Vacation


I’m making one of those trips to Europe that, though exotic by no means, is not run-of-the-mill: Denmark for a friend’s 50th then to Berlin with a couple of priests.

I am entering Scandinavia this time through Stockholm. I feel like I’ve stepped into a Stieg Larsson trilogy. At least in regards to how people look. And the landscape as seen from the plane was downright dragon-tattooesque. Of course, airports are rarely in the best parts of their countries so this is unlikely “typical” Sweden.

Food booths are trumpeted in English here at the Arlanda airport for the most part. A Starbucks, of course. How depressing is that — you can get burnt roast coffee with badly expressed espresso anywhere in the world! God. I’d be more accepting of McDonald’s — which offers something unique. Getting mediocre Americanized continental-style coffee in cultures with their own brew seems veritably sacrilegious. (My deepest apologies to my Pac NW friends). All the Starbucks offerings were labeled in English — although instead of Poland Spring, they were hawking Ramlosa. But, as usual, I digress.

While transferring planes in Stockholm, some quick observances. Some people — I think SAS personnel — were propelling through the airport on small 60’s-kitchen-green scooters. The kind you see children playing on. One foot on, the other doing the movin’

The largest snack joint was “Street Food” with Marcus Samuelson’s face splashed everywhere. Usual airport shop fare with a local twist. Hamburgers. Fish burgers. Something called “Rootfruit” – chips of potato, beet and parsnip.

People smoke in small rectangular glass booths — slightly larger than those you’d see in a fifties game show, presumably ventilated.

Security consisted of “go downstairs” after Passport Control. One flight. Ring a bell, and security will look at your bag. Which is precisely what i did — me alone. Solo me in a little room with a security conveyor belt and one female guard.

Ain’t travel grand.

I am sitting in a Seattle-like San Fran coffee shop in Chelsea — enjoying my cup of coffee (with a name i cannot even pronounce) pondering why 5 oz of coffee beans would cost $25 — other than their name Geisha.

You have to laugh to think of us, children of the percolator generation, getting all gaga over “drip” coffee. Hey, kids behind the counter, we used to call that Melitta!

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I admit, I have not shared this year’s Swine-stravaganza known as the Great Minnesota Get-Together because it just didn’t feel like a typical fair-on-a-stick experience. Honestly, Janet Eats’ favorite food at the fair this year didn’t even come on a stick.

Actually, favorite foods (plural) because it was pretty much a toss-up between Sweet Corn ice cream with Honey Bacon sauce and the Walleye Roll. Neither on a stick. And almost not even fair food per se, because I could see eating either of those dishes at a sitdown restaurant.

The ice cream. Oh my god, that ice cream. Rich icy (not creamy — I like my frozen confections granular on the tongue not buttery) ice cream studded with nuggets of sweet corn kernels and toasty almost praline-like corn nuts. On top: crispy bacon bathing in a warmed honey sauce. I hate to say it, but this sublime smoked porky corny treat has supplanted the Honey Sunflower Ice Cream cone that was my perennial favorite. Yes. Sadly. True.

As to the Walleye fair fare: think Lobster Roll. It was prepared at a booth — way at the end of the fairgrounds. Sandwiched between the lumberjack competition arena and the pets building where, if you schedule your visit just right, you can watch them spay a dachshund. In other words, not far from Machinery Hill.

The booth has several other Walleye dishes (I think one of them is fried and on a stick but don’t hold me to it) as well as salad on a stick, and batter-fried bacon. The Walleye Roll — oh walleye is in the perch family, popular with Minnesota fishermen. Anyway — like a lobster roll it has a mayo base and is served in a buttered roll. Appropriately enough it also contained wild rice. The mayo was very light. The sandwich was placed on a bed of shredded lettuce and peppered perch-fectly.

My fave at the fair this year. Steeled me for the afternoon parade of prancing pickles, marching bands, and giant heifers on wheels.

We’re not talking Hansel & Gretel here — I mean real, true breadcrumbs. They are used unexpected ways in so many dishes in Sicilia. Well, at least in the parts of Sicily I’ve visited (admittedly few).

Loving this country! Leaving Roma, a city in which I feel comfortable, and know how and what to order. In Sicilia, it is all new customs, food, and certainly all new types of people.

If you are looking for something Siciliano-style, expect to find anchovies, pistachios, raisins, olives, capers, and, oh those breadcrumbs.

I have had crumbs dusting perfectly grilled cubes of swordfish, coating vegetables and sprinkled on pasta.

I am rushing out to meet my travel companions for the Villa Casale, but here is what we had for dinner. The waiters at Il Duomo in Taormina were kind enough to let us split the dishes up among ourselves.

Sarde a Beccafico — Sicilian style stuffed sardines. The most delicate piece of that homely fish, stuffed with I am not sure what, served with a few jagged squares of roasted potatoes and a little slice or two of roasted red peppers.

Verdure Selvatiche con Crostini di Pane — Sicilian Wild vegetables with croutons. Wild is right. It was the ugliest twist of some deep dark, stalky green with fronds I’ve seen. Scattered with chunks of delicious chewy croutons drenched in fruity olive oil. I *think* the green was wild fennel because it was licoricy and had those fronds. It was sheer ambrosia of the veggie persuasion. You just know they really did forage those greens.

Pasta e Mollica — Pasta with anchovies, olives, capers and those ubiquitous breadcrumbs. Yum. Me.

Oh, by the way, this general comment: if you think you’ve eaten caponata — think again!!!

The mosaics await, gotta run.

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Here I find myself (as in Istanbul) surrounded by new experiences that make me utter “I’ve never blanked anything like this in my life!”

Sicily: a feast for all the senses. I’ve just arrived and am still processing what is and will be in this exotic Italian, but not really Italian, country.

When I left Rome this morning, I was talking with the woman who owns the apartment in Monti where I rent “my” room. We were commiserating about the heavy thunderstorm that had drenched la bella città that morning. “Brutissimo!”‘ we agreed. “Will it rain like this in Sicily?” I asked.

“It’s Africa!” said she. As if no more need be said.

I am in the land of pistachios, mint and dried grapes.

I cannot wait.

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Lunch is not all pasta with potatoes here in the Eternal City. I have seen this dish with oranges and olives, dressed with oil, for years — both here in Roma and in the states. I am not sure whether it is of Roman origins or not — so much of what one eats in this country is specific “tipico” to its region. I have admittedly seen some variance to that on this trip. Just like it used to be you couldn’t even order a cappuccino after noon but now you can — other regions’ foods are popping up here. I have seen pasta with pesto at a couple of trattorie this week — pesto is from Genoa, not Rome. I would be curious to see if that kind of regional culinary mixing happens in smaller towns or just in this sprawling metropolis.

While eating my “don’t leave Rome without (eating) it” cacio e pepe pasta dish at my favorite Roman restaurant Soro Margherita, I decided, finally, to order the orange salad. Important to note, that any salad or veg dish (it may be oranges but this is no dessert) is served after the primo (first course) of usually pasta, rice, or gnocchi and the (second course) secondo. That baffled me when I was first visiting Italy. This truth had not yet come up in my guide books. I would go to a restaurant, order pasta with (what I thought was going to be a side of) a vegetable. Watch my pasta get cold (okay, so I didn’t wait!) wondering “where’s my broccoli”? Sometimes even, I would ask the waiter to cancel the veg because I was full, dammit!

I digress. As I am wont to do. This simple orange salad was ambrosia! The oranges, blood oranges, were just the perfect mix of tart and sweet, so juicy that one bite caused an explosion of the most delicate and succulent tastes on the tongue and, if you weren’t careful, down the chin. The salad was dressed with a light, fruity but not intensely so, olive oil. The juice mixed with it to make a simple dressing. Sprinkled lightly in the dish, just the perfect grind of black pepper (not sure what the story is with the pepper here, if they roast it, or if it is farmed from somewhere else in the world than we are used to, but it is very special). They top the salad with perfectly sliced, crisp fennel and a small handful of mixed black olives. Simplice but squisito!

It was truly the food of gods. My dining companion tells me that it is the antidote to the pasta and deep-fried artichoke carciofi alla Giudia we had consumed. Eat this orange and fennel wonder, and it erases the fat and calories of anything you ate before it.

Oh. Yes.

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Lest you think I only eat thinly disguised donuts that don’t seem like they’re donuts because they have names I can’t recall — here is my porta via (take out) dinner purchased at a pizza/forno (bakery) in Monti. The turisti are all out in the piazzas now, or at the wine bars, or having those little glasses of nuts and chips & plates of savories with their glasses o’ wine (read Apertivi Time in Rome). There were only Italians in this pizza joint, working folks, grabbing a little slab of pizza like me. I walked away with veggie pizza with a slice of potato tossed on — and then oh those greens!

Why are they so damn good!?! I make them at home. They dont taste like this. Granted, I don’t see those water tubs with stalky greens floating in them that seem ubiquitous in every shop or super mercado I have visited. I went with cicoria (chicory) tonight. Alas, I think the punterelle season is over.

Now, don’t get me wrong, this is not all I do while in Rome: eating. I have been museuming, churching, praying, monumenting, Pantheoning, Coliseuming. Walking, walking, walking. It’s that food as microcosm thing at play. The way a culture does their food is the way they live and think. Hey, better minds than mine have pondered this. People you might say who are higher on the food chain. But, the Italians express themselves with those plates of bitter greens yanked from the ground. And, by the way, those Roman greens are nothing like the ones in Florence. Or, Assissi.

I ran into a funny blog written by an Italian in America when looking for the name of that killer sweet I had for breakfast. The writing is in Italian, but you get the drift with the pictures. This hapless soul looked into the face of Taco Bell coffee and a Hearty Man breakfast of bacon, eggs, hash browns, pancakes and toast. When all he wanted was un caffè e un cornetto.

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Ama Roma appears to be the new saying for la Bella città. Love Rome. And, really, how could you not.

At this morning’s breakfast ritual, with my cappuccino (pronounced copp-ew-CHEEN-oh) I picked a pastry larger than my hand. Hell, larger than that graphic hand on the side of the Roman city truck.

I loved that pastry. I’m glad I chose it (although at that size, it probably chose me). I should never be allowed to order it again.

It was the flakiest kind of pastry, covered all over with the lightest of sugar glazes, filled with just enough — abbastanza— cream. Sprinkled with a dusting of powdered sugar. Then, placed into the case for this hapless traveller. I didn’t see any locals in that coffee bar eating the hand-sized pastry with their copp-ew-CHEEN-oh.

I asked what it was called. I heard pasta and alla Romana. I think I’ve read about this legendary pastry, typical, only in Rome. As I walked out, I did see more pastries that looked like it. Just smaller. Hmmmm….

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What a day I have had.

I had my usual cornetto and caffè for breakfast. Walk walk walk. Then the most delicious lunch composed of my favorite pasta Romana: Cacio e Pepe (simply put: pasta with cheese and pepper — though believe me, there is nothing simple about this pasta) and then coniglio (rabbit) arrosto (roast), and cicoria. Incredibile! Il pranzo with my favorite priest. Of course with wine which, no excuses here, is much less alcoholic than ours in the U.S.

Walk walk walk.

I saw the Vatican. St. Peter’s. A charming little Via with antique store after antique store. The bridge of angels — Pont Sant’Angelo. Every bridge over the Tiber lined with African and Albanian immigrants who sell mini-tripods, sunglasses, costume jewelry, and these funny gel-filled soft rubbery like balls that the vendor slams into a board which makes the little squishy gel ball flatten like a puddle only to re-form as a little creature. Hard to describe. But, cool.

They are aggressive and persistent but, unlike the old toothless Roma (gypsy) ladies who don’t so much beg for money as whine, they will go away after a pitch. Or, two.

Now, though the picture doesn’t do it justice — for the price of a glass of wine, my apertivo of choice, I get a table, under an ivy-covered umbrella, as much time as I want (the Italians NEVER try to get you to leave. In fact, sometimes, you have to wave madly to get your bill, il conto, to get out of the restaurant or cafe). And all these snacks. Pretty much my dinner (leaving room, of course, for gelato). On this table I have a small cup of peanuts, another of potato chips, and a little plate with 2 tiny spinach pies, three little tomato tartlets, and 2 slices of crusty focaccia-like bread dripping with olive oil.

Oh. Oh! I just bit into what I thought was the spinach pie. Instead it is this flaky pastry triangle with anchovy paste inside.

Heaven. I’m in heaven!

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I am here to tell you: watch out when you’re hanging out with priests!

I had the unexpected pleasure to discover I was in Rome with one of my best friends in the world — who happens to be a priest. He was in town, staying at his Alma Mater in centro storico. We started our evening with gin and tonics on the rooftop, warm, inviting and surrounded by a stunning view of Roma. St. Peters was just behind me.

On the hour, the bells rang from every church in this city of a thousand churches. Beautiful sunset in Rome with fascinating people.

This night, we dined at a cool little ristorante near the Campo dei Fiori. I ordered pasta e patate — which is pasta with potatoes. It was tomatoey, which I did not expect. And soup-like. I wondered aloud whether it would be redundant to sop up the sauce with bread. I only asked, of course. I did it anyway. After dolce, one of our priestly party told me about a kind of “darker” grappa. The waiter, who was alternately in our face, and absent when we needed him, told us it was called, in Italiano: Grappa Scura. Less lighter fluid, more smooth brandy. Yum. Me.

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In all the years that I have been coming to Italy — even with living here, I simply haven’t been here in puntarelle season!

Puntarelle (they never seem to have a singular puntarella version though it is certainly a singular green) are strictly a spring vegetable. It is a succulent curlicue green, barely bitter, served with a simple garlicky, lemony, anchovy-laden dressing. I have had it before, maybe once, but not here. Not in Rome. Not like that. This trip, I experienced it at a little ristorante in the Campo dei Fiore. Just feet away from the older Roman women who populate the market, making sure that all the goods are table ready. The greens are usually displayed in water baths. Talk about farm to table.

I am a fan of greens, despite the fact I was one of those granddaughters of Italian immigrants who was embarrassed by the fact that granny was out in the yard plucking weeds from the lawn to cook for dinner. I have asked Italians before just what puntarelle is (are?). They say it’s like dandelion (not quite) or chicory, which I find almost inedibly bitter. When in Rome, I heard the people behind me wonder what is that? But they didn’t ask me. So I did not answer.

Did I already say how succulent that salad was? I have a feeling I better order it every chance I get — it probably has a life span of a minute thirty.

Oh – techno-victory. I transferred that image of the puntarelle from my iPhone to my iPad — with a gerry-rigged setup of connectors not exactly made for that function.

I think I’m beebling.

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Just arrived in La Bella Città — Heading out for my first Roman meal. Just sitting here in my room, I can smell crusty bread from the forno (bakery) below my window. Caffè from the bar across the way. Some kind of sauce bubbling on someone’s stove I this apartment building. When you fly overseas, they try to occupy you with food. I did have my dinner of some kind of chicken with rice. But, after my attempt at sleeping on the plane was only marginally successfully, I resisted that which they called a breakfast to save myself for the city itself. Fear not, I shall fill you in on everything as the days go by.

Having nothing to do with eating (unless a nursing baby fits into that category) — on the flight over here, I had a funny experience. When I got to my seat, there was this fretting Italian man who, as it turned out, was attached to wife, said nursing baby and another bambina about 5 years old. It seems the man was unable to secure the entire middle bank of seats for his family. So, he wanted me to give up my aisle seat to compensate. I did not want to do that. I did make it clear that I could speak Italian and, in fact, though I’m always anxious to start using the language as soon as I embark, I resisted. As a result, hubby and Frau did not know that I could understand most everything they said as they trashed me for not moving. Throughout the entire flight, the husband crawled over me to get out. And they kept handing the baby back and forth, back and forth over me.

The child was quite sweet and I thought a sport about it all. She watched me eat my apple (instead of the airline food) and kept whimpering. I am pretty sure she didn’t actually eat real food, except from Mom. But, hey, I wanted to whimper myself after 7 hours with her parents. And, no sleep on the flight over.

Now, off to the streets.

I am back at one of my favorite retreats. Well, I guess at this point, it is my Favorite, back East anyway. Forget the “one of” part. Kripalu. It is a yoga retreat in the Berkshires, a short drive from Lenox, Mass. It is a former monastery that has been turned into a school for Yogis and Aruyrvedic practitioners. It is also a place for visitors looking for wellness programs, or just a little R&R. You can practice yoga here three times a day, and do this wonderful moving form they call Yoga Dance. The yoga dance is very tribal, very primal, sweat-inducing, and LOTS of fun.

I arrived after a four-hour bus drive, sat next to a cool woman who commuted back and forth between her apartment outside of Boston and the Vermont woods where she lived with the boyfriend she met on You-Tube. When you leave the highly caffeinated world of Manhattan and land anywhere bucolic, it takes awhile to adapt to the deafening din of silence. Crickets in NYC mean no one has come to your nightclub. The smells, the views, the sounds of silence can be intimidating. I walked around, made myself at home in my spartan room (happy to see that the unknown roommate with whom I was to share the room had not arrived yet). A gentle yoga class, a delicious vegetarian dinner, some quiet time in the sun room until three 20-somethings came in to gab. Even then, I wasn’t in the mindset to be the librarian and “shhhhhush” them. I just went to my little room and fell asleep.
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There is a funny thing we weight losers do.  If we should find ourselves gaining weight (and who hasn’t) we find ourselves saying “I have gained a few pounds.”  Or, we will detach the weight loss from ourselves by saying “the weight won’t come off.”  As if it is a separate entity.

So, I am here to say that I have gained 15 pounds.  Not a “few” pounds.  Not “some” weight.  But, let’s be exact here.  15.  Fifteen.  One-five.  I have decided that it is important to say that.  I know I am not alone.  I want to show some courage here and acknowledge it.
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Durng my West Coast voyage through some former childhood haunts, I found myself in Albany, Oregon, the town where I grew up. A city: both rural and not. Neither urban nor suburban. Not even exurb.

Apparently, since I left several decades ago, that little city in the Willamette Valley became known for its Victorian neighborhoods. “Let’s go look at the hundreds of homes” squealed my good friend. Whoopee.  JUST what I want to do: drive by a bunch of old houses in Albany. Which, attitude aside, is precisely what we did.

Soft Ice Cream Joint

That is how we ended up at the Hasty Freeze ice cream hut of my youth. Dad used to take us to this tiny little drive-in. “Get whatever you want” he would tell my brother and me. Which really meant “I’ll get you a 10-cent soft ice cream cone.”
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While visiting the parts of the Oregon coast I used to travel as a child, I tried some old, familiar & nostalgic food items.  And, a new place: once trendy, now just plain quality, locavore foods cooked in a sophisticated kitchen.

For the meal: the latter.  A place called Tidal Raves in Depoe Bay, Oregon.  There was a bit of a wait, so my old college friend and I left a name, were told “20 minutes” and headed out to explore the town I knew so well as a youngster.

While walking to “town” – we saw a crowd facing the sea, rapt with attention.

It was a blowhole.  A wild, out of control gush of water through a slit in the rock.  A veritable geiser.  Dramatic!   We felt it before we saw it.  “Is it raining”  “No,” said my friend, “just misting a little bit.”  That was strange because there didn’t seem to be any rain clouds above and no drops behind.  Turns out it was the misty fallout from the geyser gushing from a crevice near the road by the Pacific Coast Highway.   Cool!!

But, this is Janet Eats, not Janet Watches Blowholes at Depoe Bay!
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In the verdant land of Oregon, not just the peace-love-tie-dyed people are on the green side.  Green in that sustainable way, I mean.

On the coast of Oregon, in the most plebeian of food establishments, you will find little signs indicating the provenance of the food you are purchasing.  Or, about to eat.

Surfing at Agate Beach

In Newport, Oregon there are several “restaurants” that feature locally caught fish.  And on the menu or in the glass case, you see things like LC Big Buoy – meaning Line Caught aboard the boat “Big Buoy”.   The fish is, of course, fabulously fresh and delicious.  But, you know you are the in presence of people who understand “sustainable” at a very real level.

I put “restaurants” in quotations, by the way, because some of them are really fish markets with some tables and a great cook in the back who understands how to coax the best flavors from the catch of the day.

I do enjoy “food as metaphor” — for this practice in a old fishing port in the central coast of Oregon, shows they respect the very stores they deplete everyday when they catch what the Pacific has to offer.

On a practical matter, that means I have had scrumptious simple grilled halibut sandwiches.  Clam chowder with huge chunks of local clams swimming in a sea of white cream.  And, I haven’t even moved to Dungeness crab and salmon.

It’s in season is not just a slogan here on the Oregon coast.  It’s Life.

Maybe we just need to think of everyday eating the way we do vacation eating.  Or, maybe it is more about mindfulness.  I don’t know.  It is just that when I’m on vacay I consider all the wonders of what I eat.  Indulgences allowed, of course. 

Here I am in Portland, Oregon – the land of filberts, salmon and Pinot Noir.  Real farm to table stuff (though it makes Portlanders crazy when the Times writes about Portland cuisine).

It’s Sunday morning, a few hours before brunch time and we found ourselves at the Bijou, Cafe.   Yep, the comma is NOT a typo.  I am not sure what conceit is behind the punctuation but here it seems almost quaint.

Consider the menu board: spiced lamb hash with pear muffin on the side. Yum! Apple compote on oatmeal with whipped cream.  Double yum!! I decided on chantarelle (are they local? I ask.  Oh yeah, she says, a guy comes to the kitchen with a bucket of them!”) omelette.  With a side order of grilled cinnamon bread!

A little piece of heaven, I tell you.  I guess you really don’t need un caffe’ and un cornetto to make a meal a delight.

This morning before leaving, I spent some time speaking with the young banker who rents me a room in Rome with un bagno privato. We don’t always converse that much. She speaks virtually no English. I do all right speaking Italian with her.

Really, think about how few words we use in a conversation with someone we barely know: weather (il tempo), food (il cibo), politics (Obama. Hahaha – these conversazioni can get a little more compicato. People I know in Rome really wanted to talk about Obama and, interestingly, the Nobel Prize! which they, like most of us, did not understand. “Couldn’t he just say no to it?”)

After we completed our short chat and I packed, I proclaimed I was going to walk for awhile, then get my ultimo caffé and cornetto. Ha! My ultimo cornetto! Of course, I have the photographic evidence of my cappucino — with a heart, as in I left my heart in San Pietro — and oh that ultimo cornetto. Nothing tastes quite as sweet as that first and last taste on a foreign shore.

It was both restful and invigorating: this Roman Holiday. I am fortunata to have friends in la cittá who know all those little osteria & trattoria that cook simple Italian cuisine. I had meals in at least three restaurants — without menus. Just more places to put on that list of consiglio – advice – I insist anyone going to Roma consult!

Allora! As the receipts say: ARRIVEDERCI E GRAZIE. Goodbye and thank you.

Parco Oppio

I sit at a small cafe in the middle of a park — in the Colle Oppio.  We are just steps away from the Domus Aurea and a short walk above the Coliseum.  That means this was once part of Nero’s gargantuan Villa. An estate that in its time was even too much for the indulgent ancient Romans (my knowledge of the history of this area is superficial at best).

In this century, I am drinking una limonata, which the Italians also call – oddly enough – Lemon Soda. Not that it sounds anything like lemmin sew-duh, mind you.  It is a Roman indulgence of mine.  I don’t usually drink full-sugar (or “light” for that matter) sodas.  But, this is so good.

What I love about this park:  it is all Romans, just a few turisti like myself.  Otherwise, it’s grandmas with the little ones.  Or, old folks out for a stroll and a sit on the bench.  And, oh my goodness, the children yelling “Fabio” “Giovanni”,  kicking balls,  terrorizing the pigeons, and chattering in their perfect high-pitched “va bene”s.

Having said that,  it is very peaceful, a universal oasis in the midst of honking horns, purring scooters and German tourists screeching for attention.

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