Oh Diner, My Diner

The old-fashioned diner remains one of the quintessential symbols of America.
The old-fashioned diner remains one of the quintessential symbols of America.
Diners don't change much, and that is perfectly alright with most people.
Diners don’t change much, and that is perfectly alright with most people.
It may not be high-end cappuccinos like in Rome, but diner coffee always hits the spot.
It may not be high-end cappuccinos like in Rome, but diner coffee always hits the spot.

When it comes to restaurants, it doesn’t get much simpler than the great American diner. And while restaurants come and go, all those magnificent diners that dot our great land are nothing but the rough diamonds of our culinary landscape. Too greasy? Yes. Too many calories? Sure. Cholesterol bombs? Definitely. Delicious? Absolutely. This culinary dichotomy (eyes raised to the heavens while placing one foot on the grave) is what makes these places a must while we spend time on this earth. Gravy on the biscuits? Must you ask.

But what is it that attracts so many people to the simple American diner? To a large extent, it is a large degree of nostalgia. Diners remind us of simple days, of small town America, of long-gone family time when you could dress casually while enjoying food that at some level helped to bind us as a people. What’s more, when go to a diner, we really don’t care much about how the food tastes. We already know how it’s going to taste. After all, how may permutations of eggs and hash browns can there be. No, going to a diner will always be about feeling differently when we’re there; about unpretentious servers who greet you as if they’ve known you forever. It is about the sweet “seat yourself” melody resonating in our ears, and about not being able to decide what to order because everything looks too good to pass. Heaven on earth, if you ask me. A place to be who you truly are and not the promotional version of yourself. I only wish I could turn back the clock a few decades or so, to a time when I could have added a couple of pancakes to my order. Next time, my friend, next time.

 

A Short (And Wonderful) Visit To Milan, Italy

Milan is an elegant city where locals like to look good even when just strolling downtown. [Click photos for larger versions]
Milan is an elegant city where locals like to look good even when just strolling downtown. [Click photos for larger versions]
The stunning Galleria Vittorio Emanuele is the place to be when visiting the City Center in Milan.
The stunning Galleria Vittorio Emanuele is the place to be when visiting the City Center in Milan.
Just like in Rome and Venice, building doors open to reveal incredible courtyards usually hidden from the public.
Just like in Rome and Venice, building doors open to reveal incredible courtyards usually hidden from the public.
Along the flag-drapped and classy Corso Vittorio Emanuelle II there are some of the best cafés in the city.
Along the flag-drapped and classy Corso Vittorio Emanuelle II you can find some of the best cafés in the city.
Butcher shops, like this one in the Brera neighborhood just off the City Center, are typical fixtures in Milan.
Butcher shops, like this one in the Brera neighborhood just off the City Center, are typical fixtures in Milan.
The covered walkways surrounding the imposing Piazza del Duomo are the perfect spots for people watching in the city.
The covered walkways surrounding the imposing Piazza del Duomo are the perfect spots for people watching in the city.
The busy cafés along Via Giuseppe Verdi cater to an elegant clientele who know at all hours of the day.
The busy coffee bars along Via Giuseppe Verdi cater to an elegant clientele who know at all hours of the day.
If you suddenly woke up and saw a scene like this, you would immediately know you are in Italy.
If you suddenly woke up and saw a scene like this, you would immediately know you are in Italy.
One of the smaller concert rooms inside La Scala opera house in Milan.
One of the smaller concert rooms inside La Scala opera house in Milan.
One of the most-visited attractions in Milan is the Castello Sforzesco at the end of the shop-filled Via Dante.
One of the most-visited attractions in Milan is the Castello Sforzesco at the end of the shop-filled Via Dante.
Walk ten minutes in any direction from downtown Milan and you will find small, quaint parks in which to enjoy a quiet moment.
Walk ten minutes in any direction from downtown Milan and you will find small, quaint parks in which to enjoy a quiet moment.

The richest city in Italy is one that is often ignored by tourists. Not that they never go there, but rather that it just doesn’t get the same amount of attention as Venice to the east or Rome to the south. That’s a pity, because after spending some time in Milan, I am convinced that this northern powerhouse has to be one of the nicest cities I’ve visited in a long time. While Venice and Rome are representatives of the country’s past, Milan is definitely the poster child for Italy’s future. Sophisticated, classy, and energetic, this northern-most post of all things Italian oozes with class and energy. Not sure what it is, but there’s definitely a different vive about it that is hard to find in other parts of Italy. Not necessarily better, but different, and in a good way.

Landing in Milan I was well aware of the city’s fashion and publishing fame. In fact, the publisher who brought the world Boris Pasternak’s smuggled script of Doctor Zhivago hailed from Milan. And when it comes to fashion, you name it and it is in Milan. But what I was not aware of was how nice the Italians from this city were. Friendly, conversational, and kind of patient with the hordes of people who swarm the city during international events like the World Expo, they are approachable and always willing to help.  And then there’s food. It’s almost impossible to do it justice with words alone, but suffice it to say that if you spend any time in Milan and don’t put on some serious poundage, then there’s something definitely wrong with you. From the famous Aperitivo hours (a sort of Happy Hour where you buy a single drink and can gorge from a buffet for three hours) to the out-of-this-world Risotto a la Milanese, the city’s bounty is a perfect compliment to the fabulous wines from the adjacent regions (Barolo, Barbaresco, Nebbiolo, Amarone). And coffee. As far as I am concerned, standing along coffee bar counters for a quick caffè, macchiato, or marocchino in the afternoon is reason alone to visit Italy, and in Milan you’ll find yourself rubbing shoulders with perfectly coiffed locals getting their afternoon fix.

The visual rewards of the city are just as compelling as its lifestyle. The downtown is dominated by two of the most famous structures in the world: the gothic-styled Dumo Cathedral with its 3,600 statutes and the über-elegant Galleria Vittorio Emanuele. Both breathtaking to say the least. Drift behind the Galleria and you will find yourself face-to-face with Teatro alla Scala, the most famous opera theater in the world. Walk a bit further and you can get happily lost in Brera, a neighborhood of twisted streets, university-district ambiance, and a multitude of incredible, small restaurants that could easily be featured in postcards. The green Metro line will rapidly take you to the Navigli, where elegant canals designed by Michelangelo are lined with restaurants and stylish bars that provide some of the best nightlife in the city.

There’s a lot more to Milan that I could ever describe in these short paragraphs. Suffice it to say that this photo-friendly city (no doubt the result of the armies of models and designers that hang around the place) was a real joy to visit. And when the time came to catch my return flight, I simply wasn’t ready at all to leave this wonderful place. Like Zurich to the north, Milan is one of those understated cities where you immediately (and effortlessly) feel at home, even if most tourist brochures never tell you this. Then again, this may be one of the best kept secrets in the world, so I better stop talking. Just don’t tell anyone.

Photographic Micro-Scenes

The atmosphere at the eclectic Misha's coffeehouse in Alexandria could not be any more relaxed.  Leica M9, Summicron-M 28mm f/2 ASPH.
The atmosphere at the eclectic Misha’s coffeehouse and roaster in Alexandria could not be any more relaxed. Leica M9, Summicron-M 28mm f/2 ASPH.

Today was one of those days when I just felt like lugging my Leica for a long walk in Alexandria, but in no particular direction in mind.  For starters, it was one of the nicest days we’ve had in a long time; a sunny day with temperatures that stayed in the low 50’s for a change.  I also got an early start, as there’s something about the empty streets in Alexandria during the early morning hours that seriously appeals to me.  First stop along the way: Misha’s coffeehouse and roaster.  This is a busy place, with people vying for table space as if it were a DC bar on a busy Friday night.  But it was precisely this busy atmosphere that got me thinking about this whole concept of photographic micro-scenes.  Everywhere you looked, people seemed to be in their own micro worlds.  Some read, some talked, and some listened.  Photographic micro-scenes were everywhere, with people inadvertently posing by constantly altering their  body language.  It was all like watching a play with ever-changing scenes and characters.  Everyday art in everyday lives.