Friday, September 21, 2012


It's been a long time since I last posted.  I've been ultra busy, and I have something to show for it:  I've written a book. 

The title is Al Capone Had a Lovely Mother.  It's the story of my life told in three cities (can you guess?).  So, while I was away, I was still writing about New York, Paris and San Francisco -- in much more detail, with lots of humor -- it's sure to make you want to go to any or all of these three cities that I love.

The book is available on AMAZON.COM. Take a look -- and let me know what you think of it.H

Tuesday, December 22, 2009


This past Sunday, the San Francisco Chapter of The Royal British Legion staged its 31st Annual Service of Remembrance at Grace Cathedral. Based on the Festival of Remembrance held each year in the Royal Albert Hall in London, it is a tribute to the men and women of every nation who gave their lives in defense of freedom and justice. This year, it also paid homage to those currently serving in the armed forces.

What a time to leave home without my camera. Memorial services are not usually photo-ops, but I regretted not having a camera as soon as I took my first step on the climb to the majestic doors of the cathedral. There, on the top landing, was a state and city honor guard on horseback, carrying flags of the U. S. and California. Red-sashed, bereted members of the Legion, proudly wearing the medals they had earned in service, ushered us to our seats.

The stirring service of music and prayer began with trumpet fanfares announcing the processions of kilted Legion members, church officials in ceremonial robes, and the uniformed services of the U.S. The ceremony was in all ways a British/American celebration. We sang “The Star-Spangled Banner” and “God Save the Queen,” The Wreath of the Unknown Warrior, borne by honor guards of both countries, was placed on the altar.

A representative of Queen Elizabeth II told us that Britain makes and sells millions of paper poppies each year in support of the armed services.They were sold at this service, too; the pews were filled with poppies pinned to jackets. The Archdeacon of the Diocese of California told us that each year our Governor and Mayor receive written invitations to the service, and every year to date they have declined. In true feisty spirit, he announced that they would be invited again next year. The homily offered sobering thoughts on wars, past and present, and was especially meaningful in light of the tragedy at Fort Hood.

The service closed with a wrenching rendition of “Amazing Grace” played by bagpipers in full-dress uniform. As we sang along, poppy-red confetti drifted down from the apse, a melancholy symbol of those who “gave their tomorrow for our today.” It was a goose bump moment. But every minute of this service was riveting: The music, the pageantry, the speakers, and just being in the presence of white-haired veterans who have served nobly in the past and today’s young men and women who will carry on in our behalf.

Why do I write now about this past event? Because it happens every year. Look for the 32nd Annual Service of Remembrance at Grace Cathedral next November. The cost of freedom is high; it’s a privilege to honor those who pay it.

Thursday, October 22, 2009


The year 2001 was not a good year for Americans. It was a double whammy for me. Just weeks before the terrorist attack, I was diagnosed with a serious illness. The recovery from both would be slow and painful.
Adding to that pain, I had to cancel that year’s “Paris Fix.” It would be nine years before I saw the city I treasured again.
During that time, I moved from New York to San Francisco. I think San Francisco is part of the reason I stayed away from Paris so long. I now lived in the American Paris and could enjoy the wonders of these sister cities without enduring a 13-hour flight.

But this year I needed to see the real thing once more. For me, the anticipation of a trip has always been part of its excitement. For weeks before takeoff, I was psyched about my return. But on the taxi ride from the airport to the hotel, I started noticing changes from the Paris I was expecting. The ride seemed longer, the traffic more gridlocked, and the outlying neighborhoods less pleasant than I remembered. That was the beginning of the then-and-now comparisons that shadowed the early days of the visit.

Paris itself seemed noisier, certainly more crowded than I remembered, and everything appeared to move faster (maybe because I now move slower). The lines at the museums, always long, were now prohibitive. Restaurant reservations were a must, no sign of recession here. My husband and I couldn’t risk something we’d always loved doing—starting out with no plans and eating when we got hungry, wherever that might be, delighting in our own discoveries, on nobody’s list of “Bests.” Maybe the hardest-to-take change was the euro, so inflated compared to our dollar. Though the euro is easier to use, I found myself yearning to do the math the defunct franc required.

Then something amazing happened: two days into the trip, none of this mattered. I was my starry-eyed Francophile self again, thrilled to be in the city I had loved at first sight many years ago.The drizzly weather failed to dampen my spirits. With a lilt in my voice, I “Bonjour”ed everyone who crossed my path. I stopped asking, “Combien?” before buying something, and knew all was well when I no longer mentally converted euros to dollars (gasping!) and just paid up with a smile.

When I look back at the disappointment I felt at first landing, I have to admit it was largely because it wasn’t only Paris that had changed; I had changed, too. Nine years ago, my life was very different. I brought a new me to Europe this year, and though I had not returned to the Paris I left, I could rejoice in the Paris I found by accepting that change happens. Neither time, nor Paris, stands still.

To contradict
myself , there are places in Paris where time does stand still–its enchanting parks. To sit in the Luxembourg Gardens or the Tuileries today is no different from sitting there nine years ago. They are not only bucolic wonderlands, but restorative necessities for stressed-out tourists and locals alike.

Exiting the Louvre one day, we found that what had begun as a drizzly morning had turned into dazzling sunshine, immediately making everything look better. Even in Paris, a gray day is a gray day. We cut through the hordes of visitors rushing into the museum and made our way to the nearby Tuileries, where we claimed two of those familiar green iron chairs around the pool. This time, we didn’t feel the pressure to move on to other sights. We were content just to sit in the sun and watch the ducks circle the fountain, paired off in couples, like us.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Cafe Comfort

I am an unabashed Francophile. Even during our national temper tantrum that put "freedom fries" on the menu, my fries were always French. One of the things I love most about living in San Francisco is its similarities to Paris, nowhere more so than in the cafe culture of both. Though separated by an ocean and a continent, San Francisco and Paris are cut from the same cafe cloth.

There are many other similarities between the two, they're not called sister cities just for the way coffee is consumed. They are both architecturally beautiful, and philosophically inclusive. They each have a history and traditions that they fiercely protect. Their focus is not on change -- they like who they are and what they have and will march (SF) and strike (Paris) to the death to preserve it.

In San Francisco, as in Paris, there are cafes on every street. North Beach is one big sidewalk cafe; one has to walk single file to traverse the area, and then share even that narrow space with dogs leashed to parking meters. Which reminds me of another sister city similarity: both adore their dogs, who are walked, carried, and driven everywhere their owners go. Parisian pets, however, are not parked outside cafes, they are invited in. A bowl of water is often placed under Madame's table for her guest. And one dog per Parisian seems to be enough. San Franciscans, like most Americans, need more than enough of a good thing and are often seen hanging on to two or three leashes.

Even with so many cafes to choose from, when the need for a cup and companionship arises, our instincts often lead us to the same place, our place. We may even have a favorite table at that place, and a coffee choice that, in Paris, immediately becomes identified with us and is served by a savvy waiter as soon as we're seated. This is what I call cafe comfort. You can't buy it, you're just happy -- and lucky -- to be living it.

American cafes are size-obsessed and one has to learn an esoteric vocabulary to assure getting the desired amount of coffee. Just ordering "small," for example, doesn't do it. In Paris cafes, size is not a factor. There is no "large," and no cup runneth over. They are tiny and never filled to the brim. Parisians don't drink coffee out of soup bowls that require two hands to lift. If eavesdropping in public places is your thing, you'll find much to cherish here. I sat alone at a cafe on rue de Rivoli one day, tuned-in in the conversations around me. A man at a nearby table summoned his waiter and ordered a refill. I knew he was American when he said, "This time, fill the cup."

Both San Franciscans and Parisians love to linger at their cafes, but they linger differently. In Paris, one sips and observes the passing scene. In any direction one looks, there is something to soothe the soul: the spire on a historic cathedral, the mesmerizing bateau traffic on the Seine, the smartly turned-out Parisian women. Even just staring serenely into space is a respected activity.

While Americans linger at their cafes, they haven't yet learned the European art of relaxing. No sooner are they seated, when out comes the laptop or the yellow pad. I've come to the conclusion that, in San Francisco, the great American pastime is writing the Great American Novel. If cafe patrons aren't writing, they're reading, or knitting, or conducting business on their cell phones.

The unique similarity is, in both places, waiters don't intrude -- not on the serenity of Parisians, nor on the busy-ness of San Franciscans. Recently, I was at a cafe in North Beach during the peak lunchtime crush. Every table was occupied; there was a line waiting to be seated. When four people vacated the two tables next to mine, two men quickly claimed both. They set up a chess board on one, coffee mugs on the other, and settled in for a long, intense game. Being from New York, I expected a waiter to appear, "ask" them to free up one table, fold up their game board, drink up, and move out. It never happened. It's quite possible those two men are still at those two tables. Chess, after all, is a game that can't be rushed.

The unflappable laissez-faire attitude of the French, I'm happy to report, is alive and well in San Francisco.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

The Decision

After raising two children and two poodles and completing our careers in the East, my husband and I followed the sun -- and our son -- to the West. We had been visiting Bob in San Francisco for more than fifteen years. For my husband, Phil, it was love at first sight of the city. "I'd sell belt buckles on street corners if I could live here," he often said. But being creative director at a Manhattan advertising agency paid a bit better, so he put his dream on hold.

Living in San Francisco was never in my plans for the future. My feet were firmly planted in New York, where I was nurtured by a large family and friends of many years who were as close as family.

So, what was the impetus that convinced me to leave a comfortable, safe environment that was forty years in the making and start over in a city a continent away where we knew just the four people in Bob's family? Initially, it was the weather. We had been through a couple of winters of relentless snow, blizzards, and single-digit temperatures. After a brief respite during spring, which is lovely in NY, but passes through so quickly that if you sleep late, you'll miss it, we were enveloped in long, oppressive summers, with the heat and humidity becoming less tolerable as we aged.

The jewel in the crown of NY weather is fall, with its kind, feel-good temperatures and a gentle breeze at your back. The breathtaking beauty of its early days, with foliage that turns from green to gold, to pink-tinged orange and deep scarlet, is followed by heavier winds that send crisp, curling leaves raining down to blanket the lawn and crackle underfoot. These sights and sounds were so dear to me, I often put off the raking until the last minute before the first snowfall. I will miss forever the wonder of fall in New York.

I digress. But I don't want to leave the impression that New York weather has no redeeming factors.

Back to the reason for our move to CA. As I said, the decision was made at the end of yet another year when we were snowed-in most of the winter, and homebound most of the summer, leaving our air-conditioned house only to make bread and milk runs. It was in this vulnerable state that I accepted Bob's offer of a week in an apartment in the heart of downtown San Francisco. I was born and raised in a city, followed by many years in a sleepy suburb, where we raised our children. I liked the idea of trying city life again, if only for a week. This would be a trial run. We all understood that.

Bob found us a condo a block away from a Catholic church, within easy reach of public transportation and, most clever of him -- within walking distance of the French Quarter. In short order, we found our favorite bistro, the boulangerie with the flakiest breakfast croissants, the market with rotisserie chickens whose aroma we couldn't resist, and the sidewalk cafe where the price of a cup of coffee bought us table rights for as long as we wanted. I closed my eyes and I was in Paris. And the decision was made. Bob knows my weaknesses, and he doesn't play fair.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

The View From Our Bridge

Most people who visit Paris regularly have a favorite bridge. For my husband and me, setting foot on Pont Neuf is like having Paris say, "Welcome back."

The majestic Pont Alexandre III, with its stunning gold-tipped columns, is more beautiful than our bridge; Pont Royal, gateway to the Tuileries Gardens and the Louvre Museum (for Left Bankers like us) is better located for visiting the major attractions; and Pont des Artes, one of the few pedestrian bridges in the city, may be crossed without dodging traffic.

But for us, Pont Neuf is not just for crossing. It's a destination in itself. It's our place for lingering and soaking up the feel of the city. It's where we people-watch and drink in the river views, and sit on a stone bench carved into a turret and plan our next move -- and then decide not to move at all, because we can't think of any place we'd rather be.

Initiated by Henry III in 1578 and inaugurated by Henry IV in 1607, Pont Neuf, or "New Bridge," is now the oldest standing bridge in Paris, and the longest. Its twelve arches span the widest part of the Seine, cutting across the tip of Ile de la Cite at midpoint. It is also the first stone bridge; earlier bridges were constructed of wood or cast-iron.

But the statistic I find most essential is, it was the first bridge built without houses and shops on it, blocking the river views. Kudos to whichever Henry issued that decree. Without it, we would be deprived of one of today's most stirring Paris sights -- the panoramic view from our bridge.

When we must move from our turret seat, any direction we choose takes us to a place we love. Just fifty yards from the bustle of the bridge, on Ile de la Cite, is the bucolic Place Dauphine. This triangular square is a vestige of seventeenth century village life in the heart of the city. British illustrator Ronald Searle sketched it more than fifty years ago. It looks the same today, an example of how the things I love most about Paris never change.

I like to watch Place Dauphine wake up. Arriving in early morning, I claim a bench under an ancient tree and enjoy the solitude and stillness of a new day. The first sign of life is a man walking his dog. Before tending to the business at hand, he stops at the boulangerie for a baguette, breaking off pieces to eat as he walks. Gradually, the cafes come to life as men in long white aprons turn up chairs and spread tablecloths. In a while, an artist strolls in. After carefully considering light and angles, she sets up her easel and, minutes into her work, is oblivious to the increasing activity around her. I, too, immersed in the serenity of life on this square, have to remind myself that I am in the hub of a great city.

My husband, who doesn't share my enthusiasm for dawn patrol, joins me later for breakfast, and we plan our day. I leave Place Dauphine without regret because I know we'll be back. We've made a reservation for dinner at Restaurant Paul, on the Place. Boasting no star ratings, appearing on no prestigious lists, this landmark bistro, where tables are shared and only French is spoken, is a quintessential Paris experience. The friendliness of the staff alone would keep me coming back. On our first visit, the waitress resorted to charades to prevent me from ordering a dish she suspected I might not like. There wasn't much I recognized on the French-only menu, so I ordered the veau, which I knew was veal. Our waitress vehemently pointed to her head to let me know what part of the calf they were serving that evening.

Leaving Place Dauphine, we cross the bridge to the Right Bank. The massive Samaritaine department store complex, dead ahead, flags flapping on its roof, beckons us once again to come to the top of Building Two for a heart-stopping view of the city. It's fabulous and its free, and there is no better way to begin a visit to Paris.

Knowing we'll be having a hearty dinner at Restaurant Paul, we decide to just snack as we go for our midday meal. At lunchtime we are well into the Marais. This is the place for citizens of the world who long for a taste of home. We are tempted by the succulent offerings in the windows of Chinese take-out shops, and enticed by the wealth of Moroccan and Turkish delights displayed but, never needing a break from French food ourselves, we stop instead at La Tartine on rue de Rivoli.

Without knowing the history of this rundown Marais institution, we would have walked right on by. The ambience, inside and out, is clearly in the minus category. But from all accounts, this was the place to have a tartine.This is simply an open-faced sandwich on baguette, my favorite being one spread with butter and topped with jambon, that unique dry-textured French ham. A tartine may be spread with cheese, dried sausage or pate, though even a humble petit pain spread with butter and jam qualifies. But only in Paris, where the butter is Normandy's finest and the jam is made from the harvest of a boutique vineyard in the Loire Valley. Does a Manhattan "buttered roll to go," spread with fat-free margarine and generic jelly, qualify as a tartine? Even when served open-faced? I think not.

Later in the day, after watching the street players on the lovely Place des Vosges and browsing the fashionable boutiques and galleries that now fill this trendy quartier, we stop at another Marais institution, Mariage Freres, the renowned tea importers on rue du Bourg-Tibourg. Founded in 1854, this combination tea boutique and tasting salon stocks hundreds of varieties from around the world. We watch as merchants, following the directions of their knowledgeable customers, combine several flavors to create custom blends. The possibilities are limitless. Nirvana for tea lovers, it is a bit overwhelming for us, and we retreat to the back room, where an elegant high tea is served. The glazed fruit tarts and buttery scones make a perfect mid-afternoon pickup. Unlike La Tartine. where one eats and runs, the plant-and-wicker filled ambience of Mariage Freres invites one to linger.

It's a trek back to our bridge and we've been on the go since breakfast, but we will have the perfect place to rest when we get there. Halfway across Pont Neuf, down a flight of stone steps, is Square du Vert-Galant. In a city of magnificent parks, the little-known Vert Galant is an unexpected island of solitude where one may find refuge from the noises of the surrounding city. We unwind in this lovely oasis, restored by the hushed environment. The views are stunning in every direction. Gazing straight ahead from this extreme tip of Ile de la Cite, we have a full view of Pont des Artes, with the Louvre on the Right Bank and the Institut de France on the Left. The graceful span of Pont Neuf is above us and, should we forget that this tranquil pocket of green is in the middle of Paris, in the distance is the tip of the Eiffel Tower to remind us. We would like to stay longer but it is late afternoon now, and another old haunt is calling.

We leave the park and head for Taverne Henri IV, which sits on the edge of Place Dauphine. Though named for the popular monarch, at this venerable neighborhood bistro a vin, it's wine that is king. There is a wide selection, much of it purchased in bulk from small domaines and bottled by the owner. Mellowing out on a soothing country red, we have come full circle from where we started our day. And we have dinner at Restaurant Paul to look forward to.

On the way back to our hotel, we take one last look at the view from our bridge. The star-lit evening sky is mirrored in the river below. Passing bateaux mouches cast a brilliant light on the banks of the Seine, setting ablaze the museums and monuments in their path. The City of Light is putting on a dazzling show, and we have front-row seats.

Friday, October 17, 2008

The Farmer's Market at the Ferry Building

The weather is the reason I moved to San Francisco. The heirloom tomato is why I stay.
Moving to a new place after having spent all of my life someplace else called for some major changes in lifestyle, one of the biggest being the way I now shop for food and the way I cook it.

I’m blessed to be living within walking distance of the Ferry Building where, every Saturday morning, a happening takes place: the spectacular greenmarket that has become an essential part of my life. Each week, I try to get there in time for the scheduled events, starting usually with a talk by a farmer who has brought his crops to market that day. I look at a bundle of asparagus with a more appreciative eye after hearing about the ongoing research and the dedication that went into growing it. A cooking demonstration by a chef or cookbook author follows, using seasonal produce from the market. After tasting the featured dish, the audience fans out into the stalls to purchase its ingredients.

Overwhelmed when I first came to the market, I have since learned how to navigate its many delights. I’ve identified my favorite vendors, starting with those on the Embarcadero side of the building, where I fill my basket with bouquets of basil selected from a huge mound so impellingly fragrant that it stops traffic each week; glistening red onions; and those miniature heads of red, green, and purple lettuce that are indeed Little Gems, sold by the matriarch of a farming family who scolds me when I forget to bring my bags back for recycling. The market is green in more ways than one.

Walking through the Ferry Building, I pass shops selling exquisite French pastries, Japanese bento boxes, Italian salumi, and artisanal cheeses. I quicken my pace and breathe deeply as I come to the bread bakery, its intoxicating aromas beckoning. I exit on the waterfront side of the building, onto the Promenade facing the Bay and the ferries that shuttle between The City and the picturesque islands of Sausalito and Tiburon. I yearn to board one.

But I’m on a mission. I don’t have time for sightseeing. Accepting samples of Asian pears and pink-tinged apricots enroute, I head directly to the stalls selling my favorite heirloom tomatoes, the reason why, rain or shine, I never miss the Saturday market. Heirloom tomatoes drive my weekly menus, often as a side, sometimes as a main course, always showy, always delicious.

Each variety of heirloom (there are hundreds!) has its own distinct look, taste, and fan club. I am a loyal fan and defender of the homely Cherokee Purple. These deformed beauties, blemished and bumpy, feisty and free-spirited, bulge in any direction they choose to grow. And every bite bursts with flavor.

Two kinds of people come to the Ferry Building market—locals and tourists. It’s easy to tell us apart: locals are the ones carrying baskets spilling over with leafy greens in one hand, bunches of long-stemmed sunflowers in the other, and a still-warm baguette tucked underarm. We are the happiest beasts of burden you will encounter anywhere. Tourists are the ones taking pictures of us.

But tourists and locals alike have one thing in common: we are all devout foodies. Witness the enthusiasm over Brussels sprouts on-the-stalk, the discernment when choosing arugula with the exact degree of spiciness. And the current rage—heirloom beans. From the everyday green variety to Scarlet Runners and Spotted Eye of the Tiger, market regulars are swooning over beans. Who would have guessed that this definitive Depression dish would become the new icon of the food cognoscenti?

We talk to each other, we devotees of the market, friends and strangers alike. I once stood next to a man who was carefully picking knobs of green garlic. He turned out to be a chef who answered my question, “Why green garlic?” with a lengthy discourse on how all garlic is not created equal. Another time, I ask a woman how she will cook the armful of Swiss chard she is buying. Armed with her recipe, I buy some, too, and cook it for my family, who come to my kitchen expecting basic Grandma food and are fed, instead, the organic lean, green bounty I carry home from the market.

My husband, who rarely accompanies me to market, doesn’t understand what it means to me. He comes only when I expect to buy more than I can carry home. On one such occasion, I picked up a head of heart-stoppingly beautiful butter lettuce. If the great Renaissance painters had chosen vegetables instead of fruit for their masterpieces, this head of lettuce would surely have been a contender. Cradling it reverently in two hands, I walked over to my husband and said, “Isn’t this gorgeous!” He looked at me, a puzzled expression on his face, and said, “It’s a head of lettuce.” He doesn’t get it.

But I do. I get it. And I will never take for granted these gifts from farmers who for generations have nurtured the seeds of this dazzling bounty, harvested this morning in the fertile farmlands that ring our city, and gracing my dinner table this evening. Jeff McCormack, seed and pollination expert, says, “The world is a large garden and there is room enough for everybody to cultivate a piece of happiness.” The farmers who feed the Ferry Building greenmarket bring to our community an extraordinary piece of that happiness.