Thursday, August 30, 2012

Breakfast With Memories

While sipping my coffee in Veniceunder that tented canopy shielding us from the early morning sun, I was thinking about breakfast.  

Photo of a napoleon by Flexitarian
Breakfast wasn't a big thing in our house except on Sundays.  When times were good, my father would travel to the Wyckoff Bakery and pick up Napoleons, éclairs, a large crumb cake, and probably a dozen hard rolls. Bakery boxes piled high on the kitchen table, the five of us would proceed to work our way through demolishing the contents of each box.  I’d start with my favorite  a chocolate éclair, filled with custard, topped with icing  deliciously divine.  Then on to the Napoleons with their flaky paper-thin layers of pastry, sandwiching (more) custard, topped with vanilla icing and decorative squiggles of chocolate.  Napoleons were always messy; the delicately stacked layers soon toppled over and slid off but that didn't hurt the taste.  Rounding things out, I’d devour a big piece of luscious crumb cake  with the topping-to-cake ratio about half and half.  I’d pass on the hard rolls until much later in the day when hunger hit and then I’d butter one or two to eat on the go. It wasn't every Sunday, but it was many Sundays. It was the worst and the best breakfast you could imagine and it was the breakfast we all looked forward to  any wonder I have a weight problem? 

At my gramma’s the breakfast was bacon and eggs and the family story is that she cooked my grampa a pound of bacon a day.  A pound of bacon every Sunday  can that be?  He died in his sixties, so perhaps it was true.  And if the bacon wasn't enough to clog his arteries, then cooking the eggs in pure Crisco surely was.  She'd melt a huge dollop of solid Crisco in her frying pan and then when it was good and hot, cracked in the eggs.  Those eggs got all crispy crackling brown on the edges and were delicious to eat. If she was out of Crisco  well there was all that bacon fat. 

I came from a very frugal family, always saving, never throwing away much.  It was having parents who grew up during the Depression and never forgot it.  They were stuck for life with what I call "Depression-mentality."  Always thinking the rug could be pulled out from under you at any moment. Always worrying that something could happen and it would cause your family to go hungry.  Again. My father’s mother (who died before I was conceived) went to the garbage cans behind restaurants and grocery stores to pull out the thrown-out rotten fruits and vegetables to take home and cook for her family.  

On my mother side, the story that epitomized their poignant struggle through the Depression was about my mother’s brother and youngest in the family, Charlie.  My Uncle Charlie was what my mother called a "milk-baby."  He just loved milk.  Milk, milk, milk was what he loved.  But milk was not what they could afford when money was tight.  So one day, craving his milk, he knew that the way to get it was to go down to the store with a piece of paper from his mother and the milk jug and get it filled to bring home.  It wasn't something he ever did on his own; he always went hand-in-hand with my mother or his sister, Maddy, but on this day, hungry for his milk, Charlie climbed down from his chair, got a scrap of paper, the empty jug, and toddled off to the store on his own. 

The grocer (realizing my uncle shouldn’t have come on his own) brought him back, filled jug in one hand and little Charlie in the other.  I was told my grandfather was upset and ashamed.  He didn’t want to owe anyone anything.  He didn’t want his family to go without, but he couldn’t pay for the milk, so, he insisted the grocer take it back.  “Joe, times are tough  he wants the milk.  You’ll pay me back when things are better,”  said the kind man and Charlie got his jug of milk that day.

Breakfast cooked by my mother was simple — eggs with bacon, ham or Taylor ham (also known as pork roll up north) or if she was out of all of those, as a last resort, fried bologna.  It wasn't fancy, but she seasoned her eggs with salt, pepper, and onion powder.  That onion powder makes all the difference.  Still as much as I enjoyed those ham and eggs, breakfast wasn't ever going to be my favorite meal but my husband  my husband is a breakfast-any-time-of-day guy and breakfast is his favorite meal of any day.

My husband's memories are  lots of buttered hard rolls, eggs with home fries, bacon, maybe a piece of ham steak or kielbasa, and always, always, coffee and crumb cake.  When we first stared dating, he took me to the Ideal Cafe in Manhattan, the upper East side around 86th Street in Yorkville — where Germans, Hungarians and other Eastern European groups lived in ethnic clusters  where breakfast was king and could be ordered anytime of day or night, right up until closing.  The Ideal was a skinny place with a 40-foot long counter and stools. When the stools were filled with diners, you could barely wedge past to the small raised platform at the building’s end with about six tables, always crammed.  The cooks and waiters  all heavy set men in white butchers’ aprons  were slapping things on the grills and shoveling these massive breakfasts on your plate.  The Farmer’s Breakfast was his absolute favorite. Eggs cooked with potatoes, onions, peppers and bacon ("an amalgam so solid you could pick it up with your fingers" was how he described it) rye toast, coffee  his kind of culinary heaven.  It was sad when The Ideal finally closed down  probably killed off by high rents and changing clientele with stricter dietary requests.  No egg-white-only omelettes in this place.

Under that canopy in the Venetian sun, with a simple and lovely breakfast spread, in spite of the Italian splendor around us, my heart and my mouth were watering  for those sunny-side-up crispy crackling eggs fried in Crisco, oh so long ago.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Peggy Guggenheim's Gift

Our first full day in Venice we head to the Guggenheim  Peggy's palazzo  on the Grand Canal.  Though you enter from behind and out back, once inside, this is the view from inside her grand home looking out onto the grand canal. 

It is a series of rooms  white and refreshing  filled with colorful and exciting modern art.  Art from the masters of the 20th century  Picasso, Klee, Duchamp, Ernst, Calder and Kandinsky.   "Peggy Guggenheim commissioned this 'bedhead' from her friend Alexander Calder in 1945. Two fishes, a dragonfly and flowers evoke pond life---under the water, in the air above, and even on its surface if the spiral circles can be imagined as the rings that skater insects cause on still water."  Yes Alexander Calder, I can imagine that from your work because your sculptures, your work, YOU are genius.  In fact one of the very first posters I can remember buying was this stuck-on-cardboard, slightly damaged, 60s poster from a Calder exhibit.  I found it (for $1) in a used bookstore in Columbus, Ohio  in 1973 while I was working for the Ohio State Department of Economic & Community Development in the Office of Program Analysis.  [It was a mouthful but I was in college and it was a terrific internship and then summer job.] That cardboard-Calder was with me for a long, long time.  It was yellowed and banged-up from being moved around from one apartment to the next over, decades, then attic to attic for the next decade, and finally  finally was thrown away  I think.   When I was at Finch College, just a few blocks away at the Whitney Museum, was Calder's Circus (a truly magnificent assembly of miniatures). I have a special place in my heart for Calder.

Vasily Kandinsky

I loved seeing the work of the Italian artists I didn't even know.

Gino Severini

Even with so much richness of art, I do have two favorites:

Untitled (Pharmacy)
Le Facteur Ceval 
There are two pieces by Max Ernst. One, The Forest is his hauntingly painted image of the dark and scary place his father took him to at the age of five. It is a grim painting that reminds one of a Maurice Sendak scary place. So I am glad to see the light-hearted paper and fabric collage Le Facteur Ceval that Ernst has done to commemorate the house of the postman Cheval. A worker who collected things on his route and over the course of 33 years, built himself an eccentric and eclectic castle.

For the first time, I see  and am delighted by  the works of Joseph Cornell, an artist who is “one of the pioneers and most celebrated exponents of assemblage.” Cornell is an artist after my own heart because to do what he does, one must be a collector. All these little bottles with little treasures make me want to find a place to buy my own little bottles and create my own curious assemblage. But once back home, I find the followers of Joseph Cornell have done just that — by providing a website The Joseph Cornell Box where you can post your very own assemblage (….and now that I've seen some I realize, better not even try.)

We close our visit by seeing an exhibit "CYCLING, CUBO-FUTURISM AND THE FOURTH DIMENSION" and if you click on the link (for as long as its live), you'll be able to see some of it too!

After being enveloped by the modern delights of the Guggenheim, we walk on to visit some churches (more coming in Rome so I’ll spare you the blow-by-blow) and decide to eat our dinner back at the Jewish Ghetto area at the place Valentina (from Antice Stellato) has recommended we try for cichetti  Al Timon on the Fondamenta dei Ormesini.  Again under the setting Venetian sun, we sit canal-side and realize that the small restaurant is crammed with young people ordering up small plates, beers, and checking out the huge blackboard for its three-column assortment of wine by the glass. 

The hipsters  who are perched on a sailboat permanently anchored to the side deck covered-over to accommodate more seating, sail tilted to serve as a sunshade  are sprawled on top eating and drinking, laughing and flirting while enjoying their wines and the small plates of salted cod, tomato & mozzarella, delicious chicken livers, and olive tapenade.  As we work our way through the cichettis, the food is so good that, unlike these students, we decide to order dinner entrees and continue to be surprised and pleased at how delicious everything is  the paparadelle con ragu carne was delicate and beefy at the same time; the roasted agnello (lamb) is done to perfection  not overcooked, the way most of the meats seem to be in Italian restaurants. Everyone has said that the food in Venice is the worst, but in my book they're two outta two so far.

We enjoy our wine, our delicious Venetian meal, and plan for our next day’s adventure to the island of Torcello.

Thursday, August 23, 2012



As the train pulls in we realize this is the first place we’ve been where we know no one.  No one to greet us or help us find our way, sort through the language or the customs.  

It is again unbelievably hot.  The sun is intense and relentless as we make our way from the train to find the Tre Archi Hotel on the Cannaregio Canal.  We stumble along up and down steps through the crowded, crowded byways and as we stop to search our street map to get our bearings and find which direction we need to go, a young girl asks,

“Do you need a better map?”  
We look at her a bit quizzically, not being certain of what she means by a “better” map. 

“You need a map with every street, otherwise you'll get hopelessly lost.  Here take mine, we’re leaving right now and I don’t need it anymore.  You’ll love it here and have a great time!” and off she goes, wheeling her luggage and leaving us with her well-worn map of Venice from the Hotel Venezia…

It IS a better map and we soon see we’re actually not that far off the path to our hotel so trudge on  up and over one canal and then another which lands us in a much quieter, less trafficked neighborhood. There are wide fondamenta (canal-side streets) and we pass by what will become our daily café  MQ10  with little tables inside and out and free wireless.  Walking further still toward the end of the canal, there it is a large salmon pink edifice…Tre Archi.  We enter the lobby (dripping sweat, clothing stuck to our skin) and see a lovely chandelier and straight ahead a path to an outdoor garden tented and filled with cloth-covered tables  this is where we will have our breakfast for the next three mornings. 

Our room  our room is another story.  Marble-floored with large shuttered French doors that swing open to a small shared balcony overlooking the tent-top, it is a very small “living” area with a desk and a flat screen TV, armoire to hang clothes, and a small but functional bathroom with Venetian glass sconces and some lovely painted floral decoration on the walls and all the doors.  Surprise  thirteen steps above us on a high landing is where we find the bed!  Now, it is lovely  with more Venetian glass lights and decorated headboard and certainly there is room to stand full height  but clearly this was a room with a 20-foot ceiling that had simply been divided in half!  

   My only complaint is that it is not possible to watch TV in bed and is not comfortable to sit and watch downstairs either but they are all full-up. So if you’re planning to stay at Tre Archi ask for a canal-view room and don’t stay in room 101 unless you like the idea of sleeping above it all!

We settle in, take showers and head out to find Antice Stellato a restaurant that has come highly recommended on Trip Advisor.  When we arrive (at 6pm) the place is shuttered and as we puzzle about what to do (with another group of seven who are wondering, too) the door is unlocked and we are informed by the hostess that they are only opening for the help and that they “WON’T be open until 7pm and certainly NO COOKING until 7:30!”  WELL!

Valentina (our hostess) reassures us the wait is worth it and tells us to peer down the open alley to a place we can wait (we see people sitting outdoors ) straight ahead of where we are now (well, over a canal or two); we could go to Al Timon to have a drink and something small (cichettis) to snack on before we come back to eat so we head over but get distracted by the wide open  plaza of the Jewish Ghetto, the first "ghetto" in the world [the term is derived from a Venetian word].

“When on March 29th, 1516 the Government of the Serenissima Repubblica issued special laws, the first Ghetto of Europe was instituted. It was an area where Jews were forced to live and which they could not leave from sunset to dawn. The area was closed by gates watched by guards and up till now the marks of the hinges are visible there. Jews were allowed to practice only some professions: they were doctors, because they were the most prepared and able to understand Arab writings, money lenders, because Catholic religion forbade this practice, merchants and "strazzarioli", ragsellers. The Ghetto existed for more than two and a half centuries, until Napoleon conquered Venice and finally opened and eliminated every gate (1797): Jews were finally free to live in other areas of the city.” from Ghetto Ebraico di Venezia

Today this plaza is complete with shops and cafes on the fringes, children skipping about and playing ball, mothers carrying home cloth sacks of groceries  and a small enclosed guard house, complete with guard.  We sit watching this small piece of the world go by before returning to Antice Stellato where we have (among other things) an exquisite dish of fritto misto (mixed fry) of shrimp, octopus, squid, sardines, anchovies and who knows what else  simply seasoned with fresh lemon. 

The sun is finally setting as we end our delicious meal and drink a glass of vino to our first evening in Venice.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

The Gardens at Isola Bella

Travel + Leisure called it "Perhaps the finest example of 17th-century Italian Baroque garden art." 

Outside, the palace at Isola Bella is surrounded by a lush green magnificence  gardens that are sculpted and ornamented with statuary and white peacocks wandering the premises as if they own the place.  

"After visiting the palace you enter the spectacular gardens which are on ten terraces and include an open air theatre which has statues depicting the four elements, the “Giardino del Amore” with geometrically designed hedging, water-lilies and citrus trees the Azalea Garden and the “Piano della Canfora” which is named for the 150-year-old laurel tree growing there. In English style garden, the “Giardino dei Fiori” you will find lotus flowers. At the highest point of the garden you will see a great unicorn which is the symbol of the Borromeo family."  [from]

                 This is flanked on each side by a staircase. 
Didn't get to see this bird flaunt its  plumage.

Each direction you look has something of beauty to see and the statues are complemented by tall cone-shaped evergreens against a backdrop of gorgeous lake waters and mountain peaks in the distance.  In each corner of the terraced place there are hidden gems — a bird aviary, a lovely chair of stone carved to look as if it were made of branches, and a sweet gift shop and small cafe.

We enjoy the rest of our visit — wandering the grounds, admiring all we see.  Marilyn has been waiting for us outside the palace (having seen it many a time before) and before we leave, I walk down the stone embankment to step into the blue-green waters that are cool to my feet after so much walking, walking, walking.

Back in the village of Stresa we stop for delicious gelato, granitas, and a little shopping.  I'm pleased to find a small shop — Dubois — that specializes in toys and games for children but has some lovely inexpensive jewelry. 


I survey the gorgeous vistas all around us on the boat ride back to catch our train — all in all — a wonderful, wonderful day.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Isola Bella

                     E-SO-lah BELL-lah ... doesn't it sound beautiful? 

And that is its name  “Beautiful Island”  and that it is.  Built over the 17th century, this island summer palace of the Borromeo family can be reached from Milan by an hour's train ride and plus a short boat ride from the shores of Lake Maggiore and the village of Stresa

We set off in the morning and arrive just in time to have lunch in a small café perched on the edge of the island’s rocky border. When I ask the waitress if we can sit at the table closest to the water she shakes her head, “Soon the water will be splashing you there.” And midway through our lunch I see she’s right as the lake waters are lapping at the edges of the railing!  This was the view. 

After lunch, we pass by narrow alleys and stone stairways to find the home built by the Borromeos and enter a stunningly beautiful opulent world that is Napoleonic in feel. Everything is grandiose. From the paintings to the table settings to the gold-leafed furniture, nothing in my experience can identify with the richness of the life these people have lived. 

Very high dome-ceilinged halls and galleries with marble and this glorious elaborate decoration and trim.  You are dwarfed by the size of these rooms.  You are in awe of the pilasters and pediments adorning and crowning every surface.  Outside every window is an amazing view and inside, each room and every wall amaze you  none more than the "grotto" of the palace  the below ground level rooms magnificently encrusted in black and white sea shells and stones. [Photos at the link.]

With posts  at least 14 feet-high wrapped in silver-embroidered pink velvet  a canopy bed sits majestically in the bedroom 
opposite wide-open tall glass French doors that frame the most picturesque vistas.  

How could anyone ever sleep in such splendor?

This photo by Chris.

Next time, we'll step outside to the gardens of Isola Bella...

Sunday, August 12, 2012


My sister-in-law’s best friend from college, Marilyn, had been living in Milan for years  first on and-off and now pretty much full-time  lucky for us we would staying with her and her husband Doug. To give you a sense of the size of their place, let me say this  the hallway of this enormous apartment was like an extra-long beautifully polished lane of a bowling alley. The living room had three sofas in a U-shaped arrangement; each was at least seven or eight feet long! It was perfectly lovely, wonderfully comfortable, and welcoming. 

When you go to Milan there’s one sight that is central to everything else: The Duomo. Now there are duomos and duomos and duomos throughout Italy (more duomos than drugstores it seems) but this is THE duomo in Milan and it is magnificent. I’d been there more than 25 years before and climbed to the top with my friend Carol and spent an incredible afternoon perched out on the marble roof while eating our lunch amid the gargoyles and angels. This visit I took “the lift” instead of the 200+ steps and stared out past the statues over the rooftops under the broiling sun. 

On top of each spire is full-sized statue! 

Once inside the cool cathedral my eyes naturally look down at the unbelievably beautifully inlaid floors...

You can’t do Milan and not see The Last Supper by Leonardo da Vinci. Groups of 25 are ushered in to a big hall to gaze upon the frescoed on a wall at the surprised faces surrounding Jesus’ table as he tells his disciples that one of them will betray him. At the other end of the hall in the Santa Maria delle Grazie, there’s another magnificent fresco of the Crucifixion. Technology will bring these views to you at this link.

Though the Brea is the largest museum of Milan we opt for seeing the 
Ambrosiana Pinacoteca (art gallery) and Biblioteca (library) instead  and while I can't remember all that we saw there, the outstanding exhibit was the Codex Atlanticus, a collection of over 1700 pages of DaVinci's drawings portraying inventions and people and of course the flying machines, Ventricular man, anatomy, levers and pulleys  but also the position of the moon, sun and earth, cranes and screws, light and shadow, even a plan for a series of canals to connect places in Florence.  Yes, the man was a genius and it was genius of the sculptor Pompeo Leoni to collect this trove of Leonardo's work in the 1500s for us to be dazzled by today.

Everyone says Milan’s so industrial but I love it. It’s a great mix of old and new — perfectly depicted by the Museo di Milano e Storia Contemporanea exhibits in the Palazzo Morando, housing the Countess Bolognini's collection of porcelain, sculptures and other objects in what were her private apartments as it was during the Napoleonic era.

Juxtaposed with this opulent look at the past are the marvelous contemporary exhibits on the ground floor.  We were lucky enough to see the fabulous designs in conjunction with the Woolmark Company  celebrating the look of wool.

Chess anyone?
Check out those mitten-pockets!
This array of creative clothing is helping this place live up to its name (the Museum of Contemporary History)  because today  the title of "Fashion Capital of the World" belongs  in large part to Milano.  

On to Lake Maggiore...

Thursday, August 9, 2012

From the Pergamon to the Bröhan

It was our last day in Berlin. The night before, we’d met Dirk for a drink — a man we didn't know before coming to Berlin (a connection through Chris’ work) who had been incredibly helpful before we arrived.   Dirk had been sending emails with PDFs of the airport terminal, where to buy the Welcome card (unlimited travel on any public transport), the area where we’d be staying. It was Dirk who alerted us to the fact that although our plane tickets had us going to Berlin-Brandenberg Airport, we'd better check that because that airport wasn't OPEN yet (wish American Airlines had told us that).

While I slurped and sopped up Kartoffelsuppe à la Kaiser Wilhelm (a luscious potato soup) with crusty bread, Dirk convinced Chris that even if we didn't see anything else, we had to go the Pergamon Museum to see the altar and the Gates of Ishtar before leaving Berlin.  Even if we just went in and out in half an hour, we could not leave without seeing the Pergamon.

I hadn’t wanted to tackle the enormity of Museumisle, but if we went there first thing, if we only did that one place, if we only stayed for an hour, we could still go on to the Bröhan Museum before catching the bus to the airport.  I was willing.

Dirk was right. The splendor of the building itself and the architectural monuments inside were beyond what I could imagine anyone ever creating.  Size, symmetry, beauty and all without the benefit of our sophisticated equipment and electrical machinery.  Because Chris and I manage museums very differently, we split up.  I stood dwarfed by the massive Pergamon Altar and the gorgeous impressive blue and gold mosaic Gates of Ishtar, and quickly went through the Museum of Islamic Art which was filled with one object more beautiful then the next.

To get a sense of the amazing workmanship found throughout the halls of the Pergamon — clearly a picture is worth a thousand words.



We spent two hours gazing at the spectacular antiquities brought to this palatial place, stone by stone, from faraway lands   their presence at the Pergamon surrounded by arguments: Where do these creations really belong?  Would they have survived if left in their original sites?  Should they be returned?  Important and valid questions but ones we didn't engage in. We just appreciated that we were seeing the glory and richness of peoples and places past.

Needing to move on, we grabbed a spicy bratwurst from the cart outside, hopped on the right bus, and rode to Charlottenburg to see what I was longing to see  something modern: Art Nouveau & Art Deco at the Bröhan-Museum.

Dwarfed by the enormous Schloss Charlottenburg (the summer palace built by Elector Friederich III in 1699 for his wife Sophie Charlotte — the largest palace in Berlin with "the largest collection of 18th-century French paintings outside of France"), the Bröhan is far more manageable. Small in size but packing a powerful punch, this museum seduces you with its furniture and furnishings of a time in the not-too-distant past I can easily relate to and admire. I float through the rooms, marveling at the vases, silver, sconces and settees.  
I hope this one perfect piece — in the palest green with the loveliest of lines — sums up the exquisiteness of the collection:
To see more, go the museum's site.

We are about to leave Berlin but if we can manage to squeeze it in, there's one last stop  the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church, a church built in 1899, bombed out in WWII, preserved and now surrounded by a new and modern structure, the remains of this building have incredibly detailed mosaic tile work but my photos do not do them justice.  Months before we left, Chris' Aunt Gloria had unexpectedly passed away (only 12 years older than we are) but among her things was a pamphlet from this site.  My mother-in-law felt it was a sign saying, "Go to Berlin and have a good trip!" so we went there and said a prayer for Gloria.

Bus back to Alexanderplatz, a last look at the TV Tower  and we're off to Milan.