Thursday, March 29, 2012

Verona, Italy - The City of Eternal Love

My other two flight attendant crew members and I had a long day ahead of us, spending the day in the Renaissance city of Verona.  We knew large cappuccino’s were the order top of the morning to jumpstart us in the right direction.  Fortunately, there is a café right across the street from our layover hotel.  My visual of a large Italian cappuccino definitely did not include an American sized Hummer in a cup, which was actually dwarfed by the sugar bowl.
We ponied up the 40for roundtrip train tickets leaving Milan’s Centrale station (glorious artwork in itself) for the roughly 90 minute train ride to Verona’s Porta Nuova station.  We knew we would see the highlights: the Duomo, the Roman arena, the market in the town’s square, Juliet’s - of William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet - famed balcony.  With all the tourists and young lovers, who either swoon and pine at the feet of Juliet’s balcony, professing undying love, or have their picture taken in the tiny courtyard below rubbing the right breast of Juliet’s bronzed statue for good luck, it seemed we were going to be the odd ones out being a trio of married co-workers, on the fringe of being tourists.  Nonetheless, how could we bypass visiting Verona’s cultural Renaissance icon?  A young girl named Juliet, in love with her Romeo in 1303, when life and love were very different.
If we didn’t know the address, we would have likely missed the entrance to the Juliet sanctum.  Upon entering the small tunnel, it was obvious this was a place visited by dedicated fans the world over as every name imaginable was colorfully written on the tunnel walls, one on top of another.  But one stood out among the crowd; I just had to have my picture taken with Guiseppe’s and Irina’s heart!  Turns out, that was a hit maker as after the three of us finished having fun taking pictures with their big, white heart, there was a line forming, fingers pointing with cameras in hand, tourists ready to be part of Guiseppe’s and Irina’s love story. 
Looking up at the balcony, there was an Asian student who was relishing his 15 minutes of fame as he preened and turned, glancing down at everyone in the tiny courtyard, everyone looking back at him, wondering when he would move it along.  These tourists wanted pictures of Juliet’s balcony - and they were going to wait him out.  While all the posturing was going on, we perused the store in the courtyard that sold the padlocks lovers buy to write their names on, and lock onto the gate that rests along the back courtyard wall.  Locked in love for eternity - isn’t young love great?

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Deep in the Heart of São Paulo, Brazil

Flying in on approach into São Paulo, Brazil’s Guarulhos International Airport is like looking at a graphics chart on Bloomberg News.  Flat land for miles, and for miles tall, skinny skyscrapers punching upwards in staggering heights.  And, at the bottom, squeezed somewhere in between every possible inch, groupings of tiny red-tiled roofed houses, juxtaposed at all angles - all this before the dense concentration of skyscrapers.  In this vast sea of human dwellings, it becomes evident this is what it looks like to house 19 million citizens in South America’s largest metropolitan city, a city painfully devoid of greenery flying in on approach.
Our monolith crew bus - we could have fit three wide-body crews on this bus - pulled up to our hotel after an hour’s drive from the airport to the city’s center.  Almost every scene out of the bus window was a sterile view of cars zipping along ribbons and cross ribbons of highways.  Downtown São Paulo, and more skyscrapers.  Not as many, not as tall, but the distinct look of business.  Our crew hotel was located in the middle of the business district, with one small, but busy, outdoor café across the street, a couple of blocks off the busy Avenida Paulista, and Trianon Park.  The view from my high-rise hotel window was confirmation of why São Paulo is the engine of South America’s economy.  Sexy Rio de Janeiro and staid São Paulo.  Where’s the Brazilian passion in a city of steel and concrete? 
Our crew made reservations for dinner at one of São Paulo’s most famous restaurants, A Figueira Rubaiyat (“fig tree”, and an 11th century Persian poet, respectively).  Looking out the taxi window as we made our way down Rua Haddock Lobo in the Jardim Paulista area, life was finally revealing itself on a warm summer, Saturday night: locals walking their dogs, cafés and small restaurants spilling over with paulistanos (São Paulo’s citizens) out front, luxury stores like Louis Vuitton and Christian Dior indicating it was their customers who lived behind the beautiful, walled structures lining the residential area.
Stepping out of the taxi, looks can be deceiving as what seemed like a decent sized tree greeting us at the entrance of the restaurant was really a fruit tree of magnanimous proportions.  Swathed in a welcoming, warm, gold light, it is easy to breeze right into the open entrance and head straight for the bar area (where one of the restaurant’s rocket-fuel caipirinha’s is enough to knock you out flat) or the hostess desk, but that would be an injustice to such magnificence.  The fig tree quietly dominates from above all the patrons of the evening, feasting on butter soft steaks that are from the cattle raised on the owner’s private farm, with its sweeping extension of branches and leaves.  It was someone’s birthday this night, and the celebration under the fig tree was with balloons, song and a cake with sparklers for candles. The fig tree in its own way is a national treasure, and maybe a back door view to what the natural landscape of São Paulo was before millions of people took it over.
From the airplane, to the crew bus, to a city taxi driving deep into the heart of São Paulo, peeling back layers of South America’s largest city one segment at a time, in the midst of modern day structures of steel and concrete, survives a beautiful fig tree.  

Monday, March 5, 2012

Crawfish and Cochon - Lafayette, Louisiana

A trip home to south Louisiana is a trip to culinary utopia.  Known for its fresh seafood and delectable dishes such as gumbo, jambalaya, and étouffée, with French, Creole, Spanish, Indian and African influences, it’s a hard choice where to eat some nights.  Add with beignets, pork barbecue, and the famous Cajun Zydeco music contributing its zesty sound, the makings are there for what draws foodies to travel from the world over to relish the tastings.
Dwight’s in Lafayette, an establishment that began as a grocery store roughly twenty years ago and is now a packed restaurant most nights of the week, was my first stop.  Our party of five arrived at the early hour of 6:00 pm on Saturday night and found one spot in the parking lot, and already a one hour wait for a table.  Dwight’s defines basic, nothing fancy here, but the boiled crawfish speaks up for the austere surroundings.  In a boil and peel place like this, there is no looking for anything other than perfectly spiced “crawdad’s.”  We each put in an order for five pounds of boiled crawfish at $5.00 a pound (an excellent price), and talked and laughed in the midst of swigs of cold beer, and peeling and eating.  There is a certain rhythm and method to the process, and with a restaurant full of locals, the pace is fast and furious in an effort to get to the bottom before the cooked crawfish begin to cool.  “Nothing is sweeter tasting than early spring crawfish”, as my brother said when we all finished.
Brunch on Sunday was at Cochon (“the pig” in French).  A sister to the restaurant of the same name in New Orleans, and recently opened, with a modern decor and overlooking the Vermilion River, it was a perfect choice after a night of beer and crawfish.  Dressed up from the jeans we all wore the night before, cocktails of blood orange mimosa’s and bloody mary’s (hands down the best I have ever tasted) were the first order up.  Next, the appetizers: “boudin noir with grits, peppers & onions, sunny side up quail egg”, and “wood-fired oyster roast” which, according to Miss Julie, an elegant 83-year old local whose home where she was born is now where City Hall sits, “could have done with a little more marsh air.”  Then, to follow, grits, black pepper biscuits, and bacon (of course, in a restaurant named Cochon!) as sides, with our main courses of “grilled pork loin & poached eggs with jalapeño crawfish butter”, “corn meal crusted catfish, white bean cassoulet and herb chile rice”, and “pain perdu (“lost bread”, a French speciality) with strawberry syrup, candied pecans, Nola rum whipped cream” for something sweet to balance it all out.  

What did Dorothy say in the Wizard of Oz?  “There’s no place like home.”