Next stop … Naples?

The headline reads “Why Tourists Skip Naples: Debunking Common Misconceptions,” and the story that follows presents a catalog of corrections to perceived biases against the southern Italian city, which suffers, to begin with, a reputation for crime and grime and Mafioso shenanigans. It’s known as the “messy brother” or “crazy uncle” of other Italian cities, two descriptions I totally relate to.

So while many tourists skip Naples, I will not. Even if some travelers expect it to be a “mafia-infested crap hole,” writes one travel blogger with zesty candor, I will embrace its raw, rough edges, tuck into its world-famous pizza, drop by the frozen-in-time tragedy of Pompeii and stroll the lush Amalfi Coast. If I feel like it, I might just hop over to the resort island of Capri. I’m capri-cious like that.

This is all in spitball stages. I haven’t bought a ticket, I haven’t nailed a date. I am digesting the possibilities. And as I do, I discover persuasive tidbits. Like that Rome is a measly one-hour train ride from Naples, instantly making any plans a two-city trip. Now I’m thinking four days in megacity Rome, three or four in Naples. (From the Colosseum to the Vatican, Rome, where I’ve been twice, needs no introduction.)

What’s in Naples? The city sits in the shadow of Mt. Vesuvius, which legendarily vomited ash and lava over Pompeii, a macabre pilgrimage for those of us who want to see ancient charred bodies in various poses of molten distress. There’s the almost holy National Archaeological Museum; the tomb of the poet Virgil; and Underground Naples, a subterranean slice of preserved ancient Greek and Roman life. Food is of course paramount, as the birthplace of pizza, probably my favorite food. (I’m a lucky guy: pasta is a close second.)   

Still, this history-drenched city, once known as the “Paris of the south,” remains Italy’s unruly black sheep. That’s partly due to the Camorra, the regional Campania mafia, which tends to ignore tourists and get its hands dirty in local entanglements. In other words, it’s not a concern. Street-level crime — pickpockets and such — exists, but hardly more than in any big city. 

Authenticity is the byword. Naples’ “historical center is one of the most authentic and unique places in Italy, in spite of being quite rough around the edges — maybe because of it,” says one traveler. The city is “unfiltered and uncensored — wholly authentic,” writes another.  

I like that; that’s my style. Anything too polished is, to me, antiseptic, a bore. I can do grunge, I can do seedy. I can even do dangerous (ask me about Beirut).

So my next trip might be two Italian cities, Rome and Naples, one gleaming, one with a little slobber on its chin. A writer quotes her Italian nonna saying, “Rome is the heart of Italy, but Naples is the soul of Italy.” Which has me nodding: perfetto.

Naples, with a looming Mt. Vesuvius

Portugal postcard #1

I about had a stroke scaling the steep medieval alleyways of my ‘hood in Porto, Portugal, last week, fuming at yet another of life’s inconveniences — precipitous hills! The humanity! — while clutching my chest and wiping my brow.

It was the same in Lisbon’s Alfama area, the capital city’s coolest, oldest, most mazy residential neighborhood, cut through with endless perpendicular hills and narrow passages. I am either desperately out of shape or the Portuguese are sadomasochists. (The former, decidedly.) 

These are not complaints. These — crippling strokes, premature heart attacks — are symptoms of the kind of euphoria travel so uniquely delivers, and what I experienced during a week split between Portugal’s two largest cities, Porto and Lisbon. Considering strokes and such, you could say the trip was to die for. I was smitten the entire time. 

I’ve been to much of the continent and Portugal reverberates with a different European tang that’s refreshingly, truly Old World. The people are amazing. And, except among many hacking, shriveled taxi drivers, English magically appears whenever you need it. It’s a country of nuance and contrast, urbanity and tradition. And with crazy luck, gorgeous January weather of cobalt skies and 60-degree days, everyday.

Both cities exude singular flavors. Sight-wise, there’s much to see but not an excess. That’s why walking tours are outstanding, taking you deep to reveal the nooks, the crannies, the crooks, the grannies (seriously: old women pop their heads out of two-story windows and chirp, “Bon dia!”). These are pleasant places, vibrant and laidback, and, with their fabled trams/trolleys, rolling hills and postcard waterfronts, redolent of classic San Francisco, my old stomping ground.

My brother asked if I missed a museum-centric city, à la Paris, but I did not. I do weary of so many museums in other cities that can, occasionally, feel like obligations. These cities are all street, with street art, graffiti, cathedrals, tavern after tavern (wifi — what’s that?), earthy food, multitudinous alcohol (Port, wine, Ginjinha!), ankle-twisting cobblestone, claustrophobic side streets, vertiginous hills and slopes, all of it intoxicating.

The streets are brilliantly bad for driving — lots of cobblestone in rattletrap cars with Model T shock absorbers. Sometimes I thought we’d been in an accident, but it was just a thump in the road. Rides are a steal: Uber lifts ran me $3 on average, with taxis still a bargain at twice the price.

Four days in Lisbon, then a three-hour train north to Porto, which resides languidly in pastel colors on the picturesque Douro River. My boutique hotel, a little alleyway charmer, was smack near the water, where it’s clotted with touristy action, even in January, but not too much. Like the guy with the explosive man bun juggling for tips. I got, but did not finish, a fish bowl of sangria, on the water, in the sun and breeze, while a hippie juggled in the distance.

In both cities the women are dark and lovely and the old men are raisin-faced, unshaven, bent over, sweater-clad, with baggy pants and newsboy caps — exactly how I hope to turn out. One day I had two female servers who possessed hairier arms than mine. As a man of Portuguese heritage, I almost cried with respect and admiration. They put my Aunt Silvia to shame, never mind my Uncle Johnny.

The Portuguese language is enchanting, musical, soft around the edges, like cookie dough. It has notes of Spanish, Italian and Russian, dappled with flower petals. It’s fragrant, easy on the ears and I know all of four words of it.

I found these twin cities fresh, novel, relaxed, uncrowded, winsome. Really, from the fine hotels to the affable people, authentic atmosphere to gushing hospitality, legendary history to rapturous food, Portugal is in my travel pantheon. It’s real Old World material. Humble but proud, and never pushy or arrogant. And always something beautiful.

Onto the slideshow, continued in the next blog post … 

Lisbon
The riverfront plaza three steps from my Porto hotel (try and spot the moon)
Alfama neighborhood in Lisbon, modern graffiti clashing with ancient tiles
Alfama
The infamous must-have Porto meal, the Francesinha, a heart-arresting cholesterol orgy of steak, ham, sausage, cheese and bread stacked and drowned in beer and spiced tomato sauce. Staggering decadence that could fell a mastodon. 
At Povo in Lisbon, where you eat and drink while witnessing fetching fado by up-and-comers in the Portuguese musical form, which is founded on soaring sentimental vocals. This singer cracked a roomful of hearts and we didn’t even know what she was saying. 
The Douro River in Porto
Street art is rampant, and almost always striking

 

Pleasures of Portugal, rediscovered

For all my previously stated apprehensions about the upcoming trip to Portugal — I leave in four days, with unease about how wonderful it will be — I’ve found some solace reading journals from my last Portugal journey, more than 15 years ago. Poring over the pages, it comes back to me: the rolling, vibrant cityscapes, the bonhomous people, the embracing Old World charm, the generously poured Port. What am I worrying about?

Here I am on my arrival in Lisbon those many years ago:

“Beautiful, entrancing, even at night. Quickly lost in the dense street maze searching for food. I’m in the Bairro Alto warren of eats and bars — bony alleyways, pastel walls, quintessential old country. Chanced upon a small, dark, red-lit Parisian-style bar filled with young, mellow boho types. Incense burning, jazz playing, modern art, movie lobby cards. Very hip but stripped of pretense. The basso hum of lively conversation. I am jet-lagged, spaced, zonked, enraptured. I am deranged with travel. It is sublime.”

Fueled by jogged memories — just in time — my enthusiasm for this trip gladly spirals. The journal, scribbled in blue ink and dappled with doodles, proves an encouraging record of a good trip, leavening heavy thoughts of the future voyage with hope and anticipation.

The Portugal journal, discreetly blurred to conceal my innermost thoughts.

I adored Portugal, though I must admit I wasn’t totally taken with its high-altitude fairy-tale town Sintra, with its cupcake castles and princely palaces and perilously steep hills that about sent me into cardiac arrest. My visit, I wrote, felt “mechanical,” the buildings “precious,” the whole joint a tourist trap of ersatz charms. The sylvan setting was nice, however, so green and lush and tall.

We must be reasonable. Travel inevitably presents the occasional hiccup, and you can do far worse than pretty Sintra. It’s all part of the adventure. Like this meal in Lisbon I noted:

“Dinner was ‘Typical Portuguese Sausage.’ But only a third of it was the kind I know and love; the rest was wretched: red, and mushy like squash, and black with bubbles of tough fat. Didn’t eat the pasty ones and tucked the others in a paper napkin so the lovely owner lady — ‘Is it good?’ she asks; ‘Delicious,’ I lie — wouldn’t know. I threw them outside. I hope a dog found them.”

Note to self: try the blood sausage again. You might like it. Older, wiser, and all. 

And that’s how I’m taking this whole trip, equipped with wider eyes and hard-earned wisdom. The last Portugal visit also included a few cities in Spain and Morocco. This time it’s two places in Portugal — Lisbon and Porto — and that’s it. Seven days of focused voyaging, all of it, I think, I hope, divine.  

In the byzantine backstreets of Lisbon

How to stop this mad, rushing wanderlust?

I just got back from Paris. I’m ready for the next adventure.

And so, greedily, I’m off to Portugal in January. The trip hasn’t even happened. Already I’m itching for the next one, wherever that might be. 

Where next? is the question pressing me — assaulting me — always. Travel is more than a bug; it’s a lifeblood. It’s what makes things worth it. Thus, with unquenchable wanderlust and heedless folly, I hopscotch the globe. Stop me before I go completely and abjectly broke.

The slightest trigger can catapult me ten time zones away. Last night I’m watching “Stanley Tucci: Searching for Italy” on CNN. I’ve been to Italy — Rome, Florence, Pisa, Venice, Milan, Cinque Terre — but Tucci, his burnished dome gleaming in the Mediterranean sun, is touring Sicily in this episode. He investigates the grungy-charming capital Palermo and eats celestial cuisine and gabs with cartoonish locals. His commentary is both wry and effusive.

Immediately I’m on the laptop researching travel to Sicily, while in the background the impossibly fit Tucci strolls alleyways, noshes pasta and relishes the job of a lifetime. Bastard.  

Sicily sags. I’m not big on heat, for starters, and nothing in my reportage quite grabs me, except that Sicily is where the Cyclops is from. I love monocles.

Fixed on Italy, I look to Rome. I’ve been there twice, but have I really been there? I was so young and all. Everyone’s always going on how great Rome is, but I’m not evangelical about it. I like it enough to ponder another visit, but then, like that, I recall the conversation I had earlier in the evening with a friend in which he extolled the virtues of Vienna. 

(He was over, incidentally, to watch the Icelandic folk-horror film “Lamb,” an absurdist fable about, that’s right, a half-child, half-lamb who is huggably creepy if inadvertently risible. Any Halloween tie-ins are strictly coincidental.)

So Vienna … My friend mentions Vienna’s excellence and I agree with him as I was there years ago, though I don’t remember it being mind-blowing, except for the absolutely idyllic day we spent on rented bicycles, one of the neatest things I’ve done in my travels.

Dropping Rome, I start researching Vienna, and it becomes quickly clear that the draw is not powerful enough. It’s a three-day destination at best, so I’d have to piggyback it with another nearish locale and … I’ll pass for now. 

Well before I tumbled down this European rabbit hole, and before I settled on Portugal, I was considering domestic and Canadian destinations for my next journey, including Nashville, Asheville, N.C., Toronto and Quebec City. I even, for a blink, mulled Santa Fe (which I chalk up to momentary insanity). 

The research is rigorous. I’ve been to Nashville, but it has since morphed into the bachelorette party capital of the world, a colossal drawback. Asheville is, like, a couple historical sites, cafes and craft breweries and lovely mountains. And so on. 

As I write this, I’ve looked harder at Sicily and it’s earned points in barnacled history and fantastic food. We’ll see. 

Travel’s importance in my life can’t be overestimated. I recently tallied that I’ve been to 29 countries over the years. Not bad. But that’s hardly the point. As travel guru Rick Steves says so beautifully:

“Is it a contest? Anybody who brags about how many countries they’ve been to — that’s no basis for the value of the travel they’ve done. You could have been to 100 countries and learned nothing, or you can go to Mexico and be a citizen of the planet. I find that there’s no correlation between people who count their countries and people who open their heart and their soul to the cultures they’re in.”

Amen. Now where in the hell am I going next?

Books, bookings, and Bourdain

A few things banging around my head this week …  

David Sedaris has a new book out. Whoop-dee-do.

Expectedly, knee-jerkingly, reviewers have stumbled over themselves to praise the foppish funnyman’s latest collection of personal tales (often tall), diary entries, cultural observations and social sniping. 

Snicker-worthy at his very best, Sedaris, a humor essayist for The New Yorker, has made a cottage industry out of wan, admittedly embellished autobiography, droll stories about his family, his husband and his privileged moves to the French and English countrysides. 

Turning life into literature, he is frank, irreverent, sassy, yet sensitive, as any good writer should be. And he is a good writer, even if his language is baldly prosaic, stylistically flat-footed, determinedly unadorned, dare I say drab. (I said it.)

Overrated, with thousands flocking to theater-sized readings to hear his nasally, high-pitched deadpan — I’ve been there — he’s not exceptionally funny or insightful, though he taps a reservoir of honest empathy. He’s a queer, urban Erma Bombeck, flattering a particular strain of hipster and sophisticate with teeny tee-hees. 

***

I’m pumped about Portugal. Barely back from Paris and already I’m poring over books and sites about Lisbon and Porto, legwork for a weeklong stay in mid-January, when I’ll probably get soaked by merciless rain (while temps hover at a balmy 58 degrees). Paris must feel like a betrayed mistress.

The flight, which cost less than a good winter coat thanks to an airline credit, is booked. Hotels, at seductive off-season prices, are booked. Two walking tours, including a Porto food tour, are booked. 

I got back from Paris exactly one week ago. I am shameless, a monster. 

Unlike Paris, London or Spain, Portugal isn’t front-loaded with blindingly spectacular sights and museums. It instead thrums with an old-world vibe, cobbly neighborhoods spread over San Francisco-y hills, views and plazas and churches and food, including unparalleled bounties from the sea, and of course the people. (My people. As mentioned before, I’m of Portuguese descent, though my ties to the country are tenuous at best. I’m a terrible ambassador.)

It’s a walking world, Portugal. I plan to amble, stomp and stagger through the country’s two biggest cities, with the very occasional — and very cheap — taxi for longer hauls. A picture says so much, and makes the heart do a jig:

Porto

***

Smarter, funnier, better looking and a brilliantly better writer — not mention an infinitely superior cook, natch — Anthony Bourdain and I still had a lot in common. 

We’re both wanderers, seekers, a little profane and rough around the edges, smart-alecks, atheists, ironists and guiltless sensualists. We’re angry, fiery and melancholic. We’re easily bothered and bored, and don’t always know what to do about it, except, in many cases, hit the road.  

And like him, for all my searching, I’m still not sure what I’m looking for. And I’m pretty sure I will never find out. Bourdain, a suicide in 2018, probably never did either.

This hits me watching “Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain,” a moving, multilayered documentary about the celebrity chef, author and influential television host by gifted filmmaker Morgan Neville (the Oscar-winning “Twenty Feet from Stardom,” another masterpiece). 

Sure we had things in common, but Bourdain, in his books, shows and this remarkable movie, cuts a troubled figure, the classic brooding, almost romantic enigma who toggles manically between wonder and woe.

With his streamers of verbiage, buoyantly prickly charm, zeppelin-sized attitude (and ego), lanky strut, tats and designer shades, Bourdain was hipster as tour guide, a foodie philosopher, man of the world who was always just a little itchy in the role. He was the reluctant rock star — cynical, self-effacing — who still craved the glory, glamor, privilege and, alas, the drugs, including heroin, that came with it.

At his best Bourdain was an influencer before the term gained the narcissistic kiddie cachet it flaunts today. Before any trip, be it Toronto or Tokyo, I watch a rerun of “No Reservations” or “The Layover” to get a voluptuary’s feel for a city and nail down must-do destinations of plate and place. I’ll be rewatching his “Parts Unknown” episode about the food and culture of Porto soon enough. I trust him to steer me to the coolest and most coveted spots. He hasn’t failed me yet.

The programs, of course, are as much about the man as the places he visits. They’re about getting an earful, and a mouthful, from a dark, dazzling host who found so much joy between grumbles. He made the dangerous seem divine, just how I like it.

***

When in Paris, I always duck into the fabled Shakespeare & Company bookstore, smack on the Seine on the historically literary Left Bank, where Joyce, Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Stein and Sartre tippled and typed, spinning the blank page into eternal art. 

Cramped and crowded with tome-seeking tourists, the creaky-floored shop, honeycombed with nooks, alcoves and twisty aisles, specializes in French and English language literature — no junk, just the good stuff. It’s not snobby. It’s just smart. And the English-speaking staff are unfailingly cheerful and helpful, stamping your book with the store’s inky insignia. It’s a pulp paradise, the kind that makes a bibliophile go a little mad with delight and desire.

I went firmly middlebrow on my recent pilgrimage, grabbing a paperback (it’s only available in hardback in the States) of Sally Rooney’s new novel, the wincingly titled “Beautiful World, Where Are You.” I cracked it immediately, reading in bars and cafes with a Chardonnay or latte on hand. 

The Irish Rooney (“Normal People”) is a reliably breezy read, plainspoken, occasionally lyrical, but mostly succinct and pinched. Her control is impressive and her sturdy, confident voice makes you want to follow her wherever she’s going, which often includes naked people. 

I just finished the book on my return from Paris and enjoyed it. It covers Rooney’s preferred topics — love, sex and friendship, yearning and ambition among anguished millennials — with detour discussions about Marxism and life’s unfathomable purpose. (Rooney, a wunderkind at 30, is a professed Marxist.) 

Coming from the famous bookshop, it’s not only a winning read, it’s a fitting souvenir from that most bookish of cities.

Paris perambulations

The worst French onion soup I ever had was in France.

It happened last week at a cozy bistro in Paris’ hip Le Marais district, a minor hiccup, though major faux pas, amid a constellation of remarkable meals I savored during my most recent travel escapade — eight days in Paris, the greatest city on the planet. 

I love onion soup, French style, but I never have it. Where do you get an authentic bowl? Well, try France. And so I did. Yet something went wrong. No, lots went wrong. The oily brown broth tasted OK — sweet, savory beef stock — but the onions themselves were pitifully scarce and, much worse, it was topped with small, stale, store-bought croutons and a grisly pile of clearly processed shredded cheese from a ziplock bag, cheese that was not Gruyere or Parmesan or melted.

I’ve had better onion soup in New Jersey. This was a disgrace. Only once, maybe twice, have I ever sent a dish back. I didn’t mutter a complaint about the soup. I didn’t want to shame anyone. Partly that’s because I also ordered escargot and it was pretty delicious — hot, plump mollusks drenched in garlic and olive oil. This was, of course, my purposely clichéd French meal. It had to be done, despite being a half fail.  

Saddest onion soup in the world

But I don’t travel for the greatest bowl of onion soup (or do I?). I do it for the explosive newness, to be pried out of my home-addled head and relocated to the novel and exotic, to live, learn, experience. To find joy, or even fear. To escape the self and kick open doors. To move, move, move. To seek, discover. To be astonished. 

Instead of my usual Paris haunt the Latin Quarter, I stayed in the aforementioned Le Marais on the Right Bank, a village of winding cobblestone streets, haute boutiques, LGBTQ cool, cafes, bars and trend-setting ambiance. It’s kind of fantastic. 

As usual I walked miles around the city till my toes blistered. Transportation-wise, I eschewed the Metro and instead hailed Ubers and taxis. After years of scrappy, lo-fi travel, I felt I deserved the convenience and ease of environmentally devastating vehicles. I’ll call it what it was: shameful, privileged laziness. It was a marvelously stupid decision that cost me hours in choking traffic and hundreds of precious dollars. I get all sad just thinking about it.

But the destinations, after I popped from the cars with a chirpy “Merci beaucoup!,” almost always assuaged the grief and guilt. There were of course essential standbys — the Louvre, D’Orsay, the legendary Shakespeare & Co. bookshop, the bone-encrusted Catacombs — but I added new spots to my well-trod Paris itinerary. 

Louvre

Like the avant-garde exhibition space Palais de Tokyo, where an impenetrable show by German artist Anne Imhof baffled and bored; and vaunted bistro L’Amis Jean, where I ate the most delectable rabbit and country vegetables and reveled in the festive atmosphere; and the dreamy Georgia O’Keefe retrospective at Centre Pompidou; and the itty-bitty restaurant-bakery Mokonuts, one of the hottest and hardest to get seats in town. 

Run by an endearing if understandably frenetic couple — with no employees, they’re the chefs, waitstaff and hosts — Mokonuts is low-key gourmet all the way. I had raw scallops that made me smile so involuntarily, co-owner/pastry chef/showrunner Moko Hirayama burst out laughing. (The main plate, pink-fleshed pigeon, was equally amazing.)  

Mokonuts is where I chatted with a middle-aged American couple about food and travel. They asked if I’d ever been to Lisbon, Portugal, and I said yes, I visited many, many years ago. (I’m of Portuguese descent, but that’s neither here nor there.) I found Lisbon to be like a giant, beautiful seaside village, suffused with languid, old-world charm. I relished it, but it didn’t leave teeth marks.

The couple perked up and replied that things have changed and they go there often for its food, people and invigorating bustle. Lisbon, I’ve since read, has become one of the most visited cities in Europe. My fellow travelers went on about it and inspired me to take a deeper look. The crazy result: I’m heading to Lisbon and Porto in mid-January. Expect a blog about sausage.

Musee D’Orsay

For the very first time in my many trips to Paris I did not see a classic American movie at one of the city’s numerous revival cinemas; no films (“An Affair to Remember” — pass) grabbed my interest, sadly. Yet I did take a short amble through my good friend Père Lachaise Cemetery, freckled as it was with fall leaves and dappled with autumn shadows. I sought out the relatively new grave of French actress Anna Karina, wife and muse of Jean-Luc Godard, with no luck. The place is massive. In fact I saw no celebrity plots — no Oscar Wilde, Jim Morrison or Edith Piaf — on this visit. Yet I still found a baroque beauty in death. 

As always seems to happen, I strolled by Notre Dame several times. The gothic vision oddly emerges out of nowhere almost anywhere you go. It demands your attention.

She is tragically transformed after the April 2019 blaze that tore her soul out and broke the world’s collective heart. Only the indelible, indomitable facade is fully visible, as the rest of the cathedral is girdled by a fortress of construction walls, webbed in scaffolding and towered over by spindly cranes. Depressingly visible are exposed wood planks on the flying buttresses and gaping maws in the charred rooftop. 

The surrounding wall panels are emblazoned with photos and explanatory text describing the fire’s destruction and exactly what type of surgical procedures the ancient lady is now undergoing. It’s informative, and classy. People still come to gaze in awe, and the cathedral’s gargoyles still perch in the heavens, smirking, telegraphing in their way that everything will be all right. 

Paris ping-pong

So it’s back to Paris I go. After a foolish flirtation with a week-long trip to Ireland, which went as far as booking a flight, hotels and tours, I dithered again and scrapped the whole damn thing.

My fall travel plan was initially for Paris, which I booked early summer. Then I got cold (Covid?) feet and thought: Hm, I’ve been to Paris plenty of times, let’s try something virgin and verdant. Ireland! Odd, as I’ve never had one inkling of an urge to go there. Still, I traded my Paris flight for a Dublin one and away we (almost) go. 

And then I dove into my usual rigorous research, combing and poring over books and sites about the land o’ Guinness guzzlers (evidently not a cliché, at all) and after each tepid tourist “gem” (the insanely popular, intensely lame Guinness Storehouse) and middling tour (the Jameson whiskey distillery), my heart began to sink and I was like: shit

I was even hard pressed to find any restaurants worth a prized reservation in Dublin and Galway, my two destinations. What came up repeatedly and endlessly were pubs and pubs and pubs. And it hit me: I don’t even really like pubs, what with their rowdy regulars, garrulous gulpers and sports super-fandom. Dublin and its kinda interesting cathedrals, fascinating-for-about-14-minutes Book of Kells library and three million pubs fizzled fast. (Let’s not forget Enya.) 

Paris suddenly looked magical, marvelous, as it always does. Dublin dumped, I swapped back my flight to Paris, where I’ll spend eight days in mid-October. I’m staying in the chic, foot-trafficky Le Marais, eating fine cuisine at Buvette and beyond and cruising quays and cobblestone to my favorite museums and bone repositories, from the Catacombs to the oceanic Père Lachaise Cemetery.

Just booking the trip was its own journey. Oh, the fun, fickle planning of the neurotic mind. My impulses are famously rash — watch me shop online, and weep — and when I’m bitten by something that seems fantastic, I swoop into action, Visa in hand. That of course leads to the occasional snap judgement. Like Ireland. 

With that, you might say I’m depriving myself of a new experience, a land of uncharted wonders and bottomless brown suds. But I argue I’m saving myself from groaning mediocrity, eye-crossing tedium and the deflating effect of the chronically underwhelming. (Here I risk rousing the “ire” in Ireland.)

I’m certain Ireland has its charms and delights. But it’s not for me, not now. Paris is my place, an almost mythical destination — the art! the food! the bookshops! the cinemas! the river! the boulevards! the gardens! — that fairly twinkles. 

The City of Light makes me lightheaded.

I plan for Paris. Covid laughs.

Last fall, Paris went kaput. That is, my planned trip to my favorite city was scrapped with a muscular assist from the pandemic. Covid, that magnificent killjoy, effectively squelched the October vacation, along with so many of your precious plans to get out and live life freely and safely. 

Woe is me. I know this is a first-world, big-baby complaint, but actually I’m not complaining. The trip was doomed from the start, founded on chutzpah and delusion. The pandemic would pass by October. Right. What a dope.

But I couldn’t resist the $430 round-trip flight bought last spring and the airline’s policy of crediting the ticket if trips were cancelled by Covid. Considering how grim everything was, it was sort of win-win.

I used that credit yesterday when I decided, rather rashly as usual, to take another shot at Paris in the fall. It cost a little more money, but the price was still right. Eight days in mid-October, starting where I left off during my last visit in fall 2015. 

Paris is slowly stirring from its Covid coma, when life was hamstrung by onerous rules and restrictions that made visiting pointless, if you could even get into Europe. I’m banking on more normalcy in the next few months as cafes, museums and bistros cautiously unlock their doors. (Alas, Notre Dame remains closed to worshippers and tourists after the blaze of 2019.)

Notre Dame, fall 2015

Must-dos: Musée d’Orsay; Musée Picasso (essential); Musée de l’Orangerie; citywide cinemas (I always see three or four classic movies in Paris); Centre Pompidou; and the skull-crammed Catacombs.

This time, my sixth in Paris, I will skip my beloved cemeteries: the lushly rococo Père Lachaise and the more classical Montmartre and Montparnasse cemeteries, which together house the graves of Jim Morrison, Oscar Wilde, François Truffaut, Susan Sontag, Edith Piaf, Chopin, Balzac, Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir. (Why visit cemeteries? Because they’re haunting and beautiful and, in Paris, they’re like strolling walks of fame for artists and intellectuals.)

Centre Pompidou, 2015

The Parisian foodie experience is paramount, and I have several places in my crosshairs: the peerless Frenchie; Michelin-star Le Chateaubriand; Buvette; and famed falafel joint L’As Du Fallafel in the Marais. For cocktails, it’s the vaunted Little Red Door — named one of the world’s 50 best bars for seven consecutive years — also in the Marais.

This all sounds super on paper, like most vacations do. The planning, the reservations, the advanced tickets, the accommodations (Hôtel Jeanne d’Arc Le Marais), the raw, giddy anticipation. But it’s a crap shoot.

I’m all in. I’m ready to split this burgh for a few days, sip wine on the Seine, see an old Eric Rohmer film, walk the Luxembourg and Tuileries gardens, skip the Mona Lisa, and be blown away by the city’s exuberant beauty. Again.  

I don’t know if I’ll actually get there. But I’m making a bid for it. For Paris, and for life. 

A matter of taste, bud

My tastebuds are in crazy revolt. Food that’s typically delicious is suddenly too strong, too rich, overabundant and on the attack. I’m having to rely on mild pastas, soups and salads — food I often eat anyway — for my primary sustenance. Savory sauces, meats and cheeses gag me with their power, and are for now banished. Alas, I can’t even taste the brine of my teardrops.

I know Covid erases one’s sense of taste (and smell), but I’ve never had the virus. My doctor says it’s likely some meds I’m on and recommends, get this, that I suck on sour candy before meals to stimulate the tastebuds. I’ve been eating lemon sours fiendishly, but they aren’t doing much, besides turning my tongue a ravishing shade of urine.   

Speaking of sucking, this predicament sucks. Gustatory delights are a big deal — pizza to pesto, sushi to scotch — and I feel crippled and swindled every time I chomp into a thick, leaky burger, anticipating mad scrumptiousness, but instead getting a big bite of blech.

My tongue feels a smidge numb, upping the awful factor. And it’s slightly whiter than usual, like I just licked a wedding cake. I tend to think I have a handsome, healthy tongue, cuter than, but not longer than, Gene Simmons’ mouth serpent. For now, the pink muscular organ has betrayed me, even compromising the indisputable delectability of the onion rings I nosh while I write this. 

You know what tastes good? Chicken noodle soup. Tea. Mac and cheese. Toast. Fish. Beans. Ice cream. Water. Sounds like the menu at a nursing home. 

I’ll just have to suck it up, though I’d much rather lick it up. This is minor stuff in the big picture, and I can live with it temporarily, no matter how obnoxious, even if it means my main appetizer is a tangy lemon sour. I should plate the little translucent lozenge.

These onion rings are excellent, a good sign. Yet I’m wary. I’m worried. And I’m starving. 

One magnificent mollusk

Coiled near its rocky den, the octopus slowly unfurls a tentacle like a flower blooming in a time-lapse photo to the human hand before her. It glances the hand then suddenly sucks it, gently pulling it toward her. The moment carries the pitter-patter of courtship, of holding hands for the first time. Could this be love?

“That’s when you know there’s full trust,” says the owner of the suction-cupped hand, free diver and filmmaker Craig Foster, in his remarkable documentary “My Octopus Teacher.” A viral smash, the Netflix film has been shortlisted for the best documentary Academy Award. Really, it deserves a special accolade, say, Best Buddy Picture Between Man and Mollusk. The movie is something else: devastating octo-poetry. 

A simple story about a grown man befriending a gorgeously slithery cephalopod in the swaying kelp forests of South Africa, the film depicts the burly, soft-spoken Foster as a dedicated student of the ocean who is truly moved by the relationship he forges over a year with the sea animal that remains unnamed. (I suggest Octavia.)

Part of his lesson is noticing the striking similarities between us and these “alien” creatures, the way connection, interspecies or not, is essential and a well of bracing contentment. “It does give you this strange level of octopus joy,” notes Foster, saying words that have likely never been uttered before.

As a pupil, Foster is a keen observer, learning by watching his silent friend do what she does: hunt, hide, jet, crawl, swim and, sometimes, walk on two legs on the ocean floor. That trippy spectacle, both funny and boggling, is one of many scene-stealers.

She’s a gelatinous chameleon, enacting stunning physical transformations with her bulbous head, serpentine legs and polka-dot suckers to blend seamlessly into the Day-Glo surroundings. Her effortless shape-shifting is part of the movie’s multi-pronged magic.

“My Octopus Teacher” reminds me of many oceany things, like the charmingly odd adopt an octopus campaign at the World Wildlife Fund, where for a $55 donation you get a plush stuffed octopus, a photo, an adoption certificate and other tentacular goodies. It never occurred to me that octopi were endangered, but WWF says they’re “vulnerable to toxins and pollution,” yet doesn’t that cover just about everything? (Please send me $55. I am endangered. My plush doll is amazing.) 

As much as I love watching the delightful octopus in the movie, I love even more putting octopus in my mouth. Almost unavoidable on midscale restaurant menus — perhaps another reason they’re endangered — grilled octopus is hot stuff, up there with bone marrow and short ribs. Both chewy and silky, the meat has a mild sea-foody flavor complemented by a good fiery sear. Here’s a spectacular piece I scarfed in Barcelona:

I don’t want to eat the movie’s affable octopus. She’s a darling — adorably clever, wily and pretty, much like the picture itself, which is also fairly wrenching (brace for some drama). 

It’s an elemental tale rife with homey pleasures: the hand holding, the snuggling, the mutual respect. The bond is inexplicable but palpable, right there on screen, like when Foster’s new BFF seems to be tailing him through the sea.

“That’s one of the most incredible feelings,” he beams, “to be followed by an octopus.”

It’s fantastic, and it almost breaks your heart.