Sunday, April 29, 2007


I was watching a documentary on farm workers one night on PBS (I don't have cable); they were picking tomatoes. The tomatoes are picked when they are green and still rock hard. They can withstand a lot of rough handling and has enough time to get from fields to warehouses and then finally to the stores and restaurants and our dining table. It might be thousands of miles and definitely a few weeks before they reach our tables. Wow! No wonder they only look like tomatoes and they definitely don't taste like tomatoes. They taste like cardboard. I knew that they're picked way before they're ready but I didn't know how early. Now I know. So I guess there's no other way of eating a good tomato unless one grows it oneself or go to Italy. I brought back some tomato seeds from Sicily. They are known in the world as the sweetest tomatoes in the world. They are being sprouted in a flower pot in my backyard. I saw little green leaves appearing 2 days ago and I was elated. I've been having some issues the whole of last week but that didn't dampen the elation caused by the sprouting of those tomato seeds. Last year I was in Southern Italy and tasted some great tomatoes. In March this year I was in Sicily and was on a quest to find the sweetest tomatoes in the world. I went to the seed store; farm stores are everywhere; in fact, in Acireale, they were the only stores in town. It is a farming town. I went there to see the gorgeous baroque duomo. It had the most beautiful facade. We had to walk quite a distance to town from the train station. On the way back to the train station we stopped at a fruit stand and bought some mandarin oranges, apples and pears. The pear were so very delicious. I'll never forget that pear. Pears now will forever evoke memories of Sicily just like sweet tomatoes will. I'm going back to Sicily in October. I am writing a book on Sicily. I hope I can sneak back some seeds for squash and eggplants.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

day off

So far, the past 8 years, I've gotten every Wednesday off. So I walk or take the bus to Santa Monica. This morning I took the Big Blue Bus of Santa Monica and it took me through the pretty neighborhoods of Venice beach and Santa Monica. I had to walk past the French restaurant/cafe, 'le pain Quotidien'. I looked in and was drawn in by the pretty display of tarts and muffins. How can I resist not buying something. I bought 5 coconut macaroons, they were so perfect that I waited till I came home, did some drawings of them before biting into one of them. They smelled so good, it was nice, sweet and chewy. I went to look at some watercolors at 'Michael's', a craft store. I am going to start doing watercolors pretty soon. Then I went shopping at the farmer's market. At one vendor, the strawberries looked so ripe and luscious that I couldn't resist. I bought some, together with a punnet of raspberries. Then I went to the oriental folks, bought some Chinese kale and fresh peas. Tonight's dinner will feature a can of Progresso soup, I particularly like their gumbo soup, fresh peas, lightly steamed in the microwave with a touch of salt and butter, saute Chinese kale with oyster sauce. For dessert, fresh strawberries and raspberries. On my way back from the market, I stopped into the British store to buy some digestive biscuits. Right now, I'm writing in the yard, I had my afternoon nap, I'm drinking my tea and eating a couple of the digestive biscuits. I really should have gone to the L'occitane store for some French soap and hand cream. Maybe next Wednesday.


Jim Rohn said in one of his books, 'get an idea, get a good idea, get a few ideas, on how to make money, be a better person, live a better life, on anything. Books are incredible sources of ideas. He recommends owning a library. Start by buying a book, buy 2 books, start a library. I have a library and am constantly adding to my burgeoning collection of books.
Stuart Wilde of "The trick to money is having some", said, 'if a place is not conducive to making or earning money, one should move. If Birmingham, England doesn't offer much in opportunities, then people should move, to London, to Ireland or anywhere that offers more in opportunities. If Birmingham, Alabama doesn't offer much in opportunities, then we need to move to Florida, New York or California or anywhere in the USA that does.
Eric Maisel in 'A writer's Paris' suggested that if the place where we live is not conducive to creativity, we can go to Paris for a week, two, a month, two, six months or even a year or anywhere in the world that can coax some creativity out of us. Go and hunt for the ghosts of great literary artists that has found inspiration in the city of lights.
Now my library at home includes art books. It only started a year ago after I acquired Danny Gregory's book, 'The creative licence'. Now I'm never without a journal to draw and to write. At the airport, on my way to Sicily, I sketched and drew everything in sight, the wrappings on the Burger King burger, the condiment packages, the people around me and the plane I was to fly in. It was fun. It beats buying a few expensive glossy magazines from the overpriced bookseller. While in Sicily I made a few sketches, though not enough, I could just spend the whole trip drawing the whole time. It was not just fun, it makes the brain work in ways it has never before. I don't know the outcome of such a brain, it nothing else I'm a happier person, a happy amateur, or a happy dabbler.
Colette wrote a lot about her observations in her lifetime; she didn't know where that will lead her. Now, all of us read the works of Colette. I'm expecting some more books from Amazon. One of them is on the Sicilian sculptor, Giacomo Serpotta. Giacomo who? He is only known by Sicilians and people who has been to Sicily. I came to love and enjoy his work. My collection of books include a wide range of subjects, money, travel, decorating, theology, cooking, history, etc. Some of them are reread many times. One thing I noticed, the collection of books on China, Tibet and Sicily is growing, outpacing all others. I wonder what that means....

Sunday, April 22, 2007


'Beware of all enterprises that require new clothes' - Henry David Thoreau. How true. I was to attend a meeting last year (I don't have to attend meetings in my job) so I went out and bought a linen jacket from Zara. I ended up attending the meeting wearing old clothes. The $80 linen jacket from Zara still hangs, unworn in my closet. The family was over for Easter dinner and we were looking through the photos I took of my March 07 visit to Sicily. The teenager niece, being a fashion police (at 13) noticed that I had the same clothes on as the trip to Italy the year before. The computer bag with the numerous buckles to ward off even the most dexterous of pickpockets; the grey wool cardigan; the pink scarf she bought me during our 04 trip to France and my travel pants from Columbia. To me, it is not the clothes, I never shop for clothes before any trip, it is the place. It might be the same clothes but that's not important. It is a different place each time, that's what's important. I get the last laugh. I haven't shopped in years. I have a huge walk in closet in my house and it is very empty. I wear the same old rags day in day out. I watched a documentary called 'China Blue' last night of how the sweat shops in China makes denim jeans for the whole world. I don't think I'll ever wear denim jeans ever again in my life. I digress. I used to love fashion until I started traveling. It costs a lot to travel, even at the way I do it, slumming all the way, at least $2500n per trip. So there's no money for new clothes. This way I get to travel twice a year, still afford to pay off my mortgage at an accelerated rate, increase the size of my CD (not music) and my stock portfolio. I don't buy expensive makeup, just drugstore stuff. (I work in a drugstore as a pharmacist). I have another 2 weeks off in October and I have 2 alternative itineraries- one to return to Sicily, the other to the French Alps. I can't decide. What will I wear? I'll rummage through my empty (half) closet to round up something. The red pair of sneakers that I had on has been to many places in Europe with me. I have to retire it, for Spring travel anyway because rain water could get in. I had wet toes this trip.

Saturday, April 21, 2007


spring time in Sicily

La primavera Siciliana - it's a great time to be in Sicily in March. Spring is in full swing. Spring comes early to the 'mezzogiorno', the south of Italy. All over the island they have already harvested or are harvesting artichokes, lima beans and broccoli or it it cauliflower. I think it is cauliflower- it's hard to tell because they are not white but are green with purple tips. I saw squash and tomatoes being grown under plastic covers. I guess, because they need access to fresh tomatoes all year round. It has been raining and it was cold. It makes for good sightseeing; for walking around the huge valley of the temples in Agirgento; for climbing up and down ancient Greek ruins in Siracusa and Taormina and for climbing up 'La Rocca" (the rock) in Cefalu. In Cefalu, the rain was pounding down, the wind was whipping around this way and that and the sun was struggling to peek through and we were climbing up the rock behind the town up to where the ancient temple to Diana stands. There was lush growth all around. We still managed to take some photographs in spite of the rain. I looked at my notes that day- the birds are chirping and making nests in almost every tree. The weds are lush among the terraced seating area of the ancient amphitheatre. There are palm trees swaying in the wind, bougainvilleas of every color all over the hillsides, the yellow Euphorbias and of course the ubiquitous 'prickly pears' or cactus. We have the same cactus in California except ours don't fruit like the ones in Italy. The fruits of these prickly pears can be purchased in greengrocers in town. One peels off the skin to eat the very sweet flesh with lots of seeds, I've never tasted them. The local folks are foraging for wild green that appear for the shortest time in Spring. In Agrigento we saw this old contadino offering his 'pickings' for sale on the side of the street. Every where the fields are being prepared and the corn is already a foot tall. The almonds have sprouted green fruit. They flower very early in Spring and like in Provence, the time of Almond blossoms is a magnificent time. Even Van Gogh couldn't resist painting Almond blossom time. Each time I see his painting of almond blossom, it takes me back to my first visit to Provence, 5 years ago. Spring time anywhere is a beautiful time. I remember driving around Ventura County in Southern California one year, the whole place smelled of orange blossoms. It was incredible. The red poppies were so vibrant on the side of the road. I remember one birthday when my brother gave a huge bunch of Narsiccus and they were so fragrant. I won't soon forget this spring in Sicily.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Sicily 4

I am still trying very cautiously to learn using my new laptop, as if I can hurt it or something. I haven't loaded my vacation pictures yet. I've scanned some of them and I think they are amazing pictures. Palermo and Catania are very old and decrepit cities, everywhere are evidence of neglect. The first hotel we stayed in was an old and rundown palazzo but it has so much character. The whole of Sicily is like that, it's old and rundown but that's what gives it the character. Disneylandnish, it it not. The first impression was almost scary, imagine arriving in town on a cold and wet night at almost midnight. Self-doubt hits you and you wonder if you've not made the biggest mistake of your life by going to Sicily. It turned out to be the best trip I've ever taken so far in my short travel life. Paris, it is not. It is not even Rome, Rome can be intimidating and intense. The whole of Palermo and Catania, the 2 biggest cities in Sicily is full of old palazzos. Underneath the muck, there is incredible beauty. It is full of Baroque churches with amazing interiors. The genius of the sculpture work of Giacomo Serpotta, his father, his brother and his son fills a lot of churches in Sicily and they are the most delightful. The mosaics in Monreale, the Palatine chapel, Cefalu cathedral and La Mortarana are so beautiful. I've never seen anything like them. The plentiful Greek ruins is enough to satisfy anyone who's never been to Greece. There is Baroque churches galore, the only place in the world where Baroque churches and buildings dot the landscape. If Baroque is your fancy, like it is mine, you've come to the right place. The food is substantial and good, it is rustic at it's finest. I can't rave enough about Sicily.

Sunday, April 15, 2007

sicily 2

Why Sicily? One does not usually have much interest in Sicily. Rome- yes, Paris- yes but Palermo?. Land of the mafia? Besides Sicily is a small island, what would one do there? Indeed, Sicily is a land of myth, mystery and enchantment. When one loses all fears of visiting Sicily, they are rewarded with pleasures beyond imagination. It is a small island but is packed with history, more ancient than ancient Greece. An ancient people settled there before the invasion of the Phoenicians and the ancient Greeks. The ancient Greeks left evidence of a huge and thriving population all over the south eastern part of Sicily- the valley of the temples in Siracusa, the ruins of a greek amphitheatre that can seat up to 19,000 also in Siracusa, another huge amphitheatre in Toarmina, various other ruins in Catania, Selinunte and Segeste. Some of these were remodelled and used by the Romans. They in turn left their mark in the mosaics at Piazza Amerina. A stream of other invaders and occupiers came through the island- the Normans (French), Saracens (Arabs) Hofstaufens (Germans) Anjevins (French) Aragon (Spanish) and finally reunification with Mainland Italy. Though a part of Italy, they remain an autonomous part of Italy with Sicilians traveling on Sicilian papers and not an Italian passport. They are Sicilians first and Italians second. Throughout their evolution, their culture, architecture and food developed on their own and this is what makes Sicily so unique. They celebrate their own artists, architects, literary and musical giants. Everyone wanted to know how we were going to fill two weeks worth of vacation time. Even my sister in law, Sophie, who went on this trip with me had her doubts. I was confident because I did extensive research and read up on Sicily before I embarked on the trip. I knew two weeks wasn't enough and it sure wasn't. These are the places we visited,
Catania, Toarmina, Acireale, Randazzo, Agrigento, Siracusa, Noto, Ragusa, Palermo, Cefalu.
It was two weeks packed with fun and thrills and all kinds of discovery. There wasn't enough time to see everything. I want to go back. I did some sketching and I want to desperately go back to do more. I wrote every night and I now have a manuscript ready. I want to go back to see the rest of the island and to revisit some of the places I have been.
Mafia? I didn't see any. The people were ever so nice and helpful. I have come to love Sicily and Sicilians. We were in a family restaurant for dinner; it wasn't in the best part of town. There were other patrons at a large table next to us. They looked and dressed very regular but just being themselves reminded me of scenes from the 'Godfather'. It was like anytime you would hear the rattling of gunfire. It was very amusing but I'm not being fair. I came home and made some Sicilian dishes. I have a great caponata recipe. I brought home contraband- tomato seeds. I planted them in pots 2 days ago. Let's see if I'll get to eat the sweetest tomatoes in the world grown in my backyard. I'm going back. I left my heart in Sicily.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

how to afford foregn travel

1) Time: It is cheapest to travel in January and February. Weather may not be the best; you can't enjoy the beautiful vistas of Tuscany or of Provence. If one is visiting museums and architecture, one does not need good weather, just warm and dry clothing. I've traveled around christmas to Toronto, all bundled up, I've gone to the ballet and to the opera while there. I've been in London and Paris at Christmas and the weather was cold but dry. Weather in England is very unpredictable. I have been there over a very wet summer. I've checked the internet for fares and they are unbelievably cheap in the months of January and February. These are good times to visit Southern Europe; it's warmer there even in winter. I spent 2 weeks in Sicily in March this year. It rained half the time; I was wet and cold but it didn't dampen the trip. It was fantastico!
2) Public transportation: one must definitely make use of the incredible bus, trains and underground systems in Europe. It is the cornerstone of cheap European travel. The vast network of all these systems and the establishment of the European Union has made getting aound Europe so much easier. Once you're in Europe, you can almost put your passport away, the Italian trains roll right into France as do the Spanish trains. In Amsterdam, I saw French and German trains. They have the same currency, the euro. It's incredible. Most Europeans speak some English. If you've never been, you've got to go get your passport and make your first trip. Just pick any city, whether it be Paris, London, Madrid or Rome. It might be a little intimidating the first time but there are a plethora of guide books that can instruct you to the minutest detail.
3)Accommodations: Since I love train travel, I prefer to stay close to the train stations except in London and Paris where the metro can easily connect me between the trains and the hotels. In London I have 2 aunts that I stay with. In Paris, I like the 3rd and 4Th arrondissement. It is a mixed neighborhood with lots of ethnic eateries. It is busy and lively. Whenever possible I'll forgo the attached bathroom and shower, shaves at least 20 euros off the daily rate. It is a lot with today's exchange rate.
4) Food: Free food; some rooms has breakfast included. It is time with load up on carbs and coffee. Coffee is expensive at cafes. Standing at the bar to partake your food is cheaper than sitting down at a table. In Italy, most mornings would find me drinking my cappuccino and eating my cornetto standing at the bar with all the other Italian men. Finger food is cheap too, an Arancino (fried risotto ball) or a slice of pizza or a pizzete( mini pizza) or a slice or focaccia bread or a ham sandwich or a slice of quiche doesn't cost very much but makes a substantial meal. I do sit down to eat dinner; I don't want to miss out on the incredible European food.

Wednesday, April 04, 2007

the flavors of Sicily

I just read somewhere that when we travel to Italy, we are looking to experience the flavors of Italy. Somehow we can't put our finger on what makes it different, we just know that in Italy, the taste is authentic, things tastes the way they are supposed to. A tomato taste like a real tomato unlike the store bought ones we get in our US supermarkets. Even those we get in our farmer's markets don't taste as authentic as those in Italy. Maybe it is the soil, climatic conditions and farming methods. This is especially true of Southern Italy and Sicily. I had the best tasting salads in Southern Italy last year. The tomatoes, carrots and the lettuces were so fresh and so sweet. One bite and you can taste the difference. One bite and I wanted to sing an aria. Then I read that Sicily is home to the sweetest tomatoes in the world. So this March I went to Sicily in search of the sweestest tomatoes in the world. I found it. I had the best tasting salad in Sicily. Some nights at dinner I had a simple salad of radicchio, finichio and romaine lettuce and it was so good. The tomatoes in the spaghetti a la pomodoro were so sweet. I don't remember a time when I had so much pasta; I have been to Italy twice before. I had pasta a la vongole, a la mare, a la sea urchin and of course a la norma and con le sarde. Vincenzo Bellini, the composer was from Catania, Sicily and his opera 'Norma' was a dedication to Catania. Catania, in return, dedicated a dish to him, spaghetti a la norma which is really spaghetti in a sauce of eggplant and tomatoes. I had a lot of that while in Sicily. I had a lot of spaghetti with sardines or 'con le sarde'. I had grilled seafood for the secondi almost every night. Some nights, I'll have a 'carne arroste', some mixed grilled meat. They have a way of grilling which is so delicious. I'm a teetotaller, a pity, so I didn't get to taste their wines which I heard is very good. I drank a lot of fizzy mineral water instead which was very good too. After a whole week, I finally got used to eating dinner after 8 pm. Like all the other tourists, we would be looking for a restaurant to eat dinner between 6 and 7 pm, only to find that they don't open till 8 pm. That was the hardest thing to adjust to.
Every morning, if my hotel didn't include breakfast, I would be standing at a bar drinking a capuccino and eating a cornetto with a whole bunch of Sicilian men. They would come and go, order an expresso, drink it in one gulp, chase it down with some water and off they go. Here we are, my sister-in-law and I, 2 Asian women among all these Sicilian men. I felt at home. I wasn't intimidated.
On the way to Acireale to see the duomo one day, we stopped at a roadside market stand and bought some pears and mandarin oranges. I'll never forget the taste of that pear. It was the most delicious pear I've ever eaten. It was ripe but yet still very firm. Wow! In Palermo, at the Vucciria market I bought some alpine strawberries for one euro. They were so good. In California I pay $5 for the same thing. I've seen them in France and at 5 euros, I had to abstain.
There's a huge variety of Sicilian pastries, the names of which eludes me. I like Cassata. Everything seems to be filled with sweet ricotta cheese. They make colorful fruits out of almond marzipan. Some desserts are made with pistachio marzipan and have this pretty green color and very delicious. They were celebrating Saint Joseph's day and they have this special pastry for it. It is a fried choux pastry stuffed with sweet ricotta cheese and absolutely wonderful. The celebration lasted a whole week in Agrigento and we couldn't get enough of that pastry. It disappeared from the shelves at the end of the celebration.
Finger food, we had a lot of - little pizette or mini pizzas and some kind of foccacia bread and arancino. Arancini are fried risotto balls with either a ragut filling or ham, cheese and peas filling- very delicious. The bread in Sicily is so good. I could exist on Sicilian bread and fizzy mineral water. In Catania, we walked a long way through some dark alley, to this restaurant which served pretty cheap food but we went more because we loved the dinner rolls and grisini (bread sticks) that they put out. We went there three times for dinner.
In Catania, we asked the hotel people to recommend a tratoria that is 'molto buono'. He did and it is a terrific trattoria, no tourists, only locals. We saw ordinary locals and men in suits eating there. When you enter, you see a display of all kinds of seafood, like a fish market on a smaller scale. You are supposed to pick your seafood, whether a lobster, a slice of tuna or a whole fish. Then they weigh it and charge you according to the weight and cook it the way you asked for. We saw this man in a suit, eating boiled shrimp for an antipasti and a braised whole fish for secondi. He peeled his shrimp with his hands, then when the fish came, he dunked some bread in the sauce and with his fork picked at the flesh and ate. Wow! He had an Italian suit on. It is fascinating to see how the locals ate. Sometimes we asked what they were eating. In another table 2 men in suits were eating some other unfamiliar food.
In Palermo we found a fast food place serving Sicilian specialties. We ate there twice. It is across from the Palermo cathedral.
I can't wait to return to Sicily.

Sunday, April 01, 2007

just for today, be happy

It's another lazy sunday. The weather is gorgeous. I'm am in my backyard writing this, with a straw hat on my head. The sun is gentle on my skin and there is a light breeze blowing. I just finished my lunch and my cup of tea. Lunch was a slice of French brioche that I got from the farmer's market this morning and a sald of radicchio and finichio. The salad reminded me of Sicily. This was the salad we ate most evenings. I've been back a week now after spending two marvelous weeks in Sicily. I love Sicily. I love the Sicilians. When I told friends I was going to Sicily. Everybody asked, Why Sicily? Would there be enough to do on this small island? Two weeks wasn't enough. I met this German lady who's on her third visit, this time a slow three week trip. I want to return to Sicily and do a slow three week trip. There's so much history. It's history starts in the 6th century BC, imagine 2600 years of very rich and varied history. It is Italy and yet not Italy. Before I embark on any trip, I do very extensive research. I read everything I can before I leave and I write out the highlights, places to see and food to try. It is expensive to travel and I need to get value for my money, time and effort. I take lots of photographs. I ran out of power in my digital camera, so I resorted to disposable cameras. Every night I write down the day's highlights. If I have time, like while waiting for churches to open, I draw. I always bring along sketching paper. I try not to miss anything at all. This trip to Sicily was pretty wild. It was very exhausting, there was too much to pack in; my sister-in-law and I were rushing everywhere. I'm waiting for my new laptop and printer to arrive, so I can show some of the photos. Just for today, I'm chilling and planning my next European jaunt. If you've never been, you've got to go. The weather might be unpredictable in January, February and March but the airfares and hotels are cheaper and there is less tourists around. People are traveling in spite of terrorism and high airfares. Europe can be crowded. It rained half the time we were there. Bring a raincoat, bring an umbrella. Just go. Save up, walk, don't drive, take the bus, work an extra job, drive the old car. Do whatever it takes to save. Learn about being an independent traveler. I did, I used to travel alone. Now my sister-in-law wants to tag along. That's OK. I'm in my 50Th decade, I still stay in youth hostels. Right now I'm trying to squeeze out as much joy out of life as I can.