Almondines – A Classic

Good morning my fellow quarantinettes!

I imagine that you’ve cleaned the pantry, weeded the garden, binge-watched your shows and taken the kids on maybe a million walks around the block by now. How about a change of scenery? My girlfriend and blogging-buddy, Mary Knight, offered a peek into her world of food and fancies and agreed to share the following recipe with us! Mary travels the world, making friends, creating recipes, and curating mouth watering photos. She’s interviewed Julia Child herself and that will get a girl inspired, wouldn’t you agree?

Mary’s blog is a cornucopia of glorious photos of recipes and travel. SpoonAndSuitcase.com will take you on a tour of Portugal, Sicily, or Santa Fe without leaving the living room and is a breath of fresh air in a world afraid to inhale. Let’s take some time to relax.

Grab some almond paste from Amazon and clear the kitchen, because we’re going to make Almondines!

While cleaning out an upper cupboard in my closet last week, I discovered a forgotten box. A treasure full of old recipes I had created when I taught cooking classes, as well as letters and postcards I’d sent my parents from La Varenne in Paris, France. It was like opening a present on Christmas day. The “missing pieces” from my life suddenly inspired me to go back to the recipes I’d embraced many years ago. Early in my cooking career, ideas for recipes came like lightning strikes, unexpected but exhilarating, followed by cloud bursts of extended creations. It all seemed so easy. I almost couldn’t get the ideas down fast enough, not to mention implement them.

Here is one of those recipes for Almondines that I’ve adapted. The results impressed me more than I’d expected. The tart is made delectable by the inclusion of almond paste. Rich and tender, the almond filling almost melts on the tongue and the unifying light almond crust is the accent mark. Divine. It’s been a hit with all my taste testers. The best part is you can fill the tarts with the almond creme, sprinkle on the sliced almonds and freeze for an impromptu breakfast or tea time. They only take about 18 minutes to bake or about 25 if frozen. I’m making a batch to freeze for weekend guests and neighbor thank you’s. Enjoy!

Almondines

Course Breakfast, Dessert
Cuisine French
Prep Time 1 hour
Cook Time 18 minutes
Servings 11

Equipment

  • small tart tins
  • food processor (optional)

Ingredients

  • 4 oz butter (this is equal to 1 stick or 100 grams of butter)
  • 1/2 cup sugar or 100 grams
  • 7 oz almond paste or 198 grams
  • 3 eggs
  • 1/2 cup flour or 65 grams
  • 1/4 tsp salt
  • 1 tsp almond extract

Pâte Sucrée (Sweet Pastry Dough)

  • cup flour
  • tsp salt
  • 2 Tbsp sugar
  • 4 oz unsalted, cold, cubed, butter (this is equal to 1 stick or 100 grams of butter)
  • 1 egg yolk
  • ½ tsp almond extract
  • 3 Tbsp ice water
  • ½ cup sliced almonds

Pate Sucree

(This is my favorite from A French Chef Cooks at Home by Jacques Pepin) I added the almond extract. Feel free to use your favorite crust recipe too.

Instructions

  • Combine the flour, salt and sugar.
  • Cut in the butter pieces until size of small peas.
  • Combine the egg yolk, almond extract and water.
  • Drizzle into the flour mixture and combine gently.
  • If the pastry feels too dry, add a bit more water.
  • Knead lightly to form a ball. Pat the ball into a 6” round, wrap in plastic wrap and chill in the refrigerator for at least a half an hour.

Notes

I use a food processor to make my crusts.

Almondine Filling

Instructions

  • Cream the butter, sugar and almond paste together.
  • Beat in the eggs one by one.
  • Beat until light in color and fluffy. This will take about 5 minutes.
  • Slowly add the flour and salt. Stir in almond extract. Mix just until combined.
  • You can refrigerate the filling at this time or use immediately.

Notes

  1. I made this recipe using organic sugar with crystals much larger than the white C&H variety. The crystals melted into the butter and did not whip up into a fluffy mass. The filling was much denser than I like. I prefer using regular white sugar for the filling for a lighter crumb.
  2. I prefer to weigh my ingredients. There is a tiny bit of discrepancy in the measurements when you use Standard vs Metric measuring. This is not enough to alter the recipe.

Create Almondines Like A Rock Star

Instructions

  • Roll the dough out to ⅛”-1/4” thick. Cut into rounds appropriate for your tart tins. I used 4” tart tins and the recipe made 11 tarts. You can also make one large tart using a 9” quiche tin. If the dough seems too sticky, you can pinch off pieces of dough and fit them into the tart molds.
  • Pat the dough into the tins and put in freezer to chill.
  • Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
  • When the pastry crusts are cold, fill with almond mixture and sprinkle with sliced almonds. Pat the almonds down slightly to help them adhere to the filling.
  • Bake for 15-18 minutes. They are done when deep brown on top.
  • Brush with strained apricot jam when warm to create a beautiful glaze.

Notes

These can also be frozen after they are baked.

Believe in your heart that you’re meant to live a life full of passion, purpose, magic and miracles.”
― Roy T. Bennett, The Light in the Heart

Caio for now,

The Imperiled Ocean Winner!

The Imperiled Ocean by ocean journalist Laura Trethewey is a deeply reported work of narrative journalism that follows people as they head out to sea. What they discover holds inspiring and dire implications for the life of the ocean — and for all of us back on land. Battles are fought, fortunes made, lives lost, and the ocean approaches an uncertain future.

Congratulations to Missy from Illinois, the winner of Laura’s freshly minted and personally autographed book! These smart and thought-provoking stories are worth sitting down and thoroughly ingesting. Here is an excerpt from her piece, Cleaning the Coast.

Thank you, Laura, for an exploration of the earth’s last wild frontier, and the opportunity to get to know it – and you – better.

A worn piece of plastic drifted on the ocean over a thousand miles from civilization. A sailboat approached with a 30-year-old woman on board. She leaned out over the gunwale to pick the plastic from the surface. Except she couldn’t: long, dangling seaweed roped the plastic to the water. She reeled up the weed, hand over hand; it stretched deeper and deeper into the depths. Down below, she saw fish darting between the fronds.

As Chloé Dubois sailed farther into a slowly spinning gyre of plastic in the largest ocean on Earth, she experienced this scene again and again. It was 2015, and Chloé and her team at the nonprofit Ocean Legacy had sailed to the Great Pacific Garbage Patch to collect microplastic samples for The Ocean Cleanup, another plastic-pollution nonprofit.

Using samples collected by 37 boats, Chloé’s included, that trawled a 3.5-million-square-kilometer swath of the Pacific, Ocean Cleanup hoped to create the first high-resolution map of ocean plastic. Chloé remembers hauling up the water-sampling trawler and peeking in at its contents on deck, and discovering all manner of marine stowaways in the detritus. How did you get here? she wondered as she picked up a tiny crab clinging to a bottle cap in the middle of the formidable ocean. Drifting by the boat, she saw buoys covered with gooseneck barnacles. Ocean-knotted islands of rope that hid masses of organisms.

“On the news, there’s this plastic island in the middle of the ocean that’s the size of Texas, and that’s pretty much what people know unless they go out there and experience it for themselves,” she said. Instead of a floating island of waste, as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is so often portrayed, she encountered more of a drifting slurry. The pollution came in all shapes and stages of degradation, from microscopic particles and fibers, to toothbrushes, bottles and great tangles of fishing nets and lines.

She witnessed, too, how nature worked with the plastic intruders. In the ocean, bacteria and algae quickly glom onto any floating feature they can find, drawn to the nutrients that collect there. More and larger animals, like barnacles and tubeworms, follow suit, fastening themselves to the marine debris. How productive of the ocean to use the plastic to build tiny ecosystems out on a vast desert of salt water, where so little life thrives in comparison to coastal waters.

The Garbage Patch was not a dead zone at all, she realized, but a world teeming with life.

Since she was 17 years old, Chloé has been involved in the environmental movement. In her early twenties, she began collecting plastic from beaches and she’s now cleaned shorelines across Mexico, Alaska, Costa Rica, Panama, and Canada. When she was 29, she co-founded the nonprofit Ocean Legacy, and she has become obsessed with cleaning plastic from the environment. She knows the names, acronyms, and resin codes of the plastic pantheon like they’re her children.

For a moment, Chloé hesitated before destroying the little crab’s home, this plastic piece of garbage that it had found and colonized and survived on against all the odds. Rationally, she knew that the crab’s plastic bottle cap was on its way to becoming a toxic pill. Plastic is a master at teasing out toxins from the ocean, sucking floating chemicals from the water column and condensing them into ever more hazardous forms. Industrial metals, pesticides, fertilizers, plastic softeners, and flame retardants can dissolve in water or be hydrophobic, meaning they want out of the water fast. Plastic already contains some of the chemical contaminants found in water, and that makes certain types of plastic naturally attractive hosts to wayward chemicals. A smaller animal might then ingest that poisoned plastic item, covered in slimy nutrients and pollutants, like PCBs, that have been banned on land for decades but are still drifting out in the ocean. A larger animal will then eat this animal, and up the food chain the plastic goes, magnifying its toxicity as it jumps to each new animal.

Chloé knew all this. She had seen the damage firsthand, yet destroying an animal’s home still gave her pause.

Then she plunged her hands in and removed all the plastic she could find, no matter how much life clung to it. The team built a home for displaced crabs in a glass tank on deck.

When they had sailed outside the center of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, Chloé dove off the boat and into the sea. When she climbed back on board, tiny pellets of plastic covered her skin. After a month and a half sailing across the Pacific, her sailboat returned to land with 154 water samples hauled up from across the ocean. Every single one contained plastic.

Not all plastic is a problem. Much of it helps us and is integrated into every step of human life from birth to death. As I write this, I tap away on computer keys made of plastic, scroll through webpages on a mouse made of plastic, and peer through glasses rimmed with plastic. It’s the cheap, omnipresent plastic that lasts hundreds of years but is built to throw away the second after we use it that’s a big problem, perhaps one of the biggest for the ocean.

For almost as long as industrial plastic production has existed, we’ve known that plastic was going in the ocean. In the 1970s, a team of researchers sampling water in the sluggish Sargasso Sea reported that tiny plastic fragments were floating on the surface. During a 1997 yacht race from Los Angeles to Honolulu, a sailing scientist named Charles Moore passed through a remote stretch of Pacific Ocean and found himself surrounded by plastic debris in all directions. The Great Pacific Garbage Patch, as it was later called, grabbed the world’s attention.

Suddenly there was a tangible place where all our waste was going, just outside the limits of our imagination.

The sea is a vast, deep, mutable force that covers 71 percent of the Earth. Plastic is small, ubiquitous, and breaks into ever-smaller pieces. When these two meet, they marry: a horrible collision between the synthetic and the natural.

A trawl sample collected from the Great Pacific Gyre by Ocean Legacy.

Given enough time, the ocean has the ability to spread plastic to the most remote reaches of the planet. Today, plastic is drifting in the waters off Antarctica. Plastic comes down in rain. Plastic fibers pass through the filter-feeding valves of oysters. Not long ago, Japan’s Deep-sea Debris Database reported finding a fully intact plastic bag in the Mariana Trench, the deepest underwater trough in the world.

We still don’t know exactly how much plastic is going into the ocean. One study, published in Science in February 2015, conservatively estimates that eight million metric tons of plastic is entering the ocean each year from municipal solid waste streams on land. That is 200 times higher than what had last been calculated in 1975 based on plastic pollution entering the ocean from maritime activities, and more than 2,000 times higher than what had been estimated from floating debris samples.

In that 2015 study in Science, environmental engineer Jenna Jemback and her co-authors argue that barring any major changes, plastic going into the ocean will multiply by a factor of 10 in 2025. That’s 80 million metric tons of plastic dumped in the ocean each year.

Despite the startling numbers of waste already in the ocean, our love of plastic endures. Plastic production is growing and expanding right along with plastic demand. By 2030, our need for plastic is expected to double.

The financial guru Warren Buffett once compared a stock market crash to the tide going out: you find out who’s been swimming naked all along. During the 2008 financial crisis, we discovered that big banks can fail. For centuries, we’ve believed the same of the ocean: that it was simply too big to fail. But an encroaching movement of threats, such as a warming ocean, overfishing, and pollution, could change that in the not-too-distant future.

If we could see beneath the surface, what would we find at the bottom of the sea? Perhaps millions of tons of plastic lying undisturbed, except for the bottom-dwellers that nibble at the nutrients collecting on it. Perhaps this evidence of the world’s waste will eventually become a layer of sediment pressed between rock layers: the Plastic Era, a fitting symbol of human-made change, baked into the Earth’s crust.

Author Giveaway, The Imperiled Ocean

Laura Trethewey sits across the folding table from me on bright San Diego Tuesday mornings, but we’re not supposed to talk to each other. The writing room is pretty much like sitting in detention and being forced to write a three page essay on dust bunnies before the bell rings. We swing between frantic typing and staring in frozen silence at our screens – or out the window – and this is what we do for fun.

It works.

All of us writers come and go in anonymity here unless we make it a point to step out for a ten minute break. On one of these jaunts between our laptops and the coffee place down the way, I discovered that Laura was working on nonfiction essays about the ocean. And she’s been working on them for a while. When you meet other writers, it’s polite to ask about their projects, but I’ve found that sometimes the best stories are the writers themselves. Laura’s been on a lot of travels and adventures, and writing them down for magazines and newspapers has recently culminated in her first book, The Imperiled Ocean. Congratulations, Laura!

Laura is a native Canuck who has also lived in Scotland but now lives here. Because, San Diego. You can read all about her on her website, but her projects, like this video, which she wrote, researched, and produced, will give you an idea of her passion for all things ocean.

Hubby and I attended her book launch last month. We sat in the cozy downtown bookstore, listening to her broad perspective on the relationship between people and the ocean. “I’m very curious,” she said, “about the ways that people view and use the water. I’m used to thinking about traveling over water, by boat for example, but I hope this book helps people think about the ocean from many other angles.” As these amazing essays cover topics from refugees to plastic pollution to Hollywood, I’d say Laura did just that.

On a life raft in the Mediterranean, a teenager from Ghana wonders whether he will reach Europe alive, and if he does, whether he will be allowed to stay. In the North Atlantic, a young chef disappears from a cruise ship, leaving a mystery for his friends and family to solve. A water-squatting community battles eviction from a harbor in a Pacific Northwest town, raising the question of who owns the water. In this exploration of the earth’s last wild frontier, I follow seven true stories of the ocean undergoing tremendous change as it faces an uncertain future.

To win an awesome autographed copy of her new book, enter a comment in the box below. Entries will be accepted through Sunday the 26th at midnight and the winner will be announced next week on the 28th! Addresses accepted from anywhere in the world that a book can be mailed.

Laura Trethewey reporting from the Dogpatch, an off-grid boating community fighting eviction from the harbor of Ladysmith, British Columbia.

Seattle Shenanigans

Ah, romance. What else would you make a trip to Seattle for? If Tom Hanks is sad and sleepless and says so on talk radio during Christmas, this intrepid reporter is going to catch the next flight into the land-that-never-stops-raining-shoot-me-now, to cheer him up.

Or at least spy on him. The man is such a great actor, I had to watch Saving Mr Banks again last night, just to be sure. Of course, this time he was in sunny Disneyland where he and everyone else belongs, so life is good again.

The entire clan went to Seattle last week to attend my nephew’s wedding, and so far as romance goes, it was thoroughly done. Roses, harpist, ancient barn venue hung with twinkle lights and chandeliers. The ceremony had people in tears, as did the mini donut truck parked outside. Tears of joy and harmony and hot, cinnamon-powdered sweetness.

After a couple of turns on the dance floor, the newlyweds drove off in a giant truck because, weather. I’m constrained to report that the weather remained outside the building for this event and during the rest of our adventures in the city, and it was our own fault if we went through an exit.

Not Seattle’s.

Gloom on the outside, sparkles on the inside.

We’ve explored downtown on a prior trip, so we went to the waterfront for this visit, and discovered the curious, the glorious, and the grotesque.

Grotesque: Bubble gum alley. People, why? My floors were this exciting during the toddler years. I should have cordoned off my dining room and charged admission for viewing. “Move that cheerio two inches left of the grape juice spill next to last week’s bogey. Yes. Perfect.”

Glorious: Pikes Place Market. All four levels. Flavored honey. Arcade. Leather bound journals. Tibetan singing bowls. Squid. Magic tricks. Hot clam chowder and double-sour bread. Fresh cheese. Jewelry. The giant brass pig, “Rachel”, on the street corner that collects change for downtown center services.

Glorious Honorable Mention because my sister said so: The original Starbucks store. I was expecting the Sistine Starbucks and instead found a mall version. It has a brass marker stamped 1971 but no painted ceilings or statues. We should have walked nine blocks further to the Roastery, but we had plenty to work with, right where we were.

Curious: Taxidermy. Life-size wood carvings. The giant ferris wheel for a full immersion weather experience. You can buy a whole fish the size of your arm and the fishmongers will seal it into a “24 hour airplane bag” after throwing said fish around first, tenderizing it for you.

Seattle offers live fish as well, and we spent some time in the Aquarium. This is where we watched a giant octopus work his snack out of a tube and then travel around trying to find snacks in the audience. The kraken is real. We wandered into the underwater dome, trying not to hyperventilate, when I recognized a giant fish overhead.

“That’s a sturgeon!” I said, chasing it with my camera. “I know that one!”

My kids patted me on the head. It’s not like sturgeon can compete with a butterfly fish. But thanks to my author friend, Laura, I am educated now, and yes they can. Next week I will tell you all about Laura and hold a give away of her new book!

The star of next week’s blog!

However. If you sit next to me on the ride home, you’d better not be carrying a flying fish. Or an octopus. Or a prickly sea urchin, which wouldn’t be allowed through airport security anyway, as I discovered. Seattle wasn’t going to let me go home without a little personal cuddle time.

I was the lucky winner of a random TSA security check giveaway!

“I’m going to wipe this little tag over your palms to detect any trace of explosives,” said the lady.

“Cool,” I said, offering both hands. “I never win anything!”

The palm reader flashed red, declaring me a national security threat. “It could also be a lot of other things that aren’t explosives,” she said, “but we’ll have to frisk you down anyway.”

“Okay,” I said, offering my luggage, boots, purse, electronics, boarding pass. Go, ‘Merica.

“I’ll be touching your breasts, buttocks, and other body parts that shouldn’t be said out loud. Do you want a private room for this screening?”

“Nah, go for it,” I said, offering up my dignity and a lot of laughing. Pretty bold for a blind date.

I stood with my feet apart, arms out, palms up, and waited to see if anyone wandering by in the airport would notice our shenanigans. Instead, while the lady checked for sea urchins in my hair, I caught my sons standing on the other side of the blockade, taking photos, delighted with my predicament. (Later, I demanded the photos for this blog, knowing they were solid gold, and they confessed to “Snapchatting” them, which means they are lost to space and we have only the good memories to prove any of this ever happened.)

“Ma’am, this can’t be taken through security,” said the lady with a righteous frown. She pulled a yogurt cup from my purse. “This is a gel and as it clearly states, right here on the label, is over the 3.4 ounce limit.”

“Yogurt is a gel? Eww.”

She was so excited to find something amiss, that I let her run with the victory. I offered to help the other agent repack my luggage, but she was having a great time waving my brassiere around in front of everyone and cheerfully replied, “I’ve seen worse.”

Ah, romance.

The date’s a bit off, but…

PSA: Fish market door greeter. He’s on a chain and they will make him jump to scare you. You’re welcome.

Crab is about right sized.

So. Much. Nope.

Pirate gold

Purple reef

I likey.

San Diego Cinderella

On our Italian tour last year, we took trains from La Spezia to Genoa to Milan to Venice, passing Verona on the way. This week for our anniversary, we followed our hearts back. Longing for piazzas, basilicas, and doumos, we decided to revel in the balconies and tombs of Verona and, consequently, the passion, the pageantry, the drama, and the death that is Romeo and Juliet.

I may have mentioned: Italy feels just like home.

I’ve never been to Balboa Park’s Old Globe Theater. Like a star-crossed lover, I always passed by offering terms of endearment and wistful looks but never stopped to embrace it. It was easy to be seduced by Shakespeare. I painted my toenails in anticipation.

I wore the same dress – strictly for the memory – that I wore to the opera in Sorrento. Remember that night? So does my dress. But alas, the pink stilettos from that adventure are no more for this world. I wore the understudy for tonight’s trip to Verona.

Our first stop of the evening was a romantic restaurant on the harbor. I sipped sangria, nibbled chicken salad, and watched the pretty boats sail by on the late summer breeze. In case this was not enough to set the stage, a fat pale moon rose slowly over the San Diego skyline as the sun began its descent in the west. Our waitress presented creme brûlée, a delicately crisped, creamy concoction that curled my toes. A lot. More than average, apparently.

Hand in hand, Hubby and I sauntered from the restaurant, admiring the tiki torches, admiring each other.

“Clomp, clomp, flop,” went something on the sidewalk.

“Flip, flap, flop,” went the next three steps.

And then, without provocation, one of my shoes decided to throw a fit. “I bite my thumb in your general direction sir!” cried my right shoe.

And in the very next step, the entire bottom of my shoe flew off. Off. The valets and restaurant patrons might not have noticed, had I not burst into hysterical laughter. I had to decide: stop in the middle of the sidewalk and retrieve the errant brick or continue to the car walking like I was on a carousel ride.

I guess I did both. Safely tucked into the car, with no time to spare, we drove to the theater weighing our options. Now, I’ve heard rumors that some ladies keep spare shoes in their cars. They probably keep spare feet in their cars. I am not that lady. Neither do I keep crazy glue nor pliers in my glove compartment. Um, or gloves, now that I think about it.

“What should I do? Can I sneak in barefoot?”

The light turned red. A train went by. Another sigh for Italy escaped me, and we kept driving.

“There’s nowhere to park,” said Hubby, “It starts in ten minutes and we haven’t gotten tickets yet!”

I was bent over what was left of the shoes, still attached to my feet, “Go for it,” I grunted, “we’re doing this!”

Looking neither to the right nor to the left, heads high, we hustled from the parking lot to the ticket stand to the entry to some nice seats…and only then did I take a breath and look down.

These were the ugliest flats on the face of the earth. I traced my finger over one thin strap muttering in Italian. The bright moon rose overhead, lending its glow to the outdoor theater lights, illuminating the stage of Verona. The stage comprised of…a sandbox? I flipped through the program.

Apparently, this year’s director envisioned Shakespeare’s tragedy in sand.

All of the actors were costumed to their ankles, and…barefoot. The beautifully talented Juliet sang a rousing rendition of Barry Manilow’s Copacabana. Teenagers brawled in the alleys. Adults marched around telling everyone what to do. Romeo slumped along with his guitar declaring that without his true love, life – hallelujah – wasn’t worth anything at all.

The main characters get married whilst still children.

Nobody really relaxes until they’re dead.

And nobody can figure out what all the fighting was about.

Like I said, Italy feels just like home.

As we gave them a standing round of applause, I recalled my wobbly circumstances. What was a pair of shoes measured against an amorous tryst under an enchanted moon? An embrace on the balconies of Europe with Prince Charming?

Prince C hazarded a quick look at my feet and grimaced as a very unromantic thought escaped.

This dazzling night was going to end where all good affairs end: a serious flirtation with a new pair of glass slippers.

Tiki

San Diego at the harbor

Spreckles organ pavilion

Museum of Art

Old Globe Theater

Romeo and Juliet

Sandbox?

Girl’s gotta do what a girl’s gotta do.

Venice’s Last Laugh

Venice, as I may have mentioned, expects you to take it’s paths and bridges and meandering waterways in stride, hauling luggage over every uneven inch. When it was time to go the airport however, we were picked up directly in front of our hotel by water taxi. From there, it was an easy twenty minute race to the airport, each boat attempting to outrun the other, our captain taking the wakes in a rhythmic bump, bump, slam pattern.

I imagine a taxi ride in Rome would have felt the same.

Finally at the quiet dock, we stepped onto moving sidewalks that ushered us gently into the Venice airport. We waited at our gate, relaxing in the morning sunshine and sorry to see Italy go.

Of course, the minute boarding was called, everyone immediately stood up and crushed forward at the cattle chute. We were so Italian by this point.

The airline slowly and clearly called out each boarding zone and the restless passengers reluctantly took their turns moving through, flashing their tickets and dragging their carry-ons. Hubby inched one deliberate inch forward at a time, keeping an eye on a little old lady to his left and a businessman on his right, both of whom were preparing to jump the queue if he wasn’t diligent. I drafted behind him, playing word games on my phone, confident in his ability to blaze a path through the chaos.

We finally scanned our tickets through and headed briskly down the ramp, jostling our carry-ons and bags and the fluffy neck pillow that Hubbs so faithfully dragged all over Italy, knowing full well he was never going to use it. But it was from Costco. For all I know, he will attempt to return it.

What seat number was I again?

At the end of the ramp, it took a turn and instead of an airplane door, we were faced with a flight of stairs. Super confused but laughing, because this behavior is always what we will remember about Italy, we hauled our luggage down another, and another, until we were exiting the airport onto the tarmac.

Were we walking home?

There was a bus. Full of passengers, standing like cattle, holding onto handles from the ceiling. We squeezed on, trying not to step on the old lady’s foot. She looked ready to kick.

Everyone was shifting restlessly, eye-rolling, wondering which way they were going to stampede next, and preparing for all possibilities. Hubby flared his nostrils. Challenge accepted. “The first shall be last,” I whispered. But I knew better. This man had already extrapolated all pathways and exits. He was ready for the next Italian chess move.

The bus rumbled across the Venetian tarmac and vomited its passengers out in front of an airplane that had open doors at both ends, accessed by another set of stairs. I could see everyone mentally freaking out with the option.

The rush, I was told, is so that you have room in the overhead for your stuff. Worst case scenario? The nice stewardess takes your bag up front and hands it back to you as you casually exit at your destination. No overhead hoisting required. Less time sitting in a stifling plane, and a free valet. I’m sick of lugging luggage.

But honey, did I hustle with it.

I put some serious mileage on those poor little swivel wheels; cobbles, stairs, pavers, grills, bridges, escalators, curbs, moving sidewalks, ramps, rain, even an exploding water bottle. And it was always packed first and politely waiting for Hubby’s dastardly duo at the hotel door.

We finally sat in the plane, luggage at peace overhead. Hubby was in his seat, fluffing his shirt from his exertions and wrapped it up with his signature sigh. All was right in the world.

Goodby for now, Italy. Thanks for the memories!

We flew over the crispy alps of Austria, the farmland of Germany and the tidy dikes of Holland. Scotland, Greenland and the Hudson Bay brought us slowly back into America and home. So many more places to visit.

The world is bigger and smaller and more beautiful than you will ever discover in this lifetime.

But you should try.

Caio, bella Italia.

Island-Hopping in Venice

As your train approaches Venice, it’s surprising to see other islands out the window, some minute and others large enough to contain whole villages. There are reedy marshes in the shallows and areas deep enough to welcome massive cruise ships. It’s a delicate ecosystem that, as you know, has scientists scrambling to prevent its extinction.

Motoring away from Venice on the vaporetto, this extensive lagoon holds evidence that every inch of mushy land was a personal challenge to someone: if you can make it stay upright, you too can have your own private island in paradise. Not sure how it compares to Bora Bora, but obviously things did not always work out:

The lagoon won.

Our first stop was Torcello. This area was the first of the lagoon to be inhabited and contains the requisite basilica and campanile. The ruins can be perused after paying a fee to the guardians there, and are quite interesting. True to our mantra of “climbing all the things”, we ascended the little tower and discovered some curious facts: it was held together with baling wire and duct tape (Was it really safe to climb? Too late), it utilized ramps instead of stairs (nice), and the view is by far the prettiest view from a campanile that we had seen in all of Italy. Have a look:

The walk back.

Torcello had it’s own little canal, a beautiful restaurant and event venue, vineyards and agriculture, all enjoying this peaceful corner of the neighborhood. The brick walkway leading to and from our landing invited a leisurely pace, an opportunity to stop and smell the roses. Which we did. An elderly gentleman stood to one side, playing an opera selection on his accordion. So far as I could tell, it was purely for his own pleasure. I made the decision immediately to live on Torcello if I ever get the chance. It will bring the population up to eleven, I think.

Across the way is Burano, known for lace, brightly colored houses, and a leaning tower that we did not even attempt to approach. The tower reminded us that – oh yeah – we are all perching on stilts over a marsh. After Burano, we realized every tower in Venice was tilted.

The cheerful homes invited us to wander the island, the lace shops let their wares ripple in the sunshine. We ate some overpriced calamari, considering the options. I’m not so very into tapestries and doilies, but stepped into a shop and put some serious thought into a bodice. It was an intricate hand-tatted green glory fit for a princess. It also had a princess price tag: 380E.

I was expecting lace pantaloons.

Our next stop was the larger isle of Murano. Murano is famous for the art of glass-blowing, and you can take tours of the glass factories or even a class there. You can browse drifts of cheap glass souvenirs made in China, or consider high-scale one-of-a-kind glass sculptures made right here on the island. I had already made up my mind, before taking our trip, what I wanted. I could see it in my imagination but none of the shops seemed to be selling it.

All hand crafted Murano glass beads take time to create. The specific ones I sought have layers of colors from smaller millefiori cane beads, which are rolled together into larger beads, then eventually strung together into necklaces. The detail work, the patience under heat and pressure and the creative drive behind these little beads fascinates me. The colors, both bright and deep, swirled around each other, repeatedly fused together with fire, and knotted individually by hand represent a lifetime of marriage to me. This symbology is also used in tapestry; but a necklace can be worn over the heart.

I dragged Hubby over Murano – twice – before we found the exact right one:

The pretty stretch of Lido forms a buffer island, and helps protect the lagoon from the larger Adriatic Sea. It’s also a divider between the swirling Carnival within Venice and the cold industrial business in the grey waters without. Homes here appear to strike a gracious balance between them.

Lido is home to the famous yearly Venice International Film Festival. The mainland and other islands surrounding Venice host the multitude of art, architecture, dance, cinema, music, and theater people who attend. Probably someone stayed in Torcello, but I hear many of the private islands are rented complete by big celebrities. We had just missed the 75th year of the event, four weeks prior.

Lido boasts sandy beaches, both private and public, and we walked across it to put our feet in. Santa Maria Elisabetta dead ends in a “free, self-serve” beach. At one time in history, it must have been a bustling area with shops, a fancy restaurant and a bar. Only one out of three was operating, and I was thankful because a restroom was high on my list of priorities. Following the arrows on the floor through an abandoned cafeteria, past a broken euro turnstile, I entered a bathroom that made a gas station in Yuma look pristine. Doors were off hinges, empty dispensers hung from the wall, rubbish littered the floor. It was a perfect spot to get mugged…only the people I saw loitering in the area looked so apathetic that I felt sorry for them. I wanted to add a tag on the wall, “This too shall pass”.

Reappearing on the dark sand, I took Hubby’s arm saying, “You don’t want to order a drink here. Let’s go.” He nodded. The party hangover was pervasive.

The slate-colored Adriatic Sea licked at our ankles as we watched cargo ships in the distance. Where were they from? Where were they going? It felt piratey. Impersonal. Harsh even. But perhaps their pilots had other stories to tell.

I sighed a little.

Our love affair with Italy would end tomorrow. Like Lido, we had protected our bright anniversary bubble from the matte roughness of the daily business back home.

But like Murano, we have more beads to make.

Romancing Venice

Italy wears its heart on its sleeve on the isle of Venice. A thoroughly romantic mix of museums, music, colors, history, and mystery, Venetia makes you want to wear a pink swirly dress and swoon on a balcony.

Venice, the home of Marco Polo, Casanova, Vivaldi, Goldoni, and Titian, begins with formal introductions in St Mark’s square, but will lean in when you least expect it and whisper sweet intimate nothings in your ear.

Venice has no other purpose than to delight you.

St Mark’s Square is to be toured in an orderly fashion. The “finest drawing room in Europe” as Napoleon christened it, invites loitering with the pigeons while your imagination takes flight.

First, step into the Basilica (a free but timed voucher). The cathedral glows from an overbearing amount of gold decor. It feels heavy, a facade so thick that you are sure the real church must be hiding in the back somewhere, but no. For an additional fee, you discover that St Mark lies beneath a sheet of gem-studded gold that seems just a little like he is trying too hard to impress.

Competition is tough for saints.

You are not supposed to take photos, so you didn’t see this:

Near the entrance, a tiny passageway leads straight up to the rooftop terrace. Pay your 5E at the top and you will be able to enjoy the views, indoor and out, as long as you like. The original copper horses are inside, and replicas are out. Sadly, I was not allowed to ride either set. But they are magnificent.

This photo is for Kim.

Back in the square, a trip to the top (another timed voucher) of the Campanile is not to be missed and to prove that chivalry is not dead…it has an elevator! The lift holds just 11 people at a time and you will have only 15 minutes up top. It’s a gorgeous arial view of the island and its surrounding neighbors. The bells overhead ring at high noon. You will have to decide for yourself whether this is an exhilarating experience or the fast road to deafness.

The clock tower bell-ringers across the way are far more decorous in their duties.

Enter the lacy pink marble Doge’s Palace and you will once again feel the weight of history. It settles around you as you move from grand staircases to spacious rooms, fat gilded ornamentation bordering heavily detailed paintings, scrolled metalwork, polished wood; symbols of wealth, government, and religion. Here, judgement was passed and here, beyond an extensive armory, the Bridge of Sighs led prisoners to the dungeons. Graffiti in the cells is intriguing, especially as Casanova himself scrawled some of it.

This kiss is for John.

To complete the Square, explore the elegant Correr Museum. You will simply run out of time to see all of this multi-level extensive collection of everything. I was reduced to taking a photo collection of chandeliers (12) and then another of rare and ancient books (a million or so). A giant foot statue and a mummy rounded it off nicely.

When we ventured away from St Marks Square, Venice decided to rain on our parade. Armed with our Roman umbrellas, we hopped the vaporetto south for a march along Via Guiseppe Garibaldi. We admired his monument then strolled slowly back along the waterfront. When the drips threatened to put a damper on our day, we stopped at a sidewalk cafe and ordered hot espresso and a banana nutella crepe with a puff of whipped cream.

Because, happiness.

The Rialto Market was right beside our hotel. Placed beneath a permanent roof, this sumptuous daily market is full of tourists taking photos and locals buying their groceries. Everything is shipped in on early morning boats and by afternoon, nothing is left but a lone man hosing down the empty pavement. The variety of seafood, flowers, fresh produce, and spices is glorious.

This is a hint for what your restaurant is going to put on your plate tonight. It’s time to dress for dinner.

The cloak of dusk swirls around the island. Venice dons a mask of deep purple with gold trim, water shining through like eyes of magic. The crowds are finally gone. The night is young. And you are so beautiful.

Venice moves from courtship to seduction.

On each side of St Mark’s Square, a little orchestra plays. To your right, you hear The Blue Danube, from the left comes the theme from Titanic. Should you sit for a moment and take some champagne from the bow-tied servers hovering along the edge of the pavement? Or perhaps you would prefer a creamy hot chocolate from the cafe, steaming like a sigh from its cup? The music begs your feet to move, and happily, Venice is entirely new at night.

The Grand Canal is rippling glass, reflecting lamplight, moonlight, and the stars in your eyes. Wander over the Rialto Bridge (take the gratuitous selfie), and on past glittering delights in small shop windows. Chocolates, high end luxury stores, fashion, bakeries, gelato, lace, leather, glass, jewelry, pubs, and restaurants tempt on all sides.

There are few straight lines in Venice. Follow the curves and dips, the paths that make you glance back over your shoulder wondering whether you missed something, on through the twirling shadows. Each little bridge is an invitation to pause and enjoy the swimming splendor of it all.

If you are wise, you brought your own Casanova for emergency purposes.

If you are smart, you brought your dancing shoes.

Welcome to Venice: Get in the Boat

After disembarking the train into Venice, a meandering cruise down the Grand Canal via bus (vaporetto) is a great way to get acquainted with one of Italy’s most popular destinations. Grab a seat in the front. Wear something warm. Never stand up. This blocks your pilot’s view and he will let you have it because – surprise! – the Italians are still driving like…Italians. I never saw James Bond fly by (although we watched a film cast drift past, complete with cameraman, equipment, and actors hiding in the bow) but when you get everyone on the water it’s crazy. This is why we didn’t take a gondola ride. The tourists didn’t scream out loud, but the gondolier paddled for his very life a few times…

Playing chicken on the Grand Canal.

The water in Venice is very green lagoon water; it smells exactly like the San Diego Bay, without the salty open-ocean undertones. It’s not something you want to swim in and although we saw a gull or two, I saw no sign of marine life. The buildings in Venice are beautiful and in a constant state of maintenance. As the waters slowly rise, lower stories are abandoned in some of them. Doorsteps go right down underwater.

Palazzo Dario Ca d’Oro and a glorious green building.

As you make the first big bend in the Canal, you pass the colorful daily Rialto Market, full of fish, produce, flowers, and spices and the Rialto Bridge that gives gondoliers wonderful acoustics and bus drivers terrible tempers.

The Rialto Market A gondola, a taxi, and a bus walked under a bridge…

The next bend has the only “traffic light” in Venice. It sits at the corner and is used exclusively to allow fireboats out of the station at top speed.

If you watch long enough, you will also see garbage collectors, polizia, construction crews, ambulenzas, and other services at work…all by boat.

Hotel laundry? Who knows? Go under the Accademia Bridge next.

As you curve back around and see La Salute, this is your sign that you are about to enter the lagoon on the south of Venice. The water opens up and St. Mark’s Square is coming up on your left. You have arrived at your destination.

And so has everyone else…who parked that here? Yikes! Basilica di Santa Maria della Salute. St Mark’s symbol: lion of Venice. St Theodore and his Crocodile.

We are going to leave St. Mark’s Square for the next post (click here for a preview), but I will leave you with this story:

A long time ago, before Venice was on the map, their patron saint was Theodore, the dragon slayer. After the sack of Constantinople, Venetians brought home random pieces of statuary, which were put together to form this image and for a long time, it was good enough. His claim to fame was that he wrestled crocs could bring victory in battle.

As politics marched forward however, the founding fathers decided that a more glamorous (and less Byzantine) saint was needed. So they stole one. In 828, Venetian merchants took the mummy of St Mark from its sarcophagus in Alexandria Egypt, packed it in a chest with pork and cabbages, and thereby passed it through Muslim customs officers. (Don’t try this at home.) They hauled St Mark to Venice and began a new church for him. The church was destroyed, then rebuilt, St Mark was lost and rediscovered in the process, and finally in 1094AD, we have the basilica, square and etc.

They left Theodore on his post to watch the show go by.

But I’d love to see him take on that cruise ship.

Just another day on the Grand Canal.

Knocking About Italy

You need to know right up front that the title for this post was spun into every possible derivative involving the use of the word “knockers” and that – although we are in the middle of a holiday week surrounded by children and piles of food – common sense prevailed.

But we had fun with it. (While we’re at it, here is a link to some “knock knock” jokes to keep the kids happy while you cook, clean, and caper.)

What I love about Italy (there’s a list) is the way they put their cities together. The streets are narrow and they pack their homes into little apartment-type multi-story buildings.  Every square inch of space seems to be commandeered and cars are an afterthought. This design is possibly the result of centuries of building in the same footprint as ancient days, when everyone kept safe within a protective wall. In places like Cinque Terre and Venice, you only have so much land to work with as it is.

You party in the piazza.

Outer walls don’t feel exclusive, just focussed. We never got to go into an interior courtyard.

Regardless, we spent many hours cruising the streets of Italy and everywhere we went, Hubby had to drag me away from the doors. All you see from the street is a massive pair of doors (go big or go home) with an impressive set of knockers.

I did not just say that.

They are unique, fun, and probably never used for their intended job. Are they inherited from one’s ancestors or purchased by an individual? I know I wasn’t supposed to stare and it felt awkward taking pictures without their permission. But they were beautiful. And I’m only human. I do wish I’d gotten a photo of the mermaids. Just to prove they exist.

These knockers held mystique, they represented something going on in the heart of the home and as a result, I went about Italy guessing the story inside, judging each book by its cover.

Lions…maybe a little too obvious.

A pair of manly moustaches.

Yogis getting their Italian groove on.

When your house is a zoo inside and you’re done making excuses.

Only the delicate and pure may enter herein.

Yeah, Santa skips this house.

These knockers are boring.

But the little door cut into the big doors felt so right. Munchkins live here.

So tell me…if all that anyone was every going to know about you, if your life story was going to be represented by a pair of knockers…what would you put on your door?