Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Happy Holidays

Philly and the World wishes you and your loved ones a spectacular holiday season and a healthy and prosperous new year and decade. This picture was taken Dec. 31, 2006, in the French Quarter, New Orleans.

During the same trip a high school marching band appeared across from Jackson Square on New Year's Day and played several songs before marching on.

Monday, December 21, 2009

The White Before Christmas

A blizzard on Dec. 19 and 20, 2009, dropped 23.2 inches of snow in Philadelphia. It was the largest snowfall amount on record in the month of December and the second largest of all time. During the heart of the storm Saturday afternoon, I went out for about an hour and took some snapshots in my Fairmount neighborhood. Businesses remained opened and people were out on foot enjoying the day.

The photo in the center is taken from the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art and it is a typical view of the Benjamin Franklin Parkway. On the left and below are pictures I took during the storm.

The Washington Monument on Eakins Oval (top) with the Philadelphia Museum of Art in the background. The Philadelphia Museum of Art's Raymond G. Perelman Building, blurred by dampness on my camera lens.

Meredith Street (top) and 25th Street.

Fairmount Avenue (top) and Perot Street (center and below).

Maria, wearing what she calls her, Julie Christie hat outside of Oliver's Antiques (top). The lovely ladies at Zorba's Greek restaurant. The Garden Fresh produce store.

Children and dogs playing in the snow.

Eastern State Penitentiary looking more ominous than usual.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

The Sunsets of Barbados

Videos of three sunsets from Worthing Beach between Nov. 22 and Dec. 3.

More sunsets of Barbados can be found on the Philly and the World YouTube page.

The final sunset. Taken from the plane as it left Barbados.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

The New Gateway to Barbados

For the nine years Philly and the World has been visiting Barbados, Grantley Adams International Airport (BGI) has been under different states of construction. It’s just the way things are done in the Caribbean. The renovation is yet to be finished, as jetways are planned. And like the airport, its official Web site is still a work in progress.

Grab a Banks beer beneath a tent canopy and flying fish before heading into the departures terminal.

But much of the work to the main structures is finished. You can argue with the time it took to renovate the the main gateway to the island nation, but one would find it difficult to argue with the results. The redesigned airport manages to enhance its status as a major Caribbean hub while maintaining its small, more humane scale that defines most airports in the region. (Above is the ticketing area.)

The tent, concrete and steel-beam structure brings the tropical
Barbados weather into much of the building. It is most evident in the airy departures area, where beneath large canopies (and an additional concrete roof as you continue inside); travelers can get their tickets, grab a seat, shop, get a beer, and chat with family and friends without ever feeling like you’re indoors. Maria swears that bird sounds are piped through the terminal’s speaker system. I didn’t notice it. For those driving to the airport, the parking lot is steps away from the terminal.

Two views of the of the public area of the airport. Notice the kit-like material on the ceiling.

You are not actually inside the departures building until you get to customs. Once past customs, the new terminal includes a modern food court, shops that sell local and brand-name products (that are sold in nearly all airports), and a small bar. The actual waiting area is a large single-story horizontal room. Large window walls and a concrete and tent roof allow plenty of sunlight and provide a front row seat of the arriving planes, which taxi just outside the building, and a view of the passengers headed to the arrivals terminal.

The departures waiting area (left) and the food court.

As mentioned, there are no jetways. Planes load and unload on the tarmac in front of the departures building, allowing those of us who are leaving to have one last shot of Caribbean sunshine before boarding. I hope they never build the jetways. The arrivals hall is in a separate building next door, which used to house arrivals and departures. The extra space was desperately needed, as most of the North American and European flights arrive at the same time. According to some people, it can still take up to two hours to get processed, although this hasn’t happened to us.

Two views of the shops inside the departures terminal.

More than 20 passenger airlines and four cargo airlines use Grantley, making it one of the busier airports in the Caribbean. Now it’s also one of its most user-friendly and attractive gateways.

Arriving passengers from a Virgin Atlantic flight.

A water element on the way to the plane.

Our chariot awaits.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Fabulous Fried Chicken at a Fish Market in Barbados

Oistins in Barbados is known as a fishing village. It has the country’s best known fish market, which is the site of the Friday night Fish Fry, an all night outdoor party. However, just across the street from the market nestled among a small group of stores that have seen better days is Granny’s, which serves what many believe is the best fried chicken on the island. I haven’t tried them all but after going to Granny’s for a few years I’m not going to argue.

I never met Granny but I think I’m in love with her. The restaurant isn’t much look at—neon lights, white walls, tile floor—but it is clean and bright as full-size windows bring in lots of sunlight. It’s cafeteria style steam table service. You get your tray, walk past the food that sits behind glass and tell smiling women behind the counter what you want. The food is served in Styrofoam containers. You eat on Formica tables and padded metal chairs scattered about outside.

The restaurant serves a full menu of Bajan food, including the national dishes of Cou-cou (made of cornmeal and okra) and flying fish (which actually has wings and can glide above water to avoid larger predator fish).

But it’s the fried chicken that makes Granny an annual trip for me and Maria. Its skin crackles with crispiness. The flour is well spiced. The meat is moist. It is simple food with texture and flavor done incredibly well. It’s how I imagine fried chicken should taste. And the place doesn’t discriminate. The entire bird is fried—including gizzards, livers and necks. Our sides on this trip were a creamy, comforting macaroni pie (a Caribbean version of baked macaroni and cheese) and a crisp, light coleslaw, perfect for a hot afternoon.
I’m hungry.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Oistins Fish Market

It’s easy to buy fresh fish in Barbados and the most popular place to go is the open-air Oistins Fish Market.

Oistins is a fishing town on the southernmost part of this island nation. Each day small boats return from the Caribbean Sea and nearby Atlantic Ocean with dolphin, blue marlin, swordfish, kingfish, barracuda, tuna and flying fish (which are now primarily fished in Tobago, 120 nautical miles southwest of Barbados). They are sold to the fish mongers in the market and then, weighed, sliced and sold to locals and tourists.

If you’re lucky you can come down when there are large catches of what is called a lobster, but are actually large marine crayfish. As far as I’m concern, it doesn’t matter because the sweet meat from the creatures are every bit as succulent as lobster.

The market is known more for its Friday Fish Fry, a weekly outdoor party attended by locals and tourists that starts at 6 p.m. and goes into the next morning. But every day the fish market is open selling the freshest of what is available that day.

A fish monger skillfully weighs and cuts blue marlin:

Friday, December 4, 2009

How to Carve a Pineapple

At the Sea Foam Haciendas in Barbados we call her Edith. Her real name is pronounced E-dith-shan, spelling unknown. She is 88 years old has been picking fruit and vegetables and bringing them to tourists and locals on Worthing Beach for more than 40 years.

Tall and thin in her colorful house dresses, she has a weathered face from someone who has spent her life outdoors and her smile proudly shows her few remaining teeth. She also has the good health of someone who works hard and eats what she sells. She carries her daily harvest in a hand-woven basket on her head with the ease of someone half her age. She also enjoys the beer someone at Sea Foam gives her each day.

(Photo above by Derek Lepper of Derek Lepper Photography)

Her daily harvest includes bananas, big brown avocados, oranges and tomatoes. But what she is known for is pineapples. Before Maria and I knew her name, we used to call her the Pineapple Lady. It’s not so much the quality of the pineapples she sells (although they are fresh and delicious) but it’s her trademark trimming and carving of the fruit. With a small knife that looks almost as old as she is, trims the sides of the fruit and then sets to carving the fruit in lines to create a flower-like pattern. It takes her just a few minutes to complete the job. It not only looks attractive enough to use as a centerpiece for a table but it makes it easy to eat.

Edith told us Tuesday in her staccato-like voice and Bajan dialect, she will be retiring soon. Maybe when she reaches 90. One certainly cannot blame her considering the physical nature of her work. But when she does retire she will be missed.

Below is a video of her plying her signature design to a pineapple:

Thursday, December 3, 2009

In the News

A story I wrote about the design and materials used for the championship rings of the Los Angeles Lakers appears in The Roskin Gem News Report.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

A Room With A View

At the Sea Foam Haciendas in Barbados all the beds are single and are placed side-by-side, which makes it challenging for couples. The sounds of the traffic outside and the music from Mojo’s (a bar and restaurant that caters to white folks who want to experience Rastafarian culture) across the street make it difficult to sleep. Air conditioning is only in the bedrooms. The furnishings are mostly dated and the walls are largely bare. And the wireless Internet is unreliable.

We love it.

The view of the Caribbean from our room.

We love it because it sits on the beach. We love it because day and night we have a view of the sea and the sound of the surf. We love listening to the tree frogs at night and watch the birds by day. We love that the beach is steps away from our first-floor apartment. We love the turquoise waters of the Caribbean. And, of course, we love the sunsets.

There are many reasons why we love the Sea Foam Haciendas, but really what we love the most are the people who come each year at the same time we do and have been coming here long before we knew this place existed.

There’s Derek and Monique who live outside of Vancouver, Canada. Derek, a world-class photographer who specializes in architecture images and Monique, a veteran flight attendant, have become close enough friends that we have visited their home the past three years. Then there’s Jerry and Phillip of Washington, D.C., cousins who are both retired men and travel the world together, tell terrific stories and host an annual Thanksgiving dinner with turkey, ham and all the fixings. There’s The Ontario Six (Roger, Jan, Chris, Elaine, Ann and Kathy) who are the most organized and amicable group of travelers I’ve ever seen. There’s David and Jackie (brother and sister) from the U.K. who are absolutely happy to spend their days on the beach and their nights in their apartment. And there’s the Jacksons, also from the Vancouver area. Three generations of a family in two units who are, by far, the most active members of this temporary community.

We’re the new kids on the block. We have been staying here since 2002. Some of the others have been making their annual trek here since the place opened more than 30 years ago. We’re also among the youngest of this group.

Conversations take place on the beach, while bobbing in the warm Caribbean water, and in each other’s apartment. They are always interesting as we catch up on what has happened the past year and how the events of the world have affected our lives. Since the apartments have full kitchens (and let’s face it, you don’t go to the Caribbean for the restaurants), dinner parties are the norm.

The Sea Foam rests comfortably on Worthing Beach—a small strip of sand with natural borders on each side. It fits well among the private homes and small rental properties, and may have the best spot on this lovely beach.

Image by Derek Lepper of Derek Lepper Photography.

The complex consists of two buildings, each with six identical apartments on three floors. The first was built in 1977 and the second two years later. Although I say they are identical, there are endless discussions over the minute differences of each unit and their location. The main bedroom and bathroom are in the rear facing the noisy street. There’s a hallway that goes past a second bedroom and then there’s the kitchen, dining and living room cooled by a ceiling fan. A sliding door leads to the private patio for each apartment. In front, since we are on the first floor, there is a common patio with tables, chairs, a bar and a grill shaded by Casuarina and Sea Grape trees and is also source of many dinners and casual talk. The building is resilient inside and out. A strong concrete structure keeps the sea at bay. Tile flooring inside and out is also impervious to the elements. And the furnishings? While they may not be the most attractive they are as resilient and comfortable as the structure.

There are places to go and things to do and see while in Barbados (and over the eight years Maria and I have been coming here, we’ve seen a lot), but for most of us the Sea Foam is the place to be. We buy our food, our rum, and our beer and stay mostly put. It’s too comfortable, too relaxing, to perfect of a beach and island experience.

Even the trees are happy at Sea Foam.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Caffe’ Mingo: A Slice of Life in Florence

It’s July in Florence and it’s hotter than Dante’s Inferno. Tourists are everywhere. They queue outside the narrow courtyard of the Uffizi Gallery an hour before the museum opens. They swarm all of the well-known landmarks of this city. They crowd the shops.

But even in the most touristed areas of the city there is another Florence. A place where people work and live; where they meet in the evenings to discuss the day’s events; and where they share the secrets of this great city. It’s not so much knowing that this other place exists. Of course it does. It’s that it exists right under our noses, yet it’s easy to miss.

Maria and I were fortunate to be staying at a bed and breakfast in the Piazza San Martino. The plaza is about the size of a postage stamp, yet life flows around it like the river of tourists that are led by their guides below my window to where it is believed that Dante once lived. While many of the tourist haunts are minutes away by foot in all directions—including the Uffizi, the adjacent Piazza della Signoria, and Dante di casa—San Martino is bustling in other ways. There’s a very active courthouse that’s open six days per week, one of the city’s oldest restaurants, and of course, the requisite historical sites (including the Torre Della Castagna, an ancient tower built in the 10th Century, and the tiny chapel of the Compagnia dei Buonomini, where Dante may have been married and which also served as a refuge for once wealthy households who lost everything because of political alliances).

The centerpiece of this activity was the Caffe’ Mingo. In the morning it serves espressos and pastries to the attorneys, judges and other court officials before they go to work. In the afternoon it serves hungry tourists. In the evening it becomes a place for locals to have drinks and talk. It’s also the time for the staff and a few neighbors to have their evening meal, which they do in style. The cafĂ© has a tiny inside space but the main activity is outside in the center of the square. Three people operate the space, Nino, the owner, Daniela, who looks like a body builder, and Amanda. Maria and I spent our time there in the mornings and evenings during our five-day stay in Florence and left them alone during their busy lunch times.

Tourists having lunch at Caffe' Mingo. Daniela, standing, is taking their orders.

While Nino may be the boss and Daniela may be built like an Ox, it’s Amanda, a Filipino native, who runs the place. Petite, wiry, fast and loud, she seems to know everyone who passes on the piazza, from the sanitation workers and delivery men to the owners of the local businesses. She calls them all by name loudly, standing on her toes as she waves with a smile a mile wide.

Another view of the lunchtime crowd.

The first evening I sat there drinking wine and enjoying a meal and taking some notes, Amanda treated me to a glass of limoncello and she discounted the meal a bit. Between the three of them I never ended up paying full-price for anything. Amanda only said she could tell I was a good person.

The next evening when Maria arrived from visiting her family in Amsterdam, she was obviously tired from her trip. We were going to split a bowl of pasta with pesto and a salad. She looked at my wife, shook her head as if something wasn’t right, and said that she was going to make Maria pasta with ragu and that it was on the house. Again we finished our meal with a complementary limoncello. Maria attacked it as if she hadn’t been fed all day. Amanda absolutely refused all tips.

On our final night, we had dinner at the restaurant in the piazza, Trattoria del Pennello, one of Florence's oldest restaurants, and finished our night with Proseco at the cafe while the staff and neighbors were having their meal. Nino, a gelato addict, had bought some for dessert for the staff. He gave us some to have with our drinks. We chatted through the night in broken English and awful Italian.

They didn’t treat us as customers. They treated us like friends and for that we’ll never forget them.

Historically, the Piazza San Martino was a place that served the poor. On Sunday mornings this tradition continues as poor residents of the city come for free meals. The food is handed out from this white car and devoured quickly before the cafe opens, which on Sunday is later than other days. Nino cleans the remains before opening, which makes him unhappy. There's nothing like listening to someone curse out loud to no one in Italian.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

The Best Coffee to Ever Come Out of a Civet’s Ass

This is one of those times when I wonder, who was the first person to think that this was a good idea?

While visiting Maria’s family in Jakarta, Indonesia, this past June, her aunt and uncle (Lisa and Han) were kind enough to make the one hour drive through unbearable traffic to a west Jakarta shopping mall so I could taste the rarest and most expensive coffee in the world: Kopi Luwak.

Kopi means coffee in Indonesia and Luwak is the local name for the Asian Palm Civet, a member of the Viverridae family, although they are often casually referred to as tree cats or weasels.

The coffee is produced when the civet eats whole coffee berries, which contain the fruit and seed. The proteins in the animal’s digestive juices break down the fruit’s outer layer and the more acidic portion of the beans inside, which gives coffee its bitterness. The bean passes through the animal’s system and is defected whole, still covered in some of its outer layers. Some lucky fellow collects the beans, and washes and dries them. The combination of the digestive juices of the animal and its ability to pick the ripest berries are said to be the source of its unique flavor. The beans are then given a light roast, which helps the coffee maintain its flavor.

This brew is the Holy Grail of serious coffee drinkers and those into exotic foods and beverages. It has appeared in several television shows (including Oprah) and is the source of many well-written stories. It even played a key supporting role in the movie, “The Bucket List,” starring Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman. Here is Freeman’s character, Carter Chambers, explaining to Edward Cole (Nicholson), a Kopi Luwak connoisseur, the coffee’s unusual source:

Here is another video with a more scientific, although a bit dramatized, explanation:

In the mall restaurant named after the coffee, I enjoyed a cup of the brew, which cost about $20. I can attest to the coffee’s lack of bitterness. It was the smoothest coffee I ever tasted. However, I did not experience the complexity of flavor that is exulted in its many descriptions. The restaurant also sells a less expensive blended version of the coffee, which was bitter and otherwise tasteless. While I was happy to have this once-in-a-lifetime experience, I chose not to buy any to bring to back with me. I still prefer Philadelphia’s La Colombe.

The author with his eyes in shadows but still smiling after his Kopi Luwak experience.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

A Joyous Finale for a Philadelphia Institution

It’s the end for a Philadelphia institution that was much loved by everyone who lives in the region: The Spectrum. The arena is to be razed (possibly by implosion on New Year’s Eve) to make way for a hotel and entertainment mall.

The facility, completed in 1967, is best known as the home of the Philadelphia Flyers hockey team and the 76ers basketball team. However, it also hosted circuses, ice shows, boxing and wrestling and just about any other event that could be crammed into the building, which held anywhere from 17,000 to 20,000 persons depending on the performance. It was in constant use.

While I have attended many wonderful sports events at the arena, what I remember most are the concerts, particularly during the ‘70s and ‘80s when live music ruled. I don’t know how many concerts I attended (could be in the hundreds) but I have seen everything from the Allman Brothers to Frank Zappa. The short list also includes Willie Nelson, Emerson Lake & Palmer, Cat Stevens, Grateful Dead, Muddy Waters, Yes, Rick Wakeman, Neil Young, Crosby Stills and Nash, the Electric Light Orchestra, Edgar Winters, Leon Russell, Jethro Tull, Pink Floyd, Eric Clapton, Bruce Springsteen and Bob Dylan. I’m taken aback with the breadth of music I experienced.

The first show I ever attended there was a 1973 charity concert by AM radio station WFIL (remember rock ‘n’ roll AM radio?). There were only a few thousand people to see a bill that included: Billy Preston, Lou Reed, Slade, Dr. Hook & the Medicine Show and a new band from California called The Eagles.

During the past year, a number of acts known for their many and memorial performances at the arena returned for a final shows. Among them were Neil Young, the Grateful Dead (which played the Spectrum 53 times, more than any other musical act) and Bruce Springsteen. On Oct. 23, Philadelphia area musicians The Hooters, Todd Rundgren and Hall & Oates headlined a concert titled "Last Call."

For some reason (probably just scheduling), Pearl Jam (which according to the Spectrum's historical listing of concerts, only played the venue once) was given the honor of being the last band to perform at the legendary arena, on Oct. 27, 28, 30, 31 (Halloween). From what I read (here and here) and the videos I’ve seen, the management couldn’t have chosen a better act to close the building. Over the four nights, the band performed 103 different songs, exhausting their own catalog of songs and playing covers that included The Who’s “Baba O'Riley,” Divo’s “Whip It” and Neil Young’s “Rockin’ in the Free World.” The final show was a marathon event of more than 3 hours and 40 minutes in which the band played 41 songs. The set included one of the band’s first hits “Alive,” which lead singer Eddie Vedder said in honor of the closing of the Spectrum they will never play again.

Below are four videos from the Pearl Jam shows, three from the final night on Oct. 31 and one from the Oct. 30 show.

The Who's Baba O'Riley from the Oct. 30 show:

Divo's "Whip It":

Neil Young "Rockin in the Free World":

"Yellow Ledbetter," with a "The Star-Spangled Banner" guitar solo ending, the last song played at the Spectrum.