I do that,  have no idea, but was happy I did.

I was flying Cheap-O Air so baggage is an issue. If you think that they are fussy in the US about excess baggage or baggage size – you have to try out a European cheap airline. I already found out last year that you  MUST check in online – even though they never say that on the website.  One carry on means ONE carry on- not your carry on and a camera or a shopping bag full of stuff or your CPAP.  I had already paid for my baggage online and got my boarding pass printed so I was all set.  With the miraculous insurance I thought I had things licked.

Went to the boarding agent to the check in, he confirmed i was too late to board. Go to the help counter.  I went to the counter. Waited my turn. Told the agent I missed my flight. She said we’ll put you on the next flight, $100.00 please. I said I had Insurance. She looked. Yes, you do. OK, call the insurance company and have them rebook the ticket. They must do it. I didn’t know I had the number because I didn’t recognize the email that arrived as my insurance, since I bought it in English and it arrived looking like spam. She dug up a number, wan’t sure it was correct, but gave it to me to call.  It was a +44. No idea what country that was.

I called. David answered – he was English – he spoke English. He never heard of me. I read my insurance number to him. My confirmation code.  Nope, I am not in the system.

He gives me a different number to call. I call. David answers. He says that is strange. He cannot help me, but he suggests I go back to the counter and let him talk to the agent. I get back in line. I wait my turn. I get the other agent this time. She cannot talk to the insurance company, she is not allowed. I tell David, he asks me to ask her for a particular number. She provides the number. David still can’t find me in the  system.

He looks up the number for another insurance company and gives it to me.  He hopes that works. My departure time is coming up, I hope they will have a seat left for me.

I search my phone again for the email everyone says I should have gotten with the correct number to call. I check out that weird spam that came in at the same time as my flight confirmation. THAT’S IT. I call the actual number they gave me if I had a problem to report. I dial the number, it is + 39 Italian number so I know that it is not going to be as simple as David.  David answers.

David is as incredulous as an Englishman can be. He takes my number and says he will make some calls and call me back. I hang out and wait. David calls back. He has called some contact at Cheap-O air and finds me in the system, books my flight and off I go.  I check my bag and head for some coffee.


Ahhhh, Illy. The best, the smoothest. Love Illy.  Finish my coffee while I wait for Cheap-O to post the boarding gate, which will be 20 minutes before the departure. I shake out a few cechi, they are dried salted garbanzo beans that I always buy at the Piazza Duomo. Handy to have, easy to carry, high protein, no fat, great if you are going to miss a meal, which I have just done. They are crunchy little buggers and every once in a while you get one that missed Inspector 27’s sharp eye and it is hard as a rock.  I bit into one of those and then fished out the culprit and dropped it into my empty cup. A few seconds later my tongue found a strange empty place in my tooth. I dug out the hard cechi and found it was a chunk of tooth. I stashed it in my purse and knew that my plans had just changed.

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Notes on Driving in Italy

I am many stories behind, as a friend pointed out tonight, but, I have to jump ahead to today because it is worthy.

I rented my car a day later than planned because of the tooth thing, but then I had to leave it in the garage at $13.00 a day because…well, the tooth thing. I finally went and got it out, (nothing is ever easy) the day I left Bari. I had already accumulated enough stuff to require two trips to the garage from the hotel.

I tried to explain this in my pathetic Italian, because even in a tourist town Garage Attendant does not have “English as a Second Language” in the job description. That was so way less than useless.  Eventually, I just left the car in the doorway and went across the street to get my bags. When I popped back out of the hotel I saw him scanning the streets for me and I waved my, “I’m back” salute and headed over.  I was prepared with my credit card since this was going to be $40 and I had been burning through cash pretty quick. No carta. OK, good, I had this nice big 500 Euro bill I have been trying to pass for a day or so and had no takers.  Apparently, not him either. Bank? Around the corner.  I stowed my junk in the trunk and headed for the corner. I was searching for an ATM but could not see one anywhere. I returned and said, No bank. He was very clear that there was one; that implied “you idiot” was in there too.  I went back. I looked all over, I even looked up. OH, there it is, Banca Di Napoli.

A pleasant half hour later – after the friendly chat with a motorcyclist which involved both of the gentleman stationed at the front desk, and a patient wait for a teller, (after getting a number from the front desk) while she was beyond frustration with something on her computer, and the other teller, an older gentleman helping an older lady who was giving her every pleasantry, finally got done, it was my turn to ask for change. Which bills would I like, any large ones, small ones, coins perhaps. When the transaction was done and I had been advised on safe transport of my funds I finally headed back to the garage. My car was gone and so was the attendant but I wasn’t even worried. It is just like this in Italy sometimes.  Both showed up simultaneously.

I paid the bill, got in the car, wished I could have gotten the Garmin to find the satellite back at the hotel, but inside 2 feet of ancient rock connectivity is often stifled. I figured to just get off the block, head in any direction and pull over at the first opportunity, which happened faster than I imagined. I tuned in the Garmin, set it for Brindisi and took off.

City driving is a wonder in a foreign country, luckily I grew up in NYC, so it is hard to really surprise me, but the highways are another world.  Keep in mind we are in Kilometers here, not miles.  40 means 60, and 60 means 80, and 110 really means just in the slow lane, because, I swear to you, I was not keeping up and got the flash-a-roo. No honking on the highway, unlike in town where a 1 second hesitation is cause for a reminder toot, and with each additional second the tooting goes back another car. Stall your car and the entire line up will be honking their horns off.

It is olive harvest season right now, so while moving north from Puglia there were several farmers on little old tractors riding on the shoulder of the main highway. And by shoulder, I mean about 3 feet. I watched a semi hauling a container slow down and get out of the way of an old codger with a wagon load of olives. By “getting out of the way” I mean he moved into the next lane, about halfway, which by coincidence just happened to be my lane. I couldn’t see the olive guy, I just saw a very big truck moving in to share my lane. I was not really prepared for this action so braking was my only option since there is neither shoulder nor median, only a metal rail fence on the other side.  I became much more alert to items in the road up ahead after that.

While being attentive I saw another truck moving into someone else’s lane while heading right for me. He was making way for a much bigger tractor, pulling a much bigger wagon, who was making way for a little tractor pulling a little wagon.  Really, I was a bit disappointed there was not a donkey and a cart to complete the picture.

Eventually I made it on the Autostrada, which has no posted speed limit, BUT regularly reminds you that you are being watched electronically for speeding. Going with the flow of traffic, in the slow lane, put me at 130 KPH, so that is where I stayed. I got the rhythm of lane change pretty quickly and it makes for a pleasant journey – everybody behaving themselves.

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Holy Freakin’ Smokes!

OK, I admit it, I was in the dumps. That blog about the broken tooth – the one I haven’t written yet – well the story got worse today and I was feeling sorry for myself. Tired, taken by surprise, plans changed, big dollars,  alone in my room, which seems tinier when I am sad and I was feeling sorry for myself.  Dang, I hate admitting that, but it is true.

Since the whole city goes to sleep at 12:30 I decided to do the same. When I awoke I found the pages I tore out of a devotional I read every day, although I haven’t read any since I left Wasilla.  The message was short and sweet, “Trust Me in the tough times”.  Oh, yeah, that. OK, I know better than to worry. It is all taken care of.

I decided since I have been out walking and doing and seeing for two days that  would eat a simple, inexpensive meal downstairs at the hotel restaurant where the cook does multiple other tasks and the waiter sometimes doesn’t take his service jacket off when he is cleaning the rooms. Ah, off-season in a country with an economy that has not rebounded from 2008. I take the stairs down instead of the tiny elevator and to my surprise the restaurant is closed. Breakfast set-ups still there. Apparently, they’re not open on Saturday – or the cook has a second job elsewhere. I have passed a pizzaranti (whatever that is) everyday coming and going that is just around the corner from the hotel. I don’t want pizza but I am betting they have a few other things. They do have two windows full of faded, tattered newspaper articles going back 20 or 30 years proclaiming the merits of this guys’ pizza.  Being half Neopolitan I dismiss the possibility of its quality and hope for the best on the secondi menu.

I stand studying the options on the menu posted in the window for quite a while since it is rather extensive, even if you don’t look at the 3 pages of pizza options, which I didn’t.  I wasn’t committed until I saw a diminutive, dark brown, old, somewhat bent over gentleman approach the door with a  “Are you coming in are you going to read the menu all day?” look and I felt compelled, or really coerced into entering.  For a place with all those credentials it was completely empty. A big, open,brightly lit room with high white ceilings and weird blue decor, and modern. All the tables were set in hopeful anticipation, but it was already 8:30 on a Saturday night and the place was empty – with a capital E.  I started calculating what I should probably not eat based on slow turnover.

I was clearly a “singolo” but he muttered something and walked into another room with me trailing behind. We stepped up (OSHA would be very unhappy here) to yet another empty dining room, also set for another 40 people and even some large tables for a dozen or more people. You gotta salute that kind of optimism. He turned and I mentioned I was not here with the entire opera company performing down the street. His response was curt and dismissive and he led me to a table for two along the wall, examining the other tables as though he was making a particular selection with my height, weight, gender, complexion, and family heritage in mind.  I smiled to myself. This guy grew up in better days.

A youngster of maybe 50 came to the table to take my order. Birra? NO, vino.  White?  NO, rosso.  OK.  I have questions. OK. Menu in English? and off he went. My questions were not answered by the newly presented menu because they were not about translation, but he was in such a hurry it was hard to get a question in. He kept firing my potential answers at me. Used to Americani, I suppose. We settled on a dish not on the menu that he recommended, after he was convinced I actually wanted to eat a meal there.  He came back with a sincere apology that the pasta that was available that night for the scoglio was not tagliatellini, as he had said, but rather tagliatelle.  He looked prepared for typical Italian outrage. What! Talgiatelle!  Santa Maria, how can I eat mussels and clams and oh my God, octopus with Tagliatelle. NO! It cannot be done. I must eat another dish, or perhaps I should just kill myself.  Yes, this would be better. I should be dead before I eat polpi with tagliatelle.  This is is actually fodder for a week’s worth of complaining to your friends about the incident, perhaps that is the very thing the bus driver was discussing while I waited for him to board and drive.  I said, no problem and he went away happy while telling me to go get some antipasti.

I get up and make my way to the area where I hear someone beating the air out of pizza dough in the most un-Neapolitan way.  It was so loud I thought perhaps he had a mallet back there pounding it flat. Oh well, what do the Barese know about Pizza. But then – everything changed. I heard angels singing softly in the background as I swear, the lights came up on the table, no tables – and rolling carts – and tiered banquettes of antipasti, like I have never seen in my life.  In America we think of antipasto as salami and cheese and some olives, and that is a type of antipasti, but in Puglia where is has been historically very poor and they eat only what the land and the sea gives them – they eat vegetables – and olive oil. (Puglia produces about 90% of all the olive oil consumed in Italy.)

In front of my eyes was a spread of vegetables in every conceivable preparation. Even at the house of a friend I have seen 8 or 10 different vegetables and olives come before lunch, but this was entirely different. There were four types of green olives in various stages of ripeness, a roasted black olive, still warm from the oven, some giant Castelvetrano, green and unripe and tangy. Zucchini options that would satiate a Mat Valley grower in August. Fried zucchini, battered and fried zucchini, roasted zucchini, grilled zucchini, zucchini salad, baked zucchini sandwiches with ham and cheese in the middle and breadcrumbs on top and zucchini frittata. I don’t know how they missed sauteed zucchini with garlic and mint like my mother made.  Then there was 4 varieties of mozzarella. Tiny knots in cream, bocconcini in salt water, mozzarella di bufala, and stracciatelli.  I have only seen this in Puglia, though it may be elsewhere. It is stringy uneven strands of mozzarella in milk. It is so fresh it moos and delicious. I was served this once before and since I had not yet taken a bite  I asked what it was. The hostess looked at me and shouted , “Mozzarella!” She left the implied,”you idiot” unspoken.

There was eggplant in giant wedges and thin slices. Poached and oiled cauliflower-ettes reformed into a flower, three or four potato preparations,  small individual baskets of FRESH ricotta, 4 or 5 cold seafood salads, roasted peppers sorted by color and mixed and a top shelf of I-never-even-looked, two bowls of lentil something, a few salads in a very thick sauce of I have no idea what and mussels steamed & stuffed, several shrimp preparations, squid and cold rice salads. Of course there was a  great big roasting pan full of CTD (cooked to death) bitter greens. I left them for the lentil-eaters. Not a single slice of ham, cooked or raw, no beef, no cured pork of any kind, not even a slice of salami.  It was wonderful.  As if that and a fork were not enough along comes the young’un with a plate of bread. It was a smallish mound of dough, probably for the pizza/focaccia, completely bathed in Pugliese olive oil prior to baking, which apparently happened while I was trying not to get any drool in the platters of antipasti.  It crackled when I bit into it. Oh my God.

By now, with wine ordered, a pasta crisis averted and a plate full of gorgeous vegetables in front of me I looked up at the clock; it was 9 PM.  Like the clock striking 12 noon on Wall Street, the floodgates opened and people began pouring in. Group after couple after gang of ragazzi streamed in, the door barely closed behind one before another pulled it open. I had completely read it wrong in my arrogant assessment of the situation.  Let’s review the clues:

  • Menu in Italian only
  • Place set up for a crowd
  • Waiter anxious to get me settled before the onslaught
  • No tourists in sight
  • Restaurant under a bridge
  • Lots of newspaper clippings and handshake photographs on wall
  • Truck load of antipasti prepared
  • Chef pounding out doughs for pizza while no one is in restaurant

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I didn’t want to leave, so I ordered cafe  and dessert.  Little old guy was my man now and he leaned with a list of flavors. I didn’t know what he was talking about. He said, Gelato. I said NO, Pasticciotto. He delivered,  Tete de Monache, a pair of them.  I said,” Pasticciotto, no?”   He said, “This is good.” I guess he was long on them, or he really wanted me to have them, because there was no room for a discussion of the fact that it was not what I ordered.  I was happy though since I have had these before and when properly made they are incredible. These were not as light, but definitely filled to capacity with VERY good pastry cream. They are politely called Sospiri these days, which means a Whisper. A good description of the unbelievable lightness of the cake dome. However, the original name, Tete de Monache, means Nuns Boobs.

Remind me to tell you about the lady at the next table…….that is another story.


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A Milano….Ahhhhh Milano

I am committed to cheap travel. That covers a lot of ground in terms of what I am willing to endure to go where I want every few years.

I go off-season, I land in Milan, I book early, and it only takes 40,000 Alaska Airline miles to do it. All that happens before I even start thinking about where my travel underwear is. This trip required a change of departure date, and to travel on the requested days I had to overnight in Miami.  I have two cousins there so I saw it as an opportunity. Stopovers mid country are de rigueur. Red-eye flights are all I ever fly, actually, I think they use the airport for ice hockey during the day, so really, no big deal.  Getting everything done before I leave, now that is the trick.  I worked like a beaver til I walked out the door and Kevin vacuumed the stairs so we could leave on time. I had a packet of papers, some stamps, a few envelopes and a needle and spool of thread (for pants hemming somewhere along the line), oh and a copy of  Conversational Italian since I never really practiced as much as I planned.

Sleep evaded me ALL NIGHT LONG from ANC to ORD (even though l had an entire row to lay down in), then I conked completely out the minute I boarded to Miami. I got the COW sales tax completed, and the payment to the Heart Institute, and the letter cancelling my gym membership mailed from the hotel and felt like I could finally get into travel mode mentally. That may be why I printed an out-of-date itinerary and didn’t notice until 2.5 hours before the flight, that my boarding pass said something else. So my lunch date with cousin Michael was out of the question, and making it on time to the airport was in. I did make it with time for a Cubano coffee and cuz met me at the gate!   Now that does not happen anymore with security, but as he said, “I have my ways.” It was uplifting and fun to visit, so the snafu turned out alright. I was on my way to JFK and departure to Milan.

For no reason I can ascertain I was in possession of a Priority ticket. Not just a TSA precheck, which is always a delight, but a Priority standing on the last leg. Certain that was a mistake, or just a marketing ploy by American Air to bolster my self-esteem, I waited to board until my Group number was called when I noticed I had no Group number. A quick check in with the counter  and I was whisked on to the plane. She had me moving so fast I couldn’t get my passport quick open to show the gate attendant, though she saw it in my hand and waved me in.  So much for security checks.

Speaking of security checks…smoked salmon entering Chicago required a full stop, a bag unpacking, and an explosives wipe down.  Maybe they thought I was a Cleveland Indians fan.  Salmon leaving Florida…. an eye squint at the x-ray machine and a wave of the hand. Barely enough time to get from one gate to the next and I was boarding in JFK. Starting to feel the pinch of travel without sleep and sleep without rest. But, this was the last leg- I was almost there.

Milan landing is a blur, but the unhappy middle-aged toddler in the seat in front of me is in sharp focus still. Half the plane was full of Italians as was the row in front of me. The fellow directly in front of me found it difficult to get to sleep, even though he was reclined within an inch of my nose, and he was apparently quite disturbed by this inconvenience which he expressed through dramatic, exaggerated movements and sighs. For example: Throwing one’s full weight against the back of the seat repeatedly while sighing loudly, throwing one’s blanket into the air and snapping it back down  around oneself ( as much as coach seating allows), lifting one’s self up by the armrests and plopping one’s self down as firmly as possible, with or without accompanying sighs. It got annoying after a while.  I contemplated my options:

  1. Politely ask him to please stop banging the back of the seat
  2. Not so politely asking him to knock it off
  3. Yelling in English, “Settle Down Buddy!”
  4. Shouting, “BASTA!”
  5. Asking the Attendant to ask him to settle down
  6. Repenting my anger I considered praying for him to be able to sleep. I actually spent a moment doing that.

Final action:

With NO thought involved— the next time he banged against the seat I banged right back on the headrest. Things settled down after that.  I felt no remorse. I really needed some sleep.


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Well, I had my first Kimbo coffee, which is a Neapolitan coffee, a bit more brusque than Illy or Lavazza, which are the usual coffees found in MIlan, but I saw my chance and grabbed it. Of course, I was in the train station in Milan……and it was still light years better than any brew I can get in Alaska. Oh, and by the way, a macchiato WITH a complimentary LINDT dark chocolate bite, was 1 Euro. Before I left, which was under a minute as coffee drinking is not a social event of the American kind, two KIMBO-lanyard-wearing company reps showed up and checked a number of things, from lifting unopened bags to see if they were full, (this appeared to be the lackey trying to look useful), to tapping the hardware with a pen, to checking out the stack of cups. I am not sure what exactly they were able to ascertain from all that collected data but it all looked very official, especially the lanyards. I’m putting my money on the fact that when a bunch of Southern Yahoos from Naples try to break into the Northern coffee market, they better get everything right. Giving away Lindt chocolate can’t hurt I suppose.
If I say my entire body hurts will it sound like I am whining? Well, not my head, or my teeth, they are fine, but all the rest is screaming at me since my inaugural museum crawl. Standing on those marble floors, however beautifully they maybe mosaiced, is VERY had on my feet and back…and this is only day one of the art tour. I wouldn’t trade it for anything. Coming up out of the subway in the Piazza Duomo and seeing that giant Gothic cathedral looming in front of me always makes me smile.
However, with only a few hours to see the Ambrosiana Museum, I headed straight for that to see my favorite Caravaggio in the world. When I say straight for the museum I use that only as colloquialism, it took nearly an hour for me to actually find it. The map provided by the hotel and the one I tore out of my guide-book didn’t provide any real, or should I say accurate guidance. It didn’t help that even with glasses the print grows smaller every year. I followed the maze of unmarked streets the map showed but couldn’t really rate my progress with the actual streets quite visibly labeled. I asked a LOT of people. Everyone provided an answer. Qua, de la, straight then left, etc., etc. None of them actually got me there though. As dusk was falling I wondered if I should abort my trip and try again in the morning – but no, the call of the Basket of Fruit was on me. Eventually, I got there and it was as glorious as ever. The real prize of the collection, even though a partial Da Vinci Codex Atlanticus was on display in the same room, everyone gravitated to the fruit. I made three separate pilgrimages to the painting arousing my own personal guard. I like realism, and this painting is spectacular.
I made careful note of my way out to insure I could find it again and sure enough it was directly across from the Duomo, one street away, plain sight – if you know what you’re looking for and ignore the maps.

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It Pays to Ask for Directions

We got up on our second morning and poured over the maps, tourist booklets in French and Italian and Trip Advisor on the incredibly slow internet. We had chatted with the hostess of apartments and she circled some places we should see beyond the standard tourist stops.  We decided on Barumini for the best place to see Bronze Age ruins and headed north.  Now, for Carmen the Garmin to work best, you need an address, which we did not have, but with a map and some common sense we thought we could make this work. Rene had already programmed the Garmin to have a nice English speaking female voice which was lovely, however, her accent would make your high school language teacher jump from the roof of the school to her asphalt death. It was impossible to understand what she was saying and it was down right funny, expect for it was not helping much.  Eventually we got out of town in the general direction and hoped for the best.

Still raining on and off we guessed and followed our way through miles of dry, brown, harvested fields and desolate landscapes.  Not the ripe lush beautiful fields of other parts of Italy I have seen, but clearly things had grown there. Not many people either, or cars, or anything really.  We drove through a small town that looked pretty empty and closed up but we were definitely on the right road. Then we came to a small Sardegnian style ATCO trailer at a work site.  It was about 6 foot square. No workmen in sight. Some 6″ hog fence stretched across the road and a sign. Closed for Work.  No machinery anywhere in sight, no workers, and no detour, no work happening, just closed.  We turned around and headed for the town.

It was starting to rain again and we drove around and around town looking for something that was open since it was around 2 PM and during the siesta time. No luck.  Found a museum, closed. Found some signs for restaurants, closed. No one on the street.  Could have been a movie set.  Empty.  There was something that looked like a bar (coffee place) but no cars around or lights on, but we did see a young boy in the doorway, probably home from school. Eventually, we decided that it was our only hope, and with all the sausage, cheese, wine and bread in Italy, we had somehow forgotten to pack a lunch. We were hungry. Popped open our crappy umbrella and dashed for the door. Open!  Only the proprietor was there, the young boy must have walked to the back of the bar and back into his mother’s kitchen. We ordered some espresso and two round, flat, discs of something.  Turned out to be some sauce between two discs of pastry dough – cold, soggy, boring, but food.  As we checked out the interior we noticed all manner of US signage. Odd.  Eventually, someone came in the bar and got a coffee, we asked him about the closed road and said we were going to Barumini. Oh yes, of course, you have to go around, the road is closed.  Around what?  Around on a dirt road, you know.  Hmm, we didn’t really but he was up for showing us the way.  OK, we’d follow him.  Then, I’m not sure how exactly but in the next few sentences while I was wondering how we would find our way BACK from Barumini via dirt road, after he left, he somehow told us he was a farmer and was showing us pictures of tiny crocus in a grey- clay dirt field on his iphone.  He was a saffron farmer. Really? We were amazed.  He was very proud. It was saffron season, he was harvesting this very day.   Seriously?!  Did we want to see? Yes! OK, he would be back at 2:30, wait right here.

After he was out the door Rene wondered out loud if it was a really good idea to follow this guy, but he seemed very genuine, enthusiastic and friendly, I was up for it.  Besides, can you imagine the opportunity ti see saffron being harvested – what were the chances?  We moved outside to wait under the overhang, I forgot why, and then watched over the next 10 minutes as truck after tiny truck pulled into the little square and parked. Out of those trucks came a variety of farmers and workers in muddy boots or work clothes and they all headed right for the bar- it was coffee time.

2:30 came and went but a few minutes later our saffron guy pulled up and signaled us to follow him, which we did.  Rene was evaluating internally exactly what she would and would not do, “OK, I’ll follow him, but if he goes to his house, I am not going in.”  He went to his house, he signaled for us to come, we went in. Inside this tiny little room, about the size of an atrium in a SkyRanch home was a sofa facing away from us, backed up to the wall and doorway of another room, to the left was the open kitchen with a small table wedged between the cooking/ dishwashing wall and a fireplace.  Not a big kitchen fireplace with place for cooking, a raised hearth and moveable  cooking tools – no this was more of a heap of a fireplace that sort of slumped into the kitchen from a corner looking like it was sort of added later and just a pile of rocks barely hanging together with a campfire in the middle of it.  Two women were seated at the table.  They wore blue gloves, and in front of them was a huge pile of purple crocus and a small flat cardboard tray with a collection of red stamens.  In front of the fireplace was a tray of soggy crocus drying a bit before they were up next for processing.

The processing was uncomplicated, one women took a flower cut the bottom off about 1/4″ and tossed it on the table.  The other women, picked up the flower and unraveled it to find the three pronged stamen and then discard the female parts and the petals.  Saffron guy was talking a mile a minute, no one looked particularly surprises to see us and we were invited to sit down.  He showed us yesterday’s harvest, 8″ x 11″ a few layers deep – maybe 1- 2 oz.  This was WORK!  Before we knew it we were handed a small glass of Mirto –  a local liquour made from a small blue berry.  Very good, yes, good, you like, yes. Good, good. You want to see the next room.  He squeezed past one of the women, opened the door to what looked like a bedroom, no bigger than the kitchen, and spread on the mattressless bedframe was a load of purple crocus drying in the breeze of a fan.  This is a typical house, he said.

Next thing we were trying our hand at stamen picking, we were evaluated, corrected and reminded one stamen was 1 Euro.  Not really, but we had to be careful. Along came another lady to help,she spoke English, well 5 or 6 words anyway. Then the moka pot went on, did we want coffee, no we just had some, thanks. A few minutes later a young man joined us and we crammed all 6 of us around this table, Rene sitting on a child’s chair about a foot from the ground and we were all working away. The experts checked our work and we checked our work.  Always two sets of eyes on every batch.

They wanted to know if  we went to the museum, no, it was closed.  It’s not closed, my sister works there.  She was just at lunch.  You should go there. Saffron season is 15 days long.  The sagra ( festival) was last weekend. There are only a few growers of which HE is one.  He pulls out large color photos, laminated, of crocus, harvesters, (all women) and fields. I comment he is the capasquadra (head of the squad) he breaks out into English “I BOSS”  I mention that he is the boss but all the workers are women, the ladies like this and he digs around until he finds a picture of another dude. Then reminds us with a big smile, he is the boss.

After an hour we say our goodbyes, cannot believe our incredible good fortune to have stumbled on to this opportunity and decide Barumini will have to wait, we are going to the museum.

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A Slow Food Meal

There has been quite a lot going on, even though we feel like slow motion – still tired and Rene is jet lagged.  After finally getting to our little apartment after 12+ hours of bus, hotel, bus, train station, bus, airport, plane, airport, taxi we loaded in and immediately  went back out and across the street to a teeny, tiny store, about the size of my garage.  We picked up coffee, cream, fennel, basil, tomatoes, wine, some Sardegnian cheese and a few slices of a local pancetta and a six pack of those incredible eggs…oh, and a couple of rolls.  We made a feast of wine and cheese and bread and sweet cherry tomatoes before we hit the sack and when we finally climbed out of our stupor in the morning (like maybe just before noon) we put on the coffee.

Our apartment description said, “well equipped kitchen”, which means there is at least a wine opener, a Moka pot, a skillet, a pasta pot and a colander.  All present and accounted for.  As our Lavazza Red perked away I put a few slices of the pancetta in the skillet. It is cured with the belly wrapped around the loin, sort of porchetta style and perfectly cured. When it curled up a bit I dropped those fabulous orange-yolked eggs into their bacon nest and we had a glorious breakfast. Rene has a penchant for persimmons and they are in season now and soooo sweet and ripe it is like cutting open the skin of a bag of persimmon preserves.  Yum!

Bacon & eggs, Italian style.

Bacon & eggs, Italian style.

Sardinian Style Pancetta

Sardinian Style Pancetta

After breakfast we decided to take a walk over to the Locanda, the restaurant and inn where we checked in for our apartment. It looked to be less than a mile on our map, we were refreshed and full and ready for an adventure.   Two hours, many stops for directions and map interpretations, a bum steer from the Vodafone guy, up a pretty steep hill and in and out of questionable neighborhoods……FINALLY, we found our spot.  After making dinner reservations for that night, we called a taxi!

Once we got back to the airport and picked up our car (Rene calls it a roller skate) we installed Carmen the Garmin and headed back home.  Our dinner was at a Slow Food Restaurant.  Slow Food is a movement that began in Italy in the far north, the land of Barolo wine and white truffles.  The Slow Food Movement is exactly the opposite of Fast Food. It is food that our grandparents ate, crafted, not manufactured, grown without pharmaceuticals, treating the land with respect as well as the animals and the workers.  It is local food, seasonal, clean and fair..and in Europe, of course, there is no GMO, ever.

Our dinner started with a basket of bread and a small pot of warm spread (potato puree, with artichoke, and grated Bortaga. Bortaga is specific to Sadegna and they consider it a delicacy, but it is wasted on me. It is dried, salted Mullet roe, but it just tastes salty to me. It was a nice combo though and then we moved on to Steamed calamari over almond pesto with a hint of citrus – THAT was terrific.  Hopefully, you will have a chance to taste that after I practice a bit. We shared a less memorable artichoke and potato fritter in a pumpkin puree with a tiny taste of local ricotta.   Good, but no comparison.

Next we tried a homemade pasta with wild boar and a thick soup of a local legume similar to a dried pea.  Different flavor, quite nice and in keeping with the Slow Food mantra of keeping heritage varieties alive.  By the time our entrees came we were way too full. We had been sipping Cannanou wine, something I tasted 2 years ago and it was so robust and spicey that it was this wine the led me to Sardegna….just to see what food these people might eat with this unique wine.  One ocean fish that was as delicate as trout and one local stew made with a local white wine, a Vermentina.  Very good, but if there was a wine in there it was lost on me. The stew was laid over one of their local bread specialties – Carta di Musica, a paper thin sheet of dough baked until crisp and served in the whole or half round.

No room for dessert for me, but Rene tried the chocolate and cream cake and pronounced it – OK. We had been at table from 8:30 when the restaurant opened until 11:30 PM!!!!


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