Euro Cheaper

If you spent any time in the Eurozone a year ago, you had to swallow hard and tell yourself it was only money when presented with your bill at the hotel or the neighborhood trattoria. In summer 2008, the euro edged up to $1.60 in value. In March 2009, it dipped as low as $1.25. That’s a huge difference: A “moderately” priced hotel room in Rome or Paris that cost around $320 nine months back will cost $250 now, a middling restaurant tab for two about $240 then, about $188 now. Still expensive, sure, but a decided buck-stretcher.

That’s in the Eurozone, the sixteen western and central European countries that use the euro. In the United Kingdom, which hasn’t joined yet, the difference is even greater. The pound clocked in at a record $2.05 last summer, but is now hovering below $1.40. Even in hideously pricey London, then, compare a $500 room rate then with $350 now.

Here’s more heartening news: Valued-added taxes have long added a shocking 19.2% to restaurant meals. The EU nations have negotiated an agreement to allow its members to cut that rate according to their own perceived needs. In France, it has been ratcheted down to as low as 5.5%. That means that a Parisian lunch that used to total about $143 for two with tax will now be about $127. Many other services – shoes and salon fees included – will also be affected.

Dream vacations aren’t on too many people’s agenda just now, but maybe they’re getting closer.

On The Edge

We do our big-deal travel in “edge seasons”, taking to the road just before or after the high months of the destinations we covet, when prices are lower and crowds are thinner.

That means early December in Florida, when the weather is as good but room rates are as much as 40% lower than after the 15th. For the same reasons, we think April, May or September for central Europe or Canada, and October or April for southern Europe.
Because we can, we stick close to home from June to September and January to March, feeling a little sorry and a whole lot smug because we don’t have to adhere to the standard wage-slave-two- weeks-in-July-scramble.
Daytrips and an occasional overnight are our tickets during those months, preferably during the week, when inn prices are lower, visitors fewer, and restaurants are happy for our business.
Apart from the obvious ultimate drawback, there is much to be said for retirement.
Food is typically a key component of our excursions distant and near (please don’t call them “staycations”), but not always . Teatown Lake Reservation is a 834-acre nature preserve with a robust environmental mission in northern Westchester County. It shelters injured raptors, sponsors walking tours, conducts eagle-sighting days, harvests sap for maple syrup in late winter, and promotes ecological awareness. In the lake that is at the heart of the property is the two-acre Wildflower Island, protected from deer and approached only via footbridge in conducted tours. The point is to protect flowers and vegetation from non-native invaders. We’ve been meaning to take the tour for years and finally got around to it in June, probably the best month to visit. We’ll do it again. The grandkids like the animals in the main building and in the separate sheds out on the grounds where the hawks, rabbits, and turkey vultures are housed. Tours are $6. 1600 Spring Valley Road, Ossining, NY 10562; 914-762-2912; http://www.teatown.org/.

One of America’s favorite destinations for reasons too obvious to mention, it would seem there is little about the 50th state that might not be known to even a first-time visitor. Check them off – leis, the hula, luaus, resplendent sunsets, beaches of sugary white (or silky black) sands, palms fronds ticking in voluptuous breezes, even, need we mention, Tom Selleck, Jack Lord, and Don Ho. But these are far from all there is to know. Hawaii isn’t just a tropical Missouri. It has one of the most distinctive cultures found in the U.S. Try these on for size.

(1) The favorite Hawaiian comfort food is Spam. Yes, with a capital “S”, not the blizzards of entreaties that afflict our computers, but the infamous canned blocks of pale pink pork bits. So beloved is the meat product it’s served at the island McDonald’s. Hawaiians shamelessly consume over seven million cans of the compressed pig scraps every year. A favorite snack is musubi, a kind of improvised sushi wherein a four-inch cake of sticky rice is layered with a slice of Spam and wrapped with nori (black seaweed). It is widely assumed that the popularity of Spam was due to the presence of great numbers of military and naval personnel during World War II. Such is the price of freedom.

(2) “Aloha” doesn’t only mean hello/goodbye. Depending upon context and inflection, it can denote love, affection, mercy, kindness, pity, compassion, or 20 or 30 other emotions or feelings.

(3) That thumb-and-finger gesture exchanged between Hawaiians isn’t an insult. On the contrary, you see it throughout the islands. The newly inaugurated Barack Obama, who spent part of his early years there, used it to greet a Hawaiian band passing his reviewing stand. Stick a thumb out as if hitchhiking and point the pinky straight up at the same time while curling the other three fingers into the palm. It isn’t the “Hook ‘em Horns” flashed by Texas football fans. Instead, it is a greeting, a thank-you, a commendation, an acknowledgement. In current parlance, it is the approximate equivalent of “Hang loose”, more colloquially “Shaka, brah,” an updating of the old “Eesay, brudduh.” Used between friends, it is also employed to thank a driver who has let you into a line of traffic and other kindnesses. Practice before you go. It isn’t as easy as it looks.

(4) The Hawaiian language has only twelve letters in its alphabet. Polynesians didn’t have a written language, so when European missionaries arrived to spread the Christian faith they had to develop one, if only to create a Bible. They came up with a twelve-letter alphabet with five vowels and seven consonants. Apart from the “W”, which often comes out as “V”, the vowels are always pronounced the same way, without variation, with soundings similar to Italian and Spanish: “A” is “ah”, “E” is “ay”, “I” is “ee”, “O” is “oh”, and “U” is “oo”. Regular viewers of TV shows stretching back tp Hawaii Five-O” already know some words – wahine (woman), haole (white person or foreigner), lanai (porch), wikiwiki (fast), not to mention ukulele and poi (pounded taro root). Other words creep into everyday chat. Notices in hotel bathrooms ask guests to conserve water, ending with “Mahalo (thanks) for your kokua (help).

(5) The state flag of Hawaii incorporates the Union Jack of Great Britain. Hawaii was an independent kingdom during the 19th century with extensive trade relations with other nations, especially the United States and Great Britain. King Kamehameha I ordered a flag to be designed. The result had eight stripes in alternating red, white, and blue, which not only represented the eight principal islands but also honored the kingdom’s main trading partners. As an added fillip, a representation of the Union Jack was added to the upper left corner of the Hawaiian standard, which was made the official flag when statehood was conferred in 1959.

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Where In The World….?

Scroll Down For Answers

That April In Paris

The French Really, Really Don’t Suck
The flowering trees in the pocket plazas of the Latin Quarter had burst into voluptuous bloom the day before we arrived, and the willows down by the Seine were leafing out in palest shimmering green. By the end of the week, they were joined by the horse chestnuts and the cherry trees started loosing their petals in puffs of warm air.
By then, Michel at the corner café knew what we wanted for breakfast – café au lait and croissants – and sunny Cecile at the bar across the street brought us our two decaf expressos and one armagnac without our asking each evening after dinner. Everywhere, we were greeted with smiles and efficiency and solicitations, with not a single sneer nor snarl (excepting a couple of cabdrivers). Although it wasn’t difficult to guess we were Americans, no one took the opportunity to upbrade us for the actions of our now departed last government, which were universally deplored in France.
True, France’s greatest national hero was a warmongering dictator.  And true, the French revere elaborate expressions of grandeur, which often slides queasily into grandiosity.  And they award culture prizes to the likes of Sly Stallone, Jerry Lewis,  and Quentin Tarantino.  And French politicians from deGaulle to Chirac are among the most annoying people on earth. All true.
But they were absolutely, positively, right about the wrongheadedness of going to war in Iraq and it’s way past time we got over our petulant “freedom fries” and “liberty toast” snit. The French are a lot better at living than at fighting, and there is much we can learn from them.
So there.
Around Paris
This gorgeous city has enough museums and monuments to wear down the most diligent culture hound. There’s the Louvre, of course, and the Pompidou, the d’Orsay, Notre Dame, the Opera Bastile, the Sacré Cœur, Arc de Triomphe, the Jardin des Tuileries, and one of my faves, the Musee Rodin (at right).
But next time you’re there, check out the concert schedule beside the entrance to the 13th Century church, Sainte-Chapelle, at 4 bd. du Palais on the Ile de la Cite.  They are held upstairs before the high altar, where the audience is surrounded on all sides by towering stained-glass windows that sparkle like gemstones tossed across black velvet.  So expansive is the use of glass, the patrons must have feared for the building’s structural integrity.  Vivaldi and Bach were meant to be performed in such a setting.

There’s a museum so new – opened in June 2006 - it’s only starting to appear in guidebooks guidebooks. It’s the Musée du quai Branley (51 quai Branly), not far from the Tour Eiffel, and promoted by none other than Jacques Chirac as a legacy of his long tenure as president of the Republic. Gathered within are lavish collections of non-Western arts and artifacts from the Americas, Africa, Asia, and Oceania, fascinating for their ingenuity and displayed in fresh ways. They are refreshing antidote to the familiarity of Monet, Mona Lisa, and the Winged Victory of Samothrace.

While strolling down the long street market rue Mouffetard, distracted by stall after stall and store after store presenting mouthwatering displays of cheeses, pastries, terrines, breads, sausages, glistening fruits, dewy vegetables, and regional wines that rarely make it out of the country, we barely noticed the music being played by the street musicians who took up positions in front of the sidewalk cafes. They weren’t doing accordians or Piaf or Michel LeGrand. What we heard were Light My Fire, All of You, and Silent Night.

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Answers to “Where in the World…?

Left – Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City

Center – La Pedrera by Antoni Gaudí, Barcelona

Right – Hurricane Katrina, Louisiana

Eating Out: Manhattan

After a brief look-in at the South Street Seaport, we walked north a few blocks in a blisteringly cold wind to Chinatown.  A little way down Mott Street is Ping (22 Mott St., 212-602-9988), a seafood emporium popular with several recent mayors.  Downstairs is a relatively formal dining room, while upstairs is a noisy but orderly lunchtime dim sum parlor.  The room was crammed, but a table was quickly found for us.  There were only a few other Caucasian patrons, which we like to assume is evidence of authenticity.  (But then, the presence of Europeans in hundreds of overseas McDonald’s feeding troughs doesn’t suggest anything other than the worldwide corruption of taste.)  Order as many dumplings and related treats from the trolleys pushed past until full, and the final bill for two, with tea and Tsingtao beer, is unlikely to exceed $30.

Afterwards, we walked east through ever-expanding Chinatown, then north into the Lower East Side.  We passed the store of the famous Pickle Man, but it was the Saturday sabbath and closed.  Just across Delancy was the entrance to the Essex Street Market.  It’s a covered market, evolved from the days when pushcarts lined these streets. It’s still fairly basic and straightforward, and apart from the upscale Saxelby Cheesemongers booth, there’s nothing chi-chi about it. Call it an “if you’re in the neighborhood” stop.

That night, dinner was at Cookshop in Chelsea (156 10th Ave. at 20th St., 212-924-4440).  The buzz around it has faded among the city’s fickle foodies, so it’s possible to reserve a table at a hour somewhere around dinnertime and not at 5:45 or 10:15.  Although crowded with a cheerful mix of artistic sorts and downtown yupsters, we were seated on time.  The restaurant observes the “eat locally, organic and sustainable” mantra without being fascistic about it.  Fried spiced hominy is an irresistible snack with drinks and the menu (changed daily, of course).  Just about everything is given a regional identification – Montauk squid, Hudson Valley rabbit, Maine diver sea scallops, New York strip steak – like that.  But this was the middle of January, and they don’t pretend that the lemon zest came from a tree out back.  My Vermont suckling pig with a parsnip-potato-celeriac mash and pickled pears was eye-rollingly good, the tender flesh encircled by a strip of crackling, salty skin.  The bill for everything, including cocktails, wine, tax, and tip was under $150, about as fair as prices get in these parts.

Whether you prefer New York to Los Angeles or Paris to London or, to the point here, Barcelona to Madrid, may well depend upon which city you experienced first.  I first saw Barcelona in 1955 and didn’t get around to Madrid until six years later.  Fiercely exotic Barcelona had me wowed and wide-eyed, after which Madrid could stimulate little more than regard.  Those early impressions have balanced out a little more evenly since, but given an either-or choice I’d opt for Barcelona every time.

Back in the Fifties, after two decades under the iron fist of of the dictator Franco, Spain more closely resembled an underdeveloped country of the southern hemisphere than of Europe.  There were mule-hauled carts in downtown Barcelona and much street lighting was provided by gas.  Young couples were expected to be accompanied by chaperones and they could be arrested for daring to kiss in public.

By the early Seventies, largely due to a concern for sustaining Spain’s high levels of tourism, the authoritarian Francoist shroud was being lifted slightly to allow in a few freshets of contemporary thought. Almost unimaginably, demonstrations and protests were permitted to proceed, albeit under tight control.

One afternoon in 1974, I was sitting at a window table at a restaurant on the second floor of a building overlooking the top of La Rambla and the broad Plaça Catalunya.  The former is a wide, tree-lined pedestrian concourse with a constant 24-hour flow of tourists, sailors on shore leave, three-generation families, street performers, pickpockets, caricature artists, and those who seek profit from the others.  The plaza has spillover from La Rambla as well as thousands of pigeons drawn by visitors who actually think it is a good idea to feed the rats with wings.

As I was working my way through lunch, I heard a welling rumble of shouting people approaching the plaza from the Passeig de Gràcia.  The sound became thunderous and angry as a parade of demonstrators burst into view.  They carried banners and waved forbidden Catalan flags and some rocked cars in their path as if to overturn them while others set fires in waste baskets and threw rocks at streetlights.  They swept across the plaza and down La Rambla beneath me.
I don’t remember why I returned to the same table in the same restaurant that same night.  But there I was at 9:30.  A sound of people marching and bellowing slogans came up across the plaza.  Banners were waved.  Marchers broke into a run across the plaza.  Some of them set small fires, a few rocked cars in their path. They swept down La Rambla.

I asked the waiter what was going on.

“This afternoon, politics,” he said with a sigh and a Mediterranean shrug. “Tonight, football.”

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My Pyjamas

This Was Then
Most of what I know about food I learned in Spain.  After all, Spaniards eat just about anything that trots, swims, sprouts, crawls, flies, or germinates.  (Nearly anything, at least. They aren’t fond of corn or hot peppers.)  That isn’t a revelation.  Most of the world’s great cuisi
nes began as peasant food, and poor people have to make the most of the ingredients available to them.
When I first arrived there in 1955, a temporary refugee from a cocksure and sanitized America, Spain was of the Third World, not a Europe on the mend from total war.  I was soon to learn how elastic the definition of “edible” could be.
A newly minted Private First Class, I wandered slack-jawed through Barcelona’s ancient barrios.  Foreign visitor
s were still rare in the midst of that long winter of Francoism, so this Yankee soldier in high-water chinos and whitewall haircut provoked constant stares and some tentative approaches.  One of these was a stooped old man in a beret who came close as I puzzled over a street map.  He offered to help, gazing up at this towering young norteamericano (back then, 74 inches were sufficient to tower.)  I made the universal hand gesture for eating.  With a gap-toothed smile, he led me off with a lurching gait into the bowels of the medieval Gothic Quarter, chattering incomprehensibly all the way.
He deposited me with a flourish in front of an unpromising bar-restaurant with fly-specked windows and displays of octupi as big as melons.  I thanked him and entered, warily. Heads swiveled in the shadowy high-raftered room with a drifting blue haze of pungent odors.  All the patrons were men, for only men went into bars then. After a communal up-and-down examination of the interloper, they went back to drinking red wine from squat tumblers and shouting orders and opinions at each other.
A waiter in a frayed white jacket scurried up to me.  He guided me through the crowd to the staircase in back.  The floor was covered with shrimp skins and mussel shells casually tossed aside as their contents were consumed.  They crunched and clattered beneath my feet.
The dining room upstairs was far quieter and tidier, for I was the only patron.  It was barely noon.  I was on G.I. eating time, but no Spaniard even thought about lunch before two PM.  The room was not decorated so much as it was layered – with shellacked bullfight posters, photos of the owner with customers, yellowed press clippings, garlands of garlic and dried peppers, and mounted bulls’ horns.  Hanging overhead was a bloated brown wineskin that used to be a pig – it employed every part of the animal but its head and hooves.  It looked like a Thanksgiving Day par
ade balloon that was a cruel joke on Disney.

The handwritten menu made no sense, but I stabbed at gazpacho, sangris, and paella.  Oh, sure.  Snicker now at such lack of sophistication, ye who nightly dine on tuna tartare, sashimi, and oysters in jalapeño pesto. But this was then, and those three Spanish gifts to the world were decades away from becoming culinary clichés. This was a time in America when tomato soup was served hot and it was Campbell’s.  Rice was for pudding and wine was for sissies.

Gazpacho wasn’t bad, though, if odd, and the sangría suited the taste buds of one weaned on Pepsi-Cola. Until that day, however, and to the despair of my Nova Scotia-born mother, no fish but that interred in seven-ounce cans had passed my lips.  It was my untested conviction that organ meats and squiggly things tasted exactly as they looked.  But here! My very first paella was aswarm with tentacles! Claws! Liver chunks! Tripe! Parts of undisguised marine creatures!  And right in the middle, staring balefully at me, was an eyeball…of what origin I had no idea.
I took seriously the role of unofficial ambassador my Army superiors impressed upon me, and the waiter hovered to observe my reaction to his national dish. I smiled a sickly grin, ungritted my teeth, and moved in on the pizza-sized pan.  Somehow, I ate it all.
All except the centerpiece, which rolled around the rim when the waiter picked it up.  He expressed approval of my appetite.

That called for dessert. The menu listed a dozen possibilities, but only one item looked familiar: Pijamas. I groped for my pocket dictionary. The one-word definition read…pyjamas.  So, one more adventure.  I pointed at that.  It arrived soon after, a huge, multicolored, many-textured heap of whipped cream, sorbets, tarts, cakes, custards, and fruits.  Pijamas, it turned out, meant a portion of every dessert in the kitchen, all piled in one bowl.

Paella was strange, but good, I eventually decided.  Over the years, curiosity begat passion – for baby eels in hot oil, kidneys in red wine, squid in its ink, mussels, crayfish, prawns, sea bass baked in salt, roast kid, rabbit, wild boar.  I even screwed up the courage to try percebes – goose barnacles that look like the miniaturized feet of Godzilla.

Spaniards eat to get ready to dine.  Food and wine are almost hourly lubricants for social, commercial, and familial intercourse.  An abundance of each is essential to the honor of the hosts, and edibles and drinks must be hearty and lusty and straightforward in both flavor and portion.

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London Losing Luster

After a few days in London fore and aft of our two weeks in Paris, I came reluctantly to the conclusion that it is a city in chaotic decline. It wasn’t the famously awful weather, which actually was fine, with temps in the high 60s (shrieked one tabloid headline, LONDON SWELTERS IN HEAT WAVE!). Always the perfect starter destination for unilingual North Americans, it had so much going for it – museums, pubs, theatre, parks – it was always a favorite.
But the center of the city is now a madhouse, with surging, jostling crowds charging heedlessly down the packed sidewalks, and double-decker buses grinding through their gears and massing slow-moving, nose-to-tail walls along the constricted streets.  It makes midtown Manhattan at noon look like Omaha at midnight. Many fringe neighborhoods resemble shabby Third World capitals populated by people who obviously scorn assimilation.  West End theatre used to be a special treat and a particular bargain at prices well below those on Broadway.  Now there is cost parity and the plays and musicals are largely tired cross-Atlantic trade-offs of revivals and overwrought grotesqueries of the Andrew Lloyd Webber stripe. (An exception was the hilarious version of Spamalot.)
London has magnificent museums, several of them proudly showing off splashy new wings and renovations. But the special Monet exhibition at the National Gallery cost $24 per person!  A one-way ticket to get there on the Tube was $8, a little under $7 on a bus. And a very ordinary double room at a middling hotel sets visitors back at least $375 a night. Even the recent decline of the pound against the dollar hasn’t helped much.
British journalists and commentators routinely sneer at imports from American television while ignoring the fact that British TV networks and producers are directly responsible for such assaults on taste as American Idol, Survivor, and Who Wants To Be a Millionaire. The same people snicker about blubbery American tourists, and, of course, they have an undeniably good case – watching my 300-pound countrypeople waddling across Trafalgar Square is painful. But the Brits and other Europeans might take a look at the blokes to left and right of them. Fat Brits and their bovine compatriots across the Channel are hardly rare. According to the president of the European Association for the Study of Obesity, “In many European countries, more than half the population is overweight or obese.”
Heal thyselves.

From The Big Oyster, describing a celebratory mid-19th Century banquet in New York:

“The first course consisted of three soups, including oyster ‘potage‘, and fish – trout, bass, and shad – all products of the Hudson River.  The second course offered six different cold dishes, including oysters in aspic, as well as roasted sirloin, saddle of mutton, goose, veal, turkeys, and capons – note the plural – and a choice of five boiled meats, including boiled turkey with oyster sauce and stewed terrapin.
At last the entrees arrived, which included a total of nineteen dishes including ‘Oyster Pies’. Next was the game course, all from New York’s woodlands: wild turkey, canvasback ducks, venison, and bear.  This was followed by the fourth course, twelve desserts and six decorative pyramids.  The last course was nuts and fruit.”

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