Glamping DTLA

IMG_20170820_080345_809Ten years is a respectable span out of the mix. The long-term effect living a global bedouin lifestyle became apparent recently replanting roots tapping our toes on U.S. soil again. Passports at the ready aren’t necessary anymore; pockets turn cumbersome filled with keys, along with fob for home, car and garage. Mundane household chores weren’t pleasant to begin with embarking on an unorthodox path a decade ago, nor are they today, perhaps even less so.

More than one Los Angeles Uber driver (former teachers) describe their inner city public school system as county jail. Another urban aspect I’ve noticed which seems awfully strange, how oblivious the haves and have nots coexist together. The unfortunate souls look and smell as though they were targeted by urine-soot bombs; tangled, matted hair, grimy clothes (shoes, maybe none) toting stuffed plastic bags, ingesting rubbish, conversing with mid-air. Feet away the fortunate soul wears a white starched button collar shirt, matching Brooks Brothers loafers and slacks, scanning The Los Angeles Times, assisted by tortoise shell spectacles, sipping his Blue Bottle coffee, eating flakey French pastry.

I’m unclear, what are the socially responsible options from this point forward? Elected city, state, alongside federal government officials don’t have concrete plans to address America’s elephant in the room. Churches barely make a dent. As for America’s powerful private sector: young tech billionaires aren’t motivated to help alleviate human suffering underfoot.

Before beginning our odyssey abroad ten years ago, certain readers complained how somber my blog had become. My response then is exactly the same now — “I calls ‘em like I sees ‘em.” Metropolitan San Diego, Los Angeles, and the Bay Area are hosts to frightening exponential statistics. One hundred and twenty thousand unfortunate souls are perishing on California sidewalks. I am curious — is it me being hypersensitive or are others shattered observing this hell on earth?

 

San Diego Mayors

Jerry Sanders 2005-2012

Bob Filner 2012-2013

Kevin Faulconer 2014-present

 

Los Angeles Mayors

Antonio Villaraigosa 2005-2013

Eric Garcetti 2013-present

 

San Francisco Mayors

Gavin Newsom 2004-2011

Ed Lee 2011-present

 

Oakland Mayors

Ronald Dellums 2007-2011

Jean Quan 2011-2014

Libby Schaaf 2015-present

 

California Governors

Arnold Schwarzenegger 2003-2011

Jerry Brown 2011-present

 

California Senators

Barbara Boxer 1993-2017

Dianne Feinstein 1992-present

Kamala Harris 2017-present

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Stuck In The Car

Stuck In The Car I can’t quite get a fix on what saddened me most, learning Ronnie Wood has lung cancer or listening to Mick Jagger’s new single. Last Sunday morning dodging traffic through Los Angeles in a BMW i3, I became fascinated with 88.1 KJazz. What a fabulous treat: Ella Fitzgerald, Mel Tormé, Billie Holiday, Sammy Davis Jr., Peggy Lee, Dean Martin, Ray Charles and of course, Frank Sinatra, who the host referred to as “the boss,” not in any way, shape or form meaning, Bruce Springsteen.

Somehow historic architecture in Pasadena, even whizzing by towering palms bordering Santa Anita Park turned surreal; the past popped out of its time capsule. Magnificent estates built in the late forties, fifties and sixties came alive as I visualized each singer entering their classic, high-gloss automobile, leaving to record our favorite standards somewhere around Tinseltown.

One of, if not, the top four star hotels we’ve recently holed up in was an hour further south, crashing at Irvine, California’s AC Hotel. A European brand cropping up everywhere: San Francisco to Boston. Spanish hotelier, Antonio Catalan, designed sleek rooms for Marriott utilizing tasteful faux oak plank floors, perfect touch sensitive lighting, luxurious linens on dreamy beds, soothing monochromatic milk chocolate tones, a soundproof wall of glass, plush bathroom, toiletries, robes, and smart TV, at an unbelievable pleasing rate. I should also mention with due praise the AC Hotel staff; Intercontinental should take a few tips.

Which reminds me concerning improvement with years, Boz Scaggs certainly has; his rendition of the American standards are indeed worth checking out. Unlike, Eagles founding member, Glenn Frey, who failed miserably singing the standards; Rod Stewart’s take proved differently. It’s next to impossible aging gracefully living an authentic life in rock ‘n’ roll; even Patti Smith is pushing it. I often wish The Rolling Stones went their permanent separate ways leaving Villa Nellcote, finishing up Exile on Main St. Surely there are contrasts between old-school singers and rock ‘n’ roll superstars; Sinatra and company wouldn’t bend over like Iggy Pop, last of a dying breed, handing over tunes to Madison Avenue advertisers.

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If At First You Don’t Succeed

The global bedouins arrived Downtown Los Angeles as planned May 28th only to discover our pop-up space was a deco high-rise surrounded (three sides) by an unsightly construction pit. Immediately drove our Dollar Suburban rental directly to the Cosmo Lofts in Hollywood, understanding their next available unit wouldn’t be ready until June 28th. We next headed west to Storquest, our LA storage facility of choice in Marina del Rey, deposited four footlockers holding famiglia di Schiavo’s worldly possessions, alongside miscellaneous luggage. Stayed a night at Hyatt Place in El Segundo facing LAX before flying to Phoenix for an overnight Best Western Plus layover. The following morning somewhat disjointed flew to Mazatlan, an inexpensive solution for our month-long holding pattern until Cosmo’s June 28th move-in date.

From the get-go Mazatlan wasn’t what we expected. I felt underwhelmed observing the local shoreline and terrain minutes before touchdown. The single upside of Mazatlan was a random driver, Roberto, who introduced us to Mexico’s kaolin facial clay. We bought a kilo, which believe it or not never got flagged passing through security in any airport I’ll soon list over these past seven weeks. Guns — bombs — knives — oversized toothpaste and liquids aren’t permitted, yet the powdery kaolin wasn’t an issue. I could’ve been smuggling heroin and cocaine, however, no agent, domestic nor international detected our beauty treatment stock in any x-ray machine.

Five days later we endured an eight hour ATM bus, south from Mazatlan to Punta Mita, ten miles from Sayulita. Got there, appalled seeing a beach polluted with endless pelican excrement, smelling like rancid fish. Next morning, bright and early, boarded a local forty minute bus trip to Puerto Vallarta Centrale, waiting there two nights at Catedral Vallarta Hotel for the Airbnb I recently wrote about.

Weeks later, June 27th, Jeanette, LouLou and I flew back to Los Angeles, rented another Suburban at Enterprise, picked up our four footlockers and miscellaneous luggage, closed the Storquest contract, making tracks to Ikea in Burbank. It took two days vibing Cosmo to conclude we selected a poorly managed building in an awful neighborhood crawling with trouble. Fortunately, we didn’t unpack nor stay on Cosmo Street, opting instead to sleep temporarily at the Beverly Laurel Motor Lodge during that transition period.

Rented another Suburban from Enterprise, returned our domestic purchases from Ikea, Home Depot, Lowes, Container Store and Target; conked out, woke up, barely making a flight to Miami with four footlockers and miscellaneous luggage after viewing an apartment online in South Beach. Landed in Miami the Fourth of July shortly before dusk, rented a Dodge Ram from Hertz, checked into another airport Hyatt Place, got an early start for more home spending. Loaded with tables, chairs, mattresses, linens, kitchen gear, vacuum etcetera, showed up about five that evening, an hour before the Flamingo’s leasing office closed. Jeanette and I hauled everything into the service elevator, traipsing through the seventh floor hallway to unit 753 while LouLou watched over our spiffy red-neck truck. Hot, sweaty, hungry and thirsty, went back to the Hyatt Place after returning our Hertz rental, ate, showered, passed out. Ate breakfast, ubered fifteen minutes back to the Flamingo for another unpacking and assembling session, forty-five minutes into it heard hard hat construction teams jack hammering an adjacent building’s exterior. Within minutes, Jeanette left to get the scoop; stomped back inside stating the racket would continue for at least one, possibly two years. Ubered back to Miami International Airport, rented another Dodge Ram from Hertz, packed and moved out. Thereafter returned another truckload of home purchases to their respective stores. Hot, sweaty, hungry and thirsty, ate, showered, collapsed, setting the phone alarm for 3am to catch a Delta 7am flight — Laguardia bound, four footlockers, alongside miscellaneous luggage.

We’d been eyeing 180 Water Street in Manhattan’s Financial District online for almost six months. Turns out their Craigslist ads are undeniably misleading — we found out the costly way. Stashed four footlockers and miscellaneous luggage at The Brooklyn Hotel on Atlantic Avenue, ubered to Manhattan, met by a curt agent who within seconds inquired, “What’s your budget?” So it seems, our thirty-five hundred dollar monthly rental budget would’ve secured 400 square feet, low floor of a hoity-toity 34-story building, viewing an air shaft — no sky for us. Adding insult to injury, their rooftop pool requires additional monthly fees; fuck them.

Considering the exorbitant amount of expenses we’ve incurred since May 28th: hotels, motels, Airbnb, Uber XLs, airfare, baggage fees, restaurants, and move-in costs at Cosmo Lofts, alongside the Flamingo South Beach, saving anything was and remains pertinent. Hence our dirt cheap flight and accommodations, dragging four footlockers and miscellaneous luggage to Las Vegas over LAX. I might’ve called it wrong again, but figured a couple days suffocating in 116 degree desert air would be sufficient penance covering fifty days filled by farcical events stemming from unsound judgement.

Several months ago we toured (in person) two LA buildings having everything except one item on our checklist: neither are brand new. We’re going for it again; LA’s a quick four hour drive from here, maybe in a Suburban or Dodge Ram, either beast has plenty of room, leather seats and SiriusXM. In the meantime, Jeanette and LouLou ducked into a Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales matinee; as for me, I’m climate control set with extra time to jot some things down.

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Hollywood Swinging

Few comfort foods remain consistently perfect over time, specifically quick bites on the go. Before Extra began filming at Universal Studios, they used The Grove’s synchronized water fountains as a clever backdrop; consequently just about every TV junkie knows about The Grove on LA’s Fairfax Avenue. Mario Lopez could’ve, but I’ll wager never featured a Hollywood Golden Age gem in Farmer’s Market facing CBS Television City. A hodgepodge food court comprised of independent vendors, typically swamped, although practically deserted when we get there shortly after daybreak.

Some officers in blue snack on doughnuts at all hours, famiglia di Schiavo prefer ours as a special indulgence for breakfast. We tried Randy’s near LAX, an iconic eyesore, with its 32 foot stucco doughnut on their roof. Too oily in my opinion; we haven’t been back and have no future plans to do so.

Crumb doughnuts most anywhere are crumb doughnuts. Crumb doughnuts at Bob’s in Farmer’s Market near Mario’s old stomping grounds are incredible, devouring nirvana. One nibble produces a gentle cascade onto the napkin below; chewing instantly shifts into slower motion to savor each fluffy bite. When finishing my crumb doughnut, I’ll stare at the torn Bob’s bag in front of me trying to decide which should be next. Bob’s powdered jelly doughnuts are the best I’ve ever had, along with their lemon filled and buttermilk glazed. I’ll tend to choose from their vanilla cake assortment; maple frosted and chocolate frosted devil’s food round out the crumb choice nicely.

Haven’t had a cup of coffee in five years, when I did drink it, my preference was rocket fuel. I’d park illegally in front of King’s Road Cafe on Beverly Boulevard, grabbing a double cappuccino before hitting Bob’s. Quite frankly, between the King’s Road caffeine and Bob’s sugar, I vibrated until noon. I didn’t realize eating doughnuts could come without unpleasant side effects by eliminating coffee.

Most trips back to our car in Farmer’s Market come with distraction by an inner voice who has zero self-control. “You don’t have to wait until next time, go back, what can another little doughnut hurt? Yeah, you’re absolutely right, an apple fritter is overkill. Of course, their old-fashioned doughnuts are totally sublime, but so is the classic Long John” “ No way, forget it, three’s plenty; we’re saving room for pastrami, coleslaw, Russian dressing on corn rye, house-made pickles, matzo ball soup, alongside bagels and lox at Canter’s on Fairfax — lunch is only five hours away.”

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Vamos Con Dios

Every once in awhile during the last eight years living as global bedouins, Jeanette, LouLou and I discussed what our future would be like again having an actual address. We’d browse online viewing different spaces in various U.S. locations. Two opportunities piqued our interest at the end of May, one in Los Angeles, another, South Beach, Miami; either space will be move-in ready July 1st.

For several years now the term pop-up has been used whenever entrepreneurs utilize commercial square feet on a temporary basis. Although LouLou’s best high school option is in Manhattan, we thought why not acquaint ourselves with America again before her classes begin September 2018. Jeanette and I have other Gerard Saint D’Angelo novellas to edit this year, alongside brand expansion, developing beauty and fashion related products; neither objective would see much headway traveling abroad.

Famiglia di Schiavo’s last hurrah wasn’t flying off to Bali, the Seychelles or St. Barths. Realizing upcoming expenses will be relatively foreign to us, we selected a more economical sojourn for this month-long June holding pattern. If America’s current political environment is weighing too heavy, or day to day pressure has anyone feeling trapped, Mexico can be an inexpensive getaway. Most Mexican destinations by air require inconvenient layovers at a poorly planned Mexico City International Airport; Puerto Vallarta is the exception, daily direct flights take off from several major U.S. airports.

Months back Jeanette bookmarked a renovated Puerto Vallarta listing on Airbnb: top floor, lots of windows, four ceiling fans, AC, two large bedrooms with full baths, kitchen sufficiently equipped, dining table for six, two sofas and balcony. Our hosts, Luis and Sarah, greeted us with ice-cold orange infused washcloths, a teeming fruit basket, floral arrangements, bottled water and nine chocolate covered heart-shaped marshmallows. We were shocked to receive what I’d consider a very special rate: thirty-one dollars per night.

Our neighborhood isn’t the PV most travelers frequent. Nothing here is geared to please tourists. There’s an open-air mercado five blocks away; vendors provide fresh fish, meat, poultry, tropical fruit, pico de gallo makings and a tortilleria that also stocks homemade chipotle salsa, two kinds of rice, pinto or refried beans — each pint runs 17 pesos, .94¢USD.

Streets here were paved using river rocks, sidewalks are rather narrow, changing levels with makeshift steps between each property. HeShe cheap-dates congregate feet away from an auto parts yard — adjacent to a panaderia — butting up against one of PV’s abundant medical clinics. A fresh squeezed 32 ounce Vampiro: beets, celery, carrot and orange juice costs 50 pesos, $2.77 USD. I’ll have to be perfectly honest, the beach seven blocks away is not très chic. Another better seaside experience might be taking day trips on local buses and boats to Yelapa, Mismaloya, Islas Marietas or Sayulita. We prefer our two mile walk on the Malecon going to central PV. Once there the decision of what to eat can be overwhelming: pescado sopa — octopus, red snapper, alongside shrimp tostadas — pozole, chile relleno, tortas, chicken tamales, chilaquiles and carnitas or birria tacos. The four mile round trip usually gets us back by eleven, an hour before PV’s humid summer temperature becomes uncomfortable.

LouLou was in the market for Mexican bracelets and necklaces this morning; she’s a discerning consumer — buying two suitable pieces before breakfast. Part of the kick about being in Mexico is stopping at food stalls while getting chores done. LouLou’s meal was spicier than Jeanette’s and mine this morning, enough so she needed some chilled sparkling water from one of a zillion Oxxo’s, Mexico’s 7-Eleven. I paused at a busy intersection believing the slow foot traffic was clogged in front of an Oxxo entrance. Within seconds I bumped into a young Mexican girl carrying an armful of colorful woven bracelets. A little boy flying his paper airplane nearby looked like he could’ve been the older girl’s brother or son. She offered a deal for three bracelets, Jeanette paid up after LouLou made her pick — somehow the 50 pesos just didn’t seem enough.

After telling us this boy was her son, I felt compelled to ask what he wanted; she seemed perplexed, repeating myself, the girl replied, “An airplane.” I then inquired, “Where can we find him one?” She pointed onward saying, “Seis cuadras.”

Shelly gave birth to Ricardo when she was only seventeen; he starts grade school this fall. Bending down to introduce myself, five-year-old Ricardo delivered his cherub hand stating, “Mucho gusto.” He continued flying the paper airplane throughout our twenty minute walk, every toss proudly peering over to see who of us was paying attention. As I suspected Shelly said his father wasn’t in the picture; she and Ricardo live with her mother.

We took an elevator up in the first store; Ricardo rode it as if he were riding an impressive wave on a surfboard, gliding upward enthusiastically. Five of us combed the toy department for an airplane, yet didn’t succeed. Kind of strange, Ricardo didn’t pout; I did however sense he was immune to certain disappointments. I asked Shelly, “Where else can we try?” Ricardo stepped forward, smiled saying, “Woowort.” Another six blocks ahead, one other surf stance upward, toward Woolworth’s second floor, we discovered an airplane the size of a Hot Wheels car. Ricardo didn’t appear terribly interested, but I thought I’d ask anyway; a glum shake of his head confirmed my hunch. Seconds later Jeanette overheard Ricardo whispering, “remoto” to Shelly. He seemed resigned having to accept an action Tron figure as consolation, until one of us, I don’t know who, spotted a yellow sports car with blinking halogen headlights, batteries and remote. All of us took Woolworth’s escalator back down, Ricardo leading with the sizable boxed car in a death grip at his tiny chest.

Following our parting of company outside, I watched Shelly and Ricardo walk away; Jeanette tapped me on the shoulder saying, “Jehr, look at my legs.” Mexico’s ninety-plus-degree noon heat couldn’t prevent Jeanette’s emotions — her legs were covered in goose bumps. It’s such profound encounters cruising the world that give deeper connection to an untethered lifestyle.

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Would It Satisfy Ya?

After getting cleaned up some twenty-six years ago, I was in New York hanging out, much later than necessary, with a couple of A&R men from separate record companies. Their music interest was nearly identical, which seemed fine for camaraderie, but made situations difficult crossing swords signing the next multi-platinum band. The pair, one Brit and an American, were as usual post evenings out, after bands stopped playing, each comparing that night’s gigs over more tootski, alongside leftover booze. Both had half million dollar salaries (sounded like a fortune back then) which came with huge perks covering any and every expense in town or during frequent travel, domestic and abroad — first class five-star royal treatment.

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Tunes we know and love wouldn’t have been recorded had these two guys not signed who were previously starving musicians. I’ll be considerate not naming specific bands, to remain professional, staying confidential concerning certain notable patrons. If I included a well-known film title and group one of these A&R men compiled songs for, his identity would be blown — less hashtags for me, better for him.  

As dawn crept in, the more blitzed they got, came upping complaints regarding what gruelling jobs they had. Rockefeller Center corner offices overlooking St. Patrick’s Cathedral’s Neo-Gothic spires, 10am to 5pm schedules, hearing an average of four bands per night, seven nights a week. Extended cocktail lunches, car service, dinners, strip bars, and club door fees, if they weren’t on some band’s guest list, all reimbursed by their employer. Following an hour or so of what could possibly be the most overindulged drivel I’ve ever been privy to, felt comfortable enough interjecting novice advice.

“If hours seem too long at the office, travel getting old and nights out not fun anymore, why don’t you get studio musicians to create those elusive smash hits you spend days hoping demo tapes will sound like, afterward listening to even more atrocious music in dive bars?”

The two gazed at each other with dumbfounded faces, looks expressing, why didn’t we think of that? To make sure they heard me correctly, made key inquiries. I responded saying something close to, “You know just about every top musician for hire; do either of you really care about principles or is your main objective to procure seminal bands?” Instantly they agreed, high-fiving one another, exhilarated, stating mine was a fabulous suggestion.

Nine or so months later, the English guy was promoted Vice President to a new, well-funded independent label. Shortly thereafter, I visited those SoHo offices and got treated to a pre-release of the label’s first signing. That band was one we all know, however, not previously starving musicians; they were as I’d earlier recommended, hired guns.

Jeanette, LouLou and I occasionally receive MTV or VH1 at our Airbnb when passing through Southeast Asia, Mexico, or Europe. Ever so often we’ll catch that group my Vice President patron masterminded, yet enjoyed this band much more initially as their first two records were practically flawless. The female lead singer simply didn’t have what it takes for long shelf life; her appeal, for my taste, declined immensely gathering super-star-stadium acclaim.

The music industry changed drastically since Napster and wide internet useage. Six-figure A&R positions dried up, unearthing a killer band in 2017 is rather like trying to find water anywhere around Death Valley. Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm McLaren shattered music history establishing the Sex Pistols, former street urchins. Vivienne and Malcolm’s vision arrived experiencing a New York Dolls performance in London.

This not-so crazy formula still stands strong, it has for a long time. Any spirited entrepreneur, whether he’s jack-of-all-trades who develops a handyman squad partnered with Home Depot or Sally homemaker baking to die for sweets, could if they were inclined, apply similar theory rolling out highly sought-after businesses.

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Funny Money

With expedited passport in hand, it took stopping through checkpoints at SFO, Charles de Gaulle, Malpensa, Palermo and Amsterdam airports, back to San Francisco, onto Los Angeles before a keen Phoenix TSA official noticed I hadn’t signed mine two months earlier. I’m gonna leave this passport unsigned until someone forces me to sign it before arriving or departing their jurisdiction. The thing that annoys me isn’t so much this slip-up on my part, now turned study, it’s what little attention those pay who are hired to guard global borders. Of course my name isn’t Salman Abedi or anything close to it, however, I find slipshod border control quite alarming given terrorist bombings, slayings and current trending massacres using vehicles.

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After spending seven consecutive weeks in a country where women still shake out rugs over their balconies, alongside men demolishing concrete and stone buildings by sledge hammer, I know culture shock will hit perhaps harder than jet lag; which form it comes always startles me.

Bitcoin’s ferocious rival, Ethereum, was our recent post-European trips hot topic during this last Bay Area engagement. No one speaking about Ethereum could explain them thoroughly; although what’s absolutely certain is Ethereum’s market cap: 20 billion dollars following Google’s quasi-endorsement. Ethereum’s stock rose 2700% this year; my patron who purchased Ethereum shares mentioned his only regret was not buying a large enough position.

Food can be a way cultures clash, language also, fashion too, and in some respects, climate. Sicily doesn’t suffer third world poverty; most Sicilians get by better than many living in Vietnam and Mexico. Staggering wealth, alongside how one achieves financial independence, specifically stemming from Silicon Valley, versus those counting down the years before cashing Italian monthly pensions seems disproportionate. Obviously that woman beating the dusty rug didn’t attend Harvard nor did her sweaty laborer husband. In spite of this worn couple tirelessly toiling, they’ll never buy status donating 100 million dollars to any hospital; in return see that medical center renamed with theirs emblazoned across its facade.

We didn’t necessarily need to travel 6,500 miles to realize upon return what a scale-tipping boom San Francisco continues holding. We could’ve driven 90 miles east to Modesto, come back, heard the Ethereum chatter, quickly logged into our Ameritrade account, snatching as many shares possible, comprehending cryptocurrency is a concept no one I spoke with could actually clarify. When I asked my brilliant patron, a founding member of an elite social media site-cum-venture capitalist, if he believed Ethereum’s stock could reach the 1,200 dollar range, he nonchalantly replied, “yes,” not “no” or “I don’t know.”

Psychedelic engineers inspired by Burning Man’s playa are under the assumption driverless cars are our future. Yet if I reported this opinion to the tirelessly toiling couple in Sicily, they would both laugh and tell me I’m pazzia. My business absorbs a 2.75 to 3.5% loss using Square, however, the ease of receiving our patron’s payment is worth Square’s processing fees. Few patrons use cash these days, less write checks. Half-joking, I inquired whether my wildly successful patron would mind compensating his Jehrcut with a few shares of Ethereum; he grinned — before leaving said, “See you next time,” shortly thereafter completed our transaction online with Jeanette.

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A Beautiful Thing

Taking my mother to Sicily twenty-two years ago for her seventieth birthday, as it turned out, was a dual transcendent gift. Mom would’ve been ninety-three this July. Had I left her here, Jean might’ve still been alive to see LouLou become the remarkable teenager she is today. Jean, bless her heart did hang on, but went to heaven when LouLou was only two months and six days old.

FB_IMG_1495101159374Seniors live longer in Sicily. They’re not out playing mahjong, golf nor tennis, nothing of the sort. What I do witness are similar situations: eighty-two year old Enza on an aluminum step ladder washing her wood shutters; same way she’s done for eight years I know of, probably sixty before that. Yesterday morning an old man wearing dark brown baggy trousers, wrinkled plaid shirt, rumpled slate sport coat and soiled hat was unlocking his trunk on the port putting just-caught fish away before driving off; he must’ve been eighty-seven or so. There’s no shortage of smokers here, though I don’t see old folks with lit cigarettes dangling from their lips. Walking anywhere in Castellammare requires strong legs and core; hills are simply unavoidable.

Geraci, alongside other Italian bottled mineral water goes down as if it flowed from a creek in the Italian Alps. Local town fountains here are ice cold and delicious. My grandmother, Anna D’Angelo washed her clothes in one we drink from right off Via Ferrantelli, where she lived a hundred years ago prior to reaching Ellis Island. When sipping from Anna’s fountain, I sometimes picture Uncle Jimmy and Aunt Nellie as kids, splashing each other while Grandma scrubbed away.

Tenacious Sicilians won’t back down; Byzantines and Carthaginians tried to conquer Sicily a thousand years ago; fat chance, wasn’t ever gonna happen. Occasionally Sicily’s ancient stone block walls are adorned by a flowering plant squeezing its way out from well-earned cracks. Where we’re staying this trip, streets wouldn’t even be considered alleys elsewhere; it’s the oldest section of Castellammare near Il Castello and Chiesa Madrice. These streets were designed with donkeys, horses and wagons in mind, not cars, Mercedes-Benz Smart car excluded. I can almost stretch over to touch the terrace across Via Sarcona, yet I’d undoubtedly fall, creating a ghastly mess four flights below.

It was like pulling teeth getting Jean to accept my gift. Independent as her mother, Mom hardly ever said yes to any kind of help, didn’t matter if she needed it or not. Once we finally got here, I was chopped liver; Jean stayed engaged in conversation with whoever said buongiorno or buonasera. I’d often stand aside waiting twenty minutes while Jean chatted as if she’d known this stranger her entire life. Initially I felt rejected — hoping to find out what this gabfest was all about, made the mistake of interrupting Jean, tapped inquiring, “Mom, what is she saying?” Delivering a convincing whack, Jean struck my shoulder to reprimand me, adding, “zittiti,” Sicilian’s fun expression for be quiet.

Our first morning stroll here started at the west entrance of Piazza Petrolo, overlooking a late August glistening Mediterranean Sea. We meandered across marble pavers, eventually arriving near Chiesa Madrice. Jean did not want to go inside. What I didn’t realize in those few seconds, my mother was preoccupied by an emotional thought — this church presumably was where Anna went to hear mass. When I did get Jean to go inside Chiesa Madrice, she became the Cowardly Lion in The Wizard of Oz, quickly turned and hurried outside. It’s difficult putting two and two together during confusing moments, why did she seem so petrified? “Mom, where are you going? Let’s go back inside; please, we came all this way.” “What’s wrong with you? Can’t you see they’re in the middle of mass, we shouldn’t be in there right now.” “Don’t be silly Mom, it’s a church, everybody’s always welcome.” My not always cooperative mother could find nothing to disagree with, followed me back inside amid high mass, complete with mystical smoldering frankincense, myrrh, benzoin and storax — Catholicism’s pontifical blend. We sat in silence for a little while; Jean partially happy to be inside this church Anna prayed, though was so struck by another curious thought, still in the dark — where exactly in Castellammare did her mother live? Ten minutes after service concluded, the elderly priest who had been saying mass introduced himself. He and Jean, eye to eye, upright at 4-foot-11, their years too parallel. He escorted us toward a doorway behind the altar of Chiesa Madrice’s inner sanctum. Speaking in Italian, he glossed over the history of his church; during which time placed each fingertip together, thumb included, over a cupped palm, chest high — dignified and proud.

Fourteen years later on a sultry August evening, I saw that same elderly priest, although without my mother. Jeanette, LouLou and I were standing in the Piazza Madrice witnessing a candlelit procession: Madonna was being escorted from Chiesa Madrice on shoulder-borne palanquin, carried through town onto an awaiting boat at Castellammare’s port. Four human magnets — Jeanette, LouLou and I pulled toward this priest, he too seemingly swooned right into our arms. He presented himself as Monsignor Navarra; reminding us to trill the double r’s, afterward gleamed listening to our proper pronunciation of his name. Without speaking any English he suggested we visit him at his house some evening around five before six o’clock mass. LouLou’s cheek then rested on the Monsignor’s chest when he embraced her while standing.

Each year since we’d drop by at least twice during our seven week stays; he’d shuffle across his slick stone floor to retrieve a vintage New York souvenir serving tray stacked with napkins, four glasses, spoons, orange soda, and nocciola gelato. Monsignor Navarra was born inside this house, eighty-nine years ago, on the northwest corner of Piazza Madrice, feet from where “Poppa” as I call him, devoted his life following seminary studies in Turin. A walk-through of Monsignor’s house, where he lives alone, could easily take up an hour. Monsignor’s interior staircase has royal appeal: marble steps with beveled edges, uncommonly shallow, having generous depth — an ornate iron railing gently swerves leading onto the next floor, four in total. Poppa’s office is stacked with thick novels and leather-bound theology books; the faintest remnant of musty patchouli lingers, a sable color plume protrudes from his pen cannister.

Last year Monsignor’s body contracted, much more than recent years, as if arthritis had taken over. From a distance it was difficult to see Poppa driving his beloved beige 1960s Cinquecento; he could barely be seen looking above his steering wheel. Monsignor Navarra was inching along outside with a neighbor last week. He had on all black: vestment with a zillion cloth buttons neck to toe (street clothing underneath) floor length overcoat, handknit extra-long-loose weave scarf, and English driving cap. Castellammare’s temperature hovered seventy-five degrees that day; Jeanette, LouLou and I were wearing summer attire, as were most others in town. Last Friday LouLou’s cheek easily kissed Poppa’s ear while they were standing next to each other.

It wasn’t entirely clear through translation, however, Monsignor’s neighbor, Elena, part-time caregiver these last eight years informed us he had slipped on the divine staircase injuring his head. Poppa’s driving rights were revoked; he’s presently living on the ground floor. This morning we saw Elena at the market, she explained Monsignor Navarra was receiving medical attention at home, but wasn’t being a model patient; he kept removing his intravenous drip, Elena’s reassurance closed saying we’d be able to visit him dopo domani.

Three years ago, Poppa heard my concerns regarding the melanoma tumor in my leg. Seeing I was visibly shaken, Monsignor held my right hand, folded it, surrounded mine with his, smiled inciting, “coraggio et fede.” Courage and faith: a pair of imposing words I’ll not forget when adversity crosses my path.

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Buon Appetito!

It’s true hearing this in America, “Sicilian recipes don’t taste the same when I try to make them at home.” Whenever I attempt to reproduce Sicilian dishes in New York, South Beach, San Francisco or Los Angeles they never quite measure up. Eating at an Italian restaurant after being jaded by Sicily’s fare seems lackluster. I wouldn’t even trust Joe’s on Avenue U in Sheepshead Bay. Comparing Sicilian cuisine to Italian, for me, forevermore ranks Italy’s eatables a distant second place. Italian flavors fall flat, Sicilian meals are brighter, less reserved; not only dining al fresco more months each year, courses hold sharper accents using far fresher ingredients. Regional frantoio extra virgin olive oil — basil just picked, alongside mint and oregano — rustic garlic strands — Sicily’s main stay, ricotta hours old — swordfish, langostino, mussels, squid, clams — handmade busiate pasta — scrumptious eggplant, tomatoes, artichokes — succulent chicken, its crispy skin wafer thin, while buttery from slow roasting. It wasn’t until biting into a Sicilian spring orange did I understand how Sicily could’ve possibly raised the bar on oranges — texture and citrus potency.

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Half a century ago the Italian Parliament in Rome voted to help bail out Sicily’s struggling economy; those funds never reached Palermo’s intended channels — Sicily since still remains wild. By and large whatever is eaten here is grown or produced locally. Capers for instance, are from nearby Pantelleria, a tiny Sicilian island between Marsala and Tunisia. I bought a kilo of capers packed in sea salt for about 8 USD; close to a pea in size, they’re fabulous. Three tablespoons of capers rinsed, blotted, and added into a pan with six garlic cloves sliced razor thin (Paul Sorvino’s method in Goodfellas) are the makings for an amazing pasta dish. I couldn’t find red chilis to save my soul; the season come to understand starts later this month. A crucial addition to the garlic and capers, I prefer red chilis pinky size, sliced long, removing the seeds before dicing. Low and behold, our pasta was improvised seeing a grocer’s shelf displaying an array of anchovy selections — one brand drenched in olive oil with red chilis. Two teaspoons of red chili anchovy oil into the pan with garlic and capers is what I needed for an addictive pasta topping. Fusilli has plenty of nooks and crannies for those sautéed morsels; we prefer pasta done al dente. When everything is mixed together, scooped into separate serving bowls, dress each with a handful of quarter inch spicy anchovy pieces. By the time these bowls are nearly ready, they would’ve cooled enough so those sexy anchovies don’t melt in a hot pan.

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Sicilians stick by stringent cooking guidelines, what goes with what is rarely deviated from. As an example: it’s a federal offense to spoon parmigiano-reggiano on any pasta with fish. On the other hand, sfincione, a foccacia bread smothered with concentrated tomato sauce, caramelized onion, hint of oregano and anchovy does include Southern Italy’s caciocavallo cheese. I feel that line-up alone gives me license to conjure whatever we’re in the mood for. Next Tuesday I’m gonna grate pecorino over fusilli with garlic, capers anchovy and red chili; I doubt the Carabinieri will storm our apartment to incarcerate me.

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One night we were in a hurry and hungry — an unwelcome combination. For over a decade, Antonio has been our go-to Castellammare frutta verdura guy. He has other staples on hand: outstanding Capricciu Sicilianu limone honey, several different olive trays, homemade wine, customers quibbling with Antonio over his prices while caged chirping parakeets, alongside singing canaries keep things cheery. I grabbed a small red onion, some arugula and fennel, leaving its stalk behind as usual. Dashed into a specialty shop next door to buy the best tuna in olive oil from a company that really should export its product from Sicily; Auriga’s catch runs right off Castellammare del Golfo. For eight years, beginning 2006, businessmen from Japan brokered a deal, paying questionable Sicilian officials to cast three commercial acre-size fishing nets; exporting Castellammare’s young tuna to Tsukiji fish market, wowing Japan’s sushi connoisseurs. Excuse me, I got sidetracked from a damn good salad that would go great before the pasta by criminal profiteering. Within minutes fennel was chopped, half a red onion slivered, arugula introduced and tossed, Auriga tuna with olive oil its main dressing, drizzling Antonio’s extra virgin olive oil in as well. If someone has no idea how to boil water, may I suggest planning a trip to Sicily. A complete novice couldn’t lose, it would be impossible; everyone is aware of their palate’s cravings. When meals are prepared using vegetables which arrived Antonios at dawn in some farmer’s dusty Fiat hatchback, made with nothing but his private reserve extra virgin olive oil, fava beans, onions and sea salt harvested nearby, it’s a proud plate worthy to serve grandma.

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If visitors had enough cooking on their hands before leaving for holiday, there are several options other than frequenting restaurants three times a day. The best take-out gastronomia in Castellammare is Scaraglino: eggplant parmesan, seafood couscous, lasagne, octopus salad, triangular shape chickpea fritters called panelle, arancini rice balls stuffed with ragu and peas, or oval shapes containing prosciutto and mozzarella.

Nobody, anywhere in Italy makes pastries the way Sicilians do. America’s cannolis are mere facsimiles of an authentic Sicilian cannoli. Each pasticceria here creates theirs slightly different: the amount of chocolate, half dipped, possibly shavings, candied orange peel, cherry placement, pistachio crumbs, ricotta consistency, or pistachio creme-filled and embellished powdered sugar, yet each bear Sicily’s superior quality by the shell’s delightful crunch. Many Sicilians swear up and down granita helps them digest; others are totally convinced it’s the quintessential pre appetizer consumed an hour before dinner. French pastry chefs are well-known for macarons; Castellammare though has an orgasmic almond cookie at Panificio Navarra, which upon initial bite made me blurt out, “Oh my God,” further stating, “these people are crazy.”

Tourist from Russia, China, and Great Britain spending a week or two here couldn’t possibly digest all Sicily’s kitchens have to offer during their vacation. Resourcing our hair and skin care line, along with blogging is an incredible la dolce vita experience in Felliniesque Castellammare; a chance to pace whatever we eat. It’s not necessary famiglia di Schiavo each gain fifteen pounds in two weeks gorging on La Duchessa pizza, Litus Victoria’s pane cunzato, Sfoglia d’Oro tortellini, Vernaci brioche con gelato, and Furco fig or apricot cookies.

Who knows who’s brilliant recommendation it was for Robert De Niro to spend six months in Sicily packing on weight for his Academy Award-winning Raging Bull portrayal of (post) World Middleweight Champion, Jake LaMotta? Whoever did had obviously traveled here prior; Bob certainly was shooting The Godfather Part II — apparently exercising better self-control.

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La Passeggiata

Years ago before searching under Castellammare’s crevices, our hotel or Airbnb of choice was paying top dollar to, quite possibly, the least respected family in town. Castellammarese locals practically spit on the ground hearing this family’s name mentioned. They own two of its oldest hotels, a family rarely seen socializing; most believe consumed basking elsewhere in supremacy. Prior to visiting Lampedusa three summers ago we rented a small house in town owned by the wretched family. This little place admittedly had its interior charm; although a boisterous proprietor across the narrow street stopped traffic day and night trying to drum up his business. I had my suspicions he was spying on us for our landlord. Following our abrupt departure, my gut instinct was confirmed after reading an email he sent bolstering his uncle, the hotelier patriarch.

True to form, us Sicilians. When Coppola’s Michael Corleone eventually discovered Fredo betrayed him, that was it; from then on Fredo’s days were numbered. Subsequent to exercising caution, we’re open heart and arms; the second any relationship goes south, a steel door slams shut — ain’t no turning back.

As everyone realizes there are two sides to every coin. Castellammare’s dark side is its deep roots with La Cosa Nostra. Twenty-two years ago, when I first came here Piazza Petrolo wasn’t even paved, decorative water spigots throughout town hadn’t been installed, drivers drove and parked as they pleased; Castellammare’s harbormaster didn’t yet foresee small cruise lines to soon dock — most looking forward to oodles of cash left behind.

In 1995, shortly after checking into our hotel, my mother, Jean and I returned from dinner; the man overseeing this establishment struck up what we thought would be a casual conversation. Within minutes, he took out a few 4 x 6 black and white crime scene photos of some local mob hit. The worn photos depicted a dead man wearing suit, tie and overcoat, gangster brim nearby, featuring an odious head wound oozing blood down his face. Jean didn’t flinch; speaking fluent Sicilian, in so many words told him: we’re from New York, these things happen there all the time — excused herself, going off to bed unimpressed.

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We tread lightly walking around Castellammare. Fortunately there is a cardinal rule among made men: “don’t shit where you eat.” Any apprehension should be discarded if ever planning a visit here — Castellammare’s safer than Disneyland’s Main Street, U.S.A. Same reason Budweiser, barbecues and fireworks aren’t going away on the Fourth of July, Sicily’s underworld will forever remain woven into government, from Silvio Berlusconi on down, corporate hierarchy, alongside Vatican City. It’s here, just don’t talk about it.cropped-screen-shot-2015-04-07-at-2-00-19-pm.pngA friendly grocer told me in Italian regarding an elderly male customer he was waiting on, “Talk to him in English.” I introduced myself, explaining my grandmother left Castellammare del Golfo a hundred years ago. He asked her name, I told him, “Anna D’Angelo — prima del matrimonio, Mione.” Upon hearing Mione, this man’s eyes popped wide open, then clenched a fist, exposing the thumb, slashing an imaginary scar across his cheek — silently indicating, Mafioso.

LouLou left the store keyed-up and giggly, “Poppi, does this mean we’re mafia too?” She sounded thoroughly adorable asking this ridiculous question, I forgot to tell her to keep it down; people have a problem concerning anything about that term, especially in Castellammare. It doesn’t matter who we talk to in this town of fifteen thousand; everybody’s somebody’s cousin, niece, nephew, uncle, aunt, grandmother, grandfather — and “connected.”

If we pass by, chatting up an elderly gentleman we’ve known who lived in New Jersey for twenty years, retired here (his birthplace) our thoughts don’t wonder about his possible Soprano’s past. We like him for who he is. Recently I inquired about his wife. Pointing uphill toward the graveyard, speaking in perfect broken English he said, “My wife sleepa the cemetery.” Naturally I placed my arm around his shoulder to offer condolences. He smiled and said, “She die two thousand two, whaddaya gonna do?”

Two widowed sisters: one in her seventies, the other sixties, constantly together, spend each day inside their windowless kitchen, which I assume had once been a garage/storage area. The low ceiling acts as an echo chamber, carrying their voices a block away. Occasionally in curlers, always wearing cotton print housedresses, mismatched aprons, clay colored stockings rolled up to the knees and slippers — why bother putting on makeup? Tantalizing aromas wafting from steamy pots and simmering pans would entice anyone slightly curious to their exposed sliding garage door entrance. They’re the type of ladies who’ll grab your forearm, won’t let go and drag you inside, ordering, “siediti.” Fine — you don’t drink espresso, here’s our personal stash (a gift sent from Argentina) we’re making herbal tea regardless. They’ll talk over each other by an endangered Sicilian dialect, having separate conversations with Jeanette, LouLou and I simultaneously. Occasionally, we’ll glance at each other thinking the same thought, can you believe we’re actually in here experiencing this, they were moments ago complete strangers. An hour later, following a ten minute Sicilian goodbye, halfway down the street, LouLou’s spirit of interest could no longer be contained, whispering, “How come all these old ladies husbands died so young?”

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