Human rights: we're all in this together

In the spring of 1961, two Portuguese students raised their glasses in a restaurant in a toast to freedom. Unfortunately for them, that act landed them in jail. At the time Portugal was under the dictatorship of Antonio de Oliveira Salazar, whose regime did not tolerate dissent. A British lawyer, outraged by their arrest, wrote an article entitled "The Forgotten Prisoners" about the plight of many such people around the world and the need to do something about it. The London Observer newspaper published the article on its front page. The lawyer, Peter Benenson, made the case for fundamental rights. He urged readers to write letters of protest to the Portuguese government. The document used the term "prisoners of conscience" for the first time.

Condos in the city near the lake

A view looking south from Union Station in Toronto. The commuter train taking me home hadn't started rolling yet, so I had a minute to sketch a section of the skyline. Lots of new metallic and glass condos are going up near the lake shore. Density is increasing, but this makes the city more vibrant all week long, including weekends. New shops are opening to provide services to the residents in the area. The skyline is closing in around the Gardiner Expressway.

How we stopped for a pizza and stumbled across a vivid history lesson in the first person

In Sarasota, Florida, you can get some authentic Italian pizza and sandwiches at a place called Il Panificio on Main Street. If you happen to go there, you may also hear a fascinating story.

We recently visited Il Panificio during a mini-vacation. We had read a positive review in a magazine we found in our hotel room. The business was opened by a man we came to know as Nick (Nicola). We bumped into him outside the door just as we were leaving. My wife told him about the great reviews and we stood and talked and found out a lot about him.

I'll try to tell it like he told us.

Nick said he came to the States when he was 14. His mother sent him from a small town in Italy to New Jersey to join his father who was saving money for the family to emigrate. This was in the late 1930s. His mother must have seen the storm clouds brewing in Europe and wanted to ensure Nicola would not be called one day to serve in the ranks of Benito Mussolini's Fascist army.

After a seven-day ocean crossing, Nick arrived in New York and settled with his dad in New Jersey.

Some time after, war broke out in Europe. The handwriting was on the wall for the United States. Pretty soon, Nick found himself in the U.S. Armed Forces. "I left a country to get away from being forced to join an army and here I was being drafted in another," he said. He trained as a medical corpsman and wound up in England assigned to none other than General George Patton's Third Army Group.

At the age of 22, he took part in the invasion of Normandy and the fighting that took Patton to the Rhine and the famous crossing into Germany in March, 1945.

I asked him if the book and television series Band of Brothers reflected the way it really was over there. He said yes, it did.

Nick said that as they penetrated deeper into Europe, they encountered defeated Italian soldiers returning from the Russian front, many wounded and shoeless in the freezing weather. He told us he recognized them right away by their uniforms and it broke his heart to see how bedraggled they were. The only thing he could do for them, he said, was give them as much penicillin as he could find. It seemed to be a painful memory.

He told us he saw General Patton, "as close as you are to me," and agreed he was a unique leader. The Third Army went into Germany and so did Nick.

Germany fell and the war ended.

During the weeks that followed, Nick pleaded for permission to leave his unit and travel south to Italy. He wanted to see if his mother and his remaining family members were still alive. Nick told us his superior officers thought he was crazy and said only Eisenhower himself could grant permission. Nick insisted. Permission was granted.

He travelled by available military transport to Milan where his G.I. pay was exchanged into Italian Lire. He said he stuffed mounds of bills into his jacket and could barely find space for all them in his clothing. Devaluation had taken an enormous toll on the Italian currency.

He took a train to Naples and eventually made his way to his small town. Old acquaintances at the railway station recognized him as the youthful Nicola and led him to a sweet reunion with his mother and family.

Post-war Italy was in ruins. His family was suffering. Food was scarce.
Nick marched into the local mayor's office still wearing his American uniform and demanded two sacks of flour for his family and threatened to personally go to the Allied military authorities if he were denied. He received the flour.

Nick then travelled to the American embassy and pushed for immigration papers to be drawn up as soon as possible. With money in his pocket and a lot of persuasion, he obtained the papers.

He brought his mom to Jersey, where they stayed for many years. Nick married and had children, and then became a grandfather many times over.

Nick's family eventually settled in Florida and he founded Il Panificio. He still hangs around the restaurant and keeps himself busy.

If you want to meet Nick, you can see a photo of him at the Panificio website here. Just scroll down, he's the good-looking elderly gentleman with the glasses. He looked just like this when we met him a couple of weeks ago when we stopped for pizza and left with much more.

Putting your best foot forward

I have been running around doing a lot of work-related projects lately and have focused on other matters; so not much time for writing or drawing.  Still, it's very gratifying to know that people are visiting the site regardless. Thank you.

As we begin another week, I'd like to post a quotation from an expert on etiquette, Lillian Eichler Watson.   I think her advice goes far beyond her area of expertise and can be taken into account for all kinds of situations:

"Don't reserve your best behavior for special occasions. You can't have two sets of manners, two social codes - one for those you admire and want to impress, another for those whom you consider unimportant.  You must be the same to all people."

Many thanks to Daniela Corno for the photograph.  She made it available for use with attribution at the image sharing site

At Frenchy's

This oversized turtle and his undersized surf board greet patrons at Frenchy's Saltwater Cafe' in Clearwater Beach, Florida.

Frenchy's is a favourite restaurant, famous for its fresh seafood. Founded by Mike Preston, who was born in Quebec, Frenchy's employs local fishermen and a fleet of fishing vessels to bring in the freshest offerings daily from the Gulf of Mexico.

Frenchy's has grown into a group of four restaurants in the Clearwater area: Frenchy's Original, Saltwater Cafe', Rockaway Grill and South Beach Cafe'. Home of the amazing grouper sandwich, the Frenchy restaurants are famous for their snapper, crab, shrimp, mahi mahi, conch fritters...well, you get the picture.... the ocean's bounty.

The Frenchy restaurants have a relaxed beach atmosphere, with seating indoors and outdoors and very reasonable prices. Take a look, for example, at the Saltwater Cafe' menu.

On a recent visit, we sat on the outdoor patio at the Saltwater and enjoyed a wonderful late night dinner facing the turtle mascot above.

The turtle is an appropriate symbol in Clearwater. Starting in May and throughout the summer, sea turtles emerge in the darkness from the Gulf of Mexico to nest in the white sandy beaches of Florida's west coast. The turtle is a protected animal in Florida. Did you know that lights are a hazard to them? Now I understand why beaches are closed at night.
Read more and see the video report at Turtles Return to Florida Beaches.

Florida is an amazing place to see wildlife.

Plants of Florida

One of the best things about Florida is the great variety of plants. I sat on the steps of a shop in Siesta Key in the middle of the afternoon and sketched these. I can't explain the flag. It was just there, near the building.

Located on an island about an hour south of Tampa, Siesta Key is one of the best beaches in Florida and also attracts a lot of eclectic people. Happy hour at Siesta Key Village brings the crowds off the beach, especially for the daiquiris. Folks hang around for the oyster bars and the dancing with live bands at night.

Laid back and casual, Siesta Key is a great place for people who like to hang out.

Coffee time at the Tampa airport

The airport in Tampa Bay has a nice shopping area and lots of seating in the main terminal. With escalators connecting to the check-in and ticketing areas one floor below, and rail connections to the gates, the main building feels much like a mall. Of course, the Starbucks is a popular spot to spend some time while waiting for a departure.

I got to the airport a little early and had a pen handy.

Luggage fees result in more flying woes

In the desire to improve profitability, some airlines are making air travel even more of a hassle than it already is.

In the United States some carriers are charging a fee for checked luggage. On the face of it, it doesn't sound too bad: while the fees increase company revenue, costs presumably are also lowered by the reduction in the overall weight of the aircraft and the improved fuel efficiency. But the policy is turning passenger cabins into zoos.

I recently flew from Tampa Bay to Charlotte on a trip that illustrates how the flying experience has deteriorated.

With the luggage fees in effect, what happens is this: since many passengers want to avoid paying extra for checked bags, they pack more items in their carry-on luggage. Consequently, carry-on bags are becoming bigger and heavier.

It seems to me that people try to guess the maximum size of carry-on luggage and fervently hope the airline will pleasantly surprise them by using a wide-body aircraft on their particular flight.

Boarding, therefore, is taking longer. And it's testing the patience of both passengers and cabin staff. On my Boeing 757 flight to Charlotte, the boarding process took a full 40 minutes; I don't think it was an exception. As pre-boarding procedures (the accommodation of passengers travelling with small children and people in wheelchairs) get underway, the rest of the passengers begin to approach the gate entrance in anticipation of the rush. Just as soon as the staff announce the start of regular boarding, the scrum has already formed.

The lucky winners of the gateway dash move quickly on board and commandeer the overhead bins to store their oversized carry-ons. Those who step on the plane behind them begin the struggle for storage space. Flight attendants become mediators and start solving storage problems. They begin moving things around the cabin in an effort to find stowage for all. This takes time. An announcement follows, asking passengers to reconsider the placement of their luggage and to see if some items can be moved down from the overhead bins and placed underneath the seat in front of them.

On a full flight, some unlucky passengers inevitably find no room for their larger carry-ons and are forced to give them up to the flight attendants for checking into the hold.

All over America, economy ticket holders engage in boarding procedures that have become like a game of survivor, a procedure that sometimes approximates the length of the flight itself. When the plane finally takes off, you are left with this image of an unbalanced aircraft: it's flying sort of empty beneath the passenger floor and completely full in the cabin.

A few experiences like this, especially when you're facing a tight schedule, and you're ready to change airlines.

Now, more than ever, flying on some routes is indeed like being in a cattle car. The romance is gone.


Columbian Restaurant

As mentioned in the previous post, the Columbian Restaurant at St. Armands Circle is a wonderful spot for an open-air dinner on a warm evening. It occupies a premier spot in this trendy area on the outskirts of Sarasota. The ocean breeze wafts through from nearby Lido Beach and lots of people come for the dining, art galleries and evening shopping. The character of the Circle can be described as a mix of European and Spanish American influences. It's a great meeting place.


If you're ever in Florida, take some time to visit the Sun Coast -- Clearwater, St. Petersburg, Sarasota and so on. I can see why this area is so popular. This is my first visit and I'm really enjoying it. It's a wonderful place for fishing, swimming, just plain old relaxing in the Florida sunshine. The beaches are truly spectacular: the water is warm, the sand feels like talcum powder, and the breezes are soothing. Pelicans seem to be quite at home around humans on these beaches. They swoop low over the waves and pick out the fish surfing the swells.

In the evenings, the area offers many choices for visitors looking for a drink or a memorable dinner. Try out the Columbian Restaurant in St. Armands Circle, near Sarasota. Opened at the turn of the century by a Cuban emigre', the restaurant has been in the family for many years. Offering a spacious veranda and warm service, the restaurant offers fresh seafood, Spanish and Cuban dishes and unique salads in one of the trendiest shopping areas of Sarasota. The Columbian is a great meeting place.

It's easy to see why so many people choose to retire in Florida.