95 Strong

By Mary Anna Violi | @Mary Anna Violi

Aunt Adelaide loves roses - tangledpasta.net

Aunt Adelaide loves roses – tangledpasta.net

Several weeks ago my daughter and I drove to one of the heavily tree-lined towns outside of Detroit. Throughout the summer my anthem had been, “Visit Aunt Adelaide!” My mother, Kitty, had two younger sisters, Adelaide and Agnes. Mama had six brothers too, but this focus is on Aunt Adelaide, the middle sister, who turned 95 in August. After coordinating schedules with my cousin Mimi, with Anjelica’s schedule, and with mine, we managed to arrive at an August weekend that worked for all, including Aunt Adelaide.

My aunt is not only my mother’s sister; she is also my Godmother. Although my aunt and her family moved to Detroit early in my childhood because of my Uncle Dick’s work [he designed the 1949 Ford: The Car that Saved an Empire – basically, the car that saved Henry Ford’s derriere as documented in automotive history books], throughout my life Aunt Adelaide has been a major presence. We frequently visited our family in the Motor City, and likewise, my aunt and uncle often brought my three cousins to visit us. How I loved eating the Lebanese food Aunt Adelaide prepared whenever we were in town! Uncle Dick was Lebanese and his mother, Sito, who lived with them, and whose English was virtually nonexistent, spoke in Arabic. Between the food and the Arabic, I was enthralled by the exoticness of it all. Mama and her sisters brought their families for summers on Eagle Lake at our family’s lakefront cottage. It was Aunt Adelaide who even taught me how to swim. She was an R.N. who tended our bee stings, sunburn, and cuts from rocks. In short, Aunt Adelaide has always been like a second mother to me, and Aunt Agnes too.

Aunt Adelaide has a great sense of humor. We have always laughed over rollicking stories about zany family and friends, current events, books, movies, and anything and everything. To this day, I telephone Aunt Adelaide and she regales me with anecdotes of yore. In her heyday, she was also a talented seamstress and clothing designer. Between my uncle’s design engineering and overall artistic talent and my aunt’s creative clothing and home furnishing confections, it is small wonder that my three cousins are artists in their own right.

In short, it seemed fitting to celebrate Aunt Adelaide’s 95th birthday with her. She may move more slowly and deliberately, and sometimes she has to pause to remember a particular word, but not enough to dampen conversation. We brought her a petite, feathery bouquet of pink roses, a book, and a DVD about the history of her hometown high school alma mater. We knew she would enjoy everything, and she did. Although her sons were out-of-town, and my dear uncle had passed away months after my father [I like to think of them swapping Italian and Arabic stories and laughing no end], we merrily celebrated. As we drove away that evening, I was filled with nothing but love for my darling Aunt Adelaide. After she blew out the candles on her cake, I told her what we Italians say: Cent’anni! A Hundred Years! It could happen.

Ciao for now.

Labor Day Weekend

 

 

Summer's end, The Grand Hotel, Mackinac Island - tangledpasta.net

Summer’s end, The Grand Hotel, Mackinac Island, one of my favorite places tangledpasta.net

By Mary Anna Violi | @Mary Anna Violi

When I was a young sprig, the last hurrah of summer was spent swimming, fishing, and boating at our summer-house on the lake.  Amid whoops and splashes, diving, and floating, we frolicked throughout most of those sun-drenched summer days. We also feasted in between swims.  At least one Labor Day Weekend dinner included hamburgers and hot dogs on the old brick grill my grandfather had built.  There was Mama’s homemade coleslaw [light on the mayonnaise], Aunt Agnes’ potatoes and side dishes, and Aunt Adelaide’s homemade German chocolate cake.  Life was good and mighty tasty too.

We cousins knew that after we bade one another adieu on Labor Day itself, the school year commenced the next day.  Labor Day heralded the end of summer; it placed the cherry on the cake of summer.  Labor Day also paved the way to autumn.  We donned new school attire, and polished saddle shoes and penny loafers, we headed for the classroom, armed with our metal lunch boxes, and new pencil cases in hand. In an uncertain world, we could count on school commencing the day after Labor Day.  There seemed a kind of security in knowing that.

Back then we understood the cyclic nature of the seasons:  Autumn equated with school; Winter meant snowy white nights and Christmas; Spring reminded us Nature awakened; and Summer beckoned with the lure of languid days at the lake. My daughter fell prey to the lunacy of the extended school day, the elongated school year, and the mania of increased standardized testing.  School began for her in the oppressive heat and humidity of the August dog days of summer.  I haven’t observed youth getting any smarter or adept at the traditional 3 R’s of writing, reading, and arithmetic with this prolonged school year. A wave of sadness overtakes me to know that the young cannot partake in the ritual of summer’s end that Labor Day used to offer my cousins and me.

Ciao for now.

 

 

Crossroads

 

Tybee Island – tangledpasta.net

Travel is in my blood.  Travel permeates the fiber of my being like a siren song demanding to be heard.  Exotic locales at home and abroad eternally beckon me like an insatiable lover, seducing me time and time again.  An inveterate traveler, it did not occur to me that my footloose and fancy-free nature could ever be curbed.  Blindsided I was, however, by the emergence of a condition that irrevocably rocked my travel world.

Throughout my halcyon youth, I studied in college and worked steadily in order to pay for my next Italian or Greek or French voyage. Yet travel steadily began to take on a different complexion:  Somewhere along the line, I developed claustrophobia, a thoroughly most sensation when flying thousands of feet in the air.  Medication has provided some relief from the panic attacks that would overtake me during take-off, the flight itself, and when landing.  Until I sought medical help, I am quite certain I struck panic too in those unfortunate enough to have been seated next to me.

Route 66

Route 66 (Photo credit: eGuide Travel)

My conundrum was that taking prescription medication in order to fly on a plane offended me even though I felt certain others do this, or assuage their fears in alcohol.  Consequently, I have turned more frequently to drive vacations.  When I mention how much I enjoyed travel by car, people fired back that “more people die in car accidents than in plane crashes.”  It perplexed me that some see this as some sort of competition.  These days, I simply want to get my kicks on Route 66.

Now, where did I put that atlas?

Ciao for now.

 

Weekend Getaway, Part II

 

Upon docking at Mackinac Island, we caught a four-legged taxi to The Grand Hotel.  No cars are permitted on the island, which means work horses abound on the island.  The Grand Hotel driver wears a black top hat, tall leather black leather boots, white breeches, and a burgundy-colored waistcoat with tails.  The carriage itself has large wooden spoke wheels, windows, and is pulled by a pair of black horses decked out in black leather gear.

The Grand Hotel’s taxi in front of The Grand Hotel- tangledpasta.net

The horses’ clip-clop-clip-clop up and down the hills of the winding streets finally depositing us in front of The Grand Hotel’s steep red-carpeted steps.  Schepler’s Ferry transported our baggage via horse-drawn carriage to the hotel prior to our arrival on the island.  Shortly after checking in, our bags appeared outside our room door.

This was our third stay at The Grand Hotel; as a result, our room had been upgraded to a Category III Lake-View room.  Two four-poster canopy beds coördinated with the brightly flowered wallpaper supplied a cheery greeting upon our arrival.  Dorothy Draper’s protégé, Carleton Varney, the hotel historian informed us, decorated each of the 385 rooms differently in 19th century fashion.  Each paint color is unique to The Grand Hotel.

Dressing for formal dinner in our Lake View room, The Grand Hotel – tangledpasta.net

The large geranium-motif carpet runs throughout the hotel [the geranium is the signature flower of The Grand Hotel].  In each bathroom, small bars of pink geranium-scented soap greet the guest, as does rosy geranium-fragranced body lotion.  The lake vista, the brightly splashed wallpaper, comfy beds, and scent of geraniums wafting through the air calmed the senses.

Part of The Salon, The Grand Hotel – tangledpasta.net

We decided to partake of formal tea time in The Salon.  My daughter chose a glass of pink champagne, and I the dry sherry.  Our server, who was dressed in a crisp black and white uniform replete with a white headpiece à la 19th century servants, displayed before us a tasty repast of salmon, crab, ham, and turkey each served on crustless bread cut in the shape of hearts, circles, and rectangles.   Another plate was laden with sweets and fresh cream.  The tea itself was full-bodied.

Formal tea at The Grand Hotel, – tangledpasta.net

We strolled around the grounds overlooking the Tea Garden where enormous greenery has been trimmed to resemble animals.  A large fountain bubbled away as workers scurried to set up for a wedding to take place overlooking the fountain.

The promise of a fine weekend loomed large.

Ciao for now.

 

Viva Las Vegas! Part I

The Bellagio Hotel in Las Vegas.

The Bellagio Hotel in Las Vegas. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The Fountains of Bellagio as seen from the Par...

The Fountains of Bellagio as seen from the Paris Las Vegas hotel, across the Strip from the Bellagio. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Now that the jet lag has subsided, the suitcases have been unpacked, and the groceries replenished, we turn our attention to bringing our voyage into a coherent perspective.

We celebrated my daughter’s 21st birthday in Las Vegas, Nevada, which is three hours behind our Heartland time zone; hence, the jet lag.  Her Fourth of July birthday this year was celebrated in grand style during our stay at The Bellagio Hotel.  For years I assiduously had avoided Las Vegas:  It seemed too glitzy and too cheesy for my elevated taste.  Furthermore, I am not a gambling woman, at least not with the color of my own money.  Initially, ringing in her 21st birthday in Dublin, Ireland seemed feasible.  The only problem with that idea was that the Irish do not celebrate our Fourth of July.  In the end, a particular performer proved to be the main draw for my daughter; consequently, to the Land of Las Vegas we schlepped.

Once we settled on Las Vegas as a Fourth of July birthday venue, the decision of where to stay reared its head.  Having already been to Venice, Italy five times, the idea of a reduced replica of the Grand Canal held little appeal.  Having shopped on the Veneto in the aforementioned real Venice, the Venetian shops in Las Vegas’ Venetian were not our cup of cappuccino.  Having been to Paris, France and its Eiffel Tower, Las Vegas’ Paris with its reduced sized Eiffel Tower replica was less than appealing, although our 16th floor Lake View room at The Bellagio was situated directly across from The Paris and its Eiffel Tower whose night lights provided a lovely backdrop to The Bellagio’s gorgeous Fountains and accompanying music.

Like a guilty pleasure, my ardor swelled:  I fell for Las Vegas, or, more to the point, I fell for The Bellagio.  Its Art Museum had an exhibit of Monet paintings on loan from the Boston Museum of Fine Arts.  Bellagio’s Art Museum was a jewel of a place tucked off the beaten path of the casino, away from the exotic swimming pool, and never ending foot traffic.  The Monet paintings were stunning, as only Monet’s artwork can be.  After consulting with my favorite travel agent, an Italian friend named Mary, we decided upon The Bellagio over The Venetian.  The deal breaker for me was The Bellagio’s art.  Where else could we dine exquisitely in Las Vegas surrounded by Picasso’s artwork, other than at Bellagio’s Picasso restaurant?   Reluctantly, we finally had to leave the Bellagio, its fine dining, magnificent fountains, and hospitable staff.  We will someday return to partake of its delights again.

Ciao for now.

 

Savannah, Mon Amour

Forsyth Parc - Savannah, Georgia

Forsyth Parc – Savannah, Georgia (Photo credit: Elvis Pépin)

Last summer we vacationed in Savannah, Georgia with our Houstonian friends, Juliet and Mark.  Every six months we get together in a new locale; this time it was Savannah.  Southern Living magazine had run an article replete with photos, of Savannah, which sold me on the idea of converging in Savannah.  Juliet, a long-time, intrepid Girl Scout Leader, had her heart set on two things:  Visiting the founder of the Girl Scouts’ Juliette Gordon Low home, and dining at Paula Deene’s The Lady & Sons.  My wishes included taking in the Savannah College of Art and Design [SCAD], the squares, architecture, Mercer-Williams House, and Bonaventure Cemetery, immortalized in John Berendt’s book Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil.  But mostly, I wanted to soak up the richness of the language variety of Savannah.  Through my years of living in Houston and my travels in the South, I fell in love with the people and the wealth of linguistic variety and principles of Southern Hospitality.

Savannah answered our desires in spades.  We hopped on an Old Town Trolley Tour to get the lay of Savannah’s Historic District.  We toured historic homes, a number of which were restored by the late Jim Williams [read the aforementioned book to learn how vital he was in the restoration of historic homes in Savannah].  We stayed at the Avia Hotel in the Historic District.  We dined at fabulous locales like The Olde Pink House [Low Country], Circa 1875 [French], and at The Lady & Sons [heavy on the fried chicken] on Mother’s Day. Goose Feathers served up breakfast with tantalizing quiches and more Low Country cooking [no complaints on my end].

After meandering in those irresistible squares with their gnarled trees dripping Spanish moss, we wandered over to The Paris Market.  We shopped at the Savannah Bee Company Honey House [honey, honey in everything, even the soap], Nourish [all natural body products], and art shops [teeming with art by talented SCAD graduates].  After lingering over scoops of ice cream at Leopold’s Ice Cream [rose petal and lavender were our favorites], we took a horse drawn carriage ride at night. Our driver peppered the tour with anecdotes, both racy and humorous.  Savannah does have a most colorful past [read Berendt’s book].  Hunger pangs struck again.  That night we washed down mussels and pasta entrees with wine at Garibaldi’s Café.  The mirrored walls reminded me of Le Grand Vefour in Paris where we also relished steamed mussels.  Garibaldi’s fresh Italian fare was tasty, to say the least, and even reminded us of a Venetian palazzo.

All too soon our voyage ended.  We will return one day, Savannah, for you captured our hearts, mon amour.

Image of Savannah, Georgia

Image of Savannah, Georgia (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Ciao for now.

The cover of the 1994 novel

The cover of the 1994 novel (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Dreaming of Tamales

Español: Cabrito con tamales. Piura, Perú.

Español: Cabrito con tamales. Piura, Perú. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A colleague of mine is from a large family that emigrated legally from Mexico 30-odd years ago.  Her family is close; they spend much time together on the weekends.  Over the years, I have had the pleasure of meeting members of her gregarious family.  They remind me of vacations I took and conferences I attended; Zacatecas, Ixtapa, Cozumel, Taxco, Mexico City, and Acapulco [pre-drug lords] were glorious experiences.  United in my co-worker is the exuberance, the friendliness of the people I met over my years of travel to this sunny country south of the border.  The sadness is that she is now apprehensive about traveling to her native land because of the random violence.   She and her family yearn to travel south, to partake once more of the swaying rhythms and breezes Mexico exudes, the Mexico they remember.

Her oldest sister makes tamales that put both Mexicans and gringos over the moon.  These tamales remind me of leisurely late night dinners spent listening to the waves lap over the shore in the coastal towns, and our talking long into the night.  The echo of soft laughter from lovers strolling along the beach punctuated my reverie as I listened to the soothing rush of water over the sand.    Sipping tequila sunrises long into the night under a painted sky of stars and moonlight lulled me into the cradle of beauty that was, and I am sure still very much is, Mexico.  The people who make up the grandeur of her culture, not only the late writer Carlos Fuentes, poet Octavio Paz, and current filmmaker, Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, but the non-famous, like my friend’s sister who keeps the dream of Mexico alive through her homemade tamales.

Tomorrow I will buy those tamales and dream of the Land of Manana.

Ciao for now.

To Rhode Island, Con Amore, Part II

   Bidding our friend Marianne adieu in Bristol, we pointed our Mazda 6 rental car down to Route 114, and crossed the Newport Bridge that led to Newport.  Even though I had attended a conference in Newport in 2002, I could hardly call myself weary of its grandeur.  And grandeur Newport has in spades.  Our friend Bob had put us in touch with a grand dame of Newport named Joan who rented us her picturesque carriage house, conveniently located across Bellevue Avenue from The Newport Mansions.  After enjoying witty repartee with Joan, we dined at a local bistro, and then turned in.  We wanted to be fresh and alert for mansion touring.

The Preservation Society of Newport County is the gatekeeper for Newport’s national treasures of the bygone wealthy.  Their “summer homes”, The Breakers, The Elms, Marble House, Chateau-sur-Mer, and Rosecliff [think Robert Redford in The Great Gatsby; parts of the movie were filmed at Rosecliff, most notably the ballroom scene] are my mansions of choice. The Cliff Walk provided us with more scenic views of the ocean.

The Breakers tops my Top 10 Newport Mansions chart. Richard Morris Hunt designed the 16th century style, 70-room, Italian Renaissance palazzo for Cornelius Vanderbilt II. The Breakers boasts 65,000 square feet and includes breath-taking views of the Atlantic Ocean from the upper loggia.  Italian artisans laid the intricate mosaic tiles that illuminate the loggia’s ceiling.  Other elegant touches are the Carrara marble fireplaces throughout The Breakers.  All in all, The Mansions are not too shabby.

After much mansion viewing one day, we drove leisurely up Ocean Drive past Jacqueline Kennedy’s former estate.  We drank in the views of Narragansett Bay from our table in the Sunset Room at Castle Hill. Eating pan roasted scallops, crab cakes, and a Narragansett Bay Cobb Salad, while taking in the panoramic views of the Bay through the curved glass windows only heightened the sartorial pleasure of the food itself. Sailboats bobbed up and down in the Bay. This unplanned dining experience almost broke the vacation bank, but the seafood and Narragansett Bay were worth the expense, or so I rationalized it.  Newport certainly put the wind in my sails again for the sheer joy that is Newport, RI.

Ciao for now.

 

Rhode Island, Con Amore, Part I

We visited our Italian friend, Marianne, in Cranston, Rhode Island.  Never having been to the Ocean State, we were enthusiastic about touring the state with Marianne.  In our rental car, not only did we scour Rhode Island from stem to stern, but we also dipped into Massachusetts, and Mystic, Connecticut.  We made the pilgrimage to Mystic Pizza, which was locally famous long before the movie.  Numerous art galleries proliferate in Mystic behind tiny, almost secret gardens of flora and fauna.

One of the joys of feasting is when it includes fresh seafood, of which there is much in Rhode Island.  My daughter pondered the ambiguity of  “stuffed shrimp”, and marveled over quahogs, and clam fritters.  While driving along coastlines that resembled travel magazine settings, we would pull over when hunger pangs manifested themselves, to crab/clam/lobster shacks that dotted the coastline.  Sitting at rough-hewn picnic tables overlooking the ocean, we feasted on fresh caught crabs/clams/lobster/shrimp or quahogs.  Marianne thought us hilarious because we could eat seafood anytime, anywhere throughout our Rhode Island visit.

Row upon row of blue hydrangeas created vast walls of beauty along the roads.  Even the flowers on Federal Hill in Providence nearly blinded us with their vibrant hues in the summer heat.  Flowers proliferated everywhere in the state.

Federal Hill abounded with Italian bakeries, coffee shops, delis, and restaurants.  Even a negozio di souvenir shop caught my eye. At our friend’s urging, we entered many of these establishments if only to praise the mountains of Italian biscotti, the liquor-laced tortes, and the magnificent breads.  But the greatest treat of all was hearing so many Italians speaking Italian on Federal Hill.  I spoke with two padres who were indulging in a caffe and biscotti break in a charming café.  They were from northern Italy and were in the States for the next several years.  Wherever we walked as we meandered up and down Federal Hill, we encountered Italian speakers.  Memories of my hometown in my childhood sprang to mind.  Gatherings on hot summer nights at the Santa Maria di Loretto Club in August to celebrate the Feast of the Ascension.  Dancing in the cordoned off street, the scent of roasted Italian sausage sandwiches drenched with fried peppers and onions, and the people.  Most of all it was the people. Generations of Italian families on the north side of my hometown are whom I see before me laughing, kissing one another on the cheek, and pinching children on the cheek, arms around loved ones and friends.  The gossiping older women, the handsome men seemingly absorbed in conversation while missing not a trick, and the dark-haired children dancing, singing, and chasing one another around the dance arena under a starry sky.

Those days spent on Federal Hill in Providence recaptured the sweetness of times past for me, before first and second-generation Italians migrated to the suburbs and became “acculturated” into the homogeneity, the blandness of suburban life, relinquishing the Italian language, except when ordering pizza.

The Greek Festival

Today I acquiesced to my daughter’s wishes and agreed to accompany her to the Annual Greek Festival.  Last night she attended the event with two college friends, but not before chastising me for boycotting this year’s festival.  I am not really avoiding the festival, which is always lively with live Greek musicians from Chicago, the Greek Orthodox church’s own dance troupe, and Greek food enough to sink the island of Corfu.  Rather it has more to do with legally reclaiming my Italian surname and casting off my ex-husband’s fifteen letter Greek name of the past twenty years.

Noshing on chicken souvlakia at the festival today, I remarked how various foods we were eating today had much in common with Italian food we make.  The Greek fasolada tasted much like the beans, onions, and tomatoes we cook.  The pastichio was reminiscent of Italian lasagna, and the Greek salad, substitute the feta cheese for fresh mozarella, also tasted familiar. Fond thoughts of summers in Greece flooded my mind as we ate and talked.  Late dinners on those sultry Greek nights gave rise to my cutting my food in small pieces to last the two or three hours of dining.

Sometimes on languid summer days I recall the laziness I felt in Greece’s ninety-five degree heat, the refreshing watermelon eaten to help stave off dehydration, and lolling around under a beach umbrella on Aegean shores.  These are among the sweet memories I have of Greece in the summer.  Having been there for sustained periods of time during the winter, I can attest to the difference in sensibility among the people, the non-tourist time of year.

Boycott the local Greek Festival?  Not likely on my part.  My daughter does not understand how sweet memories may be tinged bittersweet, and how I do not always wish to revive annually the thought processes.  Yet for today, I am happy to have given in to her wishes in order to spend a charming afternoon with her, Greek dancers, bouzouki music, and a delicious repast of Greek food.  Did I forget to mention the spanakopita?  Yum!  We will sleep well tonight.

Ciao for now. Ya’sou!