Tag Archives: travel

Cheap Date

couroc_frog.jpgMy grandmother bought five-pound cans of Maxwell House and perked it on the stove. A drink in the evening was a rare glass of sherry. Suburban aunts made coffee in machines and their husbands drank gin and tonics out of wide glasses with urbane dancing frogs on them.

This is not my liquid life. I live in San Francisco where the drinks are complicated and expensive and there is nary a dancing frog in sight, let alone an ice cube from a freezer tray or, God forbid, coffee in a tin.

I’m not complaining. I drink well here. On our trip to the mountains of Colorado a few weeks ago though, it was back to basics and a welcome break.

First, let’s talk coffee. In Colorado, all the coffees were hot. Super hot. Mountain hot. Boiling hot. And they cost $3.75 for half a gallon of espresso and steamed milk. Well, almost half a gallon. This is fine with me. Hot, caffeinated and not bitter are my morning baselines. Above that line, I can really take it or leave it, even if I can tell the difference.

Back in San Francisco, I had it out with the barista at Ritual Coffee for delivering my coffee at room temperature for the umpteenth time. (This is apparently kind of a thing for me.) The guy said they had a POLICY that they did not steam their milk above a certain temperature because it carmelized the sugars. Apparently I like carmelized sugars based on my liking of apples covered in same and hot *(&#$#! milk in my cafe au lait.

That’s not to say that I don’t like what’s on offer here in general. Ritual Roasters, Four Barrel and Blue Bottle all spring from the Bay Area. Like Folgers crystals before them, they’re served in the finest restaurants around the country. (Another survey of their backgrounds here.) I’m not going to deny they’re good. Well, Blue Bottle and Ritual are good. Four Barrel I don’t get but a lot of people disagree with me so I’m outvoted there. Can I tell that these $4 cups of coffee are better than other coffees? Um, well, sort of. I can tell that they’re better than instant or coffeemaker coffee. And Starbucks. But that much better than much faster, cheaper, no-name coffee that I should pay twice as much? Probably not. Case in point: Dunkin’ Donuts makes my favorite coffee and I think they’re still on the Maxwell House train. So I’m not 100% sure I appreciate the level of precision that coneisseurship has brought to my morning cuppa.

Perhaps I’m being willfully dense here and resisting developing an expensive taste because then I’d have to spend $4 every morning rather than drinking what I can most conveniently get. I do this with wine. If I got hooked on $40 bottles of wine, I wouldn’t be able to drink the $10 bottle. So while I appreciate the expensive wines when they’re presented to me, I try not to take too much notice. I already spend enough money as it is.

Enough about me: if you’re looking around to taste the best of the best and have a nice sit-down while you’re in the city, here are my picks, with a heavy bias toward the south side of the city because that’s where we live.

Ritual Roastersoriginal location on the gritty end of Valencia (21st/22nd Streets) will brew your regular coffee cup by cup, as well as serve you any espresso drink (with warm, not hot, milk). Rich flavor gleaned from their blends and their use of whole milk. My favorite of the top three but often crowded (they have free wifi) and they play non-background music – like, edgy, slightly metal indie stuff that’s hard to write to and chat to.

In which case, on a sunny day, you might prefer their new permanent cart in Hayes Valley (on Octavia just off Hayes) where you can sit outside and look in shops with commensurately priced goods of all kinds.

Similar music issues and an even grittier ‘hood, but less crowded and with a Scandinavian vibe, Haus on 24th Street brews Ritual as well and does a good job of it. Bonus: back patio with lots of sun, albeit also the neighbor’s laundry in view. Free wifi and excellent baked goods make up most of the way for the crabby hipster baristas.

Blue Bottle‘s original San Francisco location in a garage on a side street in Hayes Valley has become enough of a landmark that now you don’t have to compete with cars: they’ve paved a little plaza in front. You can also pick up a cup at the super trendy, way-overcrowded-at-the-weekend-Farmers-Market yup-fest Ferry Building and downtown on Mint Plaza. Or – brilliant brilliant location choice – at Spin City, a high end laundromat in chic Noe Valley, Blue Bottle is served at the coffee window.

If you want to try Four Barrel, they have a giant, airy space on the other end of Valencia from Ritual, at 15th Street. You decide if you like it or not.

Let’s get back to Colorado and discuss cocktails. I sidled up to our lodge’s bar the first night to order a couple of straightforward cocktails: vodka cranberry and vodka tonic. No big deal. Nothing fancy. Didn’t want to go out on a pisco limb or anything in a building made of logs. The bartender delivers them in about thirty seconds and says, “That’ll be $7.” This prompts a tiny ethical dilemma. Should I tell him he’s only charged me for one, and at happy hour, well-drink prices even though it’s 9PM?

I ask. Turns out it’s not a mistake. Cocktails are $3.50. Cocktails with premium vodka no less. Living where I do and traveling mainly to other places like where I live, cocktails cost $9. Or $12. Or $14 if it’s that trendy and I’m paying for the slab of polished oak they use as a bar that they imported from a speakeasy in the basement of Versailles. Or something like that.

I will admit that I prefer the high-end cocktails at Beretta to the low-end ones at our old neighborhood’s dive bar Il Pirata. But do I notice if the bar makes their own ice using pure water and a special, I don’t know, vaporizing hyperbaric icebox or whatever? No, I do not. Can I tell if they’re using bottled bitters or homemade ones? Um, no. In the new world order or artisinal bars, I am a cretin and, for that, I’d like apologize to my bartender at Beretta who goes to so much trouble to make me happy.

I might be more of a high and mighty in this category if I drank more whiskey, bourbon or gin which seem to be the base of many, if not most, of the new breed of cocktails. I was a gin girl for a long time but have moved on to vodka and tequila for the most part, with a recent strong liking for pisco. This limits my range but it keeps the choosing simple.

I do wish that all bars offered the option of a straightforward drink at Colorado prices the way restaurants offer tap water or bottled. I can tolerate the tiny sneer that follows my, “Tap, please,” and would happily tolerate another if I could get Ketel One and Ocean Spray cranberry juice with tap-water ice cubes in an Ikea cup for half the price of my extra-special Pisco Punch.

Until that happens, here’s where I go.

For artisinal cocktails, it’s hard to beat Beretta. They have excellent food as well and, if you can get a seat (no reservations, go early), a buratta margherita pizza or chicken liver crostini will tide you over to a third drink if you want to hang out.

Bourbon & Branch is also well-reputed but you will need to plan ahead and make a reservation if you want food. I’ve written before about Range and their excellent food, but beware their hipster-looking cocktail menu: they’ve gone off the reservation in my estimation. Tomatoes have no place in evening drinks, unless by “evening” you mean “morning” and it’s a bloody mary you’re after.

We recently rediscovered Smugglers Cove in Hayes Valley (it used to be a trendy, purple-lit place we didn’t enjoy) where you can get a ridiculous number of pirate drinks made one-by-one by their single bartender. It’s not exactly the high-end science of mixology you’ll get at the places listed above, but tiki has been on an upswing the last couple of years and, let’s face it, sometimes you miss Club Med and their sweet, sweet drinks. (I’d advise only going in the week when the locals stop in for libations. We cruised in once on a Saturday and it was a bizarre mix of drunk, overweight, gay tourist developers and tacky bridge and tunnel girlies on a bender.)

Recently (like, yesterday) voted Best of the Bay for their unique happy hour – whoever orders first after 5PM, that’s the discount drink – we’ve latched onto Asiento of late for a not-dive but not-too-trendy evening drink accompanied by crazy good little plates. We haven’t made it there on a Sunday yet, but I hear they serve tater tots. Eighties lunchroom trashy trendy. I like it.

Although I enjoy all the developments in drinking my generation has ushered in, I (and my wallet) miss those dancing frogs and wish there a Dunkin Donuts at the end of my block. Until I find that block – or open a frog/donut outlet of my own – I’ll enjoy what San Francisco has to offer.

Oh, and if you’re in New York, don’t miss the Pisco Punch at Pegu Club. Best. Ever.

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Here and There

moving_truck2.jpgYou know that phrase, “Keeping up with the Jonses”? Like, you’ve got your eye on the neighbors and are trying to, well, keep up? If they get an Audi, you need an Audi. If their kid goes to violin lessons, you’re off to the Stradivarius factory? (At which point you realize that you will also need a time machine or a billion dollars because there isn’t one and they haven’t made a violin since the 1720s and Stradivarius.com has been hijacked by a company that makes weird tunic-y clothing that you don’t want your kid wearing because how is that keeping up anyway unless you live on in a German suburb or a pricey commune?) You get the idea.

I don’t think my subconscious has really absorbed the metaphorical meaning of the phrase because my version of keeping up with the Jonses is apparently quite literally wanting to keep up with them. Like follow them around.

Here’s what: every time a neighbor moves, I feel like I should move.

It has nothing to do with where they’re moving to: the last examples I can think of were Dallas, Los Angeles and now our current neighbors are off to San Luis Obispo which was nice the one time I drove through there and spent $500 on an Apple Time Machine (because, apparently, a road trip to LA and seeing all that plastic surgery got me super worried about whether I had enough back-ups of my originals…?) but is in the middle of nowhere and just not my bag at all.

But I still feel left out. I feel like your puppy that whimpers at the door when you head to the car even if you’re going out to run a really boring errand. Why would these people want to go places if they aren’t better than here? It must be better than here. Something amazing must be going on where they’re going or they wouldn’t be going, right?

It doesn’t seem to matter that the “something amazing” might only be amazing to them and not me, like getting into a graduate program in a field I only care about only very slightly because I’m a nice person (rainforest monkey evolution) or pursuing a career opportunity I admire but would not want (portrait photographer) or moving to be closer to other people’s grandparents who would probably not be keen to babysit my child so I could go see Transformers 3 on a weeknight.

I don’t want to be left behind. Period. I’m kind of a joiner and I’m pretty competitive. I need to make sure the party I’m not at isn’t better than the party I am at.

I don’t want to get too into the psychology of it, but here’s what I think: when I was kid we moved and I hated where we moved to, so I’ve wanted to keep moving on ever since. Which is weird ’cause really if I’d have just stayed put in the first place and I’d have been happy, but some switch got flipped and I got hooked on, “Change is good!” It probably didn’t help that home life was kind of a wreck, so “elsewhere” was generally pretty attractive.

So travel I did and I moved around a lot for a few years. Turns out “there” is often just a different version of “here” as far as your head is concerned, so eventually I settled in New York, which worked out well, because “there” and “here” converge in New York. It was the perfect location for a here-and-there-r: I never felt bad coming home because New York itself was so great, and I never felt like the people who were leaving were really going anywhere better because where could be better than New York?

Then I got cocky and left myself, assuming I’d be back soon. That was eleven years ago. San Francisco isn’t bad – I definitely think it’s better than Dallas or LA – but I’m back to my puppy at the door behavior whenever anyone goes.

Of course the other part of the move envy is that I’ll miss the people who leave. If they were jerks, I’d probably wave from the porch, secretly snide. But our neighbors are great. Two little kids, helpful, willing to chat a bit on the sidewalk. It’s quiet without them and I’m sad to see them go.

Like a number of parents I’ve known, they’re going to where help is – multiple grandparents and siblings to assist with kid care – and maybe we’ll eventually do the same. I’m going to start working on getting all my grandparents and the siblings to move to Brooklyn so when we get there, we’ll be all set. That’s almost the same thing, right? Then everyone gets to move! Winners all around.

High Road

high-altitude.jpgDear Altitude,

Quit it. Just quit it. Really. Enough already.

I got up early this morning, I got us packed, including 75 different snacks for our one year old – since she won’t eat the same thing from one day to the next – and enough hand wipes to clean the plane better than United did. I made pancakes for breakfast before we left, for God’s sake. That’s got to count for something.

Not in your book? Yeah, I figured.

Just so you know, instead of napping, A. ran around the Red Carpet Lounge yelling just at the moment when that quiet guy in the corner on his laptop in the business section seemed like he might be making some progress on whatever he was working on. Then she made me a glass of juice from all the available buttons on the juice machine. Then she poured water down the front of her shirt so she looked like we let her play in the pool before heading to the plane which I think reflects well on my parenting.

I’m just telling you, so you know what kind of morning we had.

Instead of napping on the plane, she was much more interested in talking to the three Japanese businessmen sleeping across the aisle than any of the other passengers who said, “Hi!” and, “Aren’t you cute?” Who needs those guys when there are three people paying no attention to you? All or nothing. Compliments from the willing are for suckers.

I know you don’t care, Altitude. I can tell by your cavalier distribution of headaches and dehydration once we got to where you are. But I thought you should know. Just so you have it in writing. Maybe someday you’ll look back and feel a little bit sorry? No? All right.

The rental car shuttle took forever, by the way. And then it rained. And the car seat the man who tried to get us to upgrade to an RV-sized tank for our three pieces of luggage just handed it to us like we’d know how to install a We-B-Cheap brand car seat. That kid is ours, dude. We like her so we invested in the giant gernade-resistant model that takes the strength of one of those male gorillas to install. The ones with the fangs. We have no idea what to do with this plastic shell that looks like it’s made out of Tupperware covered with ill-fitting velour from the craft store that always confuses me because there are so many, many bins of colorful things I don’t need. Do we need pipe cleaners to attach it to the seat? Safety pins? Whatever, dude. Whatever.

I’m telling you all this so maybe you’d just back on up off us a little. Sinus congestion and a nosebleed aren’t the, “Welcome to Colorado! We serve mixed drinks!” note I was hoping to end my day on.

The restaurant, when we got to our lodge, has a maximum age limit of 12 for their staff, so it took 90 minutes to get seated and I had to leave before dinner because A. was so tired. She fell down in front of me she was so tired. Just fell. No reason. Hard not to take that point. So I ate my now-take-out burger in our bathroom so she could sleep, poor tired thing.

And you know why she’s so tired? Because we’re at 100 billion feet in the air and we live at sea level, Altitude. The views are nice from here, I won’t deny it. But what’s with the thin air? And why suck all the moisture out of it while you’re thinning it out? We needed that humidity. We can’t breathe. God. Who’s mean to a little kid? She’s adorable. Why would you give her a headache? It’s like hating kittens, for cripe’s sake. Be a mensch.

Sigh.

OK. You win. I’ll find the aspirin in the massive pile of stuff unpacked from two suitcases in seven seconds in the near-dark to find A.’s pajamas. And I’ll find some water. And we’ll just pretend you’ll be nicer tomorrow, OK? You can have a word with yourself overnight and see if you can make it out of bed on the right side in the morning. We’ll talk then.

Yours truly,
Emma

Travel Schwag

I think these luggage tags pretty much cover it, don’t you? It’s MY bag, that’s whose it is. Geez.

Completely unrelated, Cambria Cove also does pre-designed calling cards. If you’re a girl and like birds – who doesn’t like birds again? – these might be for you.

Up in the Air

fiji.jpg

It’s that time again. The wild blue yonder beckons, this time for an actual vacation. Unbelievably, we haven’t been on a proper, turn-off-my-phone, see-you-when-we-get-back holiday in four years. All the globetrotting of late has been work- or family-related and hasn’t been a proper break. Not that I’m knocking travel for the sake of travel, but it’s well past time for a different kind of pause.

Fiji first – a week – then New Zealand for two. With little to no planning, I might add. We booked our seats two weeks ago and we have a place to stay in Fiji and that’s it. We’ll get a car in New Zealand and see as much of the country as possible. That’s the extent of the planning. Under normal circumstances, this would make me crazy because I like planning – I need planning – but this time the single priority is to get away. Everything else is secondary. So we’re winging it.

Here’s what I know about Fiji:

  1. It’s warm and there’s diving.
  2. The international airport is inconveniently located all the way on the other side of the main island from the local airport.
  3. Cast Away was filmed there.
  4. We will not be going to that island because that movie freaked me out and I don’t want to tempt fate. I have a lifelong fear of being resource-less. If I’m going to end up on an island somewhere, let’s scrap the bullshit questions like, “What one book would you take?” and the, “What one person would you want to be stuck with blah blah blah?”

    A book and a dude are not going to cut it, much as I enjoy reading and what have you. I’m going to need, at a minimum, a pen and a generator. And a gas station for the fuel for the generator. The dude could work at the gas station, actually, so that kills two birds with one stone. And, after seeing Cast Away, I’m probably going to need a good dental plan. Also, more than one book. Although one book at a time would be fine. Maybe a BookMobile. That would work. And not like a kids one either. I don’t want to be reading Bunny Goes to Market for the next four years.

    I also have no wilderness training and am not a very good cook, so I’m also going to need a wilderness trainer and a cook.

    You see now why I can’t go to that island? Think of the expense, putting that team together. I’ll stay at my nice hotel, thank you very much, and save us all some money.

That’s it. That’s what I know about Fiji.

Here’s what I know about New Zealand:

  1. There is a town called Whatawhata on the north island which we will definitely be visiting. I have no idea what’s there but we’re going. And taking lots of pictures of signage.

    Am I the only one who thinks that Whatawhata is an awesome choice of name? “Where are you from?” “Whatawhata.” “I said, WHERE ARE YOU FROM?” “Whatawhata.” “Are you deaf? I asked you the name of your town.” “Whatawhata.” And so on. Excellent.

  2. The Lord of the Rings movies were filmed there but they tore down all the cool stuff because of – excuse me?? – “copyright issues.” I don’t understand that – do hobbits have imaginary good lawyers?
  3. Zoe Bell, the stuntchick for Xena and Kill Bill, is from there. (If you haven’t already, check out Double Dare – cool documentary on stuntwomen.)
  4. The Bone People, a harrowing but excellent book about a Maori boy, is set there.
  5. It’s green.
  6. There are many, many opportunities to get very, very hurt: bungee jumping, black water rafting, heli-skiing, sky diving, river sledging (whatever that is – I’m not going to check, I’m just going to sign up), abseiling and driving on the wrong side of the road, to name a few.

    Since I get hurt walking through your average doorframe, I think this is going to go really, really well.

Sounds exciting, doesn’t it? I know. Maybe the lack of planning will make it a huge, messy adventure. Here’s hoping!

I’ll be off the grid for most of the time, so be patient with updates: I’ll do what I can. If you don’t hear from me after three weeks though, you should check that Cast Away island, OK? Please? Promise? Thanks.

Get the Hell Out of Dodge

rough_road.jpg

Long time no see. How’re we all doing? Hanging in there? Things OK? How’s the wife/husband/partner/being single? I hope no one’s been kicked out of school already/had swine flu/lost the local autumn kickball tourney.

Things here have been kind of all over the place, but no one has broken any bones, been indicted or taken a gun to a public event, so we’re still this side of trouble/insanity. I think it’s important to keep things in perspective when the road gets rough, don’t you? It’s a comfort to me, when I wake up at 3AM, to remind myself that there is steel-cut oatmeal in the kitchen, I’m still writing, New York’s still standing and that there’s a whole wide world out there that isn’t concerned with playground bullies, family conflict or how much tickets to New Zealand cost when you buy them with less than a 14-day advance.

Not to get too specific there, but yeah, we’re going to New Zealand. Next weekend in fact. It’s kind of a catch 22 with the vacation planning when you’re as worn out and un-vacationed as we are: you’d like to have a well-planned holiday because that’d be optimally restful but planning it well would require even more of that energy you’ve been having trouble locating recently, so you have to pick between going at all (first choice) and going with seasonally appropriate clothing and any destination research beyond, “Hey, that looks pretty, right?” (currently in second place).

In fact, you’d like to be able to get the break you need without flying halfway around the globe to start with, but experience has shown us that that’s not going to happen, so off we go, braving the jet lag and the left-side-of-the-road driving so we can evade email, get some sleep and reclaim our priorities while basking in another nation’s sunsets. We’re buying flights and renting a car and winging the rest of it. (If anyone has any recommendations of places to go or things to do, now’s the time to send them, yeah?) We’re tacking on a week in Fiji at the end of the trip, just to make sure we get some tropical drinks and a tan on the agenda. It’s not a real vacation unless someone comes home with a tan. Or a snow globe. Or a tropical disease. Whichever.

Venice: Guggenheim and Rauschenberg

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The trip to Venice was – how shall I say this? Let’s go with “chaotic.” Beautiful, impressive and chaotic.

I’ll get into the chaos another time; first, let’s talk about the Guggenheim. The Peggy Guggenheim Collection was on the top of my list of things to see in Venice, right after “as much Palladio as possible”, but we didn’t get there until the afternoon before we left. In fact, I was so afraid we wouldn’t get there (because others – who shall remain nameless – were dragging their feet) that I felt the need to add a small motivational tantrum to the mix. I don’t know if it helped, but it seemed in keeping with Ms. Guggenheim’s eccentricity.

The collection is in Guggenheim’s gorgeous house which fronts on the Grand Canal but looks nothing like most of the surrounding Venetian palazzos: it’s white, it’s angular and it’s modern, modern, modern. (Not that I’d be averse to living in one of those other palazzos, mind you. If you’re offering, I’m in.)

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At the ticket counter, I saw the directions to the special exhibition space and – hooray! – they’ve got Robert Rauschenberg’s series Gluts for the summer. Have I mentioned how much I love Robert Rauschenberg? No? Well, allow me: I love that man. I also love that when I saw him speak at the Guggenheim in New York, he was wearing a flaming pink dress shirt. Not an, “I’m comfortable with my masculinity,” pink, but an, “I could pass for a yard flamingo,” pink.

I fell for Rauschenberg at the Guggenheim’s retrospective in New York in 1997. I joined the museum that year, even though I was a pauper, so that I could get the exhibition catalog and go back to meet Rauschenberg at the reception (and by “meet” I mean, “look at from the first floor while he spoke in the lobby.”)

I loved the Combines the most, constructions of found materials (including, infamously, a stuffed goat), original paintings, recycled print, and photography. A close second was the amazing Hiccups, a set of 97 segments of handmade paper printed with images and zippered together. The constructions struck me as imaginative and somehow dynamic (literally, in the case of Hiccups, which can be rezippered in any configuration). Rauschenberg seemed…happy, I guess. Curious. Conflicted, but funny, not tortured. His work noted what was going on around him not by representing it or reducing it, but by collecting it. It felt like he saw what other people missed – junk, goats, discarded newsprint, tires – and accepted it all into his work without shying away from its grime or rust, elevating it to notice by recycling it.

(Slideshow overview of some of his work, including that goat, here.)

A few years later, the Whitney bought Synapsis Shuffle, another moveable work. Rauschenberg created fifty two 9.5′ panels (each 5′ or less wide), each its own piece of art. When it came time to show it, he’d collect a set of people – mostly famous, all from different walks of life – and stage a lottery. Each person drew a set of two numbers: the first indicating how many panels they’d get and the other a rank denoting in what order they’d be able to select their panels. Then they’d construct what they liked from their panels or barter with the other participants to get different panels.

I love the flexibility of that idea. Every time it shows, it’s different but it’s still absolutely that same work underneath. It’s done – for now and until the next time it’s done.

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(The New York Times write-up here and a good piece on it in W here.)

Gluts is a series of sculptures (for lack of a better word) produced from the mid-eighties until Rauschenberg’s death last year. The Guggenheim Collection is exhibiting a fraction of the huge series. Over twenty-odd years, Rauschenberg pillaged junkyards for materials – twisted bumpers, discarded signs, bits of wrought iron metalwork – took them back to his studio and constructed these pieces – some enormous, some small – a testament to glut, to overproduction and the abandonment of the resulting goods. The pieces are a criticism and a resurrection all in one, a whimsical and substantial response to the issue.

(An excellent virtual tour through the exhibition here. A good, albeit very flatly lit, set of images from Gluts here.)

The standing collection at the Guggenheim house is wonderful as well. I love museums of personal collections – the Frick in New York and the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston are two of my other favorites. For me, there is something intimate and human in visiting a personally curated collection that is very different from visiting a professionally curated exhibition in a museum. There are always lovely surprises among the selections and combinations.

The Rauschenberg is up through September 20th.

__________________________________________________________

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Incidentally, how good looking and cheerful was Rauschenberg? Lord, almighty. Check out this great picture of him (far right) with John Cage and Merce Cunningham from the Times‘ Cunningham retrospective. Also, this Avedon photo – currently up at SFMOMA through the end of November – of him with Alex Hay.

Apparently, he’s also a great father.

Switzerland: The Food. My God, the Food.

French food? Mais oui. Italian? Buongiorno! Spanish tapas? Si! Swiss cooking? Um…what? It just doesn’t sound right, does it? If you’ve only focused on chocolate and fondue though, you’ve been missing out. Swiss food is the ultimate comfort food and man is it ever comforting: comforting to the tune of fifteen additional pounds in my first year on Swiss soil.

There are the cream sauces, used on cutlets and, my favorite artery-clogging example, whole hardboiled eggs. There are the breads: soft, braided white-bread zopf on Sundays and nussgipfeli (croissants wrapped around tasty, tasty ground up nuts and sugariness). There are the endless cookies and the herbs-and-croutons cup o’ soup, the rosti, the rosti with cheese, the rosti with bacon. The raclette. And, oh my Lord, the cheese. Bring me all the cheeses. ALL of them.

The first thing on my list when I land in Zurich is Migros, the grocery store chain. Say, “Grüzi,” to the family and then off to Migros. Unfortunately for our vacation plans, R had to come back to San Francisco for business three days into our time in Switzerland. Fortunately for our autumn, that meant he could schlep back a duffle of culinary goodies that we then didn’t have to take along on the Italian leg of the trip. (It also meant that we could reload that same duffle when we passed through Zurich on our way home a week and a half later. How sweet is that? Pretty sweet, that’s how sweet.)

So here’s what you should try while you’re there, plus some tips to getting Swiss goodness on this side of the Atlantic (or the Pacific, if you’re really disoriented and into flying the wrong way round).

  1. Kuche

    The VICTORY of the trip: kuche (if you’re in Bern) or wähe (if you’re in Zurich). Kuche is a fruit tart with a firm custard-like filling that’s made in a flat bottomed, wide quiche pan. The fruit is usually fresh, the custard filling not very sweet, and the crust approximately like a quiche’s but covered with a thin layer of ground hazelnuts. (If you want it sweeter, you can serve it with a little whipped cream. A very little.) I love it and have loved it since I first had it as a teenager.

    However, I’ve never been able to find a recipe in the States and even if I had, I doubt I would’ve tried it because it involves dough. Let’s be clear: dough and I have a long and unhappy history punctuated by embarrassment and disaster. (For me, that is. The dough just sits there all smug.) It sticks. I add flour. It stops sticking. I stop adding flour. It ends up tough as nails. It took me three years to produce a decent biscuit, I won’t even try bread, and pie crusts make me cry.

    Times they are a’changing though, people. With the aid of a Xerox machine (for the recipe, not the dough), Migros’ pre-packaged pastry (smuggled), and a Cuisinart (for pulverizing hazelnuts), I am the proud owner of a kuche of my very own, served in the photo on my grandmother’s china with a cup of afternoon tea.

    It turns out that the recipe is so absurdly simple that no one even bothers to publish it in real cookbooks. R’s cousin Tanja found it for me in her Home Ec textbook from high school and it has all of five ingredients (besides the dough). Cut-up fruit (apricots are my favorite), the hazelnuts, milk, an egg, and a little sugar. Yeah, I’m an idiot, but now I’m a self-satisfied, fruit-filled idiot.

  2. Amaretti

    Another wild success from this trip. I got hooked on the Swiss, chewy version of these almond cookies while visiting Tessin, the Italian canton in the south. Unbeknownst to me at the time, I would spend the next ten years purchasing and swearing at the super-hard, not-at-all-like-what-I-wanted version offered by Italian restaurants and stores in New York and San Francisco before giving up on ever finding what I was looking for again.

    Lo and behold, as I was waiting for my train to Milan at the Zurich station, I happened to dawdle by a farmer’s market vendor selling breads and pastries. Next to the linzertorte lay a few craggy cookies powdered lightly with sugar and labeled as amaretti. I braced for disappointment and handed over a few francs. I needn’t have (braced, that is, not paid. It’s Switzerland: you always have to pay.) Ah, the chewy taste of sweet success! I’m back, baby!

    It turns out, after further research and discussion, that these amaretti are, after all, a different animal than the hard as rocks Italian cookie. Nice of them to name them differently, don’t you think? Jerks.

    Another trip to Migros and I scored three different versions of my (re)new(ed) best friend which I’ve worked my way through at an alarming pace since we got back. I got some small square ones, 20 to a bag, that are OK, still soft but without the slightly crunchy exterior layer. The layered ones in the photo are ridiculously good but might put you in sugar shock: the middle layer is an inch of soft milk chocolate laced with liqueur. The closest to the homemade are the same cookie (same photo) without the chocolate and I would eat them until I threw up except I only bought one pack so I had to ration them. They’re gone now, so I might have to start experimenting with recipes off the internet. Good thing I just joined that gym down the hill.

  3. Meringues

    Aside from chocolate, I always bring back meringue cookies, usually the ones with their little bottoms dipped in chocolate, but this trip, Tanja converted me to a straight-up meringue lover. Put them (or just one, if you’ve gotten or made the large ones) in the bottom of a bowl, cover them with whipped cream and throw on a bunch of berries. You’re welcome.

    I know I could’ve been eating this all along if I bothered to make meringues, which I know how to do, but meringues take so long to bake I just can’t take it.

    (Reading all of the above, I do seem to have issues with patience and preparation in the kitchen, don’t I? I’ll have to have a long think about that as soon as the sugar-induced hyperactivity wears off.)

  4. Spätzle

    Spätzle, translated charmingly as “little sparrows” is a kind of tiny dumplingy tastiness. Again, something I could make myself, but I prefer to rely on Migros’ vacuum-packed goodness that is at the ready in my cupboard whenever I need my fix. I’ve bought the dried spätzle available in supermarkets here, but it’s not quite right, dry instead of moist and a general disappointment.

    If you live in San Francisco, hit Suppenkuche in Hayes Valley for the original and order the Jägerschnitzel in Champignonsoße mit Spätzle und grünem Salat. It’s what spätzle should be: soft, yummy and covered with a creamy mushroom sauce.

  5. Rösti

    Rösti is R’s preferred side dish: grated potatoes fried as a pancake and flipped so both top and bottom are brown and crispy. (I make a mess of the flipping bit, so R handles that. Can you tell I’m not much of a cook?) Yet again, not so hard to make at home, but that would require forethought, patience and a lot of grating, none of which sound good to me, so packs of plain rösti, cheese rösti and rösti with bacon bits come back with us.

  6. Pastetli

    I can’t begin to explain to you how rich pastetli are and how much you need to make some.

    Here’s what they are: puff pastry shells filled with mushroom cream sauce with little kügeli, or balls, of what they claim to be veal. (I know I shouldn’t eat veal, but I console myself that little Swiss cows have much happier lives than American calves who are treated abominably and whose farmers must, I fear, have black hearts.) I say “claim” because the little meat balls are the consistency of bratwurst, not regular meat. Those meat balls are the missing link. I’ve found the pastry shells in the freezer section of the grocery store courtesy of Pepperidge Farm, so I’m set there, and I can make a mushroom sauce by adding milk to roux, but the meat escapes me.

    In Switzerland, you can buy packages of the fleisch kügeli to add to your sauce and come at it that way or, of course, you can rely on Migros 100% and buy their packets of pastetenfullung as I have and horde them for comforting dinners at the end of your very worst days. I’ll keep you posted if I sort out the meat component and figure out how to make my own.

So we’re sorted for now on the Swiss food front, but I might need to start an import/export ring to keep the supply lines properly open. Or learn to cook, I guess , which somehow seems harder.

European Tour 2009: What Worked

The tour included business and theater in London (humid, grey), a wedding in Switzerland (formal), a couple of sweltering days in Milan, holiday with family in Venice, a little down time in Zurich, a lot of time in flight, a couple days on trains, and short trips on trams and boats. That’s a lot of different climates and even more transitions from flats to hotels and back and forth between countries.

Across all that, there were a few things that stood out as being incredibly handy to have and made the trip’s insane logistics so much easier to manage.

The Best Bag Ever (especially on the road): Marghera Convertible

I, like most of you, have spent an undisclosed portion of my adult life seeking the perfect bag. Luckily for both of us, I’ve found it. Aside from its excellent green-ness which works for day and night, the features I love the most are its ability to switch from a handled bag to a shoulder bag (it folds over) and to contain my laptop without betraying its presence.

To be fair, that laptop is a Mac Air (which, incidentally, I love like my unconceived children), so its weight doesn’t put a strain on the bag’s leather shoulder strap and its unusually slim form allows it to slide horizontally into a bag like this that wouldn’t accommodate either its Apple bretheren or any other standard size laptops. Don’t look at this as a draback though: this is your opportunity to justify both a new computer and a new bag.

When not housing your ‘puter, the capacity is generous enough to hold small purchases in addition to the usual wallet, iPhone, keys and assorted cousins. Two flat outside pockets are exactly the size of your airline ticket and one small one inside will hold your passport.

Where to get it: Sundance Catalog. Currently on sale for $250.

iPhone

R talked me into an iPhone the day before we left the country, mainly so I could make international calls and send text messages in Europe without buying a just-for-international phone with a different phone number everybody then has to remember. I was ambivalent. Did I really want to get worked up about something so many people are already worked up about? Wouldn’t it be more fair to the coolness marketplace to get worked up about something more obscure? And wouldn’t I look cooler if I did that second one instead?

Also, I liked my little Blackberry Pearl and the consistency of Verizon. Why move to something bigger with AT&T’s terrible coverage?

Because it’s pocket-sized awesomeness, that’s why.

Really, though, the main thing was having a phone and text messaging which meant we could split up for the afternoon and still coordinate keys, dinner, and so on. I don’t know what we’d have done without it.

Where to get it: Apple.

iPhone App: Hi Converter

It converts things. Correction: it converts EVERYTHING. Do you want to know how many hectares are in a bunder? How many ngarns are in a square angstrom? Did you know there was such a thing as a square light year? The area converter can help. When you’re done there, the distance converter will turn your miles into gnat’s eyes (.00000007761). You can do electric current and digital image resolution conversions in your spare time.

Aside from its clear entertainment value, it will also convert your euros into dollars based on today’s exchange rate, your size at Bloomingdale’s into your size at Harrod’s, and 40 Celsius into a more comprehensibly crispy 104 Fahrenheit.

Where to get it: App Store.

iPhone App: Collins Italian-English Dictionary

Since I speak German and a chunk of Spanish and can get by in French, I’ve been arrogantly cruising around Europe for quite a while without having to feel like a complete tourist. Those days came to a jarring end at the Italian border. Enter the iPhone (again).

Of all the dictionaries I tried, the $25 Collins was the best. It covers a lot of ground: direct translations, peripheral usage, colloquialisms and common (or, in the best cases, not at all common) phrases.

$25 is a lot for an app and I know no one wants to pay more than 99 cents, but the frustration of looking up a word and finding no results repeatedly on other apps gets old fast. You spent $1200 to get to Italy, you can spare another $25 to pull up with, “L’ho gettato nel water,” to explain the whereabouts of your passport/hairbrush/traveler’s checks. (Translates to, “I threw it in the toilet,” by the way.)

Where to get it: App Store

Hideo Wakamatsu 20″ Viewer Trolley

The day after we got back from Barcelona in June, I biked over to the Hideo Wakamatsu store to check out superlight international carry-on sized luggage. I biked home with a silver 6.5 lb., 20″ Viewer Trolley hanging from my handlebars.

Why the post-trip rush? Because you have to seize the moment when your shoulder still hurts from schlepping a non-rolling bag and your ego still smarts from looking like a hands-full-of-stuff schmuck, and solve your problem.

My problem is that we have a bunch of stuff – some of it heavy – that I won’t check. R’s 35mm camera, my jewelry, things I’ll want on the plane (sweater, megaphone, another sweater, snacks) and essential clothing (an extra T-shirt and undies, plus whatever we would die without if they lost our luggage, like a swimsuit if we’re going to be beach or my dress for the wedding we’re attending). That pile of stuff always ends up being more than I want to carry in a shoulder bag, but I don’t want to drag around an actual suitcase with all the rest of my non-essential stuff too. (Besides, most American 22″ roll-on suitcases are too heavy, once packed, to meet international flight restrictions.) What to do? Until last month, I chose “suffer” rather than add another suitcase to the mix.

That was the wrong choice. The Viewer kicks ass. It’s super light for getting in and out of bins, and its four wheels allow you to roll it next to you with your computer bag on top. It’s like walking a very quiet, rectangular pet. Your hands are free, your shoulder is relaxed, and you look like the seasoned traveler you actually are.

Quick warning: the lovely matte finish on the bag will mark, so brace yourself for that before you check it (if you ever decide you need to, that is). I haven’t checked it yet myself, so I’ve no idea how well it holds up to airline abuse, but it’s done beautifully inside planes, trams, and trains.

Where to get it: Currently out of stock at the eponymous shop but available – albeit inaccurately described as having two wheels and not four – at Flight 001.

Business Class

Traveling in business class (or above) is the way to go. I know there is no one (except possibly this jerk) who is in favor of the turn that air travel has taken in the last ten years. These days, the coach cabin on a long-haul flight looks more and more like the back of a Central American chicken truck. Between the the addition of bad things (longer lines and delays, ineffective security, fees for everything) and the elimination of good things (space, food, customer service), there’s pretty much nothing positive to say about flying except that you will get where you’re going not dead (mostly).

R travels for work, which rots but has a significant up side: he accumulates crazy numbers of miles and little stacks of upgrade certificates. We use the former to get me where he’s already going and the latter to get us there, occasionally, in business class. I don’t need warmed nuts and real china, but the quiet and the space bring the airborne experience back from the brink of catatonia into the land of, “I might not maim someone first thing when I get off the plane.”

Where to get it: Get a job where you a.) travel a lot (our way), b.) make a lot of money or c.) can commit a lot of untraceable financial fraud.

Travel: Some Thoughts on Packing

suitcases.jpg

I am anxiety-prone and claustrophobic, which is not a great combo for someone who travels as much as I do. The anxiety convinces me that I should take pretty much everything I own with me (you know: just in case), and the claustrophobia kicks in when I climb into a metal tube in the company of 700 other people. I’m a wonderful flying companion. Just ask R.

Seriously though, I’ve been on one of those – what is it the MBAs call it? – “constant improvement” kicks for the last few years to reduce the amount of luggage and stress that gets tacked onto our trips as a result of what are, really, manageable issues.

In the interests of helping others who are similarly handicapped, here are a few of my top-line tips.

One, trying to trap myself into wearing things I never wear at home by taking them on vacation with me is a losing strategy. That is, unless you’re planning on leaving your plaid pants, your pith helmet and your mint green Members Only jacket in your hotel room on the other end, in which case, go for it. Who’s to say that the Salvation Army in Boca doesn’t need your castoffs more than the one around the corner from your apartment?

Two, I’m not a boy, which should have been obvious to me a long time ago, but apparently wasn’t. When I finally owned it, I stopped trying to pack the way R does, namely in ten minutes the morning we’re leaving. You are who you are and you gotta do what you gotta do.

Three, for me, what I gotta do is pack at least two days ahead of time so that I have a couple of mornings between me and departure when I can wake up in a sweat remembering that I’ve forgotten to put any pants in the suitcase or that I’ve accidentally included a parka for a beach holiday. Give yourself a break on the day of the trip: pack early, re-pack often.

Four, save your complicated, one-time-wear costumes for events happening within driving distance of home. Simplicity and interchangeability are key on the road. Your glitter jumpsuit needs to stay home, as do complicated hats, and that layered look that involves a bolero jacket, a fur cape and two or three turtlenecks. You might think you’ll look cool when you get there, but that’ll be offset by how uncool you look schlepping a steamer trunk into JFK.

Five, related, unless you’re going to a wedding or a formal event, don’t take shoes that can only be worn with one outfit. Five-inch heels don’t go with running shorts, ever, not even if you’re on Sex and the City. (God, I still remember that one outfit all these years later? That’s called scarring, right?) Take as few shoes and boots as you can manage. Once you’re at the number, eliminate at least one more pair. If you can’t get down to three pairs, you need to buy some new shoes that are more outfit-interchangeable. (I’m here to help. Really.)

I have more tips, of course, but I need to pace myself, so more later. One of them involves stacks of Post-Its, a radio show, quite a lot of detailed list-making and sedatives. If you’d like to get a jump on that one, maybe that can be a fun weekend guessing project for you and the kids. Enjoy!