Monday, March 24, 2008

A Birthday in Locarno

I officially got 1 year older last week. I won’t say exactly how old I am (hint: it rhymes with “thirty”), but Maggie now claims that I have joined “The Old Club”. I just hope I don’t have to go to meetings. For whatever reason, I like looking at lists of famous people that share birthdays with myself and other people I know - just try entering your birthday on Wikipedia, you find out all sorts of interesting things that happened on that day, and you get a kind of Fantasy Birthday lineup of notables to compare with your friends. It turns out that I share a birthday with such notables as Ovid, Henrik Ibsen, Spike Lee, Holly Hunter, and Hal Linden (the star of Barney Miller). Admittedly, this list could be more impressive and I think my Fantasy Birthday team is a bit lacking in depth. Maggie gets Queen Elizabeth I, and I get Mr. Rogers - it doesn’t seem fair really. My friend James gets John Montagu, 4th Earl of Sandwich and inventor of the sandwich, I get Mookie Blaylock.

The view from our hotel room at the undisclosed location

For my birthday this year, Maggie decided to surprise me with a trip to an undisclosed location. Due to a combination of factors, i.e., a) her desire to spill the beans, and b) my need for some cheering up on a particularly dreary London day a few weeks ago, I discovered the secret of our destination well before my actual birthday. Because I have often reminisced about the wonderful time my brother and I spent eating our way through the Italian lakes region, Maggie booked us a trip to one of my favorite spots, Locarno, Switzerland. Locarno sits in the Swiss canton of Ticino, just over the border from Italy on the northern tip of Lake Maggiore, only a little over an hour drive from Milan’s Malpensa Airport. Ticino has a wonderful mixture of cultures picking the best aspects from surrounding regions: the great food, wine, laid-back culture, and some of the Mediterranean climate of northern Italy, combined with the nice hotels, trains, and nonexistent potholes of Switzerland.

Shore of Lake Maggiore in Minusio

Locarno is one of the best known of the lake towns, and attracts a fair number of tourists, particularly during the Summer. Even now, very much off-season, Locarno proper was at times busy, most likely due to the Easter holiday. We stayed out of the bustle in the quiet village of Minusio, just up the shore from the main part of Locarno and an easy walking distance from all of the restaurants and sights. Minusio is home to Ristorante Campagna, a truly remarkable restaurant whose name is uttered with reverence by members of my family and by locals of the area. You won’t find anything about this restaurant online or in any book that I have seen, but this is one of my top restaurants on the planet.

The front, or maybe back, of Ristorante Campagna

Campagna
is not especially fancy, the food isn’t presented in any splashy way, and it isn’t even particularly expensive. I’m not even sure where the actual front door is or if they have one. Imagine perfect Italian grandma-cooked food - simple, rustic, fresh, incredibly flavorful food that pleases your soul as much as your palate, food that has been passed down and hasn’t changed for generations - this is the food at Campagna. The view of the lake from the restaurant is also spectacular. When I was here 7 years ago with my brother, the weather was very warm and we ate outside on the vine-covered deck watching the sun sink behind the Alps, watching boats glide by below on Lake Maggiore, watching a local cat prowl through the restaurant garden from which our salad was picked, meanwhile eating homemade sage and ricotta ravioli while sipping on the house-made Nostrano wine. I’ll stop gushing now; just go.

View of Lake Maggiore from the terrace at Campagna

Starter courses at Campagna. Stop staring at the ravioli, it's mine.

Other than Campagna, we were a bit at a loss to find other good restaurants. Recommendations are hard to come by online for the area, and guidebooks either focus on the Italian lake towns and barely mention anything over the Swiss border or focus on the more “Swiss” parts of Switzerland. The restaurants that are easy to find, such as those right on the lake or the central plaza, are clearly targeting tourists, very expensive, and mostly mediocre. Following one tip we found, we went for dinner one evening to Grotto Baldoria in the nearby, preposterously pretty village of Ascona. After several misturns in the ancient labyrinthine alleys of Ascona, we finally got to the restaurant at around 7:00, and found the place totally empty. I normally run from empty restaurants, but we were hungry and had no other prospects so we stayed put, plus 7:00 is ridiculously early for dinner to most Italians. We were seated at the end of a large communal dining table in a room that appeared to have been decorated over the course of 500 years by wildly eccentric and possibly slightly drunk Italian fishermen, and, much to our relief, other diners soon began pouring in.

The menu at Grotto Baldoria

We quickly noticed that there was no menu to be found, nor any indication of the price of anything, and food just began showing up on our table. We prayed that we had enough cash on us. We sat with a nice Swiss couple who spoke mostly in Swiss-German and a little English to us (we had an amusing conversation about Alcatraz and Clint Eastwood), and there was a French couple, a few groups speaking Italian, as well as some diners speaking in a more standard German dialect. Listening to all of the conversations and picking up bits and pieces was extremely entertaining, but it uncomfortably highlighted the inadequacies of American schooling in the languages (or at least mine). At random intervals, someone in an adjoining room would pick up an out of tune classical guitar and strum a few random chords, or just strum open strings for a few minutes and then stop, probably to go back and stir something in the kitchen.

The food at Grotto Baldoria was very good and homey, rustic to the point of being almost mysterious, and the whole experience was like a slightly surreal dinner party at a distant friend’s house. One course consisted of thinly sliced pig tongue with a vinegary garlic dressing. I tried to conceal the exact identity of the meat from Maggie, but one of our Swiss companions stuck out her own tongue and pointed at it excitedly for Maggie. Maggie gets major points for continuing to eat it, and I get at least a few demerits for trying to trick her into unknowingly eating pig tongue. At one point, due to a series of mistranslations along our table, we became convinced that the dessert we could see across the room was some local specialty made of meat. Luckily, it was a cake (with no meat), with a fruit jam topping. The proprietor wouldn’t tell us what fruit, it was secret. Speaking of secrets, we still had no idea what this whole meal was costing us, and it was thankfully quite cheap. If you find yourself in Ascona (a nice place to find yourself), Grotto Baldoria is highly recommended for good local food and an unforgettable experience.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Speed-the-Pluff

A British coworker of mine recently returned from a trip to New York and mentioned how confused she was by all of the road signs about “snow plows”. In England, plow is spelled “plough”, so “plow” looks like it might rhyme with “blow”, especially when sitting next to "snow". Many Americans would probably look at “plough” and think, “Hmm, what does ‘pluff’ mean?”. I’d be tempted to say that we Americans got it wrong with our typically cavalier approach to language, except that there is simply no rule on the proper usage of “-ow” versus “-ough”, or the pronunciation of either of these in the first place. Take the Dr. Seuss book “The Tough Coughs as He Ploughs the Dough” - that’s four pronunciations for “-ough” and he even left out “ought” and "slough" (in the "sloo" sense). So that’s six pronunciations: off, uff, ow, oh, aw, and ooo. And who knows why "draught" is pronounced "draft". On behalf of the English-speaking world, I apologize to all people trying to learn English.

Although my thought is that he ought to be ploughing in a slough

Normally, I think the British are guilty of more strange pronunciations than Americans, particularly when it comes to place names, and even they will tend to agree with this. An unsuspecting American presented with Warwick, Belvoir, Happisburgh, Torpenhow, and Woolfardisworthy would be completely out of luck (“war-ick”, “beaver”, “hays-bruh”, “truh-penna”, and “woolsree”). However, even these oddly pronounced English towns are easy compared to Welsh town names, what with a town honestly named Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch (you can hear the name pronounced here).

We will soon be arriving at Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious

This is all a very roundabout way of getting to the topic of this post, which is the David Mamet play Speed-the-Plow starring Kevin Spacey, Jeff Goldblum, and Laura Michelle Kelly, which has been getting great reviews recently. We went to see this at the famed Old Vic in Southwark (naturally, pronounced “suth-ick”). Kevin Spacey is certainly famous as a film actor, but is also renowned as a stage actor as well. We had both always wanted to see him live, particularly after his hugely praised work some years ago in The Iceman Cometh, but we never thought that we would ever get the chance. By the time most plays come to San Francisco, the original Kevin Spacey tends to get replaced by someone like Judd Nelson attempting a comeback. Remember, we saw Huey Lewis in Chicago. Jeff Goldblum is well-known as a film actor, appearing in classics like Annie Hall, The Fly, Jurassic Park, and Earth Girls are Easy, but he is not particularly known for his work on stage, so we were curious to see how he would do.

Spacey and Goldblum as smarmy Hollywood producers

As the spelling of “plow” suggests, this is an American play, with American themes, and extremely American rapid-fire dialogue. At times I wondered if most of the audience was understanding half of the dialogue, which was very fast and loaded with American slang. It probably wasn’t a problem, given the steady flow of American TV and movies here in the UK, but sometimes even I was still figuring out why one line was clever by the time another was being flung at me.

Like some of Mamet’s other work, e.g., Glengarry Glen Ross or Wag the Dog, the play was very quick-witted and cynical. In this case, much like Mamet's State and Main (one of my very favorite movies, but only for those with a very quirky sense of humor), Speed-the-Plow is largely a satire of Hollywood commercialism, vanity, and insincerity. Since it only involves three characters, the acting has to be top-notch for the play to work, and these three definitely pulled it off. Kevin Spacey was frenetic and intense and was absolutely incredible to watch on stage. There's no doubt that he has a bit of an ego (he's the Artistic Director at the Old Vic, and he put his picture on the wall next to pictures of true legends Laurence Olivier, Peter O'Toole, and John Gielgud), but the man can act. I had my worries about Jeff Goldblum, who always seems to play versions of himself in most movies, but he was very natural and believable. And very very tall. Laura Michelle Kelly had a few problems with the American accent, sometimes slipping into her own British accent, but otherwise fit her role very well.

Scenes from the Speed-the-Plow

Unfortunately, the play only had only a moderately decent story, and the second act wandered off onto long philosophical tangents that detracted from the main thrust of the plot. Also, Mamet simply does not write well for women, tending to produce flat dialogue and shallow stereotypical characterizations that make it seem like he treats the female psyche as hostile foreign territory. While the play's name might suggest a reference to the 1798 play Speed the Plough by Thomas Morton, or to the traditional fiddle tune of the same name, Mamet took the name from slogans he had seen on old plates and mugs that read “Industry produces wealth, God speed the plow” - even knowing this, I have trouble seeing how the name applies to the play. Despite all of these problems, the dialogue and chemistry between Spacey and Goldblum was simply amazing and felt spontaneous, the set design was incredible, and we both thoroughly enjoyed the experience.

The Broadway version of Speed-the-Plow opening later this year was rumored to be starring Jessica Alba, who has more talent for applying lip gloss than acting. While this would add an Alanis-Morisette-esque extra layer of irony to the Hollywood satire in the play, I don’t think we’ll be jumping on a plane to see this one. Once again, theatre in London ploughs down the competition.

Sunday, March 9, 2008

We See Dead People

When we were living in the Bay Area, we would often go for walks in Oakland’s Mountain View Cemetery. We’re not particularly ghoulish people (although I did until recently work for a crypt keeper, as some may recall), but the combination of history and scenic beauty in cemeteries can often be interesting - plus they’re always free. Mountain View Cemetery, a gorgeous if slightly crumbling place, was designed by Frederick Law Olmsted, one of the most notable landscape architects of the 19th century. Olmsted also designed New York’s Central Park, and an amazing number of college campuses including Cornell, Berkeley, Stanford, and Notre Dame. Wandering around the cemetery, you would often come across recognizable names on the graves: the famous California architects Julia Morgan and Bernard Maybeck, industrialists Charles Crocker and Warren Bechtel, and a number of people whose names grace the streets of Oakland and Berkeley. For California, these names felt fairly impressive.

A shot of Mountain View Cemetery looking towards San Francisco Bay

In London, most of the incredibly famous people (Newton, Chaucer, Darwin, etc.) are buried at Westminster Abbey or at St. Paul's, although some of the famously treasonous ones are at the Tower of London. Samuel Pepys, who during the 1666 Great Fire of London buried his Parmesan cheese to keep it from melting, is himself buried near to the Tower as well.

The Tower of London: you generally had to do something pretty bad to end up buried here, or at least fail to produce a male heir for Henry VIII.

Recently, in our wanderings around London, we stumbled across Bunhill Fields. A relatively small cemetery, mostly surrounded by office buildings on the north eastern side of The City, we had noticed it once from the top of a double decker bus and decided to stop by when we had a chance. Because this cemetery is in the heart of London, space is a premium, so the graves are crammed in side by side, creating an interesting busy look very unlike the spacious cemeteries so common in the US.

Bunhill Fields

Long used as a burial ground for around 1000 years, Bunhill Fields (the name derived from “bone hill”) was used as a mass burial ground for plague victims. In the space of a small city block, it is estimated that an astonishing 120,000 people are buried at Bunhill Fields, the last in 1854. The burial ground was never consecrated by the Church of England, and as such became used as a burial ground for Nonconformists and other Church of England outsiders, including some Catholics and founders and early important figures of the Quakers, Unitarianism, and Methodism.

The requisite artsy black and white cemetery photo.
Anyone see a melancholy angel statue or an old dilapidated barn nearby?

We knew none of the history when we visited - all we knew was that it looked old and pretty, and was probably a good source for some artsy-fartsy photos. Idly wandering the cemetery, we quickly came face to face with the graves of some literary greats: Daniel Defoe, William Blake, and John Bunyan. For some reason people were leaving one and two pence coins on top of William Blake’s headstone (if anyone knows why, I’d love to know). Also around were the graves of the Wesley family (John Wesley himself is buried just across the street at his chapel), and the Cromwell family (minus Oliver, who was buried at Westminster Abbey, and later exhumed out of spite).

Defoe's grave

Pennies for Blake

On our recent trip to Paris, we visited the Cimetière du Montparnasse. This was a much larger open space, but also packed with graves, many of which were very tall and skinny. Like most of Paris, and particularly because it is in a historically artsy area, many tombs and monuments were very strikingly designed.

Cimetière du Montparnasse

One of the more interesting monuments

Again, we knew nothing about who was buried here, but we came across the graves of Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir (very well-loved, it seems) and Susan Sontag. The list of famous people buried at Montparnasse is extensive, and includes people like Samuel Beckett, Charles Baudelaire, and Man Ray, not to mention many famous French scientists including the de Jussieu family. I’m slightly sorry that we missed the grave of Serge Gainsbourg.

Sartre and De Beauvoir's grave

I suppose it is a bit strange, given just a few days in Paris, we spent time wandering cemeteries, sitting in the park watching people play pétanque, and going to a children’s marionette show. Perhaps these are slightly odd choices, but whatever, we had a great time.

In case anyone is interested, here are some useful cemetery websites:
FindAGrave.com - really amazing that something like this exists; the name says it all.
London Necropolis - a resource on the cemeteries of London

*Photo of Mountain View Cemetery by 1600 Squirrels on flickr.com

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Paris - La Deuxième Partie

Andy and I loved so many things about Paris. Our hotel was in a wonderful, quiet neighborhood called Saint-Germain des Prés that had lots of small, charming shops and cafes. We were just a few blocks away from the Jardin du Luxembourg, one of Paris’ most beautiful parks:




It turns out the park had lots of fun activities and sights - one of our favorites was Pétanque, a game just like bocce ball. The courts were by reservation only so we didn’t get to play, but we spent a long time watching the regulars play:



We also saw an authentic French marionette show of Prince Charming at a theater right in the middle of the park. I was amazed at the production value! Although the show was for kids, the sets and props were very professional, and the show was entertaining even for adults like us with limited French skills. Although we weren’t allowed to take pictures inside the theater, here are a few photos of the outside to give you a sense for the show:



The hero was a puppet named Guignol (pronounced geen-yoll) that Andy found a little scary (he kind of resembled a mime), but who saved the day in the end. It was so much fun to see the kids in the audience talk back to the characters and sing along with the story. It turned out to be one of the best experiences of the whole trip.

Another day we headed over to the Trocadero stop on the Metro to check out the newest aquarium in Paris called cinéaqua (you know how we love aquariums!). It turned out to be terrific - one of the most amazing features was an arc of water that stretched over you as you entered the aquarium:





It was called cinéaqua because in addition to the aquariums, they showed various nature-themed films on small movie screens right near the fishtanks. There was also an art gallery in one wing of the building. Believe it or not, the combination of aquaria, cinema and art didn’t feel forced - instead it made the space and the experience even more interesting.

Since cinéaqua was near the Eiffel Tower, we also walked over and checked it out afterwards. We were both surprised at how much we loved it - the architecture was beautiful, especially when you were standing right below it:



There’s so much to love about Paris - the sights, the food, the fashion and style (which was fantastic!). I also loved speaking French, and despite stereotypes, the vast majority of French people I spoke with didn’t shun or correct me - they were very kind and glad to speak French with someone who obviously wasn’t a native.

An example of amazing French fashion

Now I understand why so many people fall in love with Paris - the city is truly charming and I’d go again anytime.

Saturday, March 1, 2008

Out and About in Paris

Everyone has an opinion about Paris. Most people love Paris (we did too), but nearly everyone we talked to offered at least a few words of warning in advance. Some of these we’ve heard for years:
(1) Parisians are notoriously rude;
(2) Paris is dirty, busy, fast-paced, and riddled with pigeons;
(3) Traffic in Paris is crazy and drivers try to run you down;
(4) It is hard to walk down the street without tripping over a mime, a poodle, or something left behind by the poodle.

Maggie dans Le Métro

It turns out that most of these are not true, at least in our limited experience. On the rudeness scale, Londoners way outdo Parisians - it isn’t even close. People on narrow Parisian sidewalks will make room for you as you walk by, and no one is running and shoving in the Metro stations. Cars will stop for you when you cross the street in Paris; in London, drivers will accelerate just for the glee they get from watching you run in fear. Paris, in terms of European cities, was not especially dirty or pigeon-covered. Perhaps during the summer, when it gets overrun by tourists, this may change, but after seeing Venice in the Summer, where you have to wade through drifts of pigeons to cross a plaza, I doubt it could be too bad. We did see some poodles (and lots of other dogs), and there is an alarming amount of dog poo to avoid. While we saw no mimes (alas), we did at least see one living statue.

Andy tipping the living statue after she was heckled by a passerby

Another thing we heard from several people before we went was a warning about the food: good food is really hard to find in Paris and most food is expensive and bad. On Sundays, this was very true since all of the local spots close down and you’re mostly left with touristy or chain options that you can otherwise avoid. In fact, the only time we encountered the notorious Parisian attitude was from a waiter at a semi-phony cafe we were forced to eat at on Sunday; he half-heartedly pretended that he couldn’t understand our very clearly spoken orders, forcing us to point at the menu. Don’t eat at T.G.I. Vendredi’s. But on other days of the week we really had no problem finding good food (finding light food proved to be the biggest challenge).

Our amazing lunch at Le Comptoir in Saint-Germain-des-Prés.
Yes, that is a slab of butter on top of the cheese.

It does help to do a little research on the web in advance to see what real people are recommending on sites like ChowHound, although this can sometimes lead to more confusion because hyper-opinionated e-people often strongly disagree. Most tourist guidebooks will be of little help with food; they can sometimes be helpful for finding the super expensive destination restaurants, but will never be very helpful for finding the small local spots that tourists like us really want to find. The problem is, naturally, related to Heisenberg’s important but lesser-known Bistro Uncertainty Principle: once Lonely Planet or some other guide company lists a small local restaurant in their book, the small local restaurant ceases to exist as it once was and starts to suck. Heisenberg probably said it more elegantly.

Caught eating Nerds sur une Corde

Hotel concierges are also mostly useless sources of restaurant advice since they often assume you want something touristy, unless you somehow manage to convince them otherwise. Thanks to a well meaning but very misguided bit of concierge advice, we were directed into a Waikiki-esque tourist trap area in the Latin Quarter full of glaring neon lights and aggressive restaurant hawkers. We escaped as quickly as possible, averting our eyes from the hideous spectacle - Maggie later referred to this experience as our “hero’s journey out of hell”.


So tourists are generally left to their own devices to find the little local restaurants. Apart from hunting on the internet for secret hints from other travelers, there are some general rules one should follow that served us well in Paris:
(1) Avoid restaurants on busy commercial streets like you avoid someone with pink-eye;
(2) Several blocks away from busy commercial streets, where rents become a bit more affordable, you are highly likely to find some good food;
(3) Also avoid corner restaurants and restaurants with amazing views - these places tend to try to use their location to distract from their mediocre food;
(4) Beware any restaurant that has English translations, especially on the outside of the building;
(5) When in doubt, ask a cabby;
(6) Do as locals do, order local specialties even if they sound strange;
(7) Don’t eat a hamburger or hotdog anywhere outside the US - it just isn’t worth the risk.

A quiet street in Saint-Germain-de-Prés

Following these rules, we had some really great food in Paris. Now we have to eat fruit and fiber for a month to recover from the rich food, but it was worth it.

Stay tuned for more pictures and a second Paris post by Maggie...