Saturday, December 08, 2007

Dèfaire l'amour

The height of decadence: a day in Paris with my dearest and perhaps strangest of friends, Warren (as you'll see...)

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Tales from Vienna: Cigarettes, kaffee, kunst

Jetlag am sonntag
We arrived early, perhaps too early.

The only sound was that of a lonely jazz track and the barman taking orders. It was a quiet night, he told us, looking at the couples on the lounges. He was right. They gave the bar an atmosphere of exclusion that allowed for neither conversation nor diversion.

So we sat at the bar and listened to Philippe. His last job was working at a former speakeasy in Paris. It was down a side street from the Lourve. ‘Had we been to Paris? I’ll give you the address. You’d like it.’
And so the conversation went.

The bar glistened and a bottle of Talisker single malt caught the light from the muted wall lighting. The bar had the feeling of a film noir set, of anticipation and suspense. Smoke clung to every surface, yellowed the light before unwillingly disappearing outside through the vents in the tortoiseshell windows.

It was going to be a night where either nothing or something happened.

More people joined us at the bar and the conversation was as generous as the drinks. Phillippe turned his attention from us, two travellers, to a group of business men. They had replaced one of the couples and were sitting intently, huddled as if to protect a shared secret.

Beside us, a couple sat. He drew on his cigar with the expertise of a man well acquainted with a good Cuban and his blonde companion stared blankly into space. We watched him in the bar mirror, admiring his technique and his vanitas.

By midnight and several mojitos later, the crowd had settled in for the evening. Two men hovered near a group of women, attempting to make eye contact as a necessary prelude to an introduction. The couple to our right had disappeared into the night and another anonymous couple replaced them and looked fugitively towards the lounge.

We were about to leave, when suddenly Phillippe rushed from behind the bar. There was a commotion. People looked around in confusion as our barman grabbed a man that was attempting to flee down a narrow stairway to the public telephone. An arm lock turned into a body hug as our barman dragged the man across the bar into the side street. No words were spoken.
The explanation came from another, a local at the other end of the bar. We exchanged looks. ‘He was in here last night. He was told not to come back.’. I wondered why but the man had returned to his drink and so did I. Conversation over.

As for Phillipe, he was talking to a couple at the bar. ‘Have you been to Paris? I know a great little bar. I’ll give you the address. You’d like it.’

And so the conversation went.

So dark was the inside that it took several seconds for the shadows to become people. It was late in the day and most of the light now came from the inside lighting. Every surface was stained a muted yellow, as heavy as the smoke that saturated the air. Like its legendary owners, the café had the appearance of timelessness. It has survived two world wars and a mission to the Russian front. This was one of the great kaffeehauses of Vienna, Café Hawelka.

I was seated like everyone else at the first available table. There was no menu, so I just asked for kaffee. ‘Melange’, the waiter asked accusingly. I nodded. Cake? ‘There’s no cake left. It’s finished for the day. Best to come earlier.’

It was busy. The sound of dishes could be heard from the back of the café. Waiters dressed in the traditional tuxedo moved between the tables, taking orders. More people arrived and were seated wherever there was room. She was one of them and she would have easily blended into the busy Sunday afternoon crowd except for her tangible anxiousness.

She had the look of an Egon Schiele painting. In her appearance, she was haunted and drained like the parched wood of the café, her face as yellowed as the cigarette stains and smoke. She was a fugitive from herself. Her eyes darted nervously around the room. Her restlessness was unforgiving, as she looked from table to table, from one person to the next, and then to the door. She was on a table with two other women, who chatted to one another. To them, she was invisible. To me, she was all movement. Sometimes she listened to their conversation as if she knew them but her eyes never stopped moving.

I was seated with an American couple, expats. She was a musician and worked at the university. She had been coming to Hawelka for the last thirty years. ‘I used to write my assignments here. It used to be full of artists; now it’s mainly tourists’, she told me. ‘I still come here – maybe it’s nostalgia or something else. Make sure you order the cake’. She looked at her partner. His profession, unlike hers, went unstated. They were there with an architect and his Italian girlfriend. The conversation shifted from English to Italian and then to German. ‘He is talking tomorrow, if you want to come’, he said nodding towards the architect and handing me a pamphlet.

I sat and drifted in and out of their conversation, sometimes joining in. I knew that kaffeehauses were the great meeting places of Wien, where classes would mix outside normal strictures, but I was unsure of the etiquette.

From time to time, I looked at the woman.

Her kaffee had arrived. Like everyone else’s, it was served on the traditional silver tray with a glass of water and sugar cubes. She stared at the teaspoon, took one sugar cube placed it on her spoon and watched it dissolve into her coffee. The other one quickly followed. She sat stirring it and this was the only time that she stopped looking and appeared at rest.

Bored with the Italian, the American asked me about Australian authors and told me about a book he had been reading about existential angst in the wilderness.

I turned back to the woman and she was gone.

Cafe Hawelka, Dorotheergasse 6
Some bemoan that it's full of tourists but Cafe Hawelka is the real thing when it comes to kaffeehauses. If you come after 9.30 in the morning, you'll get to eat cake. A light sponge with either apple or plum. Heavenly.

Café Landtmann Dr. Karl-Lueger-Ring 4
It is as institutional as a psychiatrist couch, so it's little wonder that it was Freud's local. The menu of nineteen kaffees is legendary as is the beef goulash with dumplings.

Kleines Cafe, Philharmonikerstrasse 4
They aren't exaggerating when they say that this is the smallest kaffeehaus in Wien. For an intimate Sunday coffee, this would be my place of choice. Grab yourself a newspaper as you hang your coat and watch the comings and goings of this local neighbourhood from your seat.

The Loos Bar, Kärntner Durchgang 10
There are bars and then there is the Loos Bar. Designed by Adolf Loos, this bar is the bastion of cool in a city that takes tourist kitsch to new heights.

Plachutta, Wollzeile 38
Dining here in an education, literally. Your waiter will guide you through a menu featuring seventeen cuts of beef. Order the boiled beef - Huferscherzel. You will be served a traditional beef broth. From the same pot comes your beef that will be served with root vegetables, toasted black bread, apple and horseradish.

Restaurant Zum Kuckuck, Himmedlpfortgasse 15
Don't be put off by the name or the kitch decor. We found this place when we were asked for directions. We stumbled upon it first and stole their table. Moral of the story - always make a reservation. The seasonal menu is stand out. We arrived during mushroom season. Picked locally and served with a small medallion of beef, they were fabulous.

Trzesniewski, Dorotheergasse
It's easy to find Trzensniewski, just look for the lunchtime crowd. Simple food - rye sandwiches ordered with either a pfiffer (0.8 beer) or vodka. The pfefferoni scharf goes perfectly with the beer.

Demel, Kohlmarkt 14
The mecca of confectionary in a city that would satisfy any chocolate lover. It's the size of a department store and the selection of goodies unlimited. It is worth buying something just to get the packaging.

Hotel Sacher, PhilharmonikerstraBe, 4
Home to the original sacher torte, this hotel is all elegance. Its claim to originality is no presence, a legal courtcase deemed that there may be many sacher tortes but this is the original, the result of a culinary mishap or so the story goes.

A must-do for any foodie. Wander through the market and sample breads, oils and imported goods from Turkey. While you are there, check out the fabulous Wagner apartments.

And finally a big thank-you to WKB for our trip and for KG for sparing him.

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

Bodily pleasures: Hamam Sahara Wellness

The entrance was inconspicuous and we could have easily walked pass or mistaken it for a restaurant with its yellow and green lurid signs. It was only the sign of sahara wellness that suggested this was not another Turkish restaurant tucked behind Düsseldorf train station.

Even on entering, there was no suggestion of what would greet us beyond the entrance. A male odalisque reclined fully clothed in his opulent splendour and watched Saudi music clips on a wide plasma screen, while we made our enquires. There were five of us, would this be ok? What treatments were available? Should we have booked?

For a Sunday in Düsseldorf, we opted for the royal treatment. This was to be an indulgence that will take over five hours.

On arrival, we are given robes and a silver tas (bowl) containing liquid soap of mud and olive oil and a kese, scrubbing mitt before being lead into the inner sanctuary of the hamam. Inside, it is a labyrinthine of titled rooms. As we pass through each room, the perfumes of rose, lavender and rosemary evoke the pleasures of a perfumed garden. Each room is a quiet sanctuary of mosaic titles, of brilliant blues and yellows that dance in the familiar arabesques of Arabic art.

The ritual of washing begins with a sauna. Wrapped in a pestamal, a traditional checked cloth worn at the haman, any feeling of tenseness dissolves. The steam is gentle and warming and after twenty minutes, we emerge relaxed. We then wash, before being lead to another treatment room where our treatment begins.

First we are scrubbed. Lying flat on a titled bed, any dead skin is removed by the rigorous of rubbing of skin beginning with the face and then the arms. The experience is strangely lulling given the coarseness of the mitt. My limbs become heavy and seep into the titles beneath me. No English is spoken; I only know when to turn when I am gently repositioned. Clean again, I am rinsed before being soaped.

Bags of fine bubbles are opened and spread over the body in layers. This is not a fine film of bubbles but more like a bubble bath without water. My skin enlivened by the scrubbing is alive to every sensation as the bubbles dissolve as I am massaged. A nagging shoulder and neck pain immediately feel better and the almond scent of the soap reminds me of childhood baths. All I can hear are faint sounds in the distance and the sound of running water.

Between treatments, we retire to the relaxation room to drink sweet Moroccan tea. Hamans were traditionally places to fulfil the Islamic practice of cleanliness as well as to mingle, socialise and gossip. The idea is just to sit quietly, despite the German magazine scattered on small wooden tables. We recline. I sit in silence, while the others talk lazily and drink tea. We are told to rest for twenty minutes before our next treatment.

We are taken to another wash room, modelled on the wash areas outside Mosques and lead to a cold foot bath. The water is icy cold but slowly warms to body temperature. The stone bed in the next room calls and so we lie beneath man-made stars on a bed-like temple. The heat from the stone emanates through the titles and again my body is lulled to sleep only to be awakened for a massage. I am lead downstairs past the reclining male odalisque to a small treatment room.

For the next forty minutes, I am massaged from foot to head. Time ceases to exist and I am lost in my own body. My limbs are weightless and I am docile in my movements. I am simply turned but my body folds into the pressure of the massage. I am all surface, a receptacle of touch. It makes me several minutes to regain consciousness and I am unsteady on my feet. I meander back to the stone bed to allow the heat to return to my body.

On the way out, the male odalisque offers us fragrant perfume of rose and sandalwood. ‘It’s to relax you'. Personally, I don't feel that I could be any more relaxed. I am also offered a brochure on Islam. I confess that I don't speak German but that I'll come back. He agrees.

Mintrop Str.21
40215 Dusseldorf
T: +49 2 11 271 3321

A special thanks to the beautiful Inga, Mish, Maya and Jane for being such lovely bathing companions.

Friday, August 10, 2007

I left my heart in Paris

Most good travel stories begin and end with a train ride.

Mine started in Paris and ended with an unexpected connection with a stranger. It is a romantic end to a story about Paris – a place where I left my heart, only to rediscover it on the Eurostar.

Paris is the city that everyone wants to come to.
This lou lou of the continent is by reputation flirty, difficult and even distant. Yet, once in her presence we only want more and she in turn feeds our imaginations. Think of Baudelaire’s image of the roaming flaneur. Of Collette and Gigi. Perhaps Frank Sinatra said it best - I love Paris in the winter and the summer. I love Paris, anytime of the year...
Like all devotees, I came to her with a list of must-dos and a cramped itinerary. Some days I played tourist and marvelled at her spectacle. Other days, I played truant and escaped to the Latin quarter and Marais to the markets.

With a preoccupation with style at the best of times, I confess that I indulged at Printemps and Galleries des La Fayettes. This is no better way to experience French style than in its department stores. From the simplest of counter displays to the buildings themselves, everything is an art form. Such beauty is intoxicating. It takes you to soaring heights, only to leave you dizzy and breathless. The boulevards lure your eye and the architecture bares all the flourishes of a skilled calligrapher.

To fall in love with Paris is to fall in love with the look of Paris. At some point in her history, did she decide that she would not be anything less than dazzling beautiful?

A trip to Versailles confirms that she has only known the most decadent and risque of pleasures. In the grounds of this once regal palace, all paths lead to a chance encounter. Everything is about seduction. Visitors take to the grounds to promenade to recover from the blinding opulence of the hall of mirrors. There are boats to be taken and walks to be had. Only these pleasure rides are on tourist boats rather than gondolas imported from Venice and the lovers walks now house a thriving café but we love her nonetheless.

The only competitor for her attention is that spectacle of all spectacles, the Mona Lisa.
From behind her gilded cage, this Italian donna sits listless, bored and benevolent. With tourists lining up to see her, what does she think, this silent one? The desire to collect is the desire to conquer. So what do we desire in our encounter with her. In a room filled with art treasures, our eyes only seek hers. Each gaze wants to uncover her secret – the woman who has remained silent despite centuries of showgirl celebrity.

People move from spectacle to spectacle both here and in the Musee d’Orsay, where the extraordinary sights of a Redon go unnoticed. The shimmering textures that self-illuminate in the colours of gold and peacock can’t compare with the names of Monet and Renoir.

In Paris, the food stores are as glamorous as a haute couture label. Fauchon is devoted to the art of epicurean pleasure. The ground floor competes with the best of the catwalks with its sleek surfaces, artistic displays of Escargot de Bourgogne at €120 a kilo and designer wrapping of hot pink, black and gold. Shopping at Fauchon is the equivalent of shopping at Chanel.

This is the place to seek the perfect Madeleine – there are fourteenth styles including truffle, Roquefort, citron, orange, miel. Upstairs is devoted to arts of the table – chocolate, coffee, teas, preserves. wine. All I can afford is the Confiture d’Amour – Fauchon’s own love preserve made from strawberry, passion fruit juice and rose petals.

But I want more and am bored by the glamour; so I seek refugee in the Latin Quarter. I am looking for the French table beyond fashion labels and discover it in a small street off the Rue Seine. Here within two hundred metres, I find six food stores and cafes: Fromage 31, Traiter Italien, Bistro Perres et Filles, Marquise de Sevigne, da Rosa and further along Cacao et Chocolat.
At Fromage 31, I discover a world of regional cheese, in particular varieties that I have never heard of. This is French patriotism at its best.
At Cacao et Chocolat, I am initiated into the world of the macaroon. I try Earl Grey with my café.

At da Rosa, I follow a winding staircase down to the basement to find not a wine cellar but a room of Spanish jamon.

And on I walk, finding olive oils (lemon, green leaf of lemon, lemon and mandarin, basil, chiili pepper, mint, bergamot and mandarin), as well as tapanades – black olives with coffee, green olives and pistachio, black olives and capers.

For dinner, we go to Marais. First to Le Temps au Temps, but the restaurant is so busy that we need to return the following night. So instead, at the nearby Mansouria, I dine on La Kurama - poulet with preserved tomato jam, rose petal and honey sauce. In the early evening, soft light peers into this converted French bistro across the terracotta stained walls and frescos of henna-stained arabesques. The dish is dangerously good, aromatic and heady.

Served on a bed of steamed couscous laced with almond and cinnamon, it is almost inedible in its richness. A vegetarian dish proves simpler fare, though no less interesting; in particular the sweet smells of harissa and the side dish of white raisins and chickpeas. Dinner concludes with thè a la menthe – a sweet Moroccan mint and coffee perfumed with orange water and cinnamon.

The following night, it is Le Temps au Temps. We sit at the bar as it is the only place available but happily do so to experience cuisine recreative. This is a meal like no other.

We begin with a salmon cooked with smoked tea – the favouring delicate and unpretentious served with hertiage tomatoes.

It is a relatively unadorned dish that speaks for itself. It is followed by salmon with dill and concludes with apricot tart with goat’s cheese sorbet and a meringue of green tea.

The evening ends perfectly with the notes of Libertango played by a busker in the metro.

But what about the boy? The train ride.
As my dear friend Jane says ‘there are experiences you want always to remember and then there are those that are worth wandering down the track for more’.
I remain ambiguous. At a lost, about what is choice and what is necessity.

There is something very alluring about the idea of fate. I nearly missed my train. He was sitting in my seat. The train was busy.
Sometimes things are just too complicated. Or maybe they are just destined to only ever be experiences.
It was a conversation that began with an apology and an invitation to share sushi and ended with both people standing at Waterloo station not knowing what to do, except say thank-you. Art, tango and Bach, an invitation to Paris, humanness and thinking machines were all discussed.

For me, it was a conversation where everything came together; for him, 'I so loved the way we connected, and I would definitely love to see you again somewhere soon'.

So to HT, thank-you and au revoir
To Lani, thanks for being such a fabulous travelling companion.

A perfect day

To my beautiful friend Jane and her husband, Edwin, thank you for my invitation to your wedding. It was a perfect day.

To Jane, I felt such happiness to see you with Edwin. We have travelled far together and your wedding was the most beautiful that I have been to. It was so heartfelt, so warm.

I feel so priviledged to be there and celebrate the beginning of your lives together.

Sunday, May 20, 2007

Le lezione italiana

It is through the table rather than textbooks that you learn a language. It is not about listening and reading words. It is about absorbing a language, ingesting it.

In Naples, I learnt to speak beginners italian through my stomach. Each day is a lesson about food - what to eat, when to eat and how to eat. The flavours of the food are like the local dialect. Distinctive and unique. In Naples, the endings of words disappear, the letter e becomes ie in pronunciation, v turns into b and d into r.

This is my la lezione italiana from a week in southern Italy.

Lezione uno: Posso avere dell’altro café, per favour?
The sun raises and the haze falls away to a morning that begins with a walk and the sound of church bells in the distance.

Breakfast is at 8.30. A breakfast of il toast, la burra, la marmelata di casa (la prugna e l'albicocca), e epxresso. Naples is well known for its coffee – a rich, almost sticky, sweet coffee that goes perfectly with il cornetto con la nutella. Such il colazine makes for a leisurely and welcome start to the day. The coffee comes in small pots and quickly goes. So, one of the first things I learn is – can we have some more coffee please.
Half an hour break and then our lesson starts.

Lezione due: Si prega di non toccare
It is impossible to travel to the south of Italy and not discover limoncello.

This sweet liqueur made from the rind of lemons is the epitome of relaxed Italian life. I drink it every night after dinner, even though I remain unconvinced about the taste. Yet, it seems the perfect conclusion to each day. It reminds me of the local cernamic tiles from nearby Vietri sul Mare (the southern tip of the Amalfi coast), the olive trees that surround the agristourismo, the sound of the goat herds and the lemons that smell and taste sweet. They are monstrous in size and we see them grow on vines down the mountains on the way to the coast.
I am tempted to buy a bottle to take back to London but in the tourist shops in Postiano and Naples, the colour of the limoncello is too exaggerated and the bottles made for tourists seem too obvious. So in Postiano, I avoid the tourist shops and go food sampling.
My favourite ... frozen yogurt flavoured with limoncello.

Lezione tre: C’e un carciofo?
The word for artichoke in Italian is il carciofo. We eat it as an antipasto and with spaghetti. As an antipasto, it is grilled on open flames and served with a light drizzling of oil. It is from the garden and has been cooked on the bbq earlier in the afternoon. Its flesh is succulent and chewy. You tear off each petal and grip the flesh with your teeth enjoying the smokeness of the taste. Its heart is filled with a dressing of oil from the agristourismo and fresh parsley.
The following night it comes again from mama’s cena served parmigiana style. Delicate in flavour and enhanced by the taste of fresh tomatoes, it is wonderful.

Lezione quatro: The art of filleting a fish
There is something about a flirty waiter and I find myself in the company of a professional at Ristorante 'o Parrucchiano la Favorita, Corso Italia, Sorrento.

Dinner here is an occasion: both a thank-you dinner to Marco and Marcello and an opportunity to eat some spectacular food. We begin with simple carciofi, presented on fine china as our antipasto.

Per primo, I am served i stellini agli ravioli – star shaped ravoli with prawn in orange and lemon sauce. The taste is of crystallised fruit, perfect and extraordinary.

Next is Sogliola del Tirreno al Forno (or simply the catch of the day baked in olive oil). Again, it is extraordinary in taste – the olive oil is fruity and surprisingly doesn’t overwhelm the dish.

I find the fish very bony- almost impossible to eat, and so il cameriere swiftly removes my place and fillets it. It returns to the table, arranged in delicate fillets, snowy white and perfect.

I am amazed. He speaks to us in English. I tell him that we only speak Italian. At the end of the evening, I kiss him good night. Buona sera.

Lezione cinque: Fare tiramisu : a lezione per Marco nella cucina.
There is only one way to eat tiramisu – on the evening that you make it and then in the morning for breakfast.

Marco finally delivers on his promise of teaching us how to make this classic Italian dish. A promise that begun several weeks beforehand in our Italian class. Eight of us crowd into the kitchen, eager to learn his secret and to ensure that he actually makes it.
The recipe is easy enough but the art of tiramisu is in the making – several glasses of the house vine, great showmanship and lots of laughter. So in Naples, I learn how to make tiramisu.
Here’s the recipe:

Make a good pot of expresso– very strong, and then add some water to make a large bowl of coffee. While it is cooling, grab a glass of house wine and whip 200g white refined sugar with 2-3 egg yolks until well blended. (Note: do not add house wine, it's for you to drink.) Add a splash of milk to moisten the mixture and then add 0.5 kg of mascarpone cheese. You can add marsala but we didn’t have any and it still tasted great.
Once the coffee has cooled, dip the savoiardi (biscotti) into the bowl. Avoid talking or getting distracted as the biscuits quickly dissolve. Line the tray with the biscotti.

Once you have finished your first layer, cover with mascarpone. Continue this layering until you have filled the tray.
Cover the final layer (don't forget the mascarpone), finish with a dusting of drinking chocolate and then refrigerate. Wait a couple of hours and then eat.

Lezione sei: La dolce vita

The agristourismo where we stay is one of the many farmhouse stays, so popular in Italy. Four generations live here in this working farm that produces olive oil, wine and legumes. Each meal is another lesson in Italian cuisine as we literally eat the harvest of the garden.

Pasta e fagioli, penne alla funghi e spaghetti al carciofi are simple seasonal dishes. Provola cheese cooked between lemon leaves. The ingredients are fresh, the tastes uncomplicated but each time, so memorable.

This is the life. The days are long and warm. There is no rush and I enjoy just sitting looking out to the Bay of Naples after lunch, half dozing and half revising the lesson. There is a job going or so Marco tells me. It is domestic work but I’m tempted. Perhaps I could manage to work in the kitchen, if I’m lucky.
It’s the perfect life. Someone always seems to be cooking and someone is always eating.

Lezione sette: Che ora e? Siesta. Tutto chiude.
A day in Naples begins in the University sector, we wind our way through the streets discovering churches and local delicates like Naples famous baba. It's a sweet pastry, almost cake, soaked in rum and filled with chocolate cream or custard. We walk pass street stalls, piazzas and cafes, following our local guides - Marco e Marcello.

From a distance, Naples is surprising large. A sprawling and dirty city that has almost cast off its seedier reputation in a renaissance that started in the 1980s. Despite its nod to tourism, it stubbornly refuses to become another Roma or Venezia.
Come 12.00 noon, everything closes. Naples stops for lunch, a rather leisurely lunch that ends at 16.00. Plans for shopping are abandoned and I embrace this most civilised and anti-tourist practice. This is the time to people watch. A favourite place is Gambrinus, a previous haunt of Oscar Wilde’s. Yes it’s expensive and a little clichéd but the views are perfect.

Fashionably attired Italians coo over their expressos and groups of business men talk. It proves to be the perfect place to try sfogliatella, another pastry filled with ricotta and dusted with icing sugar.

Lezione otto: Molto grazie ma non mangio la cena stasera.
I arrive in Capri welcomed by rugged vistas, swags of bougainvillea and tourist buses. I quickly walk pass the men with placards advertising hotels to the bus station. Another opportunity to practice my Italian: a che ora e il prossimo l’autobus a Anacapri? In ten minutes or so is the answer.

I go to Anacapri because it is away from the main tourist spots and it’s considerably cheaper than Capri, made famous by Jackie O and Ms Bardot. After a boat ride and two bus trips, all I want is a expresso decaffeinatto. There is a café directly opposite the bus stop and this where I meet Enzo. He buys me a café, no doubt charmed by my ‘perfect’ Italian! Why not I tell myself, I can practice.

He was born in Anacapri and has lived here all his life. He is charmed that I think it is a bella isola e mi preferisco Capri a Napoli. He even corrects me when I confuse newspaper (il giornale) with day (il giorno).

He asks me what am I going this evening and would I like to go out to dinner. I gratitiously decline for two reasons. One, I have eaten so much over the last five days in Naples that I literally cannot eat – sono molto piena and two, he is my father’s age. I am flattered and thank him. He tells me that I am beautiful.

I wave goodbye from the bus as I head to Capri and amaze at Italian men. I am at least twenty years younger than him – but that’s the fun of being in Italy.

Lezione nove: Always arrive early
It is my last day in Capri and I decide that I can’t leave without seeing the Blue Grotto. I catch the local bus and find myself at the top of the hill with no idea where I am going. I walk down the stairs, pass the obligatory tourist shop, to find myself at the water’s edge wondering where the grotto is. Then suddenly it become clear, I need to get into a boat. Five euro is the going rate. I step in to cheers of the surrounding boatmen.

The entrance to the Blue Grotto is small. I have to lie down to avoid decapitation and once through this small entrance, I open my eyes to see a most lustrous blue. The word for blue in Italian is azzurro and the sound of this word somehow embodies what I see. The light simmers, like an aura, luminating the grotto and the water beneath.

Do I want to go for a swim, he asks me. No, not today.

Instead, he sings. It is just him and me. I bathe in the light to the sounds of his voice. This is tranquility, only interrupted by the arrival of some Japanese tourists. In quick succession, five boats come through the opening and the stillness is interrupted by camera flashes and laughter.

Time to go. Will I come back again, he asks.

Of course.

Lezione dieci: Quando tornare a Italia?
I don’t know what it is. Maybe it’s the food or just the slowness of living, but Italy gets into your skin. I arrive back in London and it's gray and somber. I hit the underground and people push and shove as they squeeze onto the 8.20 District line train.

Naples seems such a long way away – a lifetime away. I grab a coffee and walk to work from the tube. Holding onto my holiday experience before I hit the hayhem of the office.

So what’s a girl to do? Well, she books a flight to Milan in June. Why? To practice her Italian.

Saturday, March 24, 2007

La Dolce Vita

Sono molto felice perche in tre settimana vado a Naples. A bella citta. Vado studiare la lingua italiana con studente per la institute cultural italiana. Per dieci settimana scorso, studio Italiana. Il corso e trenta ore. E fantastico e mia insegnante e molto buono e buffo. I studenti sono simpatico e studiamo la lingua perche e una bella e anche interessante per la cultural italiana, specialmente cucina! Mia italiana non e buona ma amo imparlando. Questa e mia primo tentativo scrivere una lettera a italiana! Mi dispiace per sbaglio.

I am heading off to Naples in three weeks times to study Italian for a week. For the last 10 weeks, I have been going to the Italian Cultural Institute to study Italian. It has been a fabulous experience and I have loved every minute of it. Why Italian? Well after my slow food experience in Turin, it seems the most appropriate start to the pursuit of a slow(er) life. Big aim – to live in Italy and work for the Slow Food Movement! One can only dream.

Saturday, January 27, 2007

In celebration of firsts

Life's most treasured memories and celebrations are firsts - a first birthday, a first kiss, a first grandchild, a first wedding anniversary. There is the first time we fall in love and the first time our hearts are broken. We never repeat our firsts and after that we just have seconds.

As we get older, there seem to be fewer and fewer firsts or maybe they just happen without the cards and celebratory wishes. These are firsts that we hold onto and are often things we only know about.
My firsts include my first taste of coriander. It was pungent and its deep green taste seemed so foreign and exotic. There was my first black truffle savoured and eaten using a recipe from the Mushroom Man at Prahran Market. I still remember the recipe - eggs, cream, orange zest, orange juice, all combined to make eggs on sourdough with truffles. I remember receiving my first cookbook - Green's Cookbook, and the first time I went to a four star restaurant and ordered wine. I felt like a grown up and it was with a man that I loved very much. These different firsts came in my twenties and much later.
This week I experienced another first - snow in London. I woke up on Wednesday morning to discover that overnight an inch of snow had fallen . It was soft and dewy, pristine white and crisp like the day itself.
I ran to Hyde Park making snowballs on the way and throwing them on the footpath. I felt like a child again - it was wonderful. I made my first snowman complete with a hat (courtesy of Helen Kaminski) and even ate some snow. (Note to self: take carrot when wishing to make snowman in the park.)
I wanted to know what it tasted like and it tastes just like snow. It's cold.

Self portrait in Kensington Gardens - I threw snow over myself, so the photograph would look more authentic! Big thank-you to my cousin Kate for sending me my wonderful Helen Kaminski hat from Australia. It has been gratefully worn in Venice and now London.

Saturday, January 06, 2007

A Venetian tale

Everything that anyone has ever written about Venice is true. It’s a magical city that glistens in the sunlight and turns into a deceptive maze of streets at night.

Proust wrote of Venice that ‘my dream became my address’. It's true. Venice is a subterranean city where dreams are born in the waterways only to dissolve in the city’s mists that roll in from the sea and cover its islands. It is a city that harbours lovers and is haunted by death.

The way to discover Venice is to abandon yourself to the city. The Piazza San Marco is spectacular but it is in the neighbourhoods beyond this famous landmark that you'll discover all that is unique about this city on water. Explore the labyrinthine of bridges and connected streets and get lost. Maps will prove useless as streets that seem straight on paper turn out to be sinuous lines that resist navigation. Perhaps it’s the endless tides that result in these shifts of the cityscape. How else can you find a piazza one day but not the next?

The only people who know the city are the boatmen, who travel its waters and the inhabitants of San Michele, the centuries old resting place of Venetians. Their ghosts are the spectres of light that you see dance across the water at night.

From the Basilica di San Marco. you can look out to the piazza, take in the soaring heights of the Campanile and the grandeur of the Palazzo Ducale. Such a spectacle is only rivalled by the inside view of the basilica. This is a church made of gold. Saintly figures stare out, so poignantly human in their expressions and gestures.

Board a gondola and see Venice as the boatmen do. Travel the canals to the recorded sounds of O Mia Caro (or if you are lucky a tenor accompanied by a guitarist) and discover the hidden waterways of the city and abandoned palazzos.

At dusk, stand on the bridge opposite the Galleria dell' Academia and watch the sun set over Venice. This view of the Canal Grande takes in the Basicilica di Santa Maria della Salute and the Dogana di Mare. Truly magically.


You’ll need several hours to visit the Gallerie dell’Academia. This gallery houses some of the best examples of Renaissance art. Be sure to find Bellini’s La Tempesta and attempt to solve its puzzling symbolism (room 13). Veronese’s Feast in the House of Levi represents the mastery of this period; a controversial work in its day (room 10). The artist was brought before the Sant’ Uffizio and accused of heresy because of his unconventional approach to his subject of this painting.

No trip to Venice would be complete without a trip to the Museo de Peggy Guggenheim. This Dogess of modern art stated that she wanted to collect a piece of art a day. Her former residence houses a formidable collection of surrealist art. Most striking is the collection of Murano glassware. Intrigued by the qualities of glass, she organised a number of collaborations between Venetian artisans and artists like Chagall, Picasso among others.

In many of the shops throughout Venetian, you’ll find reproduction Fortuny lampshades and fabrics. At the Museo de Fortuny, you can visit the palazzo of this 20th Century designer, photographer and artist. On display are examples of his fabrics as well as lampshades made for the Hotel Excelsior on the Lido in the 1920s but the real highlight is the photographic collection. Look for the 1902 photograph of Piazza San Marco without the Campanile, which famously collapsed the same year.


Hidden in the neighbourhood of Dorodorso is Do Farai, an osteria that specialises in seafood carpaccio. Order the carpaccio di brancino all’hg and Stefano will create fine shaving of fish dressed with olive oil, lemon juice and wine from a whole fish in less than five minutes. Move onto the spaghetti con nero di seppia and as Stefano tells it ‘you’ll eat like the Venetians do’.

San Marco may be only five minutes way away, but Corte Sconta is a true Venetian secret. You will need to book regardless of the time of year so popular is this restaurant with locals. Follow the tradition of this restaurant and order the selection of seafood appertizers. The scallops are particularly memorable as are the Venetian style Scampi buzara served with fresh tomatoes and apples.

Across the lagoon on the island of Giudecca is Mistra, a shipmakers’ canteen that does a brisk business for only a few euros. At Ai Gatto Nero on the island of Burano, the antipasto degustazione is a three course symphony that begins with sardines and baked scallops and concludes with muscles and pipis. For a more upmarket affair, try Da Fiore, Venice’s only Michelin star restaurant.


I’m just wild about Harry and he’s just wild about me; so the song goes. It’s a little clichéd and admittedly overpriced but there’s no better way to celebrate being in Venice that drinking a Bellini at Harry’s Bar. This mid-afternoon drink is the perfect way to people-watch and enjoy the atmosphere of this famous institution.

Cantina do Mori is not easy to find but once found it’s the perfect place to sample ciceti (Venetian term for small bites). Enjoy the dark cavernous feel of this bar with its overhanging pots and large vats of wine and the seafood ciceti inspired by produce from the nearby Percaria market. The Osteria ae Cravate in San Croce is another local bar offering excellent food and service.

The best seats in town are at Café Florian overlooking the Piazza San Marco. Your view will be expensive but regardless of whether it is day or night, you’ll describe the experience and the cost for years to come. If the Florian is full, then the Gran Caffe Ristorante Quadri is just as good.


Venice is famous for its Carnivale. Even if you don’t get to this most extravagant of festivals, you can purchase one of its famed masks. Ca’Macana is one of the best known having made masks for Kubrick’s Eyes Mind Shut. For marionettes, try Il Gatto Matto. This store also sells masks richly decorated in Venetian moretti glass; others are inspired by the richly ornate work of Gustav Klimt.

You’ll find the famed marbled paper at one of the outlets of Il Papiro and La Ricerca, but at Legatoria Piazzesi you find something unique. This store first opened in 1828 and paper is still made using the original wooden blocks. For the literary at heart, there are books, diaries and journals, and desk accessories.

Giacomo Rizzo is the place for specialist pasta. Some are simply for decoration (surely) but the more traditional funghi, seppia and pomodoro are excellent buys to take home. Another stop on your food trait is Antica Drogheria Mascari for porcini mushrooms, lemoncello, chocolates, teas and sweets.

Formerly the residence of the Doge of Venice, Andrea Gritti, the Palazzo Gritti is the most luxurious hotels in Venice. Its rich furnishings are what you would expect of such an elite residence that has attracted guests such as the Duke and Duchess of Windsor and Princess Grace of Monaco. Recognised as a world-class hotel for its elegance and discreet service, this hotel with its view onto the Canal Grande is the hotel to be pampered.

Situated close to the Museo de Peggy Guggenheim, the Ca’ Pisano was the first design hotel in Venice and has a reputation for outstanding service. Its modern design in a sixteenth century palazzo will appeal to those with a modern sensibility.

Hotel Al Sole is one of the many converted palazzos that you will find throughout Venice. It’s location across a canal in San Croce and its picturesque courtyard makes it an ideal place to stay.

ISLAND HOPPING Venice is famous for its glassware and lace, so a day trip to the island of Murano and Burano to see these centuries old craftsmanship is a must.

The reputation of Murano glassware is well deserved. You’ll find the normal array of tourist items, moretti jewellery and reproduction goblets, but also some spectacular modern pieces. The best showrooms are Venini and Barovier and Tasso. Most showrooms will ship anywhere in the world.

Burano is a quiet and picturesque island celebrated for its brightly coloured houses and lace-makers. Each woman specialises in a stitch and it’s possible to watch this intricate and painstaking work in many of the local shops. Try La Perla and Martina for specialised homeware.


Away from the tourist hordes, the neighbourhoods of Venice offer the perfect opportunity to sit at a café Venetian style.

Grab a mid-morning coffee at one of the city’s many pasticceri. The Café Toletta is typical of these small shops. With no seats or tables, this is the closest that Italy gets to fast food. Do as the locals do and order a café and perhaps a pantoza from the dolci and pastries on display.

The Campo San Margherita offers a lively spectacle of a fresh vegetable, fruit and fish market and by 12 noon, the outside tables are full. It is easy to understand why Italy is the home of slow food. Linger over your café for an hour; grab a midday ciceti at one of the many cafes or a gelati from Gelateria Igloo. Stop at look at Vinaria de Oro, where local residents buy their bulk wine. While you are there, visit the Scuola dei Carmini to see the ceiling paintings by Tiepolo.

Beyond the Rialto bridge and tourist shops, you’ll find the Pescatoria and fruit and vegetable market. Here is the place to buy dried porcini mushroom and dried tomatoes to take home. For a lesson in how to prepare artichokes, the local vendors trim, cut and slice these extraordinary vegetables ready to take home.