Two final bits of contrariness, both terribly sensible.
Tip #7: Don’t ask the price of a taxi before you get in.
Guidebooks always say “Agree on a price before you get in a taxi.” I think I’ve even written this myself. But nothing marks you as an out-of-towner like asking a cabbie, “How much to…?” This makes the cabbie’s eyeballs flash dollar signs, just like in the cartoons.
So your one job as a visitor is to find out in advance how much a taxi should cost (ask at your hotel, or ask your Airbnb host, or whatever). Then just get in the cab, say hello in at least a loose approximation of the local language and state your destination. Pay the known fare when you get out (or, in known antagonistic-cabbie towns, get out first and hand the money through the window). This is what locals do, and it works!
Even if you’re in a metered-taxi town, it’s nice to get a ballpark estimate, for peace of mind.
(Why are taxi drivers the world over so prone to unscrupulousness? They are their own strange tribe. May the honest and generous ones multiply!)
Tip #8: Sleep now, not when you’re dead.
A very concrete aspect of Tip #4 (“be lazy”). Again, you’re on vacation – why tire yourself out? Take plenty of naps. Observe the siesta culture, if there is one.
There is nothing more delicious than waking up in a strange place. (Freya Stark, by way of Matthew Teller, says it even better.)
More practically, the better rested you are, the less likely you are to have those little streetcorner meltdowns, where you’re hungry and tired and just can’t make a decision, and suddenly your travel partner is looking like the worst beast on earth, just because he/she is also hungry and tired and can’t make a decision.
One person I know calls this the Death Mope. The Death Mope is easily avoided through adequate rest. (And carrying some peanuts in your bag–another tip of mine. But there’s nothing counterintuitive about not starving.)
Any indie traveler worth his backpack shuns the place with concrete hotels, nor do most people go where there are zero landmarks. But you can learn a lot about a local culture in some random “ugly” city, more than you can at some remote beach where there’s exactly one local, who’s selling you weed and cooking your fish dinner however you like it. Cancun is very, very Mexican if you know where to look—and how to look at it.
Another example: Pattaya, in Thailand, universally reviled as ground zero for whoring. But to quote a guy I met in Bangkok: “It was great! There were Indian package tourists, and they were posing for photos with trannies on the beach!”
C’mon! How is that not heartwarming? I’m not saying you should go for a week, but one night can be fun. The nice thing about ugly, over-touristed places is that you can gawp all you want–at prostitutes, at sunburned Brits in gold chains, at whatever.
The same logic applies to under-touristed spots with no major attractions. This summer, Peter and I took an exceptionally great trip to Thrace, the eastern fringe of Greece. According to guidebooks, and even most Greeks, there’s “nothing there.” That means no ancient Greek ruins–but there are very interesting Greek-Turkish towns and more recent history. One town–New Orestiada–is definitely un-charming: it looks like a midsize Midwestern town, with uglier apartment blocks. It was built from scratch on a grid system, and the very reason it’s that way is what makes it interesting.
Even if you don’t buy my argument, you should thank me. Every time I get held up in some ugly place, gawking and eating and laughing, I’m not making it to that pristine, off-the-radar beach. I’m one less person ruining the fringes. And the world could use a little more of that.
File all this under Things I Wish I’d Eaten More Of.
1. Fresh mizithra
We drove to the next little town to visit the place that makes the killer sheep’s-milk yogurt, with its nice crusty top.
I’ve read rapturous descriptions of fresh ricotta, but I didn’t really believe it until they fed us the mizithra, scooped fresh out of the vat and still warm.
Mizithra is, in this form, basically ricotta. It’s also made from the whey from a sturdier cheese (in this case, feta), so it’s soft and jiggly, not too intense.
Having it warm is like eating little dairy clouds–but not so ethereal. More primal. I think people might love it so much because it reminds them of nursing?
Same bat place, same bat channel. Same ‘Oh, now I understand!’ moment.
Ladotiri is literally ‘oil cheese.’ It’s a specialty of Lesvos, cured in olive oil. It’s normally kind of rubbery and salty and doesn’t seem particularly interesting.
This stuff, though, fresh–ah-ha. It was nutty, like gruyere. A tiny bit grainy, mostly smooth.
OK, actually, this was more of a visual thing than a taste thing. They make a lot of ouzo–most of the ouzo–on Lesvos. It’s great. I don’t drink all that much these days, but I always wish I’d drunk more ouzo so I could look at the bottles.
Ouzo Mini, which may be the best ouzo of Lesvos, is also conveniently the cutest. It has a hip new label:
And Ouzo Matis, another brand with babes on the label…well, they cut right to the chase. We’re not sure if this is new, or we only just noticed, but here’s Peter noticing:
What’s he noticing? Va-va-voom!
OK, so the photo is not the greatest. But yes, peer dreamily through your ouzo bottle, and you’ll see a girl in a red bikini (or blue, should you choose) on the inside.
3. Obscenely ripe fruit
Waiting for the early train in Soufli, we breakfasted on figs from in front of the stationmaster’s house. You know how everyone leers about figs? How they’re vaguely dirty-looking?
These weren’t even purple on the outside, and they were the dirtiest figs I’ve ever eaten.
Then, in Turkey, a nice old man gave me a tomato. It was hot from the sun. He smiled and kept walking. I cupped that tomato in my hand the whole rest of our walk–it felt like one of my own organs.
We ate it the next morning for breakfast, gulped over the sink.
Maybe the best tomato of my life? Almost all goo, perfect acid-sweet balance. No need for salt at all.
Days later, Peter said, “Agh! Why didn’t we save the seeds?!”
4. Hot sausage
No innuendo intended.
We were in Komotini, our first real stop after Eressos. Whole new part of Greece. The town is 50 percent Turkish, complete with a mosque and an Ottoman-era cemetery.
The streets were empty, which was partly due to Ramadan, and partly due to it being 108 degrees. One restaurant in the market was open, and fed us this:
We marveled at the sensation of hot chili in our throats. The Greeks aren’t so into spicy-hot, and we hadn’t tasted it for weeks. The sausage was spiced like basturma, which is to say, intensely, with coriander and pepper and more. It was a mix of beef and lamb. It was superb.
5. Turkish ice cream
I love Mado ice cream. To Turks, it’s probably only as exciting as Haagen-Dazs, but to me, it’s the most fantastic ice-cream brand, the height of luxury. It’s all goat’s-milk, and the fruit flavors (which I think are fruit-only, no dairy, but who knows?) are so intense, it feels like the fruit is communicating directly with your brain, bypassing your tongue entirely.
In Edirne, we sat at the Mado cafe and had ridiculous Mado treats. Just for Peter, it seems, they have the ‘Red Fruits Passion’ (or some such) sundae on the menu. Sour cherry, raspberry and strawberry, plus raspberry goo, and some clotted cream for good measure.
I had a nice orange-creamsicle-ish thing with pistachios, but whatever. Need more red fruits, please.
6. Hazelnut meringue
Sorry, no photo. I bought it on the Istanbul ferry, along with my tulip-glass of tea.
I know from flying Turkish Airlines, which is neck-and-neck with Emirates for the best-food-in-coach prize, that Turkey produces like most of the world’s hazelnuts. They call it a miracle nut, and serve it instead of peanuts.
So I grabbed a hazelnut meringue cookie, and it must have been 99% hazelnuts, because it was more like an energy bar than a meringue or any cookie, really. So intense.
But then again, everything tastes more intense when you’re traveling. But then again again, America is the Land of Bland. These tastes will tide me over till my next adventure.
Peter and I were ambling down the boardwalk in Eressos, on some half-baked errand or other, when we saw…a bloodbath. Flashing knives. Bright-red gore.
At first, I thought Costa was butchering a sheep, right there on a restaurant table.
We got closer and saw that the carcass was, in fact, a tuna.
I’ve seen guys cutting up tunas at Hunts Point fish market in the Bronx, but that was a pretty tidy operation. This was a sloppier affair.
Costa had bought the whole fish directly from a random fisherman who’d caught it not far offshore. The guy was someone from another island, Costa said, where they’re experts at catching very big fish. (On Lesvos, they’re masters of sardines.)
Costa had hired the strolling vendor, a Bangladeshi guy who normally walked along the beach, to help him cut it up. He’d put aside his stack of cheap fedoras and board of sunglasses, and was now up to his wrists in tuna meat. He looked pretty pleased.
An older woman was there collecting the scraps for her cat. “Do I need to cook it first?” she asked.
Costa laughed, in his husky way, through his beard. “No!” he declared, and sliced two chunks off the loins he was slicing up. He thrust them at us, to demonstrate.
I’d like to say it was the most transcendant sushi ever, but it was almost too intense. Gamey. It reminded me a little of the whale we ate in Norway a decade ago, like they were from the same murky depths. Serious stuff–it tasted like you could live off one scrap for a week. But a cat would be delighted.
Check out those yellow bits in the photo above. Yup: yellowfin tuna. It never occurred to me that those words, which I’ve read only on can labels, meant something concrete, in real life. Somewhere out there in the sea is a fish with little blue bits on his fins too.
We left Costa to clean up. Remarkably, everyone else at the restaurant was placidly enjoying their lunches, not batting an eye. If they’d been butchering a sheep, of course, the tourists at least would’ve run off screaming. Why are fish so different?
We returned that night. Two kilos of tuna, for our party of 12–we barely made a dent in the full 55 kilos the fish had weighed when hooked.
Grilled. Squeeze of lemon. Salt. Pepper. Cooked all the way through–none of that Asian-seared business.
It was perhaps the most amazing fish I’ve ever eaten. With heat, the gaminess dissipated. The fat oozed through the meat, which flaked.
I saw exactly what all that canned tuna was meant to be. And it sure ain’t chicken.