Beer List for 2012 Travels

Here are the beverages I enjoyed during my 2012 trip.

They're listed as “Beer Name (Brewery) ABV%”.


Oktoberfest Bier (Augustiner) 6.0%

Oktoberfest Bier (Paulaner) 6.0%

Oktoberfest Bier (Spaten) 6.0%


Le Guillotine (Huyghe) 8.6% – Belgian strong pale ale

Blond 6 (Maredsous) 6.0% – Belgian ale


Mad Goose (Purity) 4.2% – Light copper pale ale

Gales Seafarer's Ale (Fullers) 4.5% – IPA

Squirrels Delight (Oakleaf) 4.5% – Bitter

Ginger Doodle Stout (Binghams) 5.0% – Dark stout

Headlock (W. Berkshire) 4.1% – Amber ale

Good Old Boy (W. Berkshire) 4.0% – Ordinary bitter

Notting Hill Amber (Moncada) 4.7% – Amber bitter

Old Peculiar (Theakston) 4.8% – Old dark ale

Ghost Ship (Adnams) 4.5% – Golden ale, with U.S. hops

Oxford Gold (Brakspear) 4.8% – Mild pale ale

Amber Ale (Market Porter) 4.2% – House pale ale

Old Speckled Hen (Moreland) 4.5% – Pale ale

Hobgoblin (Wychwood) 5.2% – Extra Special Bitter

The Borough Market and Heading Home

I meant to comment ealier on my EuroStar ride from Paris to London. It remains a wonderful trip, clearly superior to the same journey by plane, if a little more expensive. The idea of passing under the English Channel has lost its excitement after so many trips, I'll admit (it's 25 minutes of blackness), but the whole experience is just more civilized than flying. Yes, you do have to schlep your own bag on and off the train, but that's a small price to pay for luxurious personal space, comfortable seating, and great views out the window. I travel “Standard Premiere” class, which is only a bit more than economy but not as astronomic as Business Premiere. There have been noticeable changes in service over the years: the included hot lunch choices became one choice, then a cold lunch, then smaller. But I've noticed this in a lot of places, a sign of the economic times no doubt. At least the wine is still plentiful and free.

My last day in London, I headed off to the Borough Market, which has been around in one form or another since the 1200s. It's a wholesale and retail food and flower market, in Southwark, beneath the southern end of the London Bridge. It features dozens of stalls and shops with a wide variety of foods, groceries, and flowers. I'm partial to a place there that sells take-away organic chicken wraps, with sweet chili sauce and parsely. Very tasty and easy to eat while strolling around.

This is also the home of The Market Porter, a nice old pub with a great selection of cask ales. Naturally, I had to sample several of them. The Porter is also frequented by the people who work those market stalls and it's fun to eavesdrop on their accents and concerns.

Across from the Market Porter, is Neal's Yard Dairy, with its racks and racks of full-sized cheese rounds and fresh dairy products. And, oh yes, free samples. If you like English dairy, this is The Place to visit. It's a shame U.S. Customs won't let me bring home a huge hunk of Neal's great cheese. When you go to the market, don't miss this dairy outlet.

My final stop in the area was The George Inn, now owned by the National Trust, and “England's only remaining 16th Century coaching pub”. The National Trust plaque outside says that both Shakespeare (the Globe Theatre is not far away) and Dickens patronized this pub.

That was good enough to get me to stop in and have a pint of Old Speckled Hen. It was fun to squint my eyes and imagine a drunken Will Shakespeare staggering out on these cobblestones. Although probably very little of what I coud readily see dates from that era. It was a good pint, nonetheless.

By the way, I've mentioned Hilary Mantel and her prize winning book Bring Up the Bodies in two other posts. Well, to top it off, she got on the elevator with me this afternoon at my hotel. We had a brief conversation and I congratulated her and let her know I was looking forward to her next book. What are the chances of such an encounter? Loved it.

This morning it's back into the arms of Virgin-Atlantic at Heathrow for my flight home. I've had a good trip overall and Oktoberfest in particular was fantastic. I'll add a post after this one that catalogs all the different beers I enjoyed. Thanks for joining me and I look forward to being home again. Until the next time I dust off my passport, safe journeys.

Shakespeare and the Room Safe

Today was my day for visiting the British Museum, which is always a treat. They have a great permanent collection, of course, and many special exhibitions. I had a ticket for one these, Shakespeare: Staging The World. As usual, the exhibition is in the upper floor of the circular, domed structure, The Reading Room, which is in the middle of the museum's interior courtyard.

The curators basically wanted to show Shakespeare's works and life in the context of the events going on around him, and they did a very good job of it. For example, there were interesting timelines of the production of his plays plotted against political and historical events. I was also reminded that he cleverly presented situations, and put words into the mouths of ancient Roman and more contemporary Venetian characters, on stage, that would have been deemed treasonous if presented and said by any real person in England at the time. Yes, there's another tie-in with Venice! During Shakespeare's time, Venice was apparently mythologized by the English as a kind of Las Vegas, i.e. Sin City, and setting plays there allowed the audience to enjoy the licentiousness vicariously.

Of course, the exhibition included artifacts, documents, and other related physical “stuff”, and also numerous videos of well-known modern actors reading various speeches from the plays. All in all, it was well done, and a very entertaining and illuminating exhibition.

I also visited two pubs in the area (The Museum Tavern and The Plough) and got to enjoy some cask ales that I'd not had before. You know, the staff at these pubs are just downright nice. It's really a pleasant experience to go there (and not just because of the alcohol). England is experiencing a real loss of traditional pubs – up to 25 per week are closing – and it's a shame. Oddly enough, I was told that the traditional ale that I like is actually outselling the Stella and other lagers that appeal more to the youth market these days.

Now here's an interesting travel topic: the in-room safe. During this trip, I've stayed at one hotel with a very secure and securely installed safe (Munich), one hotel with no safe at all (Venice), one hotel with a safe that was not bolted down in any way (Paris), and one with a bolted down safe that was plastered with “Hotel accepts no responsibility” stickers. Now, I've never had the misfortune of having anything stolen from my room (knock on wood) but I am security conscious. The safe that wasn't bolted down seem pretty silly; I mean, why bother?

When faced with no safe or a silly safe, I just put things in my luggage and lock it. Sure, a thief could just slit the luggage, but I suppose it's at least “out of sight, out of mind”.

Who comes in your room any way? Well… there's the maid, of course, and on this trip, at one hotel that was being renovated, two “electricians” with a master door key card showed up while I was in my room (they knocked), and here in the Hilton, workmen came by during the day and replaced several pictures on the wall (I saw their cart and room list – with my room at the top – in the hall as I left), so it's not “nobody”. I do wonder that a hotel that provides a safe can then go on to say they have no responsibility!? So what do they think is the purpose of the safe they paid good money for – is it just a central place to collect your valuables in order to make it more convenient for a thief? Sure, customers travelling with the Hope Diamond should not trust the room safe; but what about me and my iPhone, iPad, and $200? It's just one of those little travel conundrums, I guess.

Well, time for some sleep now. Tomorrow we visit the Borough Market, located under the south end of London Bridge. Do join me!

The Common Cold, A Visit To Reading, and WiFi

My arrival in London coincided with the onset of a massive head cold, so my activities have slowed a bit. Luckily, British pharmacies have all the usual OTC cold symptom relievers and so one of my first stops was my local Boots for the necessaries.

One consequence of this was that I cancelled my trip out to Oxford yesterday, in favor of more sleep and a slow start to the day over breakfast in the Executive Lounge. A major benefit of being a Hilton Honors Gold Member (thank you for the tip, Nancy and Ingrid) is access to this lounge, where they also serve lunch, tea, and dinner, gratis. I did get out to Reading, my ex-pat home in 2008, in time for lunch with Mike Mather, the first person we hired for my company's UK office (since moved on) and a good friend.

It was fun to see Mike and he was full of interesting stories about the recent London Olympics, for which he was one of the “Gamesmakers” volunteers. This gave him behind-the-scenes access and a supply of good anecdotes to share.

We had an enjoyable lunch at O'Neill's in Reading over a pint of Guinness. I spent a bit of time after lunch visiting some old haunts and checking out the Christmas stuff (already on display) at the John Lewis department store. I then settled in at The Ale House (formerly The Hobgoblin) pub and started sampling their range of guest ales. A “free house” unaligned with any specific brewery, they've hosted 6200+ different ales, so far; though I limited myself to six (half pints) yesterday.

There I was, on my bar stool, looking over the thousands of beer pump badges stuck to the walls and ceiling, when I spotted a Virginia Tech pennant pinned to the wall behind the cash register! Several of my good friends are Tech alums and, apparently, one of the original owners of the pub years ago had spent a year studying abroad at Tech. It's fun to stumble over things like that when you're out and about in the world. Here's another example: this is a picture of a bar I passed in Oxford last year. In case you don't know, “Wahoo” is the nickname for University of Virginia (my alma mater) students. This bar's web site says it provides the finest “Disco, Soul, and Motown” music. Sounds a bit 1980s to me, but, well, the Virginia influence runs far and wide, I guess.

I've been asked to comment on the availability of WiFi during my travels. In short, It has been variable.

In Munich, the hotel provided connectivity in my room and I was given a password to use when making the connection; re-connecting on different days was a snap. In Venice, it was the same, however, connectivity was only available in the lobby lounge. In Paris, it was available in my room but after connecting I was directed through some 3rd-party provider (web page login required, along with submission of personal info, like email) for service, resulting in tons of spam. Here in London, it's barely available in my room (I had to hunt to find the 3' x 3' area on one side of the room where there's any signal at all) with a 3rd-party login page but no personal info required and no spam.

I have had, in most but not all places, a decent cellular signal as well (but, of course, that is the uber expensive way to go, even with an international data plan in place). So, while the number of people carrying mobile devices has skyrocketed, WiFi availability is still inconistent and sometimes frustrating, regardless of what the hotel advertising says.

I mentioned earlier that I'd just finished reading Bring Up The Bodies by Hilary Mantel while on this trip, and within a day or two they announced that she'd won the prestigious 2012 Man Booker Prize for Contemporary Fiction for it! This was her second Man Booker win, also an unusual occurence, and the first double for a woman author. This book is the middle volume in a trilogy (Wolf Hall is volume #1), and if you're a fan of the television show The Tudors, you'll like these books. I am now looking forward to #3 appearing in the next year or so.

Tonight , I'm off to see War Horse at the New London Theatre (head cold and energy levels permitting) and then tomorrow a special treat: the Borough Market, beneath the south end of London Bridge. See you tomorrow!

The Eiffel Tower

For my final day in Paris, I rushed around a bit, starting with a visit to that Parisian landmark, Le Tour Eiffel. It was a beautiful day and the tower stood out against a nice blue sky. After all these years, I finally discovered that the #82 bus, with a stop right across from my hotel, goes directly to the tower. Until now, I'd been taking a circuitous RER & Metro route.

Upon arrival I was surprised to see a number of non-Eiffel vertical trusses rising from the ground beneath the tower, up into the tower's first floor opening, supporting a platform up there. Turns out the first floor is being renovated and I was looking at a large, temporary, construction freight elevator. The base of this takes up a large, fenced-off area right in the middle of things on the ground and so the lines for tickets and the elevators go a new every which way (as opposed to usual every which way). I read that one consequence of this work is that there are longer delays to get up to the second floor because those elevators are affected.

Bidding Mr. Eiffel's masterpiece goodbye, I took the Metro and got myself over to the Louvre for lunch and a bit o' art gazing. Crowds were thin, no lines, and I had a nice leisurely experience in the galleries. Even the chow line in the Carousel du Louvre shopping mall was quick. I did stop in the Apple store and wasn't surprised to see that it is just like every other Apple store. They do have free WiFi, which is handy.

After enough communing with art and high tech, I hopped the #27 bus back to Luxembourg Gardens and spent an hour sitting there, people-watching and mentally dozing, until approaching rain chased me over to Le Cafe Soufflot. There I had a few glasses of some nice reds to go along with a cheese plate and called that dinner.

Packing up tonight in preparation for the EuroStar ride under the English Channel tomorrow. Paris is not to be missed and I've certainly enjoyed getting my annual dose for many years. Now on to England.

Of Movies and La Guillotine

Another fine day of cold rain in Paris, the so-called City of Light. It's Sunday, and what with this weather, the natives and tourists alike are hunkered down. I idled the morning away reading Bring Up The Bodies, the latest Hilary Mantel novel about Henry the Eighth and the Tudors (an excellent read, by the way).

To counter-balance all that English history, I hopped the rails to Montparnasse to catch a noon showing of Taken 2, with Liam Neeson. The last time I went to a film in Paris was so long ago that smoking was still allowed in the auditorium and salesgirls circulated up and down the aisles selling Marlboro's and candy. There are a surprising number of American films shown here with the original dialog and French subtitles, which can make for a fun French lesson.

No salesgirls this time, though, nor any smoking. About 200 seats, and no house lights, either. Before the obligatory 15-minutes of commercials and previews, a bright white line shines on the entire movie screen and the “bounce” from that serves as enough light to see yourself into a seat. Good luck, though, if you drop anything. No ushers or staff in evidence. The seats were a bit unusual: they folded up as ours do, but the seat cushion was so long that, when folded up on either side of you, they actually constrain your arm movement. Squeaky, too. The movie's a sequel, filled with the predictable tough guy posturing, absurd events, and plenty o' violence; I give it a C+. Suitable diverson if you want to put your mind on hold for few hours. Not for kids, of course.

Incidentally, I was surprised to see that the Montparnasse area I was in was home to eight multi-screen cinemas (maybe more), all within blocks of each other. No fear of competition, I guess, and a totally different retail location strategy than that used in the States.

Switching now from one Mont- to another, I've inserted a couple of photos here, from yesterday's hike around Montmartre. It's not too much to look at now, but Au Lapin Agile (The Nimble Rabbit) is a famous Montmartre cabaret. At the turn of the 20th century, it was a hangout for artists and writers, including Piccaso, Modigliani, and Urillo. It was also popular with pimps, eccentrics, down-and-outers, local anarchists, students, and the occasional slumming bourgeois. I've never been, but the tables inside are said to have decades of intials, some famous, carved in them.

Across the street from it is one of those pocket vineyards I mentioned earlier. This one belongs to Le Chat Noir (The Black Cat) winery and had in its midst a neat hut of woven, red vine leaves. No entry as allowed, so I couldn't say what the significance, if any, was. Perhaps that's where they hawk logo'd tee shirts and cork screws when the place is open? Tap or click any photo to see a larger image.

I guess these pictures give you an idea, at least, of how gray it's been for the last two days. Seems like it's been a colder, wetter trip so far than in previous years.

During breakfast at Le Circle this morning, over my croissant and tea, I watched people passing by in the rain. It was raining, not drizzling, but 50% of everyone passing had no umbrella. Now, umbrellas are available for sale, especially when it's been raining, at the door of almost every shop and even the street hustlers are standing at Metro exits selling them.

This lack of interest in staying dry seemed to range across class, nationality, and gender. There were even couples out there, with her under an umbrella and her manly man braving it without one (though he could have been under the umbrella with her). Is it a City Person thing? Poor control of personal belongings? Laziness? I find it to be extraordinary behavior.

For a late lunch, I took the Metro and RER back to the Luxembourg Gardens and went to the nearby La Gueuze pub. This warm and welcoming place has a nice staff that handles everyone, including rowdy students and clueless tourists, with aplomb. I had poulet roti pommes frites (roast chicken with fries), which was also warm and welcome, and two pints of… La Guillotine, a Belgian strong pale ale, coming in around 8.5% ABV.

I was hoping for some Maredsous, another Belgian, but they rotate their feature drafts and so I was introduced to the “decapitator”, as the waiter called it. Well, it was tasty and smooth, really didn't seem that strong, and I didn't loose my head over it. Given the locale, the name just seems funny.

With lunch finished, before retiring to my hotel to hit the keyboard, I stopped by the Amaroni shop and made a final salute to Venice by having a small gelati cone. Let's see what tomorrow, my final day in Paris, brings.


No Wine But Plenty of Vegetables

So, a rainy Saturday morning in Paris. After a light breakfast at the local Cafe Richard's, I set out for Montmartre for the Fete des Vendanges, the big party celebrating the year’s grape harvest. It's said that wine from local vineyards flows freely at this annual festival and the streets fill up with stalls serving food and wine, and locals put on concerts and lots of other festive activities. That's what's said.

Montmartre is high on the hills of northern Paris, and still has vineyards tucked away in odd places. Vintner groups arrive at the festival in colorful robes and uniforms, as shown in the stock photo at left. Straw hats are especially popular.

Sadly, when I got there, I found only a lot of wet, cold, unfestive-looking people. At the local city hall, the start of the parade had been delayed for several hours and the dignitaries stood about in their soggy sashes and top hats, with their speeches undelivered as yet.

Even armed with a fete map, I couldn't find a food or wine tasting stall anywhere and I walked, umbrella up, all around the area. Which is saying something, as Montmartre is a warren of streets, very hilly, and sports several stairs that make Georgetown's Exorcist steps look easy. It was a hike! There were plenty of tourists, cafes, etc. but of wine tasting stalls there were none. I'm sure they were there somewhere but the dumb, wet American couldn't find them, not even with map! I find this sort of arty event organization, with stuff spread out, not unusual in Europe, and the language barrier (no English version of the map and program was available) makes figuring it all out a real challenge.

Tap or click for larger image

So, wet, thirsty, and tired of dueling with passersby over umbrella clearances, I finally jumped into the Metro and headed to Printemps, a giant deparment store on Boulevard Haussmann, for lunch at Le Brasserie, under their huge art nouveau stained glass dome. I've had many memorable lunches here and was hoping for another but that was not to be the case today. What was listed in the menu as “pasta with sauteed vegetables” (making me think some kind of pasta primavera) was indeed just what it said: a small dish of plain pasta accompanying a huge bowl of sauteed snow peas, green beans, and leeks. Enough to qualify as the side dishes for six or eight main meals, I guessed. I did my best with this green avalanche but my heart wasn't in it.

If there's an economic crisis in France, you couldn't tell it by the hordes of shoppers in Printemps (which is not an inexpensive place) and diners in Le Brasserie. Indeed, the line to get into some kind of high-end Louis Vuitton event they were holding wound through the store.

I passed by the Louvre (yep, still there) on the #27 bus on the way back to the hotel. There was a pretty good line, even in the rain, to get in. Now back at the Elysa Lux, In the time it's taken me to write this, the rain has let up and there are even patches of blue appearing through the gray up above. This encourages me to get out tonight and check out an intriguing sounding place called Brewberry. More later.

In Lovely Paris

I've arrived safely in Paris and am installed at the Elysa Luxembourg Hotel in the 5th Arrondissement (aka The Latin Quarter), near the Sorbonne university. All the sticky parts of my multi-mode travel today (boat-plane-train) went amazingly smoothly and left me with the illusion that I really know what I'm doing after all these years of travelling.

The flight from Venice to Paris was short (about an hour) and a lot of it was taken up by the poor flight attendants having to repeat every one of those standard take-off, in-flight, and landing announcements four times: in French, Italian, Spanish, and English. And flawlessly, too. You have to marvel at it.

After checking in and unpacking, I went right over to my favorite nearby place, Cafe Soufflot. This is a nice, genuine French cafe, that caters to college kids, their professors, other locals, and tourists alike. The manager, Serge, was wearing one of his standard outrageous dress shirt and matching tie combos (mauve today), and greeted me warmly after taking a moment to place me. The wine, cheese (the stinkier, the better), and bread soon came forth, to my hungry delight. I found myself switching pretty easily into French and getting with the flow of the conversation, which always makes me feel pretty good. A very pleasant early evening, indeed.

Although, after a while I made the mistake of asking Serge what he thought of France's new President, Francois Hollande. This brought forth a torrent of French, of which I was only able to catch every fourth word or so, but the general tone conveyed the negative gist. Serge: not a fan. What was I thinking?! Everyone knows that, in France, you never mix cheese and politics.

My plans for the next three days are up in the air now. My Parisian friends, Phil and Marti Demetrion, are on their own U.S. tour right now and so I will not see them this trip. In addition, the forecast is for a lot of rain, which is at odds with my plans, which usually involve a lot of walking. Well, we see what tomorrow brings. In the meantime, a tout alors my friends.


Venice Finale

Last night I saw the terrific Virtuosi di Venzia performance (stock photo at left): an eight-person chamber orchestra, supporting a tenor and a soprano as they sang a dozen arias from Vivaldi, Handel, Puccini, and Verdi. All performed in a de-comissioned, 15th Century, private chapel (capacity: 180). Last time I saw this, I sat dead center in the front row, with the singers just 10 feet from me; last night I sat in the last row (still only 100 feet away), and it made no difference: the acoustics were wonderful and the singing amazing. After a performance like this you understand why people cry at operas. The bonus is that this performance costs about 10% of a ticket to the La Fenice Opera House down the street, from which the moon-lighting musicians and singers originate.

The sun has returned today, my last day in Venice, and I spent the morning hanging around the Rialto Bridge, scoping out Christmas presents, downing a capuccino, and taking in the watercraft rodeo around the bridge in the central canal. It's a quintessential view of Venice and amazing that there are no boat collisions.

At lunchtime, I made my way back to the Taverna Campiello Remer (which, it turns out, is closed on Wednesdays) and I'm glad I did. This hard-to-find taverna is charming, rustic, and inexpensive. The friendly, multi-lingual staff explained their (very unusual) lunch buffet, which included 14 plates of buffet items, from marinated roasted chicken to macaroni with shrimp. The buffet, plus a pasta course, 1/4-litre of wine, water, dessert (cinnamon cake or baked pears with chocolate drizzel), and coffee was just 20EU! Excellent food and great ambiance with many locals eating there, too. And, judging from the grand piano, guitar, and cello in the corner, the evening meals, with music, are probably also wonderful. If you're coming to Venice, put this taverna on your list.

On the way back to my hotel, I stopped in at the nearby Trattoria ala Rivetta, where I have been having an afternoon bicchiere of red wine with the owner, Stefano, for many years. I recognize him, of course, but if he doesn't always recognize me (after a two year absence), he's kind enough not to let on. This tiny restaurant is a gondolier hangout, with excellent food, and you can get a small glass of wine for 1EU and stand around outside the door or in the entryway enjoying it. I usually manage to arrive just after the lunch rush has ended so there's time to chat and not be in the way. The restaurant has a place in my heart because I'm sure (though there's absolutely no proof) that it's somehow associated with the family of my old Country & Western dancing partner, Lynda Revetta, who passed away a few years ago. Oddly, Stefano continues to insist that Willie & Waylon would be inappropriate dining background music. Go figure.

This is one policy that distinguishes many European restaurants from ours: if you stand at the counter to order and consume something, it often costs less than if you sit down and order it through a waiter. This is a sensible plan for those in a hurry or who just want a small bite or drink and are OK with standing. The price differential is usually in the range of 1-3EU, so it's significant.

I'll be taking a short nap after writing this in preparation for visiting Harry's Bar, with its devastating Martinis. This is the original Harry's, the famous bar created by the famous Cipriani family, and reputedly where the Bellini (Proseco and pureed white peaches) was invented. If you don't know it, see their story here. Haven't had a Bellini? Everyone has to have at least one! But don't even think about making it without pureed white peaches. Harry's is where Ernest Hemmingway, Charlie Chaplin, Orson Welles, Hitchcock, and other members of the gliterati hung out, so it has a certain historical cache. In addition, the tux-wearing bartenders are a hoot – stylish, funny, suave, and really good at what they do. They almost make you forget you're paying 18.50EU for a tiny (but potent) martini.

The actual bar at Harry's is tiny, just six seats, and I have been lucky over the years to either find an available stool when I arrive or not wait too long for one. The people I've met there have also been interesting: last year it was a really nice older couple from Rio, who's son was attending school in Chicago, and who were here on their private yacht. I know I'm a little too old to be adopted but suggesting it to them crossed my mind. Well, as I said, it's always fun at Harry's.

[ Added the next morning: Something is seriously wrong in Venice. When I arrived at Harry's, not only were four of six bar stools empty (and remained that way) but several tables were unoccupied and there was no line to get it! This is something I've not seen in 8 years and a very disturbing sign of the times. The dour but eloquent bar tender gave me his take on it: people no longer seem to value the syle and legacy of the era that birthed Harry's (1930s-40s) and monster cruise ships flood the town with tourists but insist they all return by 6:00pm, killing the evening trade. His remedy? Everyone needs to watch Casa Blanca a few more times. My attentiveness to his pouring out his heart earned me an additional free Martini I really did not need but could hardly politely refuse. ]

Tomorrow (or today, depending on when I post this) I'll be bidding dear Venice farewell early, cruising away in the AliLaguna boat to the Marco Polo airport for my flight to Charles de Gaulle airport in Paris. It has been wondeful to be here again, and I think everyone should visit La Serrenisima at least once. Consult with me before you go. Tomorrow: Vive la France and pass the cheese!

Into Each Canal, A Little Rain Must Fall

A light rain is falling in Venice today. Just a mist that makes you get the umbrella out and then feel dumb carrying it. Until you see the passing wet heads and wonder why they didn't think to bring an umbrella.

Maybe it's the rain, or maybe the cruise ships have left (there's a sight: the juxtaposition of those mammoth ships and the lower Venetian skyline), or maybe the tourist season is just winding down, but activities are undeniably tamped down today. Walking down narrow lanes is easy, no dodging or elbowing, no choking crowds. Shop owners stand in their doorways, trolling for end-of-season customers, 20-50% sale signs are up, and the gondoliers sit idle. Venice heading into Winter repose?

The Nigerians who sell knock-offs are forced to stand, hooded black sentinels in this rain, holding their goods in their hands and arms – no sheet laid out on the ground as their shop window now. Perhaps the law has changed since my last visit – I don't recall seeing their spreads the last few good days, either, and there seem fewer of them than in years past; end of season or a sign of the Euro economic crisis? Hard to say.

The seats at Florian's and the other battling orchestra cafes on St. Mark's Plaza are empty in this weather, but the staffs in their tuxes squeegee water off the tables periodically anyway, idiot tourists still feed the hated pigeons (those “rats with wings”, as any former Manhattanite knows them to be), and the orchestras continue to play. No acqua alta (high water, when the storm drains back up at high tide) yet but the temporary walkways, stacked and ready, sit in the rain.

I have been thwarted in my quest to eat a highly-rated lunch at Taverna del Campiello Remer – after quite a bit of work finding it, trudging around narrow streets in the Cannaregio area, above the Rialto Bridge, I found it closed. Couldn't tell if that was just for today or permanently. Their web site is still up, at least.

So, I turned my wet feet back toward the Academia Bridge and the Dorsoduro area. With so little time here I have to make each meal count, which takes me to the Taverna San Trovaso. I found this gem through the wonderful Chow Venice book and have made it a regular stop ever since. This is a casual-dress tablecloth restaurant, with separate rooms upstairs for large groups and smaller ones downstairs. I noticed today that the small room I was in had copper air ducting running its length, so business must be good. The staff here is friendly and accomodating.

My lunch consisted of insalata mista (mixed salad), fresh bread, and penne pasta with tomato sauce, bacon, and onion, accompanied by a carafe of their nicely-chilled house cabernet. Everything was fresh and tasty and a delight to eat. As I dug into this feast, I reflected on the trouble Americans often have in European restaraunts: failure to understand the rhythm of the meal and the service. Here eating is not a sport or a fast-food prelude to whatever comes next; no, it's a time to sit and savor, enjoy, and relax. With that in mind, for example, it's only natural that the waiter will let you sit in peace for 10-15 minutes after finishing your meal before inquiring if you need anything else. This is where Americans often get antsy and claim the service is bad. “Check, bring the check, where's the check”? But the waiter thinks it would be rude to rush you, so he does not.

Many visitors are also suprised, when the check comes, to find the coperto charge on it. These two euros cover the cost of that basket of bread you received, and are obligatory. Even with it, my lovely hour-and-a-half lunch cost me only 20 euros, with tip, and it was worth every penny.

Watching others, I was reminded as I ate of my manners. My dear departed mother would probaby find some fault these days, as these things have gotten more casual in the world in general and in my practice. Does it really matter? Yes, it does. In the 1980s, I dated a beautiful chef who had trained in Paris and Rome. Our romance was in its early days when she came to my place to cook for me. I remember that her company and the meal were terrific, but I remember more clearly that for some reason she complimented me for keeping my left hand quietly in my lap throughout the meal! Two thoughts flashed through my mind then: “How lucky I am to be in love with a woman who appreciates the finer things”; and “Thanks, Mom, for telling me to get my elbow off the table so often”! Good advice then, good advice now.