Tuesday from hell.

Tuesday was the day I was to meet my sister Ann’s friend Annabelle in Lille, France. It is a short train ride, maybe 45 minutes. (If Gent isn’t perfect enough, it is just 45 minutes to the gloriousness of France!) I had planned on leaving on the 1:30 train, walk around the city for a few hours, meet Ashish at 6 when he would arrive after work, and then we would meet Annabelle at 7 at Le Petit Barbu a restaurant she had suggested on the edge of the old part of town. And then we would catch the last train back. Right.

But in the morning I had to take the tram and then a bus to IKEA to return a window shade I had bought for Ashish that was the wrong size (I am an idiot). So I arrive at IKEA bright and early thinking it opened at 9. But it didn’t open until 10. Froze my ass off. Returned the shade, stopped for coffee in the ultra groovy cafeteria there. Went to check out with the new shade and it turned out I didn’t have my credit cards. Hm. Left them at home? Dropped them in the store? Pick pocketed? I had enough money in my pocket to pay for the larger shade so that was no problem but rather than go to lost and found right away (I am an idiot) I decided to get back to the apt (have I mentioned 5 flights of stairs?) and find the damn thing — the “tram/bus” thing to and from IKEA is not something I am really familiar/comfortable with and it requires a hefty walk through a construction site in the middle of the route — I get back to the apartment and no wallet. I call Ashish who calls IKEA (really nice nice people, not like France) and they have it.

So fine, back to goddamn IKEA on the tram/bus. It’s getting late but I think I can make the 1:30 train to Lille. Yeah, the tram is behind a garbage truck. You cannot imagine what a hoopla garbage is. People have to argue with the g-men to get their crap picked up. And they do. And I’m on the tram to IKEA and I’m gonna be late because there’s a lady arguing about a box they won’t pick up. Eventually they do. The tram ride continues to its stop. I sprint through the construction site, catch the bus that actually goes to IKEA and get to customer service only to be in a line with people needing to discuss every single nut and bolt on the blésterfløçt aan keuken they are having difficulty with. Watching people compare nut sizes is really fun.

So I get my wallet, thank you very much, bolt for the bus/construction site/train station. I had to get a ticket for the rain to Lille. Again, line, people talking about God knows what, Dutch is incomprehensible, possibly nuts and bolts. Made my train with minutes to spare. Had to change in Kortrijk. Anxiety provoking. I was seriously sweating.

I made it to Lille but I had not had the time given the mess I’d made of my morning to recharge my iPhone. Do you realize how helpless I am without an iPhone??? So I had about 20% of a charge. This is a crucial issue since I would have to find Ashish and then Annabelle who I don’t really know that well and we’ve already had some difficulties with email.

Lille is a lovely city. People speak French so I can actually communicate which is nice. I look at the old city, visit a few churches, resist the urge to use my phone, my sister Ann calls chewing up precious battery time. Anxiety gnaws at my feet. Ashish shows up, his phone is dying too, fer chrissake, he’s a molecular frazzmologist at least I can blame my problems on my tenuous relationship with technology.

So we walk to the absolutely adorable Petit Barbu and meet Annabelle (also absolutely adorable). We had a lovely meal, which I won’t describe since this is too long anyway. But three bottles of wine and one kir royale (guess who drank that) later we were on our way to catch that last train. Annabelle drove us (like something out of James Bond) and we just made it. Really, catching trains and trams and busses could kill you.

Finally, I was happily on the train heading back to Gent after a freaking long, arduous and adventurous day. But then 15 minutes into the trip at the Belgian border the train stopped. Train strike. Just like that at the French border (Belgian strike though) Seriously!!!!!! No phones. We were in Mouscron. Have you ever heard of Mouscron? NO, because NO ONE has ever heard of Mouscron!! They made everyone get off the train. The station was closed. It was 10:30 at night. There was nothing there, Mouscron might roughly resemble a Belgian version of Genesee Depot without the cute stores or signs in English.

Did I mention the candle I lit in the Cathedral of St Maurice earlier that day? When we walked out onto the street there was a cab. Sure it cost 120 euros but he drove us back to Gent.


A little play on words there. Bordeaux being the wine, and bord’eau meaning on the edge of water. The restaurant is on the river. Spectacularly situated, lovely and modern inside. We went there for our first dinner in Belgium after our triumphal return from Italy. Perhaps it wasn’t so triumphal, Ryan Air can take the triumph out of most anything, They flights are cheap but for the entirety of the flight, the attendants have to shill products up and down the aisles, food and drink of course, but duty free items, smokeless cigarettes, lottery tickets and on and on.

So we went to Bord’eau. It was raining, apparently a common issue in Ghent. It’s raining as I write this. I was a little concerned because we were seated next to three of the grandest priests I could have imagined. When we arrived they were drinking champagne. For the record, when I have dinner with my friends who are priests from my seminary days, they do not wear Roman collars. These guys not only had on the Roman collar but also huge swag chains supporting large crucifixes tucked into their waist bands. After champagne they made a huge show of making the sign of the cross and saying a long, loud prayer (in Dutch). It turned out they had reason to be thankful. They were eating the 4 course lobster menu. Gotta love that.

Anyway, below is my “beet and radish salad.” It was very schoolio. Ashish had the “surf and turf” raw beef with crab on top of it. It was surprisingly good. My “salad” was just too weird to appreciate any way except conceptually.

Ashish followed up with fish and chips (tartar sauce is better in Milwaukee), but the rest of it was good. Well, french fries, what can you say. I had Belgian steverji. With fries, it was awesome.

The priests appeared to enjoy their meal.

Last supper, Venice

I’m afraid that our last meal in Venice was not something transcendent. That’s one of the problems with making such a fuss about food. That and getting fat. Writing about food, as I found out with all my food books, makes each meal a challenge. When something isn’t great, it’s like a waste of time. And calories. 

It was a glorious night weather-wise. We sat outside along a canal that turned out to be on a gondola route. The gondoliers’ heads were just at our table height. That’s sorta cute but then it became apparent that the place was a tourist spot. And when that happens the restaurant becomes something else. The waiters are just turning out food and want you to get along so the next people can sit down. It wasn’t terrible, in fact, it was fine just not, as I said, transcendent. It looked like it might be, but when the menu is in 5 languages you know something’s off. 

I had pasta fagioli, bean soup. It was really good. Ashish had a salad and then mediocre gnocchi. I had roasted chicken that was brightened by the delightful and unexpected presence of french fries.

The bean soup was the bright spot, I was going to say note. There were plenty of bright notes later. I think b flat.

Dead saints, sorta

Every time I enter a church there is the hope that I will be presented with a dead saint in a fancy coffin. You don’t find this that much in France. The Italians do this with more gusto. Perhaps less than the Spanish and certainly less than the Portuguese. But we were able to find some nice ones in Bologna and Venice. Unfortunately none of these had quite made it to sainthood, all of them being only “Blessed” not “Sainted.” And I’m imagining the likelihood of sainthood is not great since most of these people died in the 15th, 16th and 17th centuries. 

While I didn’t get a picture of it, there is an x-ray of the bones inside the coffin that holds the remains of St Mark in the Basilica San Marco. Apparently he was stolen and re-stolen back and forth between churches who claimed him as a patron so often that his corpse got a little catterwhampus inside the sarcophagus. The x-ray looks like a game of pick up sticks and there is no skull. 

That is something I also like. Cutting people in half, hacking people into pieces, cutting off heads, hands, pulling out bones. Mary Magdalen’s head is interred outside of Hyéres where I had my apartment, her body though, is somewhere north in Provence. I like the guy there in the middle who apparently was cut off at the waist. The top half of him plopped there like that for eternity or until Venice sinks.

In the last photo, the space at the bottom of this altar is filled with skulls. Ashish ran off when I showed that to him. Eventually he got used to it. And was up there inspecting and photographing the gruesome but blessed remains with the best of us.

Nowhere on earth as beautiful

It can be annoying. There are swarms of tourists. The Italians, while not as disdainful as the French are just as brusque, impatient and intimidating. Yeah, sure, the Venetians are tired of the tourists and I appreciate that, I’m not complaining. But I can admit I’m intimidated easily. The behavior of the Venetians and tourists not withstanding, Venice is like no where on earth. It is just so goddam beautiful everywhere you look.

I took this picture last night after a disappointing meal in a tourist trappy place with gondoliers cruising by every few minutes singing songs that must just kill them to sing over and over and over. (As a side note we watched a gondola full of tourists getting sung to. All of them, every single one of the eight of them on their phones taking pictures.) But God it was beautiful and I had to take a picture.

The Schmidt factor

Here in Italy (although I have eaten far less pizza than I’d like to have) the pizzas are amazing. But today after the disappointing plate of fried fish and other marine life, we had pizza and I’m afraid that while Ashish liked his, mine was just, well, just not that great, waaaay too many onions.

The problem is that I have the gold standard of pizza by which I am always comparing pizza. Schmidt’s pizza still reigns supreme. All the more amazing since only Peggy, one half of the Schmidt team, whose last name is Zola, is Italian.

The wine was beyond awful.

Little Timmy died for my sins

Ashish ordered this. I did not but I did dutifully try it.

Poor little thing, he was so cute. But then I ate him. He looked cuter than he tasted. But he tasted a lot bigger than he was in real life which is about the size of a small child’s pinky. Unfortunately he will be going on my list of things I don’t want to be eating again.

Ashish left most of the little fish on the plate when push came to shove.

Spt 27th, Da’ Ivo, Venice

I’ve been here before and I don’t really remember too much about it except that I’ve always wanted to go back. That and I have one of their napkins. It was Ashish’s birthday and I thought we’d go somewhere special. 

I looked it up on the internet and now it is the darling of American celebrities. In particular George Clooney who seems to have eaten there many times and Tom Cruise and his now ex-wife What’s her name. It’s sad that I know their daughter’s name is Suri (bad celebrity name alert name) but can’t think of the ex-wife’s name even if it’s been plastered on the front of every single magazine for months. Anyway, he looks like a dwarf in the picture of them. 

The prices, which I recall as being steep, are steeper. The wine list average price was about $250 with the median price being around $750. It was possible to order the house red for $30 but I imagined the staff urinating into a carafe, coloring it with Gravy Master and the sommelier presenting it with grand flourish at the table. I went with the the barely potable $60 bottle of cabernet. The waiter said “Excellent choice,” while thinking you cheap American fool.

I had burratini and tomatoes. It is a very fresh mozzarella, good tomatoes drizzled with pesto. It was excellent. Ashish had zucchini blossoms stuffed with crab and deep fried. They were also delicious. The food on the whole was really good. I had veal rolls stuffed with cheese and porcini. Awesome, Ashish had risotto with fresh peas and it was the best thing of the evening. 

On the way home we stopped at a gelateria ad got these ridiculous ice cream drinks. I see people having these all the time. I’ve never had one before. It was delicious. I wonder if Katie Holmes likes them. I knew I would think of her name eventually.

Hosteria Venexiana

Is the name of Sebastiano’s restaurant. He told us to come by (to pay for the apartment) and have dinner “we will treat you like honored guests.” I really don’t want that kind of fuss but I did want to go to his restaurant and I had to pay him. It was a short but complex walk to it and when we arrived at 7:30 there were few people but 10 minutes later it was full and people were being turned away. I was fearful of the honored guests issue but it turned out not to be. He was too busy to be honoring anyone. Fearful also because I didn’t want him plying us with platefuls of fish which is what I imagine honored guests get, at least in Venice.

He suggested that we not order and he would bring food for us. I told him no fish and he seemed fine with that. He brought out a bowl of bread (thankfully not bolognese bread) and olives and some other thing I didn’t know what it was but from the look on Ashish’s face when he tasted it, it wasn’t going to be something I liked either. It was some sort of rice and fish ball. It wasn’t bad actually. Like tuna aranchini.

Then we had polenta with 2 cheeses, gorgonzola and parmesan. It was glorious. That was followed by a plate of cured meat and cheese. It looked good but dried beef is not really all that good, the salami was ok but the fresh parmesan (or something) needed an acquired taste to like. I thought Ashish was going to pass out when he tasted it. It was loathsome.

Then he served us some sort of lasagna that had a meat and cheese filling but the sauce was very very anchovylicious. My eyes about bugged out of my head. I didn’t know if Sebastiano hadn’t heard me or he was like the mother in My Big Fat Greek Wedding who is told the groom is vegetarian says, “but he’ll eat lamb, no?” It’s not fish, it’s anchovies! I bravely choked down half of it secretly hoping I would come to find the delight in it’s flavor (My mother eats them fer chrissake) but that did not happen. I will light some candles.

We finished up with sambuca and some other liquor that tasted like bitters. They were both good but the sambuca was radiant. I’m buying some when I get home.

I got a nice doodle in, as you can see, on the placemat.