Hope deflated

After my morning meetings and scheduled lunch, I ended up getting to the Boston airport earlier than I expected and managed to make it onto an earlier flight. It’s probably one of the only times when I’ve managed to get off the standby list and an actual seat on an earlier flight. It would have arrived about two hours before my original flight, which made me happy. What ended up not making me happy was when we discovered that all flights landing at LaGuardia tonight would be delayed due to issues with the winds, and so now, my flight is scheduled to depart 11 minutes after my original flight.

It never quite works out the way we hope it will, does it?

Snooty

A friend cancelled on me for dinner tonight, so I ended up having a subpar ramen meal alone in Boston Chinatown. I regretted it a lot after my first bite and wished I just spent a few extra minutes looking for an ATM to go to one of my old trusted cash-only standbys. This was after I tried going into Shojo, what is supposed to be a hip Asian fusion restaurant, and despite the restaurant being only 20 percent full and having plenty of bar seats available, they insisted they were fully booked and couldn’t accommodate me, a single person at the bar. It was only 5:55pm. Their air in speaking to me was so snooty that it wasn’t even worth saying anything. I just said, “well, that’s sad,” and I left. What’s also sad is these types of restaurants having an arrogant attitude when their food is probably sub par and their staff likely know little to nothing about good Asian food or actual Asian culture.

Pescadero retreat

I’m back in the Bay Area this week for my work team’s retreat, which is the first one we’ve ever done. We’ve rented a cabin-type house in the middle of the woods in Pescadero, just 1.5 hours south of San Francisco, for a three-day, two-night retreat to strengthen our team bonds, go through our Insights training (basically like Myers-Briggs but with a different mindset and approach; this is intended to help increase our self awareness in how we are perceived and how we can better work with others who are different), and set goals for the new fiscal year.

My colleague and I have volunteered to be the chefs for the time, and we’re in charge of two breakfasts and two dinners for our group of 16. We devised our menus, planned out our ingredients and shopping lists, and spent almost three glorious hours raiding the shelves of Costco, Target, and Trader Joe’s today.

And when we arrived… it was probably the most “rustic” place I’ve ever stayed. The bedrooms had spiders, moths, and other creepy crawlers on the ceilings and walls. The hot water was nearly nonexistent and slow, with drip-like water pressure at times. The hand soap provided was practically water itself. The kitchen had stove tops and ovens that looked like they may have been from the early 1900s (and yes, I have to deal with this the next three days myself), with burners that literally only had one heat setting (HIGH, HIGH, HIGH), and the dishwashers had a questionable fuse. The heat was extremely high in some rooms to the point of causing everyone in them to sweat, while the bedroom I so luckily chose (that slept three other female colleagues) had a broken heater; it was the coldest room of the house. This is certainly going to be an adventure that will be character-building to say the least.

The reality of water buses and a city of canals

Venice is vexing. It’s as beautiful as Google Images and all those cliché paintings and vacation photos I’ve seen in the past, even in what is now supposed to be low season when it’s colder and there are no blue sunny skies. But I just cannot imagine the idea of actually living in a place that has zero ways of getting around other than by foot or water taxis/buses. It’s one part charming and one part “holy crap, this is so inefficient and frustrating,” especially for someone who isn’t used to living in a place like this (which is pretty much most of the world).  Hauling luggage through Venice on our first afternoon was not fun, and that was only with carry-on size bags. Going up and down bridges here and there, rolling luggage on uneven cobble stones, and dodging dog poop everywhere was an adventure in itself. I cannot even imagine how vexing it would be for families with young children, strollers, and far larger checked luggage. We saw so many families like this, and I just felt sorry for them.

Leaving today was frustrating because we were at the last stop of the water bus that goes to the Venice airport, and the first three “buses” that arrived at our stop were all full. They just kept pulling in to say they were full, and then they would speed off.  It was raining and cold, which added to the misery of the situation of waiting. And we didn’t realize that the vouchers we got online had to be exchanged for actual water bus tickets, so Chris had to scramble to get to an ATM to pay cash when we boarded. The alternative to this water bus? Our hotel told us it would cost 120 euros for a water taxi that would stop directly on the canal in front of our hotel and take us straight to the airport. I guess that’s the premium price you can charge in a city where transport options are limited, and the only option you really have is to travel by water and water only.

 

Murano glass

Today, we visited the Murano glass factory on Murano Island. After taking a short water taxi ride to the island, we were greeted by an English speaking guide, who gave us a free tour and demonstration of the factory. The guide claimed that unless you were buying from this specific factory here in person, you were not buying authentic Murano glass. They have refused to get with the times and do not take phone or online orders; I don’t even know if they have a website; probably not unless it’s purely informational.

As we perused the galleries of original glass that you can purchase for anywhere from 35 euros for a 3×3-inch plate or a chandelier for tens of thousands of euros, it just seemed so crazy to me how much money people would spend on decorative and extremely fragile items for their home. I was just carrying my purse and DSLR, but I felt as though I had to make myself smaller to walk through the aisles without smashing something to bits. I was admiring a beautiful serving dish of multiple hues of blue, and the guide told me that it would be 1,300 euros; it probably weighed somewhere between 7-10 pounds; it was unbelievably heavy! And for reference, I just spent $29 on a serving platter on sale from West Elm that I know I will get lots of use out of. Who would spend 1,300 euros on a serving platter? He said it could be used for serving or for display. I just have such a hard time fathoming something that has so little practical use but is so extraordinarily expensive.

 

 

Coperto

Today, we left the beautiful, quaint city of Bologna to the tourist, cliché canaled city that is Venice. It’s not that I don’t like Venice, but going from somewhere filled with so much charm and mostly locals to a place that I’d seen so many images of before that made me feel like a packed sardine in San Marco square was a bit much of a contrast in a single day. Bologna is one of those places that has so much charm, and as long as tourists stay away from it, it will continue to feel that way. You don’t have to worry so much about getting ripped off as a tourist, and you can rest assured that whatever restaurant you enter will be filled with locals eating local food, not menus catered to tourists and what tourists want (I immediately rejected a restaurant in Venice when I saw there was “spaghetti with meatballs” on the menu; that isn’t Italian… that’s Italian American).

In Venice along the canals, almost every restaurant had a cheap menu with fixed options – the usual tourist traps of spaghetti with this spaghetti with that, spaghetti nero (spaghetti with squid ink to make it black-color); some had a “no cover charge” sign, meaning no “coperto,” which is the tiny fee restaurants often will add to your bill just for your sitting and dining in (I think the smallest I’ve seen on our bill was 50 euro cents each; the highest was 2 euros each). It’s really not a big deal at all when you compare it to an expectation of 15-20% tipping in the U.S., but it was clear based on Tripadvisor reviews that so many Americans were so angered by this fee. Percentage-wise, it works out to be so tiny, far lower than 15-20%. But hey, I guess you have to have a reason to get angry and indignant when you travel when you’re an American outside of America, right? We stayed far away from those restaurants. I think it’s more frustrating as a tourist in the U.S. to be expected to tip 15-20%, especially when the service isn’t even that good. Why is it just so hard to pay your workers better?

 

Food purity and priorities

Continuing on our food adventures of northern Italy, today I booked us a small group tour to explore three of the food items that Emilia Romagna, known as the food capital province of Italy, is famed for; prosciutto, parmigiano-reggiano cheese, and balsamic vinegar. We explored factories and an organic winery located from the hills of Modena to Bologna. I always knew that the process of making these foods was complex, back-breaking, and time-consuming, but I never quite realized before exactly how regulated and pure the process was, and where the “fake” prosciutto, ‘parmesan,’ and balsamic vinegar came from, as well as how they are accepted in places like the U.S. But during the tour, as our guide talked about how strict the DOP/IGP labeling is for foods (it’s a designation of purity and origin for these food products) and DOC/DOCG labeling is for wines based on regions of Italy, I realized… no one in the U.S. seems to care much if an apple is grown in Washington state vs. Minnesota. No one in New York generally cares if their strawberries came from Peru vs. California vs. Jersey. There are small groups of people who do, obviously, which is why farmer’s markets have the crowds and loyalty they do, but that’s never a generalization you can make about Americans. Americans want cheap, fast food. That’s why we’re a fast food nation. That’s why in the U.S. when you buy packaged dried pasta, it will take on average 4-8 minutes to cook, when a package in Italy (which is more authentic, for obvious reasons), takes 13-14 minutes. Every minute seems to count in our increasingly obese country. Quantity, speed, and cheap prices matter. Quality doesn’t. So the idea of a similar DOP label or regulation in the U.S. wouldn’t mean anything to anyone, and no one would care. People in Italy actually care about the purity and quality of their food. It’s admirable.

Rejected Parmigiano-Reggiano becomes parmesan and is exported across the world; in parts of Europe, parmesan is outlawed. Most Americans don’t know the difference and still take their “parmesan” in a plastic can and shake it on their spaghetti (I grew up eating that way and never knowing what real Parmigiano-Reggiano was). Balsamic vinegar without an “Invecchitato,” “traditional,” or “IGP” label are oftentimes just wine vinegar with caramel coloring and sugar added to it; this isn’t regulated at all, anywhere. Real balsamic vinegar is made from grape juice, not wine vinegar.  Jars of pre-made tomato sauce found in grocery stores across Milan, Bologna, and Venice have just a few ingredients that you can readily recognize and would think to be no-brainers: tomatoes (first and foremost, always), olive oil, salt, pepper. Occasionally, you see herbs like oregano or basil or garlic added. But that is it. In the U.S. you pick up an average jar of pre-made tomato sauce (I can proudly say in the 9.5 years I’ve been living on my own post college that I’ve never, ever bought a can of tomato sauce for spaghetti, as I’ve made it myself), and what do you see? Sugar oftentimes is disgustingly the first ingredient or the second, with tomatoes following or beginning. Then, there’s things like high fructose corn syrup, corn syrup, cornstarch or tapioca starch as thickeners, artificial or “natural” colorings added, “natural flavor” from flavor factories in New Jersey… and other preservatives that you would never think of when thinking of tomato sauce. It’s disgusting.

It’s hard not to admire or respect how much Italians care about the purity, freshness, and plain goodness of their food. I wish our food and drug administration would care more about labels on everything from “organic” to “free range” to “grass fed.” There’s so much terrible marketing and lying on the market everywhere, so who can really keep track of all that in the U.S.?

Sometimes, it just works out.

In the same vein as The Last Supper having all its tickets sold out because my “advanced planning” wasn’t in advance enough, I tried to reserve a table at Massimo Bottura’s famed Osteria Francescana in Modena, Italy, a couple months back, but alas, I was too late. All the reservations that would have worked on days we could go were completely booked out, and so I opted for the wait list, which they supposedly said they would email or call me in the event that there was a cancellation. Last year, Osteria Francescana was rated the top restaurant in the world, and this year, it had fallen to number 2 on the list, with New York City’s Eleven Madison Park rising to first. I was disappointed, but I figured that if it was meant to be, then it was meant to be, and if not, it would be okay because we made another reservation in Modena at the “little cousin” restaurant of Francescana for dinner that night. To be sure I was on the wait list, I called the restaurant two weeks ago to confirm that I was on the wait list, and that we’d be open if anything were to be cancelled for lunch or dinner that day.

Lo and behold, during our walks around Milan yesterday, I received a phone call from a Modena number, and I immediately got excited and wondered if an opening had come up at Francescana. I called the number back on Chris’s phone, and they told us that if we were available, a 12:30pm reservation had opened up for us, and they’d need our credit card number to confirm the reservation. It ended up cutting deeply into our daylight time in Modena, but I think we can both say that the three-plus hours we spent at Osteria Francescana allowed us to have one of the most creative meals we’d probably had in our lives. Eleven Madison Park was beyond impressive the two times we’d gone together, but this really took creativity to another level. The first official course, a “salad of seafood,” was carefully layered pieces of lettuce, with pieces of seafood-infused “chips” of a similar texture of Chinese shrimp chips, calamari, shrimp, raw fish, and caviar. The chips are meant to add textural contrast and added crunch, and at the end after it’s served, it’s sprayed with a “seafood parfum.” Salad is hardly something Chris gets excited about; in fact, he hates on Sweetgreen constantly even though I think it offers the best and most consistent chopped salad in New York City, but this is a salad he truly enjoyed and was impressed by. Every course from then on was inventive, plated imaginatively, even with the patterns and actual textures of the plate playing into the overall theme of each dish. The restaurant lived up to its hype in Chef’s Table and its ranking, and for me, probably exceeded it.

I wasn’t quite prepared for how intimate the dining scene would be there; they make it very private, and the restaurant is more like a house with multiple small rooms, with each room containing no more than three to four tables where diners can be seated. The servers are attentive, refilling your wine and 10-euro bottle of water, and when you go to the restroom, they follow you to escort you, wait on you, and then immediately take you back to your seat, pulling out and pushing in your seat for you.

I also thought the three fake pigeons on a branch in the hallway when we entered was a bit eerie; they looked so real. And yes, we did have two dishes with pigeon in them. Pigeons are everywhere in Italy, and… even on your plates.

Last Supper

I thought I was planning ahead about a month and a half ago when I was looking up tickets to see Leonardo da Vinci’s The Last Supper painting, and I realized I was actually far too late, as all the tickets in November were completely booked up except for two time slots… which only had one person per time slot left. Then, I realized we were encountering the same problem we did with train tickets to Hualien to see Taroko Gorge in Taiwan in the summer: individual travelers really need to plan months in advance to get tickets, otherwise, the major tour operators snatch up all the tickets in an attempt to make more money and get more customers. The first three tours I looked up were sold out, and finally Chris found a walking tour that included The Last Supper for today, and we booked it. It actually was a really good experience because our guide was very friendly and knowledgeable, and we also got tickets through it to enter Milan’s Duomo.

The Last Supper is so well protected that it’s probably treated better than most human beings treat each other. It’s a painting that is literally on the wall of this large hall, which you cannot access without entering through four protected and electronically controlled doors. The hall is temperature and humidity controlled given the historical damage the painting has faced, and they’re very, very strict about the number of visitors in the hall at once (25 people), how much time you can spend in there (20 minutes max), and of course, absolutely no flash photography. A security worker in the hall was constantly hovering around us, making sure no one was eating, drinking, or about to whip out a flash. Her facial expression was extremely stern; I would not have wanted to piss her off. We found out from our tour guide that someone actually tried to destroy the painting by dropping a bomb on the church; it just missed the hallway and destroyed entire other sections of the church instead. It’s hard to imagine the amount of hate and animosity toward a single painting or painter that would warrant dropping a bomb on the building that houses it.

 

 

Fashion capital

Because Milan is known to be one of the fashion capitals of the world, a bit of me expected everyone in Milan to be hyper fashion conscious, impeccably dressed, and the women to be more heavily made up. I didn’t really find this to be the case walking around today, but I did notice that a lot of women were wearing high heeled boots. When I think of Chinatowns in any city across the world, the first thing I imagine is a whole slew of restaurants, both the dingy hole-in-the-walls, the family restaurants, and a sprinkling of higher end, banquet-style restaurants. In Milan Chinatown as we walked up and down the streets, it certainly seemed as though there were far more clothing, accessory, and custom-made clothing stores than restaurants of any type. We also ran into a lot of outlets and little stores claiming to sell designer names at reduced prices. We walked into one outlet, and after a bit of looking at what they had, I got immediately exhausted and wanted to leave. Shopping for clothes is always overwhelming and annoying to me. This is why I wish I had a personal shopper to do all my shopping and ensure everything fit correctly. I hate trying on clothes and deciding whether things match or look good on me or not, and when faced with a massive outlet store, instead of getting excited, I get more frustrated by all the options.