Sunday, June 3, 2012

Where the Beautiful People Hang

Whoever said that Paris is the place of beautiful people was 100 per cent on point.

The people in Paris are beautiful. I don't mean cute: I don't mean nice-looking. I mean b-e-a-u-t-i-f-u-l. Even those who in any other "world" or in any other city would be marked by Joe-Gossip as questionable ('Aw, she awright') are beautiful in some unexplainable way. The funny thing, though, is that all of these beautiful people walking the street have the horrible effect of making you feel not at all beautiful. It's particularly true for the average American.

Dressed in the jeans that only Americans can construct, flaunting our globally beloved Converse tennis, or even rocking an Ann Taylor suit or Banana Republic maxi and the latest Nine West wedges or Manolo Blahnik stilettos - there is a clear difference. Maybe it's the omission of a scarf draped just the right way, or a blouse just see-through enough. Or maybe the difference is the fall of the high ponytail or the sunglasses. Whatever it is, French people have it. In fact, so do older women.

I've been to Paris too many times to name. Tourists generally head to the City of Love for three reasons: Shopping, culture (mainly museums) or simply to suck in the air of romance.

Shopping: Great, but very pricey. My motto is "only buy it it you absolutely love it or it's so unique you can't find it anywhere else." Most people head to the Left Bank for heavy-lifting shopping, to streets like the Champs Elysee, rue de Royale or Hausmann. But there are really nice boutiques in almost every neighborhood. It helps to know what you are looking for and your budget. Any descent travel book will tell you where to start.

Culture: You can't get enough of the Louvre. And I simply love the Rodin Museum. But you might want to head to take a stroll in some of the city's ethnic neighborhoods, like Chinatown (13th arrondisement) or Château Rouge, where you can find lots of black boutiques and restaurants, or Barbès, which looks like Little Africa.

Romance: Well, it's all around you. The options are endless.

On our visit to Paris this past week (31 May-4 June 2012), we came across some jewels:

Bugsy's, 15 rue Montalivet, is a great pub with really good everyone-can-eat-it food. It's designed with a speak easy flair, featuring photos of actors from old gangster movies. Great hamburgers, salads and the like.

Myung Ka, 15 Boulevard Garibaldi. Really good Korean food! Really good. Get several grills and share. Have an Asian beer while the waiter grills your meat right in front of you.

Harry's American Bar, 5 rue Daunou. They invented the Sidecar and Blood Mary. The bar has been around since before I was born and still serves up a mean drink. Not cheap, though.

Le Nem, 67 rue Rennequin. Vietnamese. Probably the best beef pho I have ever had!

Sunday, April 1, 2012

The White Asparagus

It’s funny how some things that seem so normal to you are completely alien to others.

Yesterday I returned from a week in Madrid, there to attend a leadership for non-profit executives course designed by
Harvard University Kennedy School of Government. Everyday while there, the “mixed salad” at lunch featured one lone white asparagus on the plate. It was the spark of many conversations.

“I think they left it in the jar too long.”

“No, that’s when the asparagus is peeled.”

“What is it? I’ve never seen that before.”

Actually, as some of the German and Austrian participants (including me) chimed in, the white asparagus is actually a delicacy in some parts of Germany and in most all of Austria. According to White asparagus has long been considered a delicacy, particularly by Europeans and commands about double the price of green asparagus. White asparagus is exactly the same variety as green asparagus. The difference is that white asparagus is grown in the dark. When as spears are exposed to sunlight, they first turn pink and later, the familiar green color. (Personally, I stay far away from white asparagus - it looks grotesquely phallic to me!)

On the other hand, Spain itself is way outside what most would consider the “norm.”

Many people in Madrid go to work at 9 a.m. and break for lunch between 2 and 5 p.m. they return to work at 5 and end at around 8:30. That means that the vast majority of restaurants
in this spectacular and diverse city do not open until 8:30 or 9 p.m. Dinner then lasts until 11 p.m. or so. For most of us, this late-night routine wreaks havoc on our system. But for Spaniards, it’s the norm.

Spain is lovely in that when you enter a cafe and order beer, you get free food. Yes – free food. This food is known as tapas. It is the main reason that my husband loves Spain so much. It is also the reason that he can sort of wait until 8:30 or 9 to have dinner.

When going to Madrid, prepare for a few things: late opening times for dinner, the fact that many
Spaniards do not speak English and lots of walking (a good thing!).

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

The ancient Constantinople (now Istanbul)

14 march 2012, 10:42 a.m.

Istanbul must be one of the most beautiful places in Europe. Not only does it have old world charm, but it is has also solidly embraced the new.

The first thing you notice after leaving Istanbul Ataturk International Airport (you can get your visa for about $20 USD right at the airport upon landing) and entering the city is the sheer organized chaos on the streets. The second thing you notice is the Bosphorus Strait along the right side of the car when driving into the city. On the left sits the old city wall, more than 1,500 years old! It's so beautiful.

Leaving my hotel last night for dinner with friends (Vardar Palace Hotel, housed in a historic building located in the Pera(Taksim) region of Istanbul), I noticed right away the sound of music in the air. It's everywhere - the unique, folksy sounds of Turkish music. On evening my colleague and I were treated to an elderly gentleman, filled with the spirit (or maybe Efes beer) sing some old songs from his childhood. Right then, I wished I had a recording device so that I could listen whenever I wanted to his wonderful voice purring out what seemed like ancient and mysterious words.

This night, though, we were headed to the Haci Baba Restaurant (, which describes itself as "a face of nostalgia in Beyoglu" that "has been serving its guests since 1921". It is a popular restaurant among my Turkish friends (whenever I come to Istanbul, we dine here), and it's easy to understand why. The food - consisting of a plethora of grilled meats and lots and lots of cold, small-plate appetizers like stuffed red bell peppers and stuffed grape leaves - is fresh and good. Turkish food may sometimes look complicated behind the display case, but it's rather simple. Nearly everything is grilled, and often stuffed with rice, vegetables and sometimes meat. And, generally, it's not so spicy.

If you are an American, don't be put off by the often nonchalant, really-can't-be bothered attitude of many Turkish servers. They really have this kind of "I'm too good for this s*%t" attitude. (I know! Stop right there. I know what you are thinking ... Don't say it.) On the other hand, the type of over-the-top service that westerners and Asians are accustomed to can be had at five-star hotels and restaurants, so head there if that's your thing (and you all know it's MY thing!).

Okay, in terms of drinks, the beer of choice is Efes - meaning it's very widely available. A rather mild beer, Efes cmes in something like five varieties, including dark. But you can also get your hands on Heineken, Becks and Budweiser (the original European Bud). Turkish wine is okay, but you really have to know which one to choose. Again, the better hotels and restaurants will have a wider choice.

Back to last night. Before we go into the restaurant, I stop to look at one man selling roasted chestnuts (a favorite thing for European street vendors to hawk) and another man selling roasted mussels right there on the street! As good as they looked, I had to wonder how safe they were for a westerner's stomach! My Turkish colleague told me that he doesn't eat mussels off the street unless he knows the seller well! Hum. That's a good tip. Besides the street mussels, Istanbul does have great seafood and there are a number of really good places to try all sorts of grilled fish and shellfish. Some places overlook the Medittereanean and others the Bosphorous.

There is so much to do in Turkey! Stop by the Grand Bazaar and the Blue Mosque (remember to always bring a scarf or a hat for men to cover your head when you are visiting any Muslim mosque in Europe). Go shopping for spices and some of the most beautiful Mosaic lamp shades that you have ever seen!

Here are some interesting facts about Istanbul:

1. Istanbul is the only city in the world which is both in Europe and Asia geographically.
2. Istanbul is one of the biggest cities in the world, with a population of over 13 million.
3. Blue Mosque is the only mosque in Istanbul with six minarets, which is the maximum number you can have in a mosque.
4. Istanbul has the third oldest subway in the world, built in 1875. It's 573 meters long and located in Tunel neighborhood at Beyoglu district. London subway was built in 1863 and New York subway in 1868.
5. Grans Bazaar Grand is the biggest old covered bazaar in the world, with over 3.000 shops.
6. Hagia Sophia Hagia was the largest church in the world for about 900 years.
7. Agatha Christie wrote her famous novel "Murder on the Orient Express" at Pera Palas Hotel in Istanbul.
8. There are 333 cemetaries in Istanbul (as of 2011); 268 of them are for Muslims and 65 for non-muslims.

I should note that while you will see alot of Muslim women donning head scarfs, you will also see Muslim women bare-headed and rocking the latest (and highest) stilettos. Don't be mistaken, fashion is BIG in Istanbul and women can dress!

In terms of black people traveling in Istanbul, there were reports in 2007 and 2008 that black people faced racial slurs and other forms of harassment when visiting Istanbul. I have to tell you that has never been my experience here! In fact, quite the contrary. On more than one ocassion I have been approched by men asking to buy me a drink, and others have been more than friendly. (One colleague innocently asked me how I get my hair so straight because she had a niece who is trying desparately to straighten her hair so it's not so "frizzy." laugh.) Are there some stares? A few, but not enough to make you feel uncomfortable. And you do occasionally run into and African man here and there (many ofthem seem to be from Somalia or Ethiopia).

At any rate, Istanbul ranks high on my list of must-visits! I can't wait to come here for vacation rather than for work!