Imaginary traveling carries on today from my home desk.

One particular Italian afternoon from several years ago is vividly embedded in my mind…as if it happened only yesterday.

It was an astonishingly beautiful mid-spring afternoon on peaceful Isola dei Pescatori, “Fisherman’s Island”. One of several small islands set within northern Italy’s Lake Maggiore, it is less than 100 kilometers north of bustling Milan.

I had decided early that morning to take a short ferry ride to the island from the lake’s comfortable west shore town of Verbania where I was visiting. A bright, crystal clear blue sky had bloomed after heavy morning gray overcast that recent day in May. The damp scent of nearby laurel, camellia and myrtle wafted across sparkling lake waters, finding a welcome spot within my senses.

Only 60 full time residents now call the island home. Fishing of course, has long been the traditional source of trade for this quaint, sparsely populated isola. Today the fishnets and lines provide ample, hearty fare primarily for local tourist restaurant destinations. After the enjoyment of a casual, al fresco native lake trout lunch at Ristorante La Pescheria, my leisurely stroll through Pescatori’s quaint, winding, shop lined cobbled passages followed.

I soon discovered The Hotel Belvedere and it’s small, inviting, covered patio set near a rocky beach overlooking Maggiore to the east. The Belvedere’s touristy luncheon rush crowd had vanished. A welcome calm settled over the cool, quiet terrace. I asked a young ristorante server if it was too late to sit, relax, and sip some wine while I appreciated the view.

An enthusiastic, “Ovviamente no!”, “Of course not!”, was her reply. A small goblet of cool rose was served. A stunning view of the lake’s rippling blue water and distant peak of Monte Rosa in the stunning Pennine Alps captured me. A gentle breeze whispered through the lightly weathered color canvas panels of the overhead pergola.

I noticed pleasant recorded music provided by a simple, yet efficient outdoor sound system. The melodies drifted over me as I daydreamed, gazed and sipped.

As moments passed, five songs caught my attention as they had segued seamlessly between each other: Frank Sinatra’s trip loving “Come Fly with Me”, “The Dock of the Bay”…Otis Redding’s classic 1968 Memphis Stax/Volt hit, the sentimentally optimistic “What a Wonderful World” by Louis Armstrong, “Heart of Steel” from New Orleans sextet Galactic featuring the incomparable voice of Irma Thomas…and finally The Doors desperate “Riders on the Storm” with Jim Morrison on lead vocals from “L.A. Woman”, circa 1971.

As the set unfolded, it struck me that this was not just any music I was hearing and enjoying.

It was American Music. In Italy.

As I listened and thought, a young couple came strolling hand-in-hand onto the patio and sought the same view and atmosphere in which I was immersed from this Hotel Belvedere vantage point. They easily found a spot to sit nearby.

In the few following moments, those five songs by Sinatra, Redding, Armstrong, Irma Thomas and The Doors created a magical soundtrack accompanying my gentle midday in distant Italy. I found my soul soothed by those timeless songs drifting over a small, comfortable patio in the middle of a dreamy northern Italian lake. The afternoon became a shimmering Monet portrait in my mind as the songs composed a perfect reflection of nearly every genre of American Music that writers and performers have been creating and contributing to our world for decades.

The young couple must have noticed my enjoyment of that space and music and smiled in my direction. As if on cue, they both enthusiastically raised thumbs up as they pointed in the direction from where the music played. It was at that non-verbal moment that those five songs reminded me how much American Music is woven into the fabric of people’s hearts, minds and souls here, there and everywhere.

The jazz, swing, soul, blues and rock in that particular random playlist of Hotel Belvedere music that afternoon…in all its forms, textures, beats and rhythms…to me represented the heartbeat of a nation’s culture.

On that afternoon many miles from my home a young, unknown Italian couple reminded me that the American musical heartbeat is loved. Everywhere.

It’s a vibrant pulse that transcends politics and religion. It’s a power capable of uniting rather than dividing, as well as creating nostalgic thoughts for me one charming May afternoon in Italy, with more than a little help from my traveling companions Frank, Otis, Irma, Louis and Jim.

And the young anonymous Italian couple that blissfully shared with me a nostalgic moment in time.

Thank you all.

And, finally…if you’d actually like to see the location where my Italian music memory was made…you can here at Belvedere Isola Pescatori.

Saluti! Ciao!

 

 

 

Before a bike ride at 6:00 am, there’s nothing better in the whole wide world than cold pasta for breakfast.

NOTHING.

Cold Pasta.

Cold Pasta for breakfast. You know you want it.

 

 

 

 

 

This was to be the weekend, April 23-26, Jazz Fest 2020 in New Orleans was to begin. Due to Covid-19, it’s been canceled. Dates for the 2021 edition have been chosen…April 22-May 2, 2021. Gustav and Sonja love New Orleans and Jazz Fest. We can’t wait to return to support the musicians, restaurants and most of all the people of New Orleans who make it one of the most vibrant places in America.

I’m re-posting below some of my memories from a previous visit to the festival and city. By the way…WWOZ-FM an excellent public radio station in New Orleans…is playing festival highlights from the past during the next couple of weeks.

New Orleans…we miss you. Stay well.
A la prochaine…

A visit to New Orleans during the Jazz and Heritage Festival is a terrific opportunity to capture the essence of the charming, historical city. Over two long weekends the last of April and beginning of May, the annual event creates a rhythmic, big easy pace unlike the boozy, often rowdy Mardi Gras carnival which celebrates the arrival of Lent.

Founded in the early 18th century in the midst of boggy Louisiana swamps and sticky, mossy marshes along the southern Mississippi River valley known as The Bayou, New Orleans is one of America’s most unique, beloved and enduring destinations.

The mighty, often unpredictable Mississippi, winds its way south through a crescent shaped bend at New Orleans before ultimately exhausting itself in the many dynamic currents of the Gulf of Mexico. For hundreds of square miles in all directions this wetlands region of America’s Deep South is perpetually vulnerable to weather extremes; heavy rains, tropical storms, sea surges and hurricanes. It’s a geographic location ripe for despair.

If only French explorers had known of this treachery when establishing then Vieux Carre there as a trading post in the early 1700’s. But the proximity to the mouth of the Mississippi at the gulf provided trappers a market place, and for traders convenient routes to their points of sale. They were unaware that this crude little settlement soon to be known as New Orleans was vulnerable to Mother Nature’s powerful, devastating self-indulgence.

Three hundred years later, there’s a constant umbrella of fear hanging over the Crescent City. The undeniable, negative reality is exposed during any hurricane season when New Orleans stands a good chance of being struck by any one or more of the powerful storms spawned in the adjacent gulf. The calamity and destruction of catastrophic events such as 2005’s wicked Cat 5 Hurricane Katrina has driven home forever the stark reality that for New Orleans to endure, it needs to be ever vigilant and in survival mode.

Over generations a self-protective New Orleans attitude fostered a remarkably vibrant spirit of community and strengthened a long cherished respect for history. After Katrina, New Orleans rebuilt and was reinvigorated. The determined who call New Orleans home have embraced an instinctive challenge to not only survive, but to savor life, maximizing the unique daily experiences their city provides and to have a great time while living The Big Easy.

Architectural history rooted in Colonial and Victorian styles from the 18th and 19th centuries not only survive, in fact those representations are nurtured, maintained and preserved. From the historical French Quarter to the grand southern mansions in the St. Charles and Esplanade neighborhoods, streets shaded by dense canopies of giant oak, magnolia and sweet gum trees still prevail.

Food born from generations of rich immigrant and native traditions warms and nourishes hearts, minds and souls.

From the deep-rooted influences of African cultures, musical creativity has fancifully evolved into Cajun, zydeco, ragtime, jazz and bounce, while a regional contemporary arts scene has flourished in modern museums and neighborhood galleries.

During Jazz Fest, music is the crowd drawing magnetism. But Jazz Fest is more than a great stage for multi-genre music.

Jazz Fest is a New Orleans celebration of life.

When I first walked onto the centrally located New Orleans Fair Grounds where Jazz Fest thrives, I was immediately immersed in a joyful feast of Music. Culture. Crafts. Aroma. Flavor. Community.

These invigorating sensory experiences form the common bond which attracts the crowds and encourages friends to be made of strangers amid the music beats, ice cold sweet tea, hot catfish po’boys, Cajun arts, crafts and the revelry of ancestral tribal members performing in vivid native costumes.

By its very nature Jazz Fest is resistant to the current prejudice, political ugliness and world anger festering just beyond the fair grounds horizon. Enter the gates, and noise from the outside world is muted, giving way to the harmony of crowds digging the total scene.

I’ve been fortunate to enjoy Jazz Fest several times over the years. In the past I’d made the mistake of buying a one-day pass. A heads up to those who’ve never been, one day is not enough time.

Several large outdoor stages provide constant entertainment from 11:00 am to around dusk. You’ll find that lots of folks haul themselves down to those venues as soon as the fair grounds opens. Carrying camp chairs, coolers and colorful sunbrellas it’s a race to stake out small plots of grassy ground where they can enjoy the top tier acts throughout the day. Last year headliners included Rod Stewart, Sting, Sheryl Crow, Jack White, Beck, Aerosmith, Steve Miller and Bonnie Raitt.

Not really into the mega-entertainers nor the stage hugging crowds sweltering in the Louisiana sun, I generally choose to find a place in one of the large tents arranged around the grounds, each one uniquely showcasing artists who swing everything from blues to gospel, jazz to big band.

Last year I found myself in the Blues Tent for most of one day. Each of the circus sized tents hold several hundred happy, bouncing souls eager to grab and savor the beats of musicians well known, as well as those talented yet under the radar.

Among my favorite performers in the Blues Tent that day were the Little Freddie King Blues Band and C.J. Chenier and the Red Hot Louisiana Band.

C.J. is the son of Clifton Chenier, otherwise known as the legendary “King of Zydeco”. The apple didn’t fall far from Dad’s tree, because C.J. put on an absolutely blistering revue of swamp blues, R&B and soul infused zydeco that rocked the tent from the tip of it’s big top to it’s anchored posts.

Be advised it’s often broiler temperature hot and more than a bit humid in the mammoth tents. Take along a small daypack and carry water, moist disposable wipe-ups to refresh yourself and perhaps a small folding paper fan. It’s rarely cool during the festival, but fast moving thunderstorms in the area can get one wet, so carrying some light rain protection is also a good idea.

After a full day at Jazz Fest, it was time to eat.

New Orleans is a foodie’s paradise, home to pricey world-class restaurants hosted by several well-known chefs. The upscale dining scene is constantly evolving. However, what’s one of the most important foodie things I learned on my early trips to the city? Visitors don’t have to spend Paul Prudhomme-or-Emeril Lagasse-wallet-emptying-loot to enjoy great food in New Orleans. The city offers a variety of affordable, tasty options.

A fun place to begin any New Orleans dining experience is at the ACME Oyster House on Iberville. It’s located in the French Quarter just a short walk from the main boulevard, Canal Street. With a reasonably priced menu, it’s been a New Orleans tradition since 1910. There’s usually a long line at all hours on the sidewalk out front of ACME. The place is a comfortable magnet because it serves up all kinds of simple yet hearty, fun food for hungry ones anxious to dive into the spirit of NOLA. They’re meals you can’t always find back home. Is the place touristy? Yep! It’s New Orleans!

Oysters, of course, are the ACME house specialty. You can find them any way you like them. Plates of oysters either smothered in butter, deep fried, or raw on the half-shell find their way to eager diners. But the night I was there I craved shrimp. I’d been dreaming of the tender deep-fried crustaceans from the Gulf of Mexico since I began planning my trip months earlier.

When it was my turn to grab a seat, I found one at the oyster bar where three guys in slick rubber aprons were enthusiastically cracking and shucking shells from bags of raw oysters, smack dab in front of me. Once in awhile my shirt was splashed with salty oyster goo, but hey, it’s atmosphere! After a short wait my meal plate arrived piled high with hot crispy, deep-fried shrimp. They were encased in a batter that was crunchy, delicious and just a little spicy for good measure to remind me that I was in Cajun Country.

An obvious suggestion is to follow dinner with a walk through the always bustling, French Quarter. You’ll enjoy strolling the risqué neon lit pedestrian friendly Bourbon, Decatur and Iberville Streets and the opportunities to people watch and hear music in a variety of busy clubs and bars along the way. There’s always music somewhere, at any hour in New Orleans.

For instance, The 21stst Amendment is an intimate, small bar across the street from ACME. It has a changing musical menu each night, from traditional New Orleans jazz to southern Delta blues. It’s a great find and a comfortable place to wind down at the end of an eventful New Orleans day during your Jazz and Heritage Festival experience.

 

Gustav and Sonja follow a wonderful French chef on Instagram. The lengthy career of Jacques Pepin includes extensive involvement in numerous French restaurants…cookbook author…New York Times contributor…personal chef to Charles de Gaulle…and frequent guest of Julia Child’s long ago TV program, The French Chef. 

Some of those episodes with Julia Child are classics…so entertaining…lots of humor…and terrific videos to visit and perhaps help you escape for a few moments from this trying time. You can see most of them by following this YouTube link:https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLb2FN4PHG1lfDbm6GxoFHGnv3mbtp4pJ

You can also follow Jacques Pepin on Instagram @jacquespepinfoundation. He has concise, interesting, useful ways to creatively prepare food during this pandemic. At his website, https://jp.foundation/ you can learn about the foundation he’s created ‘to support culinary education for adults with barriers to employment’ and his current mobilization effort, the Community Kitchen Emergency Relief Fund.

Yesterday Sonja discovered this Tortilla Pizza recipe Jacques Pepin posted on Instagram which was simple…a lot of fun to build…and turned out to be delicious to eat.

Flour tortillas

Begin with flour tortillas. We used the small size because that’s what we have on hand, but using large ones would be awesome.

Tortilla prep

Spread a bit of olive oil on a baking sheet, then lay the tortillas out.
Brush the tortillas with a thin layer of olive oil. Choose toppings you might have available. Anything goes.

Ready for the oven.

Sonja chose some boiled, sliced red potatoes,
campari tomatoes and a three blend cheese. I opted for some caramelized onions rather than the potatoes.
Then salt and pepper to taste.

Ready to eat!

Bake in the oven for about 10-12 minutes at 400 degrees. The tortillas will become crispy, easy to slice into wedges…and great to eat by hand!

 

Bon Appetit!
Enjoy!
Stay well, everyone!

 

Music can often take us to places about which we might only dream. For now, music may be the best way to travel.

Willie Nile. American singer songwriter…Takes us on a fantasy trip to “Les Champs Elysees”.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BOb5ZgPtvbg&list=RDBOb5ZgPtvbg&start_radio=1

 

 

 

Holed up at home going on five weeks now. Climbing the walls. Howling at the moon. Weary of lies and disinformation. I want to get out once more into our world, but recognize the need to stay put. Or we will be forced to travel through this wretched time again before too long.

So….we’ll stay inside again today. But with the help of my past notes from a  time when freedom was tangible…let’s revisit Slovenia.

I’m itching to get outside. Let’s just go!

I’d been learning to drink Dalmatian coast ‘grappa’ one sunny, fall afternoon at a harbor side restaurant in the small fishing port town of Rovinj, Croatia. With a steep ‘essence of grappa’ learning curve, I was simultaneously attempting to concentrate on my iPhone map of the northern Adriatic region while languishing in the not so subtle influence of the intense, local 90 proof fruit brandy. I’d been stumbling for a few days over the rough, narrow cobblestone streets of this pleasant little Istrian Peninsula community and felt it was time to put some smooth pavement beneath my feet. Where should I wander next?

However, finding a new destination to explore would not be an easy decision. A lazy grappa buzz was coming over me and in fact was starting to enjoyably dominate me. I began to think that perhaps my best travel decision might be to just stay put in Rovinj, drink more large quantities of this fun grappa stuff and continue to gorge myself on as many indigenous pan fried sardines and anchovies as possible as I had been doing the past three days, cobbled streets and all.

A group of four twenty something’s sitting at a nearby table noticed me groggily swiping and dragging away on my Google map screen, simple mindedly mumbling to no one in particular, “More grappa, please”. One of them leaned near me and courageously asked where I was headed. I replied to his kind curiosity with a semi-coherent, “Uh, I dunno.”

I took a deep breath and came out of my grappa haze long enough to tell him I was trying to choose a destination to visit between Rovinj and Salzburg, Austria. Practically in unison and in perfect English all four replied, “You must see Lake Bled in our Slovenia!”

A simple, foggy mental calculation told me that they were Slovenian. A small mid-European country of about two million people, Slovenia is bordered by the Adriatic Sea at the south, Italy, Hungary and Austria. Slovenia split from Yugoslavia after the old Eastern Block nations folded in 1991 and became an independent country.

“You will love Lake Bled!”

In nothing flat they all whipped out their phones to share a
few pictures with me of this fab place they were bragging about. Once I had a chance to focus through the grappa, I had to admit, Lake Bled looked like a pretty cool place even on their phones; a small, calm, scenic bluish-green lake surrounded by the Julian Alps, and dotted here and there on the landscape horizon with a castle or two and Tyrolean style buildings.

In moments the group had sold me. After we toasted each other with more grappa, I bid them farewelI and headed north the next day on highway E 61 to Lake Bled, Slovenia in my leased Renault.

Within a few kilometers of leaving Rovinj, the geography suddenly became remarkably different than the limestone coastal terrain typical in most of the regions of Croatia where I had visited. The diesel Renault began effortlessly climbing mountains and taking me northeast into thick forests and past sun kissed Alpine vistas.

Before long I crossed into Slovenia, soon making it to Lake Bled. It turned out to be a pretty special place. First impression? It looked like one of those 3D postcards one can sometimes find at souvenir shops, with a view so vivid I felt that I could reach out and grab the place.

Lake Bled gracefully posed for me beneath the snow-capped Julian Alps which envelope the area. Dating back to the early 11th century, when this part of Europe belonged to Italy, medieval Bled Castle and it’s fortifications still stand high atop a steep granite precipice overlooking Bled, poised and ready to defend itself from those who might have attempted planned intrusion from below.

I had booked a last minute stay online at Penzion Mayer, a convenient family run location just a short walk downhill to the lake and it’s shops, restaurants and shoreline. I discovered Penzion Mayer to be a great value and was a terrific chalet style accommodation. Typical singles range in price from 60-70 euros per night with breakfast depending on the season, doubles seasonally adjusted at 90-95 euros including breakfast. Arriving late in the day, I found my unit was a two level wooden cottage with a spiral staircase that would humble a Slovenian mountain goat. At the top, was my bedroom.

The Penzion Mayer was a great find. Not only were the accommodations clean and comfortable, the staff was friendly and helpful. And there was a restaurant on site! Since I’d just been getting settled, I decided I’d eat dinner at the Penzion Mayer restaurant, a comfortable Bavarian style dining room only 10 steps from my cottage door.

I was hungry. I discovered the menu had a wide assortment of wild game offerings. I guess deep in the Slovenian woods it’s OK to gun down anything on four feet and include it as the Daily Special. When our gentle server began describing offerings such as the “excellent bear prosciutto”, I wished there might have been an old fashioned burger joint nearby where I could shove a couple of double patties and fries down my throat without wondering if I’d find a stray bear claw in my Slovenian happy meal. The dinner I did decide to enjoy was fresh, local and delicious.

There’s an easy-to-walk two mile paved path, or promenade, around Lake Bled. I found myself on it early the next day as steamy morning mist lifted itself off the small lake’s crystalline surface. Plentiful wildflowers along the way added splashes of color to the scene, enhanced by gentle aromas from nearby forests. As I neared the end of my walk, I approached a turn in the lake and came upon an exquisite park with a large waterfront mansion adjacent to it. Vila Bled was one of the several enormous palace style post World War II residences that Yugoslav communist dictator Marshal Tito had built for himself. He lived a vain life of extravagance while his iron fisted rule created hardships for so many under his authoritarianism. Today the mansion is an elegant hotel, still a
luxurious retreat but for those able to afford it.

Meanwhile on the lake, many folks were enjoying paddling around in little 20 euros an hour rented boats, just one of many recreational choices around the Bled area. Cycling, hiking, fishing, swimming, rowing, skiing, snowshoeing, ice skating; choose an activity, you’ll find there’s something to do outdoors around Lake Bled during any season. A few kilometers west of Bled, you can hit the real outdoors, with a visit to Triglav National Park. Stands of protected forests are gateways to numerous trails, caves and waterways to explore.

Staying closer to the lake, one can find colorfully canvas covered wooden gondola style boats, called ‘pletna’ for hire. For around 12 euros per person a buffed gondolier will gently paddle you and about a dozen others out to bucolic Bled Island, about a 15 minute ride each way. There you’ll visit the Assumption of Mary Church, first climbing the 99 steps up to it from the pletna dock. Once inside the chapel, you might be tempted, for a small ‘donation’, to ring the “Wishing Bell”. Ringing that bell is a local tradition that claims anyone who makes a wish while pulling on the bell rope will be rewarded with dreams that come true.

The only dream though that I wanted to come true that day, was to sample one of the famous Bled Crème Cakes I’d been hearing about, practically since I crossed into Slovenia.

I quickly found my way along the promenade to the lakeside Hotel Park, which I soon learned is the home of the ‘true’ and Original Bled Crème Cake. News to me, Creme Cakes have been known as a Bled tradition for decades and are in fact the symbol of Bled. Created in 1953 by Serbian pastry chef Ištvan Kovačevič, as many as 12 million cream cakes have been sold. I was about to add a ‘1’ to that number.

The terrace of the hotel was slammed with people eating Creme Cakes that day. And everyone had big smiles on their faces. The frenzy was contagious. I just had to have a Creme Cake. Had to. Right then. Mind you, I’m not a big dessert guy. If I have a choice between ‘A’, a big, warm French baguette, a pound of soft butter and an inviting glass of house red sitting on a table right in front me, or ‘B’, some sweet thing called dessert next to them, I’ll choose A over B every day of the week. But that afternoon was different.

The crowd around me triggered an extreme sweet tooth moment. The small cake square was served and I found that it had a crispy, golden crust made from butter dough, a vanilla cream custard filling topped with luscious, smooth whipped cream topped again by yet another crispy layer of butter dough. A good dusting of powdered sugar completed the confection.

Bells went off in my mouth. The custard was light, moist and creamy! Delicious. You’ll have to make it to Bled one day to try one yourself. Ištvan, old boy, I’d never, ever heard of you. But you sure have this tasty Bled Creme Cake thing right!

But for several young Slovenians willing to poke their way into my Rovinj grappa happy space, I might never have discovered the little mountain jewel called Lake Bled and all it has to offer.

To them I say ‘Na zdravje’ and ‘Hvala vam’! Cheers and thank you!

                       In Space, no one can hear you scream.

Alone.

                            I bike deserted streets alone.

 

 

Gustav and Sonja hope everyone is doing well during this challenging time.

In self-isolation I’ve had lots of time to rediscover some of the old vinyl LP’s in my library…many I haven’t set on my turntable for a number of years.

One of the albums I played yesterday, Whatever’s For Us, was the debut recording by Joan Armatrading…an incredibly talented British Caribbean songwriter and performer. The copy I have is an English import pressing on Cube Records from 1972.

Armatrading co-wrote many of the songs on Whatever’s For Us  with her co-lyricist at the time, Pam Nestor. The album presents itself as a wonderful showcase of personally emotional folk style poetry set to music beyond what one might have heard in hip coffee houses and folkie music clubs during the late 60’s and early 70’s.

Hearing this album again yesterday was a pleasant background to the stuff I was doing at my desk…but when the second to the last track on Side Two, Mean Old Man, began playing…opening with simple acoustic guitar and building with the anger of percussion and horns…these words jumped at me from Armatrading’s mouth through my speakers. I had to listen to it twice and then a third and fourth time to be sure I’d heard it right.

It’s really a Song of 45. From 48 years ago.

Mean Old Man

You hear me cry out, won’t you save me
You smile to my face, yet still deprave me
I need proof
You’re a mean old man all right


In this semi-mad world, it’s best not to think
Roll in your boat and you’re bound to sink
You laugh with your mouth but your eyes don’t blink
You’re a mean old man all right


But the lord above knows that you lie
And your false complexion just another alibi
You laugh with your mouth but your eyes don’t blink
And I’m sure that I’ve seen through you


And it seems all my friends are coming too
You spell me green, though the colour’s blue
The debt collector has his eyes on you
But the Lord above knows that you lie


And your false complexion just another alibi
You laugh with your mouth but your eyes don’t blink
And I’m sure that I’ve seen through you
And it seems all my friends are coming too

-Joan Armatrading/Pam Nestor

You can listen to the song here: Mean Old Man

Viral hunger