Small Town Book Festival Goes Big – Again (Part 2)

The second part of this blog entry is about the authors I met the final day of the annual Pordenone Legge (“Pordenone Reads”) book festival in northeastern Italy. In my last post I talked about how this festival has grown over the years. This was the 19th festival, so look for the event in September 2019 to be one for the ages!

David Litt is interviewed at a bar. This is Italy.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Here are the authors I met on Sunday.

Lisa Halliday

Ms. Halliday is an American living in Milan, Italy where she works as a writer, editor and translator. She also worked for years in New York – you guessed it – in the publishing business.

Lisa Halliday at her press conference.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

She was introducing the Italian translation of her first novel, “Asymmetry.” It is an interesting work, divided into three separate parts. The first two are (at initial glance) completely unrelated, but the third is meant to provide a bridge between the two unrelated (hence the title…) stories. In the press conference, Halliday said the second part of the book was more her normal writing style than the first. I thought that was too bad as the first reminded me quite a bit of Kurt Vonnegut. I put him right up there with the best American writers ever. The second part was not bad, just in a much longer and prosaic style. It reminded me of Phillip Roth.

It turns out similarity to Roth makes sense as the two of them were “very close friends,” according to Halliday. And the first part of the book was kind of an autobiography (a relationship between an aging writer and a young woman in the New York publishing industry). She also mentioned her work was influenced by a writer named Jeff Dyer with his work “Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi.” I had never heard of it, but she confessed the idea of the structure of her “Asymmetry” came from that book. I read some reviews of that work and can definitely see some pretty serious influence.

During her press conference, she discussed some of the asymmetry that appears in the novel; different ages, different genders, different holds on power (in a relationship), different religions, beliefs, experiences, and on and on. She said she  wanted to ask if we can ever escape ourselves. and said she felt we can never really bridge the asymmetry of who we are versus who someone else is.

Me? I feel that is overthinking life way too much. I am much older than her, so maybe in my “wisdom” I have decided to not think so hard. That’s not to say I did not like her book. As I said, the first part reminded me of Kurt Vonnegut, which I mean as very high praise.

Here is a link to a review in New Yorker Magazine which gives her even higher praise.

 

David Litt

The final author I met was David Litt. This young man was one of the team of eight speechwriters for President Obama. He has just published a book titled “Thanks, Obama,” which chronicles his years in the White House.

David Litt answering a question during a press conference. He comes across as a very intelligent and thoughtful guy.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

During the press conference, I think he wanted to relate funny or poignant stories about his experiences with the President. Or he wanted to discuss the process the writing team used to translate the President’s world view into words for the masses. He was able to do that a little bit, but (mind you I am the only American in the room, everyone else is Italian) the other journalists wanted to hear if he could write for the President today. He said he did not think  the speechwriter had to agree with everything the President believes, but at least the big things. So, no he could not work in the White House today.

Since he said these days he was working with other candidates, I asked him if he thought there was anything traditional, serious political parties could do to push back against the wave of so-called populism of late. That “populism” is not only in the US, it is here in Italy, also in Poland, Austria, the UK and elsewhere. I identified Turkey and Hungary as perhaps being cautionary tales against too much populism.

He agreed with the last bit of my question but said he did not think populism is the correct way to describe what is happening politically these days. (Neither do I) He thinks the problem is demagogues as leaders, not populists. But then, in a more hopeful note, he talked about how the political landscape (at least in the US) really is changing. He pointed out the number of women and minority candidates who not only have run for office but have won elections. So he feels some push back has already started.

I have not yet read his book, but I found him an interesting and articulate and optimistic young man, so I will read it.

I spent two days at the book festival this year, which was not enough in my mind. In past editions I have visited all five days. But nonetheless, Pordenone Legge 2018 was a terrific success. Mark September 2019 on you calendars now! I know I have.

This all happened, more or less. Kurt Vonnegut in “Slaughterhouse 5”

 

Small Town Book Festival Goes Big – Again! (Part 1)

Each year the small town of Pordenone, in northeastern Italy, hosts a book festival. It’s called “Pordenone Legge” (Pordenone Reads). It just ended on September 23rd and and I was fortunate enough to visit on two of the five days of the event. Let me tell you about my experience the first day.

But first, a little bit about this festival. The town of Pordenone has a population of around 50,000. During the festival this year, an estimated 250,000 came to visit. The event is divided into various themes, which include Children’s Books, Travel Books, Art and Architecture, Current Events, Science, Philosophy, History and more. Huge tents are built where thousands of books are for sale, each day tens of thousands of people wander the charming streets in search of their favorite author.

Authors speak to the public from multiple venues ranging in size from a few hundred to a few thousand.

I love it when people wait in line to meet an author!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Authors from all over the world come to speak to the public about their latest work (generally they are talking about a book that has just been released in Italy). Those presentation venues range in audience size from 150 to 3,000. In the ten years I have participated in this festival, I have rarely seen a venue that was not completely full. I love it.

And just to give you an idea of how this small town book festival is growing in stature, in 2013 there were 263 authors present. This year there were 600. And I am not talking about authors like me who few have ever heard of. Most of those invited to present here are famous, established, well-respected and successful masters of the craft.

Irish novelist John Banville is interviewed on the streets of Pordenone.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

All of this happens in the historic downtown of Pordenone, sometimes in centuries-old palaces, sometimes right on the street. It is a very cool book festival.

Here are the authors I met on Saturday.

John Banville

Irish born Banville is a novelist, screenwriter and teacher. He was awarded the Booker Prize (UK equivalent to the Puliltzer) for “The Sea” in 2005. This year, he was presenting his latest work called “Isabel” in Italian where the English title is “Mrs. Osmond”. It is a sequel to the Henry James masterpiece “Portrait of a Lady.” I sat at a press conference when Banville was here in 2013 to present his work “Ancient Light” and found him interesting and with his dry wit, very entertaining. I am happy to say my impression has not changed.

John Banville listens as an interpreter translates a question from a journalist.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Here are a few of the gems he shared with the small group of journalists who sat with him at his press conference this year.

Social phenomenon come and go but the essentials of life remain the same. As a novelist I believe art must be permanent, even if it reflects those current phenomenon.
Writing about current events is for journalists, not novelists.
A happy ending is not how life goes, so books should end with some ambiguity.
I write novels but am not very good at ideas.

You can see he is a serious writer who does not take himself too seriously. A pretty good lesson for all of us, I think.

 

Elizabeth McKenzie

American Elizabeth McKenzie is the senior editor of the Chicago Quarterly Review, a terrific independent literary journal. Her book “The Portable Veblen” published in English in 2016 has been translated to Italian under the title “L’amore nel Tempo degli Scoiattoli” which translates to “Love in the Time of Squirrels.” It is a strange and original story about finding the source of our actions and attitudes while struggling to mesh our beliefs with the world around us.

Elizabeth McKenzie at the start of her press conference. 600 authors participated at the book festival this year.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

She had some interesting things to share at her press conference.

We thrive creatively by facing difficulty.
Writing can be a way of getting revenge.
If you have something you are angry about, that’s the start of your novel.

I confess I do not entirely agree with her on any of those observations, but her background and life experiences are clearly very different than mine. Nonetheless, this book is definitely worth reading.

 

Margaret George

Margaret George is an American historical novelist who specializes in epic fictional biographies. Her incredibly well-researched works include “Elizabeth I,” “Mary, Called Magdalene,” “The Autobiography of Henry VIII: WIth Notes By His Fool, Will Somers” and others. Each is a unique look at her protagonist, steeped in detail and written in a style that brings her subject back to life. She was presenting the Italian version of her “Confessions of Young Nero.” The sequel to that will be released in the US on November 6, called “The Splendor Before the Dark.”

Margaret George poses behind the first of her books about Nero, just released in Italian.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

She is keen to debunk the myths about Nero whom pretty much everyone pictures playing his violin as Rome burned around him. That image is completely false and she presents him as a brilliant and complex figure who has been maligned by history. I believe her as she talked about how thoroughly she researched her subject before writing more than 900 pages (the two books combined) in an effort to tell the story more accurately.

With help from a interpreter (left) and a moderator (right), Margaret George presents her first “Nero” novel to the Italian public.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

On that note, as I am working on a historical biography, I asked how she avoids becoming paralyzed by too much research. Her answer was that she follows a set rule: the first half of her work is research, the second half is writing. She gave me some tips on how, as research is gathered, to catalog things so the writing part flows more easily. I wish I had met her about five years ago when my research started, but not to worry, I am well on my way writing now!

 

Robert Harris

English novelist Robert Harris was a journalist before taking up novels. Some of his work is pure fiction (I recently finished “Conclave” which was excellent) and others are fictional accounts of historic events. That is the case in the book he was presenting, “Munich.” It is set in the Munich Conference of 1938 in which British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain met in secret with Adolph Hitler in what was probably the first example of shuttle diplomacy. As an aside, I met Harris on September 22, the 80th anniversary of that conference.

Novelist Robert Harris, with an interpreter, talks at his press conference. After, he signed my copy of “Conclave.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

He had worked for BBC and helped make a documentary on the 40th anniversary of that event, so confesses it has been something of an obsession with him.

Ideas he shared:

History gives you the facts, historical fiction tells you the story.
Do we learn from history? Maybe, maybe not. But unfortunately we do not learn to not make mistakes.
We are clearly living in a revolutionary time today. A full-blown cyber war is going on yet many do not recognize it.

Coming soon is Part 2, where I met novelist Lisa Halliday and former Obama speechwriter David Litt.

 

 

Venice Film Festival 2018

For quite a few years now, I have attended at least a portion of the annual Venice Film Festival. This year it ran from August 29th through September 8th. I was only able to stay there three nights this time, but I did see four films and had some terrific meals.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

First, the films, in the order I watched them.

The Mountain, directed by Rick Alverson and starring Tye Sheridan, Jeff Goldblum and Hannah Gross.

Synopsis from IMDb:  The story of a young man who, after losing his mother, goes to work with a doctor specializing in lobotomies and therapies.

First, let me say that I like quirky movies. That’s one reason I go to a film festival, after all. Second, let me say the last time I walked out on a film was probably 30 years ago. Well, and you might see where this is going, I walked out on The Mountain. I really can’t come up with any mildly positive things to say about it. The story was boring, the acting was unemotional and stilted, the cinematography was poor, and there were just too many long shots of nothing. I mean a shot of doorway with a chair next to it that lasted 25 or 30 seconds. I generally am patient with artsy tricks like that, but not in this case. I sat through about 40 minutes of it and regret that I could have had two glasses of wine in that time.

 

 

 

 

(Picture copied from IMDb)

 

Anons (The Announcement), directed by Mahmut Fazil Coskun and Ercan Kesal. Starring  Ali Seckiner Alici, Tarhan Karagoz and Murat Kilic

Synopsis from IMDb: The night long journey of 4 soldiers discharged from the army.

That synopsis actually is pretty wrong. It was a farce about an attempted military coup in Turkey that failed. I was interested in that story line because I lived in Turkey for two years (a very long time ago, but it is a country I still think about) and well, there WAS as failed military coup not too long ago. Actually, I see that event as more a purge by Turkey’s crazy Dictator-President, but let’s not get political.

This film was good but not great. The depiction of the band of military men who were pretty much screw-ups was at times entertaining, but I think the story got kind of confused. In one scene there might have been a brutal murder, in the next scene a farcical look at how even the best plans can go badly awry. In the end, I was not sure if the film was meant to be sad or funny. Still, I watched the whole thing, so that’s something, right?  This movie was awarded what is called “The Special Jury Prize” in the Horizons Category.

 

Tel Aviv on Fire, directed by Sameh Zoabi and starring Kais Nashif, Lubna Azabal and Yaniv Biton.

IMDb: Salam, an inexperienced young Palestinian man, becomes a writer on a popular soap opera after a chance meeting with an Israeli soldier. His creative career is on the rise – until the soldier and the show’s financial backers disagree about how the show should end, and Salam is caught in the middle.

This was, hands-down, the best film of my weekend. It was funny and poignant and featured a complex intertwining of real action and scenes from the imaginary TV show. The writing was nearly perfect, offering interesting characters, believable conflicts and a very clever ending. At a Q&A session after the screening, director Sameh Zoabi, who seemed a bit surprised by the enthusiastic reception he received, said when he was growing up in Palestine, soap operas was what he watched on TV (because his Mom controlled the remote!), and he wanted to pay homage to that genre. Kais Nashif was awarded the prize for Best Actor (again, in the Horizons Category).

I think it is likely Tel Aviv on Fire will get some international distribution, if it comes to your town, it is definitely worth seeing.

 

The Sisters Brothers, directed by Jacques Audiard and starring John C. Reilly, Joaquin Phoenix, Jake Gyllenhaal and Riz Ahmed

IMDb says: In 1850s Oregon, a gold prospector is chased by the infamous duo of assassins, the Sisters brothers.

The Sisters Brothers Poster

(Copied from IMDb)

I am pretty sure this film will be very popular. The directing is excellent, in particular the gun fight scenes. In fact Audiard was awarded The Silver Lion Prize for Best Director. I thought John C. Reilly was fantastic, and Riz Ahmed was also quite good. Joaquin Phoenix had what I think was a pretty easy part – a savage drunk in a western – but I think he overdid it. Jake Gyllenhaal was not bad, but had a very strange and off-putting accent that I just could not figure out.

I read the book of the same title (written by Patrick deWitt) and absolutely loved it. I think Audiard’s screenplay was why I did not feel the same about the film. Specifically, in the book the dialogue between the two brothers was witty and concise and very entertaining. Not so much in the film. Also in the book Eli (John C. Reilly in the film) developed a touching relationship with his horse that made the character much more interesting. The film made a feeble attempt to show that, I think, and the Eli character suffered a bit in my opinion.

Nonetheless, I believe The Sisters Brothers will be well received by audiences and urge you to see it when it gets wide release.

Now to the meals!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Keep in mind the Film Festival in Venice is out on the island called Lido. It is mostly residential, but has a very long, very nice beach that attracts thousands of visitors during summer season. Like the main part of Venice, the many restaurants serving tourists on Lido can be both horribly overpriced and terribly under quality. Not these three.

Bio Sound System Vegan Vegetarian Bistrot

I get that is probably the worst name ever for a restaurant but don’t let that fool you. The food here is quite simply amazing. Yes everything is either vegan or vegetarian but the guys in the kitchen (which is open for you to watch what they are doing if you are interested in that sort of thing) really know what they are doing. I have dined here many times and will continue to do so as long as I am a regular Venice visitor. The picture of the salad on the left, above included quinoa, feta cheese, basil, loads of finely chopped bell peppers, three kinds of tomato and more. Fantastic.

Ristorante Tavernetta

Located right across the street from Lido’s ultra chic Hotel Excelsior (you can not afford a room there, no), this family-run restaurant serves Tuscan specialties. The middle picture is a pasta dish served with mixed mushrooms and assorted veggies. You might be able to pick out a chili pepper in the photo, as well. Because Tavernetta is located in such a convenient spot for the Film Festival, I always eat here. The food is excellent and in spite of its popularity with a high-maintenance movie crowd, the service is relaxed and spot on.

Trattoria Trento La Cantinita

This spot, very close to one of the cinemas where films are screened used to be a simple Italian trattoria. About a year ago they changed the menu for evening meals to feature Burgers and Tex-Mex fare. I am always on the look out for good Mexican cuisine over here. It has been a long time in coming, but Europe is finally starting to get a few excellent Mexican restaurants. Frankly, this is not one of them. The chips and salsa were very good, as was the guacamole that came with it. But the tacos missed the mark. I also tried the veggie burger (another thing I research frequently) which was not bad but not great. During non dinner hours, they serve standard Italian dishes here.

Sadly, this might be the last time I attend the Film Festival in Venice as it seems pretty likely I will be moving back to the USA next year. Nothing is certain on that front, but if it happens I guess I will just start writing about the Sundance Film Festival!

 

Ask a Local: Three Days in London, England

To be honest, I have been to London maybe 100 times (really, I have). Usually for short visits, sometimes as long as one week. During the Summer Olympics of 2012, I was in London for more than three months.  I am going back there next week, too!

 

 

 

 

 

So I sometimes get a little big-headed and think “I know London.”

Ha Ha Ha Ha Ha

Fortunately, I also have friends (Dimi and Lisa) who have lived there many years now. Whenever I travel back, they give me great ideas of new things to see and new places to eat.

Shameless plug: I often visit the London Gallery to see this painting. It is also the cover of my novel, “The Salome Effect.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Here is what happened my last visit!

I made a late decision to go so had trouble finding a reasonably priced place to stay in the center (more accurately the west end, where I usually sleep). Not to worry, I found Hampton by Hilton London Docklands. Nice hotel, really great breakfast buffet, excellent staff there, too. A slight drawback was that the commute was close to an hour from downtown, although very easy (use the DLR or Docklands Light Railway: clean, efficient, fast, and on time!). Also if you are planning a late night, watch the times of the final train or you might get stuck with an expensive cab fare!

Bletchley Park (Home of the Codebreakers)

If you saw the terrific film “The Imitation Game” starring Benedict Cumberbatch, or are (like me) a bit of a military history geek, you know what Bletchley Park is. During World War II a super secret base located north of London (that would be Bletchley Park) housed a bizarre machine designed by some very smart people and operated by England’s military forces (actually most of them here were women). The machine, called ENIGMA broke the codes used by Germany in all their radio transmissions. In a war, there are many moving parts, for certain. But it can be pretty easily argued that breaking the German secret codes and thereby understanding everything they were doing played an absolutely crucial part in the Allied victory.

 

 

 

 

 

The high level of secrecy surrounding ENIGMA and Bletchley Park have only been relatively recently de-classified. Opening the once secret installation to the public and turning it into a fascinating museum is part of that process. I spoke to some of the staff who told me there are expansion plans still in the works that will make the place even more interesting.  But for now, I highly recommend a visit to this glimpse into the past. It is both a grim reminder of the cost of war and a celebration of the achievement of very smart, very dedicated people.

 

Museum of London Docklands

I think most visitors to London these days pretty much ignore the non-royalty history of one of the world’s most important cities. London was (still is, actually) a port city. Goods, food, and people flowed through London to get to pretty much anywhere else in the world. That activity dates back centuries and continues today. This museum tells the story of the docks, once the vibrant business center of London. A portion of the exhibit explores the darkest aspect of the trade through these docks – the movement of slaves. Another portion discusses the brave men and women who continued their vital work in the face of massive air raids of World War II. Yet another recounts the lively, bawdy night life that you would expect to find. The modern revitalization of this area is also presented.

 

 

 

 

 

 

If you google “stuff to do in London” or something like that, my guess is the Docklands Museum doesn’t show up too high on the list. That is unfortunate, in my opinion. It is a well put together museum and the staff are eager to answer questions and improve your experience. If you visit London, make a point of going here.

 

The Ferryman

I went to the Gielgud Theater on Shaftesbury Avenue to watch this stunning play. I warn you, even though there was a live goose, a live rabbit, and a live baby on stage (not all at the same time, mind you) this is not an evening filled with laughter. It tells a difficult story of love, loyalty, ambition and betrayal. As a writer, I think “story” is most important. But the performances I saw by a talented line up of actors, and the staging by a superb crew were simply off the charts great. The Ferryman has been running in London for more than a year, so no telling how much longer it will be there. But if you are a person who likes the theater, add it to your list.

 

OK, now it is time to talk about food and drink.

Dishoom

This is a hot new line featuring Indian cuisine. There are (I think) four different Dishoom restaurants in London, but I went to the one near Covent Garden. Very nice inviting interior, simply fantastic wait staff and food that was crazy good. Check the web site to get the details about making reservations. Certain times of day they don’t take them at all, other times they do but only for groups of 6 or more, etc. Not to worry, if you show up with no reservation, you can wait in their cocktail bar!

Bintang

In Kentish Town which is northwest London, you can find plenty of fun things to do. Funky old stores line the main street, I found one of the best international supermarkets (called Phoenicia) I have ever seen (they had ten different kinds of za’atar and an amazing display of baklava) and I had a great lunch at Bintang. They told me they offer Pan-Asian fusion cuisine. I told them they offer amazing food.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Gordon’s Wine Bar

I admit this is a pretty well-know drinkery. Meaning it gets crowded. But wow is it fun and they really do have an impressive wine selection. There is some snacking available, and I can recommend the cheese plate. But go there for the wine. And then stay there for another one!

 

I am fairly certain most people do not need too much convincing to visit London. But I do think if you travel to less known attractions and dine in smaller, cozier restaurants you will have more fun!

 

 

 

 

 

Ask a Local: Three Days in Iaşi, Romania

The last part of my ten day visit to Romania was in the really beautiful city of Iaşi(pronounced “yash”). I’d seen the hectic bustle of Bucharest and the peaceful serenity of Suceava, so was looking for something in between. Iaşi was the perfect choice.

 

 

 

 

 

I stayed in the super comfortable Select Hotel. It is inside what once was a palace, today very well maintained. There are not too many rooms so guests (at least this one) got plenty of very attentive service. Breakfast was excellent and there is a very good restaurant associated with the hotel, too.

The Select Hotel was a very comfortable choice.

Convenient location right in the center was also nice.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

It was tempting to not stray too far from the hotel, but of course I was there to explore. My friend Mariana grew up near Iaşi (today she lives in Italy with her husband and two boys, but often talks about how beautiful Iaşi is) and had given me some good ideas of what to do.

 

Palace of Culture

I have to say this is one of the most interesting and beautiful places I have ever seen. To put some perspective on that, I have lived all over Europe and in Asia, have visited most of the “must see” places in the world and have experienced some very interesting stuff. In short, I was really impressed with the Palace of Culture in Iaşi. To start it is, of course, a magnificent palace built in the early 1800’s. It has gone through some renovations and changes of use over the years. Today it stands as pretty much the center of everything in Iaşi. Inside, among the 300 rooms, it houses 4 separate museums. Each of those is worth a visit and collectively they are fantastic.

 

 

 

 

 

Palas Mall

It feels very strange for me to mention any kind of mall as something to see. But the Palas Mall in Iaşi is different. It is not just a collection of stores all under one roof. That is part of it but outside on the grounds you’ll find very nice places to eat, some exciting drinking holes, playgrounds for your kids, a park to take a nice stroll and a great deal more. When I was there the World Cup Football Championship was on so the pubs were especially fun!

 

 

 

 

 

 

Zacusca

Well, this is not something to see but something to enjoy. It is a traditional veggie spread (but that so very much does not describe how simply delicious it is!). I did not see it during my earlier travels in Romania, which is probably a good thing because I would have eaten it all day every day. Up above here, if you click on the word “zacusca” you should find a good recipe for it. Make it. You can thank me later.

You want funky?

Iaşi has funky

And real practicality, too!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Speaking of eating, of course I had to find some excellent places to get a meal or the visit to  Iaşi would be incomplete. Here is what I found.

Bistro Unirii

The first time I stopped here was just to have a beer and watch the activity in the large Unirii (Unification) Square. I looked at the menu and thought I needed to return later. Good decision on my part as everything served was fresh made, excellent and very reasonably priced.

Carciuma Veche

It means “Old Pub” so automatically I was interested. I found it on the long and beautiful pedestrian street called Bulevardul Stefan cel Mare, which led from my Select Hotel to the Palace of Culture. They serve traditional Romanian fare all of which was excellent. The service was quick and efficient.  There were plenty of locals eating there,  something I always take as a good sign. Prices were super reasonable.

 

 

 

 

 

Vivid

Absolutely without question the best meals I had in ten days in Romania. I said “meals” because it was so good I ate there twice. It is located just in the center of the city not far at all from the Palas Mall. Nice inside, also comfortable outside seating. The service was, as they say “spot on.” The waiter had excellent recommendations for wine pairings, and every bite was an absolute joy. A bit more expensive than the other places I dined, but sooooo worth it. I will keep Vivid on my Top Ten Restaurants in the World list for a long time, I am certain.

 

 

 

 

 

So after more than ten years of waiting, I finally spent ten days in Romania. All I need to say is I am going back soon. Put it on your list.

 

 

Ask a Local: Three Days in Suceava, Romania

After three days in bustling, busy Bucharest, I needed to find someplace with a bit more peace and quiet. That place was Suceava.

Nestled peacefully in the northeast corner of Romania, Suceava was once the capital of Moldova. Today around 100,000 live there making it large enough to offer plenty of interesting things to do but small enough to not be overwhelming. I set myself up in the very comfortable Daily Plaza Hotel at the end of Suceava’s very nice pedestrian walkway. Nice breakfast and excellent air conditioning (hey, I was visiting in the summer and it was hot!).

My friend Andrea today lives in Italy but was born and raised in Suceava. She was pretty excited about my going there so I followed her advice. Here is what I did.

Painted Monasteries

One of Romania’s most loved treasures, the Painted Monasteries are collectively on the UNESCO World Heritage List, a well-deserved recognition of the history and beauty of these 15th and 16th century churches. Each one sports elaborate frescoes painted on the exterior of the church. Actually each set of frescoes follows a specific religious theme. Beyond the churches themselves, the grounds of the monasteries had beautifully tended gardens and respectful cemeteries. This made the site of each one a peaceful and tranquil space where thoughtful meditation comes quite easily. I was visiting about a week before the start of the high tourist season and imagine they do get pretty crowded, but that was not my experience. The were, simply put, beautiful and peaceful places.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Suceava Citadel

A very pleasant walk through a natural park ended at the 14th century citadel. In its history, the structure has been both a fortress and a royal residence, sitting on top of a hill and overlooking much of the present day city. Recently renovated and repaired, a high tech museum is now situated in the citadel. Not much information was available in English (other than books at the gift shop), so I likely missed some of the cooler historical facts. None the less, it is striking and picturesque. Well worth a visit.

A walk in the park was a great way to get to Suceava’s citadel.

And the citadel itself was stunning.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Of course, an important aspect of all my travels is the food. Suceava did not offer the variety or quality I had experienced in Bucharest, of course, but I did find some good meals and fun place to sit with a drink and watch the central pedestrian square.

Latino

An Italian restaurant just around the corner from my hotel. I have lived in Italy more than 25 years now, and consider myself pretty much an Italian food snob. So normally I don’t eat Italian while travelling.  But I did this time and was happy with it.  I consider that a pretty good endorsement.

Centru Vechi

Probably the best known of Suceava’s traditional restaurants, Andrea had suggested it before my trip, and the staff at my hotel did so as well. It had a very nice atmosphere, the staff were friendly and accommodating, the service was excellent. The food was adequate in my mind, but given the other things I just mentioned, I recommend a visit here.

Lovegan

I am a vegetarian and have been since 1993. I am not militant about it, and do not need to find a strictly vegetarian restaurant to be happy. But in Suceava, I was surprised and pleased to find this one (vegan, actually – not vegetarian). My experience with vegan restaurants has been lukewarm, I would say. But since I found Lovegan in Suceava, I thought I would give it a try. Great choice. It was the best meal I had during the three days I was in town.

After three different kinds of hummus, I ate a really terrific veggie burger! Yum.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Oscar Wilde Pub

They had a food menu here, but my purpose was simply to enjoy a cool drink and watch Suceava’s central square. It seemed like most of the 100,000 residents wandered through sometime during the three afternoons I sat there. They all seemed happy and content to enjoy thier lovely city. And I was sitting with a nice glass, so what’s not to like?

Locally brewed Silva beer was a winner!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

My visit to Suceava gave me what I wanted – a slow down after the hustle of Bucharest. The painted monasteries are truly a thing of beauty and worth making a special visit to see.

 

Ask a Local: Three Days in Bucharest, Romania

About ten years ago, I was riding a train from Venice to Turin.  I shared the cabin (this was one of the old-style trains that had little cars with seating for six) with two Italian businessmen. Over the course of the six-hour trip we talked about many things. One of them was Romania.

Romania was interesting to me as one of the lead characters in the novel I was writing at the time (The Salome’ Effect) was a Romanian woman living in Italy. Romania was interesting to the two Italian gentlemen because they were terrified by the massive economic potential there. Upon learning that, I made it a goal to visit. And I am happy to say I have finally done so.

First stop, naturally, was the capital city of Bucharest, where I spent three nights. I set myself up in a centrally-located three-star called Relax Comfort Suites Hotel. Pretty simple place, really. Nothing fancy but it was both clean and air conditioned. I met a woman named Raluca (she worked behind the desk) who was Bucharest born and raised. Based on her advice, this is what I did there.

 

 

 

 

 

How cool is this National Library?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Herastrau Park

In the northern part of the city, easily reachable by subway or bus, this enormous (187 hectares) and lovely green space surrounds a beautiful lake and offers a simply wonderful respite from the hustle of city life. Trees, gardens, walking and bike paths, plenty of eating and drinking options, boat tours on the lake, and an elaborate museum honoring Romanian village life are just a few of the reasons to spend a few hours here.

A bar/snack bar/bookstore is one of the many relaxing offers in Herastau Park.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Parliament Palace

OK. It is huge. It is the second largest administrative building in the world (largest is the Pentagon). From a standpoint of size and imagination, I guess it is worth seeing. But the impression it left on me was of the sheer folly of it. Romania’s long time crazy and cruel dictator, Nicolae Ceauşescu started construction in 1984, trying to copy or at least pay homage to, the great European palaces of the 17th and 18th centuries. Thousands upon thousands of people were employed and much of the small treasury of the country was squandered on construction. It was never used by the Romanian government under Ceauşescu. He called it the People’s Palace, but the people wanted nothing to do with it or him and he was overthrown in a popular revolt.

It does house Parliament offices today but for the most part sits empty, a looming monument to the danger of placing too much power into the hands of one very egotistical man.

It is big and pretty much empty.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The National Museum of Art

I confess I can normally visit an art museum for about one hour, maybe 90 minutes if I am in a good mood. This stunning collection kept my attention for almost half a day. The building itself is beautiful, a palace dating back to the early 1800’s. But the collection of works from all over Europe were the real star of course. As I have lived in Europe a long time, and spend many one-hour visits in other art museums, I focused on Romanian artists. Plenty of those, for sure, but look up Theodor Aman. I had never heard of him before, much less seen any of his work. The 19th century master was a painter, engraver and history professor.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I am no art critic, certainly. But his oils were so life-like and believable. They had an almost ethereal 3-dimensional look to them. Really something.

 

 

 

All that exploring works up an appetite, right? Well, I found Bucharest has both plenty of traditional fare and an exciting international dining vibe. These were my favorites.

Aubergine

 

In the historic (and touristy but also fun) Old Town part of Bucharest. Kind of a fusion between Romanian and Middle Eastern cuisine, everything on my table was fantastic. Among other things, I enjoyed three kinds of falafel and the best baba ganoush I have ever eaten.

 

 

 

Blue Margarita

 

It was not a short trip (a metro ride of about 20 minutes and then a walk for another 20) but this South American restaurant is run by a young couple who had lived in Texas for 6 years. The menu is mostly but not exclusively Mexican, but Mexican is what I chose. And I was not disappointed at all. Plus the margarita was really terrific!

 

 

Caru’ cu bere

This is perhaps the best known of Bucharest’s traditional restaurants. I have to say the food was really terrific. But the place was hyper crowded as large tour groups (I am talking multiple groups of 30 -40 people at a time) were there. The name means “The Beer Wagon” so that’s a good start. The historic building was purpose built as a brewery and they still make an excellent line of beers. But now it is a also a restaurant that offers traditional Romanian fare from simple to gourmet. The inside is very Art Nouveau, so take your camera along with you. Worth a visit, for sure, but my advice if you are there during a tourist season is to avoid peak hours!

I really enjoyed Bucharest. I recommend not driving in the city. Ever.  But it is a vibrant place with plenty to offer no matter what your taste.

As for the two Italian businessmen I met on that train so long ago, Romania has not yet realized its full economic potential (there is still a good deal of corruption in the government, it seems), but I am pretty confident it will someday. It is already worth a visit – a return visit, in fact. So don’t wait – go there soon!

Ask a Local: Three days in Zagreb, Croatia

In mid-October, we traveled to Zagreb, Croatia for a long weekend. We had never seen it, but had heard plenty of good things about it, so it was time to see for ourselves. My advice: go there. Do it soon!

 

 

 

 

 

Zagreb is the capital of Croatia, a county teeming with beautiful scenery, terrific beaches and exciting cities. In Zagreb, you’ll find very nice 18th and 19th century architecture from the Austro-Hungarian empire. There is a majestic Gothic cathedral in the center of town, and the charming and lively Tcalciceva Street, full of bistros, bars, and cafes.

Zagreb Cathedral

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Our lodging was at a place called Zig Zag Zagreb. It offers either traditional hotel rooms or small apartments right in the center of the city. We drove to Zagreb, so it was a bonus they had a private parking garage, as well. We chose one of the apartments as it was equipped with a kitchen where we were able to make breakfast each morning.

We found the reception office, located with their hotel rooms and the parking garage, with no problem. Check in was fast and easy, and getting to our apartment was a three minute walk. The young woman working there was Neda Pontoni.  She was born and raised right in Zagreb so became the local we would ask for advice. Since it was our first visit, our questions dealt with restaurants and museums. Unfortunately we had come to the city on the weekend of a national holiday AND the annual Zagreb Marathon, meaning many of the museums were closed. No matter, the restaurants were open, so our main focus was dining.

We also found some cool graffiti.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

And that dining did not disappoint at all. Here is where we ate.

Pod Zidom (Pod Zidom 5, +385 99 3253 600)

Yes, the restaurant shares the same name as the street, just a few steps away from the city’s main market. I loved my stuffed eggplant while my wife had a couscous dish with a mint yogurt topping. Yum.

 

 

 

 

 

Vinodol (Teslina 10, +385 1 4811 427)

We had lunch here and returned later in the day to enjoy a glass of wine. The bar was a little smokey, but the wine was a nice (and inexpensive!) Malvazia.

 

Mundoaka (Petrinjska 2, +385 1 78 88 777)

Small, very cozy, and a very inviting place to eat just around the corner from Zagreb’s central square.  A delicious pumpkin curry soup was just off the charts great! You must try the fresh made bread, too. The service here was really terrific.

 

Royal India (Ivana Tkalcic 1000, +385 1 4680 965)

We always like to try foreign cuisine when we travel. As the name implies, this restaurant serves Indian cuisine. The kitchen is staffed 100% by folks from India, they use Indian imported spices, cook nine different kinds of naan bread right there, and use only seasonal fresh veggies and produce. I have lived in Europe more than 25 years, and outside of London’s Brick Lane scene, this was the best Indian meal I have found.

We also found a terrific wine bar called Basement Bar (Tomiceva 5, +385 1 7774 585). It’s not really in a basement, although you do go down a few steps to enter. The vaulted ceilings make a nice setting to sample from a very impressive selection of (mostly) Croatian wines.

The very cozy Basement Bar is at the foot of one of Zagreb’s funicular trains.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

We did manage to find one art exhibit open. We rode the funicular train (just outside Basement Bar – very convenient!) up to the Galerija Klovicevi dvori. They had a retrospective of wood carvings by Vasko Lipovac. Fun and funky, to say the least!

What happens in Croatia stays in Croatia, right?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

So we saw some art and ate very well. In other words we had a good time and will return soon!

 

 

 

Talking With High School Students about Writing

For quite a few years now, I have visited with a group of local high school students to talk about writing. It’s a special seminar, usually about 12 or 15 kids are involved. This year, I’m happy to say the students were as engaged and interested as they have been during each of my other visits.

 

 

 

 

 

The discussion always starts with me trying to explain why writing well is important. I usually use the “Let’s eat Mom” versus “Let’s eat, Mom” example. One of the kids this year said a comma can save someone’s life. Exactly! She got it. I also talked about the US President using his twitter so often. He has said he does it to communicate directly to the population, without his message being filtered or analysed by media or spokespeople. I guess he has a point with that intent, but his writing in those twitter messages is so bad that whatever his message is often gets lost in what comes across as anger or just plain meanness. I take pains to avoid talking politics with these students, of course, but they agreed with my point here.

 

 

 

 

 

I then try to relieve them of the belief all writers make gobs of money, using my own career as an example of that fact. If I had to rely on my writing income to survive, I would be in real trouble!

 

 

 

 

 

Two cool words they learned in this session: verisimilitude and alliteration.

 

 

 

 

 

Finally, we get into the fun exercise. I start them off with a painfully boring sentence “The man walked across the room.” Divided into groups, they come up with really terrific ways to make that much more exciting. Examples from this year involved zombies dancing in a ballroom and silver-haired ladies sprinting across a dark cavern. I am always happy with the creativity they show.

 

 

 

 

 

I can’t wait to visit another class soon.

 

I Did it Again! Venice Film Festival part 3

This is my third and final review of movies I saw at this year’s Venice Film Festival. I have saved the best for last. Of the 18 movies I watched (don’t get excited, 14 of them were short films – each only about 8 to 12 minutes long), this was by far the best. I am not alone in that thinking, this movie scored Best Director and Best Actor honors by the jury at the festival. I am pretty sure it will also get some Oscar buzz as a nominee for Best Foreign Film. And I would not be surprised if a Best Supporting Actor nomination happens, as well.

“Bedoune Tarikh, Bedoune Emza”

That translates to “No Date, No Signature.”  Directed by Vahid Jalilvand.

This is an Iranian film and I loved every aspect of it. The synopsis from the Venice Film Festival catalog reads: “The forensic pathologist Dr. Nariman, a principled and virtuous man, has an accident with a motorcyclist and his family, and injures the 8-year old son. He pays compensation and offers to take the child to the clinic nearby, but the family declines. The next morning, he finds the same little boy has been brought in for an autopsy. Dr. Nariman faces a dilemma now: is he responsible for the child’s death due to the accident or did the boy die due to food poisoning according to the other doctor’s diagnosis?”

More to the story: the boy’s father had been buying cheap chicken for his family from the local slaughterhouse, and that did cause food poisoning in the child. The boy’s father, frantic and distraught, goes to the slaughterhouse and confronts the man who illegally sold him the bad chickens. That man later dies in the hospital so the father is arrested and charged with murder.

Now what does the good doctor do?  A moral dilemma, for sure, and a really terrific, tightly written story.

Excellent camera work throughout this nail biter really brings home the mood of despair and confusion of the characters.

Finally, absolutely superb performances by Amir Aghaee (Dr. Nariman), Navid Mohammadzadeh (the father), and Alireza Ostadi (the mother). All told, this is a really superior movie. If it comes to a cinema near you – GO SEE IT!

Until Next Year.