Friday, August 31, 2007

Food, Glorious Food

The subject is what and where I ate while on vacation, a non-exhaustive survey. First breakfast, always in the hotels, always a bit different but always with meat and cheese as well as the expected yogurt [Dannon and Yoplait are there too] cereals, breads, juices and coffee, sometimes eggs, sometimes not. Going to a breakfast room is something I really enjoy about traveling, having it all laid out for me to choose. The coffee is rarely as good as I would wish and never served in nice big cups -- take that back, in one hotel there were even Parisian size cups for cafe a lait.

I think for most of us the picnic lunches in the midst of long hikes were really the best. Tomas always bought fresh breads and assortments of local cheeses and deli meats. I will think with delight for a long time about the whole wheat rolls with pumpkin seeds all through them as well as on top. There were crisp peppers and tomatoes that had actual tomato flavor, and wonderful peaches and apples that were local and had not been picked green for transport in refrigerated trucks. And there were good chocolate bars cracked into pieces to end with.

We ate our picnics wherever it was possible to park the van. A collapsable table was set up but we had to sit where we could find a spot -- sometimes we were lucky to find logs or stones. Other times we balanced paper plates however we could. But always the lunches had that wonderful flavor of good food eaten out of doors after serious exercise -- possibly the very best circumstances for eating.

Other lunches and all dinners were in a variety of restaurants and hotel dining rooms. Some were the vaulted, cellar-like spaces at basement level which is always romantic in a kind of gothic way. Some were on terraces, some in private rooms, some slow because we were eleven altogether and kitchens had a hard time dealing with that.

Food was heavy reflecting what was essentially a rural part of the world until rather recently. Soups were very delicious and always hearty and sometimes contained unexpected items like halves of hard boiled eggs. A true old world touch was in one restaurant that served both a crock of butter and one of lard -- with bits of cracklins -- and idea so old fashioned to we North Americans we were a little horrified, cholesterol conscious as we all are. Beer was always good, light and dark, and the wonderful Pilsner Urquel, so expensive in the US, seems to be the national beer of the Czechs. "Like mother's milk," said Tomas.

My favorite meal actually was one of the first, in Prague. We went to a restaurant in a park, high on a hill with a view of the sprawl of Prague below us -- a well known restaurant [Bill Clinton ate here -- and many others in and out of politics]. The main course was leg of rabbit wrapped in bacon -- very tender, very delicious. As someone said, those bunnies were too tender and non-gamy to have ever ranged freely in the woods and fields of Bohemia. Having an unusual meat is just the kind of eating experience that makes traveling so interesting. And now I'm home and dieting is in order -- much easier of course, since no one is preparing food for me but myself.

Thursday, August 30, 2007

Zgraffito, aka sgraffiare

Zgraffito [or sgraffito] is a technique of decorative application, usually on the outside of buildings, involving layers of limestone plaster where designs are scratched in the top layer of wet plaster. It was developed in Italy in the XV century. The word is either the root of graffiti or a derivative of it; I have not have the patience to search more web sites after having found the above information. I had heard of it as a decorative technique but knew next to nothing. Now I know a little bit more than nothing and I've seen a few stunning examples, notably on a palace in the Czech Republic. the entire facade of the very large palace is decorated with designs like those above and each is different! I didn't try to count how many, I'm not that compulsive. The building was otherwise simple and magnificent. It had been decorated by Italian craftsmen, probably in the XVI century. Inside was an three story Italianate arcaded courtyard. Above the courtyard were large portrayals of the Battle of Troy and also of Samson destroying the temple of his enemies. if I understood properly these reliefs were also zgraffito although they looked sculpted to me.

In other cities and on more humble buildings I saw other examples of zgraffito, or perhaps it was faux zgraffito [to mix languages] that was painted ... but really I couldn't tell. The picture below was on the facade of an interesting building. When used all over a building the effect is like wall paper on the outside, but in shades of gray it is subtle enough to be really very pleasing.
The visual delights of the sidewalks, and the zgraffito-ed buildings was just one of several elements that made the trip visually more exciting than I expected. In a sense I am a little "been there,seen that" about lovely rolling countryside with a mix of fields and woods. Perhaps the most pastoral and peaceful landscapes, which exist lots of places in the world, including much of the Northeast and Midwest of the US. In the beauty pageant of landscapes it is Mama and apple pie, universally pleasing. But the many castles and palaces, the Renaissance and baroque facades, the subtle and sometimes exuberant colors of houses and buildings was a visual treat I had only partly anticipated.
This last picture was in Jincin, the first little city after Prague, in Bohemia where the petal designed sidewalks were. it's just a happy coordination of a public bench and a simple planting of marigolds. What a delight for the eye! More about architecture tomorrow, I think.

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Design and craftsmanship

Yes, it's a log cabin quilt design in corduroy, pillow shams and, really!, a pair of slippers. These are most surprising items I saw in the craft market in Krakow. I didn't search for other quilt related things, like fabric shops. I didn't have time.

More the sort of thing I expected to see are these beautiful embroidered table cloths. This is the traditional folk embroidery I've read of in books and it was just as stunning as I expected. I also saw cut work and counted stitch embroidery.
Unexpected, but definitely in line with other crafts booths are these lamps in a Tiffany style but the shades are studded with the plentiful amber that is sold in many, many, many shops in Krakow ... as jewelry, as embellishment on many other things. I'm a little stunned there seems to be such an endless supply of amber. Were there so many trees with resin back in some geologic age that the stuff is so plentiful? I suppose the answer has to be yes. Of course, I purchased a lovely big ring and also an "every day" ring which is just a circle with inset small pieces of varicolored amber. Although we use the word "amber" for a particular color, the stuff actually comes in several colors and with differnt opacity, from deep brown to paler than butter yellow, from clear, and sometimes with insects or bits of leaves embedded, to opaque as a stone. Some amber is greenish. This makes the many different pieces of jewelry in which it is use unique because all amber is unique by it's nature.

Finally there was wonderful design in the city streets. All of the old part of Prague is cobbled, both the streets and the sidewalks, no slabs of concrete. I didn't take pictures because the patterns are simple and geometric ... and therefore always aesthetically pleasing. Probably hell on high heels, but just fine for flat shoes. The picture here of a cobble street is from a small city in the Czech Rep. called Jincin. The sidewalks in the center of the city had this design, although I think this was unusual in that the two "flowers" are not identical. I loved looking down from the window of my hotel room at sidewalks with this design.

The most important design, of course, was the architecture which was from Gothic style right through art deco [very little of latter] But with some wonderful examples, especially of Itlaian renaissance influence. More about that tomorrow, or maybe the next day -- at some point I have to talk about food, and of course, beer. This vacation is worth a few posting -- be warned. I freely admit, too, that I am far from artistic with my digital camera. I hurry when I'm with other people and I cannot judge the picture accurately on the little screen as I can with my film camera and it's old fashioned view finder.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

First Lessons

I expected to learn a lot about Eastern Europe. And I did. I'm chagrinned to admit the first thing I learned -- and should have known. Where was my attention the last ten or twelve years? There is no such thing as "Czechoslovankia" [even if I CAN spell it] For some time the two have been separate, the Czech Republic and Solvenia. And Vaslav Havel has been President of each and of the combination - thus President of three different countries. Not bad for a playwright/essayist, huh? Our Czech guide, Tomas was very proud of his origins and so was the assistant, Suzanne who was Slovanian - both were smart and delightful, great representatives of their countries. So was Jaroslav, our van driver. At dinner someone always asked "what is Jaroslav ordering?" [more about food and beer another post]
Lesson two: there are a variety of mountains in the area and wonderful landscapes filled with towns that seem to be increasingly propserous, new houses going up all over but not the awful developments we have, no cookie cutter houses. Meanwhile the countryside is dotted with an enormous variety of castles and so are the larger towns. Plus there is a great variety of architecture. Here is the front of an ornate house [baroque? - I did not LEARN the niceties of styles] Also an old archway in Krakow, maybe 1500s, and below newer structures at a ski/hiking resort which is in a style called folk/art nouveau by one of the area's locally very famous architect from the turn of the 20th century. All are wonderful in their own ways. And the picture is not to show my bad hair day but the big castle on the hill, and, yes, we walked up to it [after a 5 kilometer approach to the spot I'm standing]
The big surprise: Krakow was the exciting, happening, beautiful city I expected Prague to be. I understand what people like about Prague, but compared in the summer as I just did, I found Prague's stone, often dark surfaced buildings felt heavy and crowded around their narrow streets. Whereas Krakow's old city center was open, the buildings light colored and graceful, and it was a happening place. We were there for a weekend open air craft market, the central square is really three plazas separated by medieval buildings, a cloth merchant's hall and a beautiful [especially inside] cathedral. The almost continuous sidewalk cafes were full, the streets were alive with people of all ages, there were street musicians and performers, carriages pulled by beautifully groomed horses, no auto traffic, and a grin inspiring performance of folk dances by a Slovenian troop in grand costumes. I watched them dance for nearly an hour in near ecstasy - okay, so I'm not so sophisticated, folk music and dancing makes me as happy as a pig in a mud puddle.

This is only first notes, More will be forth coming. Right now I have a lot of other things to catch up on, you know, the gnats of everyday life, bills and laundry, and jet lag that has be almost ready for bed at 4:00 in the afternoon. [which is 10 pm in Poland]

Sunday, August 12, 2007

A Poet Before I Take a Break

THE SILENCE OF MEN is Richard Jeffrey Newman's first book of poems. I know few people go to bookstores or Amazon to find new poets but he's worth the effort. The publisher is CavanKerry Press (2006) Newman is a New Jerseyite and has won a couple of prizes. But the point is, he is NOT a silent man, he writes with great depth and insight and openess about the things most men never talk about -- and if they don't talk about it, if they can't find the words, as Newman can, do they feel as deeply? Feel? perhaps. Express? Very, very rarely. Poem after poem astonishes me. I'm picturing the back of the book because I wanted to get the publisher's name in here. Discovering a bold and clear voice is wonderful!

Many people plop in front of the boobtube, or plug in the iPod to the familar and known and deprive themselves of the great joy of finding how various and wonderful the world is. New experiences are not scary, new may be boring or unsettling, but it can be insightful and brodening and just plain wonderful. So I recommend trying to find this book and read it.

And now for something new for me, on the ground, total immersion -- I'm outta here in a few hours. Off to a little piece of the world I've never been to with people I've never met. Hardly anything excites me more than heading for a brand new place. Of course the dread gamet of airport security has to be dealt with. My titanium hip will set off the alarm, I'll be "wanded" even though I'll show them my card. Ugh! Small irritation for a very big pleasure ... and the Czech Republic is the land of the best beer in the world! I won't be blogging again for something over two weeks. I hope I'll have some interesting photos.

Saturday, August 11, 2007

Reincarnate Buddhas illegal in China

[I wish I could give an attribution for this art work. I love the way the Buddha icon is coming together from many odds and ends]

I wrote a couple of weeks ago about Chinese plans to build a road around Mt. Kailash and about their possibly aborted plan to carry the Olympic torch to the top of Mt. Everest from the Chinese side. I wonder if they have a think tank in Beijing dreaming up ideas to show their insensitivity and sometimes megalomania [WHO would carry the torch up Mt. Everest?]

I just read another bit of dictatorial insanity. After September 1st sencient beigns aspiring to Buddhahood -- and accidentally reincarnating in China or Tibet -- must now register with the Chinese government. The statement was that "the so called reincarnated living Buddhas without government approval is illegal and invalid." So are we to think this Communist, atheistic government believes there ARE reiincarnate sencient beings who are living Buddhas? It is apparently also illegal to pesonally recognize them as reincarnate Buddhas. This is so mind boggling in it's irrationality I don't think I can say anything more about it. Except that quite some time ago the Dalai Lama said he would not reincarnate in Tibet/China.

Sometimes the Chinese government seems intent on bringing the wrath of the world on them and they seem to be succeeding. A recent New Yorker cartoon showed a child in a nearly barren room [no toys of any sort] who said to a friend something like, "my parents threw away everything of mine that was made in China." People are worrying about both their pet food and their own food. I bought some frozen tilapia a couple days ago and felt a serious qualm when I saw in was from China. How much mercury is in it? What other chemicals? They feed the fish antibiotics - as American beef growers and diary farmers do their cattle -- to keep them from sickening from the pollutants they live iin. Many people are thinking about these matters.

Friday, August 10, 2007

Packing in ignorance

I always find I am influenced when I pack for a vacation by the weather of the moment, no matter how irrational that may be. A couple of days ago when it was horribly hot and humid I pulled out sleeveless tops and sandals to pack for my upcoming trip to central Europe. Today I awoke to more rain and much cooler air and immediately put my rain jacket into the gaping duffle. As I walked the streets today, actually feeling a bit too cool in short sleeves, I began to think, which sweater should i take that will look okay with everything else? White? Black? Gray? I removed a couple of the sleevless tops and replaced them with long sleeved ones.

In short, I do not know what weather I will encounter. I looked carefully at a map and found that the Czech Republic and the Slovak Republic, just to it's east, are both approximately on the same latitude as Nova Scotia. Of course they are inland and don't have an Atlantic effect. BUT they do have forests and mountains. It could be hot, it could be cool, it could rain. I have to try to be prepared. The word is "LAYERS" of course. And, hey, who do I have to impress? Of course I want to look put together but it's a vacation with eight others, all strangers to me, and frankly, they have no preconceived ideas and don't give much of a damn how I dress. Aren't I too old to get in a tizzy about wondering if things will match? Some mental habits and insecurities are hard to shake.

The more important thought is that I know very little about where I'm going. Czech means Havel, Kundera, Kafka, Dvorak, Smetena. I know the whole area disappeared behind the Iron Curtain until recently. I like to think of myself as a fairly well rounded American, I read widely, I have been interested in European music and literature most of my life. But I know almost nothing. I'll learn -- I trust our guide, a Czech, to tell us a lot of history. I'll ask if he doesn't. I especially look forward to hiking in moutnains and forests, but there are many castles in the brochure, all have their history, as do the many different towns we will stay in. So I have much to learn. That will be very satisfying and stimulating.

In the meantime, I will lay clothes out all over the bedroom and change my mind several times in the next 40 hours about what will be good with what. So far I've got a swimsuit packed [that I probably won't put on ] and the rain jacket ... it's a shame the jacket is a Macy's private label brand and not one of the adventure brands because I have photos of me in that jacket on three continents; this would be a good bit of advertising for the brand. I've been wearing it for ten years and it promises to be good antoher ten. isn't it wonderrful with a simple piece of clothing proves to be so durable and useful?

Wednesday, August 08, 2007

Died and went to Hell

Last night was muggy, too uncomfortable to sleep well. I awoke several times to turn the pillow over to the cool side. At 4:00 I heard the lovely rumble of thunder and soon felt the air turn cooler .. a little bit. The humidity was back by 6:30 when I got up. At the subway entrance too many people were exiting, too many milling around. The word was clear: no downtown service. About once a year a deluge floods the some parts of the subway it comes to a stop. Okay, thought I, I'll be smart and get over to Riverside Drive and get a bus there instead of fighting the B'way crowds. The crowd at Riverside was not too big; but the first bus that stopped had room for only a couple people. The next two buses didn't even stop. The fourth had room for 3 or 4 only. The waiting crowd was growing. Well, okay. I'll walk at least part way, I thought.

Off I went, deciding to follow B/way, and see if there was a place I could get on a bus. At 79th I heard the trains were running again and people were pouring down the stairs. I looked and saw it would be almost impossible to even get on the platform, and it might take a hour to get on a train. Hot, sticky, too many human bodies, insipient claustrophobia. Back up on the street. Walking -- hordes of people walking. Sweating, blessed breezes at a few corners but not along most of the street. Too many people at every bus stop, too many people at every subway entrance/exit. Might as well walk -- get in shape for the vacation hiking. But so humid, sweating, mopping my face with a handkerchief -- this is why I keep a real cotton handkerchief in the bottom of my purse!

Coffee from a vender at 50th and a brief rest on the plaza of a building in the shade. Restored I was ready to brave Times Square -- that is where I began thinking: maybe I died and went to hell. They say you don't always know when you're dead. Could it be? All these crowds of people are also in hell, talking desperately into their cell phones, clumping along, sweat stains on their clothes, faces aglow with sweat. No cursing, no anger, just simple determination to get where they wanted to be. Could be hell. I didn't think anyone could convince me it wasn't. But I finally got to work, foot sore, but SOOO glad for the air conditioning and my bottle of cold water in the refrigerator.

I have had this thought about dying and being in hell once before under somewhat similiar, although more bizarre circumstances. I was in India -- Calcutta [now Kalikut, it's once and current name] Appropriately it was the festival of Kali. I don't know the Bengali word. The heat and humidity, although it was October, was very similar to today here in NYC.

The festival features papier mache statues of Kali and her consort [forgive me, the day has boiled his name right out of my bain] Some statues are extremely horrific, showing the influence of horror movies and comic books. Each neighborhood builds it's own shrine. Kali is a fierce goddess who can be murderous and horrible. She loved her husband, but at a certain time, in the dark of the night she attacked him and he barely escaped alive. The shrines show Kali in full fury with the poor guy under her foot. And these are all over the city.

People I was with went to the part of town where the statues were being made, most were finished, some were being painted, some where being hauled on carts or trucks to the shrine for which they were intended. There were many, many people, the sun shone hotly through a haze and the sweat trickled down behind my ears and off my forehead into my eyes. I remember thinking, I must have died and went to hell. This simply has to be hell! I cannot explain why I look relatively calm in the photo. Maybe I would have looked ten years older but equally calm today, like the other hordes of New Yorkers, accepting the infrastructure malfunction of which I had no control, resorting to my two trusty feet.

Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Three Horrid H's

When I was a teen on a farm I was a member of the 4-H club -- our substitute for the Girl Scouts, at least in our part of rural America. I learned many domestic skills, cooking and sewing chief among them. The H's stood for Hands, Heart, Head and Health, which was something one knew but which didn't figure into the program in a memorable way. I only start with this bit of social history because I have been forced to focus on the three Horrid H's that beset New Yorkers this time of year: a frequent weather forecast, "hazy, hot and humid." The last two days have been just that and so were several days last week. The chorus one hears constantly, "it's not the heat, it's the humidity," is SO true.

I come to my un-air conditioned apartment and "go Polynesian", i.e., I strip, shower and wrap myself in a sarong that I tie so that it doesn't fly open too revealingly -- although that doesn't matter much, no one sees me in it. But I know on days like this, in a most immediate way, why it is I am in no sense drawn to Amazon cruises or rain forest hikes, or, indeed even to those Polynesian islands, nor to anyplace equatorial. It's the humidity. And the creepy crawlies, largely the snakes but I have no love of flying insects, nor of most skittering ones either.

I see in the newspaper today that some group is tryiing to make the B word as politically incorrect as the N word. This is appropriate in the so called "dog days of summer." Although I'm not sure that bitch is any worse than the many other words men hurl at women when they're angry at them. It's directed at any or all women, and doesn't seem to discriminate by race or class and often not even by peresonality type -- at least in the mouth of an angry man. The timing is what struck me, really.

Speaking of the paper, the "old gray lady", otherwise known as The New York Times, raised it's newstand price from $1.00 to $1.25 last week. This week the paper itself has diminished by about 2 inches in both height and width. We are lead to believe it will contain the same amount of news and advertising, all slightly smaller. I didn't see much diifference today. Things change in tiny increments and this is one of them. One can only take notice and sigh. And say as Kurt Vonegut wrote at the end of many a chapter of [I think it was} Slaughter House Five -- that terrifying masteppiece from early in his career... "so it goes." And so goes a scattered post on a hazy, hot and humid evening at the height of summer.

Sunday, August 05, 2007

Conservatory Garden

About a 20 hour visit with Rachel but we walked a lot and saw a lot. After meeting her at Penn Station and having dinner in restaurant there, we stretched our legs with a deepening dusk walk along the Hudson from 72nd to 92nd. Lots of people enjoying the breeze off the river and the glow of light on the water. This morning we were up early, had breakfast and walked over to the Conservatory Garden in Central Park. Such a beautiful place! Especially on a refreshingly comfortable morning early enough to find only a handful of other people had arrived. These pictures are flowers/plants we enjoyed but give no true sense of the garden.
At the center of the garden are two alleys of trees enclosing rows of benches along walkways. The the far end a fountain casts rainbows this way and that in the sparking morning sun. To the right of the alleys is a formal garden in a bowl of carefully trimmed hedges with four entrances beneath hooped gateways with roses. In thecenter is a St. Gaudens statue of the Three Graces dancing -- one is laughing, one smiling as if she has a secretk, the other looks a bit looped actually. The curves of their bodies are very noteable under the supposedly sheer clothing. The picture below is in the corners by the rose gates, carefully chosen colors and plants from short in front to tall hollyhocks in back.
The the left of the alleys is a far less formal garden which has a statue of two youths holding the bowl of a birdbath above a small pool of water lilies. Here the plantings are thicker and wilder [tho' none are truly wild] A few wonderful spreading old trees, one a thick Rose of Sharon shade realy lush plants, some leaves and grasses and some flowers.

The entire garden is a place for wondering at the grace of plants/flowers/trees. There are benches well arranged throughout. The Conservatory Garden is not known to a lot of visitors because it is at 104th Street. The gates are closed at dusk and opened early in the morning but most tourists don't get that far uptown. I don't believe I have ever visited it without seeing at least one artist at an easel, as we saw this morning. Of course to get there we walked across the park, on different paths each way, sharing the early morning park with many, many dog walkers, tennis players, kids playing softball and other walkers. Such a treasure! With a cloudless blue sky and a fresh breeze it was as lovely as could be.

Friday, August 03, 2007

Summer Reading

It's high hot summer, the dog days of August -- whatever you call it -- hazy, hot and humid. Yuck! Long cool baths, splashes of body scent {mostly alcohol that dries leaving the skin feelng cool - briefly] -- I like my job, some days I like it less than others. Two days with badly recorded panelists, interesting info but said without grace and with much jargon. Ugh! Then today a brilliant scientiest, a genomist, who talked fluidly, without out a sense of humor, with much jargon about genomic info, how it's likely to revolutionize medicine [haven't i heard this before?[] and how he's started a genomic diagnostic company, blah-blah-blah. Tired as I was at 4:00 I stayed around and did a short bit of a Martha Stewart shoot -- how relaxing to watch one of her "boys" [minions ?] arranging pink roses!!

So I took myself to a Whole Foods which always has quite good [though under spiced] selections of hot Indian food for which i was having a craving [no lunch] and came home and enjoyed it. Now I'm going to finish this book: THE BIRD ARTST, by Howard Norman, which I've been reading and have only 15 or so pages left. It is not a new book, copywrite 1994, a National Book Award finalist. It's not what people usually think of as summer reading but I find it fits that description for me. The story is set in Witless Bay, Newfoundland and the characters are aptly named to live in such a fictional place. The hero is a somewhat befuddle young man who has little initiative except in his study of bird drawing. The time is 1911. The hero has a long standing affair with a local girl but allows his parents to plan a marriage to a never seen 4th cousin. But through plot manipulations he winds up murdering (sort of) the local lighthouse keeper who sleeps with both his girlfriend and his mother. That's an unfair condensation of the plot.

I learned some years ago from my daughter when she lived in Nova Scotia briefly that Nufies are made the butt of jokes as we [who are tasteless, politically incorrect boobs] make Polish jokes. These Nufies have names that are jokes. They are mostly upright people, but also a bit backward iin various ways The writer is a tad too clever -- something that befalls too many young writers who love to watch themselves go just a bit over the edge. I am always confounded when very good critics fall for that kind of easy cleverness [I've seen it a lot in playwrighting too]. It is that, not quite serious attitude on the writer's part that makes this "light summer reading" for me. I will finish it in the next half hour and probably give it to my daughter who, along with her husband, might still enjoy the inherent Nufie jokes.