Monthly Archives: December 2014

An American in Paris

James and I sat back in our chairs both pushing away our breakfast plates with a silent cry of “uncle!” The food in Italy is amazing but after last evening’s extravaganza at the Palazzo Colonna, even my bottomless pit of an appetite had been thoroughly fortified and my stomach was in need of (at the very least) a rest. Coffee was more the call of the morning as we still had to finish packing up the last of the boxes with everything that would be returning to the States now that our work in Rome was completed.

The various members of our “work family” were going their separate ways today each with their own agenda of things they wanted to see and do. As for James and me; we were headed to the airport to catch a flight to Paris where we had arranged to stay with one of our dearest friends, Maria Newman.

Thanks to the wonders of modern-flight, a mere two hours later had us landing in Paris, France! We got off of the plane and after a short walk through Charles DeGaulle airport, with (regretfully) no passport stamping, which is not necessary within the European Schengen Zone, we picked-up our luggage and as we did so, we could see the smiling face of our hostess, waiting patiently for us just outside the door.

Maria was happy to have us in France at last. We had planned on this trip for at least three years and for one reason or another, it had to be either canceled or postponed time and time again. As Maria whisked us away through the streets of Paris, she decided to give us a quick driving-tour of the city, as it was already late in the afternoon and we had dinner plans to meet up with other dear friends. Still, she wanted to give us a feel for her beautiful and romantic home town before our true tour started tomorrow morning.

It was almost surreal to drive past the Eiffel Tower, the Parisian sky on this afternoon, lit in a lovely misty mauve color, created the perfect backdrop! To our right; the Seine River and to our left rose the towering structure of the Louvre; originally built as a fortress in the late 12th century, the huge museum seemed to go on forever.

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Now this is romance!

As we rode down the Champs-Élysées, we were treated to a Christmas surprise; both sides of the street were lined with cute little white chalets. These adorable but temporary structures housed a multitude of holiday shops with an endless array of gifts to choose from… not to mention countless opportunities for chilly shoppers to grab a cup of hot wine! Dead ahead down the Champs-Élysées like a gateway to paradise stood the famous (and beautiful) Arc de Triomphe! As if that were not enough, as part of the holiday celebration, a huge Ferris wheel had been erected directly behind the Arc, what’s more; it had been lit to look like a gigantic snowflake. It may have taken us a long time to get to Paris but it was certainly well worth the wait. Seeing Paris at this time of year could only be compared to the thrill of New York’s, Fifth Avenue at Christmas time. There was an added energy and beauty that had both James and myself (and I believe Maria too) feeling as though we were kids again!

Before we knew it, it was time to head off to Maria’s apartment to meet up with our friends, Hilary and William and their boys Maximilien and Victor. The Batallie clan has been the very dearest of friends of ours for many years now and we had not seen them since last Christmas (2013), when they came to Florida for a holiday visit. I couldn’t believe how much the boys had grown in a year but I guess they’re at that age now where a year takes them from little boys to little men! True to form, they arrived at Maria’s baring gifts for James and me; our all-time favorite chocolates, French of course, “Suchard’s L’original Lait” to be exact! These creamy chocolate delights defy description suffice it to say, that to the day of this writing, we are still carefully rationing pieces, hoping to see this supply through to New Year’s Eve!

Hilary and yours truly

Hilary and yours truly

As fate would have it, after spending a week in Italy our first night in Paris brought us to, you guessed it…. An Italian restaurant! It may seem an odd choice but “Livio” is a local favorite and it not only was a fun place to gather and celebrate our first night in Paris but the food was darn good too! Victor checked in with me to see what my favorite pasta might be and I confessed that I had quite a hankering for alla carbonara, as it turns out, it’s Victor’s fav too and I do believe that on this night, four out of seven entrees served our table were non-other than spaghetti all carbonara.

Young Victor suffering from a Carbonara Coma!

Young Victor suffering from a Carbonara Coma!

The gang sans me (someone had to take the photo!)

The gang sans me (someone had to take the photo!)

The next day found James, Maria and moi doing a lovely walking tour of “la Ville Lumière” or “The City of Lights.” Yes I know that nowadays it may seem a name more suited for a city like, Las Vegas but did you know that Paris was one of the first cites in the world to become lighted via electricity? Who knew?

It was a positively perfect Sunday morning and our first stop was the famous, Notre-Dame de Paris (Our Lady of Paris) or simply “Notre Dame” as it is more commonly called these days. As we entered through the Gothic doors into the majestic church, our little threesome couldn’t help feeling a bit overcome by the sweet sounds of the Sunday Mass being chanted, Gregorian-style, echoing throughout the cathedral walls. The majesty of this exquisite testimony to French-Gothic architecture could be overwhelming all on its own but teamed with the beauty of Sunday mass and the love shared between our little group, it had us bonding closer than ever.

Inside the Cathedral

Inside the Cathedral

Maria and Me Outside Notre-Dame

Maria and Me Outside Notre-Dame

After a brief stroll about town, we came to rest at a small café for a bite of lunch. As we re-fueled our bodies, we had great fun watching the people of Paris go by on this busy afternoon.

The final cap-off to this glorious day; a four hour dinner cruise up the Seine River to see the great architectures of Paris, lit-up as though it had been professionally done by a Hollywood set designer. We boarded our glass enclosed ship as the sun was setting and sailed along the river’s left bank. With the bright Parisian lights shimmering across the water, we enjoyed panoramic views of the city’s greatest attractions such as Notre Dame Cathedral, the Musée d’Orsay, the Louvre, and Place de la Concorde. As we glided by The Eiffel Tower, it became alive with a show of twinkling lights from top to bottom! This was indeed Paris at its very best and we have to thank our gracious hostess, Maria Newman, for the gift of this most extraordinary experience.

From left to right: Me, James, and Maria enjoying the cruise

From left to right:
Me, James, and Maria enjoying the cruise

The Eiffel Tower twinkling from head to toe

The Eiffel Tower twinkling from head to toe

The following morning (Monday) we headed to yet another famous cathedral; Basilique du Sacré Coeur de Montmartre. This gorgeous church sits high atop a hill overlooking all of Paris and is in an incredibly picturesque part of town that looks very much like a storybook; something straight out of the opening to Disney’s Beauty and the Beast. I couldn’t help but call out, “Marie, bring the baguettes!” The cobblestone streets are lined with centuries-old shoppes, restaurants, and cafés. On this chilly afternoon, a piping hot crock of French Onion Soup Au Gratin was unquestionably in order! We cozied up to a table in the window of a wonderful little café and enjoyed the view and a plate of crispy fries along with our savory soup!

Basilique du Sacré Coeur de Montmartre

Basilique du Sacré Coeur de Montmartre

Looking down a village street

Looking down a village street

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View from the church steps

View from the church steps

All too soon it was time to head back to the apartment.  We were leaving for Deauville this afternoon and were hoping to arrive before sundown.

You may know Deauville as a quaint little sea-side village close to Normandy, famous for its expansive boardwalk and international equestrian community, but it should also be renowned for its beautiful outdoor marketplace too. Maria’s home here in Deauville is as beautiful as her Paris flat. To our great pleasure , on this day her daughter Jessica (another of our dear friends), happened to be in Daueville in her own apartment across the courtyard from Maria’s place. Jessica had recently adopted an adorable little puppy, she very aptly named, Xena. You may remember Xena, the warrior princess as the heroine character developed by John Schulianone in 1995 for producer, Robert Tapert’s spin-off franchise of the Hercules series. Whether the name was intentional or not, it surly fits! Our little Xena is just as feisty and most certainly has even more stamina than the character played so well by Lucy Lawless. In no time at all, Lil’ Xena, the black and white ball of energy that she is, completely stole my heart, while making me miss my own two pups back home all the more.  James and I were using this time away from our dogs, Buddy and Theo to an advantage, sending them off to a specialized doggy boot-camp to become certified service dogs.

Little Xena

Little Xena

The following morning we were to go into town so we could shop at the amazing aforementioned market. Maria would be returning to Rome with us on Wednesday morning so she could be part of our grand European celebration for Thanksgiving. When she found out that our Italian hosts were excited about us bringing back French cheeses to be part of the banquet, she was thrilled. Up to this point Maria knew that she wanted to do something special on her own for the Thanksgiving feast and now as fate would have it, she could put her expertise to good use so that she could supply the party with the grandest selection of fine French cheeses imaginable. And supply she did; Camembert, Brie, Roquefort, Boursin, Comté, hard, soft, semi-soft, and everything in between. Maria literally bought hundreds of dollars’ worth of the finest cheese money can buy and she was most excited to bring it to our very pregnant hostess back in Aprile, just outside of Rome. But for now it was time to get moving again. After picking up a roasted chicken and some farm fresh vegetables, it was time to head back to the apartment, prepare lunch and pack up once again so we could hit the road back to Paris. We would be leaving very early tomorrow morning from Charles De Gaulle airport so it made far more sense to stay in Paris overnight again.

Deauville

Deauville

The Deauville Harbour

The Deauville Harbour

Although our time in France was brief, it was a whirlwind of wonder and a dream come true. We can hardly wait for our next visit!

Coming up in my next blog, the most amazing Thanksgiving of my life.

Until then,
Don

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Working In Rome

We had asked for a late check-out from our New York City hotel, and The W not only agreed, but also graciously offered a VERY late departure; 5:00 PM to be exact! It could have been due to the fact that we had just produced a very successful event there for one of our corporate clients, or maybe it was simply our charming smiles and personality (NOT!) but in any case, we were very appreciative. James and I had a flight to catch out of Kennedy Airport that evening, as we were heading off to our next job which was taking place in Rome, Italy.

In spite of the 5 PM check-out, we still had to leave Manhattan by 3:00 that afternoon in order to make our plane in time. We were off to a rocky start, traffic was freaky crazy and our driver began to stress over getting us to the airport in time for our 6 PM flight. He finally had to get off the highway and take small side-streets to JFK. Alas, he was not the only person with the idea and even the back roads were only creeping along.

I looked over at James who is totally unfamiliar with Queen’s and its streets, and he asked me how worried we should be. “The driver is making all the right moves,” I answered. “We’re almost there, don’t worry.” At this point, there was nothing short of sprouting wings to soar over the traffic that could make a difference. The reality was that I was a little worried, but what was the sense in stressing out James? After all, how bad could things be? We were blessed with work in freakin’ Italy for goodness sake! Besides, worst-case scenario, we would have to catch another flight. Then just as if a wall had been lifted, traffic miraculously “disappeared” and we were off and running. From that moment on, everything seemed to move along in our favor. There was even no security line… at all… in Kennedy! Before we knew it, we were comfortably seated for an on-time takeoff.

The flight thankfully was uneventful and in nine hours, we were having our passports stamped and heading through Fiumicino a.k.a. Leonardo da Vinci airport with luggage in tow. Suddenly our eyes were caught by the bright smile of a cheery young woman who held a sign that bore our client’s logo. “Benvenuti a Roma!” she greeted. “Please allow me to show you to the car we have waiting to take you to the Weston Excelsior,“ the hotel chosen to hold our clients meeting.

The weather could not have been more cooperative. In fact, it was quite similar to what we had left behind in South Florida! The Excelsior was located in what is called “the center.” Rome had been designed like a wagon wheel, having an outer main-road that circles around the city with many “spoke roads” leading into the center. We were literally a short stroll from the famed Spanish Steps and our rooms were beyond comfortable, offering amazing space complete with fireplace and large French doors, which opened out to a small balcony, surrounded but a granite balustrade. It featured traditional old-world charm but with all the comforts of today’s modern world. Yes we were here to work but we could certainly appreciate the beauty by which we were surrounded.

Our first night there was free time, as work was not beginning until the following morning. We were quite excited and most anxious to see our very dear Roman friends, the Fioravanti’s. We had met Maurizio, his sister Simona, and Mamma Franca while producing a party in Palm Beach and within an hour; we bonded and have been… well, like family for over a decade. Maurizio, an amazingly talented artist, had married Ekaterina, a beautiful Russian-born woman who too is a most remarkable artist. Although I had spoken (whether it be via email, Facebook, or occasionally by telephone) with Simona learning about my friend’s new wife, I had not yet met Kate and was really looking forward to finally giving her a big hug… Oh and did I mention that she and Maurizio are expecting a bambino in January?!

Arrangements had been made for Maurizio to pick us up at our hotel that evening, as we were all going to have dinner together at Simona and mamma’s apartment in the city. The food, fun, and love flowed without end as we made our plans to all be together at Maurizio’s & Kate’s to celebrate Thanksgiving, which was about a week away.

So maybe it’s because we’re Italian or perhaps it’s just “our thing” but as we sat around the table stuffing ourselves with antipasto, pasta, and the most wonderful, crunchy, little fried fish that Simona whipped up, we also planned a menu for the 13 friends, both old and new, who would be celebrating Thanksgiving together!

The following morning was lift off for James and me as it was time to roll up our sleeves and get to work… the actual work that brought us to Rome.

In a world filled with people who are unhappy with their jobs, we are surely lucky. I mean; creating a beautiful environment to meet and or celebrate sure beats digging graves! James always says that the best two parts of our job is the very beginning (filled with brainstorming and creativity) and that moment when we open the doors to our clients and their guests and see the expressions on their faces as they enter the now completed room. And by far the standout events in Rome were the two off-site dinner experiences. The first one was held at the Casa Valadier.

The building was named after its famed designer, Roman architect Giuseppe Valadier, who is most noted for his design of the city’s renowned, “Peoples Square.” The grandeur of the neoclassical design, once home to Valadier, features Pompeian style frescoes and paintings and also boasts incredibly romantic views of the “Eternal City.”

View from the terrace of Casa Valadier

View from the terrace of Casa Valadier

The view continued

The view continued

We will never forget how beautiful this majestic building looked on event night, framed in custom designed lighting, with hundreds of lanterns lighting the way along the red-carpeted path, sweeping up the semi-circular stairs that grace its entrance, all the way into its grand foyer. As luck would have it, there was a young couple taking their engagement portrait on the park grounds outside and their savvy photographer seized the opportunity to get some wonderful shots with Valadier as backdrop to the lovers!

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 The, grand finale, nay…make that the pièce de résistance wrapping up events here in Rome was a rare and wonderful dining experience set in the world-famous Palazzo Colonna. There are no words known to this humble blogger that could properly describe the grace and majesty of this thirteenth century palace, complete with Live-in Prince and his royal family. About the only thing I have ever seen to compare it to, is the Vatican and quite frankly, I think Palazzo Colonna was done with better taste… but that’s just my opinion.

Once the home of Cardinal Oddone Colonna before his raise to Pope (Martin V, 1417–1431) its gallery displays countless works of art and historic artifacts. The palace’s collection of paintings with works by (but not limited) to Bronzino, Pinturicchio, Salviati, Carracci, and Tintoretto is still one of the most important private collections surviving in Rome today. One of our favorite paintings, Annibale Carracci’s, The Bean Eater or “Mangiafagioli” circa the mid-1580’s is on display there and it was quite awesome to see the real thing!

Mangiafagioli

Mangiafagioli

Another celebrity (of sorts) residing within the palace walls is a famous cannon ball which is planted firmly into the stairs of the Great Hall. The story has it that back in 1849, during the period of the Roman Republic, the French army spent months occupying Rome. Under the orders of General Oudinot, the cannon was shot from the Janiculum Hill, to assist Pope Pius IX against the Republican insurgents. Although the Papal States fell completely to Italian nationalist armies in 1870, the Colonna family decided to leave the cannon ball on the step where it came to rest, in the Galleria, as a symbol of Roman history and it is one heck of a conversation piece indeed!

The Famed Cannonball of 1849

The Famed Cannonball of 1849

As James and I arrived at the Palazzo to begin setting up for the evening’s event, we were surprised to find that the streets outside were packed full of thousands of people who had gathered in some sort of protest rally! The protest had absolutely nothing to do with our event; our venue was simply unfortunate enough to be right in the middle of the rally location. Again we were quite lucky, as one; the protest ended long before any of our guests arrived so we didn’t have to worry about maneuvering our attendees through the crowds and two; the rally was in support of the deaf, who were seeking one universal sign language. Although the streets overflowed with protesters, they were very peaceful and quite frankly – quiet, as they “signed” there issues and ate pizza. I swear, you can’t make this stuff up!

Anyway, back to our event; a venue this opulent required table linens that would stand up to the regal hall yet not compete with the surrounding art. The florals too must cleverly enhance without becoming busy looking. I think we accomplished our goal as we heard that the prince himself spent two hours inspecting each table for quality and care of placement. Once he approved, he and his family headed off to their country estate for the evening. The dinner looked beyond lovely. Even the palace staff was taking pictures of the completed hall to show off to their families. You know you’ve done well when you impress those who have seen it all!

  Palace set for dinner 3

Guest arrived at the Palazzo and broke into small groups, each treated to a tour of the galleries by an eloquent and knowledgeable guide. Their tour came to an end just outside the great hall where everyone came together again for cocktails.

Two trumpeters dressed in renaissance costume heralded everyone into the dinner in noble fashion. As the guest entered through the doors to the grand hall, protected by regal guardsmen, cameras and cellphones came out in droves as people took advantage of the photo-op to capture the moment for posterity.

Trumpeters and Guardsmen

Trumpeters and Guardsmen

An elegant and very talented quartet (also dressed in period costume) filled the hall with classical music that made one feel as if they had somehow magically traveled back through history to a long-forgotten time and place, reserved strictly for nobility and statesmen alike.

String Quartet 3

All-in-all, everyone enjoyed being king or queen (at least for an evening) and catching a rare glimpse into Rome’s rich and opulent history.

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Next post… onto Paris!
Until next time,

Don

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Cold Gelato, Warm Heart…

James and I have just returned from Europe where we went to Rome on business. We siezed the chance to visit with some of our most cherished friends residing in Italy and France, even sharing Thanksgiving on a picturesque olive orchard with loved ones from four different countries. Over the next couple of weeks I shall blog about the total experience but today I would like to start with an unexpected sidebar. One of the best things about life to me, is fate’s uncanny ability to continue to surprise and delight us.  Today I would like to share with you our most resent example:

Having the opportunity to explore new places and share in new experiences is always exciting and wonderful but when you get to make new friends along the way, well that’s just downright awesome! Such was the case with James and me when we met Gina Ravo. Gina is an amazing woman who exudes a special brand of warmth and caring that is not only genuine, but almost impossible for her to contain. She’s an energetic little spitfire dispensing cheer, love, and if you’re lucky, teddy bear hugs.

How we met was totally business related; Gina works for one of the top executives of the company which brought us to Italy to plan and execute their annual meeting. She was schooled in London and is fluent in both English and Italian languages; shifting effortlessly between the two, happily (and helpfully) translating for us when necessary.

As it turns out, she and her husband Romano happen to live in Aprilia, Italy, where James and I were staying with our dear friends. The Ravo’s had also recently opened a small business in town; a marvelous gelato shop named, “Selfie Ice.”

We had hoped for Gina and Romano to join the Thanksgiving celebration but as it turned out, they were headed to England to visit with their daughter. Gina did however invite us to come down to check out their shop, which we happily did.

Selfie Ice, is located at Via Dei Lauri 42 (inside the galleria), in the town of Aprilia, Lazio, Italy and if you ever find yourself anywhere in the vicinity, I highly recommend a visit to Selfie Ice! Gina and Romano, serve up top quality soft-serve gelato made from the freshest, high quality ingredients (never using those powdered mixes found all too often throughout Italy) and one taste will win you over.

Selfie Ice is indeed a happy place (as evident by the involuntary smile across my face) and as I stepped through the door into the shop, I felt as though I had won the golden ticket into the Wonka chocolate factory! The décor is a perfect combination of high-tech ingenuity, old world charm, and childhood fantasy. From the bright fuchsia colored walls, to the jelled floor tile that squishes underfoot, to the ceiling covered in ever-changing colored light bulbs, not to mention the sweet aroma, you know that you’re in for a treat. And speaking of treats, Selfie Ice is not restricted solely to gelato; they also take the same pride in their cioccolata calda ( a smooth and velvety rich hot chocolate drink to die for!) luxurious crepes, and now even Belgian waffles all made fresh to order, from scratch!

Selfie Ice gelato topings bar

Selfie Ice gelato topings bar

Ever-Changing Colored Lights Create a Feeling of Fantasy

Ever-Changing Colored Lights Create a Feeling of Fantasy

Gina’s husband, Romano, lead us though the Selfie Ice experience with all the charm and enthusiasm of a proud schoolboy. The concept is simple; upon entering the store, you start at your left, selecting a vessel from which to house the creamy delight; whether it be a cup, a cone, or a crispy waffle bowl, then head over to the back wall where you can choose from any number of assorted daily flavors. We chose hazelnut and even though we were “in the know” as to the freshness and quality, we were still amazed and delighted by the true fresh nutty taste. Once you’ve selected your gelato, it’s time to head over to the toppings bar, which has a huge selection of trimmings both wet and dry that is sure to satisfy any craving you may be having. I highly recommend the fragoline di bosco, made from a tiny, wild, Italian strawberry, that I’ve never seen in the States… can you say yummers?!

Gina concocting one of her ultra-smooth hot chocolate drinks!

Gina concocting one of her ultra-smooth hot chocolate drinks!

The Selfie Ice experience is indeed as sweet as the owners, Gina and Romano; so if you find yourself within driving distance (Aprilia is just outside of Rome) make sure you stop in for a gelato, a smile, and of course, make sure you take your photo with the store mascot, Selfieman!

James and Yours Truly Posing with the Ever-Popular "Selfieman!"

James and Yours Truly Posing with the Ever-Popular “Selfieman!”

Our Friends (from left to right) Ekaterina, Maurizio, and Simona, Representing for Rome.

Our Friends (from left to right) Ekaterina, Maurizio, and Simona, Representing for Rome.

https://www.facebook.com/selfieice

Until next time,

Don

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