Thursday, January 31, 2013

A Wandering Tale

By Edith McClintock

A few months back, I was in a five-week training course where we spent a day on Myers Brigg team-building exercises. For those of you who may not know, Myers Brigg is a psychological test that measures how people perceive the world and make decisions. My classmates and I had all taken the test online during our first week of training, but only the trainers knew the results (although a few of us, including me, did know our “types”).

For the last activity, the trainers asked four of us to leave the room. We waited in the hallway for about ten minutes while the rest of the group did something—we weren’t sure what. Then we were asked to come back in the room, sit in front of the group, and, together, plan a trip.

Backpacking, Florence, Italy, 1990s
So we did, contemplating oceans and mountains, deciding why not have both, riffing off each other, laughing, wandering down byways. Everything fun and flexible. Nothing too thought-out or well planned. We ended up sailing for Croatia, stopping at various sites along the Albanian coast, ending in the ancient city of Dubrovnik.

No one discussed booking tickets, passports, packing appropriately or reading travel guides.

The four of us, it turned out, all scored high on perceiving in the Myers Brigg judging/perceiving (J/P) typology. Before us, the trainers had asked a group of high judging classmates to also plan a trip, and the result was very different—obviously much more structured.

I’d like to note that judging does not connote judgmental, nor does it have implications for one’s level of organization. Judgers simply prefer a planned or orderly way of life. They like to have things settled and organized, to bring life under control as much as possible. Perceivers prefer a flexible and spontaneous way of life, to understand and adapt to the world rather than organize it. They like to stay open to new experiences and information.

So what does this mean for how I like to travel?

It means I don’t like to read guidebooks. I don’t like to have a plan or particularly know where I’m going. I like to wander, to explore the random and unknown. I like to get lost.

Priene, Turkey
You can imagine this doesn’t work well with strong judging types, which I learned on my first big trip—backpacking through Europe with my sister and two friends when I was nineteen. One friend showed up with a plan for the entire month of travel, a day-by-day, nearly hour-by-hour schedule—with listings of museums, restaurants, even our scheduled wake-up time each morning. Some of it was useful information, true, but the idea of a detailed breakfast schedule on vacation was incomprehensible to me—still is.

She was, I have no doubt, high on the Myers Brigg judging scale. Two of us were high perceivers. My sister is probably somewhere in between. We didn’t make it through the trip. There was yelling at the Naples train station. Three of us went to Germany with no plan. The other stayed in Italy.

That’s not to say I’m not perfectly happy if someone wants to sort out monotonous details for me—important sights to see, bus schedules, country crossings, visa details. That’s lovely, and I can do that too, if necessary. I can even enjoy it sometimes. What I can’t do, or hate to do, is travel with a schedule or stick to a plan when there’s a random brown sign on a map, maybe indicating a castle off the highway. Sure, it’s not what we had planned, we don’t know any details, possibly we don’t have enough gas or a spare tire, but why not take a look? I prefer to travel with someone who says, “Sure, why not?”

Bay near Dilek Peninsula National Park
We did this in Turkey when I was traveling with another friend. We’d rented a car to visit the ancient ruins of Priene, Miletus, and Didyma scattered along the Aegean coast. But we saw that brown sign and headed off the highway to follow a dirt road surrounded by cotton fields. After several turns, helpful pointing in the opposite direction from a farmer, followed by a long, rocky road through more fields, we found ourselves confronting an unimpressive ruin of a castle on a tiny hill.

There was a reason it wasn’t listed in our guidebook. We took a few pictures that will never be shown to the world, scurried back to the car at the first sign of a barking dog, and were soon back on the highway and en route to exploring the guidebook-approved sites, only two hours delayed.

Doğanbey, Turkey
We rushed through dusty, archeological sites under a baking sun, and by late afternoon, I thought we should try a new route back through a national park, maybe take a swim somewhere along the coast. We again followed winding roads, stopping first at a beautiful deserted bay, where the water was too shallow and warm, the bottom mucky, and we decided to find something better along the way. Unfortunately, there was no other way. The road ended.

We turned around, making several more attempts to find a road through the park, but instead we kept ending up near what looked like a ghost town nestled in the side of a small mountain. It was there we found a visitor center and learned there were no roads through the park from the south. Problem solved, we’d have to backtrack.
But in the meantime, why not explore the ghost town? We followed the narrow, cobbled roads, past crumbling stone houses snuggled next to restored, boutique cottages, catching glimpses of sparkling bay through gnarled olive trees and draping bougainvillea. Just cats and silence.

Doğanbey, Turkey
The town, we discovered, was renamed Doğanbey from Domatia after the 1923 population exchange when Turkey gained its independence and ethnic Greeks were pushed out of Turkey (as were Turks living on Greek islands). Doğanbey was left to crumble for many years—until the parks department acquired several buildings, and wealthy foreigners looking for seclusion bought others.

Today, it’s a perfect, sleepy village. And not in any guidebooks.

But that is essentially how I like to travel, whether it’s by car, foot, plane, or train.
Sometimes you get a dusty cotton field and boring ruins, sometimes a spectacular desert cave outside Petra with no toilet or running water, other times a visit to the Valley of the Kings with no tourists.

You never know. But that’s the fun. 

For more, you can visit my author website and/or personal blog, A Wandering Tale. Even better, order a copy of Monkey Love & Murder on AmazonBarnes & Noble, or the Book Depository (free shipping nearly anywhere in the world).

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Fly, Little Bird, Fly!

By Supriya Savkoor
Arriving at London's Heathrow (Photo: Jnpet)
I don’t know about my favorite mode of transport, but hands down, my favorite place to be, in any city anywhere in the world, is…odd as it sounds….the airport. 

I know, I’m a freak, but think about it. People of all backgrounds and classes, many of whom may never meet in the outside world or even otherwise be in the same room with any of the people around them, rubbing elbows. All of them hustling and bustling through a little microcosm of the world, coming from who knows where, hopefully going somewhere special, and possibly starting a new life, a new venture, a new family. The anticipation of both departing and arriving, of the infinite opportunities and possibilities, experiences and sights and sounds…it all gives me a heady rush. I’ve had plenty of celebrity sightings at airports all over the world. (I once spent an afternoon watching Huey Lewis sign autographs, as we both waited for a flight out to Chicago during a blizzard.) Even those little blue lights glowing along airport runways give me a tiny thrill, somewhat bittersweet from leaving somewhere, maybe someone, behind, but mostly thrilling because of the delicious anticipation of both the known and the unknown.

There is something extremely magical about the entire experience, even in this day of having to wait out in the main terminal rather than right at the gate when welcoming your visitors, taking your shoes off through painfully long security lines, or throwing out tiny bottles of your favorite perfume because you forgot to leave them behind. arrhow how For me, there’s almost no better place to people watch, dream up stories, imagine distant lands, and live vicariously. Oh, and eavesdrop…but never mind that…

Bus terminals, train stations, cab stands—all of these provide a sliver of what an airport offers in ample supply, but for my money (well, okay, so it’s free to just hang out at any of these places if you’re not going anywhere), nothing beats the excitement of an airport.

Besides, you know that special moment in your life when you feel sort of like a rock star? My 15 minutes of fame, give or take 5 or 10 minutes, occurred at London’s Heathrow Airport in the early ’90s.

A few months out of college, I was still trying to find my way around the adult world. The American public had spent much of the year anxious about an imminent war in the Persian Gulf, which in turn had led to a deep national recession, which meant limited job opportunities for me and many other new grads. By the fall of 1990, I’d quit my first low-paying newspaper job and scraped together my tiny bundle of savings to take a long, relaxing trip to India, where I hoped to figure out my next career move.

I’d caught an Air India flight from New York to Bombay via London’s Heathrow, where I and hundreds of other hapless souls converged at our boarding gate and received some surprising news.

It was mid-October 1990, two months after Iraq had invaded Kuwait. Nearly half a million Kuwaitis and foreigners had fled the country, where Saddam Hussein’s forces were plundering the little nation’s wealth and committing all kinds of human rights violations. The Indian government had just begun an aggressive week-long campaign to airlift 150,000 Indian expats, once an affluent Kuwaiti minority and now left destitute after all their assets, from their property to their life savings, had been confiscated. It was all hands on deck, so to speak, and Air India was among those aiding the rescue effort.

The airline had already begun running emergency missions, diverting a number of its planes to the Middle East. On that particular autumn day, the plane that was to fly me and my few hundred co-passengers to Bombay was instead en route to Kuwait City. We were stuck in London for at least the next 24 hours, with the option to stay at a London hotel, our accommodations paid in full, if—get this—we surrendered our passports for those 24 hours to the attendant at the boarding gate. That meant allowing the airline officials to shuttle us to the hotel, get us checked in, and bring us back the next day, all but guaranteeing that we couldn't leave either the hotel or the airport of our own accord. As soon as he made the offer, as though it were some kind of race, the entire crowd rushed forward, passports extended. All except me.

From the back of the crowd, I asked what would happen if he loses one or more of our passports. What if we couldn't find him to get any information about it. If he would kindly give us his full name and contact information, just in case the new attendant can't find them. Where exactly did they plan to store our passports that night. Who would be accountable and responsible if our precious passports did get lost or stolen. And why, for goodness sakes, we couldn’t just TAKE our passports with us to the hotel since, after all, there was no logical reason for us to surrender them (except the whole visa thing, which seemed a minor technicality given the circumstances). Especially, since we'd be lost, literally, without them.

This, in case you’d forgotten where my little story was headed (ahem), was my rock star moment.

Hundreds of heads turned suddenly in my direction. My co-passengers who were ready to hand over their passports, no questions asked, peered up at me, their arms slowly retracting. (Why were they looking "up"? Was I standing on a chair? I can’t remember, but at that particular moment, I did sort of feel like Moses.) You don’t think it’s a good idea, the good-looking newlyweds, at least a decade older than me, asked in their prim European accents. What should we do instead, queried a rather classy elderly gentleman. As though I were their representative here. As though I had all the answers.

I shrugged. I don’t know what could happen, I told them, but I’m not taking any chances. If that guy loses my passport, it's obviously up to me to figure out how to get a new one, not him. I’d rather stay here at the airport all night, even if I have to sleep on one of these chairs.

All eyes turned back to the attendant, who was no longer smiling. In that case, he said, you’ll just have to wait it out at the airport. I can give you vouchers for two meals at one little restaurant that closes early tonight. Sorry, that’s the best I can do. There won't be any breakfast. Maybe some coffee. Anyone still want to go to the hotel?

Nope, everyoneeach and every one of those hundreds of folks waiting at the gate with medecided to hang back. We spent a safe, quiet, if uncomfortable, night at Heathrow. Instead of Bombay, we ended up in New Delhi, again in waiting mode for some 12 to 15 hours for another flight. All for a good cause, of course. 

I didn’t move any mountains or save any lives that weekend in London, but I did make a couple of new friends and, most of all, feel kind of grown up for the first time ever.

Not bad for being stuck at an airport, no? See what I mean about that sense of adventure?

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Riding with Strangers

by Kelly Raftery 

I can’t count how many times I repeated this series of events when I lived abroad:  walk to the curb, stand perpendicular to the street, raise hand closest to street to half-mast, wait for a car to stop, negotiate a fare to wherever I had to go, agree on a price, hop in the front seat and grab a ride with a complete stranger. Sometimes the car that stopped was an official taxi, more times than not it was just someone picking up people to earn a little extra money on the side. I am sure my mother would be perfectly appalled to know that this was something I did many times a week when I lived in Russia. 

A rare beast, an official taxi cab.
Photo via Wikimedia Commons.

The chastnik is my all-time favorite form of transportation. Chastnik derives from the Russian adjective “chastnyi” which means “private” as in not official during the Soviet period. Anyone with access to a car could pick up anyone on the side of the road looking for a ride. The experience of a chastnik is completely random, which is why I love it. It’s not the metro with its regular stops ticking by like minutes on a clock, or the hurry, hurry, rush, rush that is air travel. I walk to the street, put out my arm and then who knows? What kind of vehicle will pick me up?  Who will be driving?  Will they think I am an American? Or will they believe it if I say I am Estonian?  If they don’t believe I am Estonian will I have to confess that I am an American and pay more than I agreed to in the first place?  Will the driver hate Americans and not take me all the way to my destination or demand dollar payment for the ride?

Negotiating a price before getting into a chastnik.
Photo by Jan Voigtmann from Wikimedia Commons.

One of my sharpest memories from my study abroad summer is of a chastnik ride. It was 1990 and change was in the air, but it was still the Soviet Union. Western student movements were still tracked and jeans were still a viable commodity on the black market. After months of abysmal dorm food in Leningrad, our group traveled to Moscow, and stood in line at the newly opened McDonald’s near Red Square, which was as close to manna from heaven as a group of college students ever saw. Going back to our hotel, a buddy and I hailed a chastnik. When the driver learned we were Americans, he reached deep under his seat and popped a cassette into the bulky tape player occupying the shotgun position. Moments later “Hotel California” came blaring out and the driver cracked a wide grin, taking delight in his obviously bootlegged stash of Western rock and roll. Today, every time a radio station rolls out this standard, my mind flits back to that chastnik ride and that surreal summer.

Soviet era apartment blocks loom over the street.
Photo via Wikimedia Commons.
One cold night I was making my way back from a friend’s house on the outskirts of St. Petersburg. Dwarfed by pre-fabricated identical block houses in a pitch dark night, I wondered if I would ever be able to find a ride back to the center of town or even to the nearest metro station. My feet grew cold and my eyes watered, the tears freezing my eyelashes together for a split second when I blinked and so when the first vehicle stopped, I simply hopped in, not caring who it was, or how far they could take me. I remember seeing the dark outline of a jeep, but it wasn’t until I found myself surrounded by baby-faced recruits in greatcoats and fur hats that I realized I had been picked up by a military vehicle. It was one of the most convivial rides I ever had. Another bitterly cold day, I was picked up by a “New Russian” in his tricked out BMW, with heated seats…I wished I could have sat there all day, so enthralled by the luxury of it at a time when the average Russian needed rationing coupons to buy cheese and sausage. 

On one very busy and intense business trip to Moscow, I absently hailed a car to take me back to my hotel. A sleek, black and slightly dangerous looking Mercedes stopped at the curb, with a young man in his early twenties behind the wheel. Too tired to play games, I told him my destination and then admitted to being an American when he asked. The driver promptly looked me over from head to toe and then snaked his hand over to rest on my knee. He then mentioned that he had never slept with an American, but he had already bedded British, French, Spanish and German women, as if this was somehow an inducement for me to follow suit. I looked over at him and said, “I am married.”  The driver looked sidelong at me and scoffed dismissively, “To whom? An American?  It’s no problem.”  I answered, “No, he is Kyrgyz.”  The hand immediately returned to the steering wheel. The rest of the ride passed in blissful silence until I stepped out a block or so from my hotel. It was only later that I explored with Russian friends what the average Russian stereotype is of Kyrgyz men – horseback riding, uncivilized barbarians. Apparently, my driver feared for his life in suggesting he mess around with a Kyrgyz wife, whereas cuckolding an American husband seemed safe enough. This story still garners laughs from Kyrgyz friends and relatives alike.

There is a bit of a thrill of not knowing how the ride will go in a chastnik, or what might happen once lives unexpectedly touch when traveling from Point A to Point B.

Monday, January 28, 2013

Riding the Rails

Vintage train in Bad Doberan, Germany
Photo by Felix O.

By Heidi Noroozy

As a child, I had fantasies about living the life of a hobo, hopping on and off trains, traveling to wherever the rails led. As an adult, I realize I hadn’t considered the practicalities well enough to appreciate the downside of such a life: the lack of creature comforts and regular meals—the danger. But back then, it wasn’t the lifestyle that beckoned to me or even the sense of freedom and boundless horizons. I just loved trains.

One memorable rail-riding experience came when I was 11. That summer, my family and I spent some weeks in a small town called Tabarz in Thuringia, a forested region of gently rolling hills in East Germany. A network of hiking trails crisscrossed the landscape and led through the woods from one red-roofed village to the next. We’d spend long afternoons wandering those loamy trails, and when dusk fell, we’d return home by way of the Bimmelbahn, a narrow-gauge train that stopped at every tiny hamlet along its route. The train got its name from the little bell the engineer would ring on approaching a station. (Bimmeln means to ring a bell.) I could have ridden that little train all day long and never tired of listening to its cheerful chimes as it pulled into the next town. To this day, decades later, I can still conjure up the rich, piney scent of those woodsy trails and the ting-a-ling of the Bimmelbahn’s bell.

When I embark on a trip and need to choose a mode of transport, plane travel usually wins out for the sake of expediency. But if I had my druthers, I’d pick the rails every time. Most modern trains give a smooth and silent ride, but sometimes on a regional route, you can still find the old rattle-traps that are more like a historic steam engine than the high-tech, computerized machines of today. I love the way they go clickety clack down the line, slowly at first then faster and faster as they gather speed, until the world whizzes by to a staccato rhythm.

Hiking in the Thuringian Forest
Once, years ago, I had a bit of extra time and rode the rails straight across the United States, a journey that took three days. By the end of that trip, my mind was filled with images of wind rippling through golden wheat fields, green-flanked mountains reaching up to stroke the clouds, and the dramatic landscapes of the California’s Pacific coast, where waterfalls tumble down rocky cliffs and the sea carves blue coves out of the rugged shoreline. I gained a new appreciation for the varied landscapes of the country where I live.

I’ve had some fun times on trains. Once, on an overnight trip from Madrid to Algeciras at the southern tip of Spain, my two friends and I shared a compartment with three Spanish teenagers. The six of us played hand after hand of Crazy Eights throughout the long night. I understood no more than five or six words of Spanish at the beginning of the card game, which we took to calling “Ochos Locos,” but by dawn I could count to ten and rattle off the names of suits as though I’d been playing cards in Spanish for years.

Not every rail-riding experience has been quite so much fun. On a 1980 trip from Oslo to East Berlin, the train was late and I missed an evening connection somewhere in the middle of Denmark. The next train heading my way didn’t leave until six the next morning, so I settled in for a long night of strong coffee and a good book in the station’s tiny café. By the time we made it to the East German border, I discovered that, somewhere along the way, I’d lost the visa, stamped on a separate piece of paper, that I needed to enter the GDR. Possibly it had fallen out of my bag at that little café in Denmark.

GDR border crossing
Photo by Felix O.
Certain that I’d be unceremoniously tossed off the train and left behind in the no man’s land that existed between the two German states, I explained my situation to the East German border guard—hoping I didn’t look as nervous as I felt. But he just shrugged, told me to get a new visa as soon as I could, and moved on to the next passenger.

The shops, and therefore the travel agencies, were closed for the day when we reached Berlin, and the next day was Sunday. So I spent two nights as an illegal alien in the German Democratic Republic before getting my visa sorted out. No one seemed to care except me.

These days, I may have abandoned my over-romanticized image of the hobo’s life, but I still feel a thrill of excitement when I climb aboard a train. Sometimes it’s not the destination that matters but the thrill of the journey that gets you there.

Friday, January 25, 2013

Off The Beaten Track: Karsten Horne and the Emerald Nuts at Midnight

Karsten and Chelsea
Our guest this week is Karsten Horne, king of adventure. Traveling has been in Karsten’s veins from a young age. He followed the overland trail to Europe with his parents then backpacked solo through South America as a teenager. Karsten runs the highly successful Reho Travel in Melbourne and Sydney, Australia, catering to a mostly corporate clientele. He is currently working on expanding the company’s retail offerings with a new brand and through rehope sponsors those less fortunate. He manages to combine his love of writing and photography with his travel enterprises, having visited 75 countries and finding inspiration on every journey.

We start sprinting down the hill toward the noise and the lights, as we get closer chanting starts. 30, 29, 28. We push our way through the crowd and as we leap the fence, it gets down to 3, 2, 1. We cross the start line amidst the deafening roar of fireworks, people screaming and hugging, and get pushed in a sea of runners that are all heading into the darkness. I look across at Chelsea and yell out, “Wow, imagine a night Australian Rules Football Grand Final” just as a massive round of fireworks illuminates the sky.

The pace is fast, I mean, seriously fast. Last time I ran like this I was being chased by a security guard at Western Oval (the home of my beloved football team, the Bulldogs). I still feel bad about that as I think he tore a hamstring. It was worth it though, especially when you look closely at the pictures of Doug Hawkins* being carried off on his last game and you see my hand on his arse. 

For the first mile I stay with the group and am really proud of myself. Given it comprises of Chelsea (who has been secretly training for this with daily crossings of Brooklyn Bridge), her marathon running, wholefood eating friends and me, the old man. Central Park at this time of the year is so beautiful, the air is clear and crisp and the path is lined ten deep with well-wishers. Every chance I get I divert off my line and put up a high five. I feel like king of the world, dressed in several layers of fancy running gear proudly topped off by my Bulldog’s jumper, which always keeps me one step ahead of the fashion police. Several times my mind drifts off and I imagine what would happen if I accidently turned off the path and in the morning the team from CSI New York discover yet another frozen bundle in Central Park. Or have visions of Hugh Jackman on a horse leaping across the path in front of me.

As I reach the half way mark I start to question what I am doing here. Three hours ago I was comfortably locked away in a pen at Broadway and 51st St with a million of my closest friends ready to welcome in the New Year by watching the ball drop in the traditional style. It was quite simple really; you stop drinking liquid around midday, stock your pockets with energy snacks and wait and wait in the sub zero temperatures. A few hours in we discovered that although we could see Times Square way off in the distance, there was no sound. That is correct—over 1,000,000 people are prepared to stand around for nine hours with no entertainment. What? I decided to take on the role of entertainment coordinator by playing and singing along to We Will Never Get Back Together on the iPhone, which amused the crowd for about 30 seconds. Especially the way I sang “I hate you, we break up, you call me, I love you” with such conviction. Some Kiwi’s then donated Better Be Home Soon which got us all huggy but I knew it was over when a bunch of Koreans started playing Psy’s lesser-known works. After climbing the world’s largest sand dune and completing the Inca Trail for recent New Year’s Eve celebrations, New York was threatening to become a real flop.

Times Square way off in the distance
Then I remembered Chelsea’s invitation to join her on the Emerald Nuts Midnight Run in Central Park. “It’s a really easy run just for fun, not competitive at all” were her exact words. I looked at my watch and had just enough time to get across town register and line up at Strawberry Fields for the start. I managed to register as runner number 5281 only minutes before closing but almost didn’t make it to the start when I got caught on a downtown train and emerged in the middle of a pen at 48th St, 20 blocks in the wrong direction. One of New York’s finest took one look at my outfit, wished me luck and waved me through the barriers and I ran the 20 blocks, dodging strange looks and weaving between drunk partygoers in 2013 glasses and giant Nivea Uncle Sam hats. Hardly the right preparation for a run with my mind racing—torn between finding my way and wondering what giant furry hats have to do with skin care.

Approaching the half way mark of the run, I’m really starting to struggle. In the first mile I feel like I’m passing people but the trend is reversing and I know I’m in trouble when I get passed by a smurf who looks to be doing it easy. It was hard to tell though as his expression never changed. He ignored me as I yelled out at him to slow down, as it was only a fun run! Clearly nobody told the smurf! I pull over for a breather at the drink station, plug some music in and resolve to catch the smurf. Ahead I see him pause at the cider stand and disappear around the next bend.

In plugging in the music I’ve somehow selected my daughter’s trash metal mix and some idiots screaming at me. Determined not to stop again I remember back to the time I wandered into the Panamanian President’s compound and was chased by his machine gun toting bodyguard down a jungle path, the same screaming only in Spanish. No Karsten, you need to relax, get in the moment. Think of something positive, like Katie Holmes smiling at you yesterday, now that was a New York moment.

The clock says 00:30, that means I’ve been running for nearly half an hour. Can’t be far now. I remember reading the course notes and noticed that most of the last mile is downhill so I pick up the pace and ahead of me notice that the smurf has stopped for a rest. I attempt to high five him but clip the back of his head by mistake. Poor thing, he looks stuffed. The last few hundred yards seem to go on forever, my music’s gone instrumental, spectators are yelling some thing out that sounds like a marketing slogan. I think it was “Every person counts” and I try to high five anything that is not moving but don’t connect once. In the final straight I look for someone holding a flag, anyone would do just like in the movies—so I can cross the line holding it above my head but to no avail, instead I raise my arms which won’t go above my shoulders and end up looking like a goose.

I look up my time is 39:40 and look behind me to see the smurf shuffling down the hill with Santa Claus, Superman, and Catwoman. At least he is amongst friends.

Karsten with Seth Godin
Somebody thrusts a bagel, an apple, and a bag of nuts in my direction and that’s it. All over, no fanfare. Yeah…um…that was fun!

24 Hours later, I sat in front of a Seth Godin lecture and this is what he said:

“Your art is vitally important, and what makes it art is that it is personal, important and fraught with the whiff of failure. This is precisely why it's scarce and thus valuable—it's difficult to stand up and own it and say, "Here, I made this.”

This is my art.
4 Miles
40 Minutes
48 Years of preparation

* Doug Hawkins is a famous Australian Rules Football player

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Virgin’s Breasts and Other Delicacies

By Patricia Winton

Saltimbocca with chicken
Many Italian dishes have strange names. In Rome, Saltimbocca alla Romana reigns as a favorite main course. The Roman version is made from thin slices of veal cutlets topped with slices of prosciutto crudo and sage leaves. Sometimes, the concoction is rolled up like a jelly roll, fastened with a toothpick, and sautèed in olive oil. Other times, the sage is fastened to the meat with a tooth pick, and it is cooked flat. It’s a succulent dish that “jumps in the mouth,” which is what saltimbocca means. Sometimes, it’s made with chicken breasts or pork, but then it’s not alla Romana.

Another Roman dish, a pasta sauce this time, is called Pasta all’Arrabiata. To make this simple pasta sauce, sautè a bit of garlic in olive oil; add red hot pepper, canned tomatoes, and parsley. Meanwhile, cook short dried pasta like penne. This dish is fast to make and tasty to eat. It’s a mainstay in my fast food arsenal. It gets its name, angry pasta, from that hot pepper.

Sometimes, it’s impossible to guess how a dish gets its name. Genovese Napolitana, for example, is a sauce from Naples. A slow-cooked dish made with lots of onions and a little meat, the onion sauce usually tops pasta while the meat appears as the main course. The strange thing about this name is that while it’s a Naples dish, the name Genovese means “from Genoa,” town of Columbus’s birth. One theory is that the Genovese don’t use much tomato in their sauces, unlike the Neapolitans who were the first Europeans to cook with tomatoes. Another suggests that the restaurateur who created the dish came from Genova, as the town is called in Italian.

Sweet dishes can also harbor strange names. Popular cookies called brutti ma buoni, ugly but good, are simple meringues laced with ground nuts and cocoa powder. And they are good. My all-time favorites, however, are called Minne di Virgini, Virgin’s Breasts. These little white hemispheres, topped with a cherry nipple, were first made at the Monastery of the Virgins in Palermo. The confection quickly became the symbol for Saint Agatha whose torturers ultimately cut off her breasts before killing her. While available in any Sicilian pastry shop year round, the Minne di Virgini star in the feast of St. Agatha, patron saint of Catania, on February 6.

Bread, too, offers amusing names. Ciabattine (or ciabatte) are small flat rolls that I understand have become quite trendy in the US and the UK where they are used as sandwich bread. I usually cut them in strips and use them to accompany dinner. I always buy two, although I eat only one with my meal. They just need to come in pairs, I feel, since the word means “little slippers.”

But pasta, oh pasta, offers the strangest names. If you think about it, some names are downright unappetizing. Who really wants to eat vermicelli (little worms), linguine (little tongues), capellini (little hairs), or even orecchiette (little ears)? Some pasta names just make me laugh. Why, I ask, are two popular pastas called ditali (thimbles) and mezze maniche (short sleeves)? In America, farfalle are known as bow ties. That used to make me wince. “Oh no,” I’d say. “Farfalle are butterflies.” Only later did I learn that in Italian, bow ties and butterflies are both farfalle.

The name strozzapreti baffles me most. Just who wants to strangle the priests? Theories abound. One says that housewives from Emilia-Romagna, one region where this pasta is popular, made the dish for local priests, while their anti-cleric husbands hoped the priests would choke on the dish. Another says that when cooks prepare this pasta by hand, they must grab the dough with two hands and twist, or strangle, it. Yet a third holds that peasants prepared food as partial payment for land rents. The priests, who were notoriously gluttonous, ate this dish so rapidly that they choked on it.

As I look through my pantry now, I find strozzapreti, linguine, capellini, orecchiette, ditali, mezze maniche, farfalle. And there’s one ciabiattina, the mate to the one I had for dinner last night. There are tomatoes and hot pepper for making arrabiata sauce in the cupboard, and genovese in the freezer. Burtti ma buoni never stay here long enough to be considered staples, and I’m not at all fond of minne di virgini.