“The purpose of life is to live it, to taste experience to the utmost, to reach out and eagerly and without fear for newer and richer experience.”
July 5, 2019
It’s mid afternoon on my first full day in Palermo. The travel overachiever I am, I have already visited Teatro Massimo, Vucciria Market, Piazza Bellini, Quattro Canti, at least 8 churches, walked Via Bars all’Olivella, walked Via Roma, sat on the steps of the grand post office, had a beer with locals at Tavern Azzurna, lunched on panelle and photographed various street art. I’m having the time of my life. Also, it’s 96 degrees and humid. I am a sweaty mess of a man. Much of the city has turned to siesta. I try to take a break back at my AirBnB to plot my next move but it’s sauna inside. Luckily I had a plan in my back pocket all along. I summon my boldness, repack my bag and force myself to take the plunge by heading to Mondello Beach.
I know about Mondello Beach in so much as to say I read about it in my Rick Steves Sicily guidebook. Exploring Old Town Palermo was the day’s plan with a casual “and if I have time” tucked away in the back of my brain for Mondello. But probably too ambitious. See it’s a 40 minute public bus ride and who knew if I’d be game or have time? Full to the seams with wonder and history and culture turns out what I need most right now is to cool off. Color me game. I’m at the mercy of my phone’s guidance when I find the bus stop. One transfer to make. Shades of a youth long gone by I wait at the bus stop with exact change jingling in my hand. Only when the bus pulls up and I step aboard I can’t locate any slot to dump my coins. Turns out this isn’t 1989 in Brooklyn. Quickly I remember public transportation in Italy requires you to purchase tickets before boarding. It’s an honor system of sorts, where fare enforcers only board and check tickets some of the time. Johnny Giacalone: International Criminal. The eight stops to the transfer are bit stressful. No one ever checks for tickets. At my transfer point I ask a local waiting at the bus stop where I can purchase a ticket. He gives me the warmest, goofiest smile and hands his over to me. Before I can protest he says “ciao”, waves and walks off. The New Yorker in me is convinced I am being punked but at that very moment the bus rolls up. My eternal impatience makes a gambler out of me. This time, an official stands just inside the doorway checking tickets. The ticket is good. Quickly the bus rolls out of Old Town Palermo. The streets stretch wider as modern high rises replace ancient buildings. A different city comes into view. Out the window it passes as quickly as it came, replaced by parks. A twist, a left turn and I see it glistening before me. An ocean of yellow umbrellas, a moat to the sea beyond; a hint of salt in the air. Now arriving at Mondello Beach.
At the entrance a sign reads SOLD OUT. My heart drops. The Italian I was practicing falls away as I launch into a desperate plea to the ticket taker. She instantly waves me off. It’s
just after 3pm and spots have opened up. I pay my 7 euros which grants me entrance to the private beach, an umbrella, two beach chairs and access to the refreshments. Once I step inside a teenager leads me through a maze of umbrellas and sand to my assigned spot. When he points to my umbrella what is really hard to miss are the two 20s something blonde women with large breasts sunbathing topless. No one, anywhere else, is topless. These ladies have turned their chairs to maximize their exposure (ha-ha) to the sun. This means in they are directly in front of me, facing me. With the cool, calm ,class of a worldly traveler I turn to the teenager and whisper under my breath “get the fuck out of here, these are my seats?”. A holiday gift from Palermo to me. Behind me a group of 50s something British ladies talk about Bo Derek and the movie 10. I’ve got a hunch why. Showcasing their range the ladies become entertainment in a surprising number of ways. When the girls decide it’s time to re-oil each other the lady from the couple to the right turns her boyfriend’s chair so it’s facing her instead. She takes hold of his chin when his head drifts too far and pulls it back her way. The young woman from the couple to the right full on slaps her guy across the face when she catches him starring. Before I leave a male beach employee appears at my side out of nowhere and conspiratorially murmurs “che Barbie”. His fingers are held together, he shakes his hand back and forth for emphasis.
The beach is framed on either side by mountains. Tan and jagged earth spotted with green. The water clean and cool blue. Shallow for a extended trip out to sea before dropping dramatically in depth and temperature. The water is full of kids playing, couples kissing and old men showcasing especially tight speedos. The age diversity at Mondello strikes me. I make it to the beach a fair amount in Los Angeles where I rarely spy beach goers past their 30s. Everyone seems so at peace with themselves and their bodies. A calm walk to the water becomes a sprint when the sand scorches my feet. The ocean is the embodiment of refreshment on this day. I float, I wade and I swim. I tell myself to hold on to this moment in time. You get few in life that are so perfect. For the next few hours I take turns reading, swimming in the ocean and enjoying the chaos caused by my young blonde friends. I don’t ever want to leave.
The bus is packed on the ride back to Palermo. I have my headphones on, swaying to music as my arm casually dangles from the straphanger. I love the feel of sand and sun on my face. I’m funny that way. People seem to hate how the salt water lives on their skin after the beach. I long for it. In fact, it’s one of my favorite feelings in the world. Sharp rays from the sun penetrate the bus window and find my face. A gentle breeze floats through on its’ heels. I am serene. Outside the world travels in reverse, beach subsides, parks, modern high rises, and Old Town Palermo. Two women in their 30’s stand in front of me on the bus. One looks like a chestnut haired Asia Argento. I debate proposing for citizenship. When I exit the bus one says “ciao” to me. Recorded as victory.
Instead of hopping on the transfer, I decided to foot it the rest of the way. Palermo meets the challenge. Somewhere along the walk as I snap photos of devotions and narrow cobble stone passageways, I see a name I recognize. I see my name. I’m walking down Via Giacalone. The street bearing my surname is located in what was once the Jewish ghetto (Fun fact – in Palermo the former Jewish ghetto and Arab ghetto are geographically intertwined. Prepare your best Israel/ Palestine jokes here). Further investigation yields an intriguing discovery; Giacalone was once a prominent Jewish family in Sicily that famously converted at the start of the Inquisition. I have no idea if that is my lineage. Even if it was, the beginning of the Inquisition was 1231 A.D.! There is also a town of Giacalone in Sicily. All traces of my Grandfather’s roots have been lost, it’s not only possible but even likely his name was changed when he came through Ellis Island. But really who cares about that? I just peeked up and saw my name on the street I was walking on on the other side of the Atlantic. It anchors me.
A few minutes later I chew on an arancini I bought off a street vendor. Via Maqueda is good people watching. I lounge like I own the place, because, well, my name’s on it. Second day, second arancini. When I start walking home I get a message from my Cousin Joe. He and his family have arrived in Palermo. Joe invites me join them for dinner. I didn’t think I’d see anyone until I reached Syracuse. Little Joe helps his Dad by sending me a Google pin drop to show their location. I rush up to my AirbnB for a quick change and I’m back out heading their way. I can’t get there soon enough. There’s never a bad time hanging with my cousins. What was it about perfect days? Everything seems to be going just right in this ancient and familiar city.
Dear Readers … Dear Mom … apologies for the disappearance. If you’ve been kind enough to read theresjohnnywanderingsandwine in the past, I’ll hope you will continue to do so in the future. I find myself with time on my hands and a desire to pick it up once more. I’ve got some tales to finish spinning from past adventures and dreams about what could be on the horizon. Feel free to give it a whirl. Thanks.
February 9, 2019
After the War Museum I make a zig zag path back to my hotel. My moment of cultural meltdown arrives when I take advantage of a restroom situated in a public park. At the entrance shoes gather. I take note of two ladies heading into the Women’s side slipping off their shoes before entering. My mind shuffles through various memories of public bathrooms in public parks. Specifically, the floors, specifically the level of cleanliness, specifically the lack thereof. I leave my shoes on. A man enters as I am about to exit. He looks down at my shoes and sneers. Joke’s on him; I peed on the floor. I cross into the Japanese section of Ho Chi Minh City and decide after a week of Vietnamese street food, sit down restaurant sushi sounds perfect for a late lunch. The server speaks Vietnamese and Japanese. My pointing and hand gestures result in a mixed sashimi plate. Sure, that works. Afterwards, I walk back to GK Hotel and prepare for the next adventure.
It’s New York summer hot here in February in Ho Chi Minh City; mid 90s temperatures with ample humidity. The kind of days where you take a shower, head outside and immediately wish you could take another shower. The nights drop off only a little and never the humidity. I’m situated in District 1 of Ho Chi Minh City. It’s the heart of Ho Chi Minh, recommended for travelers and housing the famous Ben Thanh Market. The narrow, winding alley ways of Hanoi have been replaced by a modern city grid. Food, drink and massage parlors every step you take. There’s an energy to the place. It teems with life. Scooters zip by, bright lights twinkle, barkers hock their wares, and pedestrians dance through the crowded streets. My first taste of Saigon nights. The Market proper is closed, a full exploration will wait until tomorrow. Tonight I am strolling through the Ben Thanh Night Market; a small circus of souvenir stands, shops, and outdoor street dining wrapping around the marketplace walls like a scarf. Even in it’s muted Tet week form one can feel the city’s lust for life. Tran, my tour guide in Ninh Binh, told us in the North people are practical, but in the South, they spend all their money living for the moment and partying all night long. Let’s get me some of that. Before you know it I’m drinking out of a coconut as I walk.
If only I had three stomachs. I don’t care much about the clothes (mostly Western knock offs or traditional Vietnamese silk tunics), the trinkets, toys or souvenirs. But every food cart, restaurant and display slyly beckon me over. The assortment of fruits, nuts and pastries is overwhelming. “What are those fruits?” I wonder. Strange, fresh and inviting. I am particularly intrigued by this colored sticky rice sold at several spots around the market. Past the basics of bargaining to make the sale, none of the vendors speak any English. I am left to my own detective work. I watch after a customer selects their color preference a scoop of what looks like a custard is aggressively spread over the top of the rice. Next it’s handed off to the patron in a styrofoam container with a plastic fork. A small “what do you have to lose?” twinkle in my eye debates asking “can I just get a small taste” of this stranger. Too late, she’s off into the crowd chewing on green rice. I need a team! It’s giving off a desert vibe and so punt for later.
I decide to get my street seafood on, as you do. Ẩm thực Hai Lúa – Food Countryside is my choice for this evening’s dining adventure. Can’t say for sure but fair guess “Food Countryside” is a weak translation for it’s intended meaning. Here in the market is a satellite offering of the restaurant proper, located in District 3. Hai Lúa al fresco sits in the middle of the street along the side of the market. Long, banquet style tables are presided over by servers in buttoned up white shirts, ties and vests. The real attraction are the grills coughing up smoke and tantalizing aromas. A few other cooking stations sit to the side supporting the grill with sauté and boiled offerings. In front of them, a generous selection of live fish and seafood wait nervously. Grilled fresh Vietnamese style seafood is the star of this show. Regardless of my thirst to try strange and exotic food, I can’t bring myself to order turtle. It’s the only truly unique and “foreign” offering. I take my carnivore habits seriously, but tonight I demure from pointing “toss that live turtle the fire, I’m curious if it tastes like chicken”. I settle on grilled oysters, shrimp and red snapper. I sit and inhale enticing scents that drift my way. The streets are full of people. The red snapper arrives with a small bowl of rock salt, pepper and a lime on top. I watch and repeat as I see others. Squeeze the lime into the salt and pepper and then swirl with my chop sticks, adding dollops to my food to season as needed. The shrimp come with a different sauce that tastes similar but has heat to it. On my table I make a study of the condiments; hot sauce, tomato sauce (like ketchup’s wacky cousin), and a lemony fish sauce. I can’t read the labels, so understand my “study” is me tasting tiny amounts of each. The oysters are intimidatingly large. I make my way into the Snapper; fresh almost sweet fish colliding hard with charred grill, lime, salt and pepper flavors. Carefully I navigate the bones. As I munch I take note of how gender segregated the restaurant is. The men are waiters, women do all the grilling and 3 dudes in high chef hats make final preparations to the dishes and handle all the rice. Other female employees come to your table to do any extra prep as needed. In my case, with the shrimp. I try to be friendly as she stares listless into space. I’d say she was ignoring my very existence but ignoring implies it registered. Later I eavesdrop as she visits a table of guys from the Philippines who harass her with “wanna make boom boom” and other such rude overtures. They raucously enjoy their own advances as she dead-eye completes her task. I feel guilty for thinking she was so standoffish. I brave a giant grilled oyster. This is the first time I discover what becomes a Saigon trend; no napkins. When I ask, after some failed pantomime, an English speaking server saunters over to explain I can purchase wet naps at the conclusion of meal. I try to power through the filthy hands feeling I don’t love. Then I buy a wet nap. It underwhelms. My Ho Chi Minh street seafood however, does not.
At the end of my night, I buy some fruit on the way home. Back at GK Hotel I lie on the bed luxuriating in the AC. Throughout my stay in Vietnam there are two English channels always playing Hollywood movies. This is how the average Vietnamese learns about America. Having seen Solo, I opt for Geostorm. I am treated to one of the worst movies I have ever seen in my life. Like truly, epically, all time bad. Simultaneously, I enjoy my fresh fruit desert and eat the best tasting papaya and mango I have ever had. Symmetry. The next night, I buy more fruit.
July 5, 2019
Sometimes I think my favorite thing about being on vacation is the mornings; waking up happy and knowing what you have to do today is to explore, eat, drink, see, adventure, have fun and relax. In normal life, I am a miserable morning person. Days start with confusion, “Why is everything so bright?”, “Why are people talking to me?”, “Why does this keep happening?”, “Can I just lie down again?”. I slump over my coffee, nursing it in hopes of it nursing me. Vacations are something completely different. I greet the morning with enthusiasm. After all, see the day’s itinerary listed above. My first morning in Palermo, I pull on shorts and a t-shirt and stroll a few blocks to a local cafe I spied. The counter is packed with people. The barista looks like a young, Sicilian Javier Bardem. When it’s my turn to order I shyly recite the Italian I have been practicing in my head as I waited. The barista quickly makes me an espresso and places the croissant I ordered on a plate. Then he moves to the next customer. I stutter, unsure if I pay now or how it works. He waves me off with his hand and some Italian I only half comprehend. I take my seat outside. The morning mist still cools the air. The threatening hot sun still a little ways off. That morning vacation serenity caresses me. I read my book, Republic of Thieves by Scott Lynch. It’s a fantasy novel about con artists in an imagined but familiar 1700’s Venice like city. It’s my custom to start my vacation mornings reading. My croissant has a surprise filling; surprise to me at least. Like raspberries and prosciutto? Unexpected, but yummy. My espresso goes down fast and I debate ordering a second but decide to not be so American. In the peace of the morning air, in between bites of food, I lounge and read. It’s a perfect way to start to the day. Hard to miss, no one is buried in their phones here; not at this cafe or in any bar or restaurant I visit during my time in Sicily. Everyone is talking or, at the very least, people watching. There are also no TVs. They are present, in a way I feel that is so often lacking in my life in Los Angeles. When I finally pack up to leave, I go inside to see how much I owe. The barista has no memory of what I had. I guess things run on the honor system here. I walk back to my AirBnB to take a quick shower and attack the day.
Today I am organized. Unlike the aimless wanderings of yesterday, I have a plan. Old City Palermo is fairly concentrated. I am going to walk around and peek at all the major sites. I have the Rick Steves Sicily guide book complete with “Palermo Walk” on me for reference and information. I start by walking Via Maqueda until I hit the opera house, Teatro Massimo. From what I can tell the two most important facts here are; it’s one of the premier opera houses in all of Europe and the final scene in Godfather III, when the Sofia Coppola character is shot, takes place on the front steps. It’s a magnificent, old dame of a building. I pass on the tour. I’m too anxious and the timing just isn’t right. I try to sneak in, I get caught, play dumb and am escorted out. Oh, well. Instead, I press on, rolling through a series of sites and relics. Down Via Bara all’Olivella a small side street across from the opera house. The street is filled with puppet makers, woodworkers, restaurants and arts and crafts shops of all variety. Most of all I’m struck by the smell. It smells like Grandma’s kitchen; like tomatoes, basil, bread, and coffee. Next, I pop out on the grand fairway Via Roma. The first thing I see is the giant, austere and imposing post office, Mussolini’s contribution to the city if I understand correctly. Fascism letting us know if this post office ever got into a fight with another post office, it would totally kick that puny post office’s ass. I sit on the steps and chat with my Dad via What’s App. Everyone is excited to be converging soon in Syracuse. Dad offers comfort, not all of Sicily has the garbage and trash issues that Palermo currently suffers from. It’s kinda funny now that the Mafia is gone there are sanitation problems. The Church of San Domenico, also known as Church of the Martyrs is my next stop. The other name I see listed for the cathedral is the “Pantheon of illustrious Sicilians”. Life goals? Several famous Sicilians are entombed inside, including Giovanni Falcone, the magistrate largely credited with bringing down the mob in Sicily. He was assassinated before he could finish the job. The Church of San Domenico shows it’s age. Seems true of the many churches I visit in Palermo. And unlike Rome, you don’t stumble upon great works by famous artists. Rust and copper are common colors. Tears in paintings, chips in statues, worn down woodwork are the norm. Sicily bears its scars like a proud biker gang. Next, I’m wandering through La Vucciria Market. What I love most about the markets in Sicily, is how they are a way of life. Every city, every town, every day. Fresh ingredients for all your cooking needs. I’m flying high on this thought cloud when I spot Taverna Azzurra. I don’t even get twenty feet past it when I turn around, decide, no, it’s not too early to start drinking and walk back. I know greatness when I see it. Stories happen here.
Marble and stone frame Taverna Azzurra. The assortment of old weathered men and daytime drunks is as essential to the joint as the wood finishings. Walking inside my eyes are wide and a goofy smile adorns my face. Naturally, I start by petting the neighborhood mutt that’s looking to the cool marble floor for help to escape the heat. I order a Moretti. The bartender and 3 men inside who seem to take ownership of the establishment while performing no obvious function, study me as a curiosity. Maybe it’s the kid at Disneyland glint in my eye. Taverna Azzurra is a tale of Sicily itself. It’s a black eye and a wry smile on a dazzling Greek statue of Adonis refitted with a Roman nose. A life lived chiseled onto the faces of those who inhabit. It’s been a hard and glorious battle. Madonna and child framed painting resides next to Italy team soccer photos. I sit outside on the bench and take a swig of my beer. It’s almost 11 am and the sun has burned away any traces of cool morning air. My new canine friend, Piccola, comes outside and hides under the bench. That’s when things get interesting because I meet Piccola’s owner.
He introduces himself as Ragazzo, but I may have missed something in translation because Ragazzo means boy in Italian. Also, Ragazzo is blind drunk. He wears a NY cap with speckled dots of color, shorts and half off button down. He has to close one eye and squint to focus on anything or anyone. He introduces me to Ernesto. What a face! Ernesto has thinning hair and a grey beard with streaks of the black that once was. He’s skinny, tanned and leathery and never stops flashing me the gentlest, knowing smile I have ever seen though I can’t say entirely I understand why. Before I know it Ragazzo is sketching me. Street art seems to be his game. I can tell this makes him unpopular with the proprietors. When I say, “oh you’re an artist”, he replies “No, I’m normal”. He sketches, Ernesto smokes and I’m learning about Taverna Azzurra and Palermo. ‘This is my church” Ragazzo says, referring to Azzurra. “This is my office” echoes Ernesto later in an unrelated moment. They argue about how old the Taverna is, 98 or 102 rages the debate, but both agree it’s one of the oldest and most famous in Palermo. Everyone comes here, Ernesto delicately tells me, homeless, artists, doctors, engineers, everyone. All equal and all friends. Ragazzo continues informing me you can find anything you want or need at the bar. Do you need a dentist, craftsman, therapist, a joint, women for sex (unclear exactly how he means it)? Anything you need, you find at Taverna Azzurra. And at night I’m told it’s so packed, the party fills the whole street. Taverna Azzurra, the beating heart of Palermo. Ragazzo rages about how much he loves Sicily, Palermo in particular. Originally from Bari but Sicily now his forever home. It’s free. Ernesto finishes his thought, again soft and friendly, “Everyone is free here, Free to be anything you want. Free to just be”. They ask me where I am from, my accent sounds different to them. I tell them, Brooklyn, originally. Then that thing happens that has happened to me anytime I have ever told any Italian I am from Brooklyn… they have a friend from/in Brooklyn! There is a strange serenity to my time on the bench outside Taverna Azzurra, a moment in time for which I am deeply grateful. Ragazzo completed his sketch and it looks nothing like me. I throw him a few Euros as he was hoping for though he made clear it wasn’t required. Our party gets broken up when a woman on bicycle rides up and starts yelling at Ragazzo. I am pretty sure she’s going to slap him and a little dissapointed when she doesn’t. She wears an LA cap with the same color dot pattern. Later that night I see her selling sketches on the street. In the same colorful style as Ragazzo, all of her sketches are of a seated, naked woman with legs spread wide. They must be quite the couple. As their fight rages it moves into the bar, out and down the street. Piccola follows the progression of the argument by moving from shaded spot to shaded spot. Ernesto playfully rolls his eyes and giggles. His face is brilliantly expressive. What an actor he would make. It’s time to move or commit to a day of getting drunk at Taverna Azzurra. If I only had more time in Palermo. I say a warm farewell to Ernesto. Ragazzo has been lost to his quarrel.
A few steps more and I am in Piazza Caracciola. Fresh fish vendors boil and fry tasty delights for locals and tourists. I eye the polpo bollito (boiled octopus) but settle on a different old friend for lunch, panelle. Panelle Special was a staple of my childhood and
early adult years. It’s a fried chickpea patty, with ricotta and shaved parmesan on a toasted sesame bun. To wash it down, Brooklyn’s own, Manhattan Special, an espresso soda. A rich, savory, adrenaline rush of a meal. It’s a Sicilian specialty I have never found outside of Brooklyn and even there, it’s become an endangered species. At Taverna Azzurra I heard talk of panelle and with Ernesto’s help tracked down my target. No “special”, but a treat nonetheless. I select several items from a display of foods to fill my plate. For this I need no menu or translation, I know the players well. I fill my plate with panelle patties, eggplant rollatini, potato croquette, spiced meatball in sauce, fresh tomato mozzarella and basil. The heavens sing at this meal. Or maybe that’s Grandma I hear.
After my religious lunch experience, I take in some more holiness. I visit the Genie of Palermo, a bearded king with a snake biting his chest. The genie is a Greek and Roman symbol charged with safeguarding the city. Once the protector symbol of Sicily, he’s taken a back seat to the Catholic martyr, Santa Lucia. If I follow, the snake is foreigner invaders, sucking the life out of Sicily, but the King stays strong. Next, I take in street art and a series of blocks where buildings lie in rubble, decimated from World War II bombings and never rebuilt. Then, Piazza San Francesco and its’ church. A walk through the former Arab and Jewish ghetto. In shop windows, I sigh at Italian men’s fashion. If I was spending money on souvenirs I’d buy a whole new wardrobe. Palermo’s Trio of Churches is what follows; Santa Caterina, La Martorana, and San Cataldo. Baroque, Arab and Norman, the three churches in the same square highlight the mix of influences that is Sicily. Everything is ancient here. There are so many churches with martyrs who were tortured and killed. Old people hold court on every corner. I start to think about the context it lends to these local’s lives. The spectacle of death, art and history in your face on every street. Always present. The perspective that it must lend verse a culture only obsessed with youth and wealth. I’m falling in love with Sicily. The walking tour leads me back to the Piazza Pretoria, (Fountain of Shame) and the Quattro Canti (Four Corners). I’ve done all this and it’s only 2 pm. Beginning to think I don’t vacation the way others do. Maybe there is something I can do about that. It’s 96 degrees out. So I head home, change, repack, summon my courage and head out to Mondello beach. You’ll have to tune back to see what happens next. This post is long enough.
February 9th, 2019
If we’re being honest, I’m happy to leave to Hanoi. Beautiful, filthy, delicious, noisy, eye-opening, claustrophobic and caffeinated. It feels good to be at the airport again. The next adventure awaits. I grab a coffee with milk (as they say here) and a croissant. I thumb through my travel book circling my musts for my time in Ho Chi Minh City, or Saigon. I’m not pandering to an American audience when I add Saigon. Most everyone here says it just like that “Ho Chi Minh City or Saigon”. The announcement onboard the flight says “this flight is traveling to Ho Chi Min City or Saigon”. They changed the name but no one wants to let the old name to let it go. It’s a quick flight, under an hour. I’m sandwiched between a family. Grandma and Mom to my right, across the aisle, husband, uncle, and son. I assist in the passing of snacks, blankets, and messages back and forth. They never acknowledge me once. I’m just a vehicle for transport.
When I step off the plane at Ho Chi Minh City the first thing I notice is the heat. We cross through the arrivals gate into the sea of people. My hotel offered airport pickup for such a nominal fee, I couldn’t decline. Here I’d like to call special attention to the picture accompanying this paragraph. Truthfully this was my first time exiting a gate with someone waiting there holding up a sign with my name. And since I am already taking notes and snapping photos to convert to blog stories, I immediately whip out my phone and click. I love this photo SO much cause the girl holding the sign has a “he’s not…is he taking a photo of me?” question to her expression while her companion has a “no he isn’t!! this motherfucker is taking a photo!!!” look. And that is all I have to say about that. We have a short tense conversation. She seems deeply troubled I am traveling alone, puts me in the car and off I go.
Instantly Ho Chi Minh is exciting. Far more cosmopolitan with parks and trees and sidewalks and lights. It’s far cleaner, grander, more modern in every way. Every breath in is excitement. GK Hotel is fabulous! I’m so happy I am Risky Business-ing across the polished wood floors. Seriously, it’s the nicest hotel room I have ever stayed in. A large open room with high ceilings, state of the art modern conveniences and an entire wall of windows I can cover during the heat or pull back the curtain to peek out on the city. I settle in, shower and slip back outside in no time.
Walking on the streets of Ho Chi Minh city I take great fascination in the Communist Party propaganda posters. Growing up in the United States during the Cold War, how could I not? They are so pleasing to the eye. Bright, vibrant colors bringing pop art tableaus to life with messages of inspiration and unification, while deep in my being I eye the yellow sickle with distrust. If it’s Cold War confusion I crave, I’m heading for an overdose. Just a few short blocks from GK Hotel is the War Remnants Museum. My first outing in Ho Chi Minh City.
The courtyard is filled with American military equipment; planes, helicopters, tanks, and guns. Besides each fossilized weapon rests a plaque listing its manufacturer, practical use, maximum range, maximum speed, and firing capabilities. A carnival of emotions, gross and comical play out in the enclosure. I see young children playing on the warbirds, old men and women with solemn, pained expressions, a former vet crying, girls snapping sexy Instagram selfies and rah rah bros flexing in action poses. I walk through, read and absorb each relic. Some planes seem so much smaller, so much less substantive then I would have expected. Others tell intimidating tales of destruction. Being part of the generation that arrived on the scene just as the war ended, I’ve learned Vietnam through movies. I’ve seen all these weapons before but as I press my hand against the metal, they become more real. I feel awe, wonder, anguish, shame, pride, fear, sadness, solemnity. Moved by the experience, as I shift inside, it’s only just begun.
The War Remnants Museum is three stories high. Walking into the heart of the building is like entering a cavern. The museum is open-air, and absent of AC, just to make the experience more overwhelming. Strategically placed fans falter in their over-ambitious attempt to create airflow in the giant space. Excuse the flowery language, it’s balls hot. The first floor is a detailed timeline of the “American War of Aggression”, an exhibit on the war resistance (both in the US and abroad), and accounting of Vietnamese independence to cap the narrative. I’m humbled by displays of courage and conscience. A photo of two village women embracing and crying on the day of independence is a masterpiece. The museum is in every way from the Vietnamese perspective. A simple but sharp contrast to the lessons I’ve learned growing up in the US. The second floor is more history, with a weapon’s display. Things get a lot more real in the War Atrocities display. The color is drained from my face, pain in my heart, nausea in my stomach. It’s hard to convey what walking down the line and seeing photos of mutilations and descriptions of torture does to you. It’s worse than any stories I have ever read. Many visitors break down and cry. One boy just starts to scream. Otherwise, it’s total silence. The most horrific images are burned into memory. If you survive the War Atrocities exhibit, the Effects of Agent Orange installation on the third floor will finish you off. Now that you’ve seen the evil men can do, let’s look at the immediate, lingering and lasting effects of chemical warfare. If the photos of burned, disfigured and deformed Vietnamese aren’t enough, there’s the display of children’s art to topple your resolve. Seeing the kid’s drawings, clearly, a therapeutic technique used to help these young innocents grapple with their reality, I am undone. I fight my way out the hot, humid chamber of horrors, down the stairs and back out into the courtyard for air.
I find some air and a bottle of water. I take large gulps. It’s hard to explain why I am glad I visited the museum; why I felt I had to, especially when I exit with a tight chest and head swimming. Walking away from the museum I come across a pole covered in museum stickers. I peel off my own and add it to the instant street art. The white doves and blue trim spread, like adding ones to the list, we came and we saw. My stomach rumbles as I wander away. I return to my fascination with all things scooters. I hunt for lunch. I’ve been in Ho Chi Minh City for about four hours, already different than when I arrived.
The first outdoor movie I ever saw was The Frighteners. It starred Michael J. Fox and was the second feature of a relatively unknown director named Peter Jackson. Things turned out okay for him. I was in college up in Poughkeepsie one summer night when we made a pilgrimage to the local Drive-In. I remember sitting on the hood of my friend’s car, stealing peeks at the night sky in between on-screen ghosts. Turns out I love sitting under the stars watching a film. To get my outdoor movie fix in LA I used to drive to the City of Industry to the Vineland Drive-In Theater. There is nothing scenic about the spot, but Harlow and I could enjoy an inexpensive double feature from the comfort of our automobile. That’s until I discovered Street Food Cinema plus the great friends that help make it a Summertime tradition. That’s how I find myself one Summer night in August at Glendale Central Park watching Dirty Dancing. No one puts Harlow in a corner!
Street Food Cinema began in 2012. It’s produced by TIL Lifestyle Marketing and Events, a creative marketing and event production company based in Los Angeles since 2001. The template is simple; Saturday nights at different venues all over Los Angeles, food trucks gather, a DJ spins and folks congregate on picnic blankets to watch a movie under the stars. The site lists 16 Venues in all. Last year we caught E.T. at the Pacific Palisades, the year prior Fight Club in Griffith Park. A list of food trucks is available before every screening to whet your appetite. Dogs are welcome. A photographer roams the crowd and an M.C. runs an obstacle course with volunteer kids from the audience before the movie starts. Alcohol is “prohibited”, but it’s a toothless policy. Everyone is opening bottles of wine, just discreetly. Tommy and I take turns hauling a cooler into the event filled with wine, beer, and ice. So, maybe less discrete than others. For me, it’s a perfect summer night activity. Find a movie you like and get out there, it’s well worth your time.
I sit in the back seat with Harlow as Tommy, Karen Larkin and I carpool to the show. Karen Larkin is educating Tommy on the challenges of her new gluten-free lifestyle, having been recently diagnosed celiac. Like a good friend, I help out by chiming in that I am officially revoking her Italian ethnicity now that she can’t eat pasta. In the backseat, Harlow sports a softball t-shirt to cover her recent surgery scars. This may have been prescribed by her vet to keep them protected, but in the end, I think it may spark a fashion revolution in dogs. She’s thrilled to be out of the house, laying in the grass, and employing her sad puppy eyes to beg a taste of everyone’s food. Glendale Central Park is a more intimate venue than the others I have visited but just as fun. We meet up with friends Rrrrramon, Lauren, Joy and Joy’s impossibly cute new bulldog puppy. Merry little band complete.
I opt for the Baby’s Badass Burgers food truck. It seems in keeping with the theme of the night. The truck is painted bright pink and only after when I look it up online do I learn the concept is, “pretty girls serve gourmet burgers”. I go for The Other Woman which has blue cheese, lettuce, tomato, sautéed onions, and bacon. And fries. I’m dieting. It’s a really fine burger. I’m the first back at the blanket with food. As I enjoy my burger Harlow sits inches in front of me, with pain and hope in her eyes. In between bites, I whisper sweet nothings to her. Before I’m done I give her one small bite of meat. She has me wrapped around her paw. The 2018 Nautilus Sauvignon Blanc is the first wine to go down smoothly. Its high acidity makes my mouth water. Strong citrus and stone fruit flavors dominate the dry white. Hints of herbs and chives can be found for those looking. It would be better paired with fish tacos rather than a burger, but hey, we make do with what we got. And it’s too hot to drink red. Lauren gifts me a shrimp taco and Joy & Tommy offer bites of lobster & steak enchiladas respectively. The adult chosen to serve as a foil to the kids in the obstacle course race has triumphed. He sports a Kellerman’s t-shirt (the resort from the movie). “I carried a watermelon” and “Nobody puts Baby in a corner” t-shirts can also be spotted in the crowd. Darkness has crept across the sky and we settle in for Dirty Dancing.
The movie holds up. Jennifer Grey is disarmingly awkward, connected, and heartfelt. Patrick Swayze looks like a God. Jerry Orbach plays a pitch-perfect Frank Capra styled father. The smaller character roles click to perfection. We all confess to having once owned the soundtrack and wiggle and shake when our favorite tunes play. The 2016 Chateau des Bertrands Elegance Rose lubricates our entertainment. A dry Provence Rose, gentle touches of nectarine, peach and white pepper reside in each glass. Or in this case, plastic cup in a park. On-screen leather jacket clad bad boy Johnny (who never actually does anything remotely bad), gives inexperienced and awkward Baby sensual dancing lessons on route to romance. It’s funny to see it now, with adult eyes and think of an entire generation of women I grew up dating who were raised on this film. My name is Johnny, I got that going for me. When the “Nobody puts Baby in a corner” line is uttered the audience erupts into raucous cheers. I’m applauding right along with everyone else. And then, dancing. Another season in the Catskills comes to a close. We shuffle in the darkness out of the park and to our cars. I can’t think of another night this Summer I traveled home so satisfied.
July 2nd, 3rd & 4th 2019,
I left on a Tuesday night and arrived on a Thursday morning. A car, four planes, a train and now my feet taking me over the finish line. The train station to my AirBnB is supposed to be a ten-minute walk. It’s taking longer. I’m having trouble orientating myself. Palermo has greeted me with mid 90s temperature and high humidity. My legs are in open protest of the jeans I have been wearing for two days. Tired, hot and uncomfortable, I drag myself and my rolling, carry on suitcase over dirty cobblestone streets. It bounces and continues to tip over on its side. My backpack is heavier than I want and I can feel the sweat against my back and shoulders where it’s pressed against me. Shuffling from the train station to my AirBnB is not the most scenic walk. I’ve learned you can see a lot of the world these days on a budget. But don’t think the travel won’t hurt a little. This is the hurt part. Gravy soon. I work to remain oblivious to my surroundings, delaying till I am in the right frame of mind. How did I even get here? Like flashes, in and out of consciousness, only certain moments remain.
Among Johnny’s travel necessities are headphones. You don’t have to spend a ton, but get yourself an okay pair and you can carve out a little oasis in crowds. Also makes for better in-flight movie watching. I always press play on my music when they start lining folks up. My boarding process is scored. Jeans, sneakers, comfy sweater, baseball cap, and headphones is how I’m adorned as I sashay onto the plane. Warm glow in my chest, not just an adventure, we’re tracing our roots here.
First I embrace the culture; I siesta. I reposition the two fans in the bedroom of my AirBnB so they are pointed at me. I can’t hear anything over the wind tunnel sound effect they produce. I slip hard into a deep sleep. After a nap and a quick shower, I do as I always do when I arrive in a foreign country, I go bolting out into the streets with no direction or plan. I walk out the door and immediately into The Church of Gesu across the street. Baroque, ornate, a feast for the eyes. I am momentarily overwhelmed. Let’s pause the religious experience a tic till I can see a little more. Next, I’m strolling down Via Marqueda. It’s a grand fairway, with a multitude of shops, eateries, and bars. The joy starts to percolate. The buildings that frame Via Marqueda are old and stoic. They are worn by time and violence. I take in the statues, churches, squares and the grand Quattro Canti (Four Corners – the center of Old Town Palermo) at the intersection of Via Vittorio Emanuele. But my favorite first day moment may have been watching an old Italian
Grandma yelling down from her perch at a child on the street. Close second, the old men sitting outside waiving hands and shit-talking each other. Shadows of a mirror world I grew up in. My stomach screams so I purchase my first of many arancini. If you don’t know, its a rice ball, breaded and fried, with some filling in the center. Grandma made them for us as kids, usually with peas and chop meat inside. In Sicily, they are everywhere with a variety of fillings. For 2 euros my first arancini promises prosciutto and mozzarella at the center. It’s heavenly and I wolf it down.
Like Schrodinger’s cat, I am both asleep and awake on my flight. Eye mask on, neck pillow in place, earbuds and bundled comfy dutifully for hours and yet I never really achieve sleep. At JFK in between LA to NY and NY to Paris, I change terminals only to discover the international terminal at JFK isn’t open yet. It’s not a 24-hour terminal. I won’t be allowed through security till 11:30 am. It’s 7 am. Fuuuuuuck. I hit Starbucks for some coffee and sit in a food court area watching CINEMA PARADISO on my laptop. I wanted to watch a film that takes place in Sicily. What a masterpiece. It sends sparks through my overly romantic heart. And, it sticks the landing like no other. As soon as I can I am through the gate and into the Air France Lounge. This is my first Priority Pass experience. It’s worth it for the shower alone. Next, I hit the buffet hard and the complimentary selection of French wines harder. The label is lost to time but the Sauvignon Blanc blend I was enjoying had high acid, bright lemon, lime and melon flavors. What’re two more glasses? I’m not flying the plane.
After a few hours of aimless wandering around Old Town Palermo, I grab a seat and the official drink of Sicily, an Aperol Spritz. My conversion to local is well underway. Happy to be off my feet, I am forced to shoo away Gypsies that take a rather aggressive assault approach to begging. Somehow always holding a baby, performing a monologue of sorrow in Italian. Years riding New York subways have made me proficient at dismissals such as these, but it always with a tinge of pain in my heart. Highlights from first day’s wanderings include San Giuseppe dei Teatini, Capo market, and Piazza Pretoria (also known as: Piazza della Vergogna, the square of shame). To say nothing of the city itself, which is teeming with life. Vibrant, dirty, ancient and alive. It’s been a long time since I visited Italy (Rome, Florence, Cinque Terra and Venice on my honeymoon 85 years ago), but Sicily is undeniably different. Conquered, occupied and operated at different times in its history by the Greeks, Romans, Arabs, Normans, and North Africans before becoming part of a unified Italy, it is a mosaic of different influences. It’s not uncommon in Sicily to visit a Catholic church that was once a Mosque. The facade rebuilt, but both styles still coexisting. Drops of these different civilizations are expressed in the architecture, art, culture, food and on the faces of the people. On my face. The people are darker here. Swarthy, as I’ve often been described and never once without wincing. But it’s impossible to miss. Sipping my Aperol Spritz I’m texting with a friend from childhood and I remark, “being here, looking at the people explains my hair and your love of black women”. I once had an agent, during our introductory meeting in Los Angeles, continuously banging his own head against the desk repeating “you’re so ethnic”. Here, sitting on the street in Palermo as though deposited from a dream, all these memories swarm. It comes into focus how unbeknown to me I have always been, in fact, so Sicilian looking. Today I started to feel that burst of life I’ve become addicted to with my solo travels. A cocktail of tranquility and fervor. But there is something different. Something that’s only a whisper; home? To borrow from Israel, Birthright.
I say goodbye to my wife and kid and start to run. Let me back up. On the flight to Paris, I am seated next to a French woman and her infant. No matter what I say, or what she says, we are continually treated as a couple flying with our child. “Does your baby need…?”, “Does your wife want…?” never stops despite our protests. At a certain point, I accepted it. I own it. The flight attendant probably thinks “glad those two worked it out”. We are late arriving and the flight attendant tells me in no uncertain terms, I will not make my connection. I decide I will and we’ll leave it at that. I am pushing my way off the plane and once off I do what I do best, I run. I run at top speed to customs. Wait, wait, wait. I run, at top speed, through Orly airport. Confused who what and where I am, I am yelling in English and Italian apologies and for people to get out of the way. My backpack bouncing, my rolling carry on continually twisting this way and that but my pace never slackens. It’s not a short distance to cover, but I cover it. When I arrive at the gate, they tell me it’s too late. No, I say, or was it begging? They call on the plane and the cabin door isn’t shut yet. They wave me through. When I board, the airplane gives me applause. 15 passengers from my prior flight had this transfer, only I made it. I topple into my seat, suddenly aware of how much French wine I drank at the Air France lounge yesterday (?) and how little I slept on my second overnight in as many days. Am I gonna be sick? The plane lurches into motion. Next stop, Italy.
Trattoria del Pesce Fresco is situated across from the marina in Old Town Palermo. My father and Janine ate here a few days ago. Did I not mention several members of my family are in Sicily all set to converge in Syracuse, the Province my Grandmother is from? Yeah, that’s happening. We’ll get there. When I approach the Maitre’D I mumble my way with limited Italian to explain my parents sent me. This was as they instructed. Apparently, my Dad and Janine make quite the impression, I am hugged and introduced to the entire restaurant staff. “This is Mario’s son!”. I still have no idea what happened. The owner even comes to my table. They select a fish to be grilled for me and I complete the feast by ordering eggplant caponata and bottle of Grillo, (Sicily’s most popular white varietal). The Grillo is medium acid, light-bodied with notes of lemon-lime, grass, white roses, and a hint of pepper. Very refreshing. My server keeps checking in on me no matter how many times I say “bene”. I resolve to throw out a “molto bene” next time. He won’t know what hit him. And I don’t know what hit me when after I devour my eggplant and the fish. I am overtaken with drowsiness. Suddenly no one is attentive and we play a little game which involves me trying to pay in between nodding out at the table. Very dignified. The walk home is perfectly pleasant. It wakes me up just enough to spend a little time sitting out on the balcony of my AirBnB. Illuminated by the Church of Gesu across the street, lulled by the sound of the occasional moped and Italians yelling, a resounding calm overtakes me. Relaxing in the night air. I am here. I am in Sicily.
Salutations lads and ladies! Hark ye! Heed my words! For I will play both steward and yoeman to guide you through this prose. I will recreate a tale of swordsmen, wenches, revelry, and good strong ale. The application of my words, a balm on the dull crowd of ear-bussing circling your lobes. Begin then, as I propagate Feast-finding dreams into your slumber. Goose this bauble into a quill! Here stands the prologue, the epilogue to follow anon. Trip with me fair maidens, the Renaissance Faire we fly to now, the bullseye of our aim.
Previously, the closest I came to a Renaissance Faire was High School. I won some rounds of the Shakespeare Union’s monologue competition. I won my school and the Borough only to get torched at the city finals by dueling Shylocks. You try taking down crying teenager’s, “Hath a Jew not Eyes” with Benedict from Much Ado’s comical, “I do much wonder”. But all the New York City finalists were invited to perform at the Westchester Renaissance Faire and that meant me too. The day of, they canceled the performance. It’s funny now to think about how upset I was. Nothing draws a crowd like a 16-year-old performing Shakespearean protesting how he’ll never marry. Oh, and a sonnet too. All I had imagined was a modest recreation of the Globe Theater and me bringing down the house. Have a feeling it might have gone a little differently. We’ll never know. Today, as I walk towards the entrance, a wry smile creeps across my face as I watch a girl get laced up into her corset in the parking lot. The closer I move to the gate, the more trucks and vans I see decorated for the event. Tonight happens to be the final episode of Game of Thrones. I thought this would be appropriately themed to get me in the mood. As I locate the digital ticket on my phone, I’m snapped into the moment when a heavyset, African American ticket taker dressed as a ruffian shouts to me, “Good day kind sir! Here to enjoy the merriment?”. I’m at the Renaissance Pleasure Fair, only minutes from Pasadena (as the advertising crows). He’s so on, I shrink and startle all at the same time. But I recover in short order, choosing a gracious bow instead of launching into accent and character. He returns the gesture and I’m inside. My first ever Renaissance Faire is a go. Oh, look, beer.
Libations first. I mean, always right? First and last? That’s a famous saying by someone super important, I’m sure of it. Gandhi? So I grab an ale from one of the beer wenches and begin my exploration. Side note: the prices for all the food and drink at the Renaissance Faire seem to end in 50 cents. Like $7.50 for this, $12.50 for that. And they always give you half dollars for change! I can’t help notice, assume it’s on purpose and find it oddly adorable! Where’s my leather coin purse?! Back in real time, I sip my ale and stroll down the dirt path that’s speckled with patches of grass. It’s an overcast day, but the sun picks its moments to shine through. The further I walk the more I am engulfed by the world. Blacksmiths ply their trade, butter is churned and quilts are sewn. I tour a myriad of period clothing shops, jewelry stands, woodworking displays, rare booksellers, fine crafts, swords, daggers, guns and Renaissance weapons of every kind. I take in some jousting and later some processional dances. There are a soothsayer and turtle races. Separately, I run into two casual acquaintances who both do a terrible job at hiding their judgment and confusion that I’m attending the Renaissance Faire by myself. “Wait, you’re here alone?!” I show considerable restraint passing on the ax throwing booth afraid my balky shoulder will tear clean off. I’m dumb enough to still try archery, but the wait is almost 45 minutes, so I begrudgingly walk away. I listen to a casual conversation between a pirate and serving wench about Russian literature. I inhale a quarter chicken and, okay, one more beer for safety sake. First and last. Maybe it was Malala?
A huge part of the Renaissance Faire experience that cannot be denied is the people. I’m in the minority today, dressed in jeans and thermal. Most, I’d say 3/4 of the people attending are dressed in costume. And many that aren’t quickly take advantage of the many buying opportunities to conform. There are no strict rules that apply when dressing up. While most people are in standard Renaissance attire, I also see the Three Musketeers (twice), the Man in Black (Princess Bride), Pirates, a variety of mythical beings, Avengers, Moulin Rouge dancers, and no less than ten Game of Thrones Khalessies. The dress may be the first recognizable component of character but not the last. Walk and talk is key; often loud, proud and in your face. There is no shortage of bad British accents, old English wording or limit to folks’ enthusiasm when using. And the more laced with sexual innuendo the better. The real beauty of the Renaissance Pleasure Faire is watching folks let their freak flag fly. Their joy and commitment bring such a huge smile to my heart.
I gotta say, I totally get the appeal. It makes sense for me, being a lover of Shakespeare, history, and Game of Thrones. I also think there is a larger appeal, seeing it, for most anyone. It’s a chance to explore another world. It’s something fun and different and an escape from ordinary life. I take a moment during my day to wonder who I would be in the world. But funny enough, despite my performer roots, the dressing up and parading around in character part does not call to me. Still, at one moment, in a sword shop, I spy a dagger I really like. While handling it, I notice the price is $65. I think to myself, “I’m gonna buy it” and then before I do the thought cuts through my excitement, “why do I need a dagger?”.
February 9, 2018
At 7:45 AM I’m fast walking through the overcast morning mist. I will not master Old Quarter Hanoi geography on this trip but I have memorized the path to and from my
local street Pho stand. Pho, it’s Vietnamese for what’s for breakfast? Out the hotel door, left, right at the corner, down two blocks, curve to the left and you’re there. I bow respectfully and point, to be answered with a hot bowl of soup and a smile. It’s easy to order here; she only serves one thing. My chopsticks swirl the onions, beef, and lime through the bowl. I slurp and contemplate my day as I watch an old woman perform her morning Tai Chi down the street. The Legend Beer building looms ominously over her. Sitting on the street, I watch the city start to emerge from the morning fog. The tables are communal. I sit with a mix of businessmen and grandmas. In Vietnam, then men are served first. An observation I fall into for a moment. Once you get past the newness of it, hot soup for breakfast makes all the sense in the world. I swallow the last drops of my Pho and pay my 30,000 Viet Dong (about $1.40). I retrace my steps back to the hotel. The bus to Ninh Binh should be picking me up at any minute.
Our tour guide Tran, Tina for our benefit, rattles off fun facts and anecdotes about Tet, the history of Vietnam and life in Hanoi. I’m back on a bus rolling towards Ninh Binh. Beside me on the bus is Jack. Jack is a 72-year-old retiree who enjoys traveling the world while his wife remains home in Sarasota. We do a fair amount of chatting. Destinations near and far are nothing new to Jack. He spent 32 years working overseas as an engineer for Chevron. When he tells me this he says it like, “I worked for this company, don’t know that you would have heard of it, it’s called Chevron”. Tran describes the dreaded 70 kilometers, 4 person scooter journey she usually endures every Tet with her father, mother, and sister to see their grandparents outside of Hanoi. I look out the bus window and watch similar configurations zipping down the dusty road. Tran tells us about the close cultural connection between Vietnam and China, about the days of arranged marriages and couples jumping from bridges denied their love because they were betrothed to another. In so many stories customs are mixed with religion mixed with superstition. In so many stories the horror of war and foreign invader oppression take center stage. She explains how tourism has become a driving force in the Vietnamese economy behind only rice and coffee. The bulk of Tran’s speech on the bus is a breakdown down of the cost of living in Hanoi, which leads into a long discussion about how poor they are in Vietnam and how difficult life is and how we should all be generous while visiting. I mean, basically. Thankfully it’s not a long bus ride.
Just like when I traveled to Halong Bay, the bus has a scheduled stop at what passes for a highway pitstop. The bus drops you off on one side of the complex and promises to pick you at the other side. You have fifteen minutes. After bathrooms, walking to the other side means passing through a makeshift store selling; arts, crafts, clothing, jewelry, souvenirs, booze, snacks, coffee, and food. If your gaze lingers too long on an item, or if heaven forbid you pick it up, you are swarmed by store employees eager to assist you to complete the purchase. There is always a stray dog I end up petting.
I’m gonna gloss lightly over the first part of my Ninh Binh day. That’s because we go to a temple and it’s madness. We are one of many busses that converge on the temple simultaneously. Tran seems unable to wrangle the group or adequately conduct an informative tour. Tran mostly runs to spots, we fight crowds to get to her while everyone snaps photos and selfies, we catch an out of place fact she blurts out and then she’s rushing us along. Wait, what? Who? Meanwhile, the sun has burned through the morning clouds and is making an aggressive assault on our skin. I catch something about emperors and signs and temples and dragons. This country loves dragons. Khalessi would do well here. The press of bodies angers me. Hawkers take photos of tourists and then insist on the subject of purchasing the photo. I watch it turn contentious as one woman finally breaks and yells at her pursuant “get away from me!”. More getting pushed and shoved in small temples sends me running off. I retreat, walking back towards the bus. I meet a Phillipino couple sitting on a bench outside. Like me, they ran from the madness. It tickles me they appear to be dressed to play golf. Tran frantically collects us as we walk over to lunch. I have lunch seated with the couple (but failed to record their names). He lives in Queens while she still resided in the Philippines. They are married but wading through Visa issues until she can join him. They seem very much in love. I’m warming up to the golf outfits. Thankfully I resist my impulse to be the whitest man I can be by asking if they know my friend Rrrramon. The lunch is the worst meal I have in Vietnam. I can’t sit still for long so I wander around. There isn’t much to see. When I walk around the cafeteria the poverty and filth of the place become apparent. It’s in the high-90’s and humid. I should buy a hat. I don’t buy a hat. So far the Ninh Binh tour leaves something to be desired.
A large collection of bicycles are piled in a center section of the dusty town of Tam Cốc, surrounded at a distance by vendors selling souvenirs and refreshments. Tran instructs us to find a bicycle and follow her. We’re taking a ride. I pull one out that looks good to test and discover it has a flat tire. I spy another of the same model, also a flat tire. Next to me, a local is yelling at a 20 something white girl who stripped down into Daisy Dukes and a sports bra for the bike ride. I gather it’s too much skin. In the typical rush, Tran has already started peddling leading a small fraction of our group who have successfully located a functioning bike down the path. Path? It’s impossible to tell what’s going on. Fifth time is a charm as I find my ride and roll after the group. In about a hundred yards the chain comes off. I’m having my very own Good Morning in Vietnam moment. Part of this tour is “bike ride in the country”. I tell myself to stay confident and flip the bike over on it’s back. I reach back to my nine-year-old self and attempt to rethread the chain. I know how simple an operation this is, but that in no way tarnishes my pride when I accomplish it for the first time in thirty years. My hands covered in grease, I remount the bike and start up again. Another traveler passes me on foot rolling his bike. The pedal broke off.
I jostle and shake down the dirt road. I half expect my bike to shatter into a hundred pieces each time I hit a bump. I have no idea where the tour is. The countryside is breathtaking; emerald green mountains rising in sound waves high into the sky beautiful. I have all the emotions. I spot a fellow traveler. He made his own detour in order to snap some photos and has also been separated from the group. He asks me where the tour went. I tell him I have no idea. In a French accent with the perfect je ne sais quoi attitude Marc responds “Oh well, we’re on our own now!”. I spend the rest of the day hanging out with Marc. We continue to ride along, making guesses about which direction the group may have headed. We stop often, taking photos, making jokes and getting lost in the splendor of the countryside. The land is magical. Hot, humid, dirty, undeveloped and majestic. We see a small group riding together on brand new mountain bikes, with helmets and elbow pads. The class warrior lodged in my soul scowls. Marc jokes “I didn’t see those bikes when we were choosing”. In true Tran fashion, when we finally catch the tour at a temple, she is leading them away. She seems bothered to see us arriving because it leads to the discovery she had lost us. She tells us to hurry like her hair is on fire. We roll our eyes a drag behind like disobedient teenagers.
Officially paired up, Marc and I wait our turn to embark on our boat ride. Marc is from Montreal. He’s French Canadian, eh? Marc lives cheaply, stores up enough vacation time and spends the entire month of February each year traveling abroad, plying his real passion, photography. Also avoiding February in Montreal. His photos are outstanding and make me wish he was along on all my blog adventures to supply the visual compliments. Marc has a gentle, vibrant and friendly nature. His passion for travel and people is pure and contagious. He’s a world-class friend for a day. Occasionally his English fails him and he apologizes for not being better at it. I always remind him it’s light years ahead of my French. Besides, it only gets in the way when I try to make distasteful jokes under my breath that he misses. As we wait in line for our boat Marc tells me I look like an Italian movie star. I don’t know what’s happening but I appear to be really good looking here. I keep fielding compliments. Vietnam must bring out my eyes.
Next, we’re on the water. Marc sits in front, then me and behind us, an old Vietnamese man rows our boat with his feet. Yes, his feet. It’s a common approach. Tam Cốc, located in Ninh Binh, is part of the Red River Delta of Northern Vietnam. The water is brown and murky lined by rice fields and mountains. We’re warned under no circumstances to go overboard, best not to tempt the piranhas. That’s when I declined the life jacket. “Water isn’t deep, but there are piranhas in it? You can hang on to that then”. Under a blistering sun, we spend the next two hours cruising down the river and back again. Hundreds of photos are taken. Photos of landscape, boatsmen, fellow travelers, birds, sky, temples and more. Marc’s professional camera shots make my iPhone pics look pitiful. Still, I keep snapping photos. I have no idea how I will narrow it down and choose for this entry. The boatsmen come in all ages, genders, shapes, and sizes. They seem numb to the swarm of tourists they ferry. They yell out and talk to each other during the whole ride, largely ignoring their passengers. I imagine someone is saying “I say we feed them to the piranhas!”. Goats make spotted white marks in the hills. At first just specs then we get closer and see them moving. Feel bad about the hot dog looking carts on our way in that had an entire roasted goat slung across the top. We pass under caves, sometimes so low inside you can reach up and touch the ceiling. The sun streaks through slits in the mountain tops. After the last cave, at the turnaround, boats filled with fresh fruit, drinks and candy float to sell refreshments. We buy some fruit and a gift for our driver. We enjoy mangos and bananas on our ride back. Our boatsman downs a Red Bull. Marc snaps a photo of another boatswoman passing who asks where we are from. When Marc says “Canadian”, then points at me and says “American”, at which time the boatswoman starts to chant “U-S-A Number #1”. And more mountains and more sun and more water and more rice fields and more caves and more conversation with Marc.
The bus ride back is long. For the first time, I hit traffic in Vietnam. We bake on a bus with no AC as the sun sets and we slowly creep back into Hanoi. At the rest stop, Marc and I keep up our getting to know you dance. He tells me how much he loves Southern California. He visited twice, that was back when he was with his ex-girlfriend. They rented a convertible and drove the coast as he snapped photos. He becomes reflective, “I really need to find another girlfriend like that,” he says. I agree. We both leave Hanoi tomorrow. There is a weight of anticipation that hangs in the air. It may have started poorly but I got a lot out of my Ninh Binh adventure. A very full day complete with a shabby bike ride, the boat trip down the river and the new friend made. I’m famous for taking it easy on vacation. Back in Hanoi, I eat a crepe filled with pork and shrimp, adding lettuce, red leaf and mint and then dipping in a soy-based sauce. Ending the day as I begin, eating.
Lately, I’ve felt like I’m not holding up my end of the promise of “wine” in this “wandering and wine” titled blog. So I have resolved to include a steady study of Los Angeles wine bars into the curriculum. I’m willing to make that great sacrifice for you, the reader. I know; heroic. So it begins one Friday in May, I’m rolling into Tarzana to meet my friend Rrrrramon at Unwind. Time to get our wine geek on. Where is this place anyway? Tucked neatly away, inside a maze of beige stucco, next to the iHop, I find my destination. At the bar of Unwind sits Rrrrramon. He spreads his arms wide for a hug.
Let’s rap about wine bars a bit, shall we? To start, I am not talking about a restaurant with a nice wine list, I am talking about a self-proclaimed wine bar. Vino, in some form or fashion, should be present in the title. Usually, they are cozy, shadowy, a touch vintage, a bit upscale, a dash of hip, with a slice of an ex-Pat in Paris in the 1950’s vibe. The best conditions for appreciating wine include generous natural light and a white surface to gauge color. But for wine bars, these tasting room rules don’t apply. Atmosphere baby, atmosphere. Even more important than ambiance is selection. It’s the first thing I look at. I start with quantity and quality but what I find separates the men from the boys is diversity and uniqueness. If a wine bar has six reds by the glass I have to deduct a point. And if all six are earthy with muted fruit then I know what the owner likes to drink, but again, I count it against the total score. Let’s investigate Chardonnay as an example for a quick moment. I’ll let you in on a funny observation: every person in the wine industry I’ve met claims to dislike Chardonnay, except for French (all wine lovers are Anglophiles, whether they admit it or not). This means they are drawing a line in the sand against the California big buttery oaky style. The French, by contrast, is more delicate, with citrus flavors prevailing. Magically, no one in the industry likes the most popular selling wines in the US. See, even in wine geek circles, folks are always fighting to be cool and hip. Sigh. However, if you own a wine bar, I need to see several expressions of the varietal on your list, showing off Chardonnay’s amazing diversity. I believe a wine list at a wine bar should have something for everyone, even that monster who wants a glass of butter and oak. Off Chardonnay, circling back to uniqueness; if all the wines are familiar, recognizable supermarket labels, more points are deducted. And please show some creativity beyond the six noble vines (Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir, Merlot, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, and Riesling) and whatever is trendy at the moment (currently Malbec and Rose). Finally, we come to the service. Wines hold stories inside; this history of the vineyard, the conditions of the growing season and vintification, the reflection of the terroir in the flavor, the memories the flavors invokes, the progression of a glass. It’s a tall order but at the best establishments, your guide will help pair the perfect glass of wine for what you are craving and spin a tale while they do it. So simple really, we’re just looking for all of that.
Covell in Hollywood is the gold standard. I bring it up now, but I will wait till later in this survey to visit it to see if any other contenders are ready to challenge for the crown. Once I sat at their bar, decor the perfect mash of hipster Hollywood, and ex-Pat Paris and described what I wanted. Three samples were poured for me to investigate. I fell in love with a blend made by Vines on Mary Crest. I never forgot the name and once while running a half marathon in Paso, I happened upon the winery; a tiny Mom and Pop operation. The owner was pouring for us this overcast March morning. I told him about tasting his wine and Covell, loving it and never seeing it again. Vines on Mary Crest doesn’t distribute. They are too small. Like many small vintners in California, they make their living purely off their wine club and tourism. The owner from Covell drove around wine country and simply bought up cases. That’s how it wound up at the bar. That’s how I went from lounging at said bar describing what I had a taste for to going on a journey. That’s how I learned every wine at Vines at Mary Crest is named after a song because the winemaker used to be a musician. And I remember the way he opened bottles at our tasting with panache. I recently ordered wines online from Vines. Covell led me to that moment just by helping me that one day. There may have even been some cheese on hand when they did it. How great are wine bars?
Unwind has a classic, warm and welcoming feel. Formerly Peasant Wine Bistro, it’s had a recent change in ownership. Exposed brick and wood trim are illuminated by elegant, old school chandeliers watching from above. A thin, rectangular shaped restaurant, the bar runs parallel to the comfy plum colored cushioning lining the opposite wall. The energy is lively with a touch of intrigue. Unwind does a great job checking the ambiance box. The tables are all booked this Friday night. Rrrrramon and I settle in at the bar. I’m a fan of eating at the bar in general. I see more, hear more, interact with the place itself more when I do. I bounce around between saying hello to Rrrrramon, checking the Warriors vs Rockets playoff game on TV and diving into the wine list. Quick departure to say I love that this wine bar has sports playing on the TV at the bar. It feels as though they are catering to exactly me! Back to it, Unwind has a respectable list. Good, not great, in my opinion. There is a nice variety, with a mix of California local and wines of the world. I ask to try the Vouvray listed under “Worldly Whites”. Vouvray is a French wine region in Loire Valley where they make a great Chenin Blanc. If you don’t know, old world wines, easily defined by places that had kings; France, Italy, Germany, Spain, name their wines after the region of origin. Champagne, Chianti, Rioja, these are all regions, not grapes. Sangiovese is the main grape in Chianti wine, for example. In new world wines, California, Australia, Argentina, New Zealand, we name our wines after the grape. Cabernet, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, etc. Why? Cause we’re bratty teenagers I assume? The Benoit Gautier Clos La Lanterne Vouvray is an absolute delight! High acid, a touch sweet, pear, peach, lemon, and mango having a fruit party while catching the brides floral bouquet. Rrrrramon gives it a try and changes his order. I score geeky Somm points with my friend. Rrrrramon even texts me the next day asking what the name of the wine was that we drank. He made a new friend and starts his Vouvray journey. I find it really odd Unwind leaves the producer off the menu and just lists the region for imports. I asked to see the bottle. All that appears on the list is Vouvray, Cote du Rhone or Rose of Provence for examples. Worse, the bartender didn’t know the name of the producer. I did notice similar strategies last year in Paris and like I said, we’re all Anglophiles. Hmmm.
Rrrrrramon and I are starving so we split the escargot and fig and blue cheese bruschetta appetizers to start. I’m thrilled to find a partner in crime for my escargot obsession. My Grandpa Joe gifted me this love, but I often find myself the sole taker. Not this time and the friendship deepens with a new connection. My friendship with Rrrrrramon is, and has always been, a society of mutual food and drink obsession. The apps are killer. The fig and blue cheese bruschetta a masterpiece of sweet and savory flavors bouncing off each other. The escargot chewy, dripping with garlic and butter flavor. Yummy sounds abound. Armed with our glasses of Chenin Blanc, we talk about this and that. We discuss the final season of Game Thrones, Rrrrramon’s family, my job, his job, the film and television industry, ladies and mutual friends. Every so often I drift back to the TV to check on the NBA playoffs. In a strange dose of irony, none of my close friends in LA are sports fans, whereas I am obsessed. Rrrrrramon asks some really uneducated basketball questions. I fill him in on some of the drama in the matchup, guessing that’s what he’ll key into. I don’t have high hopes; he’s wearing a scarf. Rrrrramon loves scarves and I suppose I love mocking Rrrrrramon’s love of scarves. We’re very symbiotic in that way. France quickly becoming a theme of this piece, I continue my stay there for my second glass, but head to reds with the Saint-Amour Coeur de Gamay from Beaujolais. Again, we don’t get much in the way of education or instruction from our bartender. She is pleasant but hurried. I play steward for Rrrrrramon and I this night. Rrrrramon selects the Gamay as well. Clearly, I’m on fire with my selection this evening. My entree is less of a rock star than the appetizers. I try the parmesan crusted sole and herb risotto. It’s one big note of richness. Rrrrrramon seems happier with his grilled lamb chops. I eye them longingly. I do oh so enjoy the wine. Big tart cherry flavor with hints of spice. It goes down quickly. Rrrramon and I end up splitting one more glass between us. A chill invades the air. If you’ve been paying attention and think, “see it’s good Rrrrramon is wearing a scarf”, know that it doesn’t change a thing for me! I am gonna go right on shaking my head about its existence. Besides the scarf, Rrrrramon is the perfect company. It’s been way too long since I last saw my friend. Must be better about that, we both agree with future promises. Saying that a lot these days. Living for the moment, tonight we are thick as thieves. We bear our opinions and hearts perched at the bar over glasses of vino. In that respect, points won or points deducted, Unwind fulfills it’s purpose brilliantly. What else really can you ask for? Excelllent atmosphere, solid selection, great appetizers, passable service, extra credit for sports on the TV. Give Unwind a go.
And I did a terrible job with photos. But the website has some nice pictures.
February 8, 2019
It’s dusk, and I’m walking the streets of Hanoi. The first few days I was here locals apologized that so much was closed as a result of the Tet holiday. The city never felt sleepy to me. “Anyone who can will take off the first three days” I was commonly cautioned. It’s day four of Tet and true to report the already bustling Hanoi has exploded. Freshly back from Halong Bay, tears in the seams of me started to show back in the hotel room, so here I am navigating the streets. My mission: coffee and a place to read before dinner. Fleets of scooters honk and zip their way past me. There are very few sidewalks in Old Quarter Hanoi, so I am walking in the road, dodging said scooters, as well as pedestrians, litter, and pop-up food stands. It’s controlled chaos and it’s a mystery how it stays controlled. I have a particular fascination with the composition of passengers on a scooter. A family of four? A man riding with three dogs? I see them both and more. One scooter screeches to a stop right in front of me. The older man driving produces a small brown bag from his pocket and stage whispers, “Marijuana?”. My attempts to master Old Quarter Hanoi geography is failing miserably. At least I am not alone. “I’m so turned around, this place is a bloody maze!” shouts one Australian. And it is. I am walking in circles, being swallowed up by the hoard of smoke and bodies. Tonight it’s an orchestra playing a symphony of dissonant tones, street Rachmaninoff, a concert of crowds sounds pulsating with life and gasoline and odor. It’s Thursday night in Hanoi.
“That’s the best banh mi in Hanoi” said Daisy, pointing an enthusiastic finger at the street food eatery I now sit at, patiently waiting for my sandwich. Daisy, my ethereal Halong Bay tour guide told us there were three signature Vietnamese dishes we had to try, made best here in Hanoi; pho, bun cha, and banh mi. She more than cast aspersions we would not be able to find these dishes at the same elite level elsewhere in Vietnam. Ho Chi Minh City? “They make everything sweet” she said disparagingly. Earlier, I walked in circles, never found the coffee shop, the restaurant Ash & Sip recommended was closed, and then I saw this banh mi spot of legend, Thanh Hop Pho Ga. This is the one Daisy had pointed her finger out the window at just before the bus dropped me off at the hotel. When I saw it, I said fuck it to the coffee and reading plan and asked the barker for a table to get my banh mi on. By table, I do of course mean a tiny, child-sized plastic, Coca-Cola table with tiny child-size chairs set on the street. All the seating looks occupied but the barker runs across the street and sets up a new table, just for me, on a patch of open sidewalk. Thanh Hop Pho Ga just opened a second location. And it’s only just me for a second because soon they have crammed five tables at spots across the street and are running back and forth dodging speeding scooters. No shortage of honking, car exhaust, cigarettes, beggars, beers, laughter, and FaceTiming. The young locals are always FaceTiming in Vietnam. I’ve never seen the technology put to even a fraction of this use anywhere else. Of course, I order the banh mi and breaking from my traditional holy trinity of beverages (coffee, water, booze), I order a green tea soda. And we’re back to the beginning; of the paragraph at least. I’m waiting for my meal.
As a restaurant lifer, I can’t help but get lost watching the mechanics of the Hanoi street food operation. There is a distinct system in place. It goes a little something like this… it’s built to run by a three-person team. Your entree to the world, of course, the server. Can be a guy or a girl, but always young. This one server is taking every “table”. Generally, the guys are friendlier, working overtime on their devil may care attitude while being completely flustered. The ladies are more focused, attractive and aggressively unfriendly. The server also runs the food, and if they have time, helps seduce new customers. Naturally, we have our cook. Usually, this is the oldest member of the team. I’d say 60-40 female to male ratio. The best find a zone becoming practiced, precise, cooking machines. The cook is always surrounded; ingredients laid out in tubs on the left, dirty pots and rinsing station on right, (the cook is also their own dishwasher), and whatever cooking apparatus (wok, grill, etc.) resides directly in front of them. It’s like they are 80’s keyboard players surrounded by synthesizers. The song they are playing is Hanoi street food. The third and final member of the team is the bank. He/she holds the money on his/her person. They collect the money, make the change, fill in as second barker, order taker, runner, dishwasher, and new seating across the street builder as needed. Many have a seeing the whole game, manager vibe, but not all. Sometimes it’s clear the server is the boss, and at the morning pho stands, it’s always the cook who’s in charge. I think about the many health inspector visits I’ve been present for at restaurants past as I stare at food piled in plastic tubs uncovered and unrefrigerated on the street. Also, while I watch the dishes being scraped, washed and “rinsed”, in tubs on the pavement. Is it wrong I like the element of risk? Most places don’t have names. That doesn’t mean they are not memorable. They are known by their location and their dish. Some have lines and certain cooks draw crowds. The majority focus on only a few or even just one item. These setups are efficient, fast-paced, unregulated, lively, and delicious.
My banh mi arrives. The “best banh mi in Hanoi” – a baguette, two over easy eggs, pork sausages, cucumbers, cilantro, with a side of limes and chilies. Sweet baby Buddha it’s a great sandwich. Give me a beat and I’ll break it down… the spiced fattiness of the sausage, the richness of the egg, against the freshness of the cucumber, off the zest of the limes, with the earthiness of the cilantro, and heat of the chili! Some assembly required inside a brilliantly baked French baguette. The banh mi eats fresh and indulgent. I wash greedy bites down with green tea soda. A little sweeter than I expected but it’s fun drinking. I didn’t realize how hungry I was. It’s accurate to say I wolf it down. And now I dream about that banh mi. While eating I muse, “this would be really good hung over”. I debate ordering a second, but I think better of it. Being rolled down the street by her father to an alarmingly loud portable karaoke machine is a small child singing. The ear piercing volume crashes my banh mi party. Her sister talks on the phone while absentmindedly collecting money from the pedestrians. The little girl singing is belting her lungs out. It’s the unpleasant soundtrack to the end of my meal. I stop licking my fingers to wince. Then I ask for the check.
I go back to wandering Hanoi at night. I go back to drinking Tiger beer at Bia Hoi Junction. I go back to eating. With room to spare in my belly having forgone a second banh mi, I buy a red bean bun from a street vendor. You see, I was taught to eat my way through countries; traveling and discovering culture being inseparable from frantic mass food consumption. “The locusts are coming”, literally being a proud family motto from my childhood. One is buzzing around Hanoi this night in February. Down the dark, winding streets I buzz.