A Love Letter to a Neck Pillow; or, This Stuff Really Works!

As a regular and habitual coach-flyer, I’ve accustomed myself to the increasingly onerous indignities of the experience: Legroom too tight for even an Oompa Loompa, indifferent if not aggressively rude cabin crews, food as flavorful as leftovers from a middle-schooler’s home-ec project. And, indeed, much like many hostages, I’ve begun to see the first glimmers of Stockholm syndrome before most of the planes I’m sardined into even begin pulling away from the gate: The justifications for why this is all perfectly fine begin before I even begin contemplating that first swallow of $7 Jack Daniels, even on trans-Atlantic flights (thanks for the generosity, USAir!). I tell myself that I have plenty of space in my little cocoon of a seat because I’m only five-seven. I tell myself that the obsessively chatty day-tripper next to me could have a profound impact on my life, offering up the kind of sage guidance that can only ever really come from a coffee-breath-smelling seat-mate whose strategy for attenuating the mile-high jitters is yammering away ceaselessly for the entire duration of the flight. I tell myself that the magic 10mg of Ambien in my jacket pocket will render all of this superfluous soon enough.

But all of that only really works when I’m flying alone, as, of course, I usually do. This past June, however, I found myself on a one-aisle redeye from Philadelphia to Lisbon with my wife and kids. We were on the first of several legs toward a blissful month in Italy’s Puglia region, a trip we’d been looking forward to for months. But in order to get there, we first had to survive winging ourselves over the Atlantic with a three-year-old and a seven-month-old in tow.

And people say the first “Saw” movie is scary.

Parental responsibilities, then, precluded my usual overnight-flight food-and-beverage pairing of Ambien and whiskey: If I were to get any shuteye at all, it would have to be the sort from which I could awaken easily, and not into the chemically induced fog of a sedative-aided nap.

What, I asked myself, the hell would I do?

This is all a long way of saying that I am and will forever be grateful to the mad geniuses at Cabeau, who, somewhere along the way, were stricken with the crazy idea that, yes, they could in fact make a better proverbial mousetrap. Or, in this case, neck pillow and eye mask.

For years, I’d been using some version of the same bean-bag model of neck pillow and plush-fabric eye mask that you find in airport shops all over the world. And, much like too many run-of-the-mill marriages, the charm had worn off long ago, but ennui and inertia kept me from looking around and finding one that actually worked. (Okay, that sounds depressing, and I suppose it is; so for the record, I’m not referring to my own marriage: My wife Steff is a saint, tolerant of me and preternaturally understanding when I have to leave for some far-flung destination for work and she remains home in the ever-exciting ‘burbs with the kids and the bills and neighbor down the street in the darkened house who may or may not but really-truly-hopefully isn’t actually a serial killer. I love her deeply, and desperately hope she remembers to lock the doors at night.)

But back to neck pillows and eye masks.

I had received samples of these wonders of modern ergonomic design in the mail, and decided that this would be the trip to test-drive them. If they could make a difference in a context like this, I thought, then they must be the real deal.

Turns out they are.

Now, I’m not one to wax rhapsodic about neck pillows and eye masks, but these Cabeau ones? They’re really, really good. Like, enough to make me want to—here we go!—wax rhapsodic about them. The pillow is composed of memory foam that actually conforms to your neck and jaw line, meaning that you can catch a few hours of sleep and not wake up needing a large Finnish man in a sauna to flog your neck with birch branches to work out the kinks that too often herald final approach and landing after a restless night’s sleep in coach. And the design of the eye mask evidences the sort of future-gazing genius that Bobby Oppenheimer and his buddies at Los Alamos possessed while working on their little Manhattan Project.

Okay, maybe not quite. But still, it’s a great eye mask, with padding around the entire edge so that your eyelashes don’t get crushed and you have a full seal from the light. It also has a customizable nose-bridge, which means that, combined with the edge-padding and the overall high quality of the plush fabric, provides as near a blackout experience as you’ll ever possibly get.

All of this meant one thing: I was able to get far more sleep than I expected on that flight to Lisbon, and was able the next day to more adequately educate my wife and older daughter about the intricacies of gorging oneself on the surprisingly tasty pasteis de nata at Lisbon Portela Airport. (The baby doesn’t yet have teeth, so no eggy pastries for her.)

So while no neck pillow and eye mask can ever compensate for the indignities of coach travel, they can certainly take some of the sting out of it and help give you a few extra hours of sleep. Which these did. And for the record, I spent those few blissful hours of unconsciousness dreaming that we were flying up front, ensconced in the cushy, old-school Turkish-sultan comforts of first class, replete with grapes and brandy-macerated dates and beautiful women singing me to sleep.

A guy can always dream.


French Gin? Mai oui! Review of G'Vine Floraison Gin

Gin conservatism, gin orthodoxy, gin traditionalism: Call it what you will, but the fact remains that the old-school assumptions so many of us grew up making just no longer apply. Personally, I remember a time—a dark age, to be sure—when I refused to tip back a glass of the great clear spirit because, as I so unoriginally put it to my friends and family alike, “I prefer not to drink perfume.”

This, of course, from a college kid who was happy to drink anything and everything else.

Jump forward now more than 15 years, and the entire gin landscape has shifted. And while you can always find a great bottle of the classics (Beefeater, Plymouth, Boodles), there are also infinitely more versions to choose from. In the mood for a gin more rose-y and bright with the fresh burst of cucumbers? Hendrick’s is your tipple. Clean and supremely refreshing? Find some Martin Miller’s. Looking for a saffron-swirling example? Cadenhead’s Old Raj is tough to beat. And then there’s the entire world of genever gin, of old tom gin, of make-at-home gins, like the excellent “Homemade Gin Kit.”

So when a sample of G’Vine Floraison Gin crossed by desk, I was intrigued. It’s distilled from grapes, kissed with Ugni Blanc, and is distinctly floral from its use of vine flowers. Which, of course, all sounds well and good from a marketing standpoint, but how does it hold up in the glass?

Really, really well. Here are my notes:

Sweetly floral nose with hints of honey, orange oil, and a vague note of spice. On the palate, this is thick, impossibly smooth, generous, and giving, with lemon gel, candied orange peel, flowers, exotic spice, and a seam of licorice, especially on the finish, providing an almost autumnal hint to this otherwise quite summery gin. Both on its own or in a gin and tonic, it is delicious. My sample bottle is already halfway finished. Which is always a good sign.


The Excellent Chablis of Domaine Charly Nicolle

Chablis has the potential to provide some of the most profound pleasures in the Chardonnay pantheon. Unfortunately, I haven’t had much of that lately: Before tasting the wines reviewed below, I had found myself in a bit of a Chablis rut, the telltale minerality and purity of the region often missing in the ones I’d filled my glasses with.

And then these samples came into my office. They were from a producer I’d never heard of before, bottled in relatively small quantities, and priced very fairly.

What a wonderful discovery.

Domaine Charly Nicolle, based in the village of Fleys, owns approximately 65 acres of vineyards, including 39.5 of Chablis, 5.1 of Petit Chablis (in the “Sur le Bois de Dessus” lieu-dit), 15 of Premier Cru “Les Fourneaux,” 5.1 of Premier Cru “Mont de Milieu,” and 1/3 of an acre of Grand Cru “Bougros.” The range of terroirs (which the Nicolle family has owned since 1780), as well as the keen eye and intense talent of Charly Nicolle himself, have resulted in a selection of wines that I heartily recommend.

The wines are now being represented by the excellent Robert Kacher Selections, which means that they will be far more readily available than they ever have been before in the United States. [Note: The sample bottle of Grand Cru Bougros I was sent seemed to be in a quiet phase when I tasted it. I will publish my review of a new bottle of it once I receive it.]

Domaine Charly Nicolle Petit Chablis 2012
Exceptionally crisp aromas that remind me of seashells and chalk: Very mineral and slate-y, with bright lemon-juice hints. On the palate, vibrant, taut acidity mingles with lemon first, then a hint of spice and lemon verbena. Chalky and quite mineral, almost drying on the palate. This is self-possessed, taut, and confident, as serious a Petit Chablis as you’ll ever find. Drink now or hold for a few years; it’ll be delicious either way. SRP: $25.

Domaine Charly Nicolle Chablis “Ancestrum” 2012
Complex aromas of warm slate joined by a hint of honey, white licorice, and something that reminds me of halvah. These turn to lemon, lime, lemongrass, verbena, fresh ginger, shiso, mineral, and slate on the palate, all brightened up with zippy acidity. Drink now - 2022. SRP: $30.

Domaine Charly Nicolle Chablis Premier Cru “Mont de Milieu” 2012
Aromas of guava, passionfruit, dried pineapple, crunchy apple, and mineral: Riper, yes, but thoroughly self-possessed for all its lovely aromatics. The palate, all melted silk in texture, boasts subtly honey- and flower-tinged pineapple notes as well as a nod in the direction of financier and lemon creme anglaise. Drink now - 2023. SRP: $45.

Domaine Charly Nicolle Chablis Premier Cru “Les Fourneaux” 2012

Toasty, almost smoky almond skin aromas dance with seashell and schist-like aromatics, as well as preserved lemon, Middle Eastern spices, and a touch of brininess. This continues on the palate, which is savory and briny alongside flavors of dried pineapple, slightly tart pear, white tea, and honeysuckle, finishing with a bit of nuttiness. Great concentration, poise, and confidence. Drink now - 2024. SRP: $45.


How We Got to Torre Colimena

This all came about so quickly.

Earlier this year, my wife floated the idea of spending a month in Europe; she was only half-joking. It was during a conversation sometime in the early autumn, when she was still pregnant with our second daughter and we were both feeling the stress of having just moved from the city to the suburbs, selling a fantastic 100+ year old loft in order to rent a place outside of the city, and dealing with all the usual stresses of preparing for a soon-to-arrive child.

Sure, I said. Why not?

And then it happened. After arriving back home from a trip to the Languedoc in Southern France, her scheme suddenly seemed like just the thing we’d need. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find anyplace within our budget: With a second child on the way, we were in cash-hoarding mode, and laying out thousands of dollars for a villa on the Mediterranean wasn’t exactly the most appealing idea in the world.

But then in October, colleagues (and friends) of mine from Rome hired me to host a wine lunch in Washington, DC, at the National Italian American Foundation gala weekend, and after the meal we got to talking about when I’d be in Italy next.

I’m not sure, I said. We’re thinking of going to France this summer if we can find a place.

My friend looked incredulous. Why not Italy? he asked.

Because I don’t know anyone in Italy with a house to rent, I answered.

He raised his eyebrows and a smile crept up his face. My family has a house in Puglia, he said. You could stay there.

That was October. Now, eight months later, I’m writing this from his house’s second-floor porch, staring out over the Ionian Sea directly in front of me, not a pitching-wedge away, the waves counting their metronome beats over the rocks and providing the white noise of my days and nights here, the supremely calming background against which I hear the patter of my older daughter’s feet inside, and the giggling of my younger one, and the padding around of my wife, more relaxed now than she’s been in a longer time than I can remember. We both are.

Torre Colimena is a quiet seaside town of stucco and stone houses, sienna-colored tile roofs, and friendly neighbors. I hear them in the morning gearing up for the day, and in the afternoon gathering outside their houses to catch up on the day’s gossip, and at night having dinner in their various outdoor spaces. The weekends are more bustling than the weekdays, but the electricity in the place is palpable.

The Italian in this part of the country, toward the bottom of the heel of Italy’s famous boot, is spoken quickly and with a bit of a murmur, but most of the people in Torre Colimena are from elsewhere around the country: Puglia, for all its recent press, remains relatively off the well-trammeled Rome-Florence-Venice tourist path. As such, my family and I started off as a bit of a curiosity: What, our impression was, were four Americans doing here, in a quiet town that’s not all that easy to get to? But we’ve been embraced, and now we’re greeted in the town square by the waiters and restaurant owners and barristas with a sprightly Ciao! and a friendly wave of the hand.

We have been spending most of our days exploring the neighboring cities and towns, destinations with names as mellifluous as any on the map: Lecce and Brindisi and Gallipoli, Nardo’ and Ostuni and Taranto and more. I’ve tucked into grilled horse sausage at the festival in honor of Sant’Antonio di Padova, in neighboring Avetrana; sipped more rosato of Negroamaro than I ever have; slicked my bread with copious amounts of the legendary local olive oil; washed it down with enough fruity, spicy Primitivo to drown a small army; fallen in shameless love with the astounding local orechiette and bread…my god, the bread; purchased peaches and olives and tomatoes and bursting-fresh cherries from roadside stands; watched my oldest daughter gain the confidence necessary to begin greeting people here with a hearty buongiorno and to thank them with a heartfelt grazie…especially after being offered yet another cup of the miraculous gelato; and witnessed my youngest daughter teach herself to sit up using nothing to steady her but her own inherent strength and moxie.

My mother joined us for the first week, which was, in every sense of the word, spectacular. When you have a family of your own, it’s easy to occasionally get bogged down in the sort of quotidian frustrations that we all muddle through. Spending a week with her here, wandering streets and seasides, exploring towns we’d never been to, and watching her with her granddaughters, was one of the great highlights of my adult life, one I’ll be forever grateful for.

So while the decision to come here may have happened quickly—a friend’s off-the-cuff suggestion was all the catalyst we needed—it has proven to be among the best ones we’ve ever made.

Sometimes, if you’re truly lucky, a spouse’s half-baked idea can grow into something epic. In this case, it has resulted in a month that I have no doubt we’ll be talking about for years to come.

And we’ve already begun discussing how we can make this happen again in another couple of years. Because with a little bit of planning and luck, enough frequent-flier miles to wing the whole clan over the ocean, and a willingness to ignore the people who question the sanity of doing something like this with young kids in tow—note: those people were wrong; Sophie and Olivia are loving it—the rewards are tremendous. Far greater, in fact, than anything you could imagine, as expansive and dramatic as the Ionian Sea, stretching on to an unseeable horizon, all those miles past this perfect porch perched above it all.