The Sweet Life in Rome

The past in Rome is like a living organism tethered to the city. It’s literally ever-present. Hidden behind nearly every turn is a thousands-year-old monument, a visual testament to the city’s eternal grandeur and complicated legacy. It’s easy to marvel at the feats of the ancient engineers of the Colosseum, but then you remember the bloodshed and the horror. You envision the fear in the gladiators’ eyes, the murderous glee in those of the spectators. But “it’s so beautiful,” you think, and so inescapably modern. There are grand lessons to be learned from this, I’m sure. Something about humanity’s dual nature. Why were we–still are–capable of such violence? Big questions. Complicated answers. The city is more than a history lesson, though. There’s life here. It pulses through every winding curve and swims among the cobblestones. It’s alive in the Romans themselves, whose passion for their city informs everything about it. There’s a magic here that’s hard to put into words. It’s most evident at night, when the bright green ivy bristles on the ochre stucco of the ancient neighborhoods and the fountains glow holy in the piazzas. The wine is cheap, the food indulgent and unpretentious. It hooks you. After we returned from our trip, a relative, now in her eighties, said the following wonderfully poignant thing: “We thought we’d see the world, but we kept going back to Rome.”

There are imperfections, too. Rome doesn’t have the picturesque elegance of Paris or the renovated facade of Madrid. It’s just a tad rough around the edges, especially outside the touristy areas. Locals complain about basic services. Pedestrians fight with Fiats and Vespas for street dominance. But the undeniable beauty of Rome, my god. And the permanence afforded to it by its history. It feels truly eternal. A place that was, is, will forever be.

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From top: Chicory fettuccine and bucatini all’amatriciana; the Pantheon at night; the streets of Trastevere; the Colosseum; the Roman Forum; rigatoni carbonara at Perilli in Testaccio; ruins and Il Vittoriano; a view of Il Vittoriano from the American Bar at the Hotel Forum; steep steps; the Spanish Steps from above; charcuterie and wine dinner near Piazza Navona; Campo d’Fiori; anchovy and zucchini blossom pizza at Dar Poeta in Trastevere; Piazza Trilussa in Trastevere; a Kosher restaurant in the Jewish Ghetto; beautiful streets; cheese and anchovy-stuffed fried zucchini blossoms in the Jewish Ghetto; the Great Synagogue; the Pantheon oculus; Villa Borghese, Rome’s main park; drinking wine on our roof; the view from our rooftop; cheap, delicious gelato all over Rome; St. Peter’s Basilica as seen from the gardens of the Vatican; Roman streetscape; Pizzarium near the Vatican; a bookstore with an amazing selection of vintage Italian posters, around the corner from Pizza Navona; the lovely, winding streets of Rome

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An Ode to the Tourist

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Image via THOR, Flickr.com; made available under Creative Commons license

What do you get when you distill travel to its essence? Is it experiencing new cultures? Or, getting outside of yourself and your routine? Or maybe, is it, at its core, seeing the world through someone else’s eyes? Travel can be life-affirming in the best possible way: sweeping vistas and exotic foods–a new breeze under a new sun. Those are the ideals of travel. The reality, while often still pleasurable and picturesque, can also be frustrating and rage-inducing. It’s trying to figure out what a gate agent is saying when there’s been a flight delay or accidentally ending up in the wrong part of the city after you’ve misread a map. (Actually, the latter can be quite serendipitous if you don’t have elsewhere to be.) It’s tempting to think it’s just us Americans who stick out so prominently when abroad. But everyone, no matter how cultured or worldly, is a tourist when they’re away from home.

The idea of tourism as shared experience is heartening and can be, at times, liberating. Once you realize you’re in the same boat as all other travelers, your insecurities can melt away. On a recent trip to Italy I saw a group of hip young French girls eating at a cozy trattoria, a supersize Lonely Planet guide unabashedly propped on their table. I often try to read guidebooks inconspicuously so my husband and I aren’t branded *TOURISTS* without being given a chance to adapt to the local culture, but seeing theirs so prominently displayed made me say “who cares?” On a day trip to Florence, we spotted another young French traveler who was flummoxed by the Italian word for “check.” She had thought she said it correctly, but the waiter was confused. I felt for her as I had, on our first day in the country, said muy bueno (“very good” in Spanish) instead of molto bene (“very good” in Italian) when asked how a certain dish tasted. It was a slip of the tongue for which I have no explanation. This is what travel is, though–it’s bumbling, self-effacing, humbling. So much of travel writing is devoted to telling us how to blend in with the locals, either by way of what we’re wearing or how we speak or which places we choose to dine. But this “blending in” tends to be ineffective no matter how hard we try. Every expertly pronounced request to a taxi driver to take us to, say, Trastevere (pronounced tras-TEH-ve-ray) or Termini (pronounced TAIR-mee-nee) was coupled with a sense of pride followed by an immediate reality check when he inevitably followed up with an Italian phrase I couldn’t quite decipher.

My husband and I are American; we’re not, nor will we probably ever be, Italian (or French or Spanish). We’re respectful and we’re kind and we’re curious when we travel, but no matter how polished our demeanor, we’ll eventually be found out as tourists (is it the shoes? the haircuts? our excessive smiling?). We are visitors, after all. And it’s okay if they know. Maybe better, even. At a cozy charcuterie spot near Piazza Navona in Rome we met a waitress who was enamored of New York City. She visited once a year and told us about all of her favorite spots. I was thankful she had asked where were from and we were able to answer honestly.

Maybe the essence of travel has something to do with cross-cultural pollination; them learning as much from you as you are from them. As we fumbled through our interactions in Italy, we discovered a lot more about this place we chose to call home for just a little while. We let the ancient Roman ruins and the swaying ivy seep into our bones, the memories settle into our brains as a catalog of our lives. At the end, we were still tourists, yes, but we were more at ease with the city; it was now an acquaintance as opposed to a stranger.

On our last day in Rome I spotted a young American family standing on a bridge on the Tiber river. The mom was wearing a cute sundress, while the dad was outfitted like an American traveler caricature–safari hat, cargo shorts, tube socks and white running shoes. Their bright-eyed children were smiling widely at the dad’s pointed camera. When he was done taking pictures, the dad looked out over the rooftops of the Eternal City. The day was bright and bursting with potential. His contentment was palpable. Here he was, on the trip of a lifetime, with a wife and kids who were just excited as he was. Does it get any better? Were they going to be dining at the grimy, off-the-beaten-path trattorias or spending time with working class locals at suburban markets? Probably not. But they were away from home. And there was beauty to experience. And for them, I think that was enough.

What Makes a City Great?

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A view of the Richmond, Va. skyline (via Will Fisher, Flickr.com; made available via Creative Commons license)

I’ve always been an urban enthusiast. I love cities. I love exploring them, examining them, studying them. My husband and I have always preferred a new city to a beach as a vacation destination. Even as I enjoy walking around a new place, I can’t help but take stock of what works–on an urban planning level–and what doesn’t.

A few years ago, when I read the seminal modern planning tome “The Death and Life of Great American Cities,” by Jane Jacobs, I found myself nodding along with nearly all of Jacobs’s assertions. The book is not at all academic; in fact, it’s conversational and heavily anecdotal. Jacobs makes points that seem plainly obvious to a modern reader, but they were diametrically opposed to the principles of the early- and mid-century planning movement still popular at the time (whose origins can be traced back to de-slumming efforts).

A few of Jacobs’s salient points:

  • Areas should mixed-use, that is: zoned and used for work, living and play, to ensure vibrancy and safety. There should be “eyes on the street” at all hours of the day, from residents, business owners, workers, shoppers and those out on the town. This “diversity of use” creates a sense of community and place.
  • Pedestrian traffic, and in turn, density, is absolutely essential for a healthy city. Too many people, however, decrease sight lines and damage self-policing.
  • An abundance of tall residential buildings surrounded by unused green pace–especially in the form of isolated housing projects–create a sense disconnect.
  • Parks should ideally be placed in sunny, well-trafficked areas, not in far-removed courtyards or on the edges of neighborhoods.
  • Architecture should be varied to ensure variety of use and economic diversity (since rent for new construction can often be prohibitively expensive for existing businesses and residents).

This is all well and good for cities like New York and San Francisco and London, with existing infrastructure that allows for revitalization and a heavy concentration of pedestrians.

What of smaller cities, especially in the U.S., whose residents have migrated to the suburbs and whose downtowns, zoned almost entirely for work, stand vacant by 5:01 p.m.? Yes, young people are moving to city centers, but is it enough to counteract nearly 100 years of destructive urban policy?

In my hometown of Richmond, Va., downtown tobacco warehouses were converted into lofts in recent years, but some are, according to what would be Jacobs’s outlook, isolated. Yes, they have river views, and they’re a short walk from a number of good restaurants, but their backs front confined courtyards, vacant green space or large parking lots, effectively disconnecting them from the rest of the community and creating safety concerns. The residents’ eyes are diverted away from the street because, well, who’d want to stare at a parking lot? Also, would they want to cross that same empty lot on their own, in the dark, on their way home from a night out?

There’s a mayoral proposal to place a minor league baseball team near this same nightlife area (Shockoe Bottom), which has been the focus of multiple revitalization efforts. The most salient argument against development comes from those who want to preserve the space, which was the site of the second largest slave market in the country. But what to make of the proposal from a revitalization perspective? I haven’t yet done specifics-oriented research to see how many visitors a stadium would attract, but it doesn’t seem as though a seasonal attraction–not even an everyday seasonal attraction–is enough to make sure the area meets Jacobs’s diversity of use criteria. Like the current minor league stadium nearby, it’ll stand empty most days and nights, exacerbating the vacant feel of the ‘hood.

What the immediate neighborhood has little of is large-scale office space, though some are trying to change that. There are few people on the streets before 8 p.m. About 1.5 miles across the James River in Manchester, the Corrugated Box Building, a 40,000 square foot loft-style brick building, houses the Richmond-based offices of Tumblr and a bevy of other creative companies. Seems as though similar office space in Shockoe Bottom would greatly increase pedestrian traffic–a hallmark of a healthy city neighborhood–during the middle of the day. Foot traffic tends to initiate a snowball effect–the more pedestrians others witness, the more likely they are to park and walk around themselves. Pedestrian safety is essential, too, and Richmond, as the 20th most dangerous city for walking in the U.S., has a long way to go.

Car culture is ingrained in a medium-sized city like Richmond. I was reading a positive Yelp review of a buzzy new restaurant out in the ‘burbs. The reviewer listed his criteria for a top-notch spot: unique food, interesting cocktails and…plenty of parking. And I’m sure a lot of people feel the same way. How to counteract that? Side-street, small scale parking decks can help bring in people from the suburbs who are reluctant to troll for street parking. This is especially true for the emerging Broad Street district, where parking can be hard find. Carytown, a quirky nearly mile-long shopping area concentrated along West Cary Street does a good job of hiding small lots and decks off nearby streets. Large lots and decks syphon space and character and shouldn’t be a real option on Broad Street itself.

Richmond has plenty of attractions, but few attractive hotels. Aside from the 5-star classic Jefferson hotel, most are generic corporate giants on a business-only stretch downtown or off the interstate near office parks. An independent arts-focused hotel (from the owners of Quirk Galleryis planned for Broad Street and is slated to open Fall 2015. I hope its opening will signify a shift in momentum. I’m surprised no enterprising person has erected a boutique hotel in a neighborhood like The Fan, a historic Victorian district with restaurants, bars and easy walking access to Carytown, various parks and the museums of North Boulevard. A modern, low-lying, industrial-style hotel like the Renaissance New Orleans Arts would fit right in on West Main Street, the main commercial thoroughfare.

Visitors can help local businesses thrive, but it’s locals who determine the culture and character of their neighborhood, and effectively, their city. I’m optimistic about Richmond. There are a number of creative, committed people who love the city and want to make it a renowned destination. And there are so many things the city does have going for it: a variety of museums–both large and smallunique eateries and shops, one of the most beautiful city parks in the country, historic architecture and varied neighborhoods. RVA is on the rise.

A Merging of Cultures in the Crescent City

It’s probably a cliche to call the city of New Orleans unique. So I won’t. I’ll call it “particular” or “singular” or even “distinctive.” (Thanks, Merriam-Webster!) It exists as a place of contradictions. Even though it’s located in the geographical and cultural South, much about it flies in direct contrast to traditional Southern mores. Unlike the puritanical blue laws of  Southern (and plenty of Northern) states, many bars in New Orleans are open 24 hours. It’s also the only place in the United States where open plastic containers of alcohol are permitted throughout the entire city (not in motor vehicles, though) at any time; there’s nothing like taking your $14 cocktail to go in a see-through Dixie cup. Though people were friendly, there was no over-the-top stereotypical Southern politeness. In fact, there was no stereotypical anything. New Orleans felt much like New York City–an amalgamation of multiple cultures, people and even accents. The dialects vary widely neighborhood to neighborhood. In an interesting NYC parallel, Irish and Italian residents speak in a dialect known as “Yat,” a recognizable Brooklyn-style squawk. The locals have an enormous sense of pride in the unique culture of the city, which was ruled by France, then Spain, then France again, before being sold to the U.S. by Napoleon as part of the Louisiana Purchase in 1803. The wide variety of food speaks to that–the Creole meats and Cajun po’boys–but so does the music, with its brass-heavy jazz beats and wailing blues. It booms and ricochets off the wrought-iron balconies and lush courtyards night after night. It’s a city with no inhibitions, a place that’s not ashamed of itself, a town where, on any given night, anything can happen.

 

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From top: Sazeracs, the official city cocktail at the original Sazerac Bar at The Roosevelt Hotel; $.50 Gulf oysters at Lüke; a view of the stately mansions on St. Charles Avenue from the Streetcar; homestyle cooking at Jacques-Imo’s; beignets at the 24-hour Cafe Du Monde; the St. Louis Cathedral at Jackson Square; Faulkner House Books in the French Quarter; Boutique du Vampyre in the Quarter; shrimp and oyster po’boys at Johnny’s Po-Boys; New Orleans Museum of Art Sculpture Garden; Walter “Wolfman” Washington preforming with his band at d.b.a. on Frenchman St.; shrimp and grits at Commander’s Palace; bread pudding soufflé at Commander’s Palace; the exterior of Commander’s Palace; bead decorations on Magazine St.; wine and music at Bacchanal Fine Wine & Spirits; late-night fried chicken and a to-go Hurricane from Pat O’Brien’s on Bourbon St.; an exterior of Cafe Beignet; craftsmen at Bevolo Gas & Electric Lights; Pimm’s Cup and Sazerac at the historic Napoleon House; the Napoleon House courtyard; an amazing musical duo off Royal St.; Bourbon St. action

From Sea to Shining Sea

As an immigrant to this country, I tend to be fairly patriotic about the U.S. and feel lucky to call it home. There are many things I love: press freedom, diversity of people and ideas, innovation. I get most excited, though, when I travel to America’s many corners. Man, what a beautiful country. Just, wow. A recent family trip to California was the perfect antidote to the mopey urbanity of wintertime NYC. We stayed outside Los Angeles at the foothills of the Santa Monica Mountains. Each night, the surrounding mountain ranges would turn the most exquisite hue of hazy pinki-ish-purple. A day trip to Santa Barbara revealed lush coastline and cliff-side views. A picnic at a Malibu beach meant large rock formations and tide pools. I’d been to California many times before, but each time I return (and the same holds true for Vermont, the Blue Ridge Mountains and coastal Carolina), I am awed, as if for the first time, by America’s diverse landscape and beauty. (USA! USA!)

photo 1Sunset in the Valley

photo 3A cliff overlooking the Pacific at Douglas Family Preserve in Santa Barbara

photo 4El Matador State Beach in Malibu

The Kinship of Cities

There are a handful of attributes that are true of many Western world capitals:

  • The public transit system is labyrinth-like, but efficient.
  • The streets are crowded and buzzy.
  • The neighborhoods are distinct and their residents proud.
  • The people may appear gruff, but are generally polite and even helpful.

If you’re going to Paris or London or Buenos Aires, you know you can expect the above. I love these attributes. Cities are where I am most comfortable. Coming from New York, the controlled chaos feels familiar and manageable. In fact, I’m always amazed at how quickly a brand new city can feel like home.  It’s quite heartening. My husband and I like to jump right into the deep end by taking public transit from the airport upon arrival, if we’re not too tired. I love the challenge of quickly deciphering a complex metro system. (No, really, I do.) We also prefer to rent an apartment in a residential neighborhood as opposed to staying in a hotel. If you don’t care about having a dozen towels at your disposal or troubleshooting an issue if something goes wrong, it’s an ideal way to feel like a real resident (well, as close as you can get on a week-long vacation).

This past September, we traveled to Spain and rented apartments in Madrid and Barcelona. I loved both. And both felt like home instantaneously.

Madrid is the true heart of Spain, with busy boulevards and a familiar big-city feel. From the similarities between Central Park and Retiro Park, Times Square and Sol (complete with sketchy people in character costumes), the Upper East Side and Salamanca, the Met and the Prado, the city felt almost earily similar to NYC. We found Madrileños to be fun-loving, friendly and cultured. I’d read about Madrid’s brusqueness, but found none in practice. People were very polite and helped us with everything from directions to picking out menu items. (A Spanish phrasebook did come in handy for when the answer to “Habla usted Inglés?” was a distinct “no”.)

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From top: first taste of jamón at Mercado de San Miguel; wine and stuffed olives; seafood at Mercado de San Miguel; the lake at Retiro Park; looking west from Retiro Park; the bar inside Viva Madrid; tortilla española breakfast; El Rastro flea market; jamón sandwich window display; Real Madrid stadium after a game; tapas at Txakolina; churros and chocolate at Chocolateria San Ginés; breakfast at La Mallorquina; Expressionism at Reina Sofia; Museo del Prado; rooftop bar at Mercado de San Antón

Barcelona has the unmatched beauty of a city that’s warmly embraced both its historic past and and its modernist future. It’s distinctly Catalan with a casual Bohemian vibe. It’s also filled with tourists. We heard more English spoken in our first few hours than we heard during our entire stay in Madrid. There is also a distinctness to Barcelona–the feel of being in a locale that’s wholly unique. Between the ancient winding streets of El Born and Barri Gòtic, the wide boulevards of L’Eixample and the uniquely Mediterranean beach and coast, you feel as though you’re in a place that couldn’t be replicated anywhere else in the world. The city has a lively, kinetic energy and a laid-back, friendly local population. I’m actually surprised it’s not even more packed with tourists.

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From top: the view from our Barcelona apartment in L’Eixample; the winding streets of La Ribera/El Born; watching the parade on the last day of Festival La Mercè; cava and blistered shiseido peppers at Bar de Pla; Casa Batlló, a Gaudí building; organ inside La Sagrada Familia; view from Parc Güell; Gaudí aqueducts; exterior of Palau de la Música Catalana; arròs negre at Kaiku restaurant on the beach; view of Catalan coast; fountain inside Parc de la Cuitadella; mosaic roof; squid and chickpeas at Cal Pep; interior of Santa Maria del Mar; elderly shoppers at Mercat Santa Caterina

Scenes from the Lowcountry

Here are a few favorites from a recent trip to South Carolina.

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Pictured, from top: Cheerwine-and-bourbon drinks on our deck in Kiawah Island; view from our deck; view from Bowens Island Restaurant; buffet lunch at JB’s Smokeshack; sunset on the dock in Kiawah; homemade breakfast of grits, egg, tomatoes and bacon; The Gin Joint in downtown Charelston; an alley in Charleston

The Wonder City Does The River City

A snapshot summary of a recent visit to my lovely hometown of Richmond, Va.

The Brown Derby, a bourbon and grapefruit concoction, at Heritage restaurant in the Fan district

Just one section of the mind-boggling card selection at my favorite stationery and gift shop of all time, Mongrel, in Carytown

Picturesque cornfields near my parents’ home

Pie bliss at Proper Pie Co. in historic Church Hill

From top: “Not Derby” pie and mixed-berry streusel pie at Proper Pie Co.

Vying for the title of “my favorite doughnut ever”: a piping hot glazed sourdough doughnut from Mrs. Yoder’s Kitchen food truck at South of the James Market in Forest Hill Park

Light fixtures at Amuse Restaurant at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts

Sol LeWitt cubes mural at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts

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