Friday, August 29, 2008

New York (again)

I was in New York again for a short visit last week. I had some meetings on Monday and Tuesday.

Every time I go back to New York, I focus on getting some of the food that I have grown love over the years but, alas, cannot get in Prague.

Here is the rundown of the food I had while in New York:



  • Sushi at a random place in the East Village.


  • Huevos Rancheros at Rosa Mexicana. With, of course, their world famous guacomole on the side


  • Home made fajitas on the grill by world class chef Colin B


  • Tried a new Korean place on 32nd and Madison. Had a cooked eel mixed with BiBimBop. Excellent


  • Thai food at a random place in Williamsburg.


  • Lunch at Koi. Can't go wrong with their sticky rice and rock shrimp


  • Good old fashioned wings at Barrow St.


  • Finished it off with one of my favorite meals in the city.. the Hickory Burger at Houstons




I didn't have the time - or the appetite - to hit a steak house or grab a slice of pizza. There is always next time. Going home back home to New York feels great. You forget about all of the little things that annoy you when you lie there for two long... you just experience all of the things that you miss when you don't have them on a daily basis.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Sicily

R and I spent last week in Sicily. We both have roots to this island; R's grandfather is from Sicily and the entire family on my father's side is from there as well. My dad was born in the tiny town of Ramacca and moved to America when he was 12. But, just because my family left for greener pastures over 40 years ago doesn't mean that forgot about Sicily. My grandparents still have an apartment in Ramacca and spend approximately 4 months out of every year there.


Although R and I had already visited Sicily 5 years ago, we had a desire to go back. It's a unique place and we wanted to experience it again. We spent half of last week hanging with the grandparents in Ramacca. There is not much to do in Ramacca other than eat. The town - which is built on the side of hill towards the middle of the island - has less than 10,000 residents. It's very small - but also charming in an old-school kind of way. AS my grandfather said upon our arrival... "The town of Rammaca is nothing, but to me it is everything." The pretty much sums it up.

The other half of the week was spent in the beach town of Pozzallo. Raffy has family friends who own a beautiful little house on a private section of the beach. They were kind enough to let us stay there for 4 days and we were kind enough to accept. The beach was perfect. Very fine, soft sand, beautiful clear water and a nice hot sun. It's everything we needed.



Sicily is a very interesting place. After spending a full week there, I had many thoughts and observations. Rather than try to weave all of these thoughts into a semi-compelling story, I'm just going to go bullet point style. Here are my observations...


  • I have been hanging around Italians my entire life. Especially in the last 6 years that I have been married to an Italian women. Despite all of this time, I speak very little of the language. But, I'm working on it. And, if I do say so myself, my Italian has never been better that it was this week. I had several full conversations with people. Granted, these conversations just consisted of saying hello, how are you and good bye, but they were still conducted without any English. That's a big step in the right direction. I made about 10 promises this week that I will speak near-fluent Italian by 2010. We'll see. On one hand, it would be good to learn another language. I'm going to drop kick someone if I hear the phrase "lui no parla italiano? Shamo." one more time. On the other hand, my wife already speak fluent Italian and I spend a ridiculous amount of time with her. It doesn't seem like the best use of my resources to learn a language that the other half of me already speaks. I should learn a skill that my wife doesn't have. For example, I should learn how to ...[EXAMPLE DELETED IN THE INTEREST OF MARITAL BLISS]


  • While on the topic of languages, it's shocking that NO ONE in Sicily speaks English. I met many, many people this past week and only one person spoke passable English. This is true for the older generation, people my age and the younger kids. Whether you want to admit it or not, English is the international language. If you want to have any kind of a career, you need to speak it a little. But, no one told that to the Sicilians schools. Many of the people I met had no desire to ever leave the island. I'm not sure if that is sad or not. Life seems pretty good and simple there.


  • The difference between men and women in Sicily is HUGE. It's somewhere between the US 100 years ago and Afghanistan. I went for a walk in Rammacca around 6:00 PM and the town was just crawling with the men everywhere. They were all just hanging out around bars, cafes, stores, social clubs, etc. They weren't really doing anything - just hanging out talking. But, the interesting thing was that I saw probably 200 men hanging out during my walk and not a single women. Where were they? They were at home in the kitchen making dinner, of course. That's just the way it works there. Another time I tried to help clean the plates after a dinner. The Sicilian men at the table gave me a disapproving look and told me that was the job for the women.


  • Watching the Olympics in a foreign country can be entertaining. The US has so many medal winners that it is hard to keep track of them all. You know the big names and forget about the winners in the lesser known sports. Not so in most other countries. I know the name and faces of every medal winner from the first week of the Olympics. From the men's archery team, to the fencers, to the surprise Grecko-Roman winner, to the little Tae Kwon Doe champ.. I know them all. The Italian sports channel didn't stop showing the highlights and bringing these athletes into the studio. If I had a little bit more athletic ability I would rush to get my Italian passport and try out for some obscure sport in time for the next Olympics. The road to glory is much easier than in the US. I think I should go for Skeleton in the winter games. I think I would be quite good.


  • I absolutely love traveling to Italy, but my God the Italian airports are awful. Every time I go to one there is a problem... usually involving a strike. On two occasions I've barely made my plane because the check-in line was so dysfunctional. My mom had her flight canceled in Rome and I had to spend hours on the phone in my hotel booking her on alternate airlines. This time everything ran smoothly... but the people that pick up the garbage at the Catania airport decided to go on strike. There were just mounds and mounds of garbage lying on the floor next to the trash cash. It's a great way to welcome visitors. In Hawaii they give you a lei, in Munich they have free coffee stations, and in Sicily you have to navigate an obstacle path of dirty McDonald's bags and used Kleenex.


  • A blog about Sicily would not be complete without talking about the food. We ate like champs every day of this trip. Here are the highlights:

    • We went to a wedding reception for some long lost relative in Ramacca. They served us a 16 course meal. You read that right. 16 Courses!!!


    • On the beach, we would stop every day at around 2:00 PM and have am enormous lunch. Lunch was at least twice the size of my average dinner. Not to mention four times as tasty. Then everyone would sleep off the food coma for a couple of hours. And it wasn't just us who did this, the entire town did. The beach was empty from 2:00 - 5:00.


    • Figs are the most underrated fruit of all time. I don't know if I've ever had one before - outside of a Fig Newton of course - but DAMN are they tasty. If you haven't enjoyed a fig before, go out a get yourself one. There is a very good chance the Sicilian figs are much better than American figs. The tomatoes, lemons, oranges and just about every other food object I put in my mouth tastes much better in Sicily than anywhere else. I don't see why figs would be any different. So if your US fig sucks, don't blame me. But I assure you that the Sicilian figs are to die for




    • The main course for one meal was a full Octopus. Literally, they just took a full Octopus and put it on our plate. All 8 legs and the full head. I think it was boiled, but I'm not sure. The thing must have weighed a good half pound if not more. A few years ago this would have disgusted me to no end. I remember my dad eating Octopus salad when I was a kid and was absolutely shocked that a human being would willingly put that into his mouth. But my thoughts changed a few years ago in Australia when I tasted Octopus and was quite fond of it. Now I order it whenever given the chance. Still, I prefer my Octopus pre-sliced and prepared. I'm not fan of eating a full live animal all by myself. It makes me feel a bit guilty. Like the sole purpose of this Octopus' life was to be eaten by me. That's it. Me and no one else. Now, don't get me wrong, I'm nowhere near a vegetarian. I just like my meals to look like a generic slab of meat and less like someone's pet. Except lobsters. Those crustaceans are just too damn scrumptious for me to have a conscious.


    • The breakfast of choice in Sicily is a granita. We had one nearly every morning. For those of you who have never tried it, it is like a delicious cross between flavored ice, ice cream and a fruit smoothie. Or, as my grandfather said when I told him I was too full from the night before to have a granita one morning... What do you mean, too full. It's just water.


    • R ordered an ice cream sandwich one day and that's what she got... an ice cream sandwich. Literally. It's not like in the US where the ice cream is in between two chocolate cookie wafers. This is just a glob of gellato in a bun.





    • I know it is a stereotype, but if you are an Italian women and over the age of 50 - the happiest moment of your life is when you are cooking for other people. I've never seen so many people rejoiced by the fact they could feed me. I was cheered just like the aforementioned Olympic athletes by simply going for second helpings. And you would be crazy to turn down a second helping of pasta. You could walk in their bedroom and take a dump in their clothes hamper and it would be no more offensive than leaving food on your plate.







Those are my observations from Sicily. Some of them original, some a little bit offensive and others fall into neither category. Regardless, it's impossible to visit Sicily and not have many moments that leave you scratching your head. The place is very different than the US and it's even much different than the rest of Italy. It's a unique place and I'm glad that so much of my heritage is from there. The people in Sicily are very proud and know how to enjoy life. And they must be doing something right... everyone there lives until 100!

This was my second time in Sicily and I'm sure I'll return again in the future. If not for the history and the beaches, then certainly for the food. It's just that good. Hopefully I'll speak Italian the next time I go so I can converse with more poeple and logn lost relatives. If I don't speak Italian, at least I'd like to be able to... [EXAMPLE DELETED IN THE INTEREST OF MARITAL BLISS]

Friday, August 01, 2008

Azerbaijan Street Cred

We launched a new web site for the Azerbaijan service at RFE/RL this week - www.Azadliq.org.

As a show of gratitude, some rappers in Azerbaijan made a song about it. I kid you not.

Listen to the song below - my name is featured throughout....

Click here to play song