Charmed again: my dinner with Agnes

I find our evenings with friends in Paris especially charming.  Could it be the views? 


Tour Eiffel lights up at night, flashes at us, and the top light spins
A lovely wine
Brie, camembert, morbier (the one with the dark line down the middle), chevre, butter

Tonight, yes, with a balcony facing the Tour Eiffel at night when the weather permits an open window to the balcony.  The Tour flashes at night and the searchlight on top spins 360 degrees.


Could it be the wine?  Well, there is that.   The French often start with champagne, although in this case it was a white wine.  

Perhaps the cheese?  (The French usually serve butter with the cheese, this was an especially rich butter.)  I am forever shocked when the cheese comes out.  I’ve already had enough to eat, what with the snacks while we wait for the wine to age, the night to darken, the dinner to finish its oven time, the conversation to get past the what’s new stage.

The conversation never lags, in part because of the catch up conversations, the latest news about children and friends, and the news about the news.     Joining us:  the Romanian boyfriend, offering another perspective on things, shall we say, with a story about a disappearing ship.   

We have been to Romania twice, once in 1998 and again in 2004.  In 1998 the country was dirt poor.  There were few goods in the stores, and they had trouble making change for lack of currency.  We had a wonderful dinner in an Intercontinental hotel, with a live band.  It cost a mere $20, an amount then far beyond the means of the locals.  We were the only ones in the place for most of the evening.   It was so intimate that Peg sang with the band.  She has a lovely voice which I rarely get to hear.  By 2004 things had improved some and things are perhaps a bit better now but still some emigrate.  

We’ve met quite a few Romanians in our travels in Europe.  They look for better opportunities.  Most seem to struggle in the west though.  The next day we met another, the husband of a consultant, one of the few we have met who makes a good living in financial tech.  We know two restaurateurs in Valencia, both succeeding but working endless hours.   The consultant was born in Venezuela, whose disintegration goes far beyond even what happened to Eastern Europe during the transition to a market economy. 


Another evening was just with Americans, with equally charming views.


View from Mark’s Window


Mark is an exceptional cook with a neat apartment on’Ile Saint-Louis.  During the summer on the right bank there is music every night, lovely if you are me and there for an evening, but for those residents who can not tune it out it’s another matter.  Likewise with the lights from the tourist boats, and for metro riders who hear Have Naguila and Those Were the Days over and over again. 


I might tire of a tian if I had one every night, but never having the experience, it was highly rewarding.  I shall quote Mark on the serious matter of French cooking:  “The tian is the name of the round baking dish. Anything that’s made in it, then, is a tian. This one was a tian méridionale, basically the same veggies as a ratatouille… No browning; the veggies cooked slowly with olive oil and their own sugars until they caramelized.”  


A tian


The wines were superb.  Mark’s friend is a delight, someone whom we’d not met.   Here as at chez Agnes the conversations just flows.  Other Americans friends were there, whom we’ve known for going on 20 years.  They have spent far more than that in Paris for about 6 months at a time.  She in particular likes warm winters so they return to Florida.  She is a trained and very fine chef, about which I could go on and on.   

My contribution to the exhibit at the Hotel d’ Ville’s exhibit in Paris

My contribution to the exhibit at the Hotel d’ Ville’s exhibit in Paris, an delightful exhibit about which I posted last week. It is a protest against the astronomical prices in the restaurants. Try $6-7 for coffee, $15 for a hot dog. it’s become impossible for the average worker to afford to take the family out even once in a while unless they have a employer provided ‘ticket reataurant.’ 

Croak is a play on words- croque monsieur is a famous sandwich. If I can find someone to translate this for me I might do it up, just a 10 minute sketch now but I think it is kind of fun.








¡Hola de Valencia!

Unlike last October 1 when we arrived in Valencia by train late at night during a flood, this time we arrived again from Paris but on a plane earlier in the day and to the dry conditions you normally find in this area.  The sun was shining and the skies crystal clear blue.  We splurged on a taxi from the airport so we would not have to drag our heavy bags up and down stairs on the Metro, and soon found ourselves in our old apartment overlooking the Torres Serrano in the heart of historic Valencia, dating from Roman times.



view from our place pen ink
Here’s what we see from our balcony (pen and ink by Gary)


The cleaning lady was finishing, so we had lunch around the corner near the Torres.  It was a bit warm so we ate inside.  The ‘menu’ of the day was the usual 3 course affair.  I had the vegetarian paella and a tuna steak for the second course.  Not a bad lunch at all, and only $13 including a bottle of a decent rose wine.

Afterwards we threw our clothes into the closets and our other stuff here and there and did some grocery shopping to get us through dinner.  Then we took the rest of the day to recover.

Rome December 12- 2 of 2

We went on our merry way to Santa Maria in Trastevere.  It is a magnificent church from tiled/mosaic floor to gilded ceiling.  And it’s quite old- it was finished in 1143.  Mary hangs out outdoors on the pediment in golden mosaics and Byzantine style. The floor tiles were donated by one of the wealthy families; it was something they all did.

Down the way we resolved our lunch squabble by deciding on a restaurant.  In a mighty display of acting skill I convinced Peg I would be quite happy about it and as it turns out I even convinced myself, that’s how well I performed.  Peg ordered a mighty fine pizza for us to share.  It came with bresciola, shaved parmigiano, and rucheta.  It was fabulous!  The wood oven does a mighty find job with a pizza crust.  It is hotter than any home oven can get, up to 800F.  The crust cooks very quickly and tends to puff up in spots, raising it off the floor of the oven, giving an uneven crustiness that actually is a major benefit. We had a half bottle of wine, a white from the Colli Albani, the hills just south of Rome.  It went very well with the cicorria and brocoletti we ordered as contorni (side dishes served with the second plate normally- the second being the meat or fish).  The former was quite spicy.  You rarely find cicorria outside Italy, although I have grown it in the US.  Brocoletti is very similar if not the same as what we call rapini in the US.  In Italian it means ‘little broccoli’ although it is not a broccoli at all, but a Mediterranean herb.

We spent the rest of the afternoon at St. Peters.  If you ignore the immense egos of the Popes and the horrors of Christianity at various periods, you can enjoy this immensely beautiful building. Mary’s face in Michaelangelo’s Pieta is way too young for a mother of a 33 year old, but I guess that really does not matter.  The building’s proportions, the superb building materials and the high quality of the sculptures and other art work are all stunning.  It is amazing what immense wealth can do- as well as a large supply of marble from the Coliseum and other Roman era buildings ravaged to decorate this structure.  And never mind that all that marble was quarried with slave labor.  Well, at least, put these thoughts aside for a moment to appreciate the great skill you see manifest before you.







Rome December 12 2011 (1 of 2) Misadventures on the way to Holy Mary

It seems I can not remember to both zipper up and do anything else all in the same day.  Today I remembered to zipper up so something had to give.  We were already on the tram heading for Santa Maria in Trastevere when I learned what it was.  My weekly transport pass.  It was not in my back pocket where I put it yesterday.  Of course the time to check this sort of thing is after you leave the house and get on the thing you need the pass for.

I hopped off the tram as Peg said something about Santa Maria, hopped onto the next one going back to the flat to see if perchance I’d left it there.  It took me a few minutes to notice the large group of ticket checkers standing just a few feet away.  Fortunately they were chatting with one another so I hopped off and got on the next one.   All this was for naught as I did not find the pass in the flat.

In the meantime Peg continued on to Termini station to find a bus map.  The ones that purported to be bus maps at the newspaper stands do not have any bus routes on them.  We were then going to continue on towards the Etruscan museum at Villa Giulia.   I waited for her where I got off.  It was over an hour when she showed up, walking from the opposite direction.  She had said that we were to meet at Santa Maria in Trastevere.  I’d checked there once while waiting but she was not there.  At least we only lost 15 minutes which after over an hour in the cold but sunny weather was not too bad.  But by this time it was the lunch hour so it was time for us to fight about where we are to eat.   Peg has decided that if I don’t chose I’ll get mad if it doesn’t work out.  This, of course, made me mad.

Tomorrow I leave with the zipper down.



We arrived in Rome Tuesday afternoon after a short flight from Valencia.  After meeting our landlord for the week- we rented a small flat in Trastevere near the train station- we had a bit of a rest,  and went to find a friend  at the school on top of the hill.  A colleague got her on the phone for us.  We’ll meet up some time this week.  I’ll tell you about her in a later post.

After some light shopping at a fancy joint – we’d been there before – we had a nice light dinner at a tavola calda called Pizza Boom.  Turns out our landlord recommended it but we picked it out on our own.  It is just a small place with pizza by the slice, veggies by the weight, and 3.50 for a decent bottle of red. Dinner for two including a nice hunk of mozzarella di bufala for 15 euros.

Tuesday morning, after a cup of the most fabulous cappuccino (how do the Italians do it time after time?) in a little place nearby we went to the Tor Argentina. These ruins are in the middle of busy area. Cat’s live there and are fed and cared for (a sign reads ‘do not feed’). This is where Caesar was assassinated. Like most ruins, they are quite below current street level. This is one of my favorite spots but here I have many.

Then we walked to  Bocca de la Verita  No way would a guy like me go anywhere near that Bocca thing. This is Peg’s favorite church. It dates from the 8th century. I recall reading that the RCC distributed food from here (grain and oil were given away by the state in Roman times, if I recall correctly), continuing the practice in the absence of government.  The crypt is now open. You pay just a euro to go in.  Just some columns and a little table with a Byzantine Mary image on it.

Across the street is my favorite Roman temple, that of the Vestal Virgins (not that I am partial to virgins.)    I’ll try to do a pen and ink of it.  It is in fine shape. Across the way is a 4 arched gate. It is being excavated so you can not get near it right now. Too bad. It was a very important entrance to il Foro (the Forum) which is just a short distance away.

We went into the center of the old town for lunch. There are jillions of places but since we were eating at friend’s house, we ended up in a pizza al taglio (by weight) place since you can eat a light meal for relatively little money.  They also have other choices. There was a veal plate for example. I got a plate of veggies. The Italians love veggies and feature them like no one else I know of. I had a plate of breaded eggplant/aubergine and several other veggies. The Italians love olive oil almost as much as the Spanish so there was plenty! I think a bit much for me as afterwards I had to buy a coke to settle my stomach.

In this place and others, if you want say some veggies and some pizza, you have to go to two separate counters. The pizza counter here is run by a woman who reminds me of the nurse character played by Cloris Leachman (opposite Harvey Korman) in Mel Brook’s High Anxiety, a film he did in the 70’s.  She had the world’s pointiest boobs with which to menace her opponents. The woman who serves the pizza here thinks all customers are opponents. Anyway she intimidated me into buy a huge piece of pizza with just fresh tomatoes and a few mozzarella balls on it. It was fabulous.

After we went on our merry way we got on the shopping bus they run during the holidays. You get a nice tour of the old town while pretending to window shop. Actually I check out the Roman women, whom I still find to be stunningly shapely despite the winter apparel, which I think should count as a handicap.  The young Parisian wearing short shorts with leggings in winter still give me whip lash as well.

The bus brought us to Piazza del Popolo.  One of my favorite buildings is here. Inside is the famous Caravaggio of Paul being hung upside down on a cross. There are some fabulous chiaroscuro- balustrades that have so much dimension you have to touch them to know for certain they are painted.

After a bit of a rest up we went for diner at friends M and P’s place near the Barberini palace.  We met M in 1999 and had maintained contact (this is my department as Peg does not do contact very much) and met up in ’04 and ’05 (when we were here for shorter periods), so it was a real pleasure to see them again.  Their children have grown up.  The son is now 17 and the daughter 16, and a very impressive pair they are.  The son expects to study in the UK and the daughter in the US after they graduate.  Both speak English and Italian with equal ease.

We had great conversation and food for the next several hours, starting with some thinly sliced ham and some mozzarella with some very lovely Italian red.  Then it was the primi piato, pasta with a red sauce and pancetta.  Then she served some involtini – which means stuffed.  In this case it was some sausage with thyme wrapped by a slice of chicken breast.  Lovely.

In the meantime friend J entertained us with his theft story.  He left his wallet on the seat of his car in Iceland.  The crooks immediately went to a cash machine but did not have the password so J got a message on his phone regarding the attempt, telling him the location.  He found a policeman, they went to the bank, got the video of the incident (they knew the time from the phone message) and the cops recognized the crooks.  They even knew where they lived, went there and retrieved the wallet completely intact- having threatened the crooks with jail time if there was even a penny missing. Unfortunately J told this story several times.  I think he had a bit too much to drink.

It was otherwise going well before we ran out in a panic thinking the buses stopped at 1030 (Peg got this one wrong, the fault of a website).  But it was late enough for me anyway, though I hated to end the evening so abruptly.  Out we walked into the cold winter night.


Klezmer at Restaurant les Trois Artes

April 21, 2012

Les Trois Artes is a small place in the 20th arrondisement.  It sits upon a corner, seats maybe 20 people upstairs, and room for up to about 50 in the ‘cave’ downstairs.  The cave is typical of these sorts of establishments, stone walls frame the arched openings, rickety chairs and cheap tables.  But the atmosphere was buzzing with the energy and enthusiasm of the skilled klezmer band Klez’manne You can listen to a few songs on their site as well as my own hand  held video.