World’s Most Expensive Tortilla Chips (or “ridiculous Italian customs”)

Ciao Readers!

Today I am sharing with you (only figuratively, as it’s all for me & Steve!) the wonderfully thoughtful care package my sis-in-law sent (thanks again!!!).  As you may recall, back when, I had a post entitled “Groceries of My Dreams.”  Well, my sis-in-law decided to send some of those things, as well as some other goodies.  Very thoughtful of her, yes?  And I bet she paid alot more to ship it here than the cost of the actual contents of the box….

So, you would think sending it DHL and paying a large fee would get our box here easily.  Ha!  (Have you not been paying attention this past year?)  NOTHING in Italy is that easy.  First came the forms (there are ALWAYS forms).  Since this was “food” (I’m not sure 4 out of 5 nutritionist would agree), it required a Ministry of Health form.  With that, we had to send Steve’s passport and permesso (why on earth would a jar of Fluff require all this?!?!).  And then for the final insult to injury….wait for it….

For receiving a wonderful gift, we had the privilege of having to pay customs 81 euros to hand over the box (about $105.00)!!!   So, I am pretty sure at this point we are now in the possession (though not for long) of the world’s most expensive tortilla chips.  (As I opened the bag and began to eat them I would count with each one, “one dollar, two dollars….”).  But man, are they good!

Some of the goodies we got:

car pack

The moral of today’s post is:  Be careful what you wish for!

New Clet Street Signs!

Ciao Readers!  And Happy Passover!

As you may recall, there is a “guerrilla” artist here – Clet Abraham – a French dude who has been living in Florence for years and creates street sign art by applying adhesives to the signs (you can really see the adhesive on the blue arrow sign, below).   Since I already wrote an entire post about him, I won’t repeat myself here.  (I included photos of many of his ubiquitous signs in that post if you want to check them out.)

Well, it seems like after many months of the seeing the same signs all over town, new signs have started to appear.  Now, I can’t swear all of these are new, and not just ones I missed somehow, but I know the policeman in love with a big check (I think) is, as I pass that sign every day and this just appeared.  I am pretty sure the “walk like an Egyptian” sign is new as well; and while I have never seen the “Pieta,”  the fact that other stickers are on the sign makes me think that maybe it is not as new.  In any case, they are always a fun treat:

A Look Inside Santa Maria Novella (the church, not the train station)

Ciao Readers!

Today we take our first look inside Santa Maria Novella Church.  It’s taken us this long because the last time we went to visit we were put off by the 5.50 euro ticket price, as I feel that entry into churches should be free (as they mostly are in Italy).  However, after reading the community’s website in Italian, I learned that residents of Florence enter for free.  So, with our official letters of residency in tow (a completely separate process than the Italian immigration/permesso process I have mentioned), in we went!  (After entering and realizing how big the complex is and that part of it is considered a museum, I understood the entrance price better.)

Santa Maria Novella (started in the 1200’s) is fairly well known as it is right across the street from the main train station which shares its name.  Therefore, most visitors to Florence have at least seen it from the outside (pics below of the front facade and folks outside the walls – and yes, it IS raining!).  I know I have often said how amazing the churches all over Europe are – and this one is no exception.  As a matter of fact, it is even more amazing because not only is there an enormous church decorated to the hilt, but an entire complex, complete with a cloister, smaller chapels and lots of tombs.  There is so much art and detail and interesting tombs that you could literally spend days exploring every nook and cranny of the complex.   There are the famous pieces – like Giotto’s Crucifix (1288-1289) and another Crucifix by Brunelleschi (1410 – 1415).  But even the not-so-famous stuff is pretty cool.  There are frescoes all along the walls in the cloister, as well as frescoes and tile work and more in all of the little prayer spaces and chapels throughout.  It’s pretty overwhelming how much work went into this place!  (Every time we see one of these churches we always marvel at how it was all accomplished before the days of forklifts and electric drills!)

Here, take a look inside yourself:

Thank you for coming along and have a wonderful weekend!

Italian Culture (as seen through an amusing Italian video)

Ciao Readers!

Well, I think I am about done showing you around Paris and Amsterdam (for this trip).  So, it’s back to Italy we go.  I have been trying to find a way to humorously explain how aggravated I felt at coming back into Italy and again having to fight for my life getting on and off the train, breathing in all of the smoke (in Paris there are no smoking signs on the platforms and I saw them being enforced!) and just feeling all around less civilized than I had in Paris and Amsterdam.

At the same time, I have also been trying to find a way to incorporate this very funny video (produced by an Italian) which explores exactly these issues.  So, instead of listening to me being grumpy, I share with you a very funny look at “Italy v. Europe” (and I agree with all of it except the coffee part).  It’s worth the few minutes, really!  Enjoy….

Have a great weekend!

A Tour of Paris Down the Seine (and the “gold ring” scam)

Ciao Readers!

Well, I think I have shared with you most of the highlights from our recent trip to Paris and Amsterdam.  Today I tie-up the few loose ends by taking you on a boat bus tour down the Seine, so we can wave to the famous monuments from our (too cold) seats on the Batobus.

Before we embark on our boat tour though, we have to reach the Orsay museum, where we will be picking up the boat at one of its many stops.  In order to reach the Orsay, we took a tram and then had to cross a famous park (the Tuileries) (lovely in nice weather). Lest you think I see Paris with only rose-colored glasses, in the time it took us to cross the park (pictured below), we were hit up by the “gold ring” scam 3 times!  It was so ridiculous that it happened three times in as many minutes that all I could do was laugh hysterically (no offense to our intended scammers…well, maybe a bit).  For those of you not familiar with this scam (which has been going on since at least 2008 when we first visited), it goes like this: you see someone appear to pick up something off the ground and then “realize” that lo and behold they have just found a valuable gold ring!  They then offer you the ring (sometimes just as a “friendly gesture,” sometimes clearly in exchange for money), and after you take hold of it, you are hounded down for compensation until you fork some over.  As I have recently told a friend whose daughter is traveling to Europe – don’t accept anything from strangers here (there is no such thing as a free gift here – be it Paris or Florence).  This stands in stark contrast to what both we and my friend have experienced in Japan – many wonderful gifts given freely (and if you tried to offer compensation it would be seen as a terrible insult).  In any case, the moral here is 1) don’t fall for scams anywhere in Europe and 2) I lost my rose-colored glasses [literally and figuratively] a while back…

Okay, now that we’ve passed the gauntlet of ring temptation (nowhere near Tolkien-esque), we’re ready for that boat ride I promised!

Much like the boat service in Amsterdam, the Batobus runs past most of the major tourist sites in Paris, and you can hop-on hop-off as much as you like for the duration of your pass (you can actually buy an entire year pass for only 60 euros).  In addition to a means of transportation, you get to see all of the major sites through the glass enclosure that is your boat.  The day we took this boat ride it was a low of 23 degrees and a high of 27; we were hoping for a nice warm boat like we had in Amsterdam, but this one was barely heated if at all.  As you can see, it was so cold outside that there were icicles hanging off the boat!   Since we were freezing and my toe had had enough, we didn’t get off at many stops.  We did disembark to see Notre Dame, but after seeing the line outside (surprising for a freezing February day), we just admired the outside (we’ve been inside on a previous trip).  I suppose this gray day matched our mood as it was the last day of a wonderful (and delicious) vacation…

That, dear Readers, ends our “diversions to other places”…  for now!  Thanks, as always, for coming along!

Paris Foodie Wrap-Up

Ciao Readers!

In the next post I’ll be taking you on a very cold boat ride along the Seine, where we’ll be passing some famous sites until we just can’t take the cold anymore!   But before we go on that tour, we’re going to eat breakfast at a local patisserie, stumble upon a Parisian street market and then take the Metro to Lafayette Gourmet to get some picnic supplies for later (and to just generally ogle the food). (Since we’ve already talked about all of the foreign food available here, today we’re sticking with French goodies.)

We discovered our little local patisserie on our first full day in Paris.  While I wish I had photo-staged it better, the quiche I had (pictured below) was seriously the most delicious quiche I have ever eaten – the crust was perfectly buttery and flaky and the filling was pillowy and savory – heavenly!  I was so enamored with this quiche that I decided I would eat one (with different fillings) every morning for the next/last two days of our stay.  Little did I know (until the next morning) that this patisserie is closed on both Saturdays and Sundays (I said “awwwwww” for an inordinate amount of time after seeing the place shuttered Saturday morning).  Well, at least for one day I enjoyed the perfect quiche and Steve a great baguette (I still don’t understand how water, flour and yeast in one country can end up with such a different result than water, flour and yeast in another, but French bread is so much more chewy and substantial than the bread here).

While Saturday left us disappointed upon discovering the patisserie closed, we were happily surprised to see a street market setting up right outside our hotel window.  Paris has these wonderful little street markets that pop-up on specific days of the week in every neighborhood.  While there are also some “bric n’ brac” markets, this was a quintessential Parisian food market – complete with produce and meats and fish…and, of course, cheese!!!  As we didn’t have a kitchen, all we could really do was admire the food (okay, confession – we did later buy some cheese at the grocers and kept it on our window sill overnight [can you imagine storing Camembert inside your hotel room?!]).

So, instead of quiche we “made do” with some buttery pain au chocolates from another local patisserie we passed on the way to the Metro.  We took the Metro to Galeries Lafayette, or, more specifically to the foodie floor, know as “Lafayette Gourmet.”  Not only is this market filled with upscale French and foreign groceries, but there are numerous counters selling freshly prepared food as well as little mini-restaurant stalls with tables to boot.  There’s all of the French food you can picture – from cheese to pastries to foie gras, and even a fish market/restaurant (as well as the foreign food I mentioned in a prior post).   Since you’ve probably figured out I’m a foodie and watch too many shows about food, then hopefully you won’t be too appalled when I tell you that hearing about foie gras all these years had gotten the best of my curiosity.  While I was photographing the foie gras stall I noticed that behind the counter there were very small samples on crackers….I spontaneously felt compelled to ask for one – this is Paris after all and a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.   So, how was it you ask?  Since I grew up eating chopped liver, I’m used to and like the taste of liver (and hence Tuscan crostini which is topped with it)….it had the taste and consistency of liver-flavored butter (which either sounds delicious or disgusting, depending on your point of view).  While I was happy to have tried it, it’s nothing I ever need or want to eat again, so please no one gorge a duck on my account.

I did buy two treats at Lafayette for our hotel-room picnic that night – some salmon terrine and a mini bottle of Bordeaux.   Add some cheeses and a baguette from the local grocer, and voila – dinner!  (Well, add some pastries, too….).   As always, sorry they haven’t invented taste-o-vision yet, but enjoy!

A Tasting Tour of the Albert Cuyp Market

Ciao Readers!  (Or should I say “Hallo,” as we are in The Netherlands…)  And Happy (early) Birthday Ryn!

Today I am taking you on a tasting tour through the Albert Cuyp Market, a century-old street market running for several blocks throughout the De Pijp neighborhood in Amsterdam.  Albert Cuyp is up and running every day except Sunday, and sells everything you can think of – from books to clothes to all sorts of local and exotic foods.  (Since I have a broken toe, we’ll get to the market via one of the many handy electric trams that run throughout Amsterdam.)

To be honest with you, I can’t really tell you much about what the market sells other than food, as we arrived with empty stomachs and the intention of sampling the local specialties.  As most of the local specialties seem to come in the form of fried foods (there’s an entire wall of fried food vending slots at the train station!), we felt super healthy by starting off at the herring stand.  In the picture below, Steve is being served the traditional herring on a bun by Puck Jansen, the owner of the “Vlaardingse Haring Handel,” who has been working at the market for 44 years!  (Okay, confession time – maybe after reading the name of the stand you will forgive me when I admit I did not even attempt to speak Dutch while in Amsterdam.)  The herring was delicious and eased the guilt of the fried poffertjes that followed (little pancake-like fried dough bathing in butter and powdered sugar), as well as the requisite frites (seriously, it’s a legal requirement that you eat fries in Amsterdam – well, maybe not, but it is a crime if you don’t!).  Having about as much fried deliciousness as we could stand, we decided to pass on the stroopwafels for the time being (thin waffles baked with a caramel-like syrup in the middle), as there were some in the kitchen in our B&B in case we felt the need (we did, later – they were good, but I bet the fresh ones are even better).

While our craving for local treats was sated, we wandered the market still, encountering just a few more things we (okay, I) couldn’t pass up.  In the wonderful nut and candy stand pictured below I was surprised and delighted to discover…roasted pecans!  Well, as you may recall from a previous post, pecans are among the groceries of my dreams, so of course I had to treat myself to a small bag (and they were roast-y and pecan-y and yummy!).   The final culinary triumph happened at the spice market.  There were so many spices hanging in bags on the many racks that I was certain that I could find ground cloves (an ingredient I’ve been missing and searching for here).  The only problem was everything was labeled in Dutch and I couldn’t seem to find anyone to help me.  Undeterred, I started smelling all of the bags that looked liked they might be cloves.   I found one that I thought smelled right – “Kruidnagel Poeder” (which I confirmed later is indeed cloves).  (Dutch is seriously a difficult language!)

I wish I could add smell and taste to these photos to give you an even better sense of the scrumptiousness to be had….

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