Friday Five: Let’s Go Back to Italy

Because while it’s no secret I’m just mildly Paris obsessed, I still cannot get over how incredible Italy was. I’m dying to go back.

1. Lunchtime at the Piazza Margana:

Piazza Margana, Rome

2. A lovely, vintage Cinema sign, Florence:

Cinema, Florence

3. Morning at the Uffizi Gallery:

Morning at the Uffizi

4. Beautiful tiles in the Duomo di Siena:

Beautiful tile, Duomo di Siena

5. Blue skies on our last day in Rome:

Somewhere in Rome

E.L. Doctorow


“Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.”

“Planning to write is not writing. Outlining, researching, talking to people about what you’re doing, none of that is writing. Writing is writing.”

“Writing is a socially acceptable form of schizophrenia.”

I was saddened to hear of the passing of writer E.L. Doctorow yesterday; I’m desensitized to the obituaries of those not immediately close to me, but I tend to think of certain writers and celebrities as extended family, sort of inspirational, literary fairy godmothers (and godfathers), if you will. E.L. Doctorow was among them, and his work, and discussions about his work, his writing process, and the art of writing were, and are, some of the most beautiful and encouraging things I’ve ever read. “Homer and Langley” is one of my favorite books of all time. I’m selfishly sad we won’t get to read anything new of his again.

The Times wrote a beautiful obituary for him today, better than I could. E.L. Doctorow, you will be missed.

“Who The Bleep is Harry?”

Who the Bleep is Harry?

I keep a red moleskin notebook for all of my scribblings and novel ideas (literally and figuratively). It’s half-full of half-sentences or half-finished thoughts. It’s all over the place, but creatively, I have better luck physically handwriting (or rewriting) things before sitting down at my computer, so that I have a store of pages to use as a jumping-off point.

I’ve written before about my frustrating in attempting to decipher unfinished thoughts, so imagine my reaction when I discovered, while flipping back a few pages in my notebook, an entire page dedicated to a character I can’t even remember. I read and reread it, and while I like this passage, I cannot for the life of me figure out who the fuck Harry is or why I started writing about him. What role was he going to play? Was he going to be important? I have no idea!

Here, let’s see if you guys can make sense of this for me:

Auctions are spectator sports as much as they are flagrant shows of wealth, both masked by a facade of indifference. The more important bidders sent representatives or bid by phone, while the audience quietly surveyed one another under the guise of polite interest, when in truth they were speculating as to the presence of Mrs. So-and-so, quickly calculating which painting or buyer a particular person signified. Sylvie knew that the attendance of, say, someone like Harry deJong, an impressively slight wisp of a man who could be counted on for a bold ascot and who had a shrill, tinkling laughing, meant that the former –or even, perhaps, the current– First Lady had her eye on a lot in the sale. But that was only if he sat in the first few rows; if he chose a seat along the side, or nearer the back, or even more telling, seemed subdued, his interests that particular evening were more international. That was a blanket term for any buyer with oil money to spend, rich sheiks with expensive Parisian penthouses, or American diplomats with more money than taste. Harry could be seen at nearly every evening sale at both Sotheby’s and Christie’s, and his bidding pattern was so perfectly honed and subtle it was impossible to really tell what he was after. It drove the dealers at both houses crazy.

“Oh, it’s been too long,” Sylvie said to Harry, taking him lightly by the shouldrs and kissing him on both cheeks. She had to bend slightly to reach him, but for his part Harry seemed not at all embarrassed. Tonight, he wore a shocking swath of purple silk around his neck, coordinated with–

And then it just ends! Like I had a stroke mid-sentence. I can attribute my cluelessness about Harry and this passage to the fact that I took an eight month break from writing; of course my brain is a little fuzzy on the details, I haven’t touched this notebook in almost a year (I am so ashamed). Let this be a lesson, self! Writing is like any other habit. If you don’t practice, you end up confusing the shit out of yourself when you try to pick it back up.


Italian Mail Boxes

Italian Mail Boxes

Italian Mail Boxes

Italian Mail Boxes

Italian Mail Boxes

At some point in Italy, I was scrolling through the photos I’d taken and realized I had developed an unconscious fascination with mail slots and post boxes. Of all things. Photo after photo of decorative and lovely posta plaques around Rome, Florence, and Siena. I’m apparently such a diehard Europhile that even the simple act of mailing a letter is worthy of documentation (not that I actually saw anyone mailing a letter). Can you blame me?

Au Café

La Mascotte, Montmartre

Le Boulanger des Invalides Jocteur

Le Nazir, Montmartre

It’s morning, too early for the office commuters, the receding dawn quiet broken by the faint hiss of water from the street cleaner’s hose at the next intersection as he washes down the sidewalks. The waiters are setting out chairs, wiping their tables down, tucking the towel back into the waist of their freshly starched aprons. The regulars start appearing, like actors in a well-rehearsed play, hitting their cues and marks, shuffling out of buildings, past the sleepy concierge leaning in the doorway with her arms wrapped around her, a thick sweater keeping the morning chill at bay. Shutters unfold on the windows above the café, arms disappearing back into the drowsy warmth of bedrooms. It’s a daily symphony: the clinking of cups and saucers being stacked next to steaming espresso machines floats out of café doors, accompanied by the mechanical hum of an idling car, the rough crinkle of a heavy paper bag, overflowing with still-warm baguette, as the baker’s assistant makes his deliveries, and, distantly, the faint murmurs of two lovers on the third floor, starting their day tangled up in each other. Martin will order an espresso, hesitate over a croissant, and end up eating two, the crumbs falling into his newspaper and getting caught in the folds. Martin dans le matin, they call him.


Byredo Bibliothèque

Byredo Bibliothèque

Byredo Bibliothèque

Byredo Bibliothèque


This was one of the little things I brought home with me from Paris, and I am obsessed. This candle had been on my Want List for a while, but was consistently out of stock at Barney’s. I’d never even smelled it, and I knew I had to have it just on name alone. Bibliothèque. Considering one of my favorite things is the smell of books, a candle that smells like a library–nay, a French library was obviously on my radar. But at $80 (!!), it’s a lot more expensive here than it is in Europe, even factoring in the conversion rate.

We stopped into Colette on our second day in Paris, and I made a beeline right to the candles. Success! And now, having had it at home for a while, I can confirm that the scent lives up to my expectations. It’s a delicious mix of warm plum and vanilla, and smoky leather like bound volumes. I’ve only burned out a few times so far because, surprisingly, the throw is almost as strong when not lit. It makes the living room smell incredible just sitting there on the table. And it’s pretty.

Vacation Photos: Paris, pt. 2

Rue des Abbesses

Fleuriste, Rue Saint-Dominique

Musée d'Orsay, Rue de la Légion d'Honneur

La Seine

Jardin des Tuileries

Place du Marché Saint-Honoré

Fleurs, Rue Lepic

Our Apartment

Our Apartment

Our Apartment

Oui, Dior

Persifleur, Montmartre

Persifleur, Montmartre

Jacques Semer Fleuriste

Petit Dej, Le Saint Jean


Tabac, Rue des Abbessess

Before we even left for Italy I’d made a long, detailed itinerary for what I wanted us to accomplish in Paris. We would be there for a little over 50 hours, which is a cruelly short amount of time when you get right down to it, which I was still grateful to have at all because Jamal didn’t have to change our flights to include the stay in Paris, but he did, and besides, 50 hours in Paris is better than 0 hours in Paris, non?

Looking back at that itinerary now, I wonder how I thought we could feasibly accomplish everything given that we are not yet blessed with hoverboards nor the ability to Apparate a la Harry Potter. It was ambitious and adorable to expect to cram so much in, when I should have known that the best part about being in Paris is just slowing down and spending way too long over lunch or flâneuring aimlessly in the shade on one of the leafy avenues.

We didn’t get to Le Marais, we didn’t visit le Musée Carnavalet nor the Béroud painting I was so desperately intrigued by. I didn’t get to take Jamal to La Grand Épicerie or Rue Cler, and we didn’t even visit the Eiffel Tower. Quel dommage!

But if you think I’m seeking sympathy for a trip that didn’t live up to my advanced expectations, let me assure you: I’m not. Despite all that we didn’t do (this trip), we still had an unbelievable time. We ate so, so well; at dinner on our second night, at a classic bistro on Rue Caulaincourt, we split a dozen escargots to start, which Jamal declared the best thing he had eaten on the entire trip. Not just in France, but Italy too. Out of the two weeks we swooned around Italy, inhaling everything in our path, eating fresh pasta and pizza every single day, the best thing we ate were escargots in Paris. That should tell you how good they were. Buttery, garlicky, steaming hot, and just out of this world.

I also did a fair bit of shopping this trip, including finally getting my greedy little paws on that Dior “Oui” ring up there. I posted a photo of it on Instagram, but it bears repeating here, too: I have been lusting after that ring for years, going back to my LiveJournal days pre-LWN, even. Shopping at the Dior on Place Vendome made me feel like royalty; we were offered champagne and attended to by white-gloved sales associates. Then there was a stop into Louis Vuitton. And then Colette. And then Mariage Frères. And Maille. Je ne regrette rien! (My credit card regrette tout.)

But after our whirlwind shopping tour, there was lots of ambling around Montmartre, reminding ourselves why we love it so much.

There was also bread. Lots and lots of fresh bread.

Paris, I love you. I’ll see you again soon.

Vacation Photos: Paris, pt. 1

Somewhere in Paris

Jardin du Luxembourg

Jardin du Luxembourg

Rue Duguay Trouin

Rue de Condé

Le Hibou

Eiffel Tower, Rue Saint-Eleuthere


Montmartre, Night

Our Apartment

Rue d'Estrées

Le Boulangeur des Invalides Jocteur


Rue de Varenne

Musée Rodin

Musée Rodin

Paris. What is there to say, really, that I haven’t already said before ad nauseam? By now, we’ve established how I feel when I’m there; there’s a deep sense of right and comfort the moment my feet hit the soil, like I’m not so much visiting but coming home. It’s a chemical, almost biological feeling of of solace that’s hard to articulate but so easy to get swept up in. Paris is home for me, in a way that’s matched only by my love of Philadelphia.

We landed mid-day on Thursday and flew out at the same time two days later, giving us a little over 48 hours to soak up every ounce of this city as I could. I did a lot of shopping, and lot of eating. We stayed in Montmartre, bien sûr, and even Jamal made mention of the fact that we just feel so comfortable there. We don’t need maps, we don’t need translations, we don’t even need good weather (but we had it in abundance; someone said last year that Paris really seems to “turn it on” for me whenever I’m there, and I can’t help but agree. This city knows how to woo you, and while it rains more in Paris than in London per year, historically, it seems to always be blue skies and sun for me.) We just need Paris.

We took a sneezy stroll through the Jardin du Luxembourg, since Jamal had never been, and then wound our way back up through Saint-Germain (where I jettisoned my poor husband and ducked into City Pharma to load up on all the beauty products I’ll need until our next visit). We had drinks at a new bar in Montmartre, where they make their own juices and herbal, vegetable infusions for their cocktails, and I realized: my quaint little neighborhood is becoming cool. At some point, just like our gentrifying neighborhood in Philly, we’ll be priced out. Even the neighborhood near Rue des Martyrs, in the 9eme, has its own hip name now: SoPi, or South of Pigalle. An area once known for prostitutes and vagrants is now a trendy hotspot for les hipsters, or however you say it in French.

Speaking of French, a highlight for me this trip was that not one, not two, but three separate Parisians told me I speak excellent French. One even stopped me, as I switched to translating in English for Jamal, and asked, “Vous êtes Américaine? Vraiment?” To be mistaken for French by a Frenchman even for a brief moment, is something I’m going to put on my résumé under the ‘Special Skills’ section. Life goals: realized.

My favorite, and oft-recommended, “perfect Parisian morning” circuit is as follows: breakfast at Le Boulanger des Invalides Jocteur, flowers from Monceau Fleurs across the street, and then a morning at le Musée Rodin around the corner. That was a requirement on our second day there, and everything was as perfect as I remember, except the brioche aux pralines tasted even better than my memory accounted for.

Vacation Photos: San Gimignano & Castello di Brolio

San Gimignano

San Gimignano

San Gimignano

San Gimignano

San Gimignano

San Gimignano

San Gimignano

San Gimignano

Castello di Brolio

Castello di Brolio

Castello di Brolio

Castello di Brolio

Castello di Brolio

Are you absolutely sick of seeing vacation photos yet? Two weeks is a really long time to be on vacation, but four weeks of vacation photos must be torture. I’m sure I’m the only one enjoying it at this point. I didn’t realize just how many photos I took on this trip; editing them has been a delightful, if not overwhelming, way to re-live our time in Italy.

Since Siena is such a small town, we devoted an entire day to driving away from it and exploring places that you need a car to reach. A coworker of Jamal’s had recommended San Gimignano, a walled medieval hill town about an hour’s drive northeast of Siena, famous for being adorable and being home to Gelateria Dondoli, a gelato shop on the town’s main piazza which won the Ice Cream World Championship twice. (Two things: 1. There’s an Ice Cream World Championship?? and 2. Where are my lactose intolerance pills?) We arrived in San Gimignano early in the morning, the promise of eating the world’s best gelato enough to get me out of bed and on the road at the ungodly hour of 8am. We took a tour of the town’s Duomo (if you’re sensing a theme on this vacation, you’re right), which came with a really informative audio guide that explained every fresco and its correlation to a bible story, ending with a wall that had been damaged during the bombings in WWII. We also learned about the town’s patron saint, Saint Fina, a teenage girl who died of tuberculosis and a bone infection in 1253, and whose remains are still entombed in the church. I was not so much a fan of that part. (Pictures weren’t allowed in the church)

We made a few laps around the town, stopping to take in the view, before indulging in a brunch-hour gelato. I went with blackberry & lavender and pear, while Jamal went with his standby of pistachio and vanilla cream. No photos of this, either, because we were too busy inhaling our cones. Trust me though, if you ever find yourself in Tuscany with a craving for gelato, get thee to San Gimignano.

We set off before lunch to our next destination, the Castello di Brolio, a 12th century castle that is still home to the Baron Ricasoli family, and which is also famous for their wine production. It was an hour or so west of San Gimignano, but we had to head back south towards Siena and then northwest again, but even the boring, two-lane highways were gorgeous, because it’s Tuscany. The weather turned gray on us again (again), but by the time we parked the car and hiked alllll the way up the castle’s steep, winding approach, the clouds had parted enough to soak the entire valley below the moodiest, eeriest light that somehow felt so appropriate being seen from a castle’s ramparts. I could’ve been in a middle-earth fantasy fiction novel, honestly, where my name would’ve been spelled Aerynn and I absolutely would have been a princess.

Jamal’s allergies flared up on him big time the moment we started exploring the castle’s grounds; no exaggerating, he sneezed 11 times in a row (I counted). I think he was ready to throw himself over the wall just to put himself out of his misery. Thankfully, there wasn’t too much to see, as the castle itself is still a private residence (CAN YOU EVEN), so we made our way back down to the bottom of the hill and stopped for a wine tasting at the Ricasoli winery before driving back to Siena for a very late lunch.

The next day, we were up early and on the highway back to Rome, where we had roughly 24 final hours before boarding a plane to Paris.

Vacation Photos: Siena, pt. 2

Piazza del Campo

Piazza del Campo

Piazza del Campo


Piazza del Campo

Piazza del Campo

Birra Moretti

Duomo di Siena

Cat, Siena


Siena, sunset

I should mention that I was not the only one having a tough go of it on this vacation, and that at least my #struggles were contained to a 24 hour period. Jamal, on the other hand, was struck by seasonal allergies that plagued him mercilessly from the moment we landed in Rome until we touched down back in Philly. The poor guy! He was a sneezy, itchy, watery mess in varying degrees from “General Annoyance” to “Cannot See/Stuffing Tissues Up My Nose.” It was pretty brutal, and we ended up pumping him full of Italian Sudafed and generic Claritin with a Benadryl kicker at night when it got too unbearable for him (never all three in the same day; he was miserable, not suicidal). A lot of our trip involved ducking into the nearest pharmacy for more tissues, with all of our sightseeing punctuated with lots of “bless you”s: “So the statue of David used to be outside –bless you– but they moved it in and replaced it with a –bless you– replica. In the 90s, someone attacked –bless you– his foot with a hammer, you can see on his toes –bless you– some of the damage.”

I really shouldn’t complain about a little bird poop, when you come right down to it. He was a champ, though, as always, and didn’t whine at all. (The same cannot be said for someone else on the trip, ahem.)

We had a great time in Siena. I know that sounds trite, but Siena was truly a lovely little town and it was impossible not to enjoy ourselves. We didn’t have any bad weather to compete with, either. And all roads seemed to lead to the Piazza del Campo, the city’s main square (though it was really more of a shell shape) that was first paved in 1349 (!!) and is built on a slant, so that it dips gradually towards the Torre del Mangia. Locals love to hang out and lay on the ground and sunbathe, read, sleep and laze around, or chat with friends over a bottle of wine. The entire Piazza is lined with restaurants and cafés (overpriced and a little touristy, thanks to their location) and the entire square was always packed from sun-up to sundown. What a life.

We took it easy on this portion of the trip, a combination of having done a lot in Rome and Florence and there not being a huge amount to do in Siena. We visited the town’s Duomo, which we liked more than the more famous one in Florence, but that was the extent of our efforts. We mostly wandered, and ate gelato, and wandered some more. It was a welcome change of pace.

On our last night there, Jamal took advantage of the huge kitchen and made dinner for us. We went shopping in town at the pasta shop for fresh made gnocchi, and then Jamal whipped up a San Marzano tomato sauce that was out of this world. We split a caprese salad as an appetizer, with fresh mozzarella from the cheese shop and the most fragrant basil we’ve ever had. We opened the balcony door in the living room while we ate and watched the sun set. The whole meal, with the spectacular view, cost us €9.

Next week: some photos from two side trips into Tuscany, and then it’s off to Paris! Have a great weekend, kiddos.