Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Memorial Day in Florence

Monday, 29 May 2006 was pretty much a routine day in Italy. It being a Monday most of the museums were closed in Florence of course, as are many of the shops, and even some of the restaurants. Mondays are typically an extension of Le Weekend as the French (don’t) like to call it, and so seems a bit slower paced than the rest of the “work week” in Italy.

Anyway we had arranged with to meet Warren and Gladys at a little after 1:00 pm at their apartment near Santa Croce and then go to the American National cemetery which is just a little over seven miles south of the city for the Memorial Day ceremony. We waited a few minutes for one of their friends to join us. The five of us then headed off across the street to the cabstand to grab a taxi out to the cemetery.

This being Florence we all enjoyed a circuitous 20-minute taxi ride out to the national cemetery but it was clearly worth the trip.

When we pulled into the cemetery entrance there was already quite a lot of bustle going on, lots of different military types from at least two countries, as well as members of various military organizations and of course quite a few Americans. Veteran members of the US 10th Mountain Division was there in force, along with their families – as were a large group of Boy Scouts (of America not Italy), more than a dozen Italian veterans’ organizations with their flags of course, plenty of local politicos and naturally the US consul general, the US ambassador to Italy (he was the only one to come by helicopter provided by the Italian “carabiniere”, or national police), generals from both US and Italian armies as well as US and Italian army units, a brass band, and plenty of Italian civilians, all here to set the stage for laying of wreaths at the Memorial. There was even a small group of Italians and one Belgian who are WW2 US Army reenactors!

The day had begun overcast and frankly we thought rain might be headed our way, since it looked quite dark to the south. But then the Florentines always think it looks dark toward Siena so we didn’t put much stock in what things “looked like”. And anyway this being Italy it always changes – the weather I mean, and in fact it almost always changes from overcast to sun chronologically: that is from morning to afternoon. And so it did today.

Since we got to the cemetery about an hour before the service was scheduled to start we all wandered around the grounds, strolling among the stones. We mingled with many of the other visitors, some of whom, like the veterans of the 10th Mountain Division, had come to pay their respects to the more than 400 of their comrades who lay buried there. (photo: Warren checking out a name and Susan strolling.)

The cemetery is quite striking; very well laid out, and artistically appealing to our sensibilities, the sweeping arcs of the rows of stones were most engaging to the eye, and meticulously maintained. The some 70 acres of beautifully manicured green and tree-lined open space sloping gently down from a thickly wooded hillside to the Greve River is truly a spot of peace and tranquility. This is certainly a perfect place to honor the memory of the 4,402 men and women who rest there, most of whom perished during the last 8 months or so of the Second World War. Included in the burials are five pairs of brothers buried side-by-side. Construction on both the cemetery and memorial were completed in 1959.

The Memorial service began on time, with the posting of the colors and then the opening prayer by Mons. Luigi Mora, Chief Italian Army Chaplain for Tuscany. This was followed by followed by the US ambassador to Italy, Ronald Spogli, Brig. Gen. Michael Tucker, the Lord’s Prayer read by three daughters of deceased soldiers buried in the cemetery and then a few words from John Duffy, president of the 10th Mountain Division Association. There were a few words by Italian General Luigi Colaneri and then the laying of the wreaths by some 14 different groups from the Florence area.

A choir from one of the local churches sang “Amazing Grace”, and prayers were read by Dr. Joseph Levi, Head Rabbi of the Florence Jewish Community and Chaplain Charles Barnam who is stationed with the US Army garrison in Livorno.

The US Army’ rifle squad from Vicenza provided the traditional 21-gun salute, which was followed by the playing of Taps, then the playing of both Italian and American national anthems, and the raising of the flags from half-mast to the full-mast.

After the ceremony as everyone dispersed many turned their attention to the stones once again. It was clearly an opportunity for many of the old veterans who were there to pay what may very well prove to be their last respects to those veterans who will be forever young.

And you could see the old gentlemen with their list in hand,
moving from section to section,
each one or two trying to find a name or two
of someone they remembered
from that day or two more than 60 years ago,
but like it was today.

It was a great day to be alive, the sun out at last, and walking among such evocative symbols of sacrifice in such a beautiful garden of stone.

Eventually of course we had to go. We said good-by to Warren and Gladys as they caught a ride back to the city with some friends – the tiny car would only hold four – and since we wanted to stroll the grounds for a bit longer we thought we would just take the bus back. Which we did of course.

Sunday, May 28, 2006

Recipe no. 1 from Florence

Here is a wonderful recipe from Florence. Susan made these rolls on Saturday, 27 May 2006, and they are delicious. Try 'em!

"Oat bread"


500g of flour "0" (tipo 0, or type zero in Italy, all-purpose in the US)
125g oat flakes (or muesli)
50g butter
25g sugar
10g salt
25g brewer's yeast (fresh cake yeast)
300g water
dried cherries (optional)


Soak oat flakes in water for 10 minutes, melt in sugar and yeast, and add the other ingredients. (I added about a 1/3 cup of chopped dried cherries.)
Knead until smooth.
Let rest for 10 minutes.
Make 300g pieces and let rest for 10 more minutes.
Make 50g pieces and form small rolls or braids, place on lightly greased baking sheet
Let rise for 20-30 minutes.
Egg wash and sprinkle with chopped nuts (I used almonds but pistachios would work fine).
Bake at 200C (400F) for 15-20 minutes or until nicely browned

This recipe makes about 20 small braided rolls and can easily be doubled.


A beautiful Sunday in Florence

It’s a gorgeous Sunday morning in Florence; clear blue sky, cool air and all the sun you could want. It’s nice to just relax after the rush of the last week and a half, since we returned from Paris (motto: “bring plenty of cash”).

Much of the last 10 days or so has been devoted to getting ready for our upcoming move – and of course to our visit to the US. We still haven’t decided on an apartment yet and continue to surf the Internet for possibilities. The security deposit (which apparently is translated from the French as enough money to completely refurnish the apartment if necessary) and rental agent fees are scandalous; but hey, life is so very full of tradeoffs, right? In any case we are eager to do this – and the anticipation grows with each passing day.

Here in Italy we contacted a local mover by email to get an estimate for our move north. They called back a day or so later giving us the specifics on how this is going to work. We have to put together a written list of what we want to move and fax it to them. After that they will send us an estimate. When I spoke with the woman on the phone she seemed keenly interested in how many flights up our apartment is here in Florence as well as our new one in Paris (which of course we don’t know where that will be yet). So we started boxing some things up, taking measurements and marking down what we have and hope to get that off to the mover by midweek. We don’t expect to find out anything definitive one way or the other for a week or so after that.

We just can’t get over the fact that we have “stuff” in storage in Vermont – and who knows when we’ll see that again – and yet here we are arranging for someone to come and move more “stuff” here in Italy to another foreign destination and for how long we don’t know. Not that we are complaining mind you – we cannot believe how fabulously lucky we are and what a grand avventura this all is – but it is, well, amazing.

Besides the Paris move our trip back to the states in June is also demanding more of our attention as well: from trying to figure out what to pack (computer yes camera maybe that sort of thing) to finding a place to buy US SIM cards so we can use our phones to deciding on the best time to advertise our car in the newspaper – and which paper, and where? (OK that’s an easy answer: The Boston Globe.)

But while much of our attention has been focused on our US trip and our move to Paris at the end of July, we also have to keep refocusing ourselves on the fact that, hey, this is our home here right now, we live in Florence.

So it was a treat when we finally caught up with a couple of other Americans who have lived here for some time, Melinda and Dave. Susan and I met Melinda at a book signing at McRae’s books a couple of weeks ago. At one point Melinda leaned over and asked Susan if they knew each other from somewhere, and quickly discovered that Melinda is a good friend of one of Susan’s teachers, Simone; in fact Melinda and her husband are renting Simone’s apartment here in Florence. We talked for a bit and then made plans to meet at Simone’s restaurant, Il Canapone, which is on the south side of the river (“oltrarno”) for dinner later on in the month – it seemed that all of us were heading for France in the next week or so, Susan and I to Paris and Melinda and Dave to a conference near Nice.

Anyway we stayed in touch by email and soon after we returned from up north we set up a time to meet at Simone’s in early June -- but also thought why not get together for an aperitivo sooner?

So we met at (another) book signing, Friday evening, this one at the Paperback Exchange. Linda Falcone, who is the editor of the local English language newspaper, The Florentine, was signing copies of her new book, “Italians love to dance and I’m a wallflower”, a collection of her witty and touching newspaper articles about the unique and often intimate meanings found in Italian figures of speech.

So the four of us met just outside the quite full bookshop, and stepped inside where we listened to Linda read from one of her chapters, “non si fa”, which in essence means “you don’t do that” or “that just isn’t done,” a popular figure of speech which describes certain things that, well, just aren’t done in Italy. Period. End of discussion. No “whys” or “because ofs”. It just isn’t done and that’s it.

Afterwards the four of us strolled to the Arno and went to the Golden View Bar to have a drink – and since the time got away from us we decided to stay and have dinner.

It was a great opportunity to swap travel stories and with a bonus: it turned out that Melinda had lived in Paris for some years so of course we started pumping her for information about our impending move there. Melinda has spent much of her life abroad, in London, Paris and now in Florence. She writes one of the most sophisticated blogs I have yet to read, and one that is extremely well designed as well. Check it out!

It was plenty of fun, and a grand evening spent in lively conversation.

Above everything else, one thing stood out in the evening’s discussion: the traveler’s determination “to learn”. We continue to learn and develop that peculiar frame of mind which all independent travelers strive to possess, no matter who they are or where they begin their journey, a frame of mind that seeks out new avenues of discovery, new things to see. Not necessarily in the obvious “things” but in those that are subtle, like in Linda Falcone’s stories about figures of speech that are not necessarily clear even to foreigners fluent in Italian but which nonetheless go far in describing a cultural identity that surrounds us everywhere.

Last night, Saturday we did a rather strange thing -- for us at any rate. We watched a French film, Blue, in French but with Italian subtitles. Fortunately the dialogue was sparse and we had seen the before but we found ourselves saying that it was nevertheless an odd thing to do. Pleasantly odd.

We will certainly miss Italy.

Although Monday, May 29th, is just another day for Italians, for the local American community it is of course Memorial Day. We hope to meet with Warren and Gladys and head to the Florence American National cemetery just south of the city for the Memorial Day service. We have driven by the cemetery on the bus to Siena numerous times and it is most striking. Set against a small hillside as a backdrop the memorial is beautifully framed by the green slope while the stones themselves seem to cascade toward you, rather like a carpet of thousands of white crosses. We are certainly eager to spend some quality time in this particularly unique “garden of stone”. I hope to have some photos to share with you later this week as well.

Until then, take care, stay well and

Wish you were here.


Oh and here's a visual PS from Paris: susan, me paying our respects to Fred Chopin.

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Paris is a go


Florence is out, Paris is in.

That’s right we will be moving to Paris in late July. Susan has been accepted to the Patisserie Diploma program at Le Cordon Bleu in Paris, starting August 7 and finishing December 15. She is also considering doing a three-month internship probably in Paris, but that wouldn’t begin until sometime in January, giving us a chance to come back to the states for the holidays.

Leave Italy? Yep, we’re going to have to, but as much as we love this corner of the world, we cannot pass up this opportunity to broaden our horizons, change our perspective, widen our outlook, you name the cliché and it probably fits. And Italy will still be here.

We will remain in Florence until the end of July when we start the Big Move North.

So stay tuned for photos and trip notes from our latest jaunt to the City of Lights, and of course for more details on why Susan will be leaving the program at Apicius in Florence.

Back in Florence

We returned to Florence from Paris late Wednesday evening after a short flight on Easyjet, one of the European discount airlines. We much prefer them to Ryanair, which we have flown twice now, and, I might add, a conclusion shared by the young American woman sitting next to Susan on our flight back to Italy.

(Plus the attendants on Easyjet had cool outfits, orange and black, like some sophisticated fashion statement for mechanics. They looked really comfortable and the attendants were pleasant and some were actually friendly. Imagine that. Easyjet has nicer planes; friendlier service and they don’t seem to have bizarre ideas about airline travel. One example. When we were returning from Frankfurt on Ryanair, which is course is not really in Frankfurt nor is it even close to Frankfurt, being probably closer to Switzerland or France or whatever, but certainly not Frankfurt, although someone allows them to say they are. Anyway on our return flight last December the last five rows of the plane were roped off. Now the plane was packed – and of course everyone tells you that revenue is everything to the airlines so why are these seats empty, I asked, implying that no one was paying for sitting there. The surly attendant informed me that it was to maintain the plane’s balance in the air. “Balance?” I jokingly said something toe effect “oh so the plane won’t break in half”? Yes, was the reply.)

Anyway, we landed in Pisa at about 8:30 pm, picked up our bag and got on the next train to Pisa Centrale, a ride of about 5 minutes form the airport, where we had about a half hour wait for the Florence train. After another hour or so on the train we arrived at Santa Maria Novella station in Florence. It was a lovely evening as we walked home, picking up a couple of pannini on the way. What a grand time we had had.

Before going to bed I checked emails and updated my newsreader (my rss links to headline news stories). For some time now I have been getting a word-a-day sent to my newsreader from dictionary.com and interestingly the latest word was palimpsest, defined as “something reused or altered but still bearing traces of its earlier form.” Palimpsest perfectly described not only Paris but of course our entire experience in Italy. It also of course perfectly described the two of us, since both of us have felt that we have been profoundly “altered from our earlier form.”

Altered, changed, modified. Such words have been the touchstones for our trip here, the foundations on which our motives for living in Florence presently rest. And of course the very reason we are moving to Paris in August – OK the end of July probably. But in any case we are going leaving here and going there, where we will live has yet to be determined, and how we will get there who knows. But go we will.

As I said in my previous post, the reason we went to Paris this past week was for Susan to visit Le Cordon Bleu, speak with an advisor about their Patisserie Diploma program and submit here application. Of course we also wanted to revisit the city where we had such fond memories of an all-too-brief stopover so many years ago. But first and foremost it was to see Le Cordon Bleu. But we saw, no, experienced so much else besides.

But, you might ask, what about the yearlong pastry and baking program at Apicius, the Culinary Institute of Florence? I have tried to answer that question in another recent post, “Some thoughts about Apicius,” which you can find in the archives. You can check there for a more detailed discussion of the problems that Susan discovered during her first part of the two-part program. In a nutshell, the lack of seriousness on the part of many of the college-age students attending Apicius was certainly one factor in her decision to go elsewhere.

But at bottom, it was the school’s failure to commit itself to Susan’s interests. She began the “year-long” program in January, hoping to finish through an intensive second half by the end of the summer. By mid-April it was clear that would not happen. By early-May it was still unclear whether the advanced, second half program would even happen in the fall. We wouldn’t know one way or the other until when? Late July? August? The school simply could not tell us for sure if the program was going to happen. We decided to move on.

So if Susan gets accepted it’s off to Paris we go. We should know any day now.

Still we have lots to do here in Florence; food to eat, places to see, an entire culture to savor every day. We hope to join our friends Warren and Gladys for the Memorial Day ceremony out at the American Soldier’s Cemetery in Florence, the end of the month.

Loose ends and departures

Wednesday, our last day in Paris, started out overcast and hinted at rain – in fact it sprinkled only once the entire time we were in Paris. Anyway after I got up and showered I walked across the street to this great little pastry shop where I picked up some morning dolci (croissants with almonds again in fact) and then went next door to a café and got coffee to go for Susan.

After a leisurely morning we left the hotel and took the metro to les Invalides. Our flight back to Italy doesn't leave until nearly 7:00pm so we have pretty much all day to spend exploring the city and since we had not seen N's tomb on the last trip now was a perfect time to go.

Originally built for wounded soldiers – and in fact wounded soldiers are still billeted here from time to time --- much of this 18th century structure is the home of the Army Museum and the location of Napoleon’s tomb.

Unless you are seriously into medieval armor – and they have a superb collection– nearly all the other parts of the museum are presently closed for major renovation. So for example, the enormous collections and exhibitions of world Wars One and Two are closed. Still if you want to see Big N’s tomb you have to buy the ticket so you might as well check out the armor. And while you’re at it we both thought the relief maps on the very top floor benath the eaves of the building in fact, are worth the price of admission. In a darkened room the length of half a football field you can find enormous glass cases, and each well-lit case contains one or more of the most fantastic relief maps of various forts constructed along the periphery of France. Moreover, the maps were done in the 18th century! Tres cool.

But otherwise there is little to see so you might as well head over to Napoleon’s tomb – and don’t miss the very touching, evocative tomb of field Marshal Foch, a group of soldiers carrying the bier on which the marshal’s body is laid out is powerful indeed. Also buried here is Vauban who was probably the most famous of Frances military engineers – indeed he is considered one of the fathers of modern fort design.

We left Les Invalides and strolled over to the American Church which is located nearby. We checked out their bulletin board and picked up information that might help us find a place to stay in Paris. Afterwards we strolled down rue Maubour, at lunch and then took the metro back to the hotel to pick up our bags. We left the hotel and headed off for the metro, retracing our steps from last Saturday, for the Denfret Rochereau sop where we got the Orlybus to the airport. After check in and passing through security -- a bit more rigorous we thought than Pisa, we boarded the plane a bit late but still arrived in Pisa on time -- and so did our bag.

It was a pleasant evening as we took the next train for Pisa Centrale train station and about 20 minutes later were on baord the train for Florence. It was after 11:00pm by the time we crashe in our apartment although we really didn't feel very tired. We just wonder now what the return trip will be like.

Footloose in Paris

We awoke to another wonderful morning in Paris. After we showered and got dressed we headed off to explore Paris. Our primary reason for coming to Paris had been to go to Le Cordon Bleu –we did that on Monday so now we were free to do whatever, wherever. Our objective today was to check out Montmartre and so we left the hotel, walked across the street and hopped on the metro. (photo: wall in Montmartre.)

We didn’t have to switch trains since the no. 12 went right from our stop to Abbesses, where we got off and walked into a very different world. Montmarte, with panoramic views of the city, is certainly unlike the Paris where our hotel is located, funkier and with a flavor of what an older Paris might have looked like before the age of steel and glass, commercial yes but on a very small scale only – neat shops, fruit and vegetable stands along the sidewalks, plenty of exotic food to go, and of course cheese shops – filled with every sort of goat cheese imaginable, or so it seemed to me.

Of more immediate importance we quickly found the one thing we had been looking for since we arrived in Paris: a boulangerie that was also a café, and in this case we struck gold: Coquelicot. Located on the rue des Abbesses, just a block or so from the metro stop, the café looked fascinating from the street and so the food and service proved even more so. Nor would this be the last time we would visit this wonderful little café -- we returned there for lunch where I had one of the best goat cheese salads I have ever eaten. We had a delicious breakfast of croissant and coffee, talked about what we would like to do that morning and then headed off in the direction of – what else – a cemetery.

We walked down rue des Abbesses and found our way in ten minutes or so to Montmartre cemetery, the final resting place of Hector Berlioz, Edgar Degas, Alexandre Dumas, Heinrich Heine, Adolphe Sax (that’s right the inventor of the saxophone), Francois Truffaut and although we couldn’t locate Albert Dreyfus’ grave the day before in Montparnasse we did find his strongest and most vocal defender, the writer Emile Zola! What a place – what lives, what history. (photo: Dumas' resting place.)

We spent a wonderful morning wandering around this fantastic place, taking in the sculptures, the flowers, and the lives of these “permanent” Parisians before heading off to find the famous Moulin Rouge. Located about 5 minutes from the cemetery entrance the Red Windmill is in the midst of a variety of sex-shops, movie theaters and video arcades advertising their one-dimensional features, with a sprinkling of cafes and funky shops.

(The word of the day is “funky.”)

We walked up rue Lepic back to rue des Abbesses and then over to take the funiculaire (cable car) up to Sacre Coeur, the massive church overlooking Paris. (You could walk but we thought why not take the cable car up and walk down? Which is what we did of course.) We took a swing through the church – fairly unimpressive after the churches of Italy I’m afraid and of course after Notre Dame but the views are stunning to be sure. We then walked around the “butte” before wending our way back down to rue des Abbesses – which is still pretty high up above the city mind you – where we had lunch at Coquelicot.

After lunch we left the cool little area around rue des Abbesses and walked down to the metro stop at Pigalle – a name that somehow seems to perfectly describe the ambience of this particular area, an are quite similar to what we found just a short ways away near the Moulin Rouge if you get my drift. Anyway we got on the number 2 line (dark blue) and took it to the Pere Lachaise stop – our objective? Yes, that’s right, Pere Lachaise cemetery, probably Paris’ most famous cemetery, and the final resting place of: Balzac, Sarah Bernhardt, Georges Bizet, Maria Callas, Chopin, Delacroix, Gustave Dore, Isadora Duncan, Jim Morrison, Pissaaro, Poulenc, Proust, Rossini, Gertrude Stein, Oscar Wilde, and Richard Wright. And the place is HUGE! I can’t wait to do some serious exploration later this year. And the place just begs to be photographed (over and over and over . . . ).

We thought Jim Morrison’s grave rather disappointing – it’s sort of tucked in between a couple of large graves and the stone itself is somewhat unassuming with very few flowers at least when we visited. There is a security guard there all the time now to prevent anyone disturbing the other graves or defacing any of the surrounding stones with graffiti etc. Nor would they let anyone take pictures – possibly having some to do with the Bush administration’s fear of intelligence leakers -- although many (of us) did photograph surreptiously. Moreover, We found it curious that just below his name and dates of birth/death is an inscription in Greek.

The one other person in the cemetery which everyone we encountered seemed to be looking for was also a musician and we thought he garnered at least as much attention if not more than Jim Morrison: Frederic Chopin. People were having their pictures taken in front of his headstone and the entire area was filled with freshly cut flowers too. Remarkable.

As the cemetery readied to close we strolled back to the metro stop and took the next train to Notre Dame. We strolled in the Latin Quarter and quickly appreciated why the better guidebooks recommend not staying in the area. One example will suffice: we were strolling down a tiny sidestreet not far from the Seine, choked with tourists – at least they all looked like us rather dazed and slightly clueless, and lined with Greek food shops which sported middle-aged men standing out front hawking their menus in loud voices, sort of like the “girlie” show hawkers at the old county fair carnivals in the American Midwest. Nothing looked attractive in the least, neither the people nor the menus so we scuttled off and headed toward St. Germain a short distance by foot but light-years away in virtually every other respect.

We found a nice outdoor café, sat and had an aperitif. From there we walked 10 minutes or so over to rue Dauphine which runs into the Pont Neuf at the Seine, and found the Indian restaurant we had eaten at 8 years ago, Yugaraj. We stepped inside – and immediately commented on how small it seemed now. Of course my memory had expanded the size considerably over the years. But the service was still terrific and the food outstanding, if a bit on the pricey side. (14 rue Dauphine; ph: 01 43 26 44 91, www.yugaraj.com.)

After dinner we walked over to the Odeon metro stop on St. Germain and headed back to the hotel.

Monday at Le Cordon Bleu

Monday we slept late. Our appointment at Le Cordon Bleu was at 3:00 pm so we thought we would just relax and spend our time exploring our neighborhood in the 15th arrondissement as well as nearby. (Paris is divided into 20 arrondissements or districts.)(photo: Luxembourg Gardens from the top of the tour Montparnasse.)

When we awoke it was a bit overcast but that soon burned off and the sun eventually peeked through off and on throughout the day. Since we had been underwhelmed by the breakfast at the hotel, we struck out on our own to find a nice café or bar to have a morning dolce and coffee. As I reported earlier the bar situation is handled a bit different than in Italy so we walked across the street to the boulangerie. Grabbed a couple of croissant armandes (with almonds) and ate them as we walked to a nearby café to get coffee. I must that so far we prefer the coffee we get in bars in Italy. Although the French use Italian machines and Italian coffee it is an odd phenomenon that the coffee in Italy tastes richer whereas the coffee in Paris seemed just, well, stronger, more bitter.

After coffee we stopped a supermarche on rue de Vaugirard and picked up some fresh fruit and a six-pack of bottled water and dropped them off back at the hotel. From there we walked over to the nearby Gare Montparnasse, one of Paris’ major train stations as well as metro hubs. It is, as the Rough Guide notes, a hodgepodge of concrete and glass on several somewhat confusing levels. At the lowest level you can the high-speed “travelator” (that’s what the Rough Guide calls these things; we know them as a moving walkway), connecting passengers between metro lines 4 and 12 and which moves at about 9 kph, or roughly three times the normal speed of a travelator. We actually rode it and it does clip along but rally didn’t seem all that dangerous.
We walked out of the Gare Montparnasse and found ourselves at the base of the Tour Montparnasse.

This “skyscraper” is certainly one of the most boring structures in Paris – or probably anywhere else for that matter – but the great thing is the view from the top. A high-speed express elevator takes you right to the 56th floor where there is a comfortable lounge, lots of really great old photos of Paris with excellent signage, cool interactive displays of the surrounding panoramas, a really handy little video presentation which is constantly running and of course stunning views which can be enjoyed while sipping a glass of wine. You can also walk up several flights of stairs to the roof for a truly spectacular view of the city. And unlike the Eiffel there are no lines, it costs less money and the view is better: it’s got the Eiffel in it of course! (Daily, 9:30am-11:30pm, admission.)

After we left the tour we strolled up rue Edgar Quinet to Montparnasse cemetery, one of three cemeteries we were to stop at during our stay in Paris.

Stopping at the entrance we picked up a handy cemetery guide which lists the famous and near-famous buried here and how to find them (or their resting place at least).
Here you can find the poet Beaudelaire, the writer Simone de Beauvoir and her lover, the philosopher Jean Paul Sartre, the political martyr Albert Dreyfus (although we couldn’t find him), the photographer and painter Man Ray, the inventor Charles Pigeon (reading to his wife in bed), the historian Edgar Quinet (after whom the nearby rue Edgar Quinet is named), the flutist Jean Pierre Rampal and the composer Saint Saens.(photo: Charles Pigeon and his wife.)

Some of the streets were lined with flowering trees and were absolutely stunning as we walked through the cemetery and of course there were plenty of fresh flowers on many a grave.

One of the interesting things about French cemeteries is the similarity between the ones would see in Paris and the cemeteries in New Orleans, Louisiana – although in fact many of the remains here are below ground, it is the presence of the sometimes very tiny chapel-like structure built directly over a single grave which makes for a very dramatic image. Some of these little “chapelettes” appeared neglected, abandoned with their doors ajar or missing, and peaking inside you can see the final vestiges of a life or an entire family, decaying, broken, shattered glass, rusted metal, everything quietly decaying away. Others are surrounded by fresh flowers or blooming shrubs recently watered, carefully maintained resting places, perhaps freshly painted, metal shining, a clear indication that not only does the family still live but that it remembers too. (photo: from Montmartre cemetery.)

After our grand stroll through the cemetery we returned to our hotel room to pick up Susan’s paperwork, mainly her application for the Diplome de Patisserie program, which we will drop off at the end our meeting with one of the school advisors.

Le Cordon Bleu was only a 10-minute walk down rue de Vaugirard, actually off on a quiet side street, and we arrived a few minutes early for our meeting with Sonia Castro from the admission office. After a few minutes waiting in the student lounge area Sonia popped in. She gave us an introduction to the school, talked about Susan’s situation and the program she was interested in, answered several questions and then the three of us were off to tour the school.

The school is small but well-designed and efficiently laid out or so it seemed to us. Each of the several floors has a demonstration room which is rather like an anatomy classroom with sloping floors leading up to the student desks, flanked by widescreen TVs on either side and at the front where the cooking demonstrations are performed a mirror on the ceiling so that students can also watch just like in a TV studio. The students follow each 3-hour demonstration with their recipes in hand, taking notes, followed by everyone moving to the practical rooms, the cooking areas in other words, where they try out the recently demonstrated recipe. We thought it seemed like a well-structured and well-thought-out approach to learning how to cook (or rather bake in this case).

After our tour we met with school advisor Christel Hernandez. We talked a bit more about the program and asked a few more questions. Susan submitted her application and we were informed that a decision would be made by the end of the week. Susan would receive an email informing her of the school’s decision. If accepted she would receive an admission proposal which would have to be signed, and returned to the school with payment. Now all we have to do is wait. And enjoy Paris. (photo: superior pastry class working with spun sugar sculptures.)

From Le Cordon Bleu we returned to the hotel, dropped off the school materials and grabbed a couple of apples and some water and headed for the metro across the street. We returned to the Montparnasse cemetery and spent some time not finding famous people but it was a nice place to stroll. We decided enough was enough and left the cemetery walking out onto rue Quinet, turning left heading back toward the metro. We found a nice little café nearby where we could sit outside, had some wine and a bite (or two) of lunch. It was quiet and we enjoyed the time thinking and talking about what the future may hold for the two of us.

After lounging for some time we paid our bill, got up and walked to the metro. We got off at the Pasteur stop and then walked down rue de Vaugirard to the hotel. We relaxed in the room for a short while but thought, hey we’re in Paris let’s go for a walk – which quickly turned into a metro ride back to Notre Dame. We strolled along the Seine down to the National Assembly and took the metro back to the hotel. By this time we were both ready for dinner and it was Lebanese food again (we simply can’t get this in Florence after all) so naturally it was back to Al Wady. After all, it was close and the food was great.

Monday, May 22, 2006

Sunday in Paris

It was a beautiful Sunday morning in Paris when we awoke. We got up, showered and since we were feeling a bit lazy we thought we would just head downstairs to the hotel “basement” for breakfast. Now as some know breakfast in your hotel can be a risky venture and over the years we have developed a sort of sixth and a half sense about these things – a skill that unfortunately deserted us that morning. The plate of bread items (croissant, baguette etc) was OK but the coffee pretty atrocious and the juice squeezed out of something orange but not necessarily fruit-oriented.

(A word about breakfast in Paris. Unlike Italy where many bars will serv e a large assortment of morning pastries, our brief experience in Paris was that most bars serve very little in the way of morning sweets: at best a simple plain croissant and maybe a slice of baguette with butter might be available on the counter. For pastries one needs to go to a boulangerie. The problem is that many of the boulangerie don’t serve coffee; they serve bread and pastries only, rather like the pasticcerie or the panificio or fornaio in Italy. On Tuesday we would discover a remarkable exception to this rule, Coquelicot, located in the funky, cool part of Paris known as Montmarte.)

It was a gorgeous morning and with the tiny glitch of a tepid breakfast behind us we left the hotel and found ourselves standing on the curb at the corner of rue des Volontaires and rue de Vaugirard wandering what to do.

What would you do on a Sunday in Paris?

We decided to head toward Notre Dame – why I really don’t know. Although we had a handful of Metro tickets we walked up the rue de Vaugirard. I read somewhere that Vaugirard is the longest street in Paris and I think we pretty much walked the length of it. But it was worth every step because somewhere along our path we came upon what appeared to be a small garden and thought we might just stroll through it.

As it turned out this was the fabulous Luxembourg Gardens (Jardin du Luxembourg), a huge green space filled with flowers in bloom, sculptures of all types for every imagination as well as sculptured trees), cool fountains (my favorite is the Medici fountain with the face popping up out of the water), stunning views of the Pantheon and the Observatoire, all serving as a superb backdrop for people sitting and reading or watching other people, relaxing (doing what appeared to be tai chi maybe), sunning, talking, playing boules, and one group working on their swordplay (really), families, couples of every age seemed to be everywhere, what a grand spectacle this was. And imagine this happens probably every Sunday! This we thought was truly civilized behavior.

From the gardens we continued wending our way to the Seine and soon found ourselves standing along with hundreds (maybe thousands?) of others at the doorway to Notre Dame (Mon-Fri, 8:00-7:00, Sat, 8:00-12:30 and 2:00-7:00, free). We went in just as mass had just started so we just stopped to one side of the nave and listened to some sweet music for a few minutes before shuffling out. Oh and keep an eye out for a bronze star on the pavement in front of the west door of the cathedral. This is known as kiloemtre zero, the spot from which all main road distances in France are calculated.

Notre Dame is on the tiny Isle de Cite, in the middle of the Seine, the birthplace of the city. We strolled from one side of the island to the other, passing a small little flower market set up for Sunday traffic, and back again to Notre Dame. Almost in the street, at the far western end of the small square in front of the cathedral is a small set of stairs leading down toward the crypte archeologiqeu (Tues-Sun, 10:00-6:00, admission). This is one cool exhibition. Here you can go beneath the plaza above you and see some of the excavated remnants of the original Paris. There is actually much to see and digest in the cool darkness of the crypte; the exhibition is well put together with great lighting and lots of multi-lingual signage for those like us who are French-challenged. Plus there were few tourists down there even on a Sunday.

After climbing up out of the crypte we walked to the eastern end of Notre Dame, skirting their small garden on one side and the Seine on the other. There we found the haunting and disturbing La Memorial de la Deportation (daily 10:00-12:00 and 2:00-5:00, free). Since it was closed for lunch we thought we too might have something to eat ourselves so we crossed to the left bank of the Seine (the left bank being essentially the south side of the river) and sat outside at the wonderful little Café Leffe where we had a delicious lunch. (The café is located just across from Notre Dame and the Petit Pont, almost on Quai de Montbello, at 41 rue de la Boucherie, 75005, www.cafeleffe-notredame.com).

After lunch we crossed the Pont Au Double back on to the tiny island and headed fro the Deportation Memorial. We had been here some years ago when we were in Paris the last time and were just awed by the place, for this is unlike anything else you might see in the city. You walk down a narrow flight of steeps and find yourself in a small courtyard where the walls and pavement is all made from the same rock and stone. One then enters the crypte through a narrow defile and is faced with a stark reminder of this very dark part of French history: in front of you, enmeshed in black walls, black floor and black ceiling, are some 200,00 points of light representing the 200,00 French men, women and children who died in Nazi concentration camps. (Near the Bir Hakeim metro stop, close to the Eiffel tower, is a memorial to the more than 32,000 Parisian Jews who were herded into the cycle racetrack which was once located there before being deported to concentration camps. Virtually none of them survived.)

So if you ache for historical understanding by all means before you see anything else in Paris head for the Isle de Cite. What better way to begin your trip, your tour, and your experience of Paris, than to start at the city’s creation? It just might help you get put everything else you will see in perspective.

From the Memorial we walked toward the other tiny island, Isle St. Louis, which is primarily residential today, drawn by the unmistakable sounds of a jazz quartet. Sure enough on the small footbridge connection the two islands four guys were just finishing up a set playing some serious jazz for anyone who would listen and maybe buy one of their CDs. We stopped and took in the great music until they wrapped up and then we too headed off across to the right (“north”) side of the river. Our objective was the Arc de Triomphe.

We crossed over to the Hotel Ville, the city hall, whre they had a display of "star" art scattered around in front of the entrance. Much like the world-famouse "cow" art these were stars and some were actually quite imaginative.

We strolled along the river until we came to the Louvre and then cut into the courtyard of the museum, passing the no-longer-controversial glass pyramids, and continued toward the Tuileries Gardens. It was such a grand day to be there and it we felt especially fortunate to spend our first day in Paris on a Sunday, truly the way to begin any tour of the city. Everyone is out, many if not most shops and business are closed and the city is truly alive with just enjoying itself, or so it seemed.

We walked through the Tuileries, passing numerous people relaxing amidst the imaginative sculptures, coming to the fountain where children were racing their toy sailboats – not always successfully I might add. Many of the kids seemed to be relying on the skills of their parents to retrieve a boat, skills not always available to ever the most dedicated parent it would seem since many of the boats languished in the middle of the fountain until the wind caught them and would then send them careening to the opposite side form where the parent and child happened to be standing thus causing a frenetic run to that side just to see the boat caught by another gust of wind taking it in the opposite direction. Ah the sweet joys of youth.

We crossed from the Tuileries to the place de la Concord. Separating the Tuileries from the eastern end of the Champs-Elysees, and surrounded by a constant stream of traffic on all sides, the place de la Concorde is a tiny oasis, a unique window on history from ancient Egypt to revolutionary France. In the center of the place is a gold-tipped obelisk taken from the temple of Ramses at Luxor, Egypt. This marks the spot where the guillotine stood during the early years of the French revolution, and where some 1300 people were executed, among them the king Louis XVI, Marie Antoinette, and even many of the revolutionaries themselves such as Danton and Robespierre. Today it serves as mainly a perfect place to appreciate the grandeur of present-day Paris, with a sweeping vista covering the Louvre at one end to the Arc de Triomphe at the other.

This day in particular it served yet another purpose. As we crossed over to the island from the Tuileries we noticed large groups of people one clustered around each of the two bronze fountains flanking the obelisk. The closer we got to the center of the place the more readily apparent it became that there was a photo shoot of a wedding party taking. We finally caught sight of the bride and groom . . . and then another bride and groom and another and another and another and another, some 15 or more wedding couples, all Asian were having their photos taken on the place de la Concorde! Were they all related? Had there been some mass marriage ceremony held earlier somewhere in Paris? Were the weddings arranged? Did Sheila have Brad’s child after the crash impaired her vision and her father had the ingrown nail treatment? Did it matter? It was one of the coolest things we have ever seen – in fact as we thought on it when was the last time you saw more than one bride and groom together at a wedding let alone 15!?

From the place de la Concorde we strolled up the champ Eysees, pas the enormous Grand Palais and it’s tiny sister, the Petit Palais. We soon struck the main shopping district along the Champs-Elysees and as we neared the Arc de Triomphe noticed a group of rollerbladers being escorted down the boulevard, heading west, and the longer we watched the more rollerbladers there were, hundreds maybe several thousands, rather like runners in a marathon? It was the largest number of rollerbladers either one of us had ever seen in one place. I n fact I would go so far as to say that there were more rollerbladers in that pack than I have seen in my entire life! Amazing.

As the last of the rollerbladers headed west we continued walking east toward the place Charles-de-Gaulle, also known as the place de l’Etoile (etoile meaning star) and the overpowering, overwhelming, enormous Arc de Triomphe (daily April-Sept, 9:30am-11:00pm and Oct-Mar, 10:00am-10:30pm; admission).

As we approached the end of the Champs-Elysees, standing in the shadow of the Arc, we found ourselves in them midst of a large group of flag-carrying, elderly ladies and gentlemen, with many of the men wearing little garrison caps (as we called them in the Marines) similar to the caps worn by the American Legionnaires in the United States. They were all milling around chatting amongst themselves – swapping war stories one assumes or talking about their grandchildren -- and we wondered if we had just missed some ceremony or another. I took a number of photos and a few minutes later we walked down the stairs into the underground passage that leads beneath the traffic to the place and the entrance to the Arc. We had been to the top of the Arc in 1998 – outstanding views I might add -- and decided we didn’t need to climb there today so we exited onto the small place.

When we came out into the sun we soon discovered that something was afoot at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier located directly beneath the Arc itself. And sure enough after some time waiting by a barricade soldiers began forming, the band marched in and soon afterwards the parade of veterans with all their flags flying, the same veterans we had seen gathering on the Champs-Elysees just a half or so earlier.

After the veterans had entered the space beneath the Arc, forming around the tomb, a few words were said, the band played and the ceremony was over. We wondered why the procession on this particular Sunday and speculated that it was the first Sunday after the actual day the war ended in Europe, May 8 I believe. But we really don’t know. The reason of course is unimportant I suppose. It was quite moving and pointed our thoughts straight at yet another slice of French history: the controversial role France played during the Second World War.

As the people drifted away from the Arc following the ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier so we looked for the nearest metro stop. We crossed back toward the Champs-Elysees and found an entrance to the metro. We hopped on the no. 6 line (light green) and got off at the Bir Hakeim station, the closed stop to the Eiffel tower. We strolled over to the tour Eiffel, walked beneath the four piliers and as you look upward from directly beneath what was at one time the world’s tallest building, we couldn’t help but be amazed at this thing. Somewhere we read that the tower, built originally for the Paris Exposition of 1889, it was designed as just a temporary structure but it eventually became what it is today, the singular icon which represents Paris. To me I find it the epitome of what we see over and over again in Paris: an industrial object shaped with an artist’s eye for form and aesthetics. Incredible.

We left the tour and strolled through the Champs de Mars (the “martial fields). This area has always been open fields even since they were first used for training of royal troops. According to the Rough Guide, after 1789 these fields became the venue for revolutionary festivals, and by the late 19th century were the place of choice for industrial expositions, thus explaining why the Eiffel tour is presently located there. At the southern end of the fields, facing the tour is the Ecole Militaire, which was founded in 1751 to train military officers.

On our way around the ecole and heading toward our hotel we passed the very unattractive UNESCO headquarters. You know the kind of architecture I’m talking about here, built out of reinforced concrete like a military bunker and designed by someone whose work was so bad it had been rejected by the Bulgarians and East Germans in 1960s. One consolation is they have probably the world’s largest photo of the earth running alongside the fence wall of the building. It shows the earth in slices by latitudes I think, but the panels are huge. Now that is amazing. And free.

After we freshened up at the hotel we left about 8:30 and went on the search for dinner. As we exited the hotel we turned right – Al Wady’s restaurant was to the left on rue des Volontaires and this time we went the other direction up the street to the next block where we had a delicious Asian meal at La Maison du Bonheur (33 rues des Volontaires). At the end of the meal the waiter brought us two tiny cups, and poured a little sake into each. After a moment or two Susan said that she thought there was a picture at the bottom of the cup and sure enough there was – each cup had a very tiny, very graphically nude photo of a woman, a photo which could only be seen with liquid in the. Remove the liquid and it looked as if the was just a hazy marble embedded in the bottom of the cup. Risqué yes, but highly imaginative.

We concluded that some Parisians at least are quite clever indeed.

After leaving the restaurant we paused on the sidewalk while we savored the evening air. As we looked down the street toward our hotel we could see the top third of the Eiffel tour all lit up, something we had seen before with one significant difference: thousands of strobe lights were blinking all at random, giving the impression of champagne just poured into glass, sparkling, effervescent and full of promise.

Who would have ever thought we would be here in Paris right now, thinking about moving here? Not in our wildest dreams.

Sunday, May 21, 2006

Some final thoughts about Apicius

OK. Let’s talk about pastry, baking and Apicius, the Culinary Institute of Florence.

Suffice it to say that taking the baking and pastry program at Apicius was eminently worthwhile for Susan, and that it will prove a vital stepping stone to the next level in her search for the “perfect” pastry program. But we would caution anyone contemplating coming to Apicius for their “year-long” baking and pastry program to think carefully before making any commitment.

The good stuff first.

The school possesses sophisticated and modern, up-to-date facilities and a large office and administrative staff who always proved helpful and friendly.

Equally, if not more importantly, the school also arranges for some of the best local chefs and bakers and restaurateurs to serve as instructors for their variety of baking and pastry course, instructors who certainly play a vital role in how the school is perceived. In fact if there is one thing that Susan found most appealing during her time at Apicius it was the quality of such instructors, the things they know and were willing to share; men of such caliber and talent as Michele (baking techniques) and Andrea (chocolate), Simone (pastries), Fabrizio (breads). Without such talent the program would have been in a word, nothing, “niente”.

One of the fundamental problems Susan encountered, at least in the school’s beginning level pastry and baking program, was the lack of commitment on the part of a large number of the college-age students. Certainly the instructors were by and large serious and most were eager to see the students learn and practice what they learned.

Also in general the classes were pretty “laid back” without much structure. Some instructors would have the class work on two or three recipes simultaneously, requiring group or teamwork, thus prohibiting each student from being able to prepare and complete an entire receipt from start to finish. In other words, not everyone could be involved in every step of the preparation, thus seriously limiting the “hands on” part of the experience. It would seem more valuable to have a demonstration followed by application.

But the reality is simply that many of the college students could really care less. Some students of course take their studies seriously even if they have no intention of working in that particular field, and of course there were two or three other students in the program which Susan met and enjoyed working with since they too shared a deep interest in what they were doing. But the fact is folks the majority of these college students at Apicius were/are not here to learn to cook, or to become pastry chefs or anything of the sort. Whether it’s the summer abroad or a semester abroad it doesn’t matter. Many of these kids just aren’t serious about baking.

Nor can one blame them frankly. They aren’t here to learn a trade or a set of skills in order to enter a chosen niche in a specific part of the job market. They already have their jobs set up for them: they’re college students first and last. Period.

Of course this begs the wider question, one that I am certainly not qualified to answer (but when has that stopped me before), the question of what is in fact going on with all these universities and their “pseudo-programs” here in Florence. For example, as Susan related it to me time and again, many of the students on her courses left every single weekend to travel; not to travel locally or to see parts of Italy. Few did that or did it only infrequently. Rather they were going to Spain, to the UK, to Holland, to Germany, to Switzerland and on and on and on.

But hey that’s not my business. I say more power to them. They’re here to enjoy themselves and many see it as their moment in the sun (literally in some cases). No I don’t fault the kids, because that’s what they are, “kids”. One can see every day that the majority of these kids spend their time together, just like they would at home, very few learn little if any of the language and much of anything at all about this place which is really their home for some months.

One other point should be made about the school and that is their disorganization and uncertainty in going about the business of being a school. Now much of this is probably inherent in the Italian way of life, a consequence of having to contend with a nightmarish bureaucracy 24/7.

But two examples will illustrate this particular problem.

The first example is fairly trivial but set a tone that was indicative of how the school ran its organization. During orientation it was absolute chaos in handing out materials, no one knew what was happening or how it had to happen – students were informed they had to go across the street to Mail Boxes Etc to pick up the Xeroxed student handbooks, one for each pastry course with the recipes etc. Yet upon going there the staff knew nothing about any handouts!

Far more serious however, and one which goes to the very heart of our main problem with the school is the misleading nature of the school’s program.

If you go to the website for Apicius and click through to the course programs and schedules you will find the advanced baking and pastry program clearly identified for the fall of 2006, even listing the names of the instructors (the one course which lists the instructor as TBA is the language course which is taken through the school Linguaviva).

Now when Susan first enrolled in the program she asked about whether she could do the advanced program in the summer, as an intensive study course. “Yes”, she was told that might be possible, if there are enough students.

By mid-April it was clear, after much pestering of the school for clarification that the summer intensive was not going to happen. OK, so now we wondered if we will have to cool our heels in Florence for the summer.

But then, we started to get the feeling that it might not happen in the fall either. The more we investigated the matter the less certain we were that it might happen even in the fall. And yet they list it in every term’s course offerings.

Now in the fine print the school does say that at least eight students are necessary for the program to run – although one advisor at the school told Susan that if there were four students the course would go forward. But were there four students? “Ummm, no.” “Maybe.” “We don’t know.”

So the course will not be held?

Well, if enough students sign up yes.

No matter whom she asked about the status of the advanced course the answer was always the same: “we don’t know”, “maybe”, “perhaps”, “it’s uncertain”, “we’re waiting for the 4th student,” etc.

Finally, it should also be pointed out that no certificate is awarded without completing the entire program, and understandably so since she didn’t finish the entire program. Yet if the second, advanced portion of the program isn’t offered then in fact how can one “finish” the program to get the certificate, the credential, the documentation? Selling the program as a yearlong, integrated, certified course of study under such circumstances is, it seems to us, open to some question.

Indeed, the end of the term came and went and not one word from the school. Not a phone call. Not an email not a text message. Nothing telling Susan what the status of the fall program was or what she should do. Not a word.

Susan committed herself, her money, her intellect and most importantly her time to becoming a pastry chef by attending Apicius, a school that looked much better on paper (and online) than it really is. That commitment on her part was not matched by the school’s commitment to her.

So if you are thinking of coming to Apicius to study baking and pastry, fine. Know what you’re in for and be prepared accordingly.

In our case we learned the hard way. The school’s failure to commit to her and yet requiring her to commit money and time, two very precious commodities, have forced us to look elsewhere.

The good news is Susan has just been accepted into the Patisserie Diploma program at Le Cordon Bleu in Paris beginning in August.

Off to Paris, the early part

On Saturday, May 13 Susan and I strolled over to the Santa Maria Novella train station in Florence, got our ticket for Pisa airport out of one of the self-service machines – we have yet to stand in line for a ticket agent – and boarded our train for Pisa Centrale. After changing trains in Pisa’s main train station we rode the 1 or 2 kms, all of about 3 minutes, to the airport where we arrived with plenty of time to spare so we grabbed a bit of lunch. (photo: the whatchamacalit tower from Montmartre.)

Like other discount airlines, Easyjet opened its check-in counters two hours before flight time and we were there ready and waiting. Since there are no assigned seats the earlier you check in the better you chances are of sitting together. In Ryanair for example, they put everyone in one of two groups which makes for somewhat chaotic and confusing boarding whereas Easyjet places passengers in one of five groups, PB and A-D, and the boarding tends to be a bit more orderly, although it amazes me still how many people act like deer caught in the headlights as they wander around in a daze trying to understand just what is going on. Anyway, we were in group A.

After checking in we headed to security and – hold onto your unassigned seat – there was absolutely not one person in any of the lines! Man was this a first or what, and frankly seemed a good omen about the trip to come. (Indeed it was.) We waltzed through security like a breeze.

Before long it came time to board our flight so we headed out to the tarmac – no jetways in Pisa. But now here’s another nice thing, being able to board either at the front or the rear of the plane. Maybe it’s old fashion but it certainly does expedite things. Again, reduces the tension and general chaos of getting on and off an airplane.

Two more good signs for our trip to Paris: a flawless takeover and, get this, a landing without a bump, without a lurch, nothing, one minute you were up and then, quietly, almost without realizing it, you were, well, down. And even more importantly we were down in Paris. OK so it was Orly airport and not actually Paris but it was pretty close.

Anyway, we landed at Orly airport about 15 kms south of the city. (Being a discount airline Easyjet tends to fly in and out of second tier airports.) it was the first time we had been through this airport and it was pretty impressive. Of course this is also where Charles Lindbergh landed in his tiny Spirit of St. Louis so I felt we were already experiencing a bit of history without even leaving the airport. This must surely be another good sign of things to come. (I mean the Etruscans were known throughout the Mediterranean world for their ability to “read signs”, to read entrails, that sort of thing. And we had just left one of the city-states of ancient Etruria, no not Florence or Pisa, but Fiesole, which is outside of Florence and sort of counts. Anyway, I stop short of anything remotely connected with entrails.)

After we retrieved our bag we headed for the Orlybus to get us into the city.

The Orlywhat?

There are several ways to get from Orly airport into Paris proper. One is to take a taxi (€35 and up), or you can take the Orylval which is part of the rail link to the metro, or you can do what we did and take the Orlybus, which is a direct non-stop bus from the airport to the Metro stop at Place Denfert Rochereau. So we bought our tickets for the bus and after an easy drive of about 25 minutes were at Denfert Rochereau (the entrance to the Paris catacombs is nearby). We grabbed our bag and headed inside the metro station where purchased our metro tickets from one of the self-service machines and took the no. 6 line (light green) for the Pasteur stop where we switched to the no. 12 (dark green line) to the Vaugirard stop. (By the way, the Pasteur stop on the Metro is named for Louis Pasteur of course but also because it is the stop closed to the Pasteur Research Institute.)

Before we go any further I want to say a word about the Paris transportation system. It is outstanding, clean, cool, easy to use, inexpensive (we used it probably 15 times for a total cost of maybe €30) and pretty much goes everywhere. The metro tickets cover not just belowground transportation but buses as well. They have handy maps which you can carry with you, even a mini map size which easily fits just about anywhere, and of course maps are posted clearly at every bus stop and outside and inside of every metro station. And purchasing tickets couldn’t be easier: use the ubiquitous self-service machines (rather like playing a video game) or buy at the ticket agent. In any case, you can save even more money by buying a book of ten tickets and of course there are various multi-day cards you can purchase as well which will give you unlimited transportation in the central zones of Paris as well ad discounts on some admissions fees to museums, etc. Check your favorite guidebook for details.

And while I’m talking about how user-friendly Paris is, they have plenty of free public toilets (“toilettes”) scattered throughout the city. They are very easy to use, although they may not live up to your expectations of the perfectly clean bathroom; they nevertheless serve a vital purpose. In any case, don’t look a gift commode in the bowl.

Now back to our story.

So using the Metro, even for clueless folks like us, was pretty easy – the only hassle was schlepping the bag up and down the numerous steps, escalators and lifts being rare indeed. So we got off at the rue Vaugirard metro stop – we weren’t sure exactly where on rue Vaugirard our hotel was located but we knew it wasn’t too far from Le Cordon Bleu, which was located between the Vaugirard and Convention stops. So we climbed up and out of metro on Vaugirard and by checking street numbers saw that we had gone a bit far so we headed up the street and in a few minutes were at the Hotel Yllen Eiffel(after passing it once I might add).

We checked in and dropped our bags off in the small, oddly furnished room – but what a great bathroom, which was nearly the same size as the sleeping area. (The furniture looked rather like the stuff you might see sitting alongside a residential street somewhere with a sign that says “Free”, you know the type, usable but really used. The desk was rather like a child’s furniture kit that had been put together using different types of wood which had been laying around and didn’t quite match but yet somehow worked together in a strange way.)

After we left the room we inquired at the desk about nearby restaurants (a nagging fear was that we wouldn’t be able to find any decent food in Paris) and since we had indicated an interest in something exotic (which would be just about anything) the clerk suggested we walk a few doors up the street was a Lebanese restaurant, Al Wady. So that’s what we did.

Although it was nearing 9 pm we were the only ones in the restaurant. (Parisians we were informed that evening eat fashionably late.) A lovely young woman asked us if we preferred smoking or non-smoking – and naturally we opted for the latter in hopes it might really make a difference, this being Paris, home of the Perennial Smoker’s Cough. (Curiously, many people still smoke here – although our dining experiences were rarely interrupted by smoke – in fact a number of places were indeed smoke free as we would soon find out.)

We commenced to have an outstanding meal: our hostess, who also did all the serving, making the drinks, the coffee, etc., suggested we try the menu of the day which was a collection of tasty Lebanese dishes, many of which involved pureed chickpeas or yogurt, and all of which were delicious. She also suggested a lively Lebanese red wine to accompany our collection of little dishes (sort of like Spanish tapas).

By the time we finished the place had filled a bit, although most of the other diners were at the rear of the restaurant, around the corner from our booth, where presumably was the smoking area. Anyway, a couple had been sitting next to us for much of the meal. And at the end of their meal the woman leaned over and asked in heavily accented but very sweet English if we would mind if she smoked one cigarette. We said no of course we wouldn’t mind. Now I don’t know about you but I can’t remember the last time anyone, anywhere asked if they could smoke. It was so, oh what’s the word, courteous. That’s it. Courteous and respectful. This could only be yet another good sign.

A perfect ending to a perfect day we thought. It was definitely time for bed.

Wish you were here (or there),


Friday, May 12, 2006

Closure of sorts

Before I become involved in anything else I just want to let you all know that by this time next week we should have really, really big news to send your way. I just wanted to say that and get it out of the way now. In case you decided this whole thing is just way too long and you really do need to find something better to do with your spare time than read about two people who are adrift on the sea of life, in the boat of insecurity, wearing the lifejackets of uncertainty and looking for the . . . .OK OK enough with the metaphors, let’s get on to the update.(photo Boboli sort-of-gardens.)

Another beautiful morning greeted us here in Florence on Friday.

After our first morning coffee – finished over reading emails and chatting about our future – I walked across the street to the OK bar for a treat of some of their dolci: sfoglia with crème and another with apple, strudel with apple and a puff pastry with chantilly crème (half pastry crème half whipped crème) and of course I had to make another pot of Lavazza coffee. So even though we got up early – which has been pretty much the rule lately -- our morning sort of got away from us.

I then made a quick run to the Internet Train to do a software update on the computer. I also wanted to check my “podcasts” – online downloadable audio programs, many of which are radio programs – particularly since I have now put three shows of my own online. I’m waiting to hear from a couple of testers whether they are functioning properly since for some reason I have been unable lately to update any of podcast subscriptions.

While this sounds uncomfortably too technical believe me if you haven’t yet used your computer’s software to check these podcasts out, try it. It’s addictive. You can listen to any number of NPR programs online, The Onion humor radio program, Rick Steves’ travel and scores of music shows.

I stopped at our rental agent’s office – which as you may recall is just around the corner – and picked up our newspaper, the International Herald Tribune. We started a subscription last March and haven’t regretted a minute of it. We still read the local papers but when it comes to truly great reportage and reliable information the IHT is our primary source. Most newspapers here are either dry as a bone and go on and on to seemingly no end or they are primarily tabloid in nature. And you cannot rely on TV here since apparently the same people who used to work for public access channel stations in the US produce the news shows here in Italy. Very sloppy, sophomoric, lacking in any depth of substance, this is surprising for Italy, devoid of any real attempt at a sophisticated appearance. Which is odd, given that this is a culture that eats and breathes form, a society that coined the very idea of the “bella figura”. Even Italians will admit they have some of the worst TV programming anywhere in the western world.

So I picked up the paper, stopped off at the Snack Bar just down the street from our apartment and picked up a large slab of schiacciate, a delicious flatbread similar to foccacia but a bit thinner that has become one of our staples, one of our vital daily foodstuffs here in Florence. And with a local pecorino cheese it makes for a delicious lunch. (Pecorino is sheep’s milk cheese, and we like a particular fresca (fresh) pecorino from San Casciano just outside of Florence in the Chianti.)

I returned to the apartment where Susan had finished up the weekly cleaning chores and shortly after I returned she headed out for her morning walk around the city.

The week has been pretty nice, notwithstanding some rain early on and a thunderstorm or two, and it closed out in a most interesting and, for us, fascinating way.

Susan finished her practical finals Thursday, and officially the beginning baking and pastry program at Apicius was over. But Thursday’s test and class work proved to be an odd ending for her, or so she related to me after she returned home.

Why odd? Well you’ll have to wait for the next update for our closing thoughts about Apicius – as well as a few words of warning for anyone thinking about going there. (photo Boboli sort-of-gardens.)

So late in the afternoon Thursday we headed off to the Paperback Exchange so Sue could use some of our used book credit there to pick out another book – she apparently eats these things like candy.

Anyway we left the Exchange and strolled over to Paszkowski’s for an aperitivo of prosecco and were shocked to discover that the price had gone up, almost overnight. Well, OK, not quite. It had been maybe a week or so since we had last stopped by our favorite prosecco hangout on the Piazza della Repubblica. But still. . . . When I asked the cashier about the cost increase she told me that it was now high season and so the prices were upticked accordingly. Hmmmm. Maybe we’ll look elsewhere. The antipasti isn’t THAT good frankly.

But hey it was a beautiful early evening so after finishing our wine we headed off across the piazza to one of the photo booths on a small side street around the corner from the piazza so Susan could get several passport photos taken. Now you might be thinking, “Why does she need passport-size pictures?” Good question. And one which will be answered, we hope, in due time.

After the photo session we walked across Piazza Signoria, through the dwindling tourist crowds, past the Palazzo Vecchio and down Via dei Neri to McRae Books, the other English language bookstore in Florence. A few days back we had stopped by there and caught sight of a notice that Isabella Dusi, the author of Vanilla Beans and Brodo and Bel Vino, would be in the shop talking about her books and that there would also be a tasting of Brunello di Montalcino as further incentive, since one of her books, Bel Vino, is really about that spectacular Italian red wine and the people who produce it. Originally from Australia, Isabella and her husband Luigi, moved to Montalcino some 12 years ago and she started collecting stories about the people who live in that wonderful Tuscan hill town (some 2000 people inside the walls we were told) and eventually produced a set of stories about the people, a book called Vanilla Beans and Brodo.

Isabella came to realize that since she arrive din Montalcino, in the last decade or so, this sleepy, out-of-the-way corner of Tuscany had become one of the world’s most important vinicultural areas in the world, one today produces one of the Italy’s greatest red wines. Naturally she had to tell that story, which was really the story of the people who grow the grapes and make the wine, and the result is Bel Vino.

Susan and I sat in a small, cozy, upstairs room at McRae Books, with about a half dozen other people, sipping Brunello as Isabella walked us through the wine, and then through her story and coming fully circle to the story of Montalcino and it’s “wine people”. Montalcino being a sworn enemy of the Florentines and a close ally of Siena over the centuries almost made me ashamed to say that we packed up and moved ourselves here to Sin City. But we had a grand time and the evening flew by – as did the number of glasses of wine, which was poured liberally to all who could hold out an empty glass. It was great fun.

At the end of her talk Isabella got up to sign some books for a few folks, and the young woman next to us, looked over at Susan and said she was sure she’d seen her somewhere before. Neither Susan nor I recognized her. But she said, hmm, I know I’ve seen you somewhere. Susan mentioned that she had just finished the pastry program at Apicius and it turns out that this lovely young woman, who introduced herself as Melinda, and her husband were renting an apartment from Simone, one of Susan’s favorite instructors at Apicius! They regularly visit his restaurant (in the “Oltrarno”, the south side of the Arno) and we said yeah we have been meaning to get there for dinner soon. So we chatted, swapping a variety of stories and ended up swapping email addresses. We caught up with Melinda this morning online and arranged to meet her and her husband at Simone’s restaurant next week! I’ve only met Simone once but look forward to not just the food but getting a more detailed image of just who this fascinating person is, exactly. Should be a blast.

A snappy ending to an odd beginning. Rather like life right now.

Wish you were here,


Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Thunderstorms and Sun

It’s been pretty much overcast here all day (Tuesday) until the lightning and thunder started a few minutes ago (it’s 3:37). But hey its been raining pretty much for the last couple of days. Last night we had quite a thunderstorm that woke us up –but not enough to keep us up.(photo: Reto on the Piazza Santa Croce.)

In fact all last week was pretty quiet. Susan took the written portion of her final exams last week and this week is the practical portion (can you imagine having to bake pastries for your final exam?) and then the term is over – at least this phase at any rate.

We have no idea what will happen next.

Originally Sue had hoped to do the advanced portion of the program as an intensive summer course but the school axed that last month.

Moreover, the school has been vague about whether the advanced baking session will happen even in the fall. But you wouldn’t get that impression if you were to go to their website – the fall schedule for the advanced session is right there in black and white (pixels). Of course in the fine print you can find the caveat that there must be a minimum number of students for the course to be offered but that is a bit misleading. The online calendar claims that the minimum number must be eight; Susan was told by school administrators it was only four and that if there were at least two students she could do the course as an independent study with a reduced number of class hours (of course since there would be far fewer contact class hours). And yet there is no guarantee that she will even be offered this so-called independent study.

Today (Tuesday) she was told they were waiting to hear from the 5th (!) student who has expressed “interest” in the advanced program for the fall session. Whoa! Confusion, uncertainty, ambiguity, rather the watchwords here it seems.

Susan has always wanted a comprehensive, serious pastry program in Italy – but we are coming to find out that such programs are rare indeed. What do exist for the professional or the professionally minded baker are usually of the short, intensive course variety, say a 3-day long weekend in Venice learning how to carve ice, for example, or how to decorate cakes. Very specific and very short, and not what Susan had in mind at all.

What happens next is still unknown. Rather like life I would say – not that such philosophizing helps when it comes to making a decision about where to live or what to do with the rest of your life. It is a bracing challenge indeed, for us at any rate, and we sometimes envy those people who simply decide, and then move on to the next stage. We too are learning, though, and hope to find our way soon.

In the meantime we eat good food, drink the wine and savor being alive, healthy and by-and-large happy in Italy.

Indeed, we enjoyed this past weekend immensely.

Friday we stayed in Florence and met our friends Warren and Gladys for lunch; yes we went to the Golden View again. And yes the food was great as usual. We caught up on each other’s lives and shared stories about the past week. After a couple of hours we said arrivederci and parted company – they headed east for the bridge across the Arno and we headed west.

As we were strolling back to the apartment we were hit by the sudden realization that we had not had gelato for some time. We considered this epiphany a stroke of good luck since it would have been a shame to have gone all the way home just to realize that we had to go out again for gelato. But since we were still out on this wonderful afternoon stroll it was that much easier to off to the Gelateria dei Neri (on Via dei Neri).

And who should we run into entering the same shop – that’s right, Warren and Gladys! As we waited to order we talked about gelato, and after ordering stepped outside and stood around like everyone else, eating and talking gelato – my favorites have come to be riso as well as the various chocolates of course. In fact, this particular gelateria has a chocolate that is “senza latte”, that is without milk! It’s all chocolate and believe me you can taste it!

The next day I left Susan at the apartment while she did a few chores and walked over to the bus terminal across from the train station to meet our friend Reto who was coming up from Siena. We met Reto, who is Swiss, last year when we were all studying at Dante Alighieri language school in Siena, and have stayed in touch ever since. Anyway, a while back he emailed me to say that he was coming back for another four-week course in Siena and that he had never been to Florence and since I’m such a big know-it-all here would I show him around? Actually Reto is too kind to say that but he’s right – I wonder sometimes what do I really know about this place?

So I met his bus at about 10:30 and we headed off to meet up with Sue. Since he had not had his coffee or morning dolci I suggested we head toward our neighborhood and we would sit outside – it was a beautiful day – and have our breakfast (“prima collazione”) at the OK Bar, across the street from our apartment.

I called Sue and told her our plan. Reto and I then left the bus and train stations and headed up Via Nazionale. Since Reto is an avid photographer I thought he might like to see where the Alinari photographic studio and showroom is located – they have most of the 19th century photo collections of Florence, Siena and many other Tuscan towns. We then walked over to the Central Market where I showed him the butcher shops on the ground floor and the fruit and vegetable stalls on the first floor. I’m still impressed by this place (and in fact now have my favorite butcher and my favorite fruit and vegetable vendors).

We continued our stroll to meet Sue. Sure enough a few minutes later we ran into her as she was coming down Via degli Alfani and the three of us walked to the OK Bar. We ordered our coffee, picked out our morning dolci and then sat outside, taking in the fresh air and sunshine, securely placed under the awning out of the rising sun.

Although Reto’s English is quite good the three of us ended up speaking a curiously effective combination of English and Italian – although at point in the day I asked him about the word Doner (with the umlaut over the “o”) which I see on nearly every Turkish kebab joint in the city. I thought that because of the two dots over the “o” that it was a German word but he informed me that it was in fact a Turkish word! Man I just love this “learn something new every day” idea! I especially like when I have this idea fixed in my head – you know the thing seems so obvious – and then something or someone comes along and in a flash bursts the proverbial balloon – but what a shot of light that is!

So we left the OK bar and strolled over to Santa Croce. We paid our €5 entrance fee and walked inside. Much of the nave end of the church has massive scaffolding in place but you can still get to the other end of the church which, to Sue and I, is the most awesome: the final resting places for Machiavelli, Galileo and Michelangelo – oh and Marconi is somewhere there too. What conversations they must have after the tourists have left for the day.

We strolled out through the courtyard of Santa Croce, and like hundreds of others enjoyed the quiet (yes really) and of the small cloister. Amazing that one can find that much solitude surrounded by so many people.

From Santa Croce we headed to the Arno, and crossed the river at the Ponte alle Grazie. Our objective was Piazzale Michelangelo and the cemetery of Porte Sante and San Miniato church.

We walked along the Arno and left the river at the Piazza Demidoff, taking the back streets to the Porta San Miniato. We left the old walls behind and began the steep ascent up the street and then climbed up the even steeper steps toward the Piazzale. But we didn’t go all the way up since this time the little garden on our left was now open, so we walked in and were greeted by a wonderful view of the city, beautiful flowers and a small wedding party taking photos in the small clearing below us. (In fact we would come across another wedding party on the Piazzale itself.)

We walked through the gardens – and saw more flowers in one hectare of space than in the enormous Boboli Gardens. There was a beautiful terraced arbor of roses, nicely marked with the many and various variants of that particular bloom. And there was a secret garden that we had to explore as well – not much there at first glance but a beautiful view and a small bench – then occupied by a young couple – from which to enjoy it. From there we found our way to the Piazzale Michelangelo, and were face to face with another photo shoot of a wedding couple also underway there as well. Love is in the air here in Florence.

We strolled around the Piazzale, taking in the impressive views of the city. As we completed our circuit around the piazzale we came across a large display tent for triumph motorcycles. And they were allowing anyone to test drive several of the new Triumph motorcycles. Reto, being an avid sportbiker, and I swapped motorcycle stories – Susan clearly not too excited about this line of conversation – but I soon said a tearful farewell to the dream of owning one of those gorgeous motorcycles. After we crossed the street from the piazzale we came across a Ducati 999, a heavy duty sportbike which, I was duly informed by Reto, was very fast and very expensive: something in the $25k range and up. It’s that “and up” part that always throw me.

So we walked on and over to the church of San Miniato, and stepped inside, out of the warm sun and into the cool darkness of the church. And dark it was since apparently someone had failed to turn the lights on – although they had left the big front doors open which helped some but by the time you got to the rear of the church, down in the crypt or up in the presbytery it was pretty spooky. But kind of cool too, in both senses of the term.

We left the church and then walked through the cemetery, Reto being a great sport, letting me show him my favorite tombs (‘favorite tombs”?). Both he and Susan humored me greatly and let me ramble on about some of the stories I have culled from these stones over the months we’ve been here. The once famous princely Ruspolis who are today quietly forgotten, whose enormous chapel and crypt have fallen into a sad state of ruin ((whose villas are now hotel buildings in Florence and Rome), the demure young Marta, the young wife forever pining for her husband, Emilio Koppel, the Marchesini sisters who are forever young and with each other, Maria and Mario Mazzone, Pinocchio’s creator Collodi, Mr. Watanabe the Japanese diplomat who died in Baghdad in 1983 but is buried here, all the heroes of wars past who made the ultimate sacrifice, indeed all the men and women who lived, loved, died and are here and who are honored or at least remembered. Some, like the Porre family are quietly forgotten, their small crypt and chapel door broken, the stone leading to the crypt below gone and the lower chamber filled with debris. Bits of sadness, lots of memories; I shared what bits and pieces I know and we moved along.

After leaving the cemetery we discovered that we all really quite hungry – I wonder if being in the cemetery does that to you. So we stopped at the nearby Ristorante Bar Michelangelo, located just off the Piazzale where we sat and ate a delicious lunch, just talking about what we had seen, about life, about everything and anything.

We then strolled back toward the city, took Reto across the Ponte Vecchio and crossed the Piazza Signoria, showed him where Savonarola was burned (pretty thrilling) and of course headed off to our favorite gelateria on Via dei Neri. (That’s two days in a row! Yeah!)

Afterwards we strolled through the Piazza della Repubblica. We talked a little about this particular spot – the foundations of the ancient Roman city began here and until the 19th century it was the home of much of the old market as well as the Jewish ghetto. But with the unification of Italy, the ghettos were eliminated and the Jews could lie anywhere they chose. The results of such “urban renewal” are here for all to see today.

From the Piazza della Repubblica we walked up Via Cavour to Piazza San Marco and then over to Piazza Annunziata. As we approached the piazza, just a block up from our apartment, we heard the unmistakable sounds of a military brass band and sure enough when we walked into the piazza there was the “croce rossa italiana” (Italian Red Cross) military unit with their band playing martial music amidst a display of some of their latest hardware, including snowmobiles, ambulances, triage stations, and decontamination units. We hung around for a bit listening to the music and watching the people.

But the day was slipping away so we walked with Reto back to the bus stop. We said arrivederci and hoped to get back to Siena before he left for Switzerland. Anyway, we waited around until he was on board the 7:10 pm “rapida” for Siena.

It had been a truly grand day. It’s hard to find anything better in life than being with a friend, sharing good food and the experience of being alive in Italy – and in Florence to boot!

Wish you were here,