Picnic under Eiffel Tower a table with the ultimate view

The Eiffel Tower attracts hordes of tourists but hungry French go there, too.

The Eiffel Tower attracts hordes of tourists but hungry French go there, too.

PARIS — Picnic in Paris.

The term just exudes romance, doesn’t it? Like “Stroll in Rome” or “Hike in Alps.” Every time I come to Paris I have a picnic in a park. It’s one thing you can do alone that isn’t touristy. It puts you nose deep into local culture or however far your nose can dip into a big creamy pile of Brie. It’s eating fantastic French food with equally spectacular atmosphere. Talk about a table with a view. I’ve picnicked in Jardin du Luxembourg and Jardin des Tuileries. This time I wanted to upgrade.

Parc du Champ de Mars at the foot of the Eiffel Tower.

No, it’s not that touristy. It’s what the French do. That’s because they’re French. Give a Frenchman a fresh baguette, a bottle of wine and a beautiful view (a beautiful woman is optional) and he’s pretty damn happy.

So am I.

The best part about a picnic in Paris is shopping. Food shopping in Paris is like strolling through an art gallery where you can actually taste the art. It’s like Rome. I shop every day in Rome because I love to smell the cheeses and prosciuttos and look at the rainbow-colored fruits and vegetables. Paris is the same landscape but the smells are different.

Cheese stall at the Latin Quarter's public market.

Cheese stall at the Latin Quarter’s public market.

Just down the street from my Paris apartment on bustling Boulevard Saint-Germain, food stalls open in the morning to compete with the little permanent establishments. At one stall, I saw cheeses from the breadth of France, from Bleu de Gex from the Jura near Switzerland to Munster from the Vosges mountain range near Germany to Tomme de Montagne from the Auvergne smack dab in the middle of the country. I settled on two little blocks of cheese that were shaped like big hockey pucks. They were Camembert from Normandy, hard on the English Channel. It was perfectly spreadable on a spongy sesame baguette.

A few feet away, a meat store has big, fat, dark brown chickens slowly roasting on a spit. In one display case was a big pile of chicken legs, glistening in their spit-roasted splendor. A fruit stand next door provided me with a small tin of bright red strawberries and I stopped by my favorite bakery where they automatically packed up a chocolate croissant before I even opened my mouth, just out of sheer habit after three days.

Rotisserie chicken on Rue Saint-Germain.

Rotisserie chicken on Rue Saint-Germain.

I walked down the street to a little wine store organized by French wine regions. Spurred on by the wine I drank at Hemingway’s old cafe the other day, I went to the Bourgogne section and bought a nice red for only 11 euro.

So I walked to the subway toting a backpack with a long baguette sticking out of the top like a French flagpole. Suddenly I looked very French. I felt French. At least, I did a little. Picnics are what the French do real well. Paris has so many parks. Open a Paris map and it’s scatter sprayed with large swatches of green. Rome has very underrated parks — Villa Borghese, Doria Pamphilj, Villa Ada — but Paris not only has parks but huge gardens perfect for laying down a blanket and spread of food.

The Eiffel Tower is on the west end of Paris, towering directly over the Seine River. It is butted by Parc du Champ de Mars, a huge park about a kilometer long and four blocks wide. In the 18th century it served as a parade ground for the nearby Ecole Militaire military academy where a kid named Napoleon Bonaparte once developed his complex.

Today, Parc de Mars is a parade of joggers, lovers, cyclists, photographers, school groups and, of course, picnickers. The Eiffel Tower came into view as soon as I turned the corner from the St. Francois Xavier Metro station. The first glance of the Eiffel is jarring. I always seem to lose my balance. Paris is flat as an Iowa farm town. With its four gracefully curved legs, the 1,063-foot tower stands above the city like a showgirl teetering on stilettos over a dollhouse. To me the Eiffel Tower always seemed like the most feminine building in the world. Then again, I’m a leg man. Until I saw the Taj Mahal two months ago, I thought the Eiffel Tower was the most beautiful building in the world.

As I wrote from India, once under the massive brown girders, the Eiffel Tower loses its feminine touch, its splendor. But from a blanket a few hundred meters away, it’s as pretty as any sunset I’ve ever seen.

It’s an architectural masterpiece yet so many Parisians complain about it. Then again, Parisians complain about everything. They lead the world in protests and strikes. Designer Gustave EIffel built the tower for the 1889 World’s Fair and it took two years and 300 laborers to put in 2.5 million rivets. It was the tallest man-made structure in the world until the Chrysler Building went up in New York in 1930.

Yet Parisians labeled the Eiffel Tower the “Metal Asparagus.” They were scheduled to raze it in 1909 until they realized it provided the perfect platform for radiotelegraphy antennas.

Me and my picnic spread in the shade. That's the Eiffel Tower unfortunately hidden -- partially -- behind the tree.

Me and my picnic spread in the shade. That’s the Eiffel Tower unfortunately hidden — partially — behind the tree.

I found a place in the shade which unfortunately hid part of the tower but was welcome relief to temperatures that reached 79 degrees. The food and wine were spectacular. Then again, it’s French food. It would’ve tasted spectacular in a Nebraska parking lot. But the people watching was even better. A large group of French college kids plopped down near me and ate baguettes and cheese and drank large cans of cheap French beer.
Don't convince this couple the Eiffel Tower isn't romantic.

Don’t convince this couple the Eiffel Tower isn’t romantic.

Two construction workers, their clothes thick with dust and dirt, took their lunch break under another tree. One couple let the romantic atmosphere get to them and their wild kissing turned into a pretty impressive display of unabashed dry humping. No one around them seemed to care.

Paris is a great place to love and not just other people. Cheese, chocolate, bread, wine, history, architecture. And your date is always a grand lady who never ever gets old.


Following in Hemingway’s footsteps leads to a great taste (burp!) of Paris

Me in Ernest Hemingway's designated seat at Closerie des Lilas in Paris' Montparnasse district. Hemingway lived in Paris from 1921-28.

Me in Ernest Hemingway’s designated seat at Closerie des Lilas in Paris’ Montparnasse district. Hemingway lived in Paris from 1921-28.

PARIS — The barstool is at the corner of the long, glistening wood bar top. I sat in it randomly as the place was empty on a postcard-perfect sunny afternoon in Paris. The city is coming out of a long winter and no one wanted to sit inside on a bright sunny day inching toward 70. Parisians were all outside, wearing sunglasses, picking at nicoise salads and baguette sandwiches and tuna tartare. I thought, What a great day to sit inside a bar and drink.

After all, I was sitting in Ernest Hemingway’s bar stool.

I had no clue. I had walked into Closerie des Lilas during a day spent following in Hemingway’s footsteps. The Closerie des Lilas was arguably his favorite cafe. He did a lot of his writing here. In fact, he penned “The Sun Also Rises,” his epic novel about the Spanish Civil War which he covered, from one of the seats in the bar. I asked the bartender where the seat was.

“You’re sitting in it, Ernest,” he said with a laugh.

My notepad on the bar where Hemingway rested MANY of his glasses.

My notepad on the bar where Hemingway rested MANY of his glasses.

He pointed in front of me. There on a tiny gold plaque was the name “ERNEST HEMINGWAY.” I was sitting in his favorite barstool. Hemingway isn’t my favorite writer. Pat Conroy and Hunter Thompson battle it out for that honor, depending on my mood and level of alcohol. But Hemingway’s life fascinated me. He moved to Paris at 22 when he became a foreign correspondent. He made his name with “The Sun Also Rises” in 1926 — at age 27. He wrote “A Farewell to Arms,” his novel about working with the World War I ambulance drivers in Paris, at 30. He won the Nobel Peace Prize for fiction at 55.

So there are similarities. We’re both writers. But instead of writing “A Farewell to Arms,” I wrote about a erotica hotel in Yucatan. OK, at least we lived overseas and became inspired by our foreign surroundings.

Hemingway first lived in this walk-up flat in the Latin Quarter.

Hemingway first lived in this walk-up flat in the Latin Quarter.

Hopefully, his old surroundings would inspire me. That’s why I left the apartment and went searching for Hemingway. He spent most of his Paris life right around my neighborhood in the Latin Quarter. His two apartments are just up Rue Monge from me. The first is on a quiet side street next to the Cafe Bo LeDescantes. A small plaque next to a bright blue door indicates the second-story apartment window where he spent some of his life in 1920-21. Ugly construction equipment mars any kind of romantic reminiscence.
Hemingway later moved into this flat above the door not far away on Rue Descartes.

Hemingway later moved into this flat above the door not far away on Rue Descartes.

The second apartment is just around the corner on Rue Descartes. He obviously upgraded. Two big, ornately decorated black doors lead into a bright, white apartment building with 19th century guardrail on all the balconies. A tony, romantic cafe, La Maison de Verlaine, is right below it.

Even in his 20s, Hemingway owned Paris. It was a great time to be here. While the Roaring ‘20s captivated America, France was coming out of World War I and the French were falling in love again. Artists were worshipped. Hemingway was the Alpha Male among a group that included Gertrude Stein, Picasso, Jean-Paul Sartre and Samuel Beckett.

I read the book Hemingway wrote about his time in Paris, “A Moveable Feast.” It not only inspired the name of my traveling food column at The Denver Post, but it inspired me to live my life in a foreign clime. Paris in the 20s burst with energy. Every day Hemingway wrote words that would be cherished for eternity and every night he drank and fought and loved.

It’s similar to my life in Rome except my copy eventually lines cat litter boxes.

Me in Closerie des Lilas which also was the favorite roost of Picasso and Jean-Paul Sartre.

Me in Closerie des Lilas which was also the favorite roost of Picasso and Jean-Paul Sartre.

His homes were not secluded. Even in the 20s the Latin Quarter bustled with people and tourists. But Hemingway was very public. That’s why you could walk into Closerie des Lilas most days and find him pounding away at his typewriter, right where I was pounding away at a bottle of Bourgogne Chardonnay.

The bartender, Damien, couldn’t have been more friendly if he was a paid tour guide. I asked him how much the place had changed since Hemingway was going through women like cocktail straws.

“The bar is the same,” he said before pointing to a partition where diners were separated by big brass rails. “They added the brasserie and the outdoor tables but the bar is exactly the same.”

“So this is where Hemingway drank and fought,” I said.

“Yes,” he said, “and fell.”

As the Chardonnay went down, the questions went up. I pulled myself out of 1920s nostalgia to ask him about 21st century Paris. He pinched his lips to his nose, as if he was sipping a rotten Cotes du Rhone.

“It is a mess,” he said. “Violence. Anger. Poverty. Ten years ago everyone was happy. Not anymore.”

He sounded just like a Roman. True, while the U.S. economy is going like a runaway NASCAR driver, Europe’s economy is a mess. Unemployment is up and so is anger. Immigration is being blamed and many are taking it upon themselves to do something about. Vigilante gangs are roaming Paris’ suburbs going after ethnic groups taking jobs. The murders in the Charlie Hebdo newspaper office have Muslims in France, where 6 million Muslims live, fearing reprisals.

I asked Damien about soccer. He’s not a Paris Saint-Germain fan. He loves basketball, particularly the San Antonio Spurs. Tony Parker, the best player France ever produced, is one of its stars. Also on this season’s team was Boris Diaw, another Frenchman.

“Tony Parker is a hero,” Damien said.

“But how could he cheat on Eva Longoria?” I asked.

“Ah!” Damien said, raising his hand as in the French “So what?” gesture, “but he is French!”

La Rotonde in the Montparnasse was one of Hemingway's favorite restaurants.

La Rotonde in the Montparnasse was one of Hemingway’s favorite restaurants.

Afterward, I went to one of Hemingway’s dining haunts, La Rotonde, right down the street on Boulevard du Montparnasse. It’s a classic corner Paris restaurant with a couple dozen tables pointed to the busy intersection. Tuxedoed waiters scurried about with big silver trays of food and wine. I ordered Burgundy escargot in garlic sauce and leg of lamb with a nice Sauignon Blanc from Bordeaux. I slurped snails, ate lamb and drank wine chilled out of an ice bucket the rest of the afternoon as I watched Paris walk by.
My lunch at La Rotonde: Sauvignon Blanc from Bordeaux, Burgundy escargot in garlic sauce and leg of lamb.

My lunch at La Rotonde: Sauvignon Blanc from Bordeaux, Burgundy escargot in garlic sauce.Leg of lamb at La Rotonde.

Leg of lamb at La Rotonde.

Leg of lamb at La Rotonde.

I’m reading this again and it doesn’t look like Hemingway’s barstool rubbed off on my blog. Then again, when you follow in Hemingway’s footsteps, you know you’ll always have a good time.

Paris in spring means a return trip to the Louvre and a room full of nudes

My view of the Eiffel Tower during a trip up the Seine River.

My view of the Eiffel Tower during a trip up the Seine River.

PARIS — My spring travels have taken me all over the globe but a week in Paris was nearly forced on me by EasyJet, Europe’s discount airline with flights less expensive than a meal in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. I had a December magazine assignment cancel on me and EasyJet, in lieu of a refund, made me transfer my flight. If there’s a better free trip than Paris in spring, let me know. I’ll go.

Covering the Tour de France six times, I know Paris well. However, I’ve never been there when it wasn’t December and dark 16 hours a day or in July when it’s as crowded as the corridors in Fenway Park. Gorgeous 70-degree sunshine greeted me when I landed and I settled into a modest apartment in one of the best locations in the city: the heart of the Latin Quarter. My new iPhone decided to pick Paris to die on me so I decided to play tourist instead of going Charlie Hebdo on the local Apple outlet,

Some experiences in Paris are worth repeating, even with your clothes on. I decided to return to the Louvre for only the second time. I’d gone to the Louvre in 1978 when I was backpacking around the world. I was seeing Paris on $20 a day and stood in a line that snaked through the massive square for three hours. I talked to a young French Canadian couple the entire time. By the time we finally entered I was nearly conversational in French. My first Louvre experience was lousy. I had an afternoon appointment with the Associated Press’ Paris bureau chief, who turned out to be a complete swine, and I was in a hurry. You can’t do the Louvre in a hurry. There are 35,000 works of art spread out on four floors, one of which has a corridor that’s 440 meters long. The Louvre is more for Olympians than the casual art follower.

This time, at least, there was no three-hour wait. Paris in spring is one of the heavenly places on Earth and the amount of tourists is minimal compared to the colossal chaos of summer. The January massacre of the 12 Charlie Hebdo staffers probably didn’t help much, either, although that newspaper’s circulation is creeping up near Le Monde’s. There were only about 15 people in line entering the big glass pyramid that serves as a very artsy security gate. There were only two people in one of the five ticket counters that encircle a round entry hall in the basement.

Seeing the Louvre requires strategy. You must decide what you want to see, not how long you’re going to spend. It’s estimated that it would take one month of daily visits to see every piece of art. The museum map they give you with your ticket is just one fold smaller than my map of China. It covers four floors, each wing color coded to represent one genre. On the ground floor, brown is 5th-18th century French sculpture, yellow is Antique Iran, turquoise is Pharaonic Egypt, blue is Greek Antiquities, etc.

The first floor gets most of the crowds. It’s the location for the Mona Lisa, Napoleon Apartments and some other major masterpieces.

My problem with the Louvre is this: It gets 9 million visitors a year. It’s the most popular museum in the world. There are 173 countries in the world. I’m willing to bet someone from every country visits every month. However, the descriptions are all in French. Except for some brief explanations of the room you enter, everything is for the French visitor. It’s as if the French say … well, I wouldn’t know they’re trying to say. It would be in French.

Since my French knowledge doesn’t go much past a croissant menu, I button hooked back and paid the 5 euro for the audio guide. The audio guide is as complicated as my iPhone. It has instructions on how to turn on the instructions. I had the frazzled audio clerk push the necessary buttons to get to the keypad where you punch in the corresponding numbers of the paintings.

I then returned to my first target: the Napoleon Apartments. I punched in the number on the sign: 274. Nothing. I punched in 0274. Nothing. Since I got nothing from my iPhone that day, I felt like nothing. Instead, I felt like screaming. But yelling my favorite full-pitch wail, “MOTHER FUCK ME!” probably wouldn’t go over well in the world’s most famous museum. Instead, I stormed back to the clerk who told me the numbers are always four numbers, not three.

“I don’t know what the hell you were looking at, you dumb American moron,” she wanted to say. Instead, she said, “Good luck.” Sure enough. Pieces that had four numbers next to headphones had descriptions in the audio guide. The three numbers? They were there just to fuck me.

Anyway, the audio guide doesn’t describe many pieces of art. The woman said, “It’s only the masterpieces. There are too many others.”

So in the three hours I perused the first and ground floors. Here are my highlights. They were high enough to make the visit worth all the frustration, near panic and walking the equivalent of about three miles:

• Napoleon III Apartments: Napoleon never lived in them although as I walked through the huge rooms with masterpieces on the walls and chandeliers on the ceiling, I kept imagining the little prick sitting in an overstuffed high chair with a courtesan on his lap. In actuality, they were named for the artistic style from the Napoleonic Period in the 17th century. The apartments consist of seven rooms connected by a very long corridor. One massive room was used for dances and an opening high by the ceiling held an orchestra once played. The room could also be converted into a theater. The dining room is the size of half a basketball arena. The long table is still set for a party of 40 with three chandeliers illuminating every dish and portraits of famous Frenchmen staring at each guest.

This is where the French royalty lived. It wasn’t always a museum. King Philip Augustus, who transformed France from a small feudal state into Europe’s greatest power in the 13th century, had this giant fortress built on the Seine’s Right Bank between 1190-1202 to ward off invasion. It later became a royal residence whose tenants had their share of escargot in these apartments.

Meanwhile, the French proletariat were eating rats and murdering each other outside these walls until 1793 when the French revolutionaries lopped off Marie Antoinette’s head, among a few others who would never again feel the sensation of a buttered snail crawl down their throat.

When the revolution ended in 1793, the building turned into a museum with a modest collection of only about 2,500 pieces. However, French governments saw the Louvre as a cultural showcase and amassed huge collections inside the building. Soon it became what it is today, the most famous, most overwhelming, most rich museum in the world.

The Crown Jewels features a 140-carat diamond (center).

The Crown Jewels features a 140-carat diamond (center).

• Crown Jewels of Louis XV: This is not a painting. The Crown Jewels include what is believed to be the largest diamond ever found. It’s 140 carats or slightly larger than a Titleist golf ball. What makes this particular diamond even more remarkable is it’s a perfect shape. It’s perfectly diametrically, the same length up and down as right to left. A French jeweler named Jean-Baptiste Tavernier found it in India — legend has it he stole it from a Hindu idol’s eye — and brought it back to the French crown. Even today, diamond cutters marvel at its perfection.

Sitting behind a glass case, it actually shines a light from each little panel of the diamond. Move to one side and the lights come at you from different angles. It’s like putting your head into a silver kaleidoscope.

Next to it is King XV’s crown, a huge purple bonnet, today adorned with fake jewels. But in front is an indentation where the diamond once laid. I wonder how that went over during parades while Frenchmen were eating stale bread.

The Mona Lisa's smile may have represented Leonardo da Vinci's happiness about the birth of a child.

The Mona Lisa’s smile may have represented Leonardo da Vinci’s happiness about the birth of a child.

• Mona Lisa. I never understood the fascination of the world’s most famous painting. I saw it in 1978, fighting the crowds just to get a glimpse of the famous smile. It’s on the same wall as it was then, hanging about 10 feet behind a roped-off area that keeps the mob of camera-toting tourists from getting close enough to even see Mona’s lipstick.

The audio guide, however, explained what makes it famous. First, it may be the most perfect smile in history. A slight upturn of the lips suggests contentment and joy but not ostentatious, in-your-face, I’m happy-and-you’re not obnoxiousness. Leonardo da Vinci painted it to celebrate the birth of his second child and his new home. Mona Lisa’s expression represented his sheer, unadulterated yet understated joy.

Mona Lisa’s identity has also been a major controversy, adding to the value. The working story is she was a Florentine who married an Italian count. The fact that she is three-quarters turned and smiling suggests she is approachable, friendly. It’s royalty meeting the masses, something that appeals to everyone who has ever set eyes on her. The eyes never leave you. Some say the eyes look at you like no other painting. I stood there with about 100 other people, some not even looking at it. They were too busy taking selfies. But I stared into her eyes and she stared back. The smile made it look as if she wanted to say something. I’m not sure, but I believe Mona Lisa whispered to me, “You’re iPhone is fucked.”

• The Turkish Bath. I like this one merely because I like pictures of rooms filled with naked women. Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres painted this in 1862 as the high point of his genre: nudes. Ingres was fascinated by the nude female body and, since he painted it at 82, he made quite a statement for French virility. He painted many naked women into his work but none surpassed The Turkish Bath. It shows about 20 women, all voluptuous — but not fat — with the white, smooth, almost translucent, skin famous of that era. They all are languishing about on long couches, floors and chairs. Some press their cheeks together as if posing for a photograph. Another has her hand firmly around another’s breast. No bathwater is in sight. Ingres merely wanted to celebrate the female body and the relaxation of the 19th century female. The painting is also round, a Renaissance technique that makes the whole painting look more feminine.

I must admit, the Louvre calmed me down. Between a 140-carat diamond, Mona Lisa smiling at me and 18 naked women’s bodies, I forgot about my problems with 21st century technology.

And go back to the 19th century and that Turkish bathhouse.

Milan is Italy’s gray old lady but she’s opening hungry eyes with Expo 2015

The Angola pavilion is one of 145 countries at Expo 2015 representing 94 percent of the world's population

The Angola pavilion is one of 145 countries at Expo 2015 representing 94 percent of the world’s population

MILAN — It’s the fashion capital of the most fashion-conscious country in the world. Financially, it’s the New York of Italy. In a culture where art is worshipped and beauty is priced, its people preen and strut like peacocks at auction. When Milan sneezes, the rest of Italy reaches up to wipe its nose with a Gucci hanky and checks to see if the euro fell. But let me tell you a little secret about Milan.

Milan sucks.

Milan is Newark with a big church. It’s gray and cold and heartless. While Southern Italy slows life to the beat of a mandolin and a lover’s heart, Milan races trying to keep up with New York, Paris and Hong Kong. Its location near the Alps is negated by a seemingly constant slate sky that gives Milan the feel of an everlasting winter.

Thanks to Benito Mussolini’s savvy career move of befriending Adolf Hitler, Allied forces during World War II bombed much of Milan back to the Stone Age. Today Milan is a hodgepodge of gray, mid-20th century architecture save for its admittedly spectacular 14th-century Duomo, the biggest church in Italy. Milan’s contribution to Italian cuisine is highlighted by the ossobuco, a messy, soupy slop of veal shanks and vegetables. Its pizza may be the worst in Italy, much of it akin to what I remembered served in my high school cafeteria and trashed by half the football team.

Milan’s soccer teams suck, too.

However, while here on assignment recently, Milan did soften me. The Milanese were as nice as my beloved Romans and for the first time in many visits to Milan, I actually saw the sun. The models strutting down the pristine sidewalks finally had a reason to wear their 300-euro sunglasses.

Part of the six-mile long corridor flanked by artsy pavilions.

Part of the six-mile long corridor flanked by artsy pavilions.

Another reason I came to Milan was why much of the world is coming this year, too. It’s Expo 2015, a six-month-long celebration of arguably the most popular subject in the world: food. An estimated 20 million people are expected to check out this year’s theme of food and sustainability: How do we help feed a world where 805 million out of a world population of 7 billion (8.7 percent) are malnourished?

It’s a massive subject that has baffled mankind ever since the Roman Empire imploded from over expansion about 1,600 years ago. It’s why Expo 2015 looks like a small city. I took Milan’s shiny, efficient subway (OK, it has one thing going for it) an hour to 10 miles to the northwest of town. In a massive space stretching six kilometers, hundreds of pavilions and exhibits explain the world food crisis in such detail I felt like buying a pizza and shipping it to Haiti. (One double cheese pizza from Milan could feed a Haitian village. Trust me.) There’s a pavilion for 145 countries and all 20 regions in Italy.

The Expo features a man-made lake, a 12,000-seat amphitheater and a 6,000-seat auditorium. It would take several days to tour but the most important one is the first one. When I approached the Zero Pavilion from the long string of ticket booths, it looked like a giant wooden whale. The massive building has a curved roof that humps at the top with one end, the tail, shaped like a pyramid. Zero Pavilion explores the 1,000-year relationship between humans and food. Not that the subject is complex, but the pavilion has 500 screens giving data.

The fake library representing man's lack of knowledge of the food crisis.

The fake library representing man’s lack of knowledge of the food crisis.

The building is as much a museum as it is a school. I walked in and the first room looked like the Library of Congress. From floor to ceiling about four stories high is nothing but book shelves with drawers sticking out as if emptied by students cramming for finals. It’s intended to represent our memory, or lack thereof, of the plight of our fellow man, not only in sub-Saharan Africa but maybe across town in a tenement building.
This cinema covered two-thirds of a round auditorium.

This cinema covered two-thirds of a round auditorium.

I turned the corner and I was immediately dwarfed by the biggest movie screen I’ve ever seen. The 30-foot-high screen filled three-quarters of a round room and it displayed a film of beautifully photographed scenes of food production, from a Roman village where goats were led to slaughter to a farm girl carrying milk on a farm. There was no script. A total of 53 countries contributed short films on various food subjects ranging from food and life to food and wellness.

Through a door stood a giant artificial tree, covered with 380,000 leaves that were glued on by hand, breaking through a roof. It represented, according to the literature, the “supremacy of nature, pushing us to reconsider the origins of the world.”

The exhibit showing the domestication of animals.

The exhibit showing the domestication of animals.

Another room has sculptures of every conceivable animal, all life-size and carved in what appears to be white marble. This is the room explaining domestication of animals. Since it also included a dog, I’m assuming the Chinese will see this as another food pavilion.

The pavilion was a wealth of information, nearly all of it depressing. One third of all food is lost or wasted. One quarter of that total could feed all the hungry in the world. I find that hard to believe. I’d like to see a bengal tiger eat a day-old loaf of bread from my public market in Rome.

However, the amount of food waste is astonishing. In a world with 7 billion people, we produce enough food for 12 billion, yet every year almost 900 million die of hunger. I disregarded its comically low statistic that 1.5 million people are obese, unless they’re just talking about the state of Georgia.

Much of Expo 2015 deals with food production, even the ancient mill.

Much of Expo 2015 deals with food production, even the ancient mill.

But there seems to be hope. I learned that 40 percent of the earth’s land is devoted to agriculture. The Ireland pavilion taught me that 80 percent of its land is pasture. The other 20 percent is pubs. (I made up that last part.)
Vietnam's pavilion.

Vietnam’s pavilion.

Seriously, I walked out of the Zero Pavilion thankful that I have never gone hungry, that I grew up in a country where any kind of food is available and I now live in a country where every food I eat produces obscene public moaning.

It was with that in mind that I wandered down the six-kilometer outdoor pathway flanked by pavilions from 145 countries representing 94 percent of the world’s population. National flags lined both sides for as far as I could see. The pavilions were as much works of art as sources of information or food. Nepal’s pavilion has a windy cement walkway that represented a trekking route ending in a big Buddhist temple. Angola’s has a giant baobab tree in the middle of it. Bahrain’s features 10 small botanical gardens. Iran’s looks like a giant tent billowing in the wind. Mexico’s is shaped like a giant corn cob.

Nepal's pavilion.

Nepal’s pavilion.

Walking around so much food information made me starving. Unfortunately, Expo 2015 is more about feeding the hungry than feeding the visitors. I thought I could shop around and eat from country to country. You know, have a soup from Bolivia then a couscous from Morocco, a steak from Argentina and some chocolate from Russia. Nope. I saw no pavilions actually selling food outside. I did nearly eat my way through the chocolate pavilions from Italy’s Perugini and Switzerland’s Lindt. A pretty, short, dark-eyed Uruguayan in a long-white native dress lured me into Uruguay’s makeshift steakhouse. It was packed and I took a seat at the bar, reminding me of my early days eating at a Woolworth’s. These weren’t Woolworth’s prices. a Uruguayan steak I eyed was 32 euros.
'Nduja pasta from Calabria.

‘Nduja pasta from Calabria.

I wound up starving and in a hurry and horribly disappointed when I wound up at Eataly. It’s Italy’s high-end food mall that started in Milan and has spread to 31 stores in five countries. It’s a grand idea. Unfortunately, there’s an Eataly next to my airport bus stop 20 minutes from my apartment. I went to the stand representing one of only three Italian regions I’ve never visited. I learned a traditional dish in Calabria (the toe of Italy’s boot) is ‘nduja pasta. I also learned it’s the spiciest sausage I’ve ever had in my life.
Belarus was one of the many pavilions with cultural performances.

Belarus was one of the many pavilions with cultural performances.

However, I didn’t walk away hungry from Expo 2015. Maybe that’s their point. Filled with knowledge more than food, maybe the balance of world nutrition will right itself some day. Here’s an idea for starters, Milan.

Open a pizzeria in Haiti.

Taj Mahal is the beautiful face of India but so are ugly Indian trains

The Taj Mahal is 55 meters by 55 meters, just as high as it is wide.

The Taj Mahal is 55 meters by 55 meters, just as high as it is wide.

AGRA, India — It looks like a giant vanilla ice cream sundae when you first see it. It’s a great soft white dome surrounded by four smaller dollops. In the sun, they glitter. Or was that melting snow I saw?

I deny I’m making the association due to another tongue-swollen humid day in India. Delhi again was nice and cool. It wasn’t due to way too much time in India. Two weeks is a snapshot compared to the six, nine, 12 months the bedraggled, filthy Indiaphiles I saw tramping around on five euros a day.

It was due to one of the Seven Wonders of the World living up to its billing as the most beautiful building on earth. Eiffel Tower? Take a bow. Ever since I saw you stand over Paris like a Rockette on stage when I was a 22-year-old backpacker, you’ve been my No. 1 gal. Not now. Not after walking through a giant red sandstone gate which perfectly frames the Taj Mahal. It’s true, really. Every hardened traveler who treats crowds like immigration officials say pictures don’t do the “Taj” justice. It’s exactly as wide as it is tall, 55 meters x 55 meters. The four corner minarets make it look like a four-poster bed, providing a romantic image for a building built on love.

The Mughal emperor Shah Jahan built it as a mausoleum in honor of his third wife, Mumtaz Mahal (from whence the name comes) who died in 1631 while giving birth to their 14th child, (a death which, in my book, can’t be too surprising). It took him eight years to build it and the complex was completed in 1653. Jahan’s son, Aurangzeb, overthrew him and imprisoned him in nearby Agra Fort, a good example of India’s cutthroat politics not to mention an example of how your family tension isn’t all that bad. For the rest of the Shah’s life, the Taj Mahal tortured him, knowing he could do no more than look at the gift he gave his wife. After he died in 1666, he was buried in the Taj next to her.

After the train ride out here, I nearly asked if they had room for a third.

My three-hour train ride cost $1.33 and I got what I paid for.

My three-hour train ride cost $1.33 and I got what I paid for.

Between cars
They say the Taj is just outside Delhi but it’s three hours away. That seems longer when you spend two of those hours standing up between train cars hoping one of the samosa vendors or giant bags of flour don’t knock you on to the garbage-strewn railroad tracks.

Along with the humidity and one bitchy Swede in Varkala, joining my list of negatives in India are Indian trains. I heard there’s something romantic about them. No question they are part of the fabric of Indian travel. They’re a rite of passage, if you will. You’re not a true Indiaphile unless you go a week without bathing then take a 24-hour train ride. It’s life among the masses. In India, masses takes a whole new definition. I have a new description.

Indian trains suck the great big green one.

I don’t know exactly what that means but it sounds pretty negative. I had a reader call me that once and I wondered if his level of hatred toward me matches my hatred for Indian trains. In truth, Indian trains are filthy, crowded, dark and spooky. Filled with sweaty arms, bodies hanging from shattered door frames and faces sticking through the blue metal bars covering the open windows, these trains look like they’re all headed to Auschwitz.

People sleeping in the Agra train station.

People sleeping in the Agra train station.

Indian trains are very confusing. The train stations seem like extensions of the cities. In Sri Lanka, stations look like time warps back to the British Empire. Station masters step out onto the platform in charming, white, pressed uniforms and blow a whistle. They’re right out of a Rudyard Kipling poem. Every station is neat and clean with clear destination signs. In India, they are slums. I walked into Agra’s train station and entire families slept under covers in the waiting lounge. Garbage littered the platform at Delhi’s Nizamuddin Station. In Agra, waiting for the train back to Delhi, rats — black, ugly, filthy, disease-carrying, vicious rats — scurried across the tracks, chasing any edible garbage people tossed through the windows. Indiaphiles want the true India?

Hang out in Agra’s train station.

Buying a ticket is like trying to find the right window in a game show. I didn’t know what I was getting. I counted six classifications: 1AC, 2AC, 3AC, chair car, sleeper car and general class. Everything but first class, chair car and sleeper are cheaper than a soda on Amtrak. My 2 ½-hour train ride from Alleppey to Kochi was $1.50. I bought a three-hour second-class ticket from Delhi to Agra for 85 rupees ($1.33). I tried asking the clerk what car I take but I could bare see him through the filthy glass window. I could barely hear due to him never turning my direction when he talked. Maybe he was beating away rats.

A couple of nice locals on the platform directed me to the Agra train and I sat in a sleeper car where I usually found myself on past trains. No one ever checked my ticket. No one seemed to care.

Keep in mind a sleeper car here isn’t like the Orient Express. No tuxedoed waiter knocked on my door to serve tea as I tucked myself under a comfy quilt on a cozy bunk bed. No. An Indian sleeper has small, steel platforms held to the wall by straps. Fans that apparently haven’t worked since Mahatma Gandhi rode around hung in the air behind wire cages. The car is lit like a prison cell. Slits of light burn through the windows between the iron bars. I saw no light bulbs anywhere.

Still, I found a comfortable bench next to an open window and tried to stay awake after getting three hours of sleep the night before. A family of seven, with three small children and two exhausted mothers in head scarves, eyed me curiously.

Suddenly, I was jostled awake by the first Indian train official I’d ever seen onboard. He carried a clipboard with dozens of pages, all showing lists. He took my ticket and started running his fingers up and down the sheets of paper. His bored expression never changed. I figured I was had. I thought of saying, “You won’t find me there” but instead I waited for the inevitable.

A bribe.

“Four hundred rupees,” he said. He should’ve had his hand out. Or a machete. I told him this is where they directed me. He sighed deeply and instead of further shaking me down, as how an Indonesian traffic cop did to me once, he gave me a go-away motion which I dejectedly took to the next car. However, iron bars blocked my path. Next to the locked door was a short, sharp-dressed man about 30 sitting on a pulled-out bench. He said his name was Marty.

“I was in the wrong car, too,” he said, like a kid sitting in the corner of the principal’s office. “We wait until the next stop and move to the next car.”

The “next car” was so packed, people hung out the door. I grabbed one rung of the ladder before the train started to pull away. Marty bulled his way through the crowd, creating a small opening for me to grab space between cars. An old, skinny woman with skin like cracked leather sat on two big bags of flour and looked at me with suspicion as if I was going to sneak one of the 25-kilo four sacks into my camera bag.

For the next two hours, this was my position. I shared space between railroad cars with 13 others. At least two dozen more were jammed into the corridor running along the compartment filled with dingy benches. I felt like I was on a flotilla. However, the passengers weren’t desperate and poor. They were all men, all in their 20s and 30s.

“I’ll do this for small journeys to save money,” said Marty who had a perpetual smile through the whole trip. “For more than three hours, I’ll get a reservation.”

Compounding the density were vendors squeezing through two dozen bodies shouting out their loot of peanuts or drinks long since gone warm and a sickly sugary Indian chunk candy that looked as if it was sweating. I had to bend inward to let them by while subtly touching my wallet to make sure they didn’t run off with the equivalent of their month’s salary. I had about $50.

After I inhaled to get more passengers in, a young guy with a pudgy face, glasses and easy going manner, turned to me and said with a smile, “India’s population is growing.”

Thank God I didn’t have to go to the bathroom. Thank God it was cool out. Thank God I only paid $1.33.

The red sandstone entrance to the Taj Mahal.

The red sandstone entrance to the Taj Mahal.

When we finally arrived in Agra, a taxi took me the three kilometers to the Taj Mahal grounds. I heard the biggest negative about visiting the Taj Mahal in Agra is having to visit Agra. It’s one of the vile hell holes in a country full of them. It does have a bevy of souvenir stands, around for decades to soak the 3 million annual tourists, twice Agra’s population. However, I found it aesthetically pleasing with its windy, narrow alleyways and smells of curry and coriander pouring out of little stalls. The streets form kind of a rat’s maze before spitting you out the other end where you get the big cheese: the Taj Mahal.
I don't do selfies. Instead, I found a nice Frenchwoman to take the obligatory Taj shot.

I don’t do selfies. Instead, I found a nice Frenchwoman to take the obligatory Taj shot.

Visiting the Taj Mahal isn’t a spiritual experience like the Vatican or Himalayas. It’s a tomb, for God’s sake. What blows you back when you first walk through the archway is just its sheer, uncompromising, jaw-dropping beauty. It is spectacular. They say the white marble shines as the sun changes. Unfortunately, the sun wasn’t out. However, the Shah built it with the Yamuna River behind it and nothing else. The massive monument’s total background is a brilliant blue sky.

And the view got better as I approached.

In the foreground of the Taj is one huge, long, shallow pool filled with crystal-clear water. On a brilliant day, you can see the Taj’s reflection in it. A traveler’s Kodak moment is clicking a picture that shows the real Taj Mahal and below the exact mirror image in the water. I had no sun but the overcast day did nothing to spoil the sight of a building that moved 19th century Bengali writer Rabindranath Tagore to write, “The Taj Mahal rises above the banks of the river like a solitary tear suspended on the cheek of time.”

The Arabic letters are bigger at the top to give it a uniform look from below.

The Arabic letters are bigger at the top to give it a uniform look from below.

Once at the building, I noticed the brilliant detail that went into it. Most notable are what they call “pishtaqs.” They are arches on all four sides of the Taj. They provide depth. Each one is covered with a lattice marble screen that allows beautifully patterned light to illuminate the inside. The shadows look like Caravaggio paintings.

I stepped closer and rubbed my hand against the beautiful 400-year-old white marble. It felt like something Michelangelo would carve. Engraved in the marble are flowering plants which represent paradise. Going up the columns are Arabic calligraphy. The Islamic Mughai Empire ruled India from the 16th to the 18th century. In a spot of architectural and calligraphy brilliance, the letters get bigger as you look higher. Thus, all the letters look the same size from the naked eye below.

The Pietra Dura has 35 different precious and semiprecious stones in the marble.

The Pietra Dura has 35 different precious and semiprecious stones in the marble.

Then there is what they call the Pietra Dura. About 35 different precious and semiprecious stones created different colored flowers inlaid into the marble on the inside and outside of the walls.

Once inside, the Taj Mahal looks remarkably small. Except for the patterned shades of light coming through the lattice windows, it is pitch black. All that’s inside is what the Shah intended: two tombs, one of him and one of his wife. However, the tombs are fake. The real ones are buried in an underground vault and unavailable for viewing.

It wasn't much of a sunset but the building is beautiful at any hour.

It wasn’t much of a sunset but the building is beautiful at any hour.

Unlike touring most world-renowned monuments, this time I didn’t want to leave. I wound my way through the dusty alleys and found myself in the middle of a small but wild Hindu festival. People with faces painted in a rainbow of colors were dancing and singing — and throwing colored dust at everyone within range. That included me. I walked up to the rooftop restaurant of the Saniya Palace Hotel covered in orange and green and red. I looked like a tie-dye shirt. Even my camera was orange.
I don't know what this Hindu parade was about but I looked like them after they got through with me.

I don’t know what this Hindu parade was about but I looked like them after they got through with me.

I sat down on the roof with other tourists not caring that I could sprinkle red dust on their curry. I sat down and stared out at a gorgeous, rooftop vista of the Taj Mahal in the distance. The clouds prevented a sunset but you’d need a bomb to take away the view of this magnificent building. Conde Nast couldn’t have arranged for a better last day in South Asia for me. Here I sat, eating the best naan bread I’ve had in India, drinking my last ice-cold Kingfisher beer and staring out at the most beautiful building on earth. A muezzin’s call to prayer floated over the rooftops. The sky grew dark.
A couple enjoy a view of the Taj from the rooftop restaurant at the Saniya Palace Hotel.

A couple enjoy a view of the Taj from the rooftop restaurant at the Saniya Palace Hotel.

India’s locomotive economy is a beacon for critics and diplomats alike. The boom has both united the country and torn it apart, violence springing up as fast as high-rise condo buildings. I only saw a couple of the Indias. There are so many more to see in between the growingly wealthy upper castes and the expanding poverty. But India’s past is what will never change. A melting pot of religions, cultures and food has made India the mystery that it will remain forever.

The Taj Mahal is its face. Shah Jahan made it as beautiful as his wife. In every way it’s as beautiful as their country.