How (not) to Plan a Trip to Europe

Italy 2008 009

Last summer, at about this time, I was on the internet browsing housing and travel opportunities to Europe for this summer.  We had just returned from a trip to Denmark and France, and I was already looking forward to returning this year.  Summer is our time to go back to our European roots where we lived as a family until our move to the U.S. 2 years ago.  In the summer, we have the luxury of time on our side with a long school holiday, the conveniences of telecommuting, and, luckily, many friends in numerous countries with guest bedrooms.  As I browsed the internet, I drooled over beautiful pictures of villas and imagined sitting by their pools, exploring the grounds, indulging in delicious meals and exploring nearby medievel villages.  I also figured I should start investing in some lottery tickets.

A requisite for the next trip would be a stop in Copenhagen.  It’s important for us to keep our connection with friends and our family life there.  However, if we were traveling all the distance to Europe, we hoped to arrange another trip – within our trip – to take advantage of setting foot on the European continent.  We would find that villa, that restaurant, that village.  But where?  It was easy to let the imagination run wild; we had many months to finalize our plans and dreaming is free.  Would we take our usual detour to the south of France or Tuscany?  Should we do something different and stay north, heading east to Stockholm or even St. Petersburg?  What about traveling back to where the children were born near Geneva?  Or, how about England, where we also lived – should we visit our old town and house, and stop by Stonehenge to check that it was still there?  The possibilities were endless.  Half the fun of travel is thinking and planning; there was plenty of time on our side.  I relished organizing our trip and made a mental note to purchase those lottery tickets. 

Then the new school year started.  Life became busy and scheduled.  And, as things go, my back went out (all that flying didn’t help.)  Any future travel plans were relegated to the back burner while my back healed and we focused on local life.  Fall turned to winter.  School marched on with kids, commitments, and goodness-knows the myriad things that need doing during the school year.  Christmas passed and spring arrived.  New job opportunities presented themselves.  (FYI: opportunity is a euphimism for “unforeseen change, stressful uncertainties, potential risks and/or possibilities.”)  Europe suddenly seemed far away while our present life teemed with houseguests, homework, school plays, work responsibilities and potential life changes.  Travel focused on local destinations: Tahoe for skiing, Carmel for beach, L.A. for American Girl Doll Store (ok, ok, but we are living in the U.S. for the first time ever in my daughter’s life.)  Before we knew it, school graduation was approaching, summer activities beckoned, and we still had not organized our trip – at all.  We tentatively waited, keeping options open while we were teased with the promise of  work commitments requiring travel to Europe (but where?)  In an attempt to wield some control over the situation, we purchased tickets to Denmark for 3 weeks in August, seemingly late enough in the summer for everything to sort itself out.

And suddenly the end of July arrived.  While we had a ticket to Copenhagen, we had a week wide open in our trip with no guest bedroom to borrow, during which we had hoped to travel elsewhere – our holiday in the holiday.  In a moment of wistful nostalgia, I went back to my well-perused vacation websites from last autumn, and lo and behold, I discover a pleasant surprise.  There are some specials out there for the (very) last minute traveler.  For those spontaneous, fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants adventurers who are loathe to plan ahead, guess what?  Houses that haven’t rented are offering big discounts!  That beautiful villa I admired last September actually had a last minute vacancy … next week!  Not only that, instead of paying a king’s ransom for the whole caboodle for a week, we could have two en-suite bedrooms for 5 nights for less than the going rate at a local hotel – breakfast included, so I could over-indulge in Italian espressos.  Things are looking up!  So, as we pack and prepare for our trip, I realize that there is a whole world of last minute travel opportunities out there for the taking.  I shall remember this for our next trip next summer – which I hope to book in September. 

Football Party Food

No, I am not talking about the Superbowl. I am talking about UEFA.  It’s World Cup Football Championship time again and for those of you not interested in or in touch with this intenrationl rite, it is THE football championship that takes place worldwide every summer. Don’t get me wrong. I hardly watch football (that’s soccer for you Americans). But, after all, I am married to a Dane and spent many years in Europe where, come summer, if you are not following at least a teensy bit of football in the news or on the television, you are living in a shoebox. Two years ago we were vacationing in Italy at the time the Italians won the world cup. Now that left an impression I am still talking about. During the quarterfinals we were in Rome. Being the tourists we were, we naively ventured into the city for dinner during the quarterfinal match. While the restaurants were open, they were very empty except for wayward disoriented tourists such as ourselves. The staff were, to say the least, distracted, and we quickly deduced that we might as well just go with the flow, and root for our new favorite football team while not being overly critical about the spotty table service. After our meal we realized that there would be no hope in finding a taxi driver to bring us back to our hotel. So, we wandered into another restaurant with a lounge and cheered on our new favorite team as they won the match. From that moment on the streets came alive with revelers, cars honking, sirens blaring. This continued well into the night, long after we had gone to bed – and it was just the quarterfinals. The semi-finals took place after we left Rome for Tuscany where we were sharing a house with some friends near Montepulciano. The afternoon of the match, we wandered around the narrow streets of the medieval village and came upon the square, or Piazza, where an enormous screen was being erected against a building façade. Rows of folding chairs filled the Piazza, encircling the fountain, and an instant outdoor theater was in place where all the village residents would gather together that evening and watch the football match. It made me think of the film Cinema Paradiso.

The finals were played on one of our last nights in Italy. We had moved on to the Isle of Elba and were staying in a lovely hotel with an excellent restaurant. The staff was very professional and proper, and the clientelle was well-heeled and dignified, hailing from Europe, the Middle East and Russia. So, imagine the night of the finals, when in the middle of the first dinner service, a tuxedoed maître d’ wheeled a television into the center of the dining terrasse. On cue, all protocol was suspended, and waiters, busboys, hotel staff gathered around the television along with diners balancing dinner plates on their tuxedoed laps. The French tourists cheered on France and the Italian tourists and staff cheered on the Italians. We were all caught up in a passionate TV dinner for the next 2 hours. When the meal was finished we crowded into the bar, squeezing into already full sofas, balancing on the arms of chairs, sitting cross-legged on the floor, elbow to elbow with our fellow football fans. A Swedish photographer bought us a round of drinks, we reciprocated and also bought drinks for the French couple sitting at our feet, the bartender invited our children to perch on the bar and gave them free sodas. Together we cheered and booed as Italy won the world cup. What an equalizer. Who said that English is the international language?

Molo 13

Perhaps it’s the heat or perhaps I have the itch to travel right now. I am thinking of Italy. There are plenty of things to think about in Italy, but I am specifically thinking of a restaurant I dined at in Milan a number of years ago called Molo 13. This restaurant is one of those restaurants where if you are a tourist, if you do not have a local resident show it to you, you would never know it existed. This is the best kind of restaurant to eat in when traveling.

In my post Border Crossings, I mention a road trip to Milan, when I took with my friend, Deb, when I lived near Geneva. Aside from having a gun drawn on us by a particularly ruffled border guard at the French/Italian frontier, this was a very positive experience. As we drove on to Milan through the mountains of Aosta and Piemonte, we anticipated our arrival in the city, shopping along the Monte Napoleone, seeing the Duomo, and, of course, eating. In fact, we had a dinner scheduled for later that evening. The plan was that after checking into our hotel, we would drive to Malpensa airport where we would pick up my husband and his Italian colleague, Eugenio. They were returning from a business meeting in Rome, and Eugenio would take us to dinner at one of his favorite restaurants in Milan.

So arrived and checked in, Deb and I headed out, informed by the hotel’s concierge that signs to the airport would be clearly marked. We easily found the ring road that encircles Milan, a major motorway for commuters, that would take us to the airport some 35 km. away. As rush hour was peaking we were caught up in the whirlwind of the zooming traffic. Drivers sped past us, criss-crossing lanes from left to right and back again, taking turns tailgating each other. Crazy, dangerous, and wild were the operating adjectives at hand – it was automotive-chaos-theory at 200 km/hour. Appropriately, it was at this time that the headlights on my spiffy, sporty, somewhat older BMW failed. (There must be a football metaphor in there somewhere… Italian Exuberance:1  vs. German Reticence:0?)

In a split second we took stock of our situation: No map, no improved language skills since our brief exposure to Italian epithets at the border crossing, and now no functioning headlights, so even if we could read the road signs, we could hardly see them. At this moment, in most civilized societies this would be enough of a motive to just get off the road. But, this being Italy (very civilized, by the way, but in its own special way) there is a different principle applied to driving: it’s viewed as a sport; it’s adrenaline merging with testosterone; it’s an accumulation of many espressos. No lights? No problem!  Besides, now that we were caught up in the swirling vortex of the ring road, all physics of an easy, gentle trajectory towards a spontaneous exit went out the window. Either you plan your exit at least 5 km. in advance and preferably never leave the exit lane (very un-Italian.) Or you simply exit NOW! no matter what is in your way; things will just sort themselves out (very Italian.)

Well, we made it. (I am a schooled Boston driver, after all.) I have a memory of hurtling in the dark on the motorway and swerving sharply on 2 wheels when we saw the sign at the very last moment to the airport, cutting off several cars in our path. As I swerved again to avoid side-swiping an Alfa Romeo, I could have sworn I caught the approving nod of its Italian driver as I accelerated past him with no headlights. I was driving like a local.

So, imagine our relief when we finally arrived at our restaurant later that evening. The relief was replaced by delight as we entered Molo 13 and were overcome by the warm, lively, fully booked restaurant filled with Italians enjoying seafood specialties inspired by the Sardinian coast. We let Eugenio do the ordering and were treated to a multi-coursed feast beginning with assorted antipasti, followed by a sublime seafood risotto, and a main course of baked sea bass encrusted in sea salt. For the cheese course an enormous wheel of Parmigiano-Reggiano was passed around the table, and we scooped out large chunks of the cheese with a spoon. (I still have that in mind as a cheese course for a very large dinner party.) The food was Italian at its best – uncomplicated and clean, showcasing the freshness of ingredients in their simplicity of use.

Since then, I have replicated the baked fish in sea salt recipe at home. It is a remarkably easy recipe and a beautiful way to present a whole fish. Break away the salt at the table for added effect. The fish will be succulent and flavorful, the only garnish needed is a drizzle of olive oil and fresh lemon juice.

Whole Fish Baked in Sea Salt – Pesce al Sale

Serves 4

One whole fish, about 2 lbs., such as snapper or sea bass, cleaned, scaled
Lemon slices March 2008 Salt Fish 005
1 egg white
2 pounds coarse sea salt

Extra-virgin olive oil
Lemon wedges

Preheat oven to 400 F.
Place lemon slices in cavity of the fish.
Combine egg white and sea salt in a bowl. Mix well to moisten salt.
Spread 1/3 salt mixture on bottom of an oven-proof baking dish. Lay fish on top. Pour remaining salt over fish, covering completely. If needed, tail can remain exposed.
Bake in oven 30 minutes.
Crack crust open with a small hammer or knife.  Remove and discard crust.
Fillet the fish. Serve drizzled with olive oil and lemon.