Italian Days

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Palermo Capo Market

My beige suede ankle boots were thrown out the door, in a rather gentle act of aggression, landing softly not far from the doorway. A long time ago, in another country, this was practiced to wish someone good luck before a journey. My psyche pretended this was the case, whereas the shoe thrower was plunged into a momentary blackness as an epitaph to the encounter. My brief presence had taken his psyche to social modernist buildings found in Belgrade. Vacated buildings blackened in a fire complete with torn curtains billowing like rags and shattered glass windows. About as nourishing as a carbohydrate on carbohydrate snack.

When your shoes are traveling in mid-air and crossing a threshold through no volition of your own, you wonder maybe it’s not time to leave the apartment but rather the whole damn country.  What was this journey I had already received well wishes for? The signal came in the form of Christo’s Floating Piers, an invitation to walk on water to an island on a lake, its pathway covered in a bright orange cloth. I went from two boots out the door to the country as boot. I had been thrown out into the world (Heideggerian thrownness).

Drunk on Campari, every month I went to the land of Campari, slowly making my way further and further south to where the lemon trees grew. Land had supplanted man. I went back and back, again and again. Without ever having written a book, I was living somewhere between Henry James’s Italian Hours and Goethe’s Italian Years –  a form of Juni’s Italian Days. The train ticket prices found on Trenitalia were like a gift from God.

Southern Italy was an unknown of which I had formed a picture with my ears and the things I heard whispered was not safe. When I googled Sicily thinking of lemons, I found instead the African migrant crisis on the island of Lampedusa. I saw refugee eyes peering at me through the branches.

After my trip to Naples, I was ashamed of myself for having put one bank card in my jacket, some cash in my shoe, another credit card in my bag, and my passport in another pocket so that I wouldn’t lose everything at once if a scooter riding mugger snatched my bag off my shoulder. Now having to be mindful of my shoe, bag, and jacket, I found myself in a lively residential neighborhood in the center of town where people brought home 5 pizza boxes for dinner on their scooters. They actually had no free hands to make a getaway with my bag. Nowhere in Italy did I feel more taken care of by the community even as a tourist. One cappuccino later, and my order was remembered the next day.

Having my shoes thrown out the door intentionally, was unintentionally a blessing for my Italian days.

 

 

A Personal History of Oranienburger Tor

The crossroads of U-bahn Oranienburger Tor is becoming a strange one. I find myself landing there from two different trajectories. A place where tourists/ new residents and long established Berliners converge and always in a surprising manner.

In 1999, when the Goethe Institute had just moved to u-bahn Weinmeisterstrasse and the streets emanating from the language school’s nexus would just sputter out into a no man’s land after a falafel joint, life in the form of cafes and restaurants abruptly stopped for two Asian American girls at around the Postfuhramt, a building that looked as elaborate and interesting as the Neue Synagogue but was once a stable for postal wagons and horses.

In 2003, when I briefly landed on Oranienburgerstrasse (the main street leading up to Oranienburger Tor) and stumbled upon one of the best salads I’ve ever had in a small basement type bar, still probably in existence today.

In 2006, when I returned to Berlin to live, my experience crawled up a little closer to Oranienburger Tor by way of Tacheles which still authentically looked like a squat, QBA because no one had ever tried Cuban food and it seemed the least touristy on tourist row, and Amrit because even a decade ago, you just couldn’t escape going there at least once and that was the last time I ever ate there until last night.

Things started to change in 2007 when Picknick first opened its club in the area which I never made it to. Then in 2008 The Broken Hearts Club was located near the u-bahn station and then King Size bar showed up with its no space and pretentiousness. That same year I ended up at a Chinese restaurant called Lucky Star right across the street from King Size. My German flatmate was notorious for picking her restaurants by convenience in a strictly egalitarian manner, so I never expected much from the food. I remember my dumplings being a small, underwhelming affair and I never went back there again. I also visited the Boros Collection right around this time as my interest in Contemporary art started to seriously bloom.

From that Lucky Star dinner evening to about 2013, my Oranienburger Tor encounters depended on late night bio pizza cravings after work to Green ‘n’ Friends open 24 hours, something special in Berlin for a grocery store and the prices are not that inflated.

In 2014, I had a job interview near this u-bahn station in the offices of a publishing house and contemplated how pleasant my commute would be. That year, as I tried to renew my love for Berlin and applied to jobs, I realized Rocket Internet HQ (whose sidewalk consisted of groups of people smoking with faces saying I’m not getting paid enough to go gray) is located just a little down the street from the u-bahn and also this Japanese by way of Brooklyn aviary for older Hipster birds called the House of Small Wonder as the Matcha lattes are a little overpriced.

In 2015, a Hedge Fund / start-up friend came back to town for Easter and told me he had been invited to the opening of a new restaurant/ bar called Creme de la Creme to which he was not taking me but his new Swiss girlfriend. The idea coming from a guy (things become hazy as I was still thinking about the absurdity of the name) who was somehow related to the two guys on Torstrasse that somehow became successful Venture Capitalists. When I heard this name, I thought so there is a German living in a larger Berlin bubble than I am, a bubble that came complete with rooftop flats in Mitte. I was surprised to find Creme de la Creme at Oranienburger Tor.

This month I moved in with 2 girls around a decade younger than I am located back in Mitte. When I found this room in a flat, I was congratulated much like someone would be if they had found a new job. This is the state of the Berlin housing market. Our first flatmate activity was a plan to eat hot pot at Lucky Star and I was reminded of 2008.

This week but a little too late, I read about the Boulangerie Francois, a global pop-up bakery/ secret bar traveling the world introducing Grey Goose to an invite only crowd to the bar and the general public to the bread. Arriving at the hot pot dinner which had grown to include 5 other 25 year old girls excluding my 2 flatmates, Lucky Star was booked out but my eyes kept turning to the Grey Goose Boulangerie and I thought oh, you’re here too. Two of the Russian girls suggested an Indonesian place nearby and I thought I’ve never heard of an Indonesian place here… warning bells started to ring. As we headed toward the “Indonesian” place, me eyes again reverted to the Boulangerie.

The Indonesian place turned out to be the old Indian place that was now calling itself a Singaporean place called Amrit, a place known for gobbling up its neighbor restaurants to become like the Walmart of curry and happy hour cocktails. The Indonesian girl with us was like this is not Indonesian food. My Macau Won Ton soup recommended by the two Russian girls was good, made of cream, sweet chili spices and two deep fried won tons filled with carrots and sauerkraut, which led me to believe these won tons were handmade in Germany. The three of us flatmates being unsure which way the tourist barometer of the food would go decided to share a main dish which was also sweet, spicy and tasty. Even Walmart can have its advantages. They were able to seat 8 on the spur of the moment on a Friday night at prime dinnertime, service was prompt, friendly and on time and the food tasty. The price however reflected the changing times and had doubled since 2006 when it had been a cheap Indian option at around 6 euros.

As I sat there shocked at the energy and youth of the seven 25-year-old girls surrounding me, I couldn’t help but feel I had traveled back in time to 2006 instead of living an onward progression toward 2015, that the 2015 experience should have somehow included that secret cocktail bar behind the French bakery. The future was the obsolete in reverse. (via Cyprien Gaillard, Robert Smithson, and Nabokov).

Grand Central Terminal

 

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Image from gcthistory.com

At times the conversational centerpiece of an introduction hinges on a loose claim to a city airport or main train station. Even well-known friends update you on their layover experiences; Atlanta and their business class shower at Hartsfield, Zürich and their discovery of the Luxemburgerlis, JFK and the no need to see jiggle of middle management businessmen on the massage chairs.

JKF International is probably the one terminal where going directly to your gate is advised and desired. The carpets are stained, the ceilings are low, the business class massage chairs huddled in the middle of the duty-free about as tempting as sewing a scarlet letter to your chest, showing all the markings of an executive team that realized no matter how run-down, people will come. This is what greets the number 1 hub for international passengers in the U.S., many coming to experience the Empire State of Mind, an interior reminding one of a giant bodega.

Welcoming and bidding farewell to those who greet and leave the city daily, for the commuters the blow of transition is cushioned with a cleanliness surprising by American standards let alone the City. Restoration and upkeep, arcades of glimmering, shiny stores tempting you with breakfast delights and Cartier (there isn’t one but it feels like there is), it’s painted gold star constellations all-around from the marble to the arches to the softest of muffins. When E.B. White writes that he once lived in Grand Central, I not only want to write like him but envy the idea that he once lived there too.

Endemic of most structures inspiring awe, Grand Central does not photograph well. Low lighting plagues the ceiling, the marble reflects light with too much glitz, and the natural light coming in from the windows will just about ruin any shot other than a streaming light photo. Under these imperfect conditions, aiming my iPhone upward was like making a prayer to God, I didn’t know how my request would be answered.

When I needed to ask a question, I hurried over to the one city worker leaning on a bannister above just watching the morning commuter traffic. He was conspicuously obvious standing against a throng of people with places to go. Reading up on Grand Central after the fact, I had missed so much more than having the time to properly capture the appealing ceiling. It held all kinds of genesis stories, engineering mysteries, and beautiful bars for the working man and woman. If only (Jackie K. Onassis) Grand Central could properly greet all international guests.

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Oversold by the High Line but not by the people’s pops

 

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Olafur Eliasson The collectivity project

The High Line was strangely not a New York experience as I mistakingly gave it the prime real estate of my time. The plants and proportions of the walkway were scaled in the most modest dimensions. It sounded perfect in my imagination but in reality, missed most of my expectations by several degrees. I lived through a fairly mediocre 2 hour walk with my sole highlight coming at the halfway point with a strawberry rose popsicle from the people’s pops. Even Olafur Eliasson’s piece reminded me of a kid’s activity center with the modernist’s absence of color but not of a significant public art piece. As for the other sculptural pieces, the scale and placement brought no drama or surprise, everything was canned.

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Image by peoplespops.com

The lowlands of Chelsea and the undramatic box skyline of Jersey were the two scenic viewpoints you could alternate from when not confronted with the close proximity of condo windows (as people point out provides the most entertainment on the High Line).

The expression on my friend’s flatmate’s face (a grossed out voyeur-by-circumstance look) should have changed my plans when I told her of my morning destination but I stuck to it. I felt released from the imprisonment of my plans when I exited the High Line at the Gansevoort and Washington Street exit. The streets heading toward the Chelsea Market and Google offices were all galleries, French clothing brands and chic restaurants…I had walked out into paradise.

View down into an empty Chelsea street
View down onto an empty Chelsea street
Foliage close to condo walls
Plant close to an apartment building wall

 

 

Görlitz: the remains of movie magic

April 26, 2014

I was inspired to visit Görlitz after watching The Grand Budapest Hotel  . . . I should have learned by now the reality never lives up to the art but what can you do . . . you just want to be that much closer to something that captures your imagination.

Closed... looking through a glass door
Closed… looking through a glass door
Instagram filter
Instagram filter
Storefronts in the city empty and shutdown
storefronts in the city empty and shutdown

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Oberlausitzische library . . . I love beautiful libraries
Oberlausitzische library . . . I love beautiful libraries
Church door had faded to the most beautiful shade of blue
church door faded to the most beautiful shade of blue
Typical former DDR small town dilapidation
Typical former DDR small town dilapidation
a little art nourvea typography before reaching the train station
a little art nouveau-ish typography before reaching the train station

Campari “Shiver”

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One of my happiest moments in Venice this past weekend meeting a college friend, drinking a Campari spritz, listening to Coldplay’s entire first album Parachutes while talking about the TV series The Good Wife.

I have patterns of thinking and acting when it comes to travel, food and authenticity.

I imagine everyone travels, even the most despised cruise ship tourists, in search of local authenticity, the most universal being the quest for authentic food. But food authenticity is like white flight, the more touristy the destination, the further afield you have to travel, into the suburbs or villages, sometimes straight into local homes for a taste of good authentic cuisine. But as one hotel receptionist asked pondering the paradox of TripAdvisor of tourists telling other tourists what is authentic and what is not, how do tourists who have never tasted the authentic know when it is authentic and not just good food? What if the authentic didn’t fit our palate at all, what if it tasted like shit?

Paris, like no other city I’ve been to, has perfected the art of simulating the aesthetic of the tourist’s conception of a place serving authentic French food with old wooden panels, striped awnings, and paper placemats, luring you inside then serving you defrosted crap, crêpe. Likely microwaved by an immigrant.

Recommendations central and convenient seem fraudulent or too good to be true. Instead, restaurant locations that force you to get lost for 40 minutes, causing chaos and mayhem within the group, seem like you’re at least working for authenticity although even then, it’s hit or miss. Some travelers believe they can just identity where the locals go… and sometimes you can get lucky, pass by a busy snack bar or cafe and do alright. When I can’t be bothered, I let my friends do this. But for something special, authentic, and affordable, I can’t dissociate having to do research and going out of your way to find that something special.

Last May in Rome, my conception of finding the authentic collided with a friend’s, creating a storm cloud over the rest of our trip. She was the type of person who thought she could identify the authentic by the looks of the place while I strongly believed you had to work for it. When she recommended going downstairs and picking one of the three restaurants right under our apartment, I immediately assumed they couldn’t possibly be good restaurants. What were the chances of finding good food right under your apartment ? Probably higher than I let myself believe.

There is nothing that clouds my travel more than eating bad food while traveling.

Whenever I feel as though I’ve come upon something authentic and special, I feel the need to go back there when I return. I fixate on going back. This happened again in Venice this past weekend, meeting a friend who was giving workshops to law students, who were working on consulting projects for businesses wanting to target Millennials organized by a start-up. Essentially, they were law students pretending to be MBA students.

Even though my friend was pregnant and we were both in our thirties, I convinced her I knew a place with cheap pizza and lots of young Italians, a place I had discovered the last time I was in Venice a few years ago. Neither of us really needed either of those things but we both agreed it was a good idea. The last time we were both together in Italy was studying abroad in Rome at age 19 and 20, so perhaps apart of us still thought we had the same needs as we did back then. Perhaps, bad ideas get the go ahead when traveling because friends also want to be accommodating, usually to their own detriment.

This piazza was a long walk away, almost 50 minutes. The longer I dragged my 7 month pregnant friend toward this square, the more I wondered why am I doing this? When we finally reached Campo Santa Margherita, luckily she liked it, since it was such a large open space for Venice. We didn’t have the super cheap, tasty slices of pizza which you would have to eat on the stoop of a statue or on the ground. She couldn’t drink the cheap Campari spritzes. We realized we were old enough and she kind of needed to have pizza in a sit down restaurant.

Traveling is one of the most effective ways of feeling as though you’re traveling back in time. However, while we all want to relive and share certain experiences from the past, they may not be relevant or attend to the needs of the person we are now. Our search for authenticity and reliving authenticity can just become futile.

Not our table
Not our table