Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Le Cercueil (“The Coffin”) Bar, Brussels, Belgium

Drinking beer out of skulls and setting your beer down on a glass-topped coffin with a skeleton inside. Fluorescent lights that turn white to purple and sinister bathroom doors. A small, almost obscure doorway opening to a dark, narrow hallway leading you inside - this bar was made for Halloween.  

Le Cercueil (“The Coffin”) in Brussels, Belgium has been parked on a side street off the Grand Place for eons, and it is definitely the tourist trap you read about. But, one beer couldn’t hurt, just for the experience of it all. My flight attendant friend and I ordered up some Belgian Barbãr beers - “The Warrior’s Reward” beer - which were promptly poured into skulls. Tiny place, so we made friends, some Brits out celebrating. 

The bathroom door, with a big headed, minatory skull vacantly staring back at me, made me miss the universal placard of June Cleaver (with devil horns, no less), but I did notice the pink ribbon on the hat and was pretty sure that meant the women’s restroom. I guess I wasn’t the only one confused since a woman came out of the men’s restroom as I exited the women’s, all flustered when she saw me, which just as well could be chalked up to those potent Belgian beers.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Kyoko and the Sushi Master Tokyo, Japan

When you have to make your way anywhere in downtown Tokyo, by yourself, and do not speak or read Japanese, it feels in that moment that nothing greater will ever test your independent travel mettle the same way. That was exactly my overwhelming feeling trying to find the restaurant Funibashiya, prefecture Shinjuku, downtown Tokyo.

On my way to the well-known Tsunahachi restaurant, housed in a building pre-WWII, I had my subway map, the name of the restaurant and address in Western and Japanese characters, and had to only travel two subway stops. How hard could it be? Very hard from the get go I discovered as I tried to buy my subway ticket at the machine for the Manarouchi line. Even in English, I could not find Manarouchi. As I struggled to explain this to the subway station attendant, I heard the utmost angelic voice say in flawless English, “May I help you?” I turned around to see eye for eye the absolute largest brown eyes I have ever seen in my lifetime literally inches away from me, staring straight at me. “Hmm, yes...” was all I could muster. I stumbled for a moment, looking at this creature with the saucer sized eyes framed by pigtails and realized this beautiful young Japanese girl would help me get my ticket for the Manarouchi line. Her two years of living in Toronto as a teenager was paying off for me now. 
Kyoko & me in the Tokyo subway station 

As I showed this Japanese beauty named Kyoko where I was going, she asked the station attendant to purchase my ticket for me, and since she was going the same way on the same subway line, she would make sure I got off at the right stop. I told her I was venturing out on my own for dinner, away from my crew, and going to Tsunahachi restaurant since I had read it served fantastic tempura. She offered her favorite place for tempura, a place she and her mother went to often, and had eaten at just a few days before that was near Tsunahachi. Kyoko believed Funibashiya was a better, more local, restaurant and felt sure I would enjoy it. She gave me directions, and as easy as it sounded at the time, the nano-second I exited the subway stop, I knew finding Funibashiya was going to be nothing short of a challenge. It took me asking the police, many strangers, a re-tracing of my steps, and a heavy dose of feeling overwhelmed and helpless among the shoulder-to-shoulder rush-hour crowds and neon lights flashing everywhere to find this restaurant. At one point, I just stood on the street corner, feeling utterly at a loss, thinking at least I know how to get back to the subway.

When I finally found Funibashiya, the hostess motioned for me to sit in the back room. I took one look and motioned to her I didn’t want to be relegated to the back room of tourists and the like. I wanted to sit up front, near the Sushi Master, and be a part of the Japanese crowd eating dinner. With a pause she relented, and I sat to the left of an older couple who I intently followed through dinner, doing everything they did. The Sushi Master scowled at me and made sure I knew he didn’t like having me seated anywhere near him. 
The older man watched me struggle to figure out the correct protocol for chopsticks, table seasonings, sides for my tempura, pots of broth, and hand towels. Even though this was far from my first time eating in a Japanese sushi restaurant (okay, first time in Tokyo) and I am near deft at eating with chopsticks, I have never sat at the elbow of the Sushi Master. My older gentleman friend explained to me in passable English my accompanying side dishes and sauces, saying “...and you mix here, with this (pointing to one of the sauces he had poured into my dish). I pointed to his plate and said, “But you didn’t mix yours!” which made him and his wife roar with laughter. Even the Sushi Master cracked a smile. 
When my eight piece tempura dinner of shrimp, pumpkin, onion, Chinese eggplant, mixed vegetable/shrimp, and fish, was finished, the Sushi Master motioned to me; the elderly couple next to me said, “Sushi Master say your tempura over.” I finished my Kirin beer, and as I stood up to leave, I thanked the older gentleman and his wife for their graciousness, and I thanked the Sushi Master with a slight bow and arigatou gozaimasu. This time he smiled.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Stealing Beauty from Bellagio - Varrena, Italy

Quaint and romantic, Vernna sits on a point on perennially beautiful Lake Como, across from the lovely, larger town of Bellagio, with ferries running daily in the high season to and from. Easy to enjoy, this is the perfect day trip from Milan. Varenna is a romantic, old city, which steps up the hillside it fronts, starting at the water’s edge. Less crowded, touristy, and expansive as the better known Bellagio, it’s breathtaking even more so for this reason. 
My crew members Martha, Gail and I took an afternoon train from Milan’s Centrale station for the 53 minute train ride, passing small coastal towns of Lake Como, having a picnic of Italian wine, cheeses, prosciutto, olives, with a fresh baguette. We got more than one wary glance over from the family sitting across from us. We walked along La Passerella (The Lover’s Walk), a promenade along the water bordered by cypress trees, privacy stone walls of villas overgrown with flowers and ivy, and the lushest hydrangea bushes I have ever seen, outshining those on Cape Cod, Massachusetts and the 6 foot tall bushes that grow wild all over Brittany, France. I really regretted not having my swimsuit as I watched locals swim in the water at the small rocky beach along the promenade. At least my feet went in, and if I had not had to make my way back to Milan in the same clothes, I would have dived in.

My dinner entrée at Il Molo of “creamy cheese pasta with ruccula” wasn’t exactly notable, but our waitress made up for that deficit. There were baby blue fleece blankets rolled up and off to the side available to ward off any slight evening chill. With a terrace on the water, at sunset with a slight breeze, life in that moment just didn’t get any more perfect. The day before I was home in U.S.; now I was having dinner at a small restaurant in the Lakes region, on Lake Como, near the southern base of the Swiss Alps.  

After dinner was the requisite stop in any Italian town at the gelateria for gelato, where I had menthe and limone for 1 euro. The early evening sky put on a show for us across the lake with alternating streaks and flashes of lightening, and rolling thunder. We watched and ate our gelato, with the night falling, as the lights of the town glowed golden in the reflection of the water.   

We saw only a small fraction of what is the heart of old Varenna, leaving the Villa Monastero, Piazza San Giorgio, Castello di Vezio, and the many hidden gems along the narrow steps and alleyways for another day. Having started late in the afternoon, our day was pinched; Varenna is easy to fully experience in a day with an earlier start.

Waiting at the train station (on marble benches no less) for our 9:37 pm train back to Milano, it was after 10:00 pm when a train in the opposite direction stopped in Varenna.  I asked the train conductor about the train we were waiting for, and with a shrug of her shoulders and hands up in the air, she just smiled, titled her head, and said, “Sorry, retardo” (late). She shrugged her shoulder again with another head tilt, got on her train as it pulled out of the station, and left me on the side smiling, as I was thinking, well, this is Italy after all.