Our man [formally] of Amsterdam

Closed on Monday
January 11, 2010, 20:11
Filed under: Germany

The arctic blizzards eased just enough for flights into Berlin, and when the plane finally came to a stop 50 metres from the terminal, its front wheels were buried in a pile of snow built up and left by the snow-plough as it fought full time to keep the runway clear. There was a walkway for passengers alighting planes that was carved across the tarmac but had turned to mush and ice, so you had to tread carefully all the way as the air froze your face and burnt your ears, and small children swung from the outstretched arms of their parents as they slipped and slid on the icy surface.

This is no climate for spectacle wearers as they either become streaked with sleet if outside or fog up with condensation on entering anywhere warm indoors. Laser eye surgery inquiries must rise this time of the year in this part part of the world, especially in weather like this.

The train from the airport to Berlin centrum was delayed, like many around the country that day, as were my intended rail connections heading south west, but I boarded anyway and about an hour later, with darkness approaching and temperatures plummeting, I sought refuge at a little town where I had to change trains. But the station at Lutherstadt Wittenberg was a long way from the little town and the walk was slow, treading carefully again, this time over ice or knee-deep in snow, and with a backpack weighing about 20 kilos. Found room at an inn and eventually slept contentedly with a belly full of beer, though not more than twenty.

Berlin airport, Sunday 10 January

A maximum of -5 degrees today, they say, and my hardiest shoes were hardly suitable. Wittenberg has remarkable UNESCO-listed sites, but they are all closed on Monday. So in cafes I read and write, and realise that in a week’s time I’ll be heading to Rio where the weather is a cloudy and sultry 35 degrees, the thought of which helps thaw my feet and melts the ice that’s nestled on my ‘unsuitable’ shoes, leaving a wet patch on the cafe’s wooden floor when I leave. Welcome to Germany; mind the freeze.

My big fat Greek speeding
January 9, 2010, 20:28
Filed under: Greece

The taxi driver was in his early twenties, large of build, clean cut, and a smoker. He seemed to know the hotel when I mentioned my destination in Thessaloniki, which is always a relief when arriving via the international airport in a new country or city. I pulled out the hotel booking confirmation as we sped out the exit, uttered the street name (just to be sure), and he nodded with a comforting, “Yes, it I know. Very nice. Full of lesbos.” Did he mean Lebanese or lesbians or some other semantic concoction lost in translation? All attempts at working out what he meant failed, so I leaned back and enjoyed the decrepit, dusty countryside as dusk set on the Thermaikos Gulf.

But this relaxed nature was very short lived because the road from the airport to the city is marked with 3 lanes, but we were in a ‘4th’, anywhere between the generous ‘shoulder’ alongside the guardrail and the median strip, as he weaved between cars, braking and accelerating in turn, and the whole time ensuring the speedometer never dipped below 100km/h.

“I’m in no hurry,” I said on several occasions. He spoke very loudly (so as to be heard over the blaring radio) and very quickly in response, but it was all Greek to me. Of greater concern was that he insisted on looking at me when he spoke, and without taking his foot off the accelerator. After that I didn’t say a single word. But he did; on his mobile in response to The Godfather ring tone. And he wasn’t in hands-free mode.

Both my feet were pressed hard to the floor and my knuckles were white against the peeling padded door handle. In the fading daylight I could see the red blur of banked-up brake lights way ahead, and was never so glad to see a peak hour gridlock in my life. The blood soon returned to my hands as I let go of the door handle and I took both feet off the ‘brake’. It was a peak hour crawl for the second half of the 30-minute journey, and I smiled inside, silently. Welcome to Greece; where speed seems to come easy.

See the Thessaloniki Flickr set here.

The big dump
January 6, 2010, 20:36
Filed under: Amsterdam

I entered the sub-terranean basement basketball court in the bowels of the Sports Centrum (aka the exam room) in glorious sunshine this morning, only to exit this afternoon into a postcard. The wind had dropped, the air had warmed (yes, warmed) and there was fresh snow everywhere. And it was still falling, great fluffly chunks of the stuff, and it squeaked when I walked. But oh how dangerous it was for  bicyclists as their tyres loose all traction in such conditions, with many coming to grief in a sprawling tangle of metal and rubber and loads of flying snow.

I had missed the pre-Christmas blitz of cold weather and icy canals due to the mini tour of North Africa and other parts Mediterranean, so it was kinda cool to see this today. I took the overland tram home from the exam venue instead of the much quicker underground Metro, and snapped these pics during the short walk from Centraal to my cell. Oh, and the exam wasn’t too bad either.

Tomorrow, pending a working airport, I head to northern Greece for another short tour of duty, stopping at Berlin and Braunschweig on the way back, via Albania.

Click image to see The Big Dump Flickr set.

The lore of the communal laundry
January 3, 2010, 19:53
Filed under: Amsterdam, Student

With more than 80 student tenants and only 4 washing machines, things can get a little ‘heated’ in the basement laundry, and we’re not just talking about  condensation from the 4 dryers. Having arrived home last night from the mini tour with a backpack full of soiled clothes, I was dreading the prospect of having to take several days to wash and dry more than one load.

Alas though, the place was deserted, except for the rogue panties and socks left behind in machines or dryers and pinned to the group notice board awaiting their owners’ retrieval. Strange that I felt such joy and contentment then at finding the laundry to myself, and we’ll probably not explore that point any more. Seems many kiddies are still on leave, and from a clothes cleaning perspective, that makes me happy.

But it was not always so. In the halcyon mid semester weeks of warmer weather and dirty collars from hours of late night dirty dancing, the laundry was a hot bed of frustration and delay, and into this maelstrom of liquid detergent and undergraduate detritus, something had to give way.

Which is how the laundry lore developed. I do not know if it was discussed at the body corporate or bar room level (probably the latter), but this is how it works. (Note, this only applies to washing, not drying, as some people have delicate intimates not suitable for the rough and jumble of a tumble dryer.)

You leave your clothes basket (or bag) and detergent in a queue in front of a washing machine if it is in motion. And the next day you’d go down to the basement and there would be your clothes shoved into your laundry bag awaiting collection on the bench.

There was no laundry fairy, just the poor sucker who happened to be there when the load had finished and the machine idle, for it was their ‘duty’ to empty the completed load into the supplied bag, place the contents of the next basket/bag in the queue into the machine (using the supplied detergent, which by the way, was mostly liquid, not powder, in case you were interested), and then set your own basket/bag down at the end of the queue. If you worked it right, and had an uncanny sense of avoidance, you never had to actually “do a load of washing” all semester. As for drying, well that was a free-for-all; it was every man for herself, but most ended up buying a clothes horse or drying rack anyway.

Join the queue

However, this lore does not work for people who may object to handling other people’s dirty laundry, but it seems many tenants had no such qualms. For those more sensitive types, you either had to wait for a machine with no queue (which could take weeks) or head to the laundromat on Haarlemmerstraat, which was quite expensive.

I mentioned this lore to some more ‘adult’ friends here in Amsterdam, who lived in apartments with their own washing machines, and they seemed quite impressed that a system of shared responsibility had evolved to solve a potentially heated situation. Someone even suggested the lore might be used to address climate change, but I don’t think it has much application beyond our humble but crowded basement laundry, but you never know.

Bonne Annee, Paris, 2009/10
January 2, 2010, 16:39
Filed under: Paris

Click the image to see Flickr set from Paris New Year's Eve and Day.

On the rails
December 30, 2009, 19:55
Filed under: Switzerland

I got on a Swiss train in Milan and didn’t want to get off in Lausanne. They are the best trains on the Continent;  always on time and spotlessly clean. In first class there are ceiling mounted screens displaying DVDs as well as GPS tracking shots of where you are in the journey (filmed somehow like Google street view, but from an elevated position above the front engine). However, the filming took place in summer, and outside my window was a blanket of snow.

I think I want to buy an unlimited 1-month first class pass and live on board permanently. I’ll need to join the gold member loyalty program to take advantage of the exclusive lounges and showers in the main stations whenever I decide to change trains.

In the dining saloon, the gourmet menu (in 4 languages) is matched by the impeccable service (in four languages also). I shared a table and 2 bottles of Chianti with an elderly German couple and a Swiss woman returning home to Geneva after Christmas in the Italian Alps. Silvio the steward insisted we all have Swiss nougat with coffee. “Oui, ya and yes,” we all said.

Each upcoming stop was not only documented beautifully on screen but the sexy voice on the intercom (in four languages) alerted you to the fact too; she even added a happy New Year flourish to finish. Nice!

The seats are plush and roomy and each has a reading light that works. The digital indicator has the number and your name displayed. Seriously! There is ample space for luggage, unlike the deplorably deficient storage area of the cross-channel Eurostar. There is a person employed to regularly monitor and upkeep the toilets. Some carriages have lounges and banquettes with little coffee tables for you to kick back in with the supplied library of magazines and newspapers, and where the steward will take your drink order and bring delicious bar snacks and about the only thing you have to do is decide between a Negroni or a Campari.

I got on a Swiss train in Milan and didn’t want to get off in Lausanne.

The view from seat 66A, crossing the Alps.

Nespresso with George
December 27, 2009, 22:28
Filed under: Italy

We came down from the mountain through the forest, while the light was all right, and there was much snow still on the ground, which squeaked loudly under our feet. It was warmer among the trees than up high when exposed to the wind on the ridge, and pine branches drooped under the weight of melting icicles, drip, drip, drip.

When we came down the mountain to the lake, the boat was approaching the wharf and the honey-hued villas on the eastern shore near Bellagio shone golden in the late afternoon sun, but now the wind was much stronger on the water, and  it was colder than Antarctica when we finally berthed at Como’s Piazza. I’ve checked into heaven; catch you later.

Lake Como Fickr set

Click image to see Lake Como Flickr set

Bistecca alla fiorentina
December 26, 2009, 00:13
Filed under: Italy

[Warning: vegetarians may want to avoid reading this post.]

By what criteria can you say a restaurant is your favourite? Does it have to outlast fashion while being consistent over a long period time? Or can you just like a place because it regularly ticks your boxes in what it means to thoroughly enjoy a dining experience, and that you can confidently recommend to friends? If so, then by both these counts, I have a favourite restaurant in Florence. How do you say that without appearing pretentious? All I know is that this rustica cucina simply does really simple food really well all the time.

I came upon it almost 20 years ago when making weekly day trips to Florence from the hotel I was then managing in the hills outside Lucca (about an hour’s drive away on a good day), where to supplement a meagre wage as il capo de albergo, I offered chauffeur services to guests, piling them into the hotel’s mini van and depositing them near Florence’s main train station mid morning, with the promise of a late afternoon pickup to get us back in time for pre-dinner aperitifs on the hotel’s terrace.

So, with many hours to kill on each such trip each week, I’d roam the hills and highways, the lanes and alley ways in and around Florence, and it was on one such wander that I discovered what has become my favourite restaurant, and not just in Tuscany but likely in all of Italy. And now guidebooks have mentioned it too I see, so getting a table at short notice is a near impossibility.

I knew it would be closed today, being Christmas and all, but still I couldn’t help gravitating towards it; turn right at Ferragamo’s headquarters (if coming from the Ponte Vecchio along he river), left at Tiffany & Co, then along a narrow street without footpaths, and then right just past the arch at Il Bisonte, there, on the corner of Via Purgatoria. The rusty metal shutters were pulled down, but not all the way on one window because the track was bent, probably from a long-ago burglary attempt. A hand written note said ‘Chuiso‘ until 7 January, and still no signage, no nameplate, no product branding, no indication of the terrific no-frills trattoria that lies behind the stone and peeling stucco facade, except for the small glass-enclosed menu board inside a black metal frame attached to the wall that looks like a council warning notice for eviction or ‘not safe for habitation’, because the curling sheet of paper inside is type written and faded. “No coffee, no credit cards,” it stills says. (The latter was added in pen probably because credit cards weren’t around when the menu was originally typed.)

The best little restaurant in Italy, but you'd never know even when it is open

So with a whiff of nostalgia I continue ambling in the light afternoon rain; Piazza de Bellesguardo – way over and high up in the Oltrarno hills – my only priority. After that, it was time to eat, and there were many options too, with most offering a fixed menu. Near Pallazzo Pitti, between Via Guiccardini and Via Romana, a cafe caught my eye; it was full of Tuscan families, not American or Japanese tourists, and the menu had the meat option (at a hefty public holiday premium) I’d come to Florence ostensibly for. Couldn’t see a spare seat but went in anyway, and an elderly woman (dining, I assume, with her younger lover) occupying a large space on a luxurious banquette kindly moved her thick fur coat and Hermes Birkin bag to make room for my battered leather jacket and Oakley day pack.

“Grazie senora.”
“Prego,” she said.

Having selected the three courses upfront and this being Christmas, I ordered a glass of Brunello di Montelcino (for mine, the Grange Hermitage of Chiantis), and the waiter said, “Perfecto”.

The penne Siciliana soon followed, as did my second glass of Brunello. The pasta starter was my first solid food for the day having only consumed 2 espressos and a litre of water to this point; all part of the fasting plan needed to accommodate the secondo piatto of the set menu – bistecca alla fiorentina. To call this a mere T-bone steak is blasphemous, especially on this day, or any day for that matter; it’s like saying Ferraris or Maseratis are just cars.

This legendary hunk of beef starts life as a beautiful cream-coloured Chianina cow that grazes on hay mixed with the chaff of organic olive tree off-cuts after the virgin pressing, and rosemary and sage grasses to give the meat an incomparable flavour (OK, I made that last bit up about the sage; it’s actually oregano). Once butchered, the loin must hang for at least 10 days; some restaurants even state on the menu the exact age, and charge accordingly, with 40 days being top euro and top of the tender scale. The 4-5cm slab (that’s the standard cut) should only be cooked the Tuscan way, meaning medium-rare, with even a hint of blue on the inside, and at the right grill temperature so as not to nuke the outside. No salt, no oil during cooking. It could feed 2 people comfortably, maybe 3, but that’s the way it is. Don’t even dare to ask for a half portion; you’ll be laughed out of the restaurant. When it arrives at your table you just stare, thinking ‘how on earth can I eat all of this?’ And most times you do; that’s just the way it is.

Outside the windows, tourists come and go, looking for Michelangelo.

Didn’t need the pasta, but you plough on with the meat trying not to think of the effect on your credit card limit or upcoming bowel movement. It’s Christmas, and isn’t that the time to overindulge and overspend?

The elderly woman next to me sees the struggle but utters words of Tuscan encouragement, like; “come on, you can do it; only 400 grams to go.” She smiles when I eventually place my cutlery together signifying victory. “You must have traditional Italian Christmas dessert,” she insists soon after. “Panatone with chocolate sauce.” Every entreaty at refusal is meet with such insistence that I give up the resistance, take one forkful and leave it at that, but not before sampling a divine dessert wine, gratis from the pretty waitress. Later, I get the bill, almost faint at the price of the meat, and sign on the dotted line, too fearful to look at the final total (service was included).

Just one more spoonful or two; struggling with the panatone and chocolate sauce, but not the delicious dessert wine.

Completo: can I get the panatone with chocolate sauce to go?

But walking was uncomfortable, as was breathing. On the way to the station to get the last train back to Orvieto, I detour to Piazza della Signoria, for old time’s sake. Eighteen months earlier, Anita and I spent a few days here. It was the middle of summer, sweltering. She sought a gelato at a very crowded gelateria right on the Piazza. For some reason I declined and waited outside under an awning.  A while later I hear my name being called with some urgency. It’s Anita, in need of more money. “Scusi?” I query, “you’ve got all the change. That should be heaps.”

“It’s not,” she pleads. “Give me ten euros please.”
I do. She exits with a single cono and double scoop. Standard fare. “How much was that?”
“Fourteen euros.”
“What the %^*#?” A quick conversion meant it cost more than $20. I laughed. “Did it not occur to you that that might be a little overpriced?”
“She’d already scooped it in to the cone and it was in my hand before I could pay or do anything.”
“That’s a $20 plus gelato,” I reiterated. “And that drop that just dripped on your white t-shirt probably cost 50 cents. Better hurry up and eat it.”

Even today, with a stomach about to burst, I still chuckle when thinking of what’s become known as the ‘gelato incident’. I round the corner of Via Vacchereccia into Piazza della Signoria, and sure enough, Bar Perseo is open, and packed with punters. I wander over, curious to see what the prices might still be; 12 euros as far as I could tell. For a fleeting second I’m tempted to order a cono with a single scoop of pistachio, but sanity prevails and I move on down Via del Calziuoli.  As the Christmas lights shine and carols ring out from a church nearby, I smile again at our gelato memory, and for the first time in many months, feel a little bit – just a teensy little bit – lonely at the memory.

Bar Perseo, crime scene of the 'gelato incident'

Bar Perseo - crime scene of the 'gelato incident'

Buon Natale, 2009.

When in Rome …
December 24, 2009, 19:12
Filed under: Italy

It’s Christmas Eve and Rome’s central station is a battle field of frantic frustrated people trying to get somewhere, of crying kids and parents weighed down by too many presents. Trenitalia is still trying to clear the backlog of passengers from the fierce snowstorms earlier in the week. The first train I could get to Orvieto – after travelling 14-hours overnight from Sicily –  leaves in four hours, so when in Rome, go in search of a church for some spiritual refreshment.

Fortunately, you never have to go far in the Eternal City for that. Within 15 minutes of the station, is Basilica di San Pietro in Vincoli. It’s been on my list before, but I never got there. It’s famous for 2 things: containing the actual chains that bound St Peter when he was imprisoned in the Carcere Mamatino (underground prison); and Michelangelo’s colossal tomb of Pope Julius II.

The place is deserted (they’re all at the station). This is the time to tour the sites for there are no queues to wait in or crowds to jostle. Can you have gelato before midday? I opt for a prosciutto panini instead. Elsewhere, there’s a gladiator in full regalia lurking near the Forum who’s talking on his mobile. Weird juxtaposition; a vision of Rusty Crowe throwing a phone comes to mind, but I can’t say why. Three beggars accost me on the way back to the station. I give to the first, as is my principle, and none thereafter for the rest of the day.

Later, in Orvieto, investigate Christmas dining options. Not many, but some. Midnight mass in the Duomo to come. See picture. It’s trying hard to snow, but for now it’s just wind and sleet, and glasses of vino rosso to warm the festive spirits.

Front facade; project to build began in 1290, took 300 years to complete.  A mish-mash of style that somehow seems to work.

Buon Natale e un Nuovo Anno felice.

Take me to your Godfather
December 22, 2009, 21:08
Filed under: Italy

I’m not sure what the track record of the Sicilian rail network is like but the central station in Palermo has a fully-fledged chapel. It’s right beside the ticketing counter in the main lobby. This can be looked at in one of two ways; either travellers feel the need for prayer before embarking in the hope of arriving safely, or they can give thanks on completing a successful journey.

This is just one of many surprises encountered during my 36 hours here. The first is the cold, and I left my thermal gear in Amsterdam thinking it wouldn’t be needed this  far south. The town feels a bit unkept, grungy, even ‘unshaven’, but it oozes a character and charisma quite different from its more illustrious urban counterparts on the mainland. It seems you have to really look for the historical gems, the architectural treasures, the piazzas, for they are hidden or tucked away, not like the in-your-face monuments of Rome or Florence.

Grand architecture and garbage piles, side by side

And in Palermo, these testaments to Greek or Roman or Phoenician or Spanish or Arab or Norman occupation are just as likely to have washing hanging off the portico or rubbish piled beside a 2000-year old Corinthian column. This nonchalance is refreshing in a weird way. So is the freezing cold air moving swiftly from snow somewhere. Perfect timing if a White Christmas is want you want.

Via Maqueda is closed to traffic but very open to pedestrians. Lights are strung up between buildings, shops trade, people buy, bands march, Santa arrives and children cry. I defer lunch; well actually, it was two cannoli and an espresso machhiato. Dinner is seafood risotto, plus what seems like an entire loaf of sourdough and a half bottle of vino rosso de cassa.  Supper is a pistachio biscotti and grappa.

Back at the hotel, the security door, “locked after midnight”, won’t open, and I do my best to convince the night manager through the intercom that I’m a legitimate guest and that the door seems to be jammed. She bellows instructions but to no avail. My fingers are numb and I can’t tell if I’m pressing the speaker button properly for her to hear me. After that, she comes down the two floors to the street to let me in and all the way back up the stairs she is talking very vigorously and passionately in her native tongue, though I’m guessing it wasn’t about Aussie Marco Bresciano’s starring role that afternoon for Palermo in their stirring win against Siena. Welcome to Palermo; mind the weather.

See Sicilian photo set on Flickr here.