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Picking Up the Pieces

<i> Morgan, of La Jolla, is a magazine and newspaper writer</i>

I looked down, aghast at what I had done to my dinner plate at the cozy Gasthof Zauner in the Austrian lake village of Hallstatt. Then I looked at the smile that was spreading across my husband’s face.

“Don’t even think of laughing,” I whispered in my most threatening tone. “Don’t say one word until I clean this up.”

I worked swiftly, in the camouflage of candlelight, and managed to restore order before the waiter returned.

After weighing hearty options from the rich country menu, I had ordered cevapici, a veal-and-onion grill I first tasted on the Dalmatian coast of Yugoslavia, a few hundred kilometers to the south. And then I decided to add a touch of salt.

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I shook the container and the lid popped off. It was not salt, it was toothpicks. My plate was covered with kindling. Carefully, after uttering my threat, I lifted each sliver from the sauce and made a sticky stack on my bread plate.

“Salt would have been worse,” said my husband, still smiling.

Why do those silly scenes hang in the memory, right next to moments of awe and beauty? I am convinced it is because travel time is somehow set apart from the rest of life; hours become framed in humor or majesty or wonder because they are different. They are focused. They are not interrupted.

Had I dumped a shaker of toothpicks on my plate at a restaurant at home, I would have been too embarrassed to move. A waiter would have whisked the plate away before I could consider coping. My host or hostess might have buried me in “tut-tut” or “poor darling.”

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Even the fact there were toothpicks lurking with the condiments says travel. In the United States that often happens only in Chinese restaurants.

Crisp Vegetables

The fresh vegetables--broccoli spears, green beans, slivered red cabbage, pillow potatoes--also were crisp and flavorful at the Gasthof Zauner, an inn with 28 rooms within sound of a waterfall at the top of the cobbled Marktplatz in Hallstatt. The peasant dishes, from schnitzels to kebabs, were winners.

“A dramatic confession,” said my neighbor when I gave her this report, “but you misunderstood. I said we were going to Australia next month, not Austria. Where should we dine Down Under?”

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Well, in Sydney, where I have not yet spilled anything, I would stroll to the historic Rocks area, where the British convict ships landed 200 years ago, and sit at an outdoor table at the Waterfront restaurant, with its snappy sails and flags. I would order that succulent grilled fish called John Dory. Or maybe the shrimp cooked with coconut and curry sauce. And probably a cold Tooheys beer.

Or, if the hour were right, I would have a cup of tea at the snack bar at the Opera House, and perch on the sun-splashed terrace and watch the endless show of Sydney harbor.

For rock oysters, barramundi and other seafood treats, nothing tops Doyle’s at Watson’s Bay, a bracing trip by taxi or boat.

Late, Light Supper

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As a lover of good salads, appetizers and omelets, I would have a late, light supper at a table for two on the mezzanine of the Regent Hotel, overlooking the splendid lobby with its gentle music.

Sydney pubs of special merit include the Hero of Waterloo, which dates from 1844; the Metropolitan, downtown at the corner of George and Bridge, and the Lord Dudley in the neighborhood of Paddington, called “Paddo” by the abbreviation-prone Aussies.

In Melbourne, I would go back for spicy Mandarin treats at the Red Lantern in Chinatown, which centers around Little Bourke Street, or savor once again the fettuccine of Florentino’s, where Italian selections are printed on one side of the menu, and French on the other. The upstairs rooms at Florentino’s are old-fashioned, oak-paneled elegant; downstairs is a bistro.

Meanwhile, as I told my neighbor, when you do get to Austria next, pause for rich coffee and apple pastries at the Cafe Tomaselli, the oldest coffee house in Salzburg. Inlaid woods gleam like satin; brass coatracks are hung with black umbrellas. Amber lights flicker against scrolled white ceilings in a scene framed by gilded mirrors. A wooden rack has brass pegs for 24 newspapers, not one of them in English.

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They say that young Mozart came here with his father. It is just a few blocks from his birthplace. Generations of music students have followed. In the spirit of the Old World, I find it cozy to remember that the Cafe Tomaselli was doing business in Salzburg long before the first Europeans set foot in Australia at the place called Botany Bay.


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