Archive for November, 2006

Hospitality Club

November 28, 2006

If you’ve seen some of the hotels in Dubai, it is easy to understand that there is somewhat of a dearth of budget accomodation.  Hotels in Dubai are more concerned with doing something that has never been done before (a hotel in the shape of a sail, the next is to be the tallest building in the world, for instance).  The Burj-el Arab has a room that costs $12,000 a night.  Granted there are cheaper options, but they still aren’t cheap.  Knowing this, I decided to try a website I’ve been wanting to since I first heard of it over a year ago.

The website is hospitality club (there is a similar site called couchsurfing) and the concept is very simply to bring people together by way of free accomodation.  Anyone can sign up for the website and if you have a free room you can offer to host travellers.  To insure safety, there are things like passport numbers and a ratings system that are used to identify host members. 

I contacted Claire a few weeks before we arrive.  She is a journalist who has called Dubai home for the past 8 years and has been hosting people for a year or so.  She’s had people from all over the world with Germans curiously dominating the guest list.  Since we arrived at 11:40 PM, I thought we would have to at least to spend one night in a hotel.   She emailed, not to worry, I’ll leave the apartment open for you.  We arrived at 3AM with a note waiting for us and a beautifully made bed.  There were also guidebooks and a map for the next days adventures.  We spent the next 3 days feeling completely welcome in Claire’s home, learning things we’d never discover without the help of a seasoned resident of Dubai.

Admittedly, the first thing to draw my to hospitality club was the free accomodation, but speaking with Claire and being able to see a different side of the city proved far more valuable.

A visit to ‘old’ Dubai

November 21, 2006

In a city where people are always talking about the next big thing (check out Dubailand for an idea of what I’m talking about), we thought it might be interesting to explore the ‘old’ region of Bastikia in Dubai.  Bastikia is the oldest residential area of the city and has recently been restored to house shops, art galleries, and restaurants.  The government has quietly ‘asked’ families occupying the old homes to leave to set forth the tourism project.  

When we visited, Bastikia was eerily quiet and most of the stores were closed.  We wandered through the narrow streets rather confused before being invited for tea by a group of men dressed in traditional white robes.   These men are former residents of Bastikia and the government has set up a place for them to spend time with each other.  Here they play dominoes, backgammon, watch soccer matches, smoke sheesha and eat together.  If ever there were a Middle Eastern version of DU (my fraternity at Tufts), this was it.  In fact, the conversation quickly turned to pro football as my new friend Amir had spent 6 years in Denver and is an avid football fan.  He even had recent scores for me–I found out the Pats won, but will have a difficult ‘match’ against Chicago next week. 

Amir insisted we stay for dinner.  It was fantastic and consisted of a huge tray/bowl of chicken with spinach and lemon.  5 of us sat on the floor in a circle as we used our hands to dip fresh flatbread into the meal.  We met about 15 other former residents and they were all very welcoming and kind–the Bedouins always welcome travelers for three days until they are able to find their way.

In a city where it might be easy to find people more concerned with the next big thing, it was a refreshing reminder that what makes a place truly special is the people that live there.

A day in Istanbul

November 21, 2006

Returning to Istanbul was a last minute addition to our itinerary.  After all, this trip is really about seeing new places and we had just spent 9 months in Istanbul.  But when I found a cheap flight from Rome, we couldn’t resist the opportunity to see old friends and well, eat lots of good food.  We spent the weekend with our friends Nazli and John who live on the Asian side of Istanbul in a beautiful apartment that certainly doesn’t feel like it is in a city of 18 million people.  We had a great weekend, and a particularly great day on Saturday.

Here’s a quick recap: 

We woke up early and had breakfast of fresh squeezed pomegranite and orange juice and simit (roughly $2) before catching a ferry to Europe where we indulged in some baklava at the famous Gulluoglu bakery prior to 11AM–hey, we had limited time.   From there we took Tunel, the 3rd oldest underground in the world to the main pedestrian thoroughfare of Istikal Caddesi where we ate lunch at our favorite restaurant, dubbed the vegetarian shoe place.  We found this restaurant (located in a back alley with only a picture of shoes as signage–they aren’t really looking for new customers) through a friend and probably went at least once a week towards the end of our time in Istanbul.  There are about 5 tables, a dumb waiter and a piece of paper that changes daily from which to choose your food.  Everything is homemade, and everything delicious. 

Istiklal Caddesi eventually connects with our old neighborhoods where we visited the bakers, dropped by the wine shop, and had tea for about an hour with the jewellers we had become friendly with last year.  We even saw our favorite stray dog.  I think that is the thing I miss most about Turkey–the friendliness of the people and the ability to walk out of my apartment and get everything I could possibly need.   Eventually we ferried back to Asia, but not before taking the brand new funicular transport  to meet another friend at a ‘coffee world,’ a cafe in which drinks are served with chocolate spoons and waiters walk around with free truffles.  Dinner (back in Asia) was manti, a sort of Turkish ravioli with yogurt and garlic and dessert kunefe, a shredded filodough with sweet cheese and syrup.

As you can see, we ate well and it was a day that reminded me that I had lived here for nine months, and why I was so happy to return.  

Football and Food

November 16, 2006

Depressing as it is to hear the Patriots lost consecutive games for the first time in four years, I’m happy to report a 3-1 victory for Fiorentina (Florence) in that other sport they call football. Saturday night, Gaia and Nicola (my cousins here in Lucca) took us to a Seria A football match in Florence. They are season ticket holders and our seats were great, the equivalent of being on the 50 yard line.

I’m always amazed at the endurance of soccer fans–for 90 minutes, the entire stadium was singing, swearing, and gesticulating in the hopes of ensuring a Fiorentina victory. At one point, a player from the opposing team accused of falling down unnecessarily received a chorus of “devi morire!, devi morire!, devi morire!.” Translated literally, “you should die!” I guess you could say the Italians are passionate about their football.

As most know, the Italians are also passionate about their food. We’ve spent the past week eating too much, but when the food is this good it is hard to resist. In Lucca, my cousins showed us some of their favorite restaurants which put an emphasis on the slow food movement. After the game in Florence, we had a memorable night at La Giostra, a restaurant owned and operated by a prince of some sort. It was here I had far too much, eating what I would guess was more than a pound of steak in addition to my first course of pappardalle with wild boar. Perhaps the best restaurant we visitied was the home of my former host mom in Florence. There we had a feast of gnocchi with fresh tomato sauce, pumpkin soup, beef carpaccio with parmesan and arugula, roasted pheasant, a chocolate ricotta cake and finally, probably the best tiramisu I’ve ever had.

I hope no one is reading this during lunch! If you’d like some more stories from our travels (and to read a little more about Lucca), check out my girlfriend’s blog at http://everywhereinbetween.wordpress.com

Milano

November 13, 2006

It’s great to be back in Italy.  I love the people, the language and most of all the food.  The Italians really know how to live well.  This is my third time visiting the country, and I’m excited to revisit the some of the places where I’ve been before.

Milan was the first stop, where we arrived just in time for my cousin Giovanni’s birthday.  We went to the local “American Bar” where we met many of his friends, most of whom speak English quite well.  I was curious about how the ban on smoking had played out in Italy.  Bars now exist outside; at one point, Courtney asked me if I wanted to go “inside” for some fresh air.

We spent the next day exploring Milan, seeing the Duomo and window shopping in some stores that would eliminate my entire budget for this trip with a single purchase.  We also had panzerotti for lunch, essentially fried dough (of the variety that you top with powdered sugar) with a savoury filling.  Healthy, not so much, but oh so delicious.

Part of the fun of being back in Italy is the fact that every meal is an event.  In Milan, the city is famous for its aperitivo.  Around 6:30, bars will set up an assortment of typical Italian fare including bruschetta, olives, and mozzarella cheese, prosciutto, etc.  This buffet is included with the purchase of a drink.  Though one could make a meal of aperitivo, this is just the beginning.  Around 8:30 or 9 it is time to move on for dinner at a restaurant or someone’s home.

We set off for Lucca via Viareggio on Thursday morning.

London

November 7, 2006

We’ve arrived!  Actually, we’re already leaving (sadly) from our first destination.  London has been a great start to a trip that I get more and more excited about.  There is something extremely liberating about living out of a backpack and having the knowledge that everyday will be different.  

London has been a bit of a whirlwind but we’ve seen and done a lot since arriving on the 2nd.  Our first night was spent sampling the local pub’s organic wheat beer before heading out to a club featuring reggae music and Red Stripe in the Bengali/Bangladeshi area of the city.   It was a good introduction to a city where I’ve heard more Italian on the streets than English.  Perhaps its because the Italians are just that much louder, but I digress.  London feels more international than any other city I’ve been to. 

We spent our first full day recovering from jet lag and spending some time at the national gallery.  The museums are the one thing I’ve found to be a bargain (most are free)in a city that gets $19 for a movie ticket.   The National Gallery is overwhelming, but I took a tour that focused on the works of Seurat, Crivelli, and Rembrandt to make it a bit more manageable.  We also saw Rubens’ Samson and Delilah, a painting that some question the authenticity of.  Read about it here–it is a rather interesting story.  After the museum we met Courtney’s cousin Genevieve for some excellent fish and chips and a guided driving tour of the city.  She knows every backstreet of London and was able to point out the former residences of Oscar Wilde and Bram Stoker, among others.

An unexpected trip to Stonehenge was a welcome addition to our itinerary.  On Sunday,  Christina and Sachin’s (our hosts) law school had an excursion to the medieval wonder of the world.  It was a beautiful day and we were able to take some great photos that I’ve posted to my Flikr account.  From Stonehenge we continued on to Bath where I met my friend Briony whom I volunteered with while in Armenia.  I spent the evening in Bath, taking in the fireworks for Guy Fawke’s day.

There is of course more to tell, but I’ll stop here.  Thanks to everyone who emailed–it was great to hear from you. 

Next stop:  Milan, Italy

Check out the map!

November 1, 2006

10 countries in all, 11 if you count the US
The Map