Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Well Fed Weekend

No, you are not misreading.  This, my friends, was a well fed weekend.  You'd think, 'Oh, tapas.  They're so little, so they must be so simple to make.'  Wrong.  I spent hours on Friday evening cooking a tapas masterpiece.  Notice, I did not say slaving in the kitchen.  This cooking, was pure joy--chaotic, messy, noisey, multiple burners going, wine already uncorked and mad dashes to the store to pick up missing ingredients. 

What resulted from the chaos was a table jam packed of little plates of food--patatas bravas, tortilla espanol, olives, cheeses, bruschetta, pa amb tomaquet.   All tied together with lots of wine and about 20 cloves of garlic.  I did manage to layer in some well-readness: my friends and I all exchanged books.  I've got some great new travel literature to review for future entrees.

The only meal until late at night the next day was the chocolate and dip tasting over at the Boston Cheese Cellar.  I spent the day trying to work off all the carbs I had indulged in the previous day--a bike ride through the Arboretum and a flamenco dance class at the Brewery complex.

Finally at night, my couchsurfing guest, room mate and I ventured into the North End for some real Italian.  We were able to find a place with no wait (and no waitstaff), thus prices were low (for the North End).  

I'm still trying to recover from my well fed weekend.  Next weekend--back to the books.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Beantown to Big Apple

As I resolved, I did get out on Saturday.  I hit up my favorite diner, Veselka, walked a lot and helped document a lindy bomb.  Lindy bombs do the opposite of real bombs--they draw people to them and create fun.  All you need are a bunch of crazy dancers who like to show off, a boombox with batteries and a way of sweet-talking security so they let you do it.  

Here's some of the dancers in Grand Central Station:

And Times Square:

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Well-Read Weekend #4

Well this weekend I'm in New York, and doing more social things like hanging out at a friend's house and making mac and cheese for them and playing Wii instead of reading.  I love traveling, but I've been on the road for a week now and sometimes, even when in an exciting place like NYC, you just want to turn on the television and east some mac and cheese.  I once spent an entire weekend in Paris and the only museum I went to was the Catacombs.  My friend and I spent the day cooking a big dinner for her 6 room mates and then played Risk in French.

And it was great.  Today I'm resolving to get out of the house and with my current budget I'm going to be limited to doing  as much free stuff as possible.  I'll make an exception for Veselka, my old Ukranian diner I used to wait the graveyard shift at freshman year.  Then I'm off to dance in Grand Central Station.  But there's one thing you definitely need to catch when in NYC: art.  Here's a new edition of a book I loved back when I lived in NYC, was poor and looking for culture:
Public Art New York by Jenifer Phifer

Some of the best art in New York is not hanging on the walls in the Met--it's in the streets (and bars and lobbies) of New York.  I picked up an older version of this book in the library and spent a week wandering through the nooks and crannies of NYC to find great art.  

Bank and hotel owners were once great patrons of the art.  Architects of apartment buildings were fans of surrealism.  This book is a great way to find about 2 centuries of art that are mosaics laid into the hotel lobbies and paintings hanging in bars.  It also has some great background and history on how the art got there.   You'll feel a little funny staring up at an Alexander Calder mobile in the Chase Bank as business people rush around you, but you'll also feel a little like you know a secret they don't know.  

Some of my favorites:

A Picasso sculpture in an apartment complex in NoHo

A Maxfield Parish in the St. Regis Hotel Bar

  Framing Union Station in the 14th St. Subway

All absolutely free!  Enjoy!

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Far and Away in Budapest

My recent travels are limited to New England, which exudes a charm of its own, for sure, but nothing gets me going like a far away locale.  A friend of mine is headed to one of my favorite cities in Europe, Budapest.  Here's my recommendations for her and anyone else who's headed thataway.

I once had an Italian corner me at a party and for nearly 20 minutes sang the virtues of Prague.  The 'song' went something like this.  "I ate like a king every night for change - Prague.  The gothic, cobbled streets were magical to explore - Prague."  And so on, every verse ending with a Prague chorus.  (For best results, draw out Prague with a rolled-r and a breathy gue.  Add in an Italian accent.)  

Perhaps it was like that a decade ago when he went, but now Prague, while charming, is no longer the secret capital of Europe.  The word is out; it is crowded and expensive.  Worth a trip, yes, but not the magical mecca of the East (Europe) it once was. 

Instead, if you want magic, go to Budapest.  (To say it like a local - Budapescht.)  It probably also helped that I made the trip at the end of October, when whatever crowds had been there had dissipated.  Budapest is actually downright cheap: try 6 for a bed in a hostel downtown.  Dinners for just a few euros and attractions for the same.  Its accessible: Budapest has the oldest subway in continental Europe, an extensive trolley system (great way to see the city) and buses for all other corners.  Here's my picks for a trip:

The Grand Hall Market
Luckily, this place is seeing way better days than under communist rule.  There's 1 paprika stand for every 2 vegetable stands.  Most stand owners won't speak English, so be prepared to use motions, Hungarian or German.  I picked up some great paprika and vegetables here and kept my costs low by cooking half my meals at the hostel.   Mmmm, vegetarian goulash.

V√°rosliget The City Park
Here you'll find examples of each kind of Hungarian architecture and the statue of Anonymous.  Literally, this guy is called Anonymous and he apparently is some monk that wrote the only history of their country.  They take his book as truth--nuts!

Hero's Square
Best seen with a tour guide to explain all the history you're seeing.  I recommend Absolute Walking Tours.  Pick up a coupon card for them at the tourist center.

Kerepesi Cemetery
Absolutely gorgeous.  I recommend going as the sun is setting for the best spooky effect of the light on the art deco graves.  Make sure your camera battery is charged!

The Children's Railway
Probably the ultimate off-the-beaten-track sight.  Take a subway to a bus to a cog-railway.  Walk up a hill.  You'll reach a miniature train station run by children.  It was started by the communists, but the Hungarians still love it.  The ticket sellers are kids, the conductor is a kid, and they're all dressed up in little uniforms taking their jobs very seriously.  Go, seriously.

The House of Terror
Hands down the best Nazi/Communist museum in all of Europe.  Artsy, thought-provoking and downright horrifying.  

Coffee Houses
There's many here in Budapest.  Budapest was one of the first places in Europe to get the coffee craze when they were invaded by the Turks.  Today Budapest has a fine tradition of coffee houses, where the intellectuals of the day gather.

Statue Park
When Eastern Europe was liberated from Communist rule, most cities did the cathartic thing and smashed the commie statues to bits.  Not Budapest, they took all the statues to the outskirts of town and made the Statue Park.  It is on the side of the road, completely unkempt and overgrown with weeds.   Fitting and fascinating.

Speaking of cathartic recommend doing the baths at least once during your stay.  The Gellert Baths are the fanciest, art deco ones with beautiful tiled rooms, but my favorite is the people's bath house, Szechenyi.  You'll find the Szechenyi bath in the city park.  It's huge, with several outdoor pools.  Make sure you catch the old men in speedos playing chess poolside, book yourself a massage and wait in line to stand under the spouting fountains in the pool.  Get used to seeing lots of skin.

Lastly, make sure you stop by a City Spy recommended hostel and pick up a hard-copy of a Mr. Gordonsky's City Spy Map.  I found these little guys, to be the best maps and have the best reviews of food and hangouts across Europe.  

Well-read Weekend #3

Another Saturday, another trip to the library. This week, my stack of checked out books has gotten quite large. It's the trap of the 'hold this item for me' button. You see, the Jamaica Plain library branch is quite small. It's a place that exudes literary magic--old, old fiction paperbacks and dated non-fiction. A sizable travel book collection and a curious shelf on JP history. It's all housed in a building that I'm sure was once some one's home with dark wooden paneling and high ceilings. It invites you to pull up a chair.

But then there's the other several dozen branches out there. All connected online, you can surf them all at once, create a saved wish-list and with one click the book you desire is whisked right to your branch. You get a call when it arrives. I recommend seeing if your library does this.

It's dangerous to have so many books at one's fingertips. I get greedy, and then stressed as the due-date approaches and they are yet to be read.

Here's one such stress-inducer that isn't quite done yet:

Gaudí: A Biography by Gijs Van Hensbergen

What is Barcelona without Gaudi? Just another Valencia with second-rate paella. Gaudi not only puts the facade on Barcelona, but infuses it with soul too. His ideas of Catalan nationalism and his helping birth the modernista movement is what creates the Barcelona of today.

To think that his architecture was laughed at back in his day: "I don't know whether we are graduating a genius or a fool," declared his patron upon graduating him from architecture school. Famous Barcelonian resident, George Orwell despised his buildings. Today he is revered. There's even an effort to have him sainted.

Though little records remain of his life, author Hensbergen does an amazing job at piecing together the information we have left, weaving it in with the politics and cultural revitalization of turn of the century Catalunya. The result is a deep delving into the brain of one of the greatest architects of all time and a picture of the shaping of the pride of a nationless state. There's a lot of guessing of the part of the author as to what made Gaudi such a devout Christian, vegetarian and celibate, but he walks us through all his reasoning and evidence of his answers.

If going to Barcelona, it is best to know a bit about the man at the forefront of the Catalan spirit and so many spots on your tourist map. I highly recommend as a read for those on their way to this modernista beacon.

Haven't been to Barcelona and want to know what all the fuss is about for Gaudi's architecture? A simple google image search of 'Gaudi' will give you the answer.

Sunday, March 08, 2009

Well-read Weekend #2

It's another well-read weekend.  Of course there's something special about curling up in a blanket next to a fire when it's snowy outside, sipping a hot-chocolate and reading a good book.  There's something even better, though, about sunbathing on your private deck, the long-awaited spring sun warming you, reading a good book.  

So that is what I did today.  Now that the sun is once again out, the snow, come on Monday, was gone by Sunday, ao I had another chance to enjoy being outside.  I hopped the bus to "Rahsi," what the locals apparently call my new favorite hood, Roslindale.  I've become a regular at the cheese shop.  I did my grocery shopping at the Village Market and picked up a fresh loaf of bread at the bakery.  While I waited for the bus I finished my latest travel read:

A Year in the World: Journeys of a Passionate Traveler by Frances Mayer. (go ahead, pick it up on Amazon used for $.01)

Frances is the author of several books about travel, including Under the Tuscan Sun, which catapulted herself, and the rustic region in Italy to fame.  It must be strange to have a movie made of your memoir, with the leading character using the same name.  The fame has gone a bit to her head.

The book is a straightforward, poetic account of a year of her travels through Europe, Morocco and Turkey.  Her rich, vivid descriptions of the luxurious meals tantalize my tastebuds and her dramatic rendering of the landscapes and water surrounding far-away lands take my soul's eye there.  I skip her just as lengthy descriptions of English gardens, one of which is enough to give me a picture of what the dozen or so flowerbeds she visits might look like.

I sympathize with her drive to find the local, the authentic, the back-door experiences, that any traveler seeks out, but her fame and wealth taint the authenticity of the experiences.  How many of us can stay at a different British country-side cottage every other night, taxi around Greek Islands, go shopping for 3 Turkish rugs to ship home, or get comped into a Mediterranean cruise to lecture on travel?

It's not so much that it's wishful thinking, but rather, I'd rather skip the lofty tourist experiences.  Mayes looses most likability when, during her most stressful part of her journey, she misses all the taxis back to her cruise ship, being forced to walk 3 miles and take a bus back to the ship. 

Her passion wins you back over when she recalls lines from Greek Poet, Alexander Matsas as she stares out over the sea on the island of Crete or richly-details the cooking of food in Lisbon.

All in all, an enjoyable read for foodies, history and poetry enthusiasts, and gardeners.  Skip it if you're looking for adventure.

Monday, March 02, 2009

Snow Day

When you're grown up snow days don't mean the same thing.  Trade in that sled for a shovel, the hot chocolate and snow pants for coffee and a slushy commute.

I got a glimpse into how nice the city will be when spring decides to finally hit Boston.  This weekend I slipped on my much neglected tube-top dress and pedaled around Centre street to do brunch, hit the library and check out the growing multitude of second-hand stores on the main drag. 

Today it's 10-13 inches and back to the wool coat.  :::sigh:::

Sunday, March 01, 2009

Well-read Weekends

Weekends are not typically the day you start resolutions. Mondays are more apt for those kind of things, but who's got time to blog on Mondays, but professionals. As we know, I'm not quite there yet (or rather a continent or two away), so I'll start on Sunday. Introducing . . .

I've been through many literature phases from historical to sci-fi, to even dabbling in a bit of biography. My recent love are travel books. Let's hope this one isn't just a phase. Every weekend I'll review a recent book I've read; it could be travel literature, a guide book, or even a book that's so much about a place that the setting is almost it's own character. I've amassed a decent collection of books of this type so far, but the Boston library is my new literary playground, so I'll be sure to include some new gems from there too.

This week's pick:

My French Whore by Gene Wilder

I picked this up in a small book store in Aspen. Reading a book by Gene Wilder was intriguing and the small size was perfect for packing in my already over-stuffed suitcase.

The story goes like this: Paul Peachy's work and one-sided marriage in Minnesota leave him empty, so when the chance to enlist in World War I comes, he does. He's shipped off to France and ends up impersonating a famous German spy. He eventually fulfills the exciting life and love he's always wanted--something he never would have found if he had stayed at home in Minnesota.

The hilarity and heart-felt feelings that come from Paul Peachy's tale, you would recognize from Wilder's acting. You can imagine a young Gene Wilder playing the character of Paul Peachy the whole story, which makes reading The French Whore almost like watching a film.

But I digress, this is a travel book review. The book does a fantastic jobs of caricaturing the characters of different countries--Germany, France, US--in a way that doesn't make them just stereotypes. And who can't relate the confusion of a traveler getting way in over his head on his first trip to Europe--and falling in love with a foreigner.

A short read, but a sweet one that I whole-heartedly recommend you pick up to carry around in your over-stuffed bag on your next trip. It'll be worth the space.