Archive for the ‘Featured’ Category

A Certain Sparkle


2013
01.08

A Certain Sparkle
AFAR Magazine

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A Food Lover Journeys to Lyon


2012
04.15

A Food Lover Journeys to Lyon
AFAR Magazine

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Pirates of the Mediterranean


2011
10.15

Welcome to our nation-state. It is 43 feet long and 23 wide — a bareboat catamaran, if you prefer. We are plying the Mediterranean coast of southern Turkey, wandering at will among bays and coves, tying up where we like, doing whooping cannonballs off the bow. Our chartered craft flies the French flag, but we aren’t French. It makes us feel like pirates.

There are eight of us — friends and friends-of-friends. We are bad sailors with good attitudes. Our skipper is Captain Marco, a Californian (like most of us) who last roamed these waters 15 years ago as a charter captain. He will maneuver the boat with more ease than I could pilot a bathtub toy, transform us into a crack crew and regale us with tales of his past exploits — whether we like it or not. These waters are known as the Turquoise Coast. They could well be the source of the word “turquoise,” which is simply French for “Turkish.” If not, they deserve to be. Looking out to sea, we summon up all the words we know for “blue” and still leave shades unnamed. The water is so clear that, in shallows, it glows incandescent from rays of sun bouncing off the sea floor.

Over the next seven days we will sail from Marmaris to below Fethiye and meander back up to Gocek. We’ll snorkel among shards of ancient amphorae, cavort in mud and play amateur archaeologist. Two Dutch yachties will stand on their stern, serenading us with harmonica chanteys as we dance an impromptu jig. One morning, I’ll come up from my cabin and spy Winston Churchill, reincarnated as a bulldog, strutting along the deck of a sailboat docked next to us. Another, I’ll be awakened by Pavarotti, the opera-singing donkey. We’ll fix cucumber salads and fry up lamb chops onboard. We’ll wash down smuggled French chocolates with duty-free grappa.

Our shoes — banished to the hold by Captain Marco — will ferment, forgotten, sloshing in a splash of seawater.

Food, Mud, History

As Mamaris dims to a murmur in the distance, we test ourselves at sea, taking the cat up to eight knots under sail. Stealing speed from the air makes us giddy. We think we could go anywhere.

We turn east and overnight in Ekincik, at a restaurant-with-a-dock that serves up food and hot showers to boaters. “I’m Captain Marco!” our skipper shouts to the kid who comes to catch our stern line. “Captain Marco! Remember me?” At most, the boy has seen 15 summers. Marco is sweetly oblivious to math and time.

At night, we rock below deck, in four tiny cabins wedged into the boat’s double hulls, lulled by the slap of waves and the groan of mooring ropes.

In the morning, a battered wooden motor launch fetches us up the Dalyan River, past a powdery crescent of beach where sinuous flipper tracks from breeding loggerhead turtles disappear into the sea. We weave through tall reeds to the harbor town of Kaunos, which lies marooned by silt — as well as by history. It dates from the 9th century B.C., though the remains are mostly Greek and Roman. Outside an amphitheater sited to catch sea breezes and dispense panoramic views, a goat climbs halfway up a tree to snatch tender leaves.

Past the shell of a Byzantine church and ruined baths, down a stone road, warehouse foundations and mysterious monuments are all that’s left of the harbor’s bustle. One in our party helps a French woman descend from a crumbling wall. “This is not the first time America has come to the aid of France,” her husband says with a touch of irony.

Upriver, Lycian tombs dominate the cliffs. Their carvings mimic Greek temple facades, with pediments and columns, hovering halfway up the rock face. The Lycians ruled this slice of coast long before the Greeks arrived. They had their own language and alphabet, created the first known democratic union and were fiercely independent. Lycia was the last holdout on the entire Mediterranean coast before finally being absorbed into the Roman Empire in the 1st century A.D. These tombs are remnants of their ancestor worship.

Further upriver, we wallow like pigs in a mud bath, coating ourselves in sulfurous gray ooze, then letting it dry and crack in the sun. We look like bush tribesmen but feel like fools — until we stand rinsing off in communal showers and discover how soft our skin has become.

At Dalyan town, we forage beyond the tourist shops rimming the dock and find a greengrocer who sells us strange, leafless branching vegetables that look to have been bred on an alien planet. She breaks off a piece for us to taste, and it’s salty. (Later, back home, I find out they are “sea beans” grown in marshlands.) Through pantomime and a bit of English, she tells us the freaky greens should be boiled then tossed with olive oil and lemon. Her proud friend elbows into the cooking lesson to show us photos of her son living in North Carolina. She points to each person in the snapshots and explains all about them in Turkish.

In the Gulf of Fethiye, we anchor off of tiny Karacaoren Island, a deserted, jagged mass of black volcanic rock pocked with ruins. We plunge into the deliciously chilly waters. From the nearby mainland, hopeful hawkers head our way in battered wooden boats.

Two men in a dinghy beckon, holding out ridiculously expensive tomatoes. Then a woman pulls up, seducing us with gozleme, Turkish “pancakes,” made fresh on her brazier and folded around salty, crumbled cheese and sprigs of fresh dill. They are so good that we put in dessert orders for more warm envelopes filled with chocolate, bananas and honey.

“Sorry,” we say to the hustler in a slick speedboat waving Magnum ice cream bars. He seems to have raced over from another century.

Tombs in the Stone

Karacaoren is guarded by treacherous stones that jab up from the sea, yet we want to explore its meager ruins. Captain Marco agrees to maneuver our rubber raft to a landing point where we can jump ashore as the waves heave our little craft toward the rocks. We leap onto parched terrain carpeted with goat dung. Remnants of terra cotta roof tiles crunch under our feet. Climbing to the summit, we find remains of a modest church and small, vaulted tombs with traces of frescoes. We suspect they’re Byzantine. We discover cisterns and ponder the hard life on this sun-blasted knoll, with no fresh water source, in cramped buildings built from dark stone. Were these people religious hermits? Traders? Lookouts? Not a soul shares the island with us; maybe the goats are ghosts, too.

Nearby Gemiler Island looks more welcoming, with pine trees and a bounty of ruins. Byzantine-era docks and stone warehouses lie partially submerged along the shore, and paths lead to remnants of five churches built between the 5th and 6th centuries. It’s possible to catch glimpses of mosaics and inlaid marble floors in the remains of a basilica on the island’s highest point, a good hundred yards above the water. But what saves our souls is the view.

Some say St. Nicholas, the original Santa Claus, once lived here, making Gemiler a popular pilgrimage site back in the Byzantine era. The island’s mysterious masterpiece is a long, enclosed walkway that snakes down its center. It has spawned many tales, but my favorite says this vaulted, fresco-decorated corridor was built for an albino queen so she could promenade through the city without exposing her delicate skin to the sun.

That night, we encounter the only siren’s song of our trip. It’s belted out by Pavarotti, the opera-singing donkey of Cold Water Bay. We succumbed to a little ad in our boat manual to anchor in this harbor-with-a-restaurant because, really, who could pass up an asinine aria? Pavarotti’s owner, Ali, plies us with grilled fish and boar stew, cooked by one of his “boys” who squats by a fire built on the ground. It’s the best food we’ve encountered on the voyage. Ali fires up a fat cigar, commands an extra bottle of wine and joins us at our table under the trees.

“Shut up!” Captain Marco suddenly shouts, and our group falls silent, exchanging nervous, guilty looks. “Shut up!” he cries again, laughing. “That’s how you order more wine in Turkish!” Ali doles out the wine, the glow of his cigar punctuating his moves as darkness pushes in from the sea.

Ali tells us his village lies on the other side of this mountainous territory guarding the water, and he offers to take us there. The lure is Lycian tombs and the deserted Greek town of Kayakoy.

The next morning, Ali makes good on his promise. Because Cold Water Bay is cut off from inland roads by the coastal mountains, it’s a roundabout tour. We pile into Ali’s speedboat and rocket along until we reach a beach where a road runs inland, then all squeeze into his van and careen over the mountains.

Ali shows us two types of Lycian tombs — modest versions of the temple-facade-style burial chambers, carved into the base of a cliff, and free-standing house-type sarcophagi cut from massive hunks of stone and topped with thick, peaked slabs. There’s something of the South Seas about these house tombs, a sensibility far different from the Greek-influenced temple tombs.

We swing by Ali’s big stone house topped with a satellite dish and help him load cases of wine into the van. Ali’s wisp of a mom comes out to show us her flower garden and hand out hugs.

Nearby Kayakoy was abandoned in the 1920s by more than 2,000 Greek families, who were “exchanged” by the government for Turks living in Greece. Their forsaken, roofless, whitewashed houses march up the mountain like rows of rotting teeth. In the small rooms, corner fireplaces and bits of bright, painted decoration hint at what the occupants left behind when the deportation occurred. A church with beach-pebble mosaics waits forlornly for worshipers to return.

Ali spirits us back to Cold Water Bay, covering the sea distance in a blink, compared with sailboat speed. As we lift our anchor and sedately set out for open water, Ali waggles his cigar in farewell while Pavarotti sings us off from shore.

Backpackers, Beware

We sail for Butterfly Valley, reachable only by sea — or by a deadly, precipice-hugging path known to devour foolish backpackers. The 1,150-foot cliffs embrace a canyon that slices back from a beach of rounded stones, luring hikers with a forest of oleanders that rain candy-pink petals, while 35 species of butterflies flutter and flirt. The path slowly constricts, grows more sinister, clotted with boulders and tangled roots, but the prize at its end is a 200-foot-tall waterfall.

Returning to the beach, I shake oleander petals from my hair and swim out to our boat. We circle back to the Gulf of Fethiye, scouting the island of Tesane. Though there are remnants of ancient shipyards, the place looks desolate and desiccated, baked brown as an overdone sugar cookie, with scraps of buildings poking up.

We sail on to Tomb Bay, beautiful despite a name filled with doom. Scraggly tiers of old olive groves mount steep hills, with Lycian tombs etched into high rock faces. We leap into the cool water and climb out on stone steps, once part of docks where goods were hauled to the agora above. As I scramble uphill, lost steps emerge from the brambles. Who passed this way hundreds of years ago, stopping to gaze out at the gulf — fearing pirates, not the package tour boats that we shun?

At Ruin Bay, we set anchor and tie up for the night, roped to a pine tree. A shore party paddles over to see ruins of the baths where Cleopatra soaked herself in asses’ milk, so it’s said. Was this the beauty secret that conquered Caesar and Mark Antony? The baths’ crumbled foundations lie mostly submerged, begging for someone with a grand imagination to conjure the exotic queen.

The vision isn’t helped by the rusting hulk of a ship that hunkers at the rickety dock, serving as restaurant and bar. We toss down a beer and row back, holding plates of meatballs and chicken to serve with the spaghetti simmering in our compact galley.

After dinner, we lie on deck, trying to pick constellations out of the glittering, crowded sky. There’s talk of skinny-dipping. It seems perfectly natural. The salt crusted in my hair seems perfectly natural. No one wants to surrender our boat the next day. We wonder how far we could sail before they’d find us.

© 2007 Gayle Keck
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Chef Interview: Christopher Kostow


2011
10.15


Chef Interview:
Christopher Kostow

Culinary Trends

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The Dream Cream


2011
10.15

It was London, the early 1990s. We had our first encounter at the Hyde Park Hotel. Then a rendezvous at Brown’s Hotel. Which led to a brief, unplanned interlude at Fortnum & Mason. The affair was outrageous, indulgent, decadent. I had fallen madly in love. With clotted cream.

Yes, I swooned over something that sounds like you should put a Band-Aid on it rather than eat it. But, oh, the stuff was glorious: unctuous, buttery, rich. Every afternoon of my trip, I slathered it on scones snatched from tiered silver trays in hushed hotel tearooms.

And, like most of those smitten with a new love, I didn’t bother to ask for details. I vaguely assumed it was heavy cream, whipped almost into butter but stopped just short of that transformation.

Returning home to the United States, I pined for clotted cream. It wasn’t to be found at even the swankiest hotel tea services, where whipped cream was foisted on me instead. That started the questions: What, actually, is this rich, golden goo? How is it made? And why are the Brits keeping it all for themselves?

On a recent trip to England, I set out to find the answers — and the best clotted cream the country has to offer. At first, my research pointed me toward Jersey, one of the Channel Islands near France and origin of the Jersey cow breed. Jersey cows typically give milk with a higher percentage of cream, rumored to be the best for making clotted cream.

But wait, it’s not just the cows; it’s what they eat. Turns out, the lushest English grass grows in Cornwall, along the far reaches of England’s southwest coast, where there’s a microclimate so different from the rest of the country that palm trees thrive.

And, despite a bit of bluster from the neighboring shire of Devon, which touts its version as “Devon cream,” I discovered that the country’s largest clotted cream producer is based in Cornwall.

So my husband, Paul, and I point our rental car toward Land’s End and set out on a meandering expedition to the Cornish coast. Besides clotted cream, the region is famous for fishing villages, artists, gardens, smugglers and the hand pies known as pasties (pronounced “PAST-eeze”). On our tour we will encounter everything on that list that is legal.

The first thing I learn, strolling the constricted streets of Polperro, a tiny village of whitewashed stone cottages arrayed on ocean-side cliffs, is that Cornish tea isn’t a grand affair reserved for the afternoon. The town is clogged with modest tearooms and cafes offering “cream tea.” And though the fishing fleet still bobs in a little cove, I suspect Polperro serves far more scones than mackerel to the tourists who ramble the maze of pathways between the ancient abodes.

Here, “cream tea,” means two scones, a pot of tea and a hefty dollop of clotted cream, and it’s served nearly all day long. Passing up a boat tour (“nice dogs and happy babies go free”), we settle at an outdoor table and order the “Scones From Our Own Special Recipe,” not an uncommon claim here.

“Where’re you from, then?” the proprietor asks as a pink-cheeked waitress delivers our tea. His bushy eyebrows shoot up when we reply, “San Francisco”; they shoot up again when I ask for seconds on the clotted cream. In the name of research, I know no shame.

The cream is cool, smooth and sweet (though not sweetened). It clings to the knife as I spread it in artistic swirls, then melts just slightly into the warm, round scone (containing no currants, blueberries, chocolate chips, nuts or other distractions). It’s delicious, and I confirm the source is Rodda’s, the country’s largest clotted cream producer.

One requirement for Cornwall’s lush pastures is rain, and with storm clouds massing, we decide to head indoors . . . to a garden. We motor down narrow two-lane roads lined with solid walls of green hedges and trees arching to meet overhead, past little towns with odd, Harry Potter-ish names (Crumplehorn, St. Blazey Gate), until we reach the Eden Project.

Imagine botanical gardens on the vast scale of an eco-amusement park, and you’ll have an idea of the size. At the base of a 200-foot-deep, 37-acre quarry, two “biomes” covered with a series of huge hexagonal-bubbled domes (cousins to Beijing’s Olympic Water Cube) are the largest conservatories in the world, housing more than a million plants, in addition to a large waterfall. They showcase tropical and Mediterranean species, as well as the Cornish zeal for gardening and the founders’ passion for sustainable practices.

The next morning, at our tidy farmhouse B&B, we get an alternative review of the Eden Project. “That’s boring!” a fellow tourist pronounces at the breakfast table as we tuck into eggs, bacon and baked beans.

After he classifies several other famous Cornish gardens as “boring,” I finally discover he and his traveling companion are landscape designers visiting from Germany, and they don’t even have plans to see the Eden Project. Clearly, their quest (to find “acceptable” gardens) is less satisfying (but certainly less fattening) than my search for the perfect clotted cream.

I’ve been trying to contact an artisanal producer, Gwavas Jersey Farm, but my e-mails and phone messages have gone unanswered. So instead, we decide to do some sightseeing, since any self-respecting Cornish tourist destination also serves cream tea.

St. Michael’s Mount will look startlingly familiar to anybody who’s visited Mont St. Michel in France. In fact, the two island churches were under the purview of the same Norman abbot in the 11th century. Several hundred years of sackings and stormings later, Cornwall’s was taken over by the St. Aubyn family, whose descendants still live there after 12 generations.

Unlike at Mont St. Michel, there’s no raised causeway to convey visitors above the waters. Fortunately, we arrive at low tide and tread the same stone pathway, inlaid with seaweed, that medieval pilgrims followed. After a steep climb, we tour the family castle and take in sweeping views back to the coast and straight down to the island’s gardens, laid out like verdant skirts around the Mount.

There’s just enough time for cream tea at the cafe before scurrying back to the mainland ahead of the tide. Alas, though the scones are tasty, I’m given another little cup of Rodda’s clotted cream. Yes, it’s good, but I’m beginning to wonder if I’ll ever find any other kind. Rodda’s seems to have a lock on the market.

I chat up a chap in the Mount’s gift shop, who suggests we take our search to a “farm shop” and recommends one near Hayle. We head up the Cornish peninsula and discover two farm shops, emporia of local produce, jams and dairy products.

At the first, Richards of Cornwall, we find (at last!) tubs of clotted cream made by a smaller producer, Trewithen Dairy. I happily part with some cash for a tub of my own. Then, at Trevaskis Farms, I buy a box of fresh-picked strawberries, tiny and sweet. There’s also a cafe, where a refrigerated case is packed with desserts. I stand in awe as servers dish up pies, crumbles and sponge cakes, all served with a whopping dollop of Rodda’s clotted cream on top.

We forgo this dessert wonderland and opt for dipping strawberries into the Trewithen clotted cream. The texture is less uniform, the flavor sweeter, a bit more intense. Rodda’s and I have had a lovely relationship, but now I switch my fickle affections to Trewithen.

The seaside town of St. Ives is a feast of a different sort, a banquet of Cornish light. The ocean seems bluer, the beach more sparkling and the stone houses more boldly limned against the sky. That blessing of light has made the once-humble fishing village an artists’ haven for more than two centuries. Many of the views Turner and Whistler painted here can still be found, either by strolling the town or by visiting the Tate St. Ives, a branch of the major British art museum.

We walk off our clotted cream and strawberry orgy on St. Ives’s cobbled streets, stopping by galleries that display paintings, ceramics and handmade clothing.

The summer light lingers late in England and, after surviving a particularly hair-raising wisp of a road, we spend the evening’s last rays seated in a cliff-top amphitheater looking out to sea. We are near Land’s End, the most westerly bit of this entire country, watching a play at the Minack Theatre. The performance is entertaining, but my eyes keep drifting out to the cobalt waters and rocky headlands burnished by the final shafts of sun that shine on England.

The next morning, we’re in luck. Will Bowman of Gwavas Jersey Farm rings up and tells us to come on over. His farm is only six miles away, down toward England’s most southerly point, on the Lizard Peninsula.

Gwavas is a father-and-son operation: 90 Jersey cows, a handful of employees and Wiggles, the world’s cutest Jack Russell terrier, housed on a farmstead that was recorded in the Domesday Book of 1086.

Will, who runs the dairy while his father watches the cows, takes us on a tour of the fields and the dairy buildings. “I’m not what most people around here would call a conventional farmer,” he confides, and I have to agree: He’s sporting shorts, sneakers and a soccer jersey.

“It’s a bit more interesting than just farming,” he says, explaining why he started making clotted cream and yogurt 12 years ago, “because it’s a different challenge every day. If you enjoy yourself, you can make it a little bit more unusual; if you’ve got the passion, you can make it that much better.”

Will confirms my research about Jersey cows — that their milk has more cream (5 percent vs. 4 percent or less for other breeds) — but that’s not all. “It also has more lactose, more protein, more solids in general,” he says.

Despite the mysterious nature of clotted cream (do a Google search and you come up with all sorts of conflicting recipes, including some calling for sour cream), it turns out to be fairly straightforward. “It’s a simple way of doing something with milk, but it has to be precise,” Will explains.

Cream is separated from pasteurized milk by a centrifuge system, then placed in large shallow pans that are heated to 194 degrees, not quite boiling, for an hour. “Scalding it the traditional way gives it more color and more flavor,” Will says. Water evaporates, the cream thickens and a thin crust forms on the top. Then it cools, rests and thickens more.

We watch as a white-coated worker scoops the finished product into tubs. It’s a deep golden color, denser in some places, a bit runnier in others. “It’s a moving product,” Will says. “As it gets older, it will thicken.”

He picks up a tub and invites us to have a taste. We sit on a picnic table outside his weathered stone house, while Wiggles and a resident cat snooze nearby in the sun.

Digging a spoon into the clotted cream, I realize I’m going to be mainlining the stuff: no scones, no berries. But one bite and I know I’ve found clotted cream nirvana. The textures roll across my tongue, buttery, rich and intense. It seems as if I’m devouring the distilled essence of the Cornish landscape, the green that overgrows stone fences and nearly chokes the roads.

“Good milk,” Will says by way of explanation, “has just got a fresh taste to it, and the sweeter the grass, the sweeter the milk.” I ask if we can visit the cows that produced this wonder, and Will leads us to pastures bordered on one side by the ocean.

“Thank you, ladies!” I shout, holding up my tub of clotted cream, as the nosy bovines come over to investigate us. They are fawn-colored, with little topknots between their ears. “Each one has a different hairdo,” Will points out, grinning.

Surveying the fields rimmed by wild foxgloves and bright-pink thistles, he says: “We don’t need any more than what we’ve got around us. There are lots of people who don’t have it so good.” That includes clotted cream lovers who don’t live in Cornwall; preferring a personal relationship with customers, Will refuses to sell his product outside its borders.

After our visit, we drive a few miles to Kynance Cove, considered one of Cornwall’s most beautiful spots. I hike across the cliffs clutching my tub of Gwavas clotted cream. There is a little cafe at the end of the trail, and I’m sure it will have scones.

As we sit outside, looking down at the turquoise ocean bashing and frothing around craggy black rocks, I slather the cream over a warm scone. The heck with posh hotel tearooms. This is the best clotted cream I’ve ever tasted, and this spot, right here, is the best possible place to eat it.

Sleeping with Mr. Wright


2010
06.15

Sleeping with Mr. Wright
National Geographic Traveler

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OBAMARAMA: Fear, loathing, kindness and brunch in Barack Obama’s Chicago


2010
06.15

“No,” the Secret Service agent tells me, his eyes as cold and harsh as this late-November day. Oddly, it’s no a secret he’s a Secret Service agent – two-inch high yellow letters scream it across his chest. But he isn’t the kind of guy who’d appreciate that irony.

“I have a press card.”

“No.”

I’m standing in front of a concrete barricade across South Greenwood Ave. in Chicago. A few city cop cars are pulled up alongside the barrier for good measure, their occupants clustered outside. The Obama family house is just down the street, but there’s no way I’m going to get a closer look; the entire block is locked down. Time for a different tactic.

“Is that a tour bus?” I point to a vehicle double-parked nearby on 50th St. with a placard that says, “Tours.”

“No.”

“Is it the press bus?”

“No.”

“Is it a mirage?” (I get a laugh from the Chicago cops.)

“No.”

“Can we at least take some pictures from here?” my husband interrupts, fearful the guy is about to have me shipped off to Guantánamo.

“No.”

We give up and climb into my mother-in-law Alice’s car. “I gotta tell you,” Alice says from the front seat, “all this security makes me feel very good.” I have to agree. But it’s also making it nearly impossible for me to answer that question Sarah Palin repeatedly demanded: “Who IS Barack Obama?”

I’d like to know, too – now that he’s our next president – but I’ve taken a bit more initiative than Sarah. I’ve set out to actually visit some of the new First Family’s favorite haunts, and coerced my in-laws – lifelong Chicagoans – to schlep around the city with me.

Alice, a staunch Hillary supporter, is a reluctant participant. Her husband, Hal, is our wheel man and expert on all things Jewish (Michelle Obama has a cousin who’s a rabbi – who knew?).

Three inches of snow are predicted, and an icy rain has been dogging us since we left the northern suburbs. So far today, we’ve followed Obama’s trail from a swanky restaurant, down to Hyde Park on Chicago’s predominately black south side.

We started with brunch at Sepia, a trendy spot in the West Loop, where the crowd was young, well-heeled and diverse. Occupying an 1890-era printing house, with décor that artfully intertwines the historic (old Chicago photos) and the modern (chandeliers encased in huge, cylindrical shades), Sepia is said to be Michelle Obama’s favorite restaurant. And its chef, Kendal Duque, is reportedly top contender to cook for the Obamas at the White House.

So, here’s a tip. If you breakfast at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue during the next administration, you may be noshing on Duque’s spectacular update of eggs benedict, made with grilled Berkshire pork belly set on warm biscuits and topped by honey-mustard hollandaise sauce.

As we stepped out of the restaurant, I darted down the block to the Maria Pinto Boutique, in hopes of getting a clue to the future First Lady’s inauguration gown. Pinto is one of Michelle Obama’s go-to designers. The shimmery, slinky number in the front window was as gray as the skies – not the best color for celebrating.

A few blocks away, we found the offices of Sidley & Austin, the law firm where Barack and Michelle first met – when she was an associate and he was a lowly summer associate. Those looking for Lincoln-Obama connections might find it intriguing that the firm once represented Mary Todd Lincoln.

I gazed up at the 39 floors of glass and steel, pondering how dexterous Obama must be to shift from community organizing at one of the country’s oldest public housing projects to working at one of the country’s oldest law firms.

I dashed back to the car and Hal piloted us south, to Manny’s Cafeteria & Delicatessen. Obama dines there often with new chief of staff Rahm Emanuel. In fact, he’d visited just a few days before we did.

When asked what he ordered that day, the Chicago Sun-Times reported Obama replied, “We got the corned beef.” Asked what he thought about the troubled auto industry, Obama smiled and repeated, “We got the corned beef.”

Peering around the drab, no-nonsense décor, I noticed an old-fashioned penny scale that might help a certain politician maintain his svelte figure in the face of Manny’s monster sandwiches.

“Welcome to the glamorous world of travel writing,” I muttered to my in-laws as I dove back into the car, hair matted with melting sleet. Obama must have a strong constitution, I thought, to survive in Chicago after growing up in balmy locals like Hawaii and Indonesia.

We headed further south along Wabash, through a neighborhood in transition, where the L’Oreal USA offices snuggle up to a check cashing business and a White Castle. Around the corner, new townhouses are going up, not far from dreary projects.

We swung by U.S. Cellular Field, home of the White Sox – the 2005 World Champion White Sox, Paul reminds me. Obama is a self-declared fan of the southside team. In fact, he had the guts to proclaim his love in Boston, where the crowd distinctly favors a different color of Sox.

Driving toward Lake Michigan on 43rd St., we passed the Negro League Café, just down the street from a doggy day spa, which sits (and probably stays) on the corner of Muddy Waters Drive. A bit further, there are vacant lots, tumbledown buildings and the Rain or Shine Baptist Church. Then more new townhouses. Two worlds are coming together here, as they seem to in Obama’s life.

Case in point: our next stop, Valois Cafeteria, which is no Sepia. Its sign proclaims, “See Your Food,” something that might appeal to a thoughtful commander-in-chief. I wondered how many unseen “dishes” Obama’s going go have to choke down once he takes over.

At the door, a panhandler asks, “Can you help a brother out?” Inside, servers slice beef and ham behind the cafeteria line. Patrons – many of them African-Americans – carry trays of hearty portions to their tables. It’s a favorite Obama breakfast spot, though now an aide comes to pick up his standard order of egg whites, bacon and hash browns. Egg whites and bacon? Healthy and indulgent? This guy is becoming even more of a mystery to me.

Even I didn’t get out to face the elements at Promontory Point, where the Chicago Convention & Tourism Bureau claims the Obamas used to take their daughters to enjoy the waterfront breezes during more carefree, anonymous days. I thought about how the First Family will never be able to hang out here without a gaggle of secret service guardians. Outside, the murky lake churned and chopped like the uncertain economy. Nobody strolled the grassy park or shot hoops at the basketball courts.

The ambiance was warmer at the Hyde Park Hair Salon & Barber Shop, just a few blocks from where the Obamas live. Owner Ishmael Alamin worked on a customer in the first of eight chairs, while a group of young men chatted further back in the shop, where the walls were decorated with framed Chicago Bears jerseys and a bigger-than-life photo of Mohamed Ali.

“Lots of people come and ask for the Obama cut,” Alamin said, as he crafted a style that looked similar to the President-elect’s cropped do. “All day long, they just stop and take pictures or come by to see where he sits.”

Obama has been a customer for 14 years, getting a cut every week, but you won’t see him in his usual chair any more. Now Zariff, his stylist, goes to him, barbering at a nearby friend’s home.

After Alamin’s hospitable welcome – you think he might be tired of getting pestered, but it doesn’t show – the lockdown at the Obama abode seems even more harsh.

Failing to crack security at the barricade, we settle for a driving tour of the surrounding streets. The area, known as Kenwood, is the kind of neighborhood real estate agents call “stately.” In the late 1800s it was one of the city’s poshest sectors, home to ambassadors and tycoons. Today, noted residents include Louis Farrakhan and Bill Ayers. Hal informs us that Obama’s house is located across from a synagogue – and we can spy its domed roof.

There are Tudor, Prairie, Queen Anne and modern houses, set on substantial lawns. You’ll also see quite a few Georgian Revival homes, similar to the Obamas’ historic 1910 red-brick residence with four fireplaces, purchased for $1.65 million in 2005. The current asking price for a nearby Georgian house is $2.7 million.

We pass a Secret Service agent with a German Shepard, patrolling a nearby street. Not far away, a bag lady pushes a packed shopping cart. She seems out of place. “Nothing in this neighborhood is what it appears to be,” Paul claims, “It’s all his security detail.”

Time for a snack. We head to Medici, a nearby restaurant and bakery. “You might want to write this down,” Hal says along the way, “That historic spot right there” – he points at a curb – “is where we once parked for the 57th Street Art Fair.”

Medici bakery workers wear t-shirts saying, “OBAMA EATS HERE.” It’s really the first blatant case I’ve noticed of a business capitalizing on the Obamas. Sure, there are banners on city lamp posts proclaiming, “Congratulations Chicago’s Own Barack Obama” – signed by the mayor, in true Chicago style. But here at Medici, you can even buy a wooden cutting board made by the owner, announcing your support for Obama (or for those still fixated on the current president, there’s an “Impeach Bush” version).

“He hasn’t been in since February,” a cashier confesses, “but Michelle still brings the kids in; they sit upstairs.” And amid the restaurant’s brick wall filled with customer graffiti, you’ll find Malia Obama’s signature in green crayon.

Even if you’re not stalking Obama sites, just down the block, 57th Street Books would be a great place to while away a stormy afternoon. Deep in the cozy warren of five rooms, there’s even a table with punch and cookies. A small bookshelf by the entry is filled with Obama-related books, topped by a sign that simply announces them as the store’s best sellers.

“Have you seen Barack Obama?” I ask a clerk.

“I checked him out,” the clerk, Irami Osei-Frimpong, tells me.

“What was he like?”

“Tall and good-looking.”

“What did he buy?”

“I can’t really say.”

“Oh, come on! He bought that Lincoln book, didn’t he?” I press, blanking on the title (A Team of Rivals, by Doris Kearns-Goodwin) that Obama has reportedly been perusing.

Osei-Frimpong cracks. “OK, OK. He bought The Presidency for Dummies and The Idiot’s Guide to the White House. You pried it out of me.”

Maybe late-night comedians struggling to come up with Obama jokes should spend a day hanging out in his neighborhood, picking up some riffs from this guy with a name even more “exotic” than the president elect’s.

Onward, to visit Obama’s first Chicago apartment, a modest three-storey, U-shaped red brick building just a mile away from his current home. “Did he carve his initials anywhere?” Hal asks as we jump back in the car after a quick inspection, “That’d be a find!”

“He’s got terrible initials,” Alice pipes up, “B.O.” Clearly, she still isn’t over Hillary.

Our last stop is the University of Chicago Law School, a mile and a half due south of the family house. Obama kept an office here, starting when he had a fellowship while writing his first book and continuing through his 12 years as a lecturer on constitutional law.

Through huge plate-glass windows, we spy students bent over their books in the law library. We dash across a frozen courtyard and yank on the handles of several locked doors. About to turn back, we notice a man inside at a guard desk motioning to us.

After my Secret Service episode, I figure we’re going to get stonewalled once we gain entrance. But no. The guard, Michael Cephus, doesn’t object to Paul snapping a few photos in the library. I ask him if this was where Obama’s office was located.

“Yes, it was right upstairs here,” he answers, smiling.

“Did you know him then?”

“I sure did,” Cephus replies, “He was a real open-door policy kind of guy. Sometimes he’d come in and I was reading a newspaper and he’d strike up a conversation.” I like the idea of a president who can chat up a campus policeman and Larry Summers with equal grace.

“I used to play pick-up basketball with him over at the gym,” Cephus continues, “He’s got a better shot than I have – and his wind was a little longer than mine, too.” More encouraging news. Fixing the economy could certainly knock the breath out of a lesser athlete.

So, could Cephus see the presidential gleam in Barack’s eye back then? “I never thought he’d become president with a name like Obama,” Cephus confesses, “I never thought he’d run.”

In my few minutes of conversation with this kind, soft-spoken guard, I’ve come closer to Obama than I’d ever expected. Michael Cephus reveals more about our next president than visits to restaurants or domiciles or barber shops. Through Cephus, I’m beginning to truly sense the quality of Obama’s character.

“Were you excited when he won?” I ask.

“My feet are just starting to touch the ground,” Cephus answers, beaming, “Just starting to touch the ground.”

The Land of a Million Elephants


2010
06.05

“I feel like a gangster,” an Irish fellow mutters, struggling to close his wallet around a fat wad of kip. We’ve congregated, with an ark-worthy queue of assorted foreigners, at the one ATM we could find in Luang Prabang. The most cash you can withdraw in a day is 700,000 kip: about 76 bucks. Within two days, you can be a kip millionaire.

Strangers talk to one another here, people who’d never strike up a conversation when touring London or Rome. It’s one of those clues that tell you this Mekong River town in northern Laos is an outpost. The atmosphere is part “Star Wars” bar, part “Casablanca.” Backpackers descend from the surrounding mountains or step ashore off slow boats, clutching tattered Lonely Planet guides. Europeans, Australians, Thais and a few Americans wing in on prop planes. Members of ethnic hill tribes, particularly the Hmong, appear at sunset, spreading their wares along the street. And everywhere you turn there are Buddhist monks in blazing-orange robes.

My husband, Paul, and I have stopped in for five days because Luang Prabang is a UNESCO World Heritage site — and because Laos still holds enough mystique to offset the escalating buzz from media must-visit lists and tourists seeking the next hot destination.

A town of 26,000, Luang Prabang is shaped like a tongue, formed by the Nam Khan River as it curves to meet the Mekong. The waters of these two rivers are dense with mud, as if history were dissolved in them and were flowing relentlessly, opaquely past.

In 1353, this lick of land was the seat of a kingdom known as Lan Xang, or the Land of a Million Elephants. It also was once the Laotian capital, losing out to Vientiane when France took over the country in 1893. And it was home to the royal family until 1975, when the Pathet Lao communists gained power and, it is said, banished the royals to a cave.

We’re in cozier quarters: a thatch-roofed bamboo bungalow set on a high riverbank outside town, overlooking the Nam Khan. There is no TV. From our balcony, lazing against triangular bolsters, we shamelessly gaze down on our neighbors across the river with that fascination modern urbanites have for the simple life. The far bank is patchworked with small plots. Men hoe vegetables, women scrub laundry in the dingy water, a fisherman checks his bamboo traps, kids turn a washbasin into an impromptu boat and skid away from their soap-wielding mom.

The vast majority of Laos’s population is rural, but 10 minutes away by tuk-tuk, the bargain-priced motorcycle-powered open trucks, Luang Prabang bustles. In 1988, the year Laos reopened to tourists, only 600 of them visited the entire country; there are probably that many trolling Luang Prabang’s streets today alone. We see bamboo scaffolding where repairs are being made to colonial-era stuccoed homes with mossy tiled roofs and sagging shutters, efforts to meet the growing demand for guesthouses.

Luang Prabang’s architecture catapulted it onto the World Heritage list in 1995. The sublime mix of old Laotian wooden houses, half-timbered buildings, stalwart French structures and ancient Buddhist temples can be found nowhere else, UNESCO says.

But these days, to spot them on some streets, you need to look among swaths of telephone and electrical wires, restaurant signs, shops stocked with chorus lines of Buddha statues, fume-belching tuk-tuks and tour agents’ placards with long, handwritten essays advertising offerings in fractured English. (“If you are interesting please contact us inside.”)

It’s hard to appreciate — or find — Luang Prabang’s charms on our first day. Drenching rain falls nonstop. And this is supposed to be the dry season.

We scuttle to the Royal Palace Museum, where more than a hundred soggy, muddy shoes cluster around the main entrance. Etiquette forbids footwear inside most buildings, though shopkeepers often call out “Shoes okay!” to tourists. The parked shoes provide an instant tip-off to who’s inside. (That comes in handy one day when I misplace Paul and track him down by spotting his battered size 13 Nikes.)

Exploring the royal palace is a bit eerie because the government has never revealed the fate of its former occupants. The early-20th-century building is a mash-up of Laotian and western architecture, highlighted by a throne room crusted with royal bling: thrones, swords, regalia, the monarch’s howdah (a chair for perching atop an elephant) and spectacular mosaics of multicolored pieces of mirror set onto deep-red walls. The royal bedrooms are austere, furnished with drab, vaguely deco furniture. Backstage life in this monarchy had all the appeal of a two-star hotel room.

Alas, though I’m primed to shop in one of the few countries where dollars still have value, the renowned night market is canceled because of the rain. So we head for a performance of the Royal Ballet troupe, revived after a communist-imposed hiatus.

Before the traditional dances begin, members of a group of older Laotians chant a blessing, then fan out into the audience to tie white strings around both wrists of every spectator. This is the basi, a ceremony to ensure that guardian spirits essential for good mental and physical health are bound to a person’s body.

The spirits clearly realize that my mental health is tied to dry weather, and when we emerge, the rain has ended. We celebrate with tall bottles of Beerlao at Tum Tum Cheng, a restaurant named for the sound of temple drums and cymbals. We sample Mekong catfish, beef stew made with pungent galangal root and huge bowls of “Secret Soup,” packed with chicken and vegetables, including eggplants the size of cherry tomatoes.

There’s a French culinary influence here, too, left over from colonial days. In the market, we see baguettes and filled beignets, while bakeries are stocked with oddly evolved pastries, Galapagos versions of French desserts.

For authentic Laotian fare at lunchtime, we seek out Tamarind, a tiny restaurant where we pick up bites of sticky rice with our fingers, dipping it into small bowls of vegetables and chili sauce. We sample chewy dried water buffalo and fried, pressed sheets of “river moss” (which I suspect, after investigating the Mekong, starts life as green slime).

Curiously, a jolly-looking, solitary man is at both Tum Tum Cheng and Tamarind when we dine. Sure enough, he turns up at Tum Tum Cheng when we return to feed my newfound Secret Soup addiction. “I’m going to ask him where else he’s eaten,” Paul says. “Every place we’ve seen him, the food has been great.” As Paul invites the fellow to join us, I ponder whether he’s a spy.

“Australian Bob” has been adventuring along the Mekong, traveling like a backpacker, despite his crisp shirt and spotless khakis. He regales us with tales of $2-a-night lodging and prodigious (but refused) offers of drugs. “And the women!” he says. “There are lots of them traveling alone.” Then, sotto voce, “They keep propositioning me.”

We nod politely. It’s tough to picture this portly, 60-something engineering professor as a sex object. But, almost on cue, a tour group of eight women-of-a-certain-age passes through the restaurant, all of them ogling our chap. “See?” he says.

With a bit of sun, everything is transformed. We marvel at the graceful, sloping, tiered roofs of the town’s temples, or wats. Teenage novice monks sit outside, intent over their lesson books. For poor boys, wats offer the only chance of education. For tourists, they offer a chance to stalk the perfect monk photo: orange robes and shaved heads artfully arrayed on temple steps.

We climb Mount Phousi, the steep, 330-foot-high sacred hill in the midst of town. From the top we can look down on gaggles of slender, long-tail river boats and dozens of temples and also chat up young novices hanging out to practice English. “Do you like Laos?” one asks. “Where are you from?” I might as well be from Mars, I think, wondering how to describe what he might see from my city’s hills. “Do you have any books,” he asks, “or notebooks?” Those are rare commodities, we learn, and I wish I’d come with a satchel of reading material.

We ease that regret by tutoring young monks at Big Brother Mouse, an organization that prints books and provides a meeting place for local kids to speak English with foreigners.

Wandering tranquil Kounxoa Road, popping into temple complexes that catch our fancy, Paul and I happen upon Wat Xieng Muan, where wood chips fly as young monks carve Buddhas. It’s a UNESCO program to revive traditional arts that were squelched in the early communist era. At the small shop, we pick out a lithe Luang Prabang-style Buddha, happy to support the monastery’s work.

In the city’s most historic area, near the tip of the geographic tongue, we visit Wat Xieng Thong, founded in 1560. The main building, the sim, sports dazzling exterior mosaics similar to those in the palace throne room; inside, Buddhas large and small, sitting and standing, await worshipers amid regal, gilt-stenciled surroundings. Another temple structure holds the ornate, gold-leafed royal funeral carriage and a clutch of life-size standing Buddhas with the eerie aspect of exotic department-store mannequins.

On our stroll, we see racks of rice cakes, loops of sausages and frames of handmade mulberry paper, all set out in the sun to dry. I stop to peek inside a kettle an old woman is stirring over a brazier next to her house. She nods “okay” to a photo and flashes a big, one-toothed smile when we show her the image.

Up another street, I hear “Thwack!” as a coconut bangs onto the pavement. “That’s a weird coincide-,” I start to say, glad we didn’t get beaned. “Thwack!” Another plummets. Then I notice a man with a machete, swaying in the top of the palm tree. “Thwack! Thwack!” Two women in the street are acting as coconut crossing guards, calling up to the man when a vehicle comes along. A crowd gathers to watch the spectacle until the man finally shins down the trunk.

Although that is enough action for me, Paul hankers for an adventure tour. A tour company drives us seven miles up the Nam Khan to an elephant camp, where we, aboard elephants, lumber across a teak grove and through a stream. I even get to ease down from the howdah and sit right on the elephant’s shoulders for part of the ride, her ears flapping against my bare legs.

After the elephant ride, our guide, Phun, a wiry university student, pilots us on a raft down the sluggish river. We paddle till our arms ache, passing wallowing water buffalo, rickety rafts of market-bound bamboo, women washing — hey, one is even brushing her teeth in the river! — and men calling out with offers of lao-lao, a wicked rice whiskey. We float by another elephant camp as the mahouts bathe their charges in the river.

I feel more sure of myself navigating the night market, which flows over town streets like rivers of woven cloth. Swaths of silk and cotton scarves, old tribal clothing, appliqued pillows and rich, hand-loomed fabrics cover block after block. We negotiate for simple silk scarves ($4) and a fine, intricately patterned shawl ($18). “Lucky, lucky, lucky!” the seller chants, anointing her other wares with our fortune-bearing bills.

On our final morning, we wake before dawn to witness the daily gift of alms to the monks. Our tuk-tuk driver says he’ll take us to two spots: one nearby, with a few monks and no tourists; the other in town, with lots of monks and lots of tourists. As we hop out of the tuk-tuk, through the 5:30 a.m. gloom I see local women kneeling along the curb, clutching baskets. A line of monks passes by, each monk holding out his food bowl, into which each woman deposits a pinch of cooked sticky rice.

The last woman motions me over. She and the two next to her scoop rice onto a basket lid and offer it to me, demonstrating how to pull off the proper amount. I kneel next to them and shape little bites, silently depositing one into each man’s bowl as it pauses in front of me. As the last of 30 or so barefoot monks pads off into the dark, I turn to thank the women for their generosity. “Khap jai, lai-lai,” I say, raising my hands in the praying motion called a nop, the Laotian gesture of greeting, gratitude and farewell. “Thank you very much.”

A few minutes later, on Luang Prabang’s main road, bleary-eyed tourists are thronging, surrounded by vendors hawking cheaply prepared foods, some wrapped in leaves, to offer to the town’s monks as they pass by. Despite guidebook cautions against these substandard offerings, which the monks often throw away, people are buying. Lit by the hard rays of dawn, the monks’ procession takes on a parade atmosphere, with packs of paparazzi tourists snapping away. The spiritual magic has evaporated.

That afternoon, as our plane climbs up over the bamboo-forested mountains, I ponder Luang Prabang’s fate. Will the town’s allure help preserve its traditions or lead to their demise? Will this beauty survive the tourism beast?

Stockholm Syndrome


2010
06.05

Stockholm Syndrome
Executive Traveler

(click on title to open printable pdf file)

Pop Stars


2010
06.05

Visiting Champagne feels as if you’re getting away with something. It’s like New Year’s Eve without silly hats. A wedding minus the hideous bridesmaids’ dresses. A raise without having to endure an excruciating performance evaluation. You are imbibing champagne for no justifiable reason whatsoever. Cheers!

But beware: A trip to this French region two hours east of Paris might spoil you. It’s a rolling celebration that makes plain old wine tasting seem flat. At least that’s what my husband, Paul, and I decide after downing millions of tiny bubbles with our pals Vittorio and Ann, who drove up from Switzerland to join us.

As the ringleader of this adventure, I suppose I should have done more planning. I had booked us into a chic little B&B that I’d carefully calculated to be an easy drive from most of the area’s highlights, but I hadn’t made the least effort to sort out which of the 100 major champagne houses or thousands of smaller producers we might want to visit.

Fortunately, our innkeepers are happy to help. In addition to hosting lodgers, Bruno and Isabelle Mailliard are champagne makers themselves. For now, they suggest a lunch spot (so we can “lay down a base,” as Paul calls it). And they refer us to Doyard-Mahé, another, larger family operation nearby with a tasting room and “très sympathique” (nice, welcoming) owners. Among the big houses, they recommend Pommery, in Reims, and phone to make reservations for an English-language tour the following day. Perfect. I’m off the hook. Cheers!

We plot over lunch, which includes pizza topped with foie gras and, of course, a bottle of champagne. Grand cru? Why not! Our waiter pries the little branded metal button that sits atop the cork from its cage and places it on the table. “Collect ‘em all!” his gesture implies. Next to us, four grannies out for Saturday lunch have just polished off a bottle of their own. “This is how I want to grow old,” I think.

Down the road at Doyard-Mahé, we’re introduced to another grandmother: lovely, blond, svelte Martine Doyard-Mahé. In the stylish tasting room, filled with wooden tables (no crowding around a tasting bar here), Madame Doyard-Mahé plies us with tastes of four house champagnes, ranging from delicate blanc de blancs (literally, “white from whites”) made from chardonnay grapes, to a blanc de noirs (“white from blacks”) made from pinot noir and pinot meunier grapes crushed so delicately that their skin color doesn’t bleed into the juice.

As she demonstrates proper uncorking procedure (twist the bottle — not the cork — then ease the cork sideways for a gentle “psssshht,” rather than an undignified “pop”), Doyard-Mahé explains that the family has been making champagne for four generations — and her granddaughter will be the fifth. When we express disbelief that she’s a grandmother, Madame smiles and says, “It’s the champagne.” Ann and I drain our glasses, trusting we will soon become thinner and blonder.

“We’re going back to Switzerland across an unguarded border!” Vittorio jokes, pondering how much champagne he can stash in his car. Paul and I buy a single bottle, sitting across from Doyard-Mahé at her elegant desk. As she tallies our purchase, their shaggy little dog, Spirou, scampers over to the table where we’d been tasting, leaps on a chair and makes off with a champagne cork. Yes, even the dogs here are connoisseurs.

Back at our B&B, we gather around the big stone fireplace with other guests as the Mailliards share some of their bubbly. We’ve arranged for the table d’hote, a family-style meal cooked by Isabelle. Would we like champagne with that? Mais oui! Bruno keeps our flutes full.

By all rights, we should have rotten hangovers the next morning. But, sipping coffee for a change, we feel quite perky. That’s a good thing, because after motoring up to Reims we discover there are 116 steps down to the Pommery cellars. Our tour takes us nearly 100 feet below ground to visit some of the 120 ancient Gallo-Roman chalk pits — now linked by 11 miles of tunnels — that house 20 million bottles of aging champagne.

The brand achieved renown thanks to Louise Pommery, who took over in 1858 after her husband’s death. This “Champagne widow” was responsible for Pommery’s formidable Victorian-style above-ground architecture and masterminded the cellar system as well. She even had signs tacked up in the caves naming sections after various international cities as a sales ploy when Pommery entered a new market. It’s as if we’ve died and gone to a dim, dusty underworld of narrow tunnels opening onto looming, beehive-shaped rooms. It’s hell, but with champagne. Cheers!

“You must climb the stairs to get your reward!” the guide tells us, so up we trudge to receive our choice of two glasses from among four champagnes, including a 1998 grand cru. While we sip, we ogle a humongous blending barrel — 100,000 bottles’ worth — which was designed with elaborate art nouveau carvings by Emile Gallé for the 1904 World’s Fair.

We could simply careen from one marquee champagne house to another — Taittinger, Veuve Clicquot, Mumm and more are right in Reims — but instead decide to atone for our imbibing and head for Reims cathedral. The towering Gothic edifice is where the kings of France were crowned and, despite a World War I bomb, has stunning rose windows as well as some modern ones designed by Marc Chagall.

But wait. What are the guys in that stained-glass window doing? They’re making champagne. Even in the cathedral, we can’t escape the stuff. I suppose the sacramental wine has bubbles, too.

Vittorio wanders over to the tourist office and comes back with a list of three organic champagne producers. Not being fans of fertilizers or pesticides, we’re curious to taste bubbly biologique (French for “organic”). We head for the nearest, in Hautvillers, which just happens to be the home and final resting spot of Dom Perignon. We’re soon winding our way though vineyards and up to a tiny, ancient home squeezed into a narrow village lane.

“I have never used ‘chemical artillery!’ ” 68-year-old Monsieur Bliard tells us as we’re arrayed around a little wooden table in his foyer. A fire thaws out the chills we’ve developed after going an hour or so sans champagne. Vittorio, the human Rosetta Stone (Italian, English, French, German), is translating.

“There’s a big difference between my champagne and others that aren’t organic,” Bliard claims. “One hour later, you won’t have a stomachache with mine!” He tells us his 12 acres of vineyards have been certified organic for 35 years and, until the 1970s, they were farmed with a horse — “the last in town.”

Madame Bliard arrives from Sunday shopping and takes our visit in stride, admonishing her husband for not giving us any wine as she doles out glasses of 1997 demi-brut. It’s sublime, a mesmerizing fount of minuscule bubbles in my flute.

Bliard walks us across the street to his cellars, where 62,000 bottles “sleep tranquilly,” as he puts it. He grabs a bottle to show us how champagne makers used to disgorge sediment before the current method of freezing the bottleneck was developed. “Blam!” He has expertly tipped the bottle so a bubble gathered below the sediment, then opened it, blowing the sediment and cap into a barrel.

Turns out, he has popped a 1990 bottle. “At my age, there’s no point in conserving the old wines,” he says. “It’s necessary to drink them!” He pours us flutes, adding, “It’s my preferred medication. I have never been sick — I don’t even have a doctor!”

“To your health!” we reply, dutifully downing Monsieur’s prescription. “Cheers!”

Stanford: A Haven in Silicon Valley


2010
06.04

Stanford: A Haven in Silicon Valley
Executive Travel

(click on title to open printable pdf file)

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Onionskin


2010
05.19

tt-book-cover1

I found the piece of onionskin paper in a moving box. Light as a whisper, it was folded, folded, folded, until it resembled a tiny pillow.  It was the draft of a letter I had sent from Italy.

I was there, in Italy, to make TV commercials.  We traveled with an Italian crew, a handful of men who drank their morning coffee spiked with grappa, who talked about opera and shopping and food.  One wore bright orange jeans.  Another was named Fabio.  At first we were convinced they were gay.  It turned out they were just Italian.

Their boss, the producer, had recently broken her hand while hitting her boyfriend.  “It felt good,” she said, “He deserved it.”

We would stop in the middle of the day for two-hour lunches with plenty of wine, cigarettes and cell phone calls to mistresses.  We ate at restaurants far off the tourist track.  Plates appeared rakishly garnished with cooked roosters’ heads.

Was it possible to avoid being seduced?

The four other Americans took up smoking.  The two married women among us, Kate and Janet, flirted with Mario-of-the-orange-jeans.  At a florescent-lit truck stop with Formica tables, we ate lemon sorbetto splashed with vodka, then sat by a swimming pool in the dusk of the Tuscan countryside.  The woods filled with fireflies.  I suspect Mario did not sleep alone.

We careened at top speed from one innocently beautiful town to another.  The little TV-commercial dramas we were shooting shrank to almost an afterthought amid the richer dramas enveloping us.

A traveling bicycle club from Bologna serenaded us in a tiny village square from the steps of an 800-year old church.  By song’s end, the local nanas, like a flock of black ravens, stood in their doorways singing along.

A woman showed up asking for Paola, the producer.  “Madonna!” Paola exclaimed, waggling clasped hands before her face.  “I had an affair with her.  Now she won’t leave me alone.”

At a restaurant, the waiter refused to grate cheese onto any dish containing seafood.  “It is forbidden,” he said.  As I left, he pressed a pale chunk of local stone into my hand.  “Latte di luna – milk of the moon,” he whispered.

Kate was nearly arrested for trying to drive away in someone else’s rental car.  (Her key was an exact fit.  Madonna!  Could you blame her?)

Janet savored the distance from her husband and sons, laughing quietly with Mario, the sharp angles of her face softened by his attention.  “I’m a Gemini,” she said, “I can never choose one life.”

As the shoot came to an end, Kate and I chose to spend a few extra days in Italy.  Somebody mentioned Elba, Napoleon’s island of exile. Exile, how peaceful, I thought.  We sailed on the car ferry from Piombino.

The island was thick with large, ugly, modern hotels.  Then we saw the sign.  Winding down a road choked with tropical plants, we came upon the Villa Otani, embracing the shore, doors and windows flung open to let the cool breeze slink into every corner.  The villa was 150 years old, a bit worn, the kind of place where thousands of secrets can be shaken from the bedclothes.

My room had a terrace that faced out to sea.  In the soft twilight, I pretended I was the emperor, gazing wistfully toward the forbidden mainland.  There was a ceiling fresco, remnant of a once-splendid ballroom.  I awoke to stare up at doves and cherubs and the mysterious bare leg of a woman who disappeared into the next chamber.  I suspected my dreams had floated to the ceiling while I slept.

We laid on beach chairs, reading, rising now and then to wade into the languorous Mediterranean.  Giancarlo the barman called us “delicious American girls.”  He would take our orders for Bellinis.

Kate decided she didn’t want to be married to her husband.  I realized I didn’t miss the man I lived with.

I took out the onionskin stationary of the Villa Otani, made for writing reams about love and exile that can be posted for a song.  I penned a letter to a man I knew, someone who had held my hand a bit longer than necessary the last time we met.  I poured out my soul.  I spoke of passion and destiny and the insignificance of the continental distance between our homes.  The words were reckless, my version of smoking cigarettes and making love with Italian men originally thought to be gay.   In exile, I had seduced myself.

I slid the fine pages into their delicate onionskin envelope and posted the letter.  But I saved the draft – folded, folded, folded and tucked in a corner of my suitcase.

*   *   *

Janet and her family visited Italy a few months later.  They had dinner with Mario and his family.  Kate left her husband and moved in with a photographer.  I broke up with my boyfriend. Nothing ever happened with the recipient of my letter.  A few months later, I met a man on an airplane, and now we are married.

I crumpled the fragile onionskin covered with blue ink and dropped it in the wastebasket.

In Italy, the drama continues.

© 2003 Gayle Keck
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The (Ndebele) King & I


2010
05.19

“Ngwen-YAAA-ma!” I cry, my eyes cast respectfully downward to the dusty ground. This is my first encounter with royalty, and I want to get it right. No matter that this royal personage is dressed like a golfer, with a baseball cap crowning his head. He is a king, nonetheless, with nearly 2 million royal subjects.

So, for my audience with Mayitjha III, king of South Africa’s Ndebele people, I’ve learned the official lingo for royal groveling: ngwenyama (“lion”), bayede (“your majesty”) and ndabezithi (“Your people are listening”). These are all to be uttered with earnest enthusiasm, while never making the horrifying faux pas of establishing eye contact.

The king resides northwest of Johannesburg, in KwaNdebele, a “tribal homeland” created during the apartheid era. To reach his royal personage, my husband, Paul, and I had been picked up at the Jo-burg airport by tour operators Titus Ncongwane and Khobongo “Petrus” Mahlangu, a walking Ndebele encyclopedia.

On the 100-mile drive, Petrus told us the Ndebele (n-day-BAY-lay) people originally split off from the Zulus and make up 3 percent of the South African population. They were once fierce warriors who fought off the Boers (Dutch-descended South Africans) for eight months in the late 1800s.

The Ndebele language contains some of the percussive clicks that so fascinate foreigners. For a little comic relief, Petrus tried to teach us to say “Coca-Cola,” which sounds something like, “CLICK!-o CLICK!-a CLICK!-o la.” Thank goodness this is not a royal praise word.

The two Africans drilled us in kingly etiquette, and I was a bit miffed at Petrus’s recommendation that Paul, as “head of the family,” should introduce us to His Majesty. But, then again, you don’t mess with royal custom.

The king’s kraal (“corral”) is a multibuilding palace surrounded by a high fence. Vivid geometric paintings splash across the walls, which are traditionally made from mud and cow dung. As we enter the compound, out of the corner of my properly downcast eye, I spot Mayitjha III and five of his “men” sitting in simple chairs under a massive tree. We’re ushered to chairs facing them.

In the Ndebele language, Petrus humbly greets the king and explains who we are, throwing in plenty of “ngwenyamas!” and “bayedes!” Titus whispers the translation in my ear. “I am most honored to present to you two distinguished visitors from the United States . . . ” By the time Petrus is finished, he’s practically bestowed ambassador status on us.

For the first time His Majesty addresses us. He gestures upward, speaking in English. “This marula tree could tell many stories. It has been here 50 years and has heard everything.” Paul and I nod solemnly. “Ndabezithi!” Titus cries out, and nudges me. “Ndabezithi!” I blurt.

King Mayitjha asks if we’d like to introduce ourselves. Paul lays it on thick. “Ngwenyama, my wife and I have never had the privilege of encountering so great a royal personage. We are just humble commoners from Washington, D.C.” It’s as if he’s channeling Dorothy’s “small and meek” speech to the Wizard of Oz.

The king seems pleased. “Do you have any questions for us?” he asks.

“Bayede, what are your goals for your people?” Paul begins.

“For the children to get an education,” the king answers. “My generation had no opportunity for education.”

“How have things changed in the 10 years since democracy?” I inquire.

“Not so much has changed physically, but we are spiritually free and we no longer live in fear,” he responds. “It will take 30 years to really see a change.”

“What are the best and worst things about being a king?” Paul wants to know. “I have never had to do the worst thing — killing a man,” Mayitjha III replies. “There is nothing really good. I am always in meetings and resolving issues.”

Suddenly a fat green bug hops onto His Majesty’s ankle. The king’s right-hand man leaps up, flicks the bug from the royal foot and stomps it into the dust. Well, there’s at least one good thing about being a king.

“Why do you meet with tourists?” I ask.

“I don’t get to travel much,” he says, “so this is how I school about people and the world.”

“Ngwenyama!” a passerby calls from the other side of the fence, earning a royal wave.

“Ask about his family,” Titus coaches.

“Ngwenyama!” I echo. “Could you tell us about your wives and children?” We already know the king has five wives; we’d had a tasty lunch at Wife No. Four’s ranch-style brick house. At the head of her dining room table, a chair is always left empty for His Majesty. Ditto the living room, where his vacant armchair commands the best view of the TV.

“Oh, when people ask me how many children I have, I must stop and count,” the king reveals. “I can just say plus-minus 20,” he adds, “plus-minus” being the favorite South African term for “about.”

The arrival of a shiny sliver Mercedes is our cue to wrap things up. Before it whisks Mayitjha III away to more meetings and issues, we are allowed to snap photos and give gifts. Paul presents the booty we’ve brought. His Majesty seems especially fond of the playing cards with photos from around the world and a box with 50 flavors of Jelly Belly candy.

Before he climbs into his car, the king offers a final thought for us to carry back to America: “We send you greetings and we love you.”

“Ndabezithi!” we shout, our eyes politely fixed on the departing royal shoes.

© 2004 Gayle Keck
Originally published in the Washington Post
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Tracking Truffles


2010
05.18

Roberto’s gentle brown eyes register a twinge of concern. Following his gaze, I see my husband, Paul, snapping a photo of an oak tree. Innocent enough, except this isn’t just any oak tree. It is Roberto’s secret hunting ground for white truffles, a knobby little fungus that can fetch more than $5,000 a pound at retail.

We’d made reservations at a farmhouse inn, near the tiny village of Murazzano in Italy’s Piemonte region. The owner, Silvana Faggio, e-mailed us asking, “Can you say to me if you want to eat a dinner? Do you want a trouffle?” Trouffle, truffle, truffe, tartufo — however you spell it, the answer was yes. I’m a fan of the pungent subterranean delicacy, and Paul is seriously truffle-obsessed.

Since it sounded as if Silvana had a local truffle connection, I wrote back asking if it would be possible to participate in a truffle hunt. So here we are, slogging through the damp countryside with truffle hunter Roberto Bovetti, his truffle dog, Gaia, and Silvana’s gracious, English-speaking husband, Gianni Galli, who has offered to accompany us as translator.

A proper truffle hunt, it seems, must begin with a nip of grappa, high-octane liquor that fortifies the blood against chilly fall air. So before we set out, Roberto had invited us into his family home, past three or four truffle dogs tethered in the farmhouse courtyard, yapping to go fetch some fungus. He set out bottles of flavored grappa (cherry, juniper) on the kitchen table and we toasted to a successful hunt.

Through Gianni, we learned that Roberto is 30 and works part time at a factory. He has dark, shoulder-length hair and a full beard. It would be easy to mistake him for Jesus of the Church of Truffles. He’s a bit bewildered and flattered that foreigners would want to go poking around the countryside with him. “I have never had guests on a truffle hunt,” he says.

Silvana had spent the morning phoning neighbors to borrow knee-length rubber boots for us. Now, in the misty late afternoon, the footgear makes me feel like a local, ready to muck undaunted across muddy fields and dank forests. Roberto has a scarf wound around his neck and sports a knit cap. His jacket and field vest have plenty of pockets, most to stash truffles, but one with treats to reward Gaia when she makes a find.

We cross the country road in front of Roberto’s house and scramble down a scrubby embankment to a hazelnut orchard. Roberto tells us that truffles particularly like to grow in the soil around hazelnut, chestnut and oak trees. We are foraging through tartufaia, truffle lands.

Gaia, who looks vaguely poodle-esque, starts sniffing and scurrying in circles. Soon her shaggy, pinkish-tan hair is wet and streaked with mud. Roberto carries a cane, and I learn that it’s not just a jaunty truffle-hunter prop but a tool that he uses to suggest spots where Gaia might search. He keeps up nonstop Italian patter, like a sotto-voce cheerleader, encouraging the dog and telling her where to look: “Here, here, look here, what about here, good girl, over here now.” Roberto knows the areas where truffles have been found before — knowledge handed down from his uncle — but only Gaia can pinpoint their location.

After about five minutes of searching, Gaia suddenly scratches the dirt with her two front paws, sticks her nose in the hole and takes a big, unladylike snuffle. Roberto grabs her and pulls her back from the little indentation. “You have to stop them, because if they dig down to the truffle, they might eat it,” he says. Roberto takes out an eight-inch tool, rather like a miniature hoe, and carefully carves the dirt away from what turns out to be a black truffle the size of a walnut. He wraps it in a square of paper and tucks it into a pocket.

Then Roberto turns back to the hole and scoops up some loamy, black earth. “Smell it,” he says. We take a puzzled sniff and discover that even the earth reeks of truffle. It’s a musky, sultry, decadent, decidedly sexual scent. “They only give off this aroma when they are ripe,” he tells us, “So the dogs only find them when they are ready.” He carefully replaces the dirt and layer of dead leaves where the truffle was extracted. Any evidence might tip off other truffle hunters who could later snatch more truffles from this patch when they’ve ripened.

All this stealth is due to the fact that truffles mostly grow wild (they’re starting to be cultivated in a few places by treating tree roots with spores, but it’s a long, iffy process). An official truffle hunter — trifolau , as the Italians call them — must take a test and obtain a permit to roam around in search of the fabulous fungi.

We tromp across a field to a cluster of oak trees, another of Roberto’s favorite hunting grounds. “I am relieved,” he says. “I was worried maybe we wouldn’t find any truffles. Gaia is a little nervous with strangers around.”

As Gianni translates this, he comments that, in the famous truffle territory around Alba, truffle hunts are often staged for tourists with “planted” truffles. “It is like, like . . . like Pasqua,” he huffs, his indignation overcoming his command of English.

“Easter,” I guess. “It’s like an Easter egg hunt!”

“Si, si,” he replies, as Gaia scampers off and starts digging.

This time Roberto, who’s been trying to follow our conversation, is late on the grab, and Gaia gobbles what must have been a chick pea-size truffle, despite his efforts to pry it from her jaws. Episodes such as this explain why Italians use dogs to search for truffles, rather than pigs, Roberto says. It’s not uncommon for French truffle hunters to be missing a finger or two from tussles with their truffle-crazed porkers.

As we stride across the hillside toward a lone oak tree, we ask what type of dog Gaia is. “He says he only uses bastardi.” Gianni translates. “They make the best truffle dogs. Bastardi — you know?”

“Mutts,” I tell him. What else could it mean?

“Only females,” Roberto adds. “The males are too distracted by other smells.” I nod and smile a knowing female smile.

The dogs are trained from an early age with tiny pieces of truffle, and by the time they’re full-fledged truffle hunters, Roberto claims, they’re worth about 3000 euros, or more than $3,500. So Gaia, who by now is wet, matted and muddy, is more valuable than many a pampered purebred. She proves her worth by bagging a white truffle, the most valuable of them all. Roberto gingerly digs it out, wraps it and places it in a pocket on the inside of his jacket. “I keep the white ones close to me,” he says, smiling.

Rain earlier in the day rinsed competing smells out of the air, so the truffles are easier to find, Roberto tells us. Hunting is good at night, too, when there are fewer odors, “but there are wild boars and they can kill the dogs,” he adds. Dusk is closing in, and Gaia disappears with Roberto into a clutch of dense brush. Like a gullible camper who’s just been told a ghost story, I listen for the grunts of a cinghiale that could materialize from the underbrush at any moment and impale me on its vicious tusks.

Roberto and Gaia emerge, trailed by neither a boar nor a man with a bloody hook. The light is so dim that we decide to call it a day, and trudge through the mud to a modest home nearby, where Gianni wants to say hello to some friends. A woman comes to the door holding a partly assembled jacket lapel. “She does hand-finish work for some of the top Italian couture,” Gianni says as he introduces us. Within just three hours, I’ve hunted legendary little lumps of astronomical value, escaped wild boars and come upon a magical cottage where Armani suits appear.

We bid goodbye to Roberto and tell him if he visits the United States, we will take him on a hunt for parking spaces, which are nearly as rare as truffles. He refuses a gratuity, which we’d conspired with Gianni to present, just as he’d refused an offer of payment when the expedition was organized. “It is my pleasure,” he maintains.

At this point, I could use a spot more grappa, but we are late for dinner, where Silvana is going to show us what she can do with the precious fungus.

Silvana, we’d learned, ran a restaurant for 25 years, and her meals so far have been feasts, even sans truffles. She brings out two white ones for us to choose from, telling us they are sold by the gram. They sit royally on a small wooden tray beneath a glass dome. Paul dubs it a “truffle trap.” Appropriate, because when Silvana lifts the lid, a cloud of captured truffle musk escapes and wafts out to seduce us. We choose our truffle and she carefully brushes it off, telling us in a combination of English, French and Italian that truffles should never be cleaned until just before they’re eaten.

Silvana overwhelms us with a seven-course extravaganza, including three dishes topped with truffles, which she shaves at the table, letting the steam transport the potent truffle aroma up to our noses. The food is simple, so the truffles can star: small crepes, oozing with rich local cheese; homemade, hand-cut tagliatelli in a light sauce of butter and milk; and an egg, sunny-side up. This is the perfect finish to a successful treasure hunt. Except Paul isn’t finished.

“Santa Silvana,” he asks (having granted her sainthood by this point), “could I have scrambled eggs con tartufi for breakfast?”

Silvana looks puzzled. “For breakfast?”

“Yes,” Paul replies, giving her the same deprived, heart-melting look Gaia flashed when she was pulled away from a truffle.

“Why not?” Silvana says, laughing.

© 2005 Gayle Keck
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Hawaii – The Best of the Islands


2010
05.16

Hawaii – The Best of the Islands
Four Seasons

Primeval, Postmodern Nidzica


2009
05.20

picture120In the castle courtyard, cobblestones slicked with rain, a Teutonic knight was sneaking a cigarette. He sported an ankle-length, sea-green hooded tunic cinched with a broad blue sash. A rectangular swath of watermelon-colored cloth fit over his head, reaching the full length of his tunic, and a forest-green mantle capped his shoulders. The setting and sartorial style were ancient; the bright colors and wreath of cigarette smoke, vibrantly modern.

In his own way, this errant knight symbolized the churning, startling blend of old and new in Poland’s lake country. Our knight was really a hotel guest, and so were we.

Last March my husband, Paul, and I visited this medieval castle, the gem of Nidzica (nih-JEET-sah), a small town about 100 miles north of Warsaw. Paul was attending a conference here; I wanted to investigate a land of more than 1,000 lakes, primeval forests, castles and historic sites. It’s an area popular with vacationing Poles but little known by those outside the country.

Chilly, damp weather prevented me from paddling on any lakes, but I was able to explore the historic riches of the region. My most surprising find, though, turned out to be three unusual, wildly different lodgings that catapult a visitor from the 21st century back to the 14th.

Eight years ago, Nidzica Castle was in ruins, ravaged by years of lax communist stewardship. But in its nearly 700-year history, the castle has suffered at the hands of more aggressive attackers, from Swedes and Tatars in the 17th century to Napoleon’s army and Cossacks in the 19th. With loan guarantees from a local development foundation, it was rebuilt and now contains the 25-room Hotel Gregorovius and Zamku restaurant, as well as a local museum, library, arts center and meeting rooms.

The castle dominates the town from the top of a steep, tree-dotted hill. Entry is first through an outer ward, protected by a wall and gatehouse. Then a low, thick archway leads to the iron portcullis, a heavy gate made to clang shut in the face of invaders before they reached the inner courtyard. Today, fortunately, the most dangerous part of Nidzica Castle is the seductive selection of vodkas behind the bar.

The hotel occupies the castle’s eastern wing, connected to the rest of the building by two huge square towers. The redbrick towers, capped by pyramidal tile roofs, loom more than 75 feet high, with stairways – “medieval StairMasters,” I called them – that lead to accommodations on four levels. With no elevators and no bellhops, this hotel is definitely for the fit. Handmade replicas of ancient swords, pikes and battle-axes decorate the corridors.

Standard accommodations are basic and neat, featuring compact, modern bathrooms equipped with shower stalls. The furnishings are pleasant but utilitarian, with a desk, chair and cable TV. Colors are in shades of brown and orange – aside from the bright pink sheets, which seemed flimsy. Our fourth-floor room faced the courtyard, with two ample windows set in the 3-foot-thick walls; the tower rooms (found only on the fifth floor) have a series of small, high windows.

The castle ravens provided morning wake-up service, swooping and calling from the ramparts. Gazing over the mossy roofs and into the misty courtyard, I found it easy to imagine Nidzica Castle as an ancient seat of power.

It was built by the Teutonic knights, invited to northern Poland in the 13th century to crush local Prussian pagans. The knights were German crusaders who continued to mercilessly grab land and wage war, even after exterminating virtually all the pagans. Soon they were unwelcome guests, and in 1410, the stage was set for a monumental battle.

The Teutonic knights fielded a force of 33,000 – heavy cavalry, well-equipped infantry and trained servants. The Poles came to battle with 40,000 troops, including Bohemians, Lithuanians, Russians (many of them peasants armed only with wooden clubs) and 1,100 Tatar horsemen. The Teutonic knights were so certain of victory that they had brought a huge supply of wine to celebrate.

I set out with Barbara Margol, head of the Nidzica Community Foundation whom I met at my husband’s conference, to see Grunwald battleground, where the confrontation unfolded. After a 30-mile drive on two-lane roads, we reached the entrance to the park, where two huge swords are thrust into the ground, evoking an episode that occurred just before the battle. A formidable sight, the Teutonic knights took the field at dawn, dressed in white tunics with black crosses and mounted on large horses. Polish King Jagiello refused to face them, preferring to let his opponents roast in the July heat while his forces rested in the forest.

The knights sent two emissaries to the Poles, taunting them by thrusting their swords into the ground and saying, “If you are afraid to come out and fight, our grand master sends you these additional weapons.”

Jagiello stood his ground and, as the battle finally unfolded, won the day with a series of maneuvers that took the seasoned knights by surprise. More than 20,000 were slain on each side, but the Teutonic knights’ rule was broken.

Like many historic battlefields, this one is lush green and eerily peaceful. Barbara fearlessly piloted her car around barricades and over grass to drive us up a hill in the center of the vast park. A chill wind swept over us as we stood on the hilltop staring up at the towering modern steel monument and toward the deep forests that still rim the area. I thought of victorious King Jagiello, who ordered the knights’ wine stash poured on the bloody ground to prevent his men from getting out of hand.

Every July 15, thousands of reenactors fight the battle again. I suspect, though, that the wine has a different fate in this modern version.

A trencherman’s feast

Back at Nidzica Castle, we were in for a treat. It was our turn to don the Teutonic knights’ garb (at-home wear, that is, without chain mail) and dine in medieval style. We assembled at a long table in a gallery high on the western side of the castle. I’m not a fan of theme restaurants, but this meal had a ring of authenticity. Local craftspeople attended, and between courses we could try our hand at woodcarving, working with stained glass or forming a clay bowl.

Our only utensils were a plank and a large wooden spoon. A river of beer flowed from earthenware pitchers. Crocks of pickles and sauerkraut were passed. We grabbed whole smoked trout and sausages hanging from wooden racks and ate with our hands. The trout was moist and sweet; the sausage, well, I had done my time on the medieval StairMaster for a moment such as this. I boldly dipped into a ramekin of fat (medieval butter) and spread a little onto dense, brown bread.

Next we were treated to chicken cooked in mead, an ancient liquor made from honey. Then the lights dimmed and the pièce de résistance arrived: a flaming roast pig. It was heavenly. I reevaluated my silly dependence on silverware, vowing to eat every meal with my hands from that day on.

Just when you think a Polish feast is over, the next course arrives. I said no to ebony-colored blood sausages but found the potato sausages, a local specialty, divine.

The rest of the meal was a blur of overabundance: baked potatoes, a savory corn pudding, apples. Taking a break, I sneaked behind a wall to the row of narrow window slits that allowed castle archers to rain arrows on their attackers. The lights of Nidzica glimmered calmly below. I smiled. My kingdom was at peace.

Following their dream

The next day, Barbara’s husband, Krzysztof, and I ventured 10 miles northeast from Nidzica to see a small, exclusive resort that opened late last spring. My first glimpse of Lemany Estate was a field of grazing horses. Then I spied a stable, with two graceful carriages and a painted sleigh parked beneath its eaves. Beyond a gentle rise, a scattering of half-timbered houses appeared.

Owner Marlena Liczmanska strode out to greet us. She and her husband, Janusz Studzinski, are former brewery executives who left Warsaw to realize a dream that includes four two-story guesthouses, furnished with antiques, fireplaces and saunas (but no kitchens).

Liczmanska spent years collecting the furnishings, from as far away as France. The beautiful 18th to 20th century pieces are so skillfully renovated that they look almost new. Each house is more than 1,000 square feet, with two bedrooms (plus a living room sofa bed) and two spacious baths; most have views down to pristine lakes, Kownatki and Katy, where beaches await swimmers, kayakers, windsurfers and fishermen. A main building holds a restaurant, disco and children’s playroom plus three bilevel suites. Liczmanska has lured two foreign-trained Polish chefs who buy many of their all-natural ingredients from local producers.

Lemany Estate figures to be a boon to the area’s limping economy, already employing a local architect and craftspeople to re-create the ancient regional Mazurian half-timbered style, which features dark crisscrossed exterior timbers supporting white stucco walls. Liczmanska even recycled old clay roof tiles from local buildings to add character to the new construction.

“Our friends were shocked,” she said, at her preference for using old tiles rather than new ones.

A 36-mile journey north of Nidzica took us to Olsztyn, the largest city in the Warmia/Mazuria region. Parts of its old town were heavily damaged in World War II, and many of the buildings have been reconstructed. The pedestrian area is guarded by an original towering brick gate, part of the ancient defenses. A 14th century castle, a short stroll from the main square, houses the Museum of Warmia and Mazuria, but was home to Nicolaus Copernicus, astronomer and scholar, from 1516 to 1521.

There Copernicus worked on his treatise postulating that Earth is not the center of the universe, or, as a well-known Polish saying goes, Copernicus “stopped the sun and moved the Earth.” High on one wall, remnants of his 20-foot-long astronomical table, painted in red and black, chart the spring and fall equinoxes. In the castle’s refectory is a small display about the astronomer, with reproductions of his simple instruments. Equally fascinating is the room’s intricate crystalline vaulting, also found in the Cathedral of St. Jacob (Katedra sw. Jakuba) across the town square.

We strolled across the square, passing up a tempting flea market to look at the cathedral. Staring up at the vaulting was like gazing into the depths of a huge diamond, a series of delicate geometric facets dancing together with mathematical precision. Senses dazzled and stomachs growling, we hit the road again, heading a few miles south to the hamlet of Stawiguda.

Inside an unassuming former school with a generic sign that merely proclaims “Hotel” resides one of the hippest establishments I’ve encountered. We never would have found it without a tip from a local design aficionado.

Hotel Galery69 was conceived by an architect couple, Malgorzata Zoltowska and Wojciech Zoltowski, as a gallery for their designs. Every piece of furniture in the hotel and every plate of food in the restaurant bears their distinctive touch. The look is light and airy, thanks to an abundance of natural wood, even though some of their furniture forms are massive.

We settled in at a restaurant table where we could take in the lake through picture windows. It was a contest between watching the light play off the “Scandinavian Zen” interiors or observing a pair of wild swans (the area is known for them) feeding just offshore.

The food was as clean and fresh as the design. The eclectic menu offers a modern take on traditional Polish foods, plus such diverse items as pasta and pizzas, even fondue.

We started with seafood chowder thick with salmon, shrimp and mussels, and a tomato soup laced with tiny half-moon-shaped pasta pierogi stuffed with mushrooms. The flavors were vibrant. We followed with grilled chicken breast kebabs that arrived with a subtle yogurt-based dipping sauce and an artful scattering of vegetables. Ultra-fresh Greek salads topped off the meal.

The upstairs accommodations echo the restaurant’s serenity and creativity. There are seven double rooms and three suites, some with kitchenettes; the nicest have terraces or views of the lake. Furnishings include sinuous sofas, rice paper lamps and a chunky wooden headboard evoking a silhouetted city bordered by rolling countryside.

Although the couple’s sensibilities would be at home in the world’s trendiest enclaves, their style was relaxed and welcoming. The one small downside: They spoke very little English, and we spoke very little Polish.

After surveying 700 years’ worth of sights, I’d ended up squarely back in the 21st century. And after all the Polish feasting, I hustled back home to a modern-day StairMaster.

© 2003 Gayle Keck
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Tango Crazy


2009
05.20

page-1-tango1

“Bang-bang! Bang-bang! Bang!”

Am I going tango crazy? Somewhere in our hotel workmen hammer, and I’m convinced my husband and I could dance to the beat. That’s how it is in Buenos Aires — the sexy, insidious tango sneaks into your soul.

This is our second trip to the capital city, so we know our first stop for a tango fix will be Cafe Tortoni, Argentina’s oldest (1858) coffeehouse, on the grand Avenida de Mayo. Most nights, the Tortoni stages two different tango shows in a velvet-draped back room, the Sala Alfonsina.

Lacking reservations, we are wait-listed for the 11:30 show. Finally, the manager wedges us into a tiny table near the minuscule stage. The place is so packed, waiters can barely squeeze by, trays of champagne and whiskey held high overhead.

The Sabatino Sexteto appears — a pianist, two violins, a bass and two bandoneon players who spread velvet cloths across their laps where they rest their instruments, distant cousins to the accordion. The first note is an attack, the start of a relentless piece by tango maestro Astor Piazzolla.

A pair of dancers twirls onstage. He wears a tuxedo, hair slicked back; her dress is slit to the thigh, revealing fishnets. Their feet move so fast it’s dizzying. A customer leans dangerously close to the stage, yet by some miracle avoids getting impaled on a high heel.

A singer belts out a number so heartfelt I expect her to burst into tears. After a costume change, she’s back to work the crowd, and doesn’t stop until each customer has revealed his home town and gotten a snippet of song.

The dancers return, bent on audience participation. They bring people up onstage and throw them around in giddy tango moves. I cower in my chair as the dashing male dancer pulls our Brazilian tablemate to her feet. Most victims go willingly — the tango has crept into their blood.

All in all, for $4 we get two spectacular pairs of dancers, two singers and three costume changes — washed down with $2 glasses of smooth Argentine champagne.

If you’re determined to spend more to see a flashy tourist show, most hotel concierges will be glad to oblige (kickbacks assure it). Typically, you’ll be picked up at your hotel and served dinner at a club featuring a show with grander dance numbers, multiple singers and plenty of costume changes.

We choose El Viejo Almacen, in a 200-year-old building where bohemians once gathered to hear the new tango music. The 240-seat house crackles with energy. Although this is a tourist show, the tourists are mostly from Latin America, so at times the crowd sings along with their sentimental favorites. The format is similar to the show at Cafe Tortoni, but less intimate (we don’t learn everybody’s home town). For $28 each, including two drinks but no dinner, we are well entertained.

Not a night owl? You can see tango by sunlight at impromptu performances around the city. We happen on dancers passing the hat along Calle Florida, a downtown pedestrian shopping street. They can often be found in the La Boca neighborhood, too. But the best selection is at the Sunday flea market in the San Telmo neighborhood, where pros and amateurs strut their moves as crowds gather ’round or peer from restaurant balconies.

One night, after a late dinner, we end up at the tiniest of tango clubs, Bar Sur, also in San Telmo, with 15 postage-stamp tables nestled around a black-and-white checkerboard dance floor. Pizza and empanadas are included with the $22 entrance fee. The nonstop entertainment features four dancers, a music trio, a male singer-guitarist and an older female singer who spills a lifetime of emotion into every number.

The inevitable audience participation moment arrives, and a stunning red-haired dancer invites my husband onto the floor. Paul takes the challenge, dredging up rusty moves from our wedding reception. So when a suave male dancer approaches me, I blurt one of my few Spanish phrases, “Si, como no?” — “Yes, why not?” As he twirls me across the floor, it feels like a sexy amusement park ride.

The next day, we decide we have to take lessons. The Academia Nacional del Tango, next to Cafe Tortoni, has a class that night with an English-speaking teacher for less than $2 a person.

We meet in a long, high-ceilinged room with chandeliers and parquet floors. Liliana, the teacher, introduces us to a fellow student who plants kisses on our cheeks as if we’re old friends. Liliana watches our moves, shaking her head, then dances separately with each of us. “Just relax!” she admonishes me. “Stop walking like Jerry Lewis!” she directs Paul.

By the end of class, we’ve learned three new steps. Liliana rewards us with kisses, as a lithe classmate calls, “You must come back and stay longer. Come to class again.”

Buoyed by our success, we decide to venture deep into the local tango scene by attending a milonga, a sort of floating dance party that few tourists encounter. We get the location from another tango teacher but are uncertain when the cab drops us at a deserted intersection at midnight. Then we hear music pouring from second-story windows, discover a stairway and pay our $2 fee.

The place is jammed. On the dance floor, couples lean into each other, packed tight, moving counterclockwise, gliding to recorded music. They are old, young, dressed in sequins and blue jeans.

Paul pilots me into the throng. I remember not to lead and to let the drama of the music wash over me. It is sexy, dangerous, a touch melancholy — and I have surrendered.

We leave the club at 2 a.m. A taxi scoops us up. On its door are silhouetted dancers and the name Tango Cab — as if to affirm that finally we, too, are dancers.

© 2004 Gayle Keck
Originally published in the Washington Post
Reprint rights to this article, including complete service
information, are available for purchase.
Photos are also available.

The Gîte Life


2009
05.19

“You’ve watched too many subtitled movies,” my husband accused. He was right. My sweet little fantasy played something like this:

It’s the South of France, deep summer. Dappled sunlight filters through an ancient fig tree, bathing a group of revelers in a magical glow. They pour crisp white wine from earthen pitchers, pass olives steeped in pungent herbes de Provence, tear off chunks of fresh baguette and laugh with contentment, while fat bees buzz lazily in the lavender. These enchanted beings inhabit a big ocher-colored farmhouse with foot-thick walls that hoard the morning’s coolness and stand solid against the force of Mistral winds . . .

Fortunately, I managed to stop swooning long enough to forage through the Web site of Gites de France (www.gites-de-france.fr). Gites (pronounced “zjeet”) are rural vacation rentals offered by private individuals but regulated and rated by the French government, which also operates a reservations system. The first gite opened in 1951 and, 53 years later, they number more than 42,000 throughout France and its territories.

The multilingual site lets you choose which regional department you’d like to visit (i.e., Normandy, Alsace, Cote d’Azur); then you can set up a series of criteria, ranging from proximity to a particular city or tourist attraction to whether a property accepts pets. Gites are also rated on levels of comfort and amenities, and the listings also indicate which languages proprietors speak.

One of the program’s best features is price. When I first clicked around looking at country houses, I mistakenly thought they were priced by the day; closer inspection revealed the prices were for an entire week. For an average cost of about $370, you can spend seven days living the gite life.

Then, surfing the site’s Bouches-du-Rhone area of Provence, I found it — an old ocher farmhouse that seemed to have been lifted straight from my most seductive reveries. There was even an outdoor table set under a vine-covered pergola.

I faxed the owner, who sent more photos and floor plans; our deposit check went out the next day to reserve the last two weeks in September. As I addressed the envelope, I smiled, noting that there was neither a street name nor a house number. It was simply a place near a small village, where it seemed everyone knew how to find it.

We, of course, needed directions. The proprietor had provided good ones, and we drove a half-hour north from Aix-en-Provence, then counted 2.2 kilometers from the nearby village, spotting the canal, the neighboring winery and finally the half-hidden gravel drive.

As our rental car passed a row of cypress trees marking the property, a mammoth shaggy dog raced across our path and ran circles around the car, barking like mad. We crept along with our canine escort until the house emerged from its sheltering greenery — exactly like those evocative French movies.

A toothy, old-fashioned key rested in the lock. There was a note in French: “Madame et Monsieur, welcome! Please make yourselves at home.”

We pushed open the thick wooden door. The ground floor of our new place in Provence held a dining room/kitchen with a big table at its heart, draped in traditional Provencal fabric — a wild combination of paisley and sunflowers. The kitchen cabinets sprouted hand-painted morning glories.

Across the hall we found a sitting room with cloth-covered walls and a jaunty flock of ceramic chickens. Next to the stairs was a “water closet” with a toilet and a washing machine, plus a small bathroom with a pedestal sink and claw-footed tub. Upstairs, two huge bedrooms and a WC/shower combination completed our gite. Everywhere, a riot of sun-drenched Provencal colors and patterns echoed the local lavender, olives and sunflowers.

I unpacked the supplies we’d picked up at the supermarket just outside of town, while Paul sifted through a mountain of tourist information. A binder held detailed instructions (in French) for the appliances, told us where to deposit trash (a dumpster down the road), described hiking trails and listed the days and locations for local markets. Brochures heralded everything from a nearby zoo to the village museum. And, mixed in with all this, a forgotten photo gave us a peek of a past guest’s birthday celebration.

As a chicken doused with olive oil and herbs roasted rather experimentally in the mysterious convection oven, we relaxed at our vine-shaded outdoor table, sipping a dry local white. Beyond massive fig and walnut trees, a lush lawn rolled down to the road where, every so often, we could hear a car whoosh past. To the west, green rows of butter lettuce caught the setting sun and, in the far distance, elevated tracks of the high-speed TGV train — an echo of the aqueducts that criss-crossed Provence in Roman times — were a reminder that this idyll was really taking place in the 21st century.

Just as we were finishing dinner, our host, Xavier Gombert, appeared at the door, offering a bottle of rosé in his work-worn farmer’s hands. Gombert’s weathered face made it difficult to guess his age, but I gauged that he was in his early forties. Forced to provide my own subtitles, I strained to decipher his Provencal-accented French, lavish with rolling R’s. He apologized profusely for the lack of a personal welcome and explained that our hostess, his partner, was still with her father, who was recovering from surgery. When we offered the $688 payment for our two-week stay, he shrugged. “No, no hurry, Marilyne will take care of that one of these days.”

Gombert also introduced us to our canine greeter, Lou-Lou. “He will run around and around your car, but just keep driving. He thinks he is herding you!” Sure enough, when we set out the next morning to visit a Sunday market, Lou-Lou bounded over, prepared to prevent our silly car from wandering off. We managed to escape without flattening him and headed for the nearby market at Pelissanne.

Like good French, we parked halfway on the sidewalk, then followed locals carrying market baskets to the heart of town. Butchers, cheese-makers and olive purveyors all beckoned. Tablecloths fluttered in the breeze like sunny flags of summer.

We breathed in the rich aroma of roasting chickens and the clean scent of verbena soaps. Paul presented me with a fat bouquet of sunflowers, and we couldn’t resist buying olive and sun-dried tomato tapenade from the woman who offered us a sample. Fresh goat cheese tasted of the green countryside; we gathered up small rounds of chevre crusted with cracked pepper for about $1 apiece.

Although I chose to practice my French when shopping the markets, non-speakers shouldn’t fear. Paul found that hand signals got him through most transactions.

Basil is a key ingredient in Provencal cuisine, so I asked to purchase a bunch. “Are you sure you want that type?” the produce man inquired. “Smell.” And he crushed one of the large leaves in his hand. Then he bruised the tiny half-inch leaves of another variety and offered them up to my nose. “This is real Provencal basil,” he declared. No contest. I chose the pungent Provencal version he plucked from a bucket — roots, dirt and all.

Our gite took up the right side of the old farmhouse, with our proprietors’ home filling out the rest. Around the corner, a recent addition housed a second gite. Late the next day, a road-weary German family pulled up to occupy Gite No. 2.

Regarding these neighbors, let’s just say that German isn’t the most soothing language when shouted by two small children frolicking below your bedroom window at 7:30 am. The gite system is set up to be kid-friendly; many owners even offer cribs. But to avoid surprises, we learned it’s best to choose gites that are stand-alone houses or to inquire about other guests.

Aside from the early-morning wake-up calls, we sank into the country life as if it were a big, comfy armchair — though the characters from my French film reverie might have been puzzled to see Paul run a phone cord though the gite’s front window to our laptop, so we could catch up on e-mail under the bougainvillea vine.

We wandered through small stone villages like Lourmarin and larger towns like Aix-en-Provence, with its sprawling Thursday and Saturday markets. I even spotted local resident John Malkovich poking around the Aix marché.

We ate simply but well, cooking most of our own meals in the gite’s well-equipped kitchen. A fall harvest of fresh figs, apples and walnuts were free for the picking, just outside our door. I feasted on my favorite tiny green beans, haricots verts. Paul reveled in cheeses — the stinkier and runnier, the better. And, I admit, we popped a frozen pizza in the oven now and then. Yes, after the initial trepidation, we’d deciphered our oven’s baffling icons and were converts to speedy convection cooking.

When we encountered Marilyne, she seemed loath to unburden us from the wad of cash we were toting around. “We’ll do the paperwork tonight,” she suggested. She was equally unperturbed when we lost our key during a shopping expedition: “Don’t worry, it’s your vacation!” she counseled us.

At the end of our two-week stay, we rose early for an activity I’ve never witnessed in those golden-hued French films: housecleaning. Guests are expected to give their gite a thorough scrubbing, which took about two hours.

Looking like Les Beverly Hillbillies, we loaded up our tiny Renault with leftover food, paper towels, laundry detergent and our hardy basil plant. We presented our hosts with flowers, collected a kiss on each cheek from Marilyne and headed out — with a rousing send-off from Lou-Lou.

“BARK, BARK, BARK, BARK BARK!”

The last subtitles of my French country reverie floated over the final scene.

Freelance writer Gayle Keck recommends “My Mother’s Castle” (with English subtitles) as the quintessential French countryside flick.

© 2004 Gayle Keck
Originally published in the Washington Post
Reprint rights to this article, including complete service
information, are available for purchase
Photos are also available

[original excerpt, Bradley changed]
It’s the South of France, deep summer. Dappled sunlight filters through an ancient fig tree, bathing a group of revelers in a magical glow. They pour crisp white wine from earthen pitchers, pass olives steeped in pungent herbes de Provence, tear off chunks of fresh baguette and laugh with contentment, while fat bees buzz lazily in the lavender.

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South Africa, Ten Years After


2009
05.19

picture1001“Apartheid made me stronger. It made me what I am today,” Naomi tells me, as we gaze off her balcony onto the choppy waters of Knysna Lagoon and the sweep of green hills that frame it.

My eyes snap away from the view to study her face. Most of us would consider Naomi a victim of apartheid, the brutal set of race laws the South African government enforced until just over 10 years ago, when Nelson Mandela led a peaceful transition to democracy. Naomi prefers not to see it that way.

“We knew we had to work for every little thing we got. I feel like it gave me the strength to make my dreams a reality,” she explains.

No kidding. Naomi has run a bed-and-breakfast out of her home since 1999, and now her sights are set on opening a “real” hotel.

A decade ago, it would have been nearly impossible for a traveler to encounter somebody like Naomi Fick. Under apartheid, people of color had little opportunity to participate in the tourism business — or, what there was of it. Back in 1993, with the country emerging from international sanctions, there were only 618,508 overseas visitors; by last year, that number had jumped to 1.88 million, making tourism the country’s fourth-largest industry. And according to the government, a development program has created more than 600 black-owned tourism businesses, along with 10,000 jobs.

South Africa has exotic animals, wine valleys, spectacular beaches and stunning scenery, not to mention a Southern Hemisphere location that lets its top overseas visitors — Europeans and Americans — swap winter for summer. My husband, Paul, and I wanted to visit for all of the above. We also hoped to get a feel for South Africa’s people, and how they are faring in this reinvented country. On our weeklong road trip east from Cape Town to the country’s famed Garden Route, we made a pact to seek out both views and points of view.

Cape Town Sampler

Cape Town is South Africa’s No. 1 destination for international visitors, and we have one day to sample a dizzying number of offerings. To cope, we’ve quashed our independent streak and hired guide Ezzat Davids, 27, who scoops us up in a minivan. Ezzat tells us he’s Cape Malay, a deceptive term for people who generally aren’t Malaysian but descendants of Indonesian slaves shipped over by the Dutch.

Under apartheid, Cape Malays were classed as “colored,” a catchall for some 8 percent of South Africans who were neither pure black nor lily-white. “They used to do the ‘pencil test,’ ” Ezzat says. “They’d push a pencil into your hair and if it fell out, you could be classified as colored. They measured the widths of noses, too.” For a moment I think, I don’t want to know about this; it’s in the past. But then I realize I can only understand where South Africa is today if I can grasp where it’s been.

Ezzat drives us to the Cape Flats townships — “township” being the euphemism for settlements where non-whites were confined. It’s astonishing to think that whites, a mere 10 percent of the population, managed to wield this kind of power for so long.

Khayelitsha, a black township, is home to nearly a million souls, a vast expanse of tiny shacks cobbled together with corrugated metal and plastic sheeting. We roll down narrow streets, dodging scrawny dogs and barefoot kids who dance alongside the van. On a corner, oil drums slashed in half have become barbecues and women flip chunks of meat while customers wait.

“Can we get out?” I ask. “It’s safe,” Ezzat says, anticipating a question I hadn’t posed. As we hop down, music spills from a small cinderblock building, a church with no pews. Through the open door, I see women standing in a circle, singing, swaying, clapping.

We walk down the street to the Philani Nutrition Project, a community-based program where children are nurtured while their mothers weave rugs or learn silk-screening. A small shop sells their work, an example of how tourism mingles with the new economy.

In the old days, few whites would dare enter a township. Now here I am, buying a T-shirt that proclaims “Pleasure Joy Ecstasy.”

In another township with small, blocky, government-built houses, children run up when we stop to snap a photo. They’re entranced by the display on our digital camera, hoisting brothers and sisters to watch them appear in the magical screen. Ezzat tells us that during apartheid, black children weren’t allowed to learn math or physical sciences. “What the former government achieved was total annihilation of pride,” he says.

The past 10 years have brought electricity and paved roads to many of the Cape Flats townships. Gugulethu now has a College of Cape Town campus. Yet refugees flood from impoverished rural areas, swelling township populations; it’s clear freedom isn’t the magic fix some had dreamed.

Tea, Tilly and Prison

“I call it ‘Mother’s home-cooking from the heart,’ ” Shireen Salie tells us as she serves up a feast in her suburban back yard. A chalkboard announces that we are in Boeta Ebrihima’s Cape Malay Restaurant. Swaths of blue fabric tent the dining area; it feels like we’ve tumbled into “The Arabian Nights.” Shireen plies us with triangular meat pies, samosas, masala chicken, mutton curry and sweet almond rice, while her husband, Ebrahim, sporting a jaunty crimson fez, spins tales of the Cape Malays.

In their Muslim household, Ebrahim rules the table and Shireen rules the kitchen, appearing only to deliver more food. “This country has been so good to me!” she exclaims, telling us that her mother took in laundry to make ends meet. We sip rooibos tea and samplekoeksisters, little deep-fried clouds of dough steeped in exotic spices. Shireen beams as we praise these bits of heaven, then rushes off to pack take-away boxes of nearly everything we’ve sampled. “That restaurant food isn’t so good,” she frets, reminding Ezzat to drive safely as she hugs us goodbye.

We’re on our way to one of Cape Town’s star attractions, Robben Island: leprosy colony, World War II defense station, UNESCO World Heritage Site and Mandela’s prison for 18 years. Like another famous island prison, Alcatraz, it has dazzling views of a city just out of reach — unless your eyesight was ruined in the glaring white limestone quarry, where many political prisoners were forced to work.

At the cellblock, we’re met by former prisoner Modise Phekonyane, who, at age 19, was jailed here for five years. He describes life in prison — how different races received different rations, how contraband books were smuggled between prisoners, how he read the dictionary from cover to cover twice — then leads us to Mandela’s cell. I ask how he could possibly return to this place. “They made me an offer I couldn’t refuse,” he says, telling us that former prisoners now share profits from Robben Island tourism.

Later on, 35 miles outside Cape Town near the Stellenbosch winelands, we show up tardy at our B&B, Tilly’s Homestay. “I was worried about you!” Tilly Van Zitters fusses. It’s a comfy kind of fussy, though, and the place is immaculate. Between her and Shireen, I’m starting to think South Africa should just put mothers in charge of running the country.

In choosing our lodging, we skipped the posh guesthouses on the main street of Paarl and crossed the river, once the end of white territory and the beginning of apartheid land. In this neighborhood of small, worn homes, Tilly and Jack Van Zitters’s two-story place looms large, behind a beauteous flower garden.

Tilly looks to be in her early sixties, with a cafe-au-lait complexion, and boy, can she cook. She serves up cold plum soup, paella, chicken Kiev and salad lavished with ripe papaya. As we tuck in, she joins us, telling how in 1968, after an apartheid clampdown, her family was forced to move to this side of the river. Her contractor husband built their house himself. With her kids grown, she thought she’d attend a development program for aspiring home-stay proprietors. The problem is, nobody’s been training the tourists. “Most people don’t know I’m an option,” she says.

Villages by the Sea

There’s nothing like dipping your toe in a brand-new ocean. We splash into the chilly surf at Stilbaai, a little town set where the Goukou River spills into the Indian Ocean. About 220 miles from Paarl, it’s become a vacation mecca, thanks to whale-watching and pristine, powdery beaches. After two days exploring the ovenlike winelands, water is a welcome change. “Can you believe it’s January?!” my husband shouts, as a wave smacks him.

Our hosts at Hibiscus House B&B, Mike and Louise Steytler, have invited us to a fish braai (“barbecue” in Afrikaans) with the other guests, a couple from the Netherlands. Mike keeps our glasses brimming with sauvignon blanc and greets neighbors who paddle up in a canoe, all while instructing us in the art of the braai, his wood-fueled brick altar to barbecue. The local cob fish is moist and delicate, complemented by a spread of salads and braai bread stuffed with tomato, cheese and onion.

As sunset floods orange across the still river waters, we chat about the town and its people. “There’s no crime here,” Mike says, “because if we see a colored person on the street at night, we know he doesn’t belong. And it’s the same for the village up the road, Melkhoutfontein. If they see a white person at night, they know he’s up to no good.”

I avoid the urge to debate this crime-busting strategy and sip a glass of Amarula, liqueur made from a native fruit. Little do I know, two white people will be on the streets of Melkhoutfontein tomorrow night — us.

The village of Melkhoutfontein is 2 1/2 miles inland from Stilbaai, which seems odd because it’s always eked by on the dangerous, fickle fishing trade. In 1994, unemployment in Melkhoutfontein stood at 85 percent and the town lacked electricity, plumbing and paved roads. Now tourism is the new hope. Stilbaai’s boom has brought jobs and a better standard of living; locals are even looking to make Melkhoutfontein a destination itself.

We meet up with Sheryldene Kleinhans, a young woman who runs the tourist office. She walks us past a new clinic, playground and senior center.

Outside town, a stone church stands on a hill. In the graveyard, many headstones are worn smooth, the oldest graves marked by piles of rocks. Two cows graze among the dead. Sheryldene tells us old folks buy coffins in advance and store them in the rafters of their houses. “My grandmother is very superstitious,” she says. “She covers all the mirrors and windows with blankets when there’s lightning.”

The town’s fishermen are superstitious, too. They refuse to live within view of the ocean, believing it’s bad luck. “But,” she claims, “they can predict weather better than a TV meteorologist, just by looking at the sky — and the old women can read tea leaves, too.” A gust of wind snakes through the graveyard, a cow rears its head and looks me in the eye, and I shiver.

Down at the ocean, Sheryldene shows us ancient fish traps, arced walls of stones that loop into the surf, trapping fish when the tide flows out. They’re still used by some Melkhoutfontein residents, descendants of the Khoisan people who first built them hundreds of years ago.

Usually it’s possible to arrange a braai here on the beach, but today the wind has kicked up to sandblasting force and we flee back to the tourist office. A table is spread with baked cob fish;chakalaka, an addictive vegetable relish; and fresh homemade bread paired with melon jam and honey from local fynbos plants. We’re joined by other locals: a young couple, Juanita and Hendrik, and Sybil, a rowdy 50-year-old. Though Afrikaans is the first language of Melkhoutfontein, the dinner guests all speak English.

Paul and I tell the story of how we met on an airplane, and Sybil says she met her husband while attending a funeral in Melkhoutfontein. “I love him like I love my feet — they are ugly, but they’re mine,” she exclaims. The night speeds by and we discover we’ve spent four hours at the table, swapping stories like old pals. With a flurry of hugs and photos, we part. I look out on the still streets of Melkhoutfontein. Tonight we are friends, not suspects.

‘My Momma’s Back’

Depending on who you are, Mossel Bay holds the great (or dubious) distinction of being the first spot where Europeans set foot in South Africa. Sixty-three miles down the road from Stilbaai, this broad harbor is home to nearly 100,000 people and a tree reputed to be South Africa’s oldest post office. The Bartolomeu Dias Museum boasts a full-sized — but shockingly tiny — replica of the Portuguese caravel that landed here in 1488 (this one repeated the voyage in 1988).

Mossel Bay guide Jauckie Viljoen is a new entrepreneur who happens to be white. He matter-of-factly tells us that racial quotas caused him to lose his job as a medical technician, so he turned to tourism. Now he introduces travelers to interesting local characters: a sixth-generation oyster harvester, an ostrich farmer, a fifth-generation furniture craftsman, plucky women who’ve started a sewing business.

Jauckie takes us to meet Lovelyness Mpumlo, who opened the first alcohol-free shebeen (informal cafe) in a township. Its name, Emqolweni Kamama, means “My Momma’s Back.” Lovelyness tells us that since African mothers traditionally carry infants on their backs, the name symbolizes security and safety.

“I didn’t have a good life as a child, so I want these children to have better,” she says, serving up cake and coffee while kids cavort in the cafe’s playground.

South African Rainbow

We’ve seen everything in South Africa, from swanky suburban housing developments swathed in barbed wire to wretched township settlements — and a lot in between. But the first place I spot an interracial couple is in Knysna, about 73 miles east of Mossel Bay, where pricey new homes hang from the headlands cliffs and mellow attitudes prevail. From Naomi’s Islandview Guesthouse, I can look down on a neighborhood that’s home to a mixture of races.

For dinner, Naomi lays out an Afro-Malay feast including fried fish, lamb, mashed pumpkin and homemade cheesecake. A rainbow assortment of guests, family and neighbors wanders through the scene.

Chatting on her balcony, Naomi says she started taking in lodgers because there were no places catering to blacks — they weren’t allowed at hotels. As sunset paints the lagoon gold and the sky softens to a velvet blue, she describes the 30-room hotel she wants to build. I tell her there’s no doubt I’ll be checking in the next time I’m in town.

© 2004 Gayle Keck
Originally published in the Washington Post
Reprint rights to this article, including complete service
information, are available for purchase
Photos are also available

The Elephants of Addo


2008
05.20

“Roll up your window,” my husband muttered, easing his camera down.  A bull elephant was sauntering toward our car.  But it turned out he was more interested in a tempting tuft of grass than charging our dusty Toyota.  We settled back to watch him scuff up the short grass with his front foot, then toss it in the air with his trunk to shake loose the dust before devouring his treat.

Paul and I were visiting Addo Elephant National Park, on South Africa’s Eastern Cape, home to over 400 elephants living naturally in the wild.  Unlike some game reserves, you can drive yourself on your own “safari” at Addo, visiting watering holes and feeding grounds, where it’s possible to watch families of 50 or more magnificent beasts as they spray water on their backs, play in the mud or rip up a shrub to have a little snack.

We’d arrived at the park that afternoon, following a leisurely 6-day expedition along the Garden Route that unwinds eastward from Cape Town to Port Elizabeth.  As we headed inland, driving the 45 miles between Port Elizabeth and Addo, the lush, seaside landscapes gave way to arid vistas punctuated by cactus and scrub.

When we crossed the park boundary, a sign warned that citrus fruits are forbidden inside the grounds – a remnant of Addo’s past.  The park was created in 1931, when local elephants had been hunted almost to extinction; only 11 remained in the region.  They were lured to the park grounds with oranges, and though none of those original animals is still alive, park management still fears the elephants might get a little too enthusiastic if they catch a whiff of citrus.

We pulled into what’s known as Rest Camp, headquarters for food, lodging and activities, and the heat smacked us the minute we stepped from the car.  It was well over 90.  After stocking up on essential safari provisions – cold drinks, potato chips and ice cream bars – we were ready to head out.  A quick check with ranger headquarters told us elephants had been spotted at the Hapoor waterhole, “But they’re probably heading off by now,” the ranger cautioned.

“We should have gotten up earlier,” I grumbled, as we jumped back in the car.  We passed through a gated checkpoint into the wildlife area, where every vehicle gets a number to track their comings and goings.  A sign cautioned us not to run over dung beetles, the insects that collect neat little balls of elephant and buffalo dung, then lay their eggs inside.  The flightless dung beetle is found almost exclusively in Addo territory.

We were looking for larger creatures, though.  I peered into the dense, gnarled shrubbery known as spekboom, that stood about six feet high.  It’s said these thorny, sharp-leaved plants deterred hunters and saved the original elephants of Addo.

Following our park map, we left the blacktop and turned onto a gravel road.  We knew from an earlier experience at a private game park that spotting wildlife is a fickle proposition.  In two days of professional game drives, we’d seen only a patch of an elephant’s distant rear end through the thick forest.  Surely, I’d hoped, we’d have better luck here.

And then the road widened and we were at Hapoor.  We both gasped and Paul edged our car into a spot among four or five other vehicles to watch a herd of female elephants and their offspring.  They surrounded the waterhole, sucking the muddy water into their trunks, spraying it over their backs or splashing it onto their stomachs.

A youngster waded into the water, lay down and wallowed in the soothing mud.  Others joined in.  Then a baby, not much more than a year old clambered down the bank.  “She’ll never get back up,” I worried.  But when it came time, one of her larger pals pushed from behind as an adult gripped her trunk to get her safely on dry ground.

I noticed how an older elephant slept standing up with her relaxed trunk draped over a tusk, how two adult females greeted each other by entwining their trunks, and how a young male reached out with his trunk and tweaked another youngster’s penis (the elephant equivalent locker room high jinx?).

The elephants went about their business, not seeming to care that ecstatic tourists were  snapping a flurry of photos just 50 feet away.  A tour bus even pulled up and disgorged a group of Chinese who, against park rules, clambered out to snap each others’ portraits with elephants in the background.  The elephants moved a bit further away from the ruckus, but otherwise didn’t react.

The Addo elephants are surprisingly nonchalant about humans because, in the history of the park, the herd has never been culled.  At Kruger, South Africa’s larger and better-known reserve, elephants are killed to keep their numbers down, making them more wary and hostile.  Addo has plans in place to almost triple the park’s size – to 1.2 million acres – so their elephants have plenty of growing room.

Ready for a snack, the elephants wandered away from the waterhole, grazing on the nearby grass.  We motored slowly along with them, keeping a respectful distance.  Youngsters practiced at scuffing up grass, just as the adults did, but would also pause to nurse while their mothers ate.  Elephants have 60,000 muscles in their trunks, a ranger had told us, but calves don’t really master the full use of this amazing appendage until they are six years old.

A tourist flaunted the rules by edging his SUV off the road, closer to the moving herd.  Before long, the vehicle was surrounded and a young bull was giving it a thorough examination with his extended trunk.  The driver got the message and gingerly backed out onto the road.

We parked as the elephants fanned out and dug for tender roots ripping entire shrubs from the ground.  One even wedged a branch behind his tusk to periodically munch on it in between other morsels.

We later learned that elephants have six sets of teeth in a lifetime, with molars the size of bricks.  The longevity of their teeth determines their lifespan; once they’ve worn out their final set of teeth, they die.  Because of the tough vegetation in Addo, elephants there tend to have a slightly shorter life because it’s harder on their teeth.  They live to an average age of 65.

Suddenly, a couple of elephants grazing near us decided to cross the road.  Others followed, and we watched the entire procession file in front of us.  Reluctantly, after they passed, we headed back to Rest Camp, where we were set to meet up with our host for the night.

We’d originally hoped to spend both nights in park lodgings, but since we visited in January, the high season, we were only able to book our second night inside the park.  I was fighting off elephant separation anxiety when Archie Hitge pulled up in a battered white pick-up.  “I have some lost Germans,” he called out holding up his cell phone, “but I’m going to take you back to the lodge first.”

After following him for 20 minutes, we turned onto a maze of gravel roads, passing citrus orchards, then pastures filled with ostriches and finally a corral of African buffalo, at last arriving at Hitgeheim Lodge.  We’d booked on the recommendation of a travel agent, without knowing a lot of details.  Fortunately, we were in for a treat.

The lodge, only three months old, has five spacious cottages perched atop a hill looking out over the Sundays River Valley.  As Donald, one of the young, enthusiastic staff, opened the door to our accommodations, I saw a bed piled with luxe pillows and draped in a gauzy canopy of mosquito netting, cool slate floors and antique chairs re-upholstered in ostrich leather.  Sliding doors opened on a spectacular view of orchards far below.  The bathroom, alone larger than most hotel rooms, looked out over the hills and featured a second, outdoor shower for sudsing with scenery.   Overhead, a soaring African-style thatched roof scented the rooms with sweet, grassy perfume.

Archie had invited us to join him in the boma for “drinks and snacks” before dinner, so after washing away the Addo dust, we headed to the combination guest lounge/porch.  “Come on down to the wine cellar and pick out what you want,” Archie beckoned.  Paul complied and surfaced with a pleasing Pinotage priced at 80 rand; we’d generally found South African reds to be more interesting than the whites.

The lost “Germans” had been retrieved – and turned out to be French, from Reunion.  We chatted about elephant spotting until Donald arrived to recite the night’s menu and lead us to dinner.  In the candlelit, antique-filled dining room, we sampled cold carrot and ginger soup, salad with smoked kudu (a type of antelope), lamb shank and a dense, buttery cake-like “pudding” with whipped cream for dessert.

Archie served as shorts-wearing sommelier and revealed that his college-age daughter was in charge of the kitchen that night.  “My wife usually does the cooking, but she’s out of town until tomorrow morning,” he said.  Then a conspiratorial aside, “She hates it that I won’t dress up.”

While Paul sipped a super-sweet dessert wine, I asked Archie if the family had previous experience in the hotel business.  “No, he said, I’ve always been in the ostrich business,  but we have good friends who own lodges and they encouraged us.  We want to keep the place small and personal.”  He went on to tell me that he and his wife, Marietjie, designed and built the complex themselves, laying out the design with strings and pegs.

“If you want to see the animals, you can go along on the truck when they feed them,” Archie offered.  We agreed to meet up at 7:15 am, then retreated to our cottage, while cracks of lightening danced in the gathering clouds.

The next morning we bounced along in a land rover truck with Lize, the young woman in charge of feeding and egg collecting, visiting breeding ostriches and their offspring of various ages.  Some of the males greeted their meal with a crouching, flapping, neck-waggling mating dance.

Lize offered to show us the hatchery, but made us pause to remove our shoes before entering to avoid spreading germs.  We peered into the sealed incubator to see slowly rotating racks of 8-inch, ivory-colored eggs.  In the adjacent hatching room, we peeked through a tiny window to see babies busting their way out of the thick shells.  “They use their legs more than their beaks,” Lize said, noting that a kick from a grown ostrich can kill a human.

I’d been wondering if it was possible to eat ostrich eggs.  When we returned to the lodge for breakfast, Archie offered the proof – scrambled.  “You chip a little hole in the bottom of the shell, then shake it,” he explained, “One ostrich egg equals 24 regular eggs!”  Of course, I’d envisioned a Fred Flintstone-sized fried egg overflowing my plate, but that would have meant cracking a shell that alone sells for about $6.  And the taste?  Not that different from chicken eggs.

Due to the misty morning drizzle, we lazed around our room, though on nicer days, Archie offers guests the opportunity to hike in his own private game reserve, stocked with antelope and zebra.  By mid-day, the sun started to break through and we knew it was time to head for Addo.

“Nobody’s seen anything today,” the headquarters ranger sighed, “It’s too cool and wet.”  So we checked into our park cottage, basic but pleasantly decorated, with animal prints, a thatched roof, bathroom with shower, a kitchenette with cooking utensils and an outdoor brai (rhymes with “try”), the beloved South African barbeque.

When the clouds cleared, we decided to go searching for elephants.  Thanks to the damp conditions, the first wildlife we spotted were shiny, 2½-inch, black dung beetles.  They swarmed over piles of elephant dung in the middle of the road like a miner who has just hit gold.

Mounting a crest, we were astonished to see the brown, mud-caked backs of at least 20 elephants feeding in the brush below.  Near the road, a youngster trumpeted to get the attention of an older elephant.  I’d read that most elephant communications are in frequencies too low for the human ear to hear, and that herds can keep in touch over distances up to nine miles.

Rounding a corner, we were met with a bull elephant’s back, as he sauntered down the road.  We could only creep along behind him until he spied a tasty bush and headed into the underbrush.  Coming upon a small waterhole, we watched as teenaged elephants piled one on top of the other on a mound of dirt, wiggling, shoving and playing.

When the elephants moved on, we decided to look for the six lions that were recently re-introduced to Addo.  We flagged down a car headed the opposite direction.  “Anything down that way?” we asked.  “Lions at the game hide!” they cried.  We consulted our park map and headed onto the muddy gravel road toward the concealed viewing area.

“Beware of lions, alight from vehicle at own risk,” the signs warned.  With a furtive glance around, we jumped out and onto the stairs that enable humans (and not animals, I hoped) to enter the fenced area.  When we reached the portion of the fence facing a waterhole, we peeked through slots at various heights.  Nothing.  The lions had moved on.  Or maybe they’d realized that the really tasty morsels were the people jogging to and from their cars.

We made it safely back on the road, and turned back toward park headquarters.  We knew there were plenty more animals to see at Addo, and hoped to find them on the “sundowner” organized game drive (“sundowners” is the South African term for evening cocktails).  At 6 pm, the drive set out in trucks fitted with nine comfortable, tiered bucket seats.  After some game-spotting, we were to be rewarded with a sunset view, drinks and snacks.

Ilsa, our guide, pointed out warthogs, kudu and white storks, which migrate all the way from Europe.  She regaled us with elephant facts:  if a baby can stand under a mother’s stomach, it is less than a year old; 60% of what an elephant eats goes undigested – the reason they must consume such massive quantities of food; 20-25 elephant calves are born every year in Addo, and their mothers are pregnant for 22 months.

“I’m going to take you up to where we last saw two of the lions,” Ilsa announced.  After turning off the road and traveling cross-country for a couple of minutes, we spotted a tawny shape lying in the grass.  A young male lion raised his head and gave us a sleepy glance.  We could barely make out his buddy snoozing in the tall grass about 20 feet away.  It turns out that lions, just like our house cat, spend most of their time sleeping.

As twilight settled, we came upon a powerful male elephant, ripping branches from a low tree.  “This is where we usually stop for sundowners,” Ilsa said, “but he’s in musth, so we’ll just keep going.”  It turns out, several bull elephants have been brought in from Kruger National Park to enhance the Addo blood line.  We did get our cocktails – well, box wine and beer – plus assorted little pastry snacks, tomatoes and hard-boiled eggs.  On the way back to Rest Camp, Ilsa sent a spotlight spiking into the darkness, revealing antelope and the elusive African buffalo, with antlers that perfectly mimic a flip-style 60s hairdo.

From tiny creatures that treasure dung, to the great, grey elephants and their complex society, Addo was full of surprises.

[previous excerpt, but Bradley cut so would fit on home page:]

Paul and I were visiting Addo Elephant National Park, on South Africa’s Eastern Cape, home to over 400 elephants living naturally in the wild. Unlike some game reserves, you can drive yourself on your own “safari” at Addo, visiting watering holes and feeding grounds, where it’s possible to watch families of 50 or more magnificent beasts as they spray water on their backs, play in the mud or rip up a shrub to have a little snack.