One of the most ghastly surprises of my expat life occurred during a convivial country barbeque shortly after we’d moved to Seville. Without warning, a Spanish friend called for attention and announced, “Now our American friends, Karen and Rich, will sing.”
This was horrifying on so many levels. I’m the least musical person on the planet, and (I say this lovingly) Rich is even worse. For a second I expected to look down, notice I was naked, and think, “Thank God, it’s only a nightmare.” When that didn’t pan out, I briefly considered hitching a ride to the airport and repatriating to America. But in the end Rich and I managed a hideously off-key rendering of “For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow,” and everyone gave us pity applause and told us to keep our day jobs.
Incredibly, these same friends (clearly gluttons for punishment) continued to ask us to sing at other parties. It turns out that in Seville, as in many traditional societies, every guest is expected to contribute something to the evening’s entertainment. You are literally meant to sing for your supper — or tell a story, make a joke, juggle, or provide some other form of amusement. Luckily, it doesn’t have to be great, it just has to keep the evening rolling along.
Nowadays, meal-sharing apps and websites offer unprecedented opportunities to dine with locals in their homes. On such occasions, bear in mind that your social obligations don’t end with providing a valid credit card number. Don’t worry, you’re not required to juggle the dinner rolls or tap dance with a glass of water on your head (although if you do, I hope I’m there to see it). Most hosts have more modest expectations: that you’ll arrive with good manners, a friendly attitude, and a few entertaining ideas.
Tell a Joke
Are you good at telling jokes? I’m hopeless. I love storytelling and tossing out wisecracks but have a hard time remembering the kind of elaborate knee-slappers that start “these three nuns walk into a bar.” If you do tell jokes, consider your audience’s sensibilities and grasp of English. You’ll probably want to skip that hilariously raunchy political zinger you heard on Last Week Tonight and go with a more general crowd-pleaser like this classic.
Ask a Question
As you may have observed, if you get people talking about themselves, they’ll often emerge from the conversation thinking that you are a brilliant dinner companion. You might start by saying something nice about their city (“They’ve done a lovely job patching up the bullet holes in the main square!”) and asking if the region has changed much in recent years.
If it feels comfortable to shift to more personal topics, try out some of “The 36 Questions That Lead to Love” used in a scientific study on establishing intimacy.
Listen to the answers, ask follow-up questions, and pour more wine, because the conversation is going to get interesting.
You never know what you’re going to learn about your dinner companions. Rich and I once signed up online for a Palestinian meal served in a private apartment in Barcelona. We arrived to find the other guests were Germans visiting a relative who now lived in Barcelona with his Spanish wife. As dessert came around, one brother said, “Before we conclude the meal, why don’t we each tell a story?” He led with a humorous account of meeting his wife, another spoke of his travels, and then it was the 93-year-old grandmother’s turn.
She told a sweet tale of falling in love with her late husband when he was a young man in the service. “We were separated for many years, but we wrote each other and never lost hope…” I did the math realized with a start that her beau had been a soldier in Germany’s Wehrmacht during WWII. Now that was a granny with some serious backstory.
Sometimes our entertainments take us into deeper waters than we were expecting. And that’s part of the adventure of connecting with people from other countries. Reaching across the cultural divide opens the door to vivid new experiences, and sometimes the ones we find most challenging turn out to be the most gratifying.
Many years after the barbecue incident, that same group of friends took us to visit a nursing home in a Spanish village, and when we got to the main lounge, they announced to the assembled residents and staff, “Now our American friends will sing.”
As usual, this came with no advance warning, but by then Rich and I were always ready. Knowing that call-and-response songs work best, we taught everyone the fa-la-la-la chorus and launched into “Deck the Halls.” In no time, everyone was clapping and singing; a few even let go of their walkers to dance. No one cared that we couldn’t carry a tune or that they were singing a Christmas carol on a sweltering afternoon in August. Within minutes, the pleasure of raising our voices together transformed us from strangers into a circle of kindred spirits. And isn’t that the whole point of connecting with locals when you’re abroad?
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Nearly all my American friends and relatives think I’m bonkers to live abroad. “But you’re from California,” they point out in bewilderment. “That’s where people move to. Why live anywhere else?”
No doubt some suspect that I’m hiding out in foreign parts because I’m secretly up to something, like the expat writers in William S. Burroughs famous quote: “They lived in the native quarter of Tangier smoking hashish and languidly caressing a pet gazelle.” (For the record, I do not own a pet gazelle.)
Most of us move abroad for much the same reason we went away to college — not because we love our parents, our country, or our upbringing any less, but because they have prepared us to go out and embrace a bigger, brighter future. I often say that moving abroad is the greatest opportunity to reinvent yourself outside of the witness protection program. But to be more accurate, you’re not so much reinventing yourself as removing the external props that keep you confined within a particular cultural identity, so that now you can find out who you really are.
People considering a move abroad often send me emails asking if it’s worth it. The short answer? Yes. At least, it is for me. The long answer? Yes, because you learn and do amazing things. Like what?
Get comfortable with being outside your comfort zone. Worried about being in a rut? You can kiss that problem goodbye. As Bill Bryson put it, "Suddenly you are five years old again. You can't read anything, you have only the most rudimentary sense of how things work, you can't even reliably cross a street without endangering your life. Your whole existence becomes a series of interesting guesses."
Don't take yourself too seriously. Sometimes those interesting guesses lead to linguistic and cultural pratfalls. For instance, you might innocently ask the man at the farmers' market if he has huevos (literally eggs but slang for testicles) causing other shoppers to roar with laughter as he responds with a pithy zinger you can’t fathom and probably don’t want to.
Make do with less. In the early years, our shopping efforts often floundered to a halt in a welter of confusion and embarrassment, forcing us to flee the scene without the eggs, screwdriver, or other planned purchases. Eventually we managed to outfit our entire apartment, but as we originally intended to stay just a single year, we did it simply and cheaply. Nearly fourteen years later, minimizing possessions has become a way of life. On the road, I can easily live out of a single small suitcase for months and occasionally enjoy traveling without any luggage whatsoever.
Be patient. Eventually, you really will learn to accept with equanimity waiting in line for hours at the Foreigners’ Office, only to be told that your residency card application is delayed because you didn’t provide the document that this very same clerk refused to take from you three weeks ago when you presented it.
Talk with anybody about anything. One of the true joys of expat life is meeting extraordinary people from around the world (often while waiting in line at the Foreigners’ Office). I’ve learned if I ask the right questions (and stop talking about myself) most people have incredibly interesting stories to tell.
Appreciate America. Nothing gives you fresh perspective on your own country like living outside of it and learning how it appears to others. I don’t always find it easy to explain things like the 13th Amendment, the electoral college, or gerrymandering, but these conversations give me a lot to think about. And it’s encouraging to hear a Spanish friend say, as one did a few years ago, “Your country’s founders got it right. Democracy is always a messy business, but your constitution is an incredible document. You’re lucky to have it.”
I agree. Living in post-dictatorship Spain, traveling to countries occupied for decades by the Soviets, I have grown more passionate about democracy. That’s why I helped start a group here in Seville that provides American expats with information about issues, candidates, and how to vote from abroad. And why this summer, Rich and I decided to put off a long-planned, many-month train trip around the Mediterranean rim to work on voter registration in the US during the run-up to the midterm elections.
Last month in California, Rich and I signed up to do voter registration following the ceremony in which 800 immigrants from 84 countries were sworn in as American citizens. We arrived early, snuck into the back of the room, and listened to the crowd explode with cheers as their citizenship became official. Many were moved to tears, and I have to admit, I was too. Just like my own ancestors, they’d worked hard, gotten lucky, and found their place in the (admittedly somewhat dysfunctional) American family. I was thrilled for them and spent a good part of the morning congratulating and hugging the people I registered. One man told me he’d been working toward this day for 24 years.
Some people will always question the wisdom and sanity of my move abroad, but I believe it’s made me a better person, a more thoughtful citizen of the US, and an unofficial ambassador for my country. “I’ve never really talked to an American before,” one Spanish friend told me. “You’re not what I expected.” Since many Europeans base their views of the USA on The Simpsons, I wondered if she’d feel more at ease with me if I dyed my hair blue. Or got a pet gazelle. And it’s moments like this, when I see myself through the lens of another’s cultural perspective, that I realize how truly fortunate I am to live in a larger world.
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“Have you bought your miners’ headlamps yet?” a friend asked me.
“You mean, those lights you strap on your head? Do we need them?”
“They’re really great if you have to pick through rubble looking for survivors,” she said matter-of-factly.
Perhaps the scariest part of that conversation was the way swapping tips for coping with mass catastrophes has become commonplace in the US. If you haven’t been caught up in a large-scale disaster yet, you know someone who has, and it's clear you could be next. We’re all glued to our screens gasping at scenes of post-Florence flooding in the southeast, wildfires rampaging across California, and the rising death toll around the planet from heat waves and floods.
This is “the face of climate change … playing out in real time,” says top climate scientist Michael Mann. The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, which measures planetary extinction-level events using the Doomsday clock, calculates we’re now just two minutes shy of midnight (aka Armageddon).
Is the world taking all this bad news with quiet dignity and grace? What do you think?
As any ostrich will tell you, the first line of defense is denial. Naysayers are shifting from “It’s not happening” to “It won’t affect me.” While five out of six Americans agree that climate change exists, more than half our citizens are convinced it will never directly impact them. You might want to ask the residents of North and South Carolina about that. Others, especially those a bit further inland who did not lose family members, homes, pets, businesses, cars, or their region’s power grid, are holding firm. They’re like teenage smokers who say, “I know you think smoking causes cancer but hey, I’m up to a pack a day, and all I have is this nagging little cough.”
Others believe the sky is falling and it’s all God’s fault. The Internet is awash with articles and videos titled “Are We Living in the End Times?” Everyone from Biblical scholars to Al Jazeera to survivalist cults are weighing in, with varying degrees of helpfulness and hysteria. The article “Here’s Why You Really Need To Prepare Like A Survivalist Right Now” urged us all to “get into a survivor mindset” and then showed this photo.
Really? I’m supposed to plan on sleeping rough and eating animals I kill and skin with that knife on the tree stump? Are you kidding me?
My home state of California has some of the world’s most unstable geography, but I am staking my life on the belief that the disasters I’m most likely to face will call for a very different set of survival skills. After a summer spent talking with fire survivors and reading the advice of experts, here’s the best wisdom I’ve learned.
Tip #1. Assess the dangers in your area. In my home state of California, there is a 99.7% chance of a major earthquake by 2037. The wildfires that devoured 1.5 million acres this summer came within five miles of my cottage. Our town of San Anselmo has cycles of serious flooding and we’re due again by 2025. Obviously we’re living on borrowed time. But enough about me; what’s likely to hit your town? Blizzards? Tornados? Mudslides? "Nowhere in this country can you say, 'I have nothing to worry about,'” points out meteorologist Steve Bowen. “You can move to escape a specific peril, but not peril in general.''
Tip #2. Prepare and practice your emergency plan. As Rich and I discovered when we were evacuated during San Anselmo’s not-quite-as-serious-as-feared flood of 2017, the natural impulse is to leap in your car and careen wildly to higher ground. In our case, that left us stuck in a tangle of dead-end hillside roads, and eventually we had to drive back downhill and cross the rising floodwaters to reach someplace warm, dry, and equipped with sufficient chardonnay to sooth our nerves. For the next evacuation, we have selected a destination and practiced walking the 4.5 mile route, in case we have to flee on foot. The phone number and directions are in our address book under Emergency Hotel, as I fully expect to be too overwrought to recall my own name, let alone that of the rendezvous point.
Tip #3. Pack an emergency supply kit. Rich and I spent all summer accumulating stuff we thought might come in handy: food, water, medical supplies, chocolate bars, vitamin G (aka gin), and a host of gadgets and gismos, all packed in a rolling cart for better fleeing mobility. (See the full emergency packing list here.)
Tip #4. Vote for people who take climate change seriously. “The record-breaking extreme weather events causing chaos across the globe should be a wake-up call,” said Christiana Figueres, architect of the UN Paris Climate Agreement, when I saw her this summer. “We will move to a low-carbon world because nature will force us, or because policy will guide us. If we wait until nature forces us, the cost will be astronomical.”
With large-scale catastrophes becoming America’s new normal, we’re all struggling to cope. As one journal noted with magnificent understatement, “Whether natural or man-made, disasters cause many of us to feel increased levels of stress and anxiety.” While most of us channel our nervousness into stocking up on canned food, jittery young people, fearing they’ll come of age in a post-apocalyptic landscape, are signing up for courses like this:
“Rich, do you think we need to learn to make our own glue and rope?” I asked dubiously.
“No. If it comes down to that kind of stuff, we’re toast. Do you think we need to pack more vitamin G?”
“Absolutely. And more chocolate.”
Clearly our work isn’t done yet. A few days ago, I spoke with my friend to reassure her we were now the proud owners of miners’ headlamps.
“Terrific. Do you guys have walkie-talkies? You know the phones may be out.”
And so the shopping continues.
Stay safe out there, my friends, and send me any good emergency prep tips you know! And by the way, I'm on the road next week, so I won't be posting. Just didn't want you to worry I'd disappeared into America's disaster vortex.
The first thing they always tell you about Napoli (aka Naples, Italy) is, “Don’t go.” And for a lot of travelers, that’s good advice. The city is insane. Every cab journey is “Mister Toad’s Wild Ride” from Disneyland. Attempts to cross the street on foot are like traversing the Grand Prix. The lodgings are tricky to locate and full of surprises. My first time there I slept in an abandoned spa with revolving colored lights. On my last visit, I stayed in an old lady’s apartment full of erotic art and had to pay a coin-operated elevator every time I went in or out of the building. Nothing in Napoli is plain vanilla.
Which is precisely what I love about the city.
The chaos of Napoli always makes me feel more vividly alive. The streets are teaming with people, half of them on Vespas, all rushing about their daily affairs with tremendous zest. Everyone seems to be talking at once, using their whole body to underscore key points with flamboyant gestures. Rules are ignored, and creativity, not organization, is prized; I always picture the parents teaching their kids to color outside the lines and eat dessert first.
There’s an exhilarating, anything-goes atmosphere, and back in the day, one of its riskier innovations developed into the world’s favorite comfort food: pizza.
The idea of putting toppings on flatbread didn’t start in Napoli. It goes back to — well, I’m guessing the day they invented flatbread, which was sometime during the Neolithic era. But it took think-outside-the-box Neapolitans to have the courage (or madness) to add tomatoes, which were widely viewed as toxic ornamental plants when they arrived in Europe from the New World. When the trailblazers survived the experiment, everyone started adding tomatoes to the traditional toppings of olive oil and cheese, and pizza became a local favorite. Italian immigrants brought it to the USA in the 19th century, but it didn’t go mainstream until American GIs discovered it during World War II and came home demanding more. And they got it. Today, Americans consume three billion pizza pies a year — that’s 100 acres of pizza a day, or 46 slices (23 pounds) per person per year.
Luckily for all of us, pizza has maintained the Napolitano anything-goes attitude. While some purists argue that the only “true” pizzas are the marinara and the margherita, the world disagrees, enthusiastically embracing countless varieties. Oh sure, there was a bit of a flap over Hawaiian pizza when Greek-Canadian Sam Panopoulos introduced it in 1962; some felt adding sweet pineapple was an abomination. Just last year Iceland’s president, Guðni Th. Jóhannesson, caused a media firestorm when he casually told some students that he was fundamentally opposed to pineapple on pizza and would ban it if he could. Jóhannesson later clarified: “I like pineapples, just not on pizza” and suggested topping pizza with fish instead. And the debate rages on.
Some have been equally scathing about white pizza. In a Huffington Post article, lifestyle editor Alison Spiegel dissed white pizza as “difficult to pull off” and often “gummy and gooey … gloppy … offensively boring.”
I beg to differ. As evidence I site the recent morning I spent in the kitchen of my friend Karen Adelson, who lives in California’s wine country and is one of the finest cooks I know. She’d offered to make me her favorite white pizza and I jumped at the chance to see this controversial dish done right.
As a starting point, she consulted the recipe for Pizza with Arugula and Shaved Parmigiano Reggiano from Joanne Weir’s Wine Country Cooking. But in the true spirit of pizzaiolos everywhere, my friend didn’t slavishly follow directions. She added artichoke hearts, sliced rather than grated the mozzarella, and baked the pie on a pizza screen rather than the customary pizza stone or metal pan. And instead of making her own, she bought the dough to save time and fuss. A cook after my own heart.
There was absolutely nothing boring, gooey, or gloppy about Karen’s white pizza. The flavors sang with garlic and lemon juice, balanced beautifully by three creamy cheeses, fresh arugula, tangy artichoke hearts, and the light, yeasty crust. Spiegel and the pizza purists don’t know what they’re missing!
Of course, you can take innovation too far. I myself am aghast when I hear about people topping pizza with Nutella, frog’s legs, an entire Happy Meal, or pizza-flavored ice cream. But I will staunchly defend their right to experiment any way they like — so long as they don’t make me eat it.
Wildcat experimentation is what gave us pizza in the first place, and its comforting presence helps us keep going when the going gets tough. As entertainer Henry Rollins put it, “Pizza makes me think that anything is possible.” In these uncertain times, when the entire world can seem as chaotic as Napoli, we need pizza more than ever. Justine Sterling wrote in Food & Wine, “In a recent Harris Poll, Americans revealed their favorite classic comfort foods (eaten when sad or stressed), celebratory comfort foods (eaten when happy or during a special occasion) and curative comfort foods (eaten when sick). Unsurprisingly, the overall winner was pizza." And on days when I need an extra helping of comfort, I go with what Yogi Berra said: “You better cut the pizza in four pieces because I'm not hungry enough to eat six.”
Recipe: Pizza with Arugula and Shaved Parmigiano Reggiano
What's your favorite pizza? Are there any kinds you wouldn't eat?
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“This is it!” I said to Rich, wafting the sample under his nose. “This cheese actually smells like the feet of angels.”
We’d adopted this new benchmark for gloriously overripe cheese while watching a TED Talk by travel guru Rick Steves. In France, he says, “you step into a cheese shop and it’s just a festival of mold. I love going shopping with my Parisian friends. They’ll take me into a cheese shop, put up a moldy wad of goat cheese, take a deep whiff: ‘Oh Rick! Smell this cheese. It smells like the feet of angels!’”
The sample I held under my husband’s nose didn’t happen to be moldy or made from goat’s milk, but something about its profound earthiness made me think, paradoxically, of heaven.
“I’m not entirely sure what angels’ feet smell like,” Rich said. “But this has to be close.”
We were in the tasting room of an organic dairy farm in the section of northern California that has such perfect grazing land that nineteenth century immigrants dubbed it “cow heaven.” Today, farmers from Italy, France, Switzerland, the Azores, Argentina, and various parts of the USA work the land; some are descendants of the original settlers, others are entrepreneurs who arrived more recently seeking a fresh start. Together they are producing some of the finest artisan cheeses in the world.
In 2012, it occurred to these innovative dairy farmers that being situated in and around Northern California’s wine country, which attracts 23.6 million visitors a year, they might be able to cash in on the boom. After all, what goes better with wine than cheese? And so the California Cheese Trail was born — essentially a marketing campaign and a map showing 42 artisan creameries that welcome visitors. When a friend showed me the map, I found it included farms making some of my personal favorites: Cypress Grove’s Humboldt Fog, for instance, and the Marin French Cheese Company’s Petite Breakfast. I knew I liked this stuff, but I had no idea that judges of some of the most prestigious state, national, and international competitions were fans, too.
“Rich,” I said, “I think I owe it to my readers to check out more of these cheeses.”
“I am willing to help with the research,” he declared nobly.
The California Cheese Trail meanders for hundreds of miles, but luckily there was one well-known creamery just twenty minutes away in Nicasio Valley. This once-busting pioneer town is now a sleepy village that prides itself on being “a place where change is slow and predictable,” according to the website of the old roadhouse, Rancho Nicasio. “The town gradually drifts through time, at an unnoticeable rate.” Amen to that!
The town probably didn’t look much different back in 1910, when seventeen-year-old Fredolino Lafranchi arrived from Switzerland with little money and big dreams of becoming a dairy farmer. Today his family ranch includes 1150 acres of organic farmland and is home to 400 cows and 3000 pasture-raised chickens. It wasn’t until 2010 that his grandchildren decided to try their hand at artisan cheeses in the style of the alpine village Fredolino once called home.
I had bought a few Nicasio Valley Cheese Company products at my local market but was delighted to have an excuse to visit their farmstead shop and try the entire line. Grazing contentedly among the platters on the sample table, I came across the San Geronimo which brought to mind the fragrance of angels’ feet. But when it came to making a purchase, I headed directly to the Nicasio Reserve. I had a purpose for that one. The day before, as I was on the creamery’s website looking for fun facts, I’d stumbled across a recipe for Baked Risotto with Nicasio Reserve, Asparagus, and Spinach. It sounded simple enough for our culinary skills and delicious enough to be worth a try. Rich and I bought a wedge of the Reserve and headed home to our kitchen to give the recipe a test run.
The verdict? The risotto was simple to make with gorgeously rich, complex flavor — in short, it was divinely inspired and has already earned a permanent place in my repertoire. I was delighted to discover that some of the larger California Cheese Trail creameries are selling their top cheeses in grocery stores and even (gasp!) Costco, so I have no excuse for settling for less in the future; I have vowed to up my game.
I grew up an era that revered processed food for being modern and convenient. “For me,” says Rick Steves, “cheese was always just orange and in the shape of the bread. There you go: cheese sandwich.” Back then, it never occurred to us that there might be anything unhealthy about consuming a “pasteurized prepared cheese product,” stuff that can’t legally be labeled cheese because it’s less than 51% real cheese. What makes up the rest, you ask? Dairy by-products, saturated vegetable oils, sodium, sugar, food coloring, preservatives, and emulsifiers. Not precisely what a body needs.
In this age of giant agribusiness and corporate ranching, I am astonished and deeply grateful that small dairy farmers have carved out this niche market in California and around the country. I’ve always said there are some things in life — chocolate, wine, your partner’s sense of humor — where you simply can’t compromise on quality, and I’ve now added cheese to the short list. I’ve only just begun exploring the California Cheese Trail, and with 41 other creameries on the map, I will clearly need to keep visiting and sampling until the cows come home.
“I’m with you all the way,” says Rich. “Pass me more of that risotto, would you please?”
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“Well, that’s another restaurant we’re never going back to,” Rich said.
We were peering in the front window of El Traga, a Seville eatery in which we’d whiled away many happy hours with great friends and passable wines. Inside, a mob of twentysomething Americans and Asians perched on our old familiar bar stools, shooting selfies and swilling enormous pink drinks bristling with umbrellas and fruit. New arrivals poured through the front door brandishing printouts from TripAdvisor and pointing to photographs of Caribbean cocktails unknown on Spanish soil until very, very recently.
Scenes like this are happening all over Europe. In the decade since the economic crisis drained government coffers, officials have been struggling mightily to replenish them with tourist cash. For better or worse, many cities have succeeded beyond their wildest dreams. Europe hosted a record-breaking 663,000,000 visitors last year, and 2018’s numbers are set to surpass that.
Now are officials realizing they should have been a bit more careful what they wished for.
“Vacationers Threaten to Turn Europe into a Theme Park,” reads a recent Time headline. Exaggeration? Maybe. But in many top destinations, downtown streets are so clogged with vacationers and souvenir stands and fast food vendors that businesses have stopped functioning, residents can’t conduct their daily lives, and the charm that has attracted visitors for centuries is in danger of disappearing forever. And as if all that wasn’t worrying enough, corporate food chains are replacing the traditional trattorias, cafés, and bistros faster than you can say “Yes, we have menus in English.”
But wait! Don’t tear up your plane ticket and cancel your next trip. Remember that Europe is nearly four million square miles, so it’s easy enough to find unspoiled regions — even unspoiled sections of hideously overrun cities like Barcelona and Rome. While it’s depressingly true that much of the European landscape is infested with American fast food franchises and more homegrown cookie-cutter chains, every city still boasts a host of fabulous eateries, from old-school cafés to experimental chefs of real genius.
To find great eats, you’ll need two simple tools: walking shoes and your sniffer.
Every European city has a “Touristville,” usually in the blocks surrounding the cathedral. In this zone, expensive substandard fare is the norm because owners know they’re serving one-time customers unfamiliar with local cuisine and prices. Use those walking shoes to stroll out of Touristville and into a local neighborhood.
Now get serious about choosing a place to eat. For guidance, I often check such resources as Like a Local, Lonely Planet, and Triposo. The least reliable is TripAdvisor, which measures popularity not quality. Whether you’re heading to a place you’ve read about online or choose to explore an intriguing-looking spot you stumble upon, here’s where your sniffer comes into play.
Rich has spent a lifetime honing his sniffer — that is, his uncanny ability to discover terrific places to eat, drink, and make merry. His technique has always been a closely held secret — until now. The shocking proliferation of tourist trap restaurants, especially corporate chains masquerading as quaint, traditional cafés, is compelling him to speak out.
“It’s for the greater good,” he says. “And it’s really quite simple. Just ask yourself these five questions.”
2. “Does the place look clean and well run?” Funky is one thing, filthy another. We once took some unlucky guests to try out the new café-bar opened by an old acquaintance. Wall plaster was crumbling down onto the frayed seats, the food in the glass case looked as if it had been there for days, and when our host insisted on giving us free potato chips, they had a strange, fish-like flavor. We made our excuses and fled.
3. “Sniff the air; what’s cooking?” If the scents wafting out of the kitchen make your mouth water, that’s a big plus. If the place smells like potpourri, disinfectant, or worse, give it a miss.
4. “Look around; what dishes are being served?” In Antiqua, Guatemala we wanted local food but at first all we saw were tourists tucking into burgers and chicken Caesar salads. Eventually we found a hole-in-the-wall jammed with locals eating pepián de pollo (chicken in spicy pumpkin and sesame sauce). Yum!
5. “What are customers drinking?” There’s nothing wrong with enjoying frilly cocktails from Thailand, Cuba, and Hawaii, but they are a tip-off that you’re not in a traditional European restaurant. If you’re looking for a local experience, find out about regional favorites — usually specific types of beer and wine.
All food has a backstory. You’re not likely to get much joy from a dish whose history is a dismal saga of mass production, days on trucks, and months in freezers. Skip the corporate food traps and go for the real deal — locally sourced, freshly prepared meals that are a feast for the senses. Yes, some regions of Europe are edging closer to becoming theme parks, but even there, with a bit of walking and judicious use of your sniffer, you can still find memorable meals worth lingering over. Life is too short to eat bad food, and that goes double when you’re traveling. As Erma Bombeck so famously put it, “Seize the moment. Remember all those women on the Titanic who waved away the dessert cart.”
Have you had any great or terrible meals in Europe? Got any tips for finding terrific eateries abroad? Please share the details in the comments below.
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Sicilian grandmothers are known for their warm hearts, steel spines, and pasta to die for. Don’t ever cross one.
“My Nana,” wrote a Sicilian now living in New York, “is an extremely powerful figure in my family. At five-foot-nothing, she towers over everyone else. My Papa knows to keep his mouth shut, or he’s in a world of hurt. Don’t get me wrong; she’s sweet as sugar. But she’s also tough as nails … The other day, she told my oldest brother that she would blow off his big toe if he didn’t pay her the money he owed her. As I laughed, she whispered to me, “I really wouldn’t, I’d just break it.”
When Sicilians speak of their nana (or nonna, as it’s more commonly spelled), it’s often with this mixture of terror and fondness, and always with deep respect for the strength of their love and the quality of their pasta sauce. Luckily for those of us who didn’t grow up with a traditional nonna in our lives, these women have been generous in sharing their culinary secrets. And today it’s possible to learn their techniques for making utterly fantastic traditional pasta sauce even if you’re neither Sicilian nor a grandmother.
I first learned of Sicilian pesto from my friend Kathryn, who lives in California and travels the world taking cooking classes from talented local chefs — including two in Sicily. Kathryn and I were chatting recently about how my travel writing is focusing more and more on food as the gateway to understanding various small corners of world culture, and the next morning she sent me a recipe that made my mouth water. I was familiar with green pesto from Genoa — a mix of basil, garlic, pine nuts, Parmesan cheese, and olive oil —but had no idea the Sicilians had created their own version. I should have suspected it; Sicilians have their own way of doing everything. They have a saying: “Make your promises and confessions while you’re drinking wine and eating mozzarella.” No, I don’t actually understand what that means, but I have a feeling it’s very wise — at least from a culinary standpoint.
Sicily’s population earned its wisdom the hard way; thanks to the island’s position in the center of the Mediterranean, the capital, Palermo, has earned the dubious distinction of being the most conquered city in the world. Tough times for the residents, but one small silver lining was that when the fighting stopped, exchanging recipes began, making the island’s cuisine some of the richest and most diverse in the Western world. A century or two ago, the nonnas in Sicily’s port city of Trapani took a hard look at Genoa’s pesto and realized it could be adapted to favor local ingredients. They added tomatoes from their gardens, replaced hard-to-get pine nuts with almonds, and threw in a pinch of pepperoncino (hot chili pepper) for zest. I knew I had to try it, and I cleverly hit upon a plan to have Kathryn prepare pesto Trapanese so I could videotape it for the blog — and of course, help her eat it afterwards.
We began with a visit to Kathryn’s garden. As she picked a basket of perfectly ripened tomatoes, she talked about Mediterranean comfort food being “in the moment,” centered around ingredients that are picked at their peak and used immediately. The spontaneous quality of this cuisine makes it endlessly adaptable, and Kathryn decided to add the juice of a lemon to the ingredients specified in her favorite recipe (Lidia’s Pesto Trapanese from Epicurious). “I find lemon juice adds bounce to just about any dish,” she told me.
Like so many contemporary pesto recipes, this one called for mixing the ingredients in a food processor rather than going old school and mashing it by hand. (The name “pesto” is derived from the same Latin root as the word “pestle” which means masher.) I’m all for tradition, but I had to admit I appreciated the convenience of mechanized mashing over a mortar and pestle, especially as I might be expected to pitch in.
Instead of serving the Trapanese pesto over the recommended spaghetti, Kathryn suggested a type of pasta I’d never heard of: Trofie, which hails from Northern Italy's Genoa region, along the coast that locals call Golfo Paradiso (the Gulf of Paradise). There, generations of grandmothers have taught youngsters how make this distinctive pasta by rolling it out on a tabletop with their palm, then curling it with a backward swipe of their little finger. Until the mid-twentieth century, when commercial production began, it was always made at home, and each woman had her own subtly distinctive style; locals could tell at a glance who had made any particular batch.
Kathryn and I opted for the simplicity of purchasing the Trofie pasta, and once the ingredients were all assembled, preparing the pesto sauce took mere minutes. The results? A brilliant burst of flavor in every bite, supported by the pleasant, slightly unusual texture of rolled pasta.
The world owes a tremendous debt to the grandmothers of Sicily and Northern Italy for sharing their wisdom — culinary and familial. They have earned our respect — and they’re going to make sure they get it. “There are many stories involving my Nana,” wrote that Sicilian New Yorker. “Like the time I told her that her teeth were fake and she bit me (turned out they were real).” Make no mistake; to cross one of these grandmothers is to take your life in your hands. When I lived in Cleveland, I often heard a Sicilian friend say, “Revenge is too important to be left to chance.” No doubt he picked up the saying from his grandmother, and I suspect that right now his kids are passing it down to the next generation — along with recipes for pasta sauce that nobody could refuse.
Have you learned how to make any amazing pasta sauces? We want to hear about them! Tell me everything in the comments below.
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Have you ever noticed how often San Francisco has been the setting for lurid cinematic disasters? I personally have watched my fair city attacked by Godzilla, aliens, zombies, brain-enhanced apes, cyborgs, a giant octopus, a Bond villain, the Body Snatchers, biological weapons, and the Incredible Hulk, to say nothing of floods, fires, and of course, earthquakes. I used to think these were harmless entertainment films, creating outlandish fantasy scenarios to give us thrills to spice up our humdrum lives. But nowadays I’m wondering if Hollywood was actually making training films to prepare us for the times we’re facing now.
As I write this, the West Coast is being ravaged by wildfires at an unprecedented scale. Friends of mine have been forced to flee their homes at a moment’s notice, racing out the door minutes before their neighborhood was engulfed by flames. Last week, the utility company sent me a postcard warning that we could be next and urging us to prepare a plan and assemble emergency supplies. Yikes!
“We’re prepared, right?“ I said to Rich. “We bought that kit after we were evacuated during the floods.” We’d talked about buying one even before that, following some small earthquakes, but it took an evacuation-level event to remind us that Mother Nature is nothing to be trifled with or ignored, especially in California.
With natural disasters on the rise, American manufacturers have been quick to leap on the marketing opportunities; around here, retail outlets are bristling with kits guaranteed to make fleeing for your life a bit more comfortable and convenient. We’d picked up one of these kits and hung it in the toolshed two years ago; by now we were a bit hazy on precisely what it contained.
“Maybe we should haul it out and take a look,” I said.
The first aid kit contained little more than band-aids, aspirin, and moist towelettes. The MayDay emergency food rations were rock-hard slabs of white flour, sugar, and palm oil. I supposed eating them would better than foraging in the rubble for edible weeds or attempting to snare wild animals in the park, but only just.
“Rich, we have to up our game.”
I consulted a friend who lives in a nearby town. “As you know, we’re on the top of a hill,” she said. “We’ve joined together with our nearest neighbors, five of whom are doctors. Two families own generators, and we all chipped in for rolling carts to hold the medical kits and food supplies …” Obviously, our best move in any emergency would be to walk to her house. But she and her husband travel a lot, and it would be just my luck if they were out of town at the time of the tsunami/giant shark attack/zombie apocalypse. No, Rich and I had to figure out our own plan and assemble our own supplies.
So we bought a rolling cart and looked up survival medical supplies and the best foods to stockpile in an emergency. It’s a work in progress, but so far we’ve collected some handy tools, maps, and of course, duct tape. On Tuesday I bought peanut butter, nuts, chocolate, and canned food that looked considerably more palatable than the MayDay rations (admittedly a low bar). When I mentioned to the store clerk that I was stocking my emergency kit, he said, “Ah, so, you felt that earthquake yesterday?”
Yes, with the irony for which God is so justly famous, right in the middle of our disaster-preparedness efforts, I’d lain down for a siesta, only to be tossed into the air by my own bed. It wasn’t a major quake, just 3.64 on the Richter scale, but the epicenter was fairly close, the force strong enough to make me leap to my feet, heart pounding, wondering if this was the Big One.
Not to keep you in suspense, it wasn’t, and the sales clerk and I spent a few moments counting that blessing. Then he looked over my purchases and said, “What, no bottle of wine?”
“Too bulky,” I said. “We’re taking gin. Or as my husband calls it, ‘vitamin G.’”
Collecting supplies is a good start, but the real question is where to go if (when?) a disaster forces us from our home. I’m hoping Rich and I will be together, the phone system won’t go down, and our car will have a full tank of gas. But I’m not counting on any of that; see the above paragraph about God and irony. Should Rich be elsewhere in our only car, I need to be prepared to evacuate alone, on foot, without phone service. After many hours and glasses of wine, we determined that our rendezvous point would be a hotel near the ferry port and relatively close to the train station. It’s 4.7 miles from our cottage, and according to Google maps, I should be able to walk there, hauling the rolling cart, in about an hour and a half.
It should take that long, but as anyone who’s ever watched a disaster movie knows, there will be surprises and obstacles, from brushfires to buildings toppled across the road to marauding bandits who, not having prepared their own emergency kits, will want to steal mine. Under such circumstances, many a plucky disaster heroine has saved herself by carrying a weapon, but so far our kit contains nothing more lethal than a steak knife and Rich’s 12-in-One Utility Tool. But that’s OK because let’s face it, if I am required to engage in hand-to-hand combat, I’m unlikely to emerge the winner. I’ll just have to sacrifice my peanut butter and MayDay bars to save myself.
As a die-hard optimist, I find it difficult to believe this kind of craziness will ever become my reality. But then, I’ve been surprised by a lot of impossible things lately. And I don’t want to be one of those clueless characters who dies in the first reel because they didn’t have the common sense to back away when they saw Godzilla approaching the Golden Gate Bridge. I’m preparing for the worst, hoping for the best, and keeping my fingers crossed that our new, improved emergency kit continues to gather dust in the toolshed for many years to come.
How prepared are you for emergencies and disasters? Share your tips, ideas, and concerns below!
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“San Anselmo?” a friend said, when I mentioned we keep a cottage there for summers in the US. “Where’s that on the crunchy granola spectrum?”
Here in quirky Marin County, just north of San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge, the further you are from the city, the less mainstream and more offbeat your town is likely to be; locally this is known as being crunchier on the granola spectrum. When it comes to measuring cultural outliers, granola is the perfect benchmark. It was first developed by wild-eyed health fanatics in the nineteenth century; early versions were made of twice-baked graham flour that was so hard you had to soak it overnight in milk if you didn’t want to risk breaking a tooth or dislocating your jaw. Later, in the 1970s, more consumer-friendly versions became a sort of edible manifesto for the counterculture’s protest at the rise of chemical-laden, sugary breakfast cereals.
Today, corporate giants produce many versions of granola, but aficionados still shop for purity of ingredients and social consciousness, buying boutique brands such as Beautiful Day from the Providence Granola Project, which was created to give international refugees a fresh start in their new country.
Last year, the FDA forced a Massachusetts bakery to remove the word “love” from the ingredients list on its granola package, insisting it wasn’t a genuine component. I think the refugees working at the Providence Granola Project might disagree.
I first made granola when I was twenty, and it wasn’t for any high-minded countercultural, political, or humanitarian reasons. Having moved to Boston, where I was supporting myself on two part-time jobs (a lunch counter and a CVS), I often whipped up batches of granola to stretch my food budget. As my life got busier and my income a trifle more robust, I gave up homemade cereal for the convenience of grabbing a box of breakfast off the supermarket shelf. But lately I’ve been re-thinking my food policy. I’m no purist, but I can’t help feeling a bit squeamish when I’m munching along and my eye falls on a label that informs me I’m downing spoonfuls of potassium benzoate, butylated hydroxyanisole, carcinogenic food dyes, aspartame, guar gum, and partially hydrogenated oil, to say nothing of vast amounts of white sugar. Not exactly the breakfast, lunch, or dinner of champions.
But figuring out what’s healthy isn’t easy; there’s a flood of conflicting opinion online, some of it funded by large corporate food chains and possibly not quite as impartial as we’d like. I began my research with Michael Pollan’s bestselling book Food Rules: An Eater’s Manual. After a lifetime study of nutrition, he summed up his best advice in seven words: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” Hmmm. That sounded sensible. But where to start?
I decided to make an effort to keep my consumption of processed food, white sugar, and harmful chemicals to a minimum, starting with breakfast. Rich, who loves sugary cold cereals and loathes oatmeal, was appalled at the idea.
“What am I supposed to eat in the morning?” he asked. “Those organic health food store cereals that taste like cardboard?”
“Nope, homemade granola,” I said. He rolled his eyes.
I’d long since lost my old cookbook but found a great recipe online. After the first batch, Rich made me promise our home would never be without a jar of this stuff.
So before we go any further, I give you fair warning: my healthy, homemade granola is absolutely, positively addictive. But that’s OK, because it’s filled with wholesome ingredients (oats, nuts, dried fruits), sweetened with honey (which has been used medicinally since ancient times), and held together with olive oil (see my post “Hot News! Olive Oil Doesn't Make You Fat”). And it’s easy to make. How easy? I’m so glad you asked. Here’s Rich, cooking up a batch in our kitchen.
Back when “You are what you eat” was a catchphrase, people loved to joke that it was certainly true about California and granola, because both are full of nuts and flakes. I’m not going to debate that, especially living in San Anslemo, which happens to be on the crunchier end of the granola spectrum. And that’s fine with me. I enjoy being part of a community of wild-eyed idealists who believe that food should be nutritious, that locally sourced honey is sweeter than high-fructose corn syrup, and that love is always an ingredient in homemade granola.
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“Ask if the haunted room is available,” Rich said as we approached the front desk at Hotel La Rose in Santa Rosa, CA.
“Seriously?” As a rational, modern woman, I do not, of course, believe in ghosts. But as a fourth-generation Californian, I was raised to respect vibes, and it seemed to me any room in which an entire family had been killed, even 90 years ago, would have very bad vibrations indeed. On the other hand, I try never to wimp out on adventures.
“Can you give us Room 42?” I asked.
The clerk checked and shook his head. “Occupied.”
Rich and I were on what we’d dubbed “Our Whistle-Stop Tour of Diners and Ghost Haunts.” Having recently enjoyed old-school diners in New York, I was curious to see how their California counterparts compared. We’d discovered some gems along the route of the region’s new SMART train and felt that a day spent riding the rails followed by a night in a haunted hotel would add up to a fairly zippy excursion.
Obviously we’d need to be fast on our feet to fit it all in, and we quickly decided to take no luggage whatsoever. We’d done this once before, in 2015, when I finally agreed to go along with Rich’s lunatic desire to travel with nothing but a few essentials in our pockets and fast-drying clothes we could launder every night. We loved the freedom and vowed to repeat the experiment. And this week, we did.
We hopped a local bus to San Rafael, where the SMART train starts, but before boarding we headed to Lundy’s, a diner we’d walked past a hundred times without a glance. What a hidden gem! The homestyle potatoes were so outstanding I asked how they were made. The secret, the chef confided, is boiling the potatoes first, to soften but not cook them completely. Then you fry them on the grill with onions and bell peppers. “I’ve tried it at home,” a waitress told me. “It’s good, but it’s not the same.” Diner lore says old grills, seasoned by decades of use, impart a special flavor no home kitchen can match.
After breakfast, the SMART Train whisked us to Petaluma, where we spent a pleasant morning strolling around the downtown shops and parks. When we felt we’d worked off enough of the potatoes, we hiked a mile outside of town to another diner we’d often passed but never visited: Mr. Mom’s.
Perched at the counter, I skimmed the enormous menu hoping to find something on the lighter side.
“How’s the veggie burger?” I asked the waitress with the tattoos, tunnel earrings, and friendly smile.
“Terrific,” she said. “I have it a lot. Another way we serve it is in the Dan salad. It’s not on the menu. We made it up in honor of Dan, our bookkeeper, who passed away.” She brought me a platter heaped with lettuce, avocado, hard-boiled egg, tomato, and crispy brown strips. “We like to deep fat fry our veggie burgers,” she said. “Gives ‘em some texture.” And nicely offsets any pretense of being healthy, low-fat cuisine.
We’d arrived at 1:30, just half an hour before closing, and while bustling around cleaning and prepping for the next day, everyone made a point of chatting with us. The owner, Midge, stood pouring fresh, hot coffee into huge plastic jugs without spilling a drop, all the while reminiscing about starting the place back in 1986 with her husband. She said he loves working with youngsters — their own kids, various nephews, and staff. As he wrote on the menu, “My name is Tom! I am Mr. Mom!”
I asked if we could take a few pictures; Midge immediately stuck her head into the kitchen and summoned the entire crew.
We left on a high tide of good will, promising to send copies of the photos and return soon.
Another short train ride brought us to our last stop, Santa Rosa. Just a few steps from the station stood the Hotel La Rosa, built in 1907 and considered by some to be #6 on the list of California's most haunted hotels. Having done considerable online research, I can report that the rumors about spectral hauntings at the La Rose are vague, unsubstantiated, and almost certainly unreliable. Nobody at the hotel could produce so much as an eerie feeling in all the years they’d worked there, much less a sighting of the ghost boy who supposedly rides the elevator at night, or the woman who allegedly passes through doors. It was deeply disappointing.
Things looked up when we wandered into Disguise the Limit, a costume shop around the corner. “This building is haunted,” the owner, Iliana, told us. “It used to be a tavern back in the day. No doubt some rough stuff went on here. Every once in a while I feel a breeze on my back where there shouldn’t be one; it makes the hair on the back of my neck stand up. Others report similar sensations. But the spirits seem friendly enough, so we don’t pay them much attention.” And of course, they’re good for business.
En route home the next day, we stopped into Flying Goat Coffee across from the railway station. The atmosphere was relentlessly modern, the staff utterly uninterested in us.
“So has business picked up since the train station opened?” I asked the world-weary young woman preparing my cappuccino.
“Nah.” Full stop.
And this is why diners will always have a place in the American landscape. When you go there people talk to you. They share recipes, tell you stories, listen to yours, and remind you that you are not alone, invisible, or irrelevant. You get all that and homestyle potatoes. Who could ask for more?
Have you been to any great diners? Haunted houses? Railways? Tell me all in the comments below.
I'm an American writer living in Seville, Spain and traveling the world with my husband, Rich. I make frequent trips to the USA, especially my native California, because America is something you have to stay in practice for, and I don't want to lose my touch.
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"Life is either a daring adventure, or nothing."
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