Normandy Memories with Paul Shoul from 2009

Biking into Bricquebec, Normandy, France.

Biking into Bricquebec, Normandy, France.

The best thing about a blog is being able to look back and remember the places you went and the people you met. I love to randomly search through this blog’s archives and find old posts and recall distant memories. Recently I was looking at some posts from a week I spent in Normandy France with my travel buddy, Paul Shoul in June 2009.

Paul enjoying the cheese course at Rouen’s La Couronne, where they have been serving since 1345. This was one of Julia Child's first inspirations to become a French chef.

Paul enjoying the cheese course at Rouen’s La Couronne, where they have been serving since 1345. This was one of Julia Child’s first inspirations to become a French chef.

I have always had a love for this part of France, since it was the first region I visited when I was a 16-year-old, and we set out in a rental car with no GPS.  Hilarity ensued as we tried to find our destinations; Paul always wanting to stop and ask directions, and me hoping to soldier on using a map. One time when Paul asked someone if they spoke English, they said “yes, but I’d rather not.”  We made it anyway.

The beach at Etretat, Normandy, France.

The beach at Etretat, Normandy, France.

Trips that I take so often become a blur, but I have great memories of this particular Normandy adventure, because we saw so many unusual things. One was a bell foundry where giant bells were created by pouring molten bronze into molds, another time we stayed at a hotel in Granville, and saw a tide that left boats high and dry on the sand.

We spent a lot of time at the World War II Memorial at Caen, which was a great portrayal of all aspects of the war, including what caused it and the experiences of the death camps.  One thing that I also remember fondly was staying at a castle in the village of Brix, each of us got a bedroom that was the size of a King’s salon.  Later I biked into the village and stumbled upon a great party, with 200 or so revelers enjoying their cheese courses, five selections on a

Pouring a bell at The Fonderie de Cloches Cornille Havard in Villedieu-les-Poeles, Normandy.

Pouring a bell at The Fonderie de Cloches Cornille Havard in Villedieu-les-Poeles, Normandy.

china plate, and quaffing wine that came out of boxes. We met a lovely man who had the most incredible garden I’ve ever seen–perfect rows, not a weed to be seen, and he said he never went shopping, he just ate every meal out of this bounteous garden. He baked wonderful bread, every day, in his own wood fired oven.

I have trips coming up but I still love thinking about the trips that I did in years gone by.  Here’s to a summer of more adventures, and to my traveling buddy Paul, with whom I hope to travel with again soon.

The Green River Festival is a Year-Long Labor of Love: Jim Olsen’s Musical Highlights

Dustbowl Revival joins the fun at the Green River Festival, playing twice, Saturday and Sunday July 9-10.

Dustbowl Revival joins the fun at the Green River Festival, playing twice, Saturday and Sunday July 9-10.

“It pretty much never ends,” said Jim Olsen, in an interview in his office at Signature Sounds last week, when I asked about the planning and details for this year’s Green River Festival, the 30th since 1986.

This will be the third time it’s all being handled by Signature Sounds, who took over this beloved summer event from the Franklin County Chamber.  I asked Jim about this year’s line-up, and he mentioned the headliner, Tedeschi Trucks Band, who they have been talking with for 4-5 years. This is the year that it came together, and Susan Tedeschi will join her husband Derek Trucks and front a 12-piece band which Jim describes as a soul review, little like Joe Cocker’s Mad Dogs and Englishmen.  He said this year’s line up will again be diverse and a big musical mix.

Last year’s Preservation Hall Jazz Band was a act that Jim said he had been chasing for five years, they’re a very famous festival act. They were a great addition to the line-up, and for me, like much of the music, it was exciting and new. But I’m probably more of the typical Green River Festival goer, happy with whatever bands are selected .

“We want to keep it contemporary, we need to reach a younger audience.  We are always bringing in new names, that’s what makes it interesting,”  Jim said.  He added that he always wants to book musicians for the fest who bring a certain amount of energy, not as much the singer/songwriters of years past. “We want them to have the festival energy, to keep mixing it up.”  He likes the juxtaposition of different bands, different types of musical flavors.

SInger Margo Price is one of the acts that Festival boss Jim Olsen says he highly recommends hearing. She'll be playing on Friday July 8.

SInger Margo Price is one of the acts that Festival boss Jim Olsen says he highly recommends hearing. She’ll be playing on Friday July 8.

The Suffers, out of Houston, Texas, are another stand-out. Catch them on Saturday July 9 at the Green River Festival.

The Suffers, out of Houston, Texas, are another stand-out. Catch them on Saturday July 9 at the Green River Festival.

This year the camping at Franklin County Fairgrounds has already sold out, almost 400 festival goers will spend the night in tents up on Wisdom Way. Buses will provide transportation from the campsites to the fest, and they will again offer  quick trips to the Green River Swimming area, for a $5 cool-off. A few hundred people enjoyed a swim during the 2015 fest, it’s one of the things that makes the GRF unique.

Their ticket agency tracks where people come from, Jim said, and last year, people came from 17 states to enjoy the festival.

This year they are changing the vending area to the left of the stage so it will include a second row of vendors, and give everyone more room. There will also be more shady areas this year, and a second beer tent to cool off the audience.

With a line-up that’s covers three stages over three days, there are many acts to consider, and many that I have never heard of. So who should we be looking out for, who are the bands that Jim is most looking forward to introducing to the Green River audience?

Jim Olsen, owner of Signature Sounds and the man behind the Green River Festival.

Jim Olsen, owner of Signature Sounds and the man behind the Green River Festival.

Margo Price was the first name he mentioned. She’s playing on Friday at 3:35 pm. “She’s a country singer who’s been compared to Loretta Lynne, and Tammy Wynette, but she’s also got this young hipster thing too. She’s been on Saturday Night Live, and other big TV shows.

The Suffers, playing Saturday at 6:15, are from Houston Texas, also got a nod from Jim. “They are a 10-piece soul band, akin to Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings, and they’re fantastic.”  He heard about The Suffers from local favorites Lake Street Dive, a former Signature Sounds recording act.  Jim’s third suggestion– Dust Bowl Revival, are a group of younger guys from LA, they mix the classic jazz with a bluegrass sound. They are an eight-piece act, they’re playing twice, Friday at 3:15  and Saturday at 6:15.

In addition to this year’s exciting music line-up, another interesting project is a new book being written by former WRSI DJ John Reilly and edited by former Advocate music editor David Sokol. The book will chronicle the Green River Festival’s 30 great years, entitled, “Lifting Off, the History of the Green River Festival.” The book will be available for sale at the festival, and for any regular patron, the multiple interviews that Johnny did with many of the musicians as well as the tales from the early days make great reading under your umbrellas at the festival!

Get tickets!  Green River Festival, Greenfield Community College Friday-Sunday July 8-10, 2016

A Great Excuse for a Party in the Backyard!

Bill Schmill, sister Caroline and cousin Paul.

Bill Schmill, sister Caroline and cousin Paul.

It’s a rainy Sunday and a rare moment to have a truly relaxing day doing very little.  I just don’t give myself enough of these days where I do little or nothing, leaving chores and work in the dust.  We had a great time last night getting to know two new people in our lives and had a party with Bill, Jen and Charlie, two Pauls and cousin Steve.

My cousin Paul has been dating a lovely woman named Sue Ellen, from Pelham. We got to meet her last night, she was very friendly and we all felt right way, that we had already warmed to her, in such a short time.  Also my friend Paul brought his girlfriend Diane to meet us as well.  Diane is marvelously comfortable in our midst, as if we’d known her for a long time, the same as Sue Ellen.

Both women fit right into our party scene. That’s always a good thing!

Our backyard party was the usual mix, great food, a fire sit around, and many old friends. The reason for the party was in honor of my sister Caroline’s visit, and it’s always my excuse to throw a party when we have out of town guests.  With the fire glowing and everyone comfortable after the big meal, we enjoyed conversation under the stars on a fine Saturday night.  Spotify kept us happily entertained with great music from my favorite playlist, “Starred” and it pleased me when Caroline commented that she liked the tunes.  Yeah!

Steve is Gone: The Continuum and Dull Sadness of Life is the Price for Joy

Mandy and Steve Szkotak in Italy.

Mandy and Steve Szkotak in Italy.

Steve Szkotak died today at 3:01 pm. I am doing my good work, keeping busy, meeting new people, as my pen-pal has died, slipping away . We have been sharing emails between us for a decade; it’s hard for me to look at email the same way now that Steve has left us.  Steve Szkotak has departed.  I miss him already.  Here is his full obituary, which reveals his interesting writing style and the range of jobs he had through his career. Steve was 65.

I have had two other friends leave me, like we always think, too young.  Kent St. John was not yet 60,  Joe Obeng was in his mid-forties.  I often think about how old people are when the meet their fates, it’s so terribly random and hard.  God it’s hard. Nobody will really ever accept this, it’s just the cross we bear for the joy of being humans.  I think often about Kent and about Joe, both key members of our original team that made GoNOMAD. And now Steve joins them in that sad chamber of people you remember but will never see again.

I think by now, Steve is slipping free-fall, he had the drugs that make it a peaceful exit. He wasn’t anxious, he wasn’t full of fear. He slipped quietly, in his dignified way, to the beyond, that place where we all must go.  His wife was with him, supported by an old friend. Steve is gone. A good man leaves us.

Houston’s Restaurant Scene is Exploding

The kitchen garden at Coltivare is extensive, they even grow corn!

The kitchen garden at Coltivare is extensive, they even grow corn!

Houston, I’ve been told, is the most diverse city in the United States. More than 170 languages are spoken here, beating even Astoria, Queens as the biggest challenge for translators.  This vast city is full of so many immigrants, that naturally, it would also be a top food destination.

Chefs in front of the wood fired oven at Coltivare.

Chefs in front of the wood fired oven at Coltivare.

Last night we fanned out all over Houston in a dine-around, groups were dispatched to a dozen different restaurants. I joined Houston’s tourism press rep, A.J. Mistretta, and climbed aboard the bus heading for Coltivare, where the name means cultivate in Italian.

Chef Ryan Pera makes the best use of local ingredients by shopping in the big kitchen garden in the restaurant’s own patio. Tall stalks of corn, towering tomato plants, and rows of lacinato  kale join many other veggies and herbs that the chef uses in the simple dishes.  “We don’t grow cauliflower,” we were told by GM Jeb Stuart, “but we grow a whole lot of everything else.”

A potato egg pizza from the wood fired oven.

A potato egg pizza from the wood fired oven.

We sat at a big long table out in the patio, and they brought forth dish after dish. We didn’t have to decide what to order, they just kept bringing out small plates of delicious Italian dishes, starting with a big board of salami, pepper spread, prosciutto, olives and warm bread. Then a tomato and feta basil salad, with unusually red ripe tomotoes, then their signature roasted cauliflower florets…and finally some of their wood-fired sourdough pizzas.  It was truly the perfect way to dine and with their top-notch wine list, it was just about perfect. I love it when I don’t have to decide, it just comes.

Other Houston dining highlights are Underbelly, which has a great reputation for all things pork, with their own butcher shop and owned by famous chef Chris Shepard, an expert on the local food scene. Other kudos from Houston locals were directed at Nifa’s and the many great joints along Montrose Street. With more than 10,000 restaurants to choose from, it would take quite a bit of research to determine the best, but it would be a very delicious endeavor!  Find out more at Visit Houston.

Houston’s a Great Place to See By Bike

Seven steel towers show images drawn by schoolkids along the Buffalo Bayou trail in Houston.

Seven steel towers show images drawn by schoolkids along the Buffalo Bayou trail in Houston.

The Phoenicia Specialty foods market has everything Mediterranean, including killer lamb and chicken shawarmas

The Phoenicia Specialty foods market has everything Mediterranean, including killer lamb and chicken shawarmas.

The life of President George HW Bush is profiled on plaques behind this large sculpture of him standing near George Bush park.

The life of President George HW Bush is profiled on plaques behind this large sculpture of him standing near George Bush park.

 

A bike path protected from cars in Houston, Texas.

A bike path protected from cars in Houston, Texas.

There is really no better way to explore a new city than by bicycle.  I joined Phil Butcher, owner of Bayou City Bike Tours this morning for a trip around part of downtown Houston, and I was impressed.

Before I took off on our ride, some of the people at the conference mentioned that it was hot. Yes, it was already in the mid-eighties, but that didn’t deter me. We made our way to one of the city’s many bike rental kiosks, and with the insertion of a credit card I was on board a bike. The first 60 minutes are free, so if you switch bikes every hour, you don’t have to pay.

Our route was on a long section of street painted green with rubber bumper barriers, a protected bike lane that Phil said many delivery trucks and other vehicles often ignore. But it felt safe as we pedaled toward the Buffalo Bayou Hike and Bike trail, that runs for eight miles along the chocolate-milk colored Buffalo Bayou river.  This is the river that flooded in April 2016, and though this had happened last month, there was no sign of it on our ride, as we rode past egrets and large ducks and the skateboard park named for a famous local attorney and his wife.

Phil told me lots of things about Houston that were impressive. It’s the most diverse city in the US, with 6.2 million people speaking 100 different languages in the 627 square miles that make up the city. Vietnamese are just one of many countries where large numbers of Houstonites came from. This is the headquarters for giant companies like Exxon Mobile, United Airlines, Waste Management and AIG, it’s the home of more Fortune 500 companies anywhere but New York City.  The theater district here is also 2nd only to NYC, with more shows and more tickets sold than any other city besides the Apple.

Our ride took us to Market Square Park, where under a leafy canopy, people queued up for Greek food and coffee at Niko’s, and on a rectangular brick patio we sat at the site of the city’s original town hall. Birds sang in the trees as we relaxed at the table.

I asked Phil about his favorite Houston restaurants, and he told me about Pico’s, where a specialty is fried soft shell crab. His favorite beer bar is the Hay Merchant, and if he wants something fancy, he’ll take his girlfriend to the Mockingbird Bistro, or The Raven in Rice Village.  I took an Uber across town to a very upscale joint last night called Peska, where they had the perfect pea soup and a soft shell crab taco that really hit the spot.

I also enjoyed another recommendation of Phil’s–The Phoenicia Specialty Foods, a Mediterranean gourmet food store, bar and restaurant. We waited in a line for lamb shawarma, served hot in a wheat pita with tzatziki sauce and roasted brussels sprouts on the side. I loved that place and stayed around after Phil left to pick up some spices they sell in bulk, including sumac, chicken shawarma spice and a Moroccan spice blend called Ras El Hanout.  The next time I cook I’ll remember Phoenicia Specialty  in Houston!