Archive for the ‘Musings and Observations’ Category

The mystery of the long pinky fingernail

26 Dec

Rupert and Verity are the best… as usual, the first thing they ask me after I walk in the door is if I would like to do laundry. And after washing my clothes in the river all this time, I can think of nothing nicer.

My emergency replacement credit card arrives and they’ve spelled my name wrong. Not a big deal, since it’s only good for two months anyway, but I’m worried that when I try to pay for a flight online, it may not work because the name doesn’t match my passport. So I call and find out that I can’t use the card for online purchases, or at an ATM, and if I use it in a store, they have to manually put the number in. I ask what the card good for but they are clueless as to how this could be inconvenient. Seriously, what is with these banks—Capital One, for example—being “international” but then it being such a major hassle when you’re traveling and you have a problem. I’m being treated like I am the one who forged my card. I try to use my card at the airport for a 31 Ringgit purchase and it’s declined. Honestly, not impressed with Capital One.

By the way, I finally found out what the deal is with the long pinky fingernail… it’s not a good luck thing, it is a status thing. It means you don’t “work” for a living!


Food and Drink in Bella Italia

13 Dec
Italian breakfast

Italian breakfast


Coffee is such an important and integral part of culture in Italy that I have to revisit it, even though I already mentioned it in my rave about Things I Love About Italy. First things first, when I say coffee, I am NOT talking about a 16 or 24 ounce big paper cup filled with watery brown stuff. Real coffee is espresso, and you drink it from a tiny little cup with a touch of sugar, no milk or cream, and preceded by a glass of water, preferably sparkling. Cappuccinos are only drunk in the morning here, as part of breakfast, and don’t resemble the stuff they call by the same name at the international chains that charge an arm and a leg for a bad version of it. Nor do they charge four dollars for it. They would be out of business in a week!

So many factors go into making a great espresso. The beans, the way they are ground, the machine used, the way the grounds are pressed down, etc. And then there are other factors, such as the time of day. Bars throw away the first dozen cups of coffee each day, because it doesn’t come out good until the machine has some residue in it. Really it is an art form here. People know which bars (cafes are called bars here) consistently make good coffee, and they will always be busy. Breakfast pastries, sandwiches and snacks can also be had here, for just a euro or two, to accompany your 80 cent espresso.

appertivo in Rome

appertivo in Rome

The Aperitivo

The Italian aperitivo is a wonderful idea. I am a huge fan and quite confounded by the lack of it anywhere else. Whether it’s a noontime, pre-lunch  Crodino (sparkling non-alcoholic drink with bitters) with an array of finger foods, or an evening beer or glass of wine with a platter or free buffet of appetizers, the aperitivo one of my favorite inventions. I really wish it could catch on elsewhere.

Amaro & Italian spritzers

So, while I am on the subject of beverages, I have to mention two of my favorites: Amaro and the Italian spritzer. Amaro is a dark herbed liqueur, a digestivo, which is made by many different companies throughout Italy. Each one is a little different, some sweeter, some stronger, some spicier, and pretty much all delicious. It’s nice alone or after dinner. The Italian spritzer is not the wine and soda combo you get in the US. The Italian spritzer is Campari (or Aperol) with Prosecco. Yum!

Homemade Wine, Olive Oil and Mozzarella

Okay, so I just can’t quite escape the subject of food and drink in Italy. In fact, it is a big part of the culture, in a country reknowned for the dolce vita, as food is one of life’s great pleasures. And there is nothing better than those products that you can’t buy. Olive oil and wine made by the family for their own use. No preservatives, no pasteurization, no filters. Wine that doesn’t resemble any wine you’ve ever bought. With character and a story all its own. Olive oil with so much flavor you want to drink it.

And the mozzarella… okay, I do want to learn how to make mozzarella, and I haven’t yet. But the point is, the stuff they call mozzarella at the grocery store doesn’t even closely resemble mozzarella (it does resemble scamorza, another type of cheese, but that is another story). Real mozzarella is a fresh cheese which is most similar to the buffalo mozzarella they sell in the US. Buy a kilo of buffalo mozzarella in Italy, though, and I bet you a hundred dollars you’ll say that it’s not even close.

Simple cooking

I’m not big on cooking; I can do it, but it’s not my passion and I’m perfectly happy to let someone else get the joy out of it that I wouldn’t. However, having been in the hospitality industry, and the high end of it, for many years, I would call myself a sort of foodie. I won’t claim here that Italian food is the only good food in the world, or even an unrivaled best (oh, outrage!), but for sure it’s a contender at the top of the list. After all, they’ve had lots of years of practice, and have lots of fantastic, fresh ingredients as the foundation.

I love how instead of throwing in a million ingredients, most Italian dishes consist of just 3 or 4 flavors. Taste buds can enjoy so much more when they aren’t confused and overwhelmed! I’ve also never had a meal in Italy which was loaded with garlic. For some reason, the American interpretation of Italian food is to put so much garlic in it that you don’t taste anything but garlic. Garlic is not found in every dish, and when it is used, the cook throws the entire clove in whole, to add nice subtle flavor, but then takes it out before serving the food. Perfetto!

Pasta: Perfect pairing doesn’t stop with wine

No, no. Every sauce has as its counterpart the perfect pasta to complement it. Seafood gets long, skinny pasta, chunky tomato and meat sauces go with big pastas like rigatoni, peas and butter go with tiny macaroni, and so on. And don’t put oil in the water, only a handful of sea salt, and if you don’t put the right amount then the pasta will be too sweet and everyone will know. Look at the minutes on the package to know how long to cook it to just al dente (literally, to the tooth). Overcooked, soft pasta is such a horror in Italy, that the first time my friend Fabio made me lunch, and his friend Celia who was helping him overcooked the pasta, he wanted to throw it away and start over.


Things I Love About Italy

10 Dec
Pasquino, Roma

Pasquino, Roma

Ah…finally… Now I get to talk about the things I LOVE about Italy, and there are so many I can’t fit them all in here, so I’ll just touch on a few of the little things that add up to make this place so special to me.

Coffee Culture

Yes, it is true that most of the western world is fairly obsessed with coffee and the fun of meeting friends, or just hanging around, in a cafe all day. But honestly, no one understands coffee like Italians.

You can come into a bar and hang out for an hour if you like, or you can do what most Italians do several times a day: stop in for a quick shot and be on your way. Either way, there is just no comparison to an Italian coffee bar anywhere else. And you will never, ever get a Grande or a Venti in Italy!

Olives, Cheese and Everything Else on the Table…

I can’t find my favorite sweet green olives outside Italy (I know you’re saying yuck! Olives shouldn’t be sweet. Try one!!! Sweet really just means not getting a spoonful of salt in each one). There are some places in Los Angeles where you can pay an arm and a leg for some mediocre, not quite the same, olives. But the good ones don’t leave Italia.

Cheese… real buffalo mozzarella, scamorza, fior di latte and genuine ricotta that doesn’t even resemble the stuff that comes in a plastic tub next to the cottage cheese at the supermarket. Don’t even get me started on the cheese!

Olive oil so good you can drink it, al dente pasta that you can chew, mattonelle (literally, tiles) pastries with ham and cheese between light, flaky layers, cornetti (croissants) fresh out of the oven, and pizza piled high with arugula and fresh mozzarella…

Zona Rosa

I’ve been around the world and NOWHERE else have I ever seen Zona Rosa. What is it, you ask? It is a sign designating reserved (street) parking for pregnant women. Pretty cool, I think. Don’t know if I’ll ever be personally taking advantage of Zona Rosa, but seriously it must be such a pain driving and parking and moving around with that huge belly weighing you down. So brava to Italia for thinking of it.

Italian hospitality

Italian hospitality is unsurpassed, with unrivaled attention to every detail, generosity and genuine caring spirit. An Italian host anticipates their guests’ every need and whim and provides graciously. Guests are well-cared for and well fed. So well fed, that I started writing about food in Italy, as part of this already very long post about the many things I love about Italia, and have decided that will have to be another story on its own. Coming soon…

Cinema all’Aperto and the Passeggiata

Italians love being out of the house. Dining outdoors is a favorite pastime here, as is the evening passeggiata, or stroll. In the evenings, the piazzas fill up with beautiful people dressed nicely, basically out to see and be seen and meet friends. The cinema all’aperto (outdoors) is a wonderful institution here. In the summertime there are regular screenings, in Rome on the Isola Tiberina, in Matera outside the city at an ancient stadium. I am a huge fan of movies, and there is nothing like seeing a movie on a huge screen in a beautiful setting with the stars above your head and the fresh nighttime air kissing your cheeks after hot, sticky summer day.

Italian language

I’ve been studying and speaking Italian for some years now, and I love noticing the little differences between the way things are expressed in Italian and English. Some of them confound me, because they are backwards for English speakers, but even still, they honestly make more sense. For example, if you want to say you like something in Italian, you say mi piace, which literally means, it pleases me. Which does make more sense than saying you like something because really, who is doing the work? How do you actively like something? And if you stop liking something, isn’t it because it stops being pleasing to you?

What’s really difficult for me, though,  is Missing Something. Mancare means to lack, and it is reflexive, which means that I have to say mi manca (it is lacking to me, i.e., I miss it). Ok, not so difficult. Until you get to past and conditional tenses, and remember that the past participle is conjugated according to the person or thing you missed, not you. Sound confusing? It is! For example, if I missed you (a boy), I would say mi sei mancato, NOT mi sono mancata, which would mean I missed myself (a girl).

Moving on, last word about this lovely language. Okay, two last things. One: there is no word in Italian for lonely. And two: you only say I Love You (ti amo) to one person. Everyone else you care about (friends, family, etc.) gets ti voglio bene. Quite literally, I want you well. And best of all, if you put in any effort whatsoever into speaking their language, Italians will reward you with a very appreciative and enthusiastic “Brava!”

Tipping…una mancia, no mania!

The tip (la mancia) is always included in Italy. Of course, they’ve had enough American tourists coming in over the last half century that of course they won’t turn down a tip, but it’s not expected. I’ve asked and verified this with Italian friends. Haircuts, spa treatments, dinner. No adding 20 percent to your bill for the weilder of the scissors and the bringer of the drinks. Nope. Not here. You can give a couple of bucks if you want, for extraordinary service, but the tip is included. Good for me because I don’t have to worry about it, but also good for them because their livelihood is not contingent upon the generosity (or lack of it) of strangers.

People and Culture

Italy is not the most beautiful country in the world. Beautiful, absolutely, but then so is Malaysia, Thailand, Colombia, and a whole heap of other places. Italy’s biggest asset, and what makes it so special, even beyond any of the other things mentioned in this article, is its people. Warm, friendly, enthusiastic and kind people. More curious than suspicious, more flexible than structured, and more easy going than rigid, and a whole lot of fun.

Italians are flashy. They love bright colors, shiny shoes, big sunglasses and purses, fur trimmed coats and tight pants. Beauty is prized, appreciated and acknowledged. No one leaves the house in sweat pants. My friend Angela summed it up for me when we were out shopping one day. We saw a beautiful pair of shiny red shoes in a store window. “They’re beautiful,” she said, and I agreed. “But when would I ever wear them?” I said, not really a question but rather a statement. “You have to understand, Italian women don’t wait for special occasions to wear beautiful things. They wear them simply because they own them. Going to the supermarket? Put on those beautiful shoes and go!”

Men carry man purses and aren’t afraid to be fashionable. Color coordinated, flashy, and of course everything is tight.

24 Hour Clock

Ah, yes, remember Dumb and Dumber, when Jim Carey’s character is sitting in the bar at 10am, waiting for the girl? Hours later when he gives up, his friend tells him, “No, no, she said she’d be there at 10pm! Who meets in a bar at 10am, silly!” And Jim Carey replies, “Well, I just figured she was a raging alcoholic!”

(Okay, so that was maybe a really bad paraphrase, but hopefully the Farrelly Brothers will forgive me on the merit that I am a huge fan and have watched this movie hundreds of times in three different languages…)

And once you’ve had a similar mishap or misunderstanding due to the ambiguity of the 12 hour clock, you too will be a big fan of the very clear 24 hour clock. I’m either meeting you at 10.00 or at 22.00 and there is no vagueness about that.


Rules are simply there. They aren’t there to be followed, they are simply there to pretend that there is some kind of organization in place. In fact, many things can be “arranged.” And why not indeed?

Unlucky number… 17?

No idea why, but number 13 means nothing in Italy, and number seventeen is up there with black cats and walking under ladders.

The Man is the Man

Okay, I love this one, and it shouldn’t be last, although a lot of people may disagree with me here. I find it absolutely entertaining that the Man is the Man.

If I want to get ice cream and he accompanies me, and gets an ice cream with me even though he doesn’t really love ice cream, and I try to pull out money, it’s almost insulting. “But it was my idea. I’m the one who wanted ice cream.” “But I’m the man.”

I know it probably sounds silly, but the good thing is, they aren’t stupid. Deep down they know that the Woman is the Boss. Seriously… I am a strong woman and I am all for equal rights, but I’m also not running out to burn my bra or shave my head. I LIKE for the man to be the man. I’m a lady. What happened to all those sweet little intricacies of gentlemanly and ladylike interaction between men and women? I WANT the Man to be the Man, because if HE is not the man, what does that make me?


Things that make me crazy in Italy

15 Nov
piazza sedile, matera, italy

Piazza Sedile, Matera, Italy

So, after all of this time in my most beloved Italy, just like any love affair that truly shakes you to the core of your very being, you reach a point where you realize that you are quite aware of the imperfections in the other and you love them anyway. There are a million things I love about this country, and big handful of things that make me a little crazy.

So it’s time to admit that there are just a couple of things that make me a little nuts here.

Italy of course is famous for its bureaucracy… the flexibility of it in many notorious and heartwarming (as well as many puzzling) instances, but much more so the needless excess of it. Perhaps the United States is just as bad, I can’t possibly propose that it’s not; my point is that I’ve never experienced the United States from the viewpoint of a foreigner coming in fresh and trying to make it home.

In order to work, study or just live here, you need a Permesso di Soggiorno (permission to stay). In order to get a Permesso di Soggiorno, you need the proper visa (work, study, etc.) All very normal, yes. However, the difference comes in that a company cannot just hire you to work, sponsoring you for the necessary visa. You have to go back to your country to apply for the visa. However, student visas are only handled in the month of May, and if you want to work but you are not in a highly specialized field, (brain surgeon, rocket scientist, you get the pictures), forget it. There are hundreds of thousands of illegal immigrants in Rome, and they just stay.

However, Italy gives them a reason to stay. Why? They are waiting for I Flussi (the flows). No one knows when, or if, they will happen each year, nor what job will be the golden key. What happens is, at random times arbitrarily chosen by a grossly overpaid government official, a certain number of people (a quota) from each country are regularized in a designated field of basically unskilled work. A couple of years ago badante (caretaker) and colf (housekeeper) were the chosen fields regularized. However, you can’t just come here for I Flussi and sign up. You’re supposed to already be here. In effect, a reward for staying here illegally.

There are some silly laws which I suppose on some level have good reasoning, such as the baby names law. When you have a baby in Italy, if you want to give it an unusual or foreign name, you have to prove that it is in fact a name (as opposed to just a word, such as Cup). Friends of mine who wanted to give their twin girls old English names had to prove they were proper names. Now, it seems very ridiculous, but then looking at the world today and people naming their kids awful things in New Zealand and the United States, and I guess it’s not such a bad law. It’s there to protect the children.

Another annoying law is the one that requires you present identification to use the internet. Which was put in place in the last decade as a reaction to terrorism, so I guess it could have some merit. Although personally it seems to me more an illusion of security. Less abusive than the TSA worker at Philadelphia airport, and less annoying than having to take off my shoes and belt and throw away my water bottle.

Of course there is the dolce far niente (sweetness of doing nothing), which basically is a way of taking pride in not working too hard. If you go to the south, in Calabria, you will see nearly as many workers as customers in the grocery store, and cafes close at 6pm. No shop in the country is open around the clock, and in a lot of places you can forget about finding an open door anywhere between one and four in the afternoon. And forget about the customer always being right and the reverence of rear end-smooching customer service. Basically you get the service you deserve. Be it good or bad, the service you get depends on a combination of the mood of the employees and whatever energy of yours that you throw at them. The same is true in France; the difference is just that the French are not as naturally jovial as the Italians. At times you get a lazy indifference, and at times you are welcomed with open arms and treated like an eagerly awaited guest, a new friend. A lot depends on you.

One last thing I will mention is the language. I LOVE it! Italian is the most beautiful language I have ever heard spoken, with its only rival being Portuguese. I love learning it, I love speaking it, and I love hearing it spoken. What frustrates me is, after all of this effort, all of those nights of my brain just hurting after struggling to understand and be understood all day… this language is utterly useless outside of this country.  Had I put this much effort into Spanish, Chinese or even French or German, I would have an endlessly useful skill under my belt. Instead, I can communicate with the beautiful, lovely, passionate, unchained people here… and nowhere else. Ah well. I suppose it could have been Hungarian.

So those are my frustrations, and I can live with them because… well the things I love about Italy are a much longer article, so this will have to be continued…


Don't travel without this! Why I love Amazon Kindle

08 Nov
amazon kindle

Amazon Kindle

Amazon Kindle is the best thing since sliced bread, no, better! Ok, so this website is about my travel shenanigans, but I absolutely had to write about my Kindle because I will never travel without it again, and it’s at the top of my list of recommended Must Have Travel Items (which still actually exists only in my head, but it’s coming soon!) Especially if you are traveling continuously in foreign countries where English books may not be so easy to find, electronic readers are indeed a godsend, and Amazon’s Kindle is the best of the bunch.

Sorry if I’m going on and on about it, but really this is the most wonderful travel companion… it entertains for hours, doesn’t snore and will never flood the bathroom floor! Here’s why I love it and highly recommend getting one before you hit the road. Decide for yourself.

What is so great about Amazon Kindle?

The Kindle is thinner than a magazine and weighs practically nothing. What this translates to for us travelers, is you can carry dozens (well, thousands, actually) of books with you without taking up tons of space and weighing your bag down (especially useful if you’re traveling with any of those low-cost carriers who are getting stingier and stingier with their baggage restrictions. Basically, Amazon Kindle is about the size of a skinny paperback novel.

Read-to-Me. This so cool! This is my favorite feature, because after hours of being in front of the computer, my eyes get tired! The Amazon Kindle will read your English language content out load for you. Just select text to speech, kick off your shoes and close your eyes!

For more info, check out the Amazon Kindle here.

Amazon Kindle on the road

Download books on the road easily with built-in 3G connecitivity (newer ones now have wi-fi) and download a book in under a minute. Even if you’ve got lots of time on trains and in airports, no need to worry because the battery lasts forever. Okay, up to a month. Which is pretty awesome if, like me, you’re wandering pretty far off the beaten path sometimes and staying in lots of places with limited electricity. (Incidentally the very places where you most likely will want lots of good reading material! :) ) There’s also a really cool Share feature which lets you share your favorite passages directly from your Kindle on Facebook and Twitter. A fun way to keep in touch while you’re on the road.

I’m not sure why Amazon isn’t marketing Kindle more as a travel companion, because that is precisely when it is most useful. When you’re on the road in remote places and in countries where English books are not so easy to find, this is the perfect solution. Even better than the fact that you don’t have to lug all those heavy books around (once you find them!), is the fact that the download versions are cheaper (try finding an English book in Botswana, Turkey or Colombia for less than ten bucks!). And there’s no up-front commitment: you can download the first chapter or two to see if you want to buy the whole thing.

Free Books! Some of the best things in life are indeed free! Who knew? Out of copyright (pre-1923) books are available for free. Over 1.8 million of them.

If you’re doing some work on the road, the Amazon Kindle is handy because you can sync it with all your other devices and read PDFs, with notes highlights and dictionary lookup. And no need to worry about storage, because the newest Kindle holds up to 3.500 books!

Check out the Amazon Kindle.


International English

22 Sep
English is the universal and unifying language of travelers and definitely the one to fall back on or muster if in a completely foreign place whose language is symbols and you can’t make out one recognizable word. However, besides just a huge variety of accents spoken in different countries, there are also many variants in vocabulary. For some of the common ones you may run across, here is a handy English to English translator. Enjoy!
Word Definition Country
snog: make out England
pull: pick up England
mack: try to pick up South Africa
gobshite: shit-talker Ireland
tosser: jerk England, Ireland
wanker: same as tosser, but worse England, Ireland
prick: ultimate jackass Ireland
cunt: friend, buddy Australia, England
trainers: sneakers England
bonnet: hood (of a car) England
boot: trunk (of a car) England
loo roll: toilet paper England
half-seven: seven-thirty Ireland, England
plaster: band-aid Australia, England
loose: drunk Australia
root (rhymes with flute): to have sex Australia
riding: having sex Ireland
on the piss: drinking beer Australia, England
buggered: tired England
knackered: tired England
peckish: hungry England
sheila: girl Australia
bird: girl England, Australia
kip: nap Australia
Of course I would be remiss if I did not mention some fun English cockney rhymes:
Cockney Phrase Meaning
dog and bone: phone
whistle and flute: suit
frog and toad: road
trouble and strife: wife
Ruby Murry: curry
horse’s hoof: poof
two bob bits: shits
J. Edgar: Hoover
jammy jar: car
rubby dub: pub
boat race: face
P.S. If you’ve got any more good English cockney or English variations you think I should include, please write to me. Thanks!

Only in Istanbul: observations of a foreigner living in Turkey

09 Jan
Aya Sofya, Istanbul, Turkey
magnificent Aya Sofya, Istanbul, Turkey

Istanbul is a magical city of legend and mystique, a fascinating fusion of east and west. Sometimes it can feel as though you could be anywhere in Europe, but those moments are fleeting and always revert to the unmistakable truth, that intangible sensation that you are somewhere special, somewhere impossible to define, where tradition forms character and rules are flexible. What is so different about Istanbul? Too many things to explain here, but I will attempt a brief glimpse into some interesting peculiarities of this grand city.

Turkey, and more specifically Istanbul,  sits in an envied strategic position, sandwiched in between Europe and Asia, masterfully yet delicately straddling two continents. Hospitality is a very important aspect of the culture here, and a matter of national pride. Potent Turkish tea is a necessity in the morning  (and throughout the day) and a ritual in the mid-afternoon, when Turks take a seat in a well located cafe and people watch and chat for hours. Tea is served in lovely tulip-shaped glasses and accompanied by sugar cubes, never ever, ever, lemon or milk. Your tea is likely to be snatched away by your server before you finish it, as once you get down to the last third of your beverage, it is deemed no longer hot enough to consume.

Turkish Service

Any restaurant you go to in Turkey you will no doubt experience the typical Turkish over-zealous table service. I believe someone trained them this way with the goal of excellent service in mind, and I know this is the intention, but it almost seems a joke sometimes. If you blink, whilst still chewing your last bite of food, your plate will disappear without your even seeing it happen. They hover impatiently and then swoop in, sneaky and fast. Your plate can disappear while you are still chewing! If it simply looks as though your interest is distracted from your plate, it may disappear. They of course wouldn’t want you to be annoyed by a plate in front of you that is no longer serving you! Some of the better restaurants seem to have picked up on the western reaction (annoyance!) to this service and have calmed down a bit, but be prepared, anytime you dine in a casual or typical Turkish place, the service is almost oppressively attentive.

It is not uncommon to order one thing and be served something that doesn’t quite resemble it. This is because in their reasoning, if they are out of what you have ordered, or perhaps only missing a key ingredient, it would be upsetting to tell you so. Therefore, the obvious choice is to substitute what they ascertain to be a logical replacement without telling you. Often the price is augmented considerably too, frequently doubling, but they have done you a service by avoiding disappointing you with the option to order your second choice.

Turkish Toilets

Mothballs can be found in sinks of even nice bathrooms in Turkey. I didn’t know moths liked to hang out in bathrooms, but the smell should be enough to keep a lot of things away. Personally I think I’d prefer to see some critters crawling across the floor while I’m using the toilet than smell these putrid  little balls of horror. On the bright side, Turkey’s toilets are unique in that they have a bidet integrated in the form of a little spout just under the rear of the seat. Look just down and to the left of the toilet tank to see the knob you need to turn to release a little jet of water onto your bottom.

Bosphorus, Istanbul, Turkey

early morning on the Bosphorus, Istanbul, Turkey

Turkish Men

The men of Turkey, and possibly of Istanbul in particular, seem incapable of true, devoted monogamy. Coupled with this is the belief that  simply disclosing their marital status to a potential conquest absolves them from any moral reprehensibility for their subsequent actions/proposals/attempts. Some even claim that they cheat to save their marriage (????). Yes, they really do. The logic seems akin to painting the neighbor’s house because the paint is falling off of your own, but go figure. And don’t ever underestimate the perseverance of a Turk in the pursuit of romance.  You may get half a dozen calls in one day following a first meeting, and despite no reciprocity whatsoever, you may receive calls even months later. Give your number or agree to a coffee date at your own risk!

The men of Turkey have a special pastime which does not include women, and that is the tearoom. I’m not talking about a cafe or tea garden, those wonderful places where Turks meet for socializing at tea time. I’m also not referring to the nargile bars where men and women meet to smoke the water pipe and play backgammon. I’m talking about the special tearooms of Turkish men. Dark, musty and full of old men, these tearooms host marathon sessions of testosterone driven tea consumption and backgammon competition, into all hours of the night. I haven’t tried to wander into one of these places, as they look so uninviting and, well, boring! But I am tempted, just to see what would happen. Perhaps that will be another story. And how could such a boring looking place actually consider itself exclusive in that being female prohibits you from being able to enter? The only intriguing thing about them is the forbidden factor. However, even the little rebel in me yawns at the prospect of visiting them.

Interesting side note about the men of Turkey… so here we are (in Istanbul) at the meeting point of Europe and Asia. As you might imagine, there are many influences from each continent, but what I find really interesting are physical differences from country to country; in effect, distinguishing features shared by a nation. For example, unlike the common European or American build of wide shoulders and narrow hips, Turkish men seem to have a sturdier lower half, with a very solid construction from hips to ankles. Is this in part due to the diet, or is it purely genetic?

Secular Turkey

Turkey is officially a secular country and religious freedom is a right here. However, the population is still something like 99 percent Muslim, as evidenced by the optional head coverings you’ll see everywhere, and very loud calls to prayer which reverberate throughout Istanbul in wailing Arabic five times a day. Call it magical or call it exasperating, you’re not going to escape it.

Ataturk, National Pride and Friendship with the West

Until the 1920s, Turkish was written with symbols like Arabic. That all changed when Atarturk, the country’s beloved leader credited for transforming the Turkey with a view toward aligning with the west. Under his leadership the Roman alphabet was adopted, and along with it, a whole array of phonetic spellings which wrote words exactly the way they sounded. Coiffeur in Turkey is Kuaffor, toilette is tuvalet, classic is klasik, framboise (raspberry in French) is frambuaze, et ceterah.

For this and many other reasons, Ataturk is endlessly revered by Turks, with photos of the deceased leader pasted on any otherwise unused bit of wall or space, and regular programs air on television detailing how wonderful his contribution was to the greatness and strength of Turkey.

Trans-continental ferry: Europe to Asia in 30 minutes!

The ferry which crosses the Bosphorus to transport passengers from Europe to Asia takes 30 minutes and costs 1.40 TL (about 70 euro cents). How cool is that?!


Dogs of the Bosphorus, Istanbul, Turkey

22 Dec

One of my favorite things to do in Istanbul, this wonderful city I currently call home, is to walk along the Bosphorus. This is people watching at its finest, but with an extra element that makes it truly special, and that is the dogs of the Bosphorus. Indeed, there are stray dogs everywhere in Turkey. Istanbul has no shortage of them, but my favorite are the ones whose paws cover every meter of the boardwalk along the Bosphorus. They are more than an accessory, an adornment; they are in fact part of the pulse, part of the very energy that fuels the little machine of activity that rumbles along constantly, rhythmically, in this unique little patch of the world.

dog nap, Caffe Nero, Bebek, Istanbul

dog nap, Caffe Nero, Bebek, Istanbul

Istanbul is an amazing place with an incredibly rich (and long!) history which continues to color the city and its inhabitants today. Rich and poor co-exist side by side, quite literally. In Kurucesme, where I start my frequent walks along the Bosphorus toward colorful Ortakoy, or north towards posh Bebek, if I look up the hill, above the gorgeous old buildings with million-dollar plus flats, I can see a house that resembles a crumbling deck of cards.

Interestingly enough, the structure’s position on the hill ensures a coveted million dollar view of the Bosphorus, and indeed probably all of Istanbul, without all the noise of the seaside road the irritates those of us who reside a lot closer to the water. Clearly someone lives there, as you can frequently see laundry hung out to dry.

Also here in Kurucesme, in a small section of municipal green grass separated from the water only by the sidewalk, is a doghouse. In it lives an Irish setter who likes to hang out in her yard, looking so at home there it seems as though a little doggy seed was planted, and watered, and voila! Out sprouted a doggy flower!

Strangely, in this part of Istanbul, the most common vehicle is a Range Rover. The average income in Turkey is 600 dollars a month.

If you walk a little further up and through Arnautkoy, you see little tiny sidestreets lined with beautiful old Victorian houses, and on the main road, lots of people out enjoying the waterfront, running, strolling hand in hand, or my personal favorite, the old men in swim trunks and nothing else. You may see the wife nearby, covered from head to toe and possibly all in black. But mostly it’s just men, unabashedly displaying the result of years of too many kebabs as the evidence protrudes proudly, huge inflated bellies pushing their shorts down. They hang out, socialize and drink tea as they bronze their Buddha-like silhouettes. The women don’t bother coming often, possibly because it’s not fun to go to the beach wearing a full multi-layered tent in the blistering heat, or possibly because seeing so much bare and sagging testosterone is not a big enough draw.

And don’t forget, all along the way, you’ve got the dogs of the Bosphorus. The locals know them. I don’t know who feeds them, as you don’t see ransacked trash bags around, even though there are a lot of them, and they are all homeless, with the telltale tag on the ear which indicates that they’ve been innoculated and sterilized by the state. They aren’t aggressive; there are only two people who I’ve seen them react badly to, and given that animals see auras and sense things that humans don’t, I sort of trust their judgment. The only time you will see six or seven of these dogs congregated and barking in furious unison, is when one of these two local characters is around. One of them collects recyclable stuff from the trash bins, the other is a dredlocked blonde Turk who can be seen either sleeping in one of the myriad benches along the water, or walking somewhere along this same stretch. The dogs hate them. Everyone else gets simply friendly but not overly enthusiastic interest. Unless of course you have food. Either way, they may accompany you for a while and then they find someone new. Your meeting and parting is as casual as trying on a sweater at the mall.

Turks love the heat. On a sunny day in Istanbul you can see a woman in Ugg boots and a long coat, and men bundled up in sweaters and vests. Any dip below 25 degrees sees much more drastic measures, but nothing deters the fishermen of the Bosphorus. The fishermen of the Bosphorus cast their lines every day, sun or sleet, in some parts occupying the entire sidewalk and forcing passersby to weave through carefully, watching out for hooks and buckets. There is no apology, no effort to accommodate the others who have as much right to the sidewalk as they do. It is your duty to allow them to fish, because what they are doing is important. Strangely, where they are fishing, we are not allowed to go into the water, which is deplorably littered, with bottles and candy wrappers and crisps bags, and so many jellyfish that the water has a thick white cast to it.

The dogs who aren’t strolling along, people watching and exploring, are curled up peacefully amidst all this activity, whether tucked tightly into the recess under a bench, or simply in the middle of the sidewalk. They snooze joyously unaware of anything around them, and with no fear of being trampled on, and in fact the crowd parts around them.

dog at bus stop, Bebek, Istanbul

dog at bus stop, Bebek, Istanbul

A little further and you reach Bebek, (“baby” in Turkish, for what reason, I have no idea) where casual cafes abound, none more fancy than Starbucks but with a pretentious air that seems to require that you dress to be Seen. (Incidentally, Bebek is home to the Best Starbucks in the World, with three levels overlooking the Bosphorus in This is the playground of Istanbul’s ageing heirs who see no reason not to spend an entire afternoon having a lunch that costs several days’ salary for the average Istanbulite, with tequila shots or trendy cocktails. They chat well into the post-sunset hours, eyeballing the fashionable and the unfashionable but bold women decades younger. They aren’t shy at all about discussing their escapades and brazenly propositioning any young flesh of interest, abandoning their seats only to appease the wife, who has beat them home and called several times.

In addition to the cafes, Bebek has a notable number of waffle shops, complete with about a hundred different toppings to put on them, from a rainbow variety of sticky spreads, to bananas and green marachino cherries. Fun accessories shops and a few small gourmet food stores, including a shop stuffed with quality organic olive oil, also adorn the streets of Istanbul’s little jewel on the Bosphorus.

From Bebek you can continue on further, to Rumeli Castle, which is an impressive fortress built in just three months time, with treacherous stone stairways winding up to lookout towers and viewpoints above the bustle. Just past the castle is a wonderful selection of restaurants which make for a great teatime or a Turkish breakfast that knows no rival. This is quite a pleasant stretch of the Bosphorus. It’s a narrow point of the strait which separates the  continents, and in addition to a nice view of the Asian side of Istanbul. Looking to Asia from here you also see, to your left and to your right, the grand bridges which connect east and west. It is truly a magnificent sight.

Homeless dogs sure know how to pick the best spots.


Turkish Tea and Coffee

15 Dec

Perhaps outside of Turkey, its coffee is more known than its tea, but in fact, tea is by far the most popular drink here, an inextricable part of Turkish culture. Teatime in Turkey is an essential part of the social fabric, and a treasured national ritual.

Tea is enjoyed throughout the day in Turkey, although this does not negate the necessity for the daily teatime gathering. A common site on the narrow cobblestone walking streets is a round tray filled with Turkey’s characteristic tulip-shaped glasses of tea, floating through the crowd as its invisible carrier weaves through thick crowds to perform his very important duty of keeping the local shopkeepers full of tea.

tea time at Caffe Nero, Bebek, Istanbul, Turkey

tea time at Caffe Nero, Bebek, Istanbul, Turkey

Turks meet in early to mid afternoon to enjoy a hot beverage with friends in crowded cafes or tea gardens, where being Seen is almost as important as the prized tea itself. At teatime, the tables are suddenly filled with glasses of tea, which are drained slowly to the symphony of conversation and people watching. You will probably consume at least two glasses of tea, as they magically disappear at a quarter to a third full, as sneaky waiters covertly swoop in, all with the aim of excellent Turkish service, as at this point they are presumably not hot enough to be drinkable.

Dark and robust, Turkish tea is boiled in a special pot that then sits on top of another pot of plain hot water. It is then poured into the little tulip-shaped glasses which just hold a couple of ounces, to about two-thirds full, and topped off with boiling water. The resulting beverage is a lovely deep amber color. This is how you will see it if you have tea in someone’s home, and most likely before you leave, the pot will be considerably lighter, as glasses get refilled multiple times. (Turks love their strong tea; for tourists and foreigners, the tea-water ratio is more often 50-50). Sugar is the natural complement, usually in the form of cubes, although there are a few purists, probably the same folks who would forego the swigs of whisky and just bite the leather to get a bullet removed.

Turkish coffee is another matter entirely. It is prepared in a special pot, directly over fire, much like Greek coffee, although fiercely defended as Turkish in origin. The sugar is added at this time by the coffee barista, so if you want anything other than the standard “medium” (two sugars), then you need to specify when you order. When the coffee arrives, you must wait for the grounds to settle before you can drink it. This is also why you can’t add sugar at this time; you would just stir it all up and then have to wait even longer. Once the coffee is settled enough to drink, you get a tablespoon or two of very strong, almost chewy coffee before you reach grounds. You’ve got to be careful to stop in time if you don’t want a very gritty mouthful, but indeed the caffeine content must be worth it! Turkish coffee is always automatically accompanied by a glass of water, however if you order another type of coffee in Turkey and you want water, you will have to ask for it.

Indeed, no trip to Turkey would be complete without trying both Turkish tea and Turkish coffee… as well as some wonderful Turkish culinary delights, such as a fantastic breakfast that includes whole array of flavors including olives and cheese among other things (what is more fun than olives for breakfast?) that is really great to share, as well as other more famous offerings such as kebab, and Turkey’s beloved sesame-covered simit, the Turks’ delicious answer to the bagel. More on food in another article!

A word of caution: if you prefer an Italian style espresso, be aware that this is not easily found in Turkey, and is indeed a matter of trial and error. It is not  unheard of to order an espresso from the menu and receive a small cup of Nescafe. And more expensive does not mean better; at Topkapi Palace in Istanbul, there is a big fancy espresso machine, but the worst espresso perhaps in the world, and at 8 Turkish lira per cup (about 4 euro), also quite possibly the most expensive terrible espresso in the world.


Violet Wave: No Berlusconi Day, Rome, Italy

05 Dec
No Berlusconi Day, Piazza della Repubblica
kickoff point, No Berlusconi Day, Piazza della Repubblica

Remember, remember, the 5th of December…

No Berlusconi Day brought a wave of violet solidarity around the world, as people from all walks of life, banded together in an effort to pressure Italy’s Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi to resign from office.

If you were there, at any of the No B Day marches which happened around the world, you will never forget this day. Participants wore violet, which does not represent any political party in Italy, underlying the mission of the march, which was non-political. Italians in Italy and abroad are horrified by what has been happening with Silvio Berlusconi at the helm.

What is so terrible about Silvio Berlusconi?

Well besides the fact that he owns nearly all of the media (newspapers, magazines, TV stations) in Italy and heavily censors the news made available to the Italian public, he has knowingly hired members of the mafia and is trying to change parts of the law that don’t serve his own personal interests. There are also many more Mafia ties which still need to be investigated, including a link to the death of Judge Paolo Borsellino (in a car bomb in 1992), whose brother Salvatore Borsellino spoke at the Rome manifestation.

No Berlusconi Day cities around the world

Demonstrations occurred around the world today in support of No Berlusconi Day. Some key participating cities:

Berlusconi in jail figurine, No B Day, Rome

Berlusconi in jail figurine, No B Day, Rome

Reggio Emilia
New York
San Francisco
Buenos Aires

Best of all, the whole thing was organized, and word spread around the world, through Facebook.

For more information, see the No Berlusconi Day website.