Mark Helprin’s Paris in the Present Tense opens with a magical passage dreamily describing that feeling of flying, sitting in a plane and taking-off, the world a string of lights slowly falling and fading away beneath you. It’s a magnificent episode. So much of the mood he sets was exactly what I felt on a flight ascent from Toronto to Philadelphia many years ago, and I had always wished I had the nerve to capture it properly in words. Alas, Helprin captured it better than I ever could have…and wisely changed the setting to Paris, to boot!
The novel was a gift from my wife this past holiday season, and the greatest gift the novel gave to me was its ability to bring back memories of our trip to France in September of 2015 just a month before we were married.
Helprin’s swooning and expansive tale of an elderly cellist facing down the demons of his past and the fate of his legacy is dense, dense stuff. Helprin’s vivid, thick, sometimes blustery, sometimes flowery descriptions of people, places, food, wine, and emotions are intermittently wondrous, evocative, illuminating, frustrating, and too often clichéd. Oh, yes, anyone who has been there gets it…Paris is undeniably Hemingway’s Moveable Feast. Continue reading →
Well, I guess we were just in a New York State of Mind in 2017.
Trips to the Empire State included:
An extended “writer’s retreat” weekend in Cooperstown in April. It was my wife’s first time in one of my favorite places on earth. It was also our first time doing Air B&B. Despite coming home with a nail in my tire…it was a truly relaxing, lovely trip (and, yes, we both got some much-needed writing done).
A weekend getaway to NYC in June to hit up some old haunts (with a jaunt out to Brooklyn and the Brooklyn Museum).
A family vacation in August renting a house on Lake Seneca (first time in the Finger Lakes region) from which we watched the solar eclipse. The vacation also included day-tripping to Watkins Glen and the Canadian side of Niagara Falls (a long overdue first time there!) The Niagara experience inspired a short-story I’m currently polishing up.
What stories do these wild Colonial Spanish horses (clearly plotting something) and ghost crab (what are you running from?) have to tell?
It’s the last day of 2016, so it’s time for the Spin to look back on travel throughout the year for our annual “Random Places I Have Been” series. Apart from holidays in New Orleans and Montreal (featured in blog posts earlier in the year), 2016 brought me to some unique local events including a Chinese Lantern Festival and the opening of a new Mormon Temple in Philadelphia, as well as family vacations to Massachusetts (where we soaked up some history in Concord and on Walden Pond) and the Outer Banks of North Carolina (where we saw wild horses on the beach, the Wright Brothers’ Memorial and took in as many sunrises, sunsets and lighthouses as the waning summer week would allow).
Work also brought me to Jacksonville, Florida (my first time in Florida!); Auburn, ME (my first time in Maine!); and Greenville, South Carolina (a homecoming of sorts, as I had interviewed for a job there nearly 15 years ago, but this was my first time back, and both the town and I have changed soooo much…for the better). However, the top-secret nature of those trips prevented me from taking any pictures (just kidding…about the top-secret stuff…not about the absence of pictures though).
The Outer Banks (and those wild horses and ghost crabs in particular) also brought about the genesis of a potential new novel, a grand over-the-top Southern gothic melodrama, one that will be a joint effort between my wife and I. If you ever do time in the Outer Banks, definitely sign up for the Corolla Wild Horse Fund guided tour…it was truly inspirational. I already wrote the first chapter shortly after our return home. Now it’s my wife’s turn…not that I’m putting any pressure on her or anything…
Can’t get to France this fall? No worries…get the best of France and North America in one shot in Montreal, and at a fraction of the cost! We enjoyed a long holiday weekend there (Columbus Day for the Yanks, Thanksgiving for the Canucks) and took in some great fall foliage, architecture, art and music. Highlights included:
A Robert Maplethorpe exhibit (Isabella Rossellini, unlike for David Letterman on one famous occasion, was-a-show…or, well, at least a famous portrait of her was) at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, which has to be one of the most confusing museums to navigate
A Postmodern Jukebox concert at the Place des Arts where three numbers brought down the house (Casey Abrams’s wacko-bluesy slow-down of Sweet Child O’ Mine, Morgan James soulful tear-inducing rendition of Take Me to Church, and Maiya Sykes sassy cover of Creep)
A hike up Mount Royal for some killer leaf-porn and skyscraping views
Local tip: check out great views of Old Montreal (and the Notre Dame Basilica) from atop Hotel Nelligan’s rooftop bar and terrace (the terrace season closed on Monday). It’s also a totally chill and cozy place to just hang out in the lobby bar/restaurant on a rainy day.
Are you a foodie? Do you believe that fine dining is an art form? Are some of your most treasured memories of being in a certain place at a certain time with your favorite people having that special meal? Well, I would answer a resounding yes to all three questions, and here I share with you some of my most memorable dining experiences eating my way through cities abroad and my own backyard of Philadelphia.
The Best Italian Restaurants…Where You Least Expect Them:
Il Piccolino – Paris, France (8th arrondissment). Ah, Paris, it truly is a movable feast. But who knew, on our last night in the city (in September of 2015) the month before our wedding (we honeymooned before, because that’s how we roll), desperate for something other than the overload of French food we had been eating, and upon the recommendation from the concierge at our hotel (who secured a last minute reservation), we would stumble into the best Italian restaurant we ever experienced? There were probably about ten tables inside (all reserved) and a kitchen in full view (that looked like a kitchen in somebody’s house). From the little old man who provided colorful service, to the fresh veggies they walked across the street to the market to procure as you ordered them, to the hand-made sage ravioli with truffle oil drizzle, to the cutesy-translated deserts “in their honey shirts” – this was quite possibly the best dining experience of our lives.
Zeppoli’s – Collingswood, New Jersey, USA. Less than a mile from our new house is this gem of “a hole in the wall” we indulged in just last week after a multitude of rave reviews from friends and coworkers. There’s maybe a dozen tables inside. Reservations must be made weeks in advance. Upon entering it’s all a bit gentrified-rustic-hipster-is-this-a-dump-or-is-this-chic and unassuming. But WOW! The food (which is Sicilian and far removed from the typical Italian fare you find In NJ-PA-NY) was out of this world and full of flavors my taste buds didn’t know existed. The service was both casual and spot-on where the highly competent wait staff tag-teams the tables and walks around as if they are serving family at their house – never missing a beat or a half-filled water-glass. The chef offers up complimentary after dinner drinks (while the place is otherwise BYOB).
Trattoria Toto da Lucia – Amsterdam, Netherlands (near Vondel Park). Was the food here really that good? I don’t know. It was my last night in the city (in October of 2013), this was right around the corner from my friend’s flat off the Overtoom. The atmosphere was comforting. The wine was flowing. The conversation was bountiful. The food was fresh and made from scratch. I think I had a risotto? It’s a place where I’ll never forget the feeling…of being happy where I was in life at that moment…wrapping up my first trip to Europe, sharing my experiences and my hopes for a travel-filled future with a good friend, and feeling like the world was now my oyster.
“It was the best of times…it was the worst of times.”
New Orleans has always been a city of extremes, and our recent visit proved that in spades. It’s a place of both high-class Southern charm and “9th Ring of Dante’s Hell” style debauchery. For me, it was a second visit to the fabled city that has been both blessed and cursed, and for my wife it was her first time. She was greeted on the first night with a Carnivale parade – who knew the season was so raucous even with Mardi Gras still weeks away? We erroneously stayed on the main parade drag on St. Charles Ave at an otherwise nice hotel where Murphy’s Law ruled the roost. The next evening, my wife was paid a visit by yee olde food poisoning courtesy of a French Quarter Jazz Club that was otherwise lovely (tip: drink, don’t eat, at a jazz club). Meanwhile, I was suffering from a head cold that started a few days earlier during a work trip to Jacksonsville, Florida.
Buuuut…once we survived all that and spread our wings to more relaxed environs (the Garden District, City Park, a tour of some of the grand River Road plantations, and Algiers)…it couldn’t have been nicer. Continue reading →
Our epic French adventure ended with an overnight stay in Versailles before flying back to the States.
Versailles is everything you dream and fear it could be (it’s as crowded with tourists as the Louvre), but the grounds are so expansive, if you take the right turns you’ll find yourself in quiet gardens and pathways. Even lovelier than the grand chateau was Marie Antoinette’s Petite Trianon and Estate – a country oasis still full of grape vines and livestock living an idyllic existence away from the hustle and bustle of the main palace. It actually makes you feel a bit sorry for the famously beheaded queen – as its rustic design and graceful grasps at tranquility render it clear that poor Marie was in way over her head and simply wanted to escape the madness of the royal court. It makes for a beautiful walk (the hidden grotto is especially hidden) that was a perfect way to end our epic tour.
After five days in Paris, we needed an escape from the big city and wanted to experience more of France. After a comfy, three-hour train ride from the Paris Gare de L’est we found ourselves in the heart of Alsace at Colmar. Here we made our home base for three days, the middle day of which included a quick jaunt (just a 30 minute train ride from Colmar) to Strasbourg. Both “cities” boast amazingly quirky rustic architecture, great country-style food, and fantastic wine influenced as much by France as Germany (the region has been a historically hotly contested border territory between the two nations – and when you indulge in it, it’s easy to see it’s worth fighting for). There is also a more laid-back vibe in Colmar and Strasbourg while still offering up plenty of art and history.
Without further adieu – here are some photographs from Colmar et Strasbourg.
Ou est elle la mort toujours future ou passée Apeine est elle presente que deja elle n’est plus – one of the many thought provoking and haunting quotes found deep in Les Catacombes.
One of the most romantic things about Paris is that it will make of anything art – even death. The underground Catacombs (possibly the most creative urban space repurposing in history – former quarry caves turned into a massive human remains dump/art installation project) are unlike anything you’ve ever seen and boast millions of lost stories and souls (over six million to be kinda exact – in skeleton form and stacked and designed like hell’s Legos!) while the cemeteries still above ground revel in their gorgeous, macabre monumental splendor.
What else is there to say? Let the ghosts behind the photos whisper their secrets and history to you.