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The BEST things ever – Country by Country

30 Jan

My tweet last week about the merits of French croissants versus Italian cornetti (“the crappiest train stations croissants are better than the best Italian cornetti”) and the ensuing flurry of comments and opinions made me start thinking about the foods that you can count on in each country – cheap, delicious, and you have to go out of your way to find a bad version.

So, tell me what are your opinions?

Italy – Coffee

Italy converted me. A lifelong tea drinker, coffee literally made me nauseous. Until my first trip to Italy. An epic journey including a Honolulu – Houston – Newark – Rome flight, then a 6-hour train to Venice where I was to meet a long lost friend at noon for a day of exploring and catching up. I needed more than mere tea and dared for a cafe on the train. Shocked by its diminutive size, I was instantly hooked by the mellow intensity of my first Italian espresso and have never looked back (Starbucks: puhleeez).

No matter where you go in Italy; from the chicest cafes to the lowliest bars (the place in Italy to get a coffee, not a beer) you’d be hard pressed not to find an exquisite espresso. Order one al vietro (in glass) to go Roman style. It can set you back 5 euros to sit at a table in a touristy piazza, but generally you’ll find the delicious nectar for 80 centesimi. Stand at the bar and admire the Italians posing with their brew.

France – Croissants

Flaky, buttery, light….I’ve never managed in France to have anything less than extraordinary pastries. I don’t know why this sacred knowledge can’t be infused somehow in Italian cornetti.

Turkey – Pomegranate Juice

I feel my body tingling with antioxidant goodness just to think of this. On every street corner in Istanbul anyway, you’ll find juice sellers ready to squeeze the juice of your choice. Save the orange juice for back home. I practically swim in pomegranate juice every chance I get.

Hawaii – Raw Fish

Raw fish is one of those things that you need to be careful how and where you buy it. But in Hawaii, you can buy it from the back of a pickup truck parked by the side of a country road and you’ll fantasize about it for months. My favorite haunt for raw fish? Fort Rugers Market in Honolulu looks like the kind of place where you’d wipe of the top of beer cans before drinking them, but has the most divine Maui Onion Poke – raw ahi tuna mixed with sesame oil, sea salt, sweet maui onions and shoyu.

Taiwan – Dumplings

Boiled, steamed, or pan fried….a fancy restaurant is no better than street food and the latter is much cheaper.

Nepal – Chai
It was one of those travel circumstances where I trusted a stranger, and everyone else later thought I deserved to have been kidnapped. In the end, I was right. A polite teenage boy offered to show me around the monuments of Kathmandu so he could practice his English. I tried to pay him money but he refused. Instead, he invited me to the inner courtyard of his family compound for chai, a place few tourists ever see in Nepal. This was the first place I ever experienced chai – spicy, milky and sweet. I sat and drank it while neighbors did their laundry and placed saucers of milk out for roaming cows. From the rooftop cafes of Kathmandu to the trailside guesthouses in Annapurna, chai in Nepal was always a comforting friend, and I’ve never tasted its equal since I left.

Portugal – Bread
My love affair started while at university in London, Canada. The was a hole-in-the-wall Portuguese bakery that sold bread, for about an hour a day. Only bread, 2 sizes, and when it was gone, it’s gone. Heavenly bread – warm from the oven, a satisfyingly crunchy crust with a dense spongey texture in the middle. Swoon….my later travels to Portugal had me forsaking regular meals to just indulge in the bread basket and olives brought to the table.


Cell phones, compliance & conflict in Italy

12 Jan

It’s been a while friends since I wrote here. But an event last night while landing at Rome’s Fiumicino airport gave me lots to ponder.

First, I fly far more than the average person.  In the last 6 months alone I’ve flown in and out of the following airports (some multiple times):

  • Rome
  • Copenhagen
  • Gothenburg
  • Almaty (Kazakhstan)
  • Istanbul
  • Lyon (which gets my vote as the most beautifully named airport – Saint Exupéry Aéroport)
  • Paris
  • Prague
  • Cannes
  • Berlin
  • Moscow
  • Kiev
  • Boston
  • Los Angeles
  • Miami
  • San Francisco
  • Amsterdam
  • Tucson
  • Seattle
  • Munich

I know a thing or 2 about airplane safety and processes, OK?  And I am pretty good about following them.

Imagine my surprise last night when, after landing in Rome and taxing for 5 minutes (well on the way to the gate), I switched on my cell phone and promptly received a call from Alessandro.  I was astonished to the hear the elegant signore — from across the plane bellowing at me, “YOU are NOT allowed to use your mobile on the plane!” I looked at him, shocked by this fantastically outraged accusation.  “We have landed and we are taxiing,” I explained; getting back to my brief conversation.  He was apoplectic, insistent and stood up in his seat to call the flight attendant (a move much more dangerous in my opinion than using the mobile 5 minutes after landing), and continued to bellow at me until, incensed, I hung up the phone and fumed.

First, the practical side:

I concede that I may be speaking from a singularly personal perspective, but in my experience Italians are remarkably cavalier about following most rules (apart from the rigid dictates of cuisine and fashion).  And “cavalier” is the perfect word to use here – in Italian, a “cavaliere” is a knight, and there is a sense of bold nobility in the way that Italians disregard the foolish rules like speed limits, queues and taxation laws.  So that an Italian would so passionately enforce an outdated rule (what was going to happen on the runway, would we crash into our gate?) to the point that he was ready to make a citizen’s arrest, was perplexing to me.

BTW which country is the most fastidioso about airline safety and perhaps safety in general?  I think we can all agree that it is the USA.  And as soon as your plane wheels touch ground, the flight attendants announce that it’s fine to turn on & use your cell phone. And in fact this is the quote from the FAA website:

“FAA guidance does let airlines allow cell phone calls once the plane has landed and is taxiing to the gate.”

Honestly, if electronics were that dangerous to a plane’s operation they would be collected and confiscated at the gate.

Now, the spiritual side:

Goodness, I realized that I extremely attached to being “right” on this issue.  As someone with a commitment to healing, energetic balance and peace, boy was I ever triggered by this.  Have you every received a full-on righteous Italian scolding?  It’s a humiliating experience that is guaranteed to get your blood boiling.  I thought of all the cleverly insulting things I could say to put this blustering bully in his place. And then fumed again that I didn’t have the guts or the wit at the time.

Really, is this me?

No, it’s not.  Why should it matter that complete stranger chooses to voice his (misguided) opinion of my behavior in front a group of complete strangers whom I’ll never see again?  I can look at his behavior as a reaction to frustrations and disappointment in his own life.  It has nothing to do with me. And yet if I were to reflect his behavior back at him in the same way would perpetuate a cycle of  brutta behavior.  One of the things I have learned to deeply appreciate  a society where people are sensitive to each other’s feelings.  And to treat people in a gentle way has a virtuous circle effect.  It’s not always easy in Rome, but I promise to commit to making each encounter in every day a little more peaceful.  Even at the post office.

Car Sharing in Central Asia AKA Hitchhiking in Kazakhstan

7 Oct

“Don’t go, it’s dangerous.”

While those words may have sounded like my inner voice when I was originally told to develop Kazakhstan as a new market, this actual sentence was uttered by one of my clients in Almaty, the capital city of Kazakhstan.  A very petite, very pretty young blonde women, she would of course have to use caution when she traveled solo.

She was warning me away from Almaty’s fresh and local market, the Green Bazaar. “There are pickpockets there, you have to be careful, there’s nothing to see,” she pleaded with me.  But in all my travels — from Cambodia to Kiev — I’m become accustomed to locals who are perplexed that visitors would ever want to visit the local produce market, and who are further convinced that its simply a vicious den of thieves.

Be very, very careful…these grapes might be over ripe….

After getting over her strenuous objections to the (lack of) safety of my destination, we decided how I would get there.  Naturally, I should hitchhike.

Now Almaty is a big city, and while there are regular taxis, buses and a new metro system; subway stops are incredibly spread out, and regular taxis are few and far between.

So apparently while it could be considered the height of danger to go shopping at the local market (I had no problem there at all except I was sad to see all the horse meat on sale), no one is concerned about stepping into a speeding vehicle with a complete stranger.

If you have to ask what animal this comes from, you don’t want to know

So if you want to go hitchhiking in Kazakhstan, here’s how!

1)     Get your destination written in Russian (more people in Almaty speak Russian than Kazakh).

2)     Make sure you have small bills (100 bills are “small”) 100 = about $2.

3)     Flag down any driver on any street  your preferred standard taxi wave.

4)     Agree to a price – most destinations are between 300-500 KZD; use 3 fingers to signify 300, etc. Average people on the street are not going to try to gouge you, although the regular taxi drivers will.

5)     It was helpful a few time to ensure I had my destination programmed into Google Maps so I could give few prompts to drivers, if necessary.

6)     Wear your seatbelt.  In the 30 minutes total I logged on downtown Almaty’s roads, I saw about 8 accidents.

As someone who considers filling up the tank with gas before its sucking fumes the height of preventative car maintenance, I love the concept of car sharing.  In Toronto, I was a long time user of Autoshare, and I loved how someone else always magically changed the oil. But Kazakhstan (and in fact much of the former Soviet states) takes the simplicity of no car ownership to the next level – without membership, insurance or oppressive expectations to have the car on schedule for those of us who might be time-challenged. Best of all, it’s much safer than shopping at the market!