Friday, July 25, 2014

Journalism Memories: My Pulitzer-winning mentors

In Field of Dreams, Burt Lancaster has a memorable line in which he says your dreams often "brush by you like strangers in a crowd." I realize the same thing can be said about important people.  The earliest part of my career was like that, but I didn't realize it at the time. Some notable journalists brushed by me like strangers in a crowd. I was a kid too focused on learning the ropes to be aware of who was teaching me.

I will talk about four of those journalists in my next blog entries. Today's topic: Dave and Cathy Mitchell.

My first journalism job as a wet-behind-the-ears college graduate was as a jack-of-all-trades for the Sebastopol Times, a weekly newspaper located about 60 miles north of San Francisco in the Sonoma County apple-growing and wine region. It was a nice opening gig for an Oregon guy who viewed California as paradise. My first days at the Times were spent with Dave and Cathy, who were in the process of clearing out after turning over control of the newspaper to Ernie Joiner, the man who hired me. The fact Dave and Cathy couldn't work for Joiner was a no-brainer. The Mitchells were Stanford-educated liberals, and Ernie was a conservative who today would be about five steps to the right of Rush Limbaugh.

I believe Dave and Cathy were leery of me. After all, anyone Joiner hired had to share his political leanings, right? That wasn't true. I was the standard just-out-of-college kid who leaned to the left on almost every issue. I still remember my first writing assignment. Cathy handed me a fact sheet about an upcoming theater presentation at the local high school. Theater writing wasn't my strong suit, and I was a kid in an area I didn't know much about. I wrote about 10 inches of copy, handed in my story and waited for a review. "You write good material," she said. "Dave, this kid can actually write." That made me feel good, and I believe any tension in the newsroom disappeared. I worked well with Dave and Cathy for the short time we were together. They took me under their wings and gave me several tips on small-town journalism. Dave took me with him when he covered his last city council meeting, and he introduced me to the people I would be covering. That was a classy move.

The Mitchells then embarked on a journalistic journey that brought them international attention and fame. They took over the Point Reyes Light, a weekly newspaper in the Marin County town of Point Reyes Station. They did an investigative story on Synanon, the drug rehabilitation organization that had a facility in the area. They uncovered violent and corrupt practices in the organization. For their work, they received the Pulitzer Prize in 1979 for meritorious public service. That was a tremendous achievement. Weekly newspapers usually don't show up on Pulitzer Prize lists. The Mitchells successfully defended several lawsuits filed against them by Synanon. Reports say they eventually received a $100,000 settlement from the group.

Dave and Cathy divorced a few years after winning the prize. Dave gave up control of the Light and went to work in San Francisco for a while. He eventually purchased the small newspaper again and kept it until his retirement. The headline on a San Francisco Chronicle story on him in 2005 was perfect: "After 30 years as the muckraker of West Marin, Dave Mitchell has passed the torch." He still writes a blog, I haven't been able to find information on Cathy in the post-Point Reyes days. If anyone can fill in the gaps. let me know.

Their greatest gifts to me were their professional approach, their dedication to not pulling back from a difficult news story, and their willingness to help a newbie. That is one heckuva nice foundation for a young man wanting to stay in journalism for his entire career.

Monday, July 14, 2014

Best cities and surprises of a European odyssey

It all started with a jet-lag day of Biblical proportions and ended with cappuccinos in Venice and a Smithwick's on draft in Dublin, but in between were great memories, surprises, occasional frustrations and introductions to fellow travelers from around the world. Here is my list of the best of the best and the most overrated of the rest from our European vacation:

Best cities we visited: 

1) Bellagio, Italy: Anyone who follows me on Facebook knows this already. I was effusive in my praise for this town to the point of saying that I could stay there until my dying day. The lead-up to getting here was less than ideal, but the reward was priceless. We took the train from Lucerne to Bellinzona, Switzerland,  and switched to the northern Italy commuter special. The last train was hot, crowded, and it stopped at every little town along the way. We finally reached Como, Italy, and our launching point for the joys of Lake Como. From the Como rail station there was a short cab ride, then a hydrofoil (fast boat, or barca veloce) ride into the heart of Lago di Como country. Forty-two minutes later we arrived in Bellagio. It was like stepping into a magical land.

We had a short walk from the ferry terminal to our hotel, the Hotel Metropole Bellagio. I researched this town and learned that the Metropole is the only hotel directly on the lake. All the others are separated from the lake by a main street. I also knew that there were precious few terrace rooms available, and I booked us into one as soon as reservations for the summer season were accepted in February. All the research paid off. My wife expected us to be in a Paris-sized hotel room with a small balcony. She was surprised when she stepped into a big, sumptuous room with a wide terrace that looked directly onto the lake.

Score one for Chris.

The exploration of Bellagio turned up great discoveries on an hourly basis. There are all manner of shops to examine, narrow cobblestone pedestrian-only alleys that lead up the hill, friendly shopkeepers who are only too happy to help, and residents who do their best to aid some Italian-challenged American tourists. We had two great dinners and two fabulous breakfast buffets at our hotel's restaurant, plus tasty gelato on the snack bar terrace on a semi-warm afternoon. The breakfast buffet rolled out everything from freshly cooked eggs to delicious European-style bacon (more like small cuts of ham than its fat-packed American counterpart), to croissants and sweet breads, to fresh cappuccinos and macchiatos. The buffet was included in the price of the room.

But no moments were more precious than the hours we spent on the terrace outside our room taking in the beauty of Lake Como. High hills tower over the water, and villas crowd against the shore. There is plenty of boat traffic from personal speedboats of the well-to-do to passenger ferries that kept a constant parade of visitors pulsing into the town.

Imagine this as your morning retreat: You enjoy that great breakfast buffet then take fresh cappuccinos up to your room and stretch out under the shade of an umbrella and watch the beauty of Lake Como unfold while in the company of your best friend in the world. Ah, that's paradise.

2) Haarlem, the Netherlands: This is Amsterdam without the press of a million people. The town is about 10 miles west of Amsterdam and a quick ride from the Amsterdam Centraal train station. Want canals? Haarlem is honeycombed with them. Deb and I recommend the Haarlem Canal Tours excursion with Joeren. He is an excellent guide and uses a smaller boat to explore the area. We had just seven travelers on our tour, and Joeren slipped seamlessly from Dutch to English to give details of this historic city. Want a great city square as the focal point of your travels? The Grote Markt is perfect. (We recommend breakfast at Grand Cafe Brinkmann and its Smit & Dorlas coffee, which is the best we had in Europe ... or anywhere, for that matter.) Want World War II memories? Few places are better than the Ten Boom Museum, which is the home in which the Ten Boom family hid Jews during the Nazi occupation.

Want beautiful cathedral bells that serenade you with an on-the-hour show? St. Bavo's on the Grote Markt is the quintessential European church. Want a friendly wine-and-cheese shop that supplies everything needed for a great lunch? We recommend Tromp's, which is just up the street from the Ten Boom Museum.

Imagine this as your morning retreat: You get an outside table at Brinkmann's and order the Turkish yogurt, which is served in a big bowl and is crowded with fruit, honey, muesli and nuts. Order the Smit and Dorlas with the little cookie served on the side, and watch as shopkeepers set up on the Grote Markt for the weekend market. Listen to the buzz of conversations in Dutch, German, French and English. It is the intersection of the world under a bright sun. That's just about perfect.

3) Murren, Switzerland: This is a tiny town in the Bernese Oberland, the mountainous region in south-central Switzerland that is dominated by three major peaks, the Eiger, Monck and Jungfrau. My wife selected this town out of all the offerings in the region, and her selection was perfect. Places like Interlaken and Lauterbrunnen are down in the valley, and a hot day can be commonplace in early summer. We took a cable car and then a small train to get to Murren, which is thousands of feet higher than the valley towns. There is about a 10- to 15-degree difference in temperatures between the locations. What makes Murren so special? The views are to die for.

Imagine this as your morning retreat: You walk onto your terrace at the Hotel Alpenruh and look at an array of 10,000-foot peaks that look so close that you can reach out and touch them. Or for a new experience, take the cable car to the Schilthorn and the Piz Gloria station. There is a huge James Bond theme for the trip because Piz Gloria was where they filmed many scenes of In Her Majesty's Secret Service. But the Bond experience isn't the biggest thing here. We took the earliest cable car up the mountain so we could enjoy the fabulous breakfast buffet (which was generously paid for by the owners at the Hotel Alpenruh). I advise people to sit on the outer edge of the restaurant as it turns gently and gives you a 360-degree tour of the Swiss Alps as you dine. Absolutely fantastic.

The best surprises:

1) The European train system: Well, surprise might not be the perfect word because we heard about the efficiency and comfort of European trains before we arrived in Europe. We had the Eurail Global Pass, which gave us first-class seating on almost every leg of our trip. When the schedule says a train leaves at 07:15, it begins rolling out of the station at that precise minute. The only downside to train travel is that they don't post which track a particular train is on until about 20 minutes before departure. There are hundreds of travelers on an individual train, and the result is a lemming-like race to the particular track to find the car for first-class travelers.

2) Travel pants: These are lightweight pants that are easy to wash and dry in a hotel room. They are very comfortable and quite adaptive to your needs. My travel pants were perfect for a bike tour in Copenhagen, the canal tour in Haarlem, visits to Notre Dame and Musee d'Orsay in Paris, hikes in the Swiss Alps, and days of exploration in Bellagio and Venice.

3) Good beer just about everywhere: I am not a beer snob, but I enjoy a good brew or two when the mood strikes. My favorites were the Grimbergen Dobble I enjoyed at a beachside cafe at Zandvoort aan Zee in the Netherlands, the RugenBrau (the local product of the Bernese Oberland, brewed in Interlaken), and the craft beer at Norrebro Bryghus in Copenhagen. Try it, you'll like it.

4) Courtesy, European style: It didn't matter if they were tour guides, train conductors, workers at the front desks at hotels, or just area residents, the treatment we received from Europeans everywhere was remarkable. We are especially grateful to the Italians who graciously shepherded us through the maze of streets in Venice so we could get back to our hotel in the Santa Croce part of the city. (More on that in a bit).

5) The joy of a great bike tour: We took only one during our visit, but it was exceptionally good. We went with Bike Mike (Mike Sommerville) in Copenhagen,  and it was well worth the price (about $58 U.S. per person). It was an 8-mile excursion, and Bike Mike couldn't have been any better as a guide. He loves his city and his nation, and his little lectures are filled with rich information on history, culture and city facts. The one surprising part was that Bike Mike could go from devout Christian one minute to obscenity-spewing Dane the next. He stopped at Sankt Pieter's Church near his bike shop in downtown Copenhagen and spoke eloquently about Jesus Christ and the meaning of Ascension Day, which was the holiday on the day we had our tour. At the next stop he might drop f-bombs and scatological references. It's just Mike, but be aware that this is his style. I highly recommend the tour unless you are someone with a nun's sensibilities. One side note on the tour: It was a great way to break up jet lag. Deb and I spent 30 sleepless hours going from Denver to Copenhagen (via JFK and Reykjavik, Iceland), and we were dragging as we started the morning, but physical activity is a great cure.

The biggest letdowns:

1) Venice: The city is drop-dead gorgeous and dripping with history. It also is puzzling to make your way around, and heat and heavy humidity are commonplace. We were there in very early June, but the humidity was already stifling. Think Atlanta with canals. The streets also are vexing even with a good map. We decided to walk from St. Mark's Square back to our hotel and got lost repeatedly. A particular street on the map might be a short alley. A major street might be a cramped venue for several blocks, often barely wide enough for two people to pass each other as they walk in different directions. The best way to get around is the vaporetto, or water taxi. The downside is that the boats are crowded, the sweaty weather results in hundreds of sweaty people, and the journey is less than comfortable.

2) Foreign money exchange: There are multiple ATMs in every city, but not every one accepts a particular bank card (even though I checked with our banks and was told that their cards would be good everywhere in Europe). My biggest headache was in the Hamburg, Germany, train station. I repeatedly was rejected by the ATM on the station's plaza. I eventually had to walk upstairs to a Deutsche Bank office in order to get Euros. There also is the thrill of trying to gauge the cost of things in American funds while in Copenhagen (the Danish krone is about 18 cents U.S.) or in Switzerland (the Swiss franc is about $1.08 U.S.). There also was the recommended ATM in Venice that said it offered the most honest exchange rate in the city. Wrong. This ATM gouged us for about a 10 percent higher fee than any other ATM we used on our vacation.

3) Pickpockets: There are warnings in just about every big city that pickpockets are working the train stations. Rick Steves' books warn about this and say to be careful when getting onto trains or going through turnstiles. Pickpockets like to bump you and steal your stuff at times when you can't do anything to stop them. They are on the other side of the turnstile or stepping off the train before you realize your wallet is gone. We adopted the Rick Steves recommendation: Wear a money belt. We had zero problems with pickpockets during our trip because of that.

The one thing I don't have on these lists are items from Paris. It is a magical city, but Deb and I tend to be small-town folks. Paris is loaded with rich treasures, but it is almost sensory overload. If you want great food and aren't bothered by hurried atmosphere at Metro stops and major boulevards, then Paris is a must. We enjoyed every day there, but we never felt relaxed. (Well, maybe there was that one time at the little bistro on the Rue de Grenelle that had the great pinot noir and grilled salmon.)

Here is a link to our collage of still photo images from our trip:

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

A Mini World Food Tour, Europe Edition

I do not pretend to be a food critic, the kind who picks apart all aspects of a restaurant and detect every seasoning used in every dish. However, I know what I like. That is all that is needed for this blog entry.

That said, here are my top three meals during our smorgasbord tour of west central Europe:

3) Bavette the Grill, Brasserie Nobel, Haarlem, The Netherlands: This was a lucky choice as Deb and I selected a place to eat on our first night in Haarlem. We took a charming walk along the Spaarne River and decided that the Brasserie Nobel looked like a good option for a meal. The bavette option made that come true for me.

The dish is flank steak (an overlooked cut of meat) with grilled vegetables and topped with bernaise sauce.  The vegetables included nicely seasoned potatoes and mushrooms (both personal favorites) and green beans in a savory sauce. The bernaise was a nice touch, adding another layer of flavor. I took the waiter's advice and ordered a Joppen beer, which is the wheat beer brewed in Haarlem. It was a nice complement to everything on the plate. In fact, it was such a nice complement that I had two Joppens.  (When in Haarlem, do as the Dutch do.)

Here's a good tip on checking out a restaurant: If there are many locals eating there, it's a good place. That became apparent as the various members of the wait staff conversed with diners. They talked like old friends as if the patrons ate there often. If the locals like it then it's thumbs up.

2) Mediterranean tuna in wasabi cream sauce, La Terrazza Metropole, Bellagio, Italy: I could have eaten the worst meal of my life at this place and still felt like I was in heaven. This is the patio restaurant at the Hotel Metropole Bellagio where we stayed. The restaurant is open air with a commanding view of the lake at table side, and ducks and swans swim by as you dine. The heat of the day (it only got into the 80s during our stay there) dissipated and the lake's cooling factor took effect. It was as romantic a setting for a meal as any I have had in my life.

OK, let's up the ante on this idyllic spot. I am not a big fish eater, but the tuna dish looked intriguing enough to try. I ordered it medium rare, which ended up being a nice choice for my tastes. They served two bountiful chunks of tuna encrusted in sesame seeds. The wasabi sauce was drizzled around the outside edge of the dinner plate, and I could choose just how much of the spicy sauce I wanted with each bite. The combination was delectable. Deb and I started our meal with mixed green salads that had abundant amounts of tomatoes, shaved carrots and other treats, accompanied by the ever-present olive oil and balsamic combination on the table. And this was the really good balsamic, a higher grade from Modena, Italy, where you have to be licensed to produce balsamic under the Modena banner.

1) Lamb sausage, Le Cafe du Commerce, Paris: OK, it's Paris so great gastronomic offerings are commonplace, right? Well, we had one so-so meal while in the City of Lights so great meals aren't guaranteed. We chose this restaurant on the advice of the young man at the front desk of our hotel. He said it was a place where a lot of the locals gather for dinner (there's that tip about a good restaurant again) and it was well worth the time. I also had seen mentions about the restaurant on blogs, and that added a layer of trust in my book. We actually showed up here twice for dinner, but the place doesn't open until 7 p.m. so we went elsewhere on our first visit. We arrived properly late (by our usual dining schedule) the second time, and, oh, my, was it worth it.

Again, I don't usually order lamb or veal. It's that "eating a young animal" thing. But they didn't have my first choice on the menu available that night, and I took a chance on this second option. Well, Little Lambie was delicious. It was a big sausage like a quality brat that you would throw on the grill on a football Saturday. Everything from the texture to the seasoning (not too little, not too much) was perfect. They added roasted potatoes, cooked apples and a small green salad on the plate.

I also got to try out my limited French vocabulary. "Deux sauvignon blanc, petit, s'il vous plait." And I must have done it correctly because my waiter replied, "Merci, monsieur." And the resulting wine was pretty darned good, too. Deb and I topped off our meal with dessert. She had the creme brûlée, which was delicate and delicious. I ordered a lemon sorbet with just a hint of vodka that was poured over a French cookie, and it was all contained in a bowl of molded white chocolate. Magnifique.

Here's another reason Le Cafe du Commerce gets so many recommendations: The bill was paltry by Parisian standards. Deb and I had salads, the main courses and desserts, and the entire cost was 58 Euros. In Paris, that's a steal.

I left some really good meals off this list. There was the salmon with bernaise at a little bistro along the Rue de Grenelle in Paris (the place also had the best pinot noir); pork steak at the Hotel Alpenruh in Murren, Switzerland; cheese fondue with a side of roesti at the Hotel Eiger in Murren; pork cordon bleu at the Hotel Rheinfelderhof in Basel, Switzerland; cannelloni at Taverna Capitan Uncino in Venice ... the list could go on. And that overlooks our favorite breakfast spot, Grand Cafe Brinkmann on the Grote Markt in Haarlem. The breakfast menu was small, but ordering the Turkish yogurt with fruit was a must, as was the coffee. OMG, the coffee was magnificent. They serve Smit & Dorlas, which is brewed in Aruba and earns the top ranking in my best cups of coffee ever. My wife loved that they served a small cookie with each cup, so there's that, too.

I rolled out the superlatives in this review, but all of them were earned. That is one thing that makes Europe so wonderful. I will follow in a couple of days with my top three cities we visited. That's going to entail some hard choices as well, but I love to examine fond memories.

Saturday, July 5, 2014

Writing Ongoing; Blogging, Not So Much

It's six weeks since I posted my last blog entry, which isn't a good statistic. You can believe this next statement or not: I have been too busy to do regular blogging. Want proof? Well, here goes.

REASON NO. 1: Three weeks in Europe. This wasn't a a nice parting gift for having my job at The Post eliminated. I didn't book this trip as a way to soothe frayed feelings. Deb and I decided to go to Europe long before the guillotine fell, and there was no way we were going to be denied. The best part of being gone so long was that I wasn't putting more responsibilities on others at Denver Post Online or YourHub. The Post did that by eliminating my job, so I left with a clear conscience.

I will detail the trip in blog posts over the next several days. The only hint I will give is this: It was as marvelous an experience as I could have scripted.

REASON NO. 2: I have been working on my novels. No, let me clarify. I have been working on one of my novels. I started my term of unwanted unemployment by diving into all four novels that are in the construction phase. I moved among three main characters and four story lines, but I abandoned that strategy. The reason? I felt I wasn't giving each novel the time and attention it required. Some novelists can juggle multiple creations; I learned I can't. My work on the single novel is proceeding nicely. I will give details once the project nears the finish line.

OK, enough blogging. Time to turn my attention to other things.