Wednesday, December 30, 2009

2 years in the balcony

Looking through my Bookmark collection* I realized there are still many more travels that I have not written about, I promise to refresh my memory and do that. Also, 2010, the first half, brings trips in my region, Arab World, which I barely know, soooo I will keep you posted :)

*I collect bookmarks as they're light, non-breakable, practical and cheap when one's backpacking
photo: bookmark from Gandhi, the funniest set of bookmarks I ever got were from this library in Mexico (a place I have yet to see).

Happy new year to all!

Monday, November 9, 2009

Now we're cooking

A rerun of one of my fav posts, as I´m watching the movie Julie and Julia, a culinary delight.
"Chocolate cream pie! You know what I love about cooking? I love that after a day when nothing is sure and when I say nothing, I mean nothing. You can come home and absolutely know that if you add egg yolks to chocolate and sugar and milk, it will get thick. That's such a comfort."
Tomorrow I will cook.

I brought back from Panaji a beautiful hand carved wooden box decorated with flowers and smelling of spices. Inside the box lay perfect bay leaves, cardamom seeds, cloves, cinnamon sticks and a couple more Indian spices of which I cannot recall the name. Examining the ingredients I decide: perfect for chicken Curry and saffron rice.

As I dissolve saffron in boiling water (hot tap water won't do, attention to detail makes all the difference when you cook) I remember my friend in Alicante who gave me this jar so I could cook Fideuà, a Valencian specialty which imitated Paella only to beat it. I also remember how we got the recipe from a notebook decorated with the most beautiful retro cut outs and filled with recipes in swirly handwriting. "Recetas de la mama mía" was my friend's wedding gift from her mom. That day we didn't cook Fideuà, we cooked vegetarian pasta with herbs, to celebrate my favorite couple's moving to the country side and growing cilantro in their own garden.

As I savor the curry marinade after adding a bit of garam masala (literally hot spice) I can't help but feel sorry for those with low tolerance for spicy food. It is amazing how different cultures mix similar spices to create completely different feelings, I find myself remembering Mexican spices, for no good reason at all. I just wish I could stock up on Salsa Valentina, the local brand of hot sauce and then add it to pizza like we used to do at my Mexican friends' kitchens.

Once you've tasted a nation's food you immediately feel a sort of kinship (that's if you get to like it), and when you go there you're less of a khawaga or guiri* (it also helps get a bit of a conversation going round the dinner table). Having cooked Patacones in Madrid with a dear friend from Colombia, mashing the plantains and then frying and refrying them, I find myself feeling a sort of familiarity with Bogotá while still on the plane (mind you, none of Patacones I ate in Bogotá would compare to the ones we used to cook. Tasting Okra a l'Indienne and asking a dinner companion for the recipe I find myself familiar with the spices she lists, having seen them in action in the kitchen I shared with a friend from Trinidad and Tobago of Indian origins (only the best ingredients shipped from the homeland for us, none of the supermarket stuff). I also know that I don't need to set foot in a restaurant when I go to Mexico, as I have helped cook tamales and dined in a zillion Mexican restaurants with my favorite pal in Madrid (the one in Chueca has a green volkswagen zooming in from the ceiling replicating a taxi in the streets of Mexico city). I also recall two colleagues bonding over lobsters in India, oh Goan seafood prepared Portuguese style is just undescribable1

As recipes are passed from generation to generation, people preserve a sense of belonging to a distant land of origin where they have never set foot. Till this day, my grandmas cook Harira and Sharkaseya, reminiscent of Moroccan and Turkish roots and my friend's grandmother has Matzah always ready for Passover.

It is a fact that food unites. Friends would tell tales of meeting fellow expats mainly to share festivities, I can relate. The first Ramadan I spent away from home, I had just landed in town and had no kitchen of my own, luckily I was adopted by a bunch of Egyptian friends and fed Mulukhiya (if only airport authorities knew the amount of the serious smuggling that takes place everywhere around the globe). Smuggling indeed makes you take a bit of home with you, that's what my Tunisian friend did when he brought a good stock of harisa for the weeks we spent studying in Toledo.

I tend to think of cooking as a hobby**, creative cooking is not something I can do often, and cooking for hungry individuals on a daily basis even less. Cooking is supposed to be fun that's what I always say.

Cooking with friends entails laughing over fiascoes and sharing the sweet content of a well prepared meal, then dodging the task of preparing coffee or tea (depending on where you are) after the meal.

One of my clearest memories is going to the premiere of Ratatouille with my roomies and bringing back a poster of the Little Chef -which is still on the kitchen door till this day (the kitchen that is no longer mine in a house I still call my own). The next weekend we invited friends over for an elaborate dinner. There was some dude to impress and he was impressed - I hope I don't get killed over disclosing this one my friend!

I guess I'll never forget the endless international cooking days with my dearest friends in Madrid; ill equipped kitchens would not stop us, it just took challenging one of the guys to whisk the batter to give an electric mixer effect with only a manual whip (throwing in a couple of lines on not exercising enough helped too).

I also smile when I remember Wednesday evenings in Cairo at my friend's place and her baby daughter; while we chopped veggies she played drums with a wooden spoon and a cooking pot.

I add to my cooking memories, all the times my friend and I sang Luis Miguel in a kitchen; first in our dorm's kitchen in Toledo, then at her place when I went to visit in Morocco, the Cairo edition is due this summer inshaa'Allah (Luis Miguel would better be proud of us).

When I travel I always take a look beyond the buildings, the contemporary culture and the socio-economics of the country are usually more interesting for me. The way dishes are served and the table is cleared tells you a lot about the culture.

Mediterraneans tend to share mezzah or tappas and would also share salads, while others don't share dishes at all. At one end of the continuum, some cultures serve individual plates in the kitchen and send them out to the dinning room (sort of too bland for my taste) , and others eat from the same serving dish or fuente (memories of Morocco and the delicious Tagines come to mind), in the middle would be serving the main dish on the dinning table and having seconds and asking people to try this and that and that.

You can also find an indicator if you observe who clears the table and does the dishes. In some culture it's the host or just the women, in others it's the ones who didn't cook, in some plastic plates and cutlery are just thrown away (we love mother earth), and in many the dishwasher deprives those who would have washed the dishes from the greatest post-meal gossip.

Needless to say, in most societies suffering of large income gaps, affordable catering and delivery services (I'll never forget the expression at my friend's face when she saw the Mc Donald's motorcycles in Cairo, I totally related when I saw all the "a domicilio" signs in Latin America) and and other people relieve you of it all: cooking, setting the table and clearing the table.

Keep cooking and smile while you do, for it makes all the difference.

*Egyptian and Spanish slang for "foreigner"
** Apologies to those who think cooking is a chore

Changed this time to Carrot Cake by my friend Sweets Ninja

For recipes and more cooking flicks and and lit check the original post.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

tips on Barcelona

this comes with no story, just some recommendations:

  • · If you have time to see only one Gaudi then you should go to Casa Batllo, address: Passeig de Gràcia 43, L'Eixample - Description: "Passeig de Gràcia" (L3), Parque Guell is also worth a try
  • · The Palau de la Musica Catalana, a nationalistic Palais de la Musique, carved flowers everywhere and excellent sound distribution , an homage to operas (maybe the Opera is there?) Description: Urquinaona (L1)
  • · Dinner at the port, you'll see a wooden bridge and then a mall, in front of the mall, by the sea is the most exquisite restaurant called "Elx" they have a great dish called Fideua, that's a dish traditional of Alicante and the whole Valencia region, all fish and sea food at this place is great anyways (address: Maremagnum, Local 9. Moll d'Espanya 5, if you want to reserve but I don't think you'll need to 93 225 81 17)
  • · wander at night and go into any bar at Barri Gòtic , it's full of tiny bistros all with different colors and hidden behind big doors and curtains (yes curtains), you get there from Las Ramblas (that's where all the buskers and kiosks are) passing through Plaza Real (you get to see a typical Spanish main square)
  • · Shopping, up Avenida Diagonal till Plaça de Catalunya, which basically going up the Ramblas, if you go the big Corte Ingles store (don't buy there) you'll love the square it's chic with lights at night. Up there is FNAC the absolute place for music and books.
  • · artistic cinema at Gracia the Boho district
  • · whatever you do, don't watch flamenco in Barcelona


Monday, October 12, 2009

Cracking the egg

“With their tinted windows up, the cars of the rich go like dark eggs down the roads of Delhi. Every now and then, an egg will crack open - a woman's hand, dazzling with gold bangles, stretches out of an open window, flings an empty mineral water bottle onto the road - and then the window goes up, and the egg is resealed.” Balram the driver, a.k.a the White Tiger.

Many of us live in Cairo in eggs, car windows rolled up, AC on, music muting the sounds coming from outside. It's a polluted city? Didn't even notice. No one inhaled the fumes nor got eye allergies, why should they care?

and those outside the egg suffer from its fumes...

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Volunteer vacations

Photo above: Médcins Sans Frontieres Ad, as published in my fav Lonely Planet magazinde.

My friend Veronica went to Togo and made an orphanage work, the girl can move mountains. You can read all about it at her blog and you can contribute too, Vero is spending every penny in the best way possible, none of the Aid money squandering.

I am fascinated by stories of grassroot projects that have worked, and I have stories to tell about initiatives that have failed because people went with all the good intentions but also with their own limited frame of reference, don't get me started . Aid is a most controversial topics, I could ramble on forever, so to spare you I encourage you to read The White Man's Burden instead.

Let me know if you want to volunteer somewhere and I'll try to link you to a decent NGO there if I know one (think there are a couple of helpful links on the right too).

Sunday, September 20, 2009


A blogpost caught my eye, it linked to an article by Egyptian author Ahdaf Soueif, evoking the view from Café Riche in down town Cairo in its past and present. It reminded me of a play I watched on the American University in Cairo's stage a few years ago, Mannequin (أو مانيكان بالعامية المصرية). The story takes us back in time and then forward again, through Noussa, a vitriniste in Wist El Balad (downtown Cairo), and her boss, the shop owner. Noussa makes a living by dressing wooden (now platic) models in shopwindows. The garments change and so do our society's values, as we can hear in Noussa's monologues at night when she talks to the dummies, who are one minute donning hipster pants and floral shirts a l'Européenne and the next fully covered in Gulfy garments after returning from the oil-rich nations.
Oh we are a chameleon nation...

Photo, Café Riche by Al Ahram Weekly

Thursday, September 17, 2009


staying home on a vacation people feel stuck, frustrated and left-out
whether it's because you're stuck at work and can't leave for too long, or because you're broke, or there's no one to go with, or you were too late in planning and all the good slots are taken, or you're simply not a fan of overcrowded and hence overpriced vacation spots, or maybe you can't be bothered to plan or are too fidgetty to handle waiting at airports or train stations, you need a staycation.
Explore your city with new eyes and do things you wouldn't normally do because of traffic or because you have to book too early on. They're all gone, it's all yours now.

It seems like 2009 is the year of the staycation in many places because of the recession!
share your staycation ideas

Friday, September 11, 2009

It's my way or the highway

A couple of days ago, my friend and I were talking about ranting on blogs, I said I mostly stay away from it (except for a couple or more bitchy posts which you can find if you scroll down), he said: "just wait till you start writing about politics and you'll write in an angry tone just like us." There are still no political discussions under my roof , but a recent "law" of sorts was imposed by the Egyptian Ministry of Interior condemning and punishing food consumption in broad daylight during the holy month of Ramadan. It made me cringe :s

For starters, it made me question one more time the logic of those offended religious people out there who can't handle someone eating in their vicinity . Fasting is by definition an act of abstinence, of discipline, compassion and sacrifice, but "fasting in a bubble" I'm not sure about that... not eating nor smoking can't be that difficult if no one else around you is doing it, it should be fairly easy if you are not constantly reminded of it. One of the dev. pals wrote from Senegal to our NGO's mailing list, updating the group on his Ramadan in Dakkar, marvelling at how everyone respected the holy month and still carried on with life as usual, bars serving alcohol included, he wrote "The reason why I appreciated this is that faith for most Senegalese is a CHOICE and not imposed nor by the state or a marabout." If I speak for myself, I'd say fasting in Spain made more sense somehow and was completly ok. Mmm so based on this logic, really, eating chocolate while our orthodox friends are fasting should be illegal, right? and eating savoury food while someone's dieting is an unrefined attitude?

While we're at it, let's discuss the logic of turning Ramadan into a feast of mass consumption from dusk till dawn, getting an adrenaline rush from the thought of a myriad of delicacies after hunger and thirst. And while we're still at that, let's discuss my Coptic Christian friend sacrificing meat while indulging in the finest
saumon fumé & gruyère, with a pious look on her face. And maybe we should all take a moment to look back and consider how it is probably more useful to mankind if you have your bloody cigarette or cup of coffee and stop having this self-righteous anger because you're fasting, and perhaps focus on the task at hand, because yes, work is an act of workship too. While do we constantly feel this need to "exteriorize" that we're "on the right track" (assuming there's only one of course)

At Iftar feasts I keep on reminding myself that human beings need the notion of discipline and reward to be engraved in their minds (that much I can affirm after hiking the Road to Santiago), but then again, really, why is it all about rituals now without questionning the logic, aren't rituals after all just symbolic acts of faith...any faith?

As for the question of respect for other cultures, don't get me started, there are people out there who think they should kill the "
infidels", yeah go ahead, God couldn't kill them so he definitely needs a hand in this.

And really, all this talk just gets me more confused, chasing the elusive thread between respect for other cultures, tolerance, diversity on the one hand and maintaining one's values and culture on the other hand. Whether in the home country or abroad, what
to wear, what to do, how to greet people, how to adapt, the debate is long and it would take us hours to decide: if it is ok for an American woman to wear shorts in midan el tahrir in Cairo on the premise that men shouldn't look at her because they are averting their gaze or that she should dress conservatively and do as the Cairennes do (3/4 sleeves and pants ok? that's middleground), and whether the law should or should not punish a Moroccan family living in Spain because they circumcised their daughter, as female genital mutilation is simply illegal in the country but also just necessary from the family's viewpoint. And don't get me started on the French headscarf dilemma in the land of so called Liberté. Now even mono-cultural Spaniards who, thirthy years ago, would've been spanked by Franco if they were non-Catholic, communist or gay, now want to be "progressive", celebrating Europe's biggest gay pride walks and still criticizing a harmless dress code (the Hijab) just like their sophisticated neighbors. Logic people, LOGIC!

Instead of the current ban, can we work out a formula of respect
for differences and tolerance? Really, can't we be more grown up about this, does Mother Government always have to decide for us because we're too bloody immature?

In the end people would still need their differences to feel that their way is the right way and that they are more "enlightened" (whether that means irrational consumption of alcohol or not talking to a member of the opposite sex).

Let's not dwell on it and let's learn to live together. There you go, a cliché picture for you (my fav UNICEF card since I was 5) & a few lines I never forget:
“We should consider each group, racial, or cultural as a fruit: an apple, a pear, a mango. We want to make Mauritius not a marmalade, where we mix up everything and grind everything and end up with one marmalade with one taste. But we would like to have a fruit salad, where in a fruit salad each one retains its individual flavour and taste.” Monsignor Bargeau of Mauritius as quoted by Franklin Covey in the 7 habits of highly effective people.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Following yellow arrows

I am following little yellow arrows down the road, wishing that life had more arrows leading the way and sparing me difficult decisions at crossroads.

The arrows mark a road, El
Camino de Santiago, an old pilgrimage road, now equally visited by some complying with a sacred rite, others seeking a journey of self discovery, many taking a challenging hike in the pine scented air of northern Spain, some wanting to make new friends, and others seeking the healing power of mother earth in the villages that are still uncontaminated by the modern consumption culture. I was each and everyone of them.

In this journey, I came to understand the logic of pilgrims, fasting and religious rites. Exhausting one's body to purify the soul, carrying one's cross in a procession (in my case a green backpack) or going to the holy city on camel back under a blazing sun. Enjoying the enlightement that comes gradually on the road and what the holy site symbolizes.

The Road left me wondering if all journeys to the self start with penance and if we are meant to suffer before we can rejoice. Can we really look inside for all the answers if we're constantly deciding what to wear, what to eat and what to buy? Constantly rushing to make money and then trying to buy time; building new cities everyday and then trying to escape them to hear ourselves think, it's somehow... absurd if I may say. I had to carry what I would need for the week for over a 100 km, there was no feeling more liberating than throwing away objects I previously thought I needed -my friend realized that the weight of the backpack always equals our attachment, couldn't be more right. I hope the time before Ramadan doesn't steal away this energy, as I look forward to more self discipline and reward, a clearer mind and more sharing and solidarity.

The Road is a maquette of life. With strangers and friends you share the agony of a knee-bending slope, seeking distraction from the pain in your feet and back in random conversations and laughing the pain away. You also share the relief of getting to a refuge and hug people you met only a few days ago when you get to the final destination. Sharing the little food and first-aid we possessed created a bond with friends as well as strangers, reminded me of our desert trips somehow. Sharing reflections on what The Road taught us over a cook-together or near the washing machine was more than enlightening.

I realized that any journey has moments of solitude to savour, bonds that last beyond the journey, and sometimes just fun company or moral support for only a few kilometers, and it's ok to part at resting spots, we can't all have the same pace all the way. The Camino showed me that everyone has a good side which the constant fight over a job or parking space kills, everyone has a nurturing healing power, everyone has something to give. It is also true that the collective environment builds it, you want to be good when everyone around you is good, if it's just you, people mistake your giving -and the strength it requires- for weakness and try to take advantage.

To have the stamina that the road requires we need frequent stops to regain our strength, it is really absurd to get to the milestones or the ultimate destinations exhausted (speaking of stops, I send all my love to María, one of our hosts, owner of a rural house and farm, who makes the best flan I ever tasted).

After all, it's the journey not the destination. As beautiful as the Santiago de Compostela cathedral was, it was like any other big cathedral in Europe, it's real value was what it symbolizes, that persistence pays off. I met a girl wearing a T-shirt featuring the drawing of feet with plasters and blisters, it read "sin dolor no hay gloria", as in "no pain no gain".

When you read this send me good vibes, anything that would reinforce the walls of light I am trying to build around me to conserve the mountain spirit from all the traffic, city lights, billboards and most of all the nervewrecking noise that the neighbours in Madrid are making as they're tearing down the walls, and soon fmore traffic in Cairo and people who don't want to do their share of work.

Compassion, patience, breathe in, breathe out, imagine a protective purple light around you, send out love... sigh ...just reminiscing over our meditation sessions in the woods... I hope that the little yellow arrow pin I got will remind me of the journey's peace at times when i feel like cracking someone's neck :)

About the Road:

My route was on foot, part of the Camino Francés, an orange line on the map. I heard stories about the other routes and I highly recommend biking the road if you can, you'll cover more ground and have fun if you get a high from crazy slopes. Here are the links and you can always drop me a line to know more or to get packing tips (the lighter your backpack, the easier your life will be)

Have a good journey wherever you're heading, as they say around here, buen camino!

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

next stop...?

Plans form and plans evaporate, some more tempting than others. On more than an occasion I booked a trip when I found matching luggage, or planned one when I read a book, these days I get too many mixed signals.
I check flights and wish I could just go to the airport and pick my next destination on the spur of the moment, like I did in my inter-rail trip. But I can't, thank you Egyptian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. (note: just found a great link on countries that do not require visas for holders of the unlucky green passport).
I'm checking flights now and I have three rules:
1.non touristic, 2.not a capital city, 3.not europe

your suggestions are welcome!

soundtrack: we're roamming...

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Take me back to Cairo

Cairo is a beautiful woman who has aged with anything but grace. She has known a glamorous past...

A past when it was Paris of the Middle East and the Oriental Hollywood. A time for intellectuals and activists in Café Riche, for shopping for the best European fashion at Cicurel
, for Beer in the snooker club, for the best dinners at After 8 (which by the way is now murky beyond repair), for dressing up to savour Um Kulthum's voice with no rush, for horse races at the Gezira Club. A truly cosmopolitan city where people came to bask in culture and look for everything new in wist el balad, down town Cairo, my favourite part of the city.

Tonight, a Spanish man's love for Cairo woke up this beauty and told her to get ready to take the stage one last time before he leaves. So she got up, shook off the sadness, the bitterness over people forgetting that She was the Diva, the one and only, and wore her best red gown and smoothed her long black gloves and seduced us all.

The stage was a forgotten night club, a
cabaret revived especially for the Night. Once a place where stars shone, on Emad El Din Street, Cairo's Broadway, at a time where Cinema Femina required evening dresses and pressed suits. Now just one more local Cabareih, those tacky drug and prostitution holes flashing cheap menus in horrid colors. The place was brought to its former glory, Taheya Karioka and Samia Gamal, the prima belly dancers of all time smiled again, and Stella beer, digged out its old ads; with maps of Wist El Balad covering the peeling orange plaster; with tables clad in burgundy and arranged in a proper Cabaret setting. Girls walking around with cigarette trays added to the retro mood.

An Egyptian Jazz band and then a Spanish Swing band took the stage. And I felt at home between both my homes, greeting an old friend, the Pianiste of The Riff Band of Cairo before he went on stage, and screaming otra! otra! with the Spanish crowd, asking the Divinas to give us one more song before they call it a night. And the girls obliged, coming back on stage with their 50s dresses, hats, sunglasses and scarves and those round travel bags, before they board the train.
It was a perfect night, tap dancing, pink martinis and a crowd that just fit in. The lead vocalist of
Riff, and Cairo's Frankie, Ahmed Harfoush, told us all beforehand to wear our best 50s wear. I was there hairdo, swinging skirt, red lipstick and all (and you know me I never wear red lipstick). The audience made one feel part of a black and white movie (and wonder when will Ahmed Ramzy come through the door?), they danced the Swing so well on the piste in the middle of the Cabaret that it was hard to focus on the stage alone.

I asked Ramón Blecua, the Cultural Counselor of the Spanish Embassy (the man who loves Cairo, remember?) if this project would give us more nights like this, he says it is just those 3 nights, just an affair not a marriage (pointing to the tickets that read "a musical affair"). This was his last cultural activity, his finale, a rare tour de force, and I was lucky to witness it.

I thank all those who took us back in time and let my Cairo shine one more time before the August tourists hit the city to escape their stifling societies. I also thank the brave owner of Cabaret Scheherazade
for letting them, who knows what his current customers would think of such an act of cultural debauchery!

-For non Egyptians, the title comes from an old song, maybe a little cheesy but it just grew on us.
-Picture1: balconies down town, Mohamed Azab's lens
-Picture2: 50s advertising "prepare your lips for kisses, with Baiser lipstick" (I know for a fact that the same people who banned Cabarets on the basis that music is immoral ,banned ads like this too)

-Accompanying song Copa Cabana
-Article worth reading about the show and the downtown revival project from the daily news

"The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeing new landscapes, but in having new eyes." Marcel Proust.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

simply Alex.

You may see them on the train from Cairo to Alexandria, thinking they are in a tea party. Dinning at the Greek Club and promising that they would come to Alexandria more often. Having coffee at Délice and imagining another era. In all those moments and whenever life throws one of them among very alien -a little too practical- souls, each of the ladies would be thanking God for sending the others her way.
They call themselves, Ladies of the Order of the Bubble.
It is at times like this that I am certain that people make the place.

Photo: Alexandria, Mohamed Azab's lens
For some Alexandria breeze read Out of Egypt: a memoir

Saturday, June 20, 2009


From time to time, nostalgia hits like a baseball bat on your head, and you realize there are things you miss.

Like drinking Lemonade with Cardamom in the sunny living room while counting the blue cable cars flying from Rosales to the zoo, and always loosing count when one of us shares his views on love
Dancing to the gypsies' beat at the bar Cardamomo and impersonating famous Flamenco dancers, Olé! We were a crazy bunch
Taking coffee breaks which end up in full breakfasts, with pan con tomate and all, taking time to pour olive oil on perfectly toasted bread without a care in the world - as if this wasn't just a class intermittance, but a morning we decided to spend in the sun.
Spending a Sunday wandering barefoot in the park or reading by the pool, then going home to prepare a decent merienda for friends.
Staring at the perfect column in Café Juan Valdéz in a restored old building overlooking La Almudena and then get back to the typical Mediterranean gossip.
Solitary walks near the Palacio or deep conversations in the Plaza de Oriente
Remembering the way to Casa de Campo and wondering, have they fixed the Manzanares yet? Will my adopted home have a proper river now, and when I'm there I'll miss the Nile less?
Comparing fiestas in my friends' houses in Cairo to Wednesday nights of Madrid Babel chattering away in a zillion foreign tongues and hybrid phrases.
Indy movies at the Cines Golem, and watching that slightly odd Chinese movie with my most cultured couple.
Going for drinks at Malu's, at the foot of the bridge, and remembering the year before with the most loved ones, and then wondering if it's all about people or places?
It ain't painful, it's just Saudade...

Photo: counting blue cable cars, view from apartment in Principe Pío Madrid.

What Lonely Planet says about my adopted city:
No city on earth is more alive than Madrid, a beguiling place whose sheer energy carries a simple message: this is one city which really knows how to live.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Cairo Kitsch

The Cairo Tower with tiny glowing pink lights, against a navy blue sky (for it never gets darker in the city that never sleeps).
Crystal chandeliers in ever single floor of Abu Tarek's Koshari place
The endearing slow service in Wist El Balad's restaurants by fancily dressed waiters who have known a better era
Walking through a supermarket to reach a once-elegant now-faded and dusty bar
Styrofoam coffee cups at the Gezira Club, a place that once served tea in the finest china to a postcolonial society
Red and yellow plastic chairs on El Gam'a bridge enjoying the same view of the Nile as the Four Seasons Hotel
A hand warding off the evil eye on the back of a truck
This is the city I love and I would die if our tower were to imitate the mono-colour Tour Effeil lights one day (and I love the Tour, don't get me wrong)

Photo: reflections of Cairo lights on the Nile, view from Kasr El Nil Bridge (the Lions Bridge), Francisco Fuentes' lens

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Retiring in Asilah

I'm thinking about my own retirement those days (maybe related to my slow productivity with summertime).
I think I'll be going off to a town on a hill somewhere, maybe Asilah in Morocco.
Now, when I swing from euphoria to stupor to just plain pain, cling on to things and then never get to keep them, my consolation is that one day I'll be an old lady. An old lady with a full life and stories to tell in a house on the hill where I would cook for those who escape the city for the weekend and tell them not to take life too seriously. To reassure them that nothing matters but the small moments, like this moment when we are sipping coffee on my balcony and truly bonding.
I'll tell them that at times where I risked breaking my neck or at times when gold dust slipped through my fingers, I cried, but that I know only remember the thrill of the chase and how I didn't crack under all the pressure. I'll tell them that at times when I worked my ass off and sprained my ankle running, I got there, but the euphoria lasted about 15 minutes after crossing the finish line.
That all throughout, what mattered was a mars chocolate bar from his backpack, a day at the beach with the girls, a hand in the small of my back while we're dancing the night away, the making-up after the fights, friends' consolation after loss, the no-number on my phone's screen and then time after time the familiar voice, communicating without words, analyzing drawings, singing at the top of our lungs, conversations on the train that last all the way from Cairo to Alexandria, guessing that someone will like a song or a movie and finding they already do, a call from a friend sharing updates on their new crush, starry nights on my friend's rooftop smoking mint slims, cooking a good meal for the family, surprise birthday parties, cards we make for tearfull farewells, 2 page emails, epiphanies, planning a new trip and above all, a good cup of coffee on this Balcony on a Saturday morning.

I think that more than retirement itself, I long for the wisdom that comes with retirement. This is the place where I will tell my story (Asilah, Morocco).

Note1: the story of the old lady is inspired by a real old lady who lives in the hills near Alicante, I never met her, C&M did.

Note2: the moments are best described by my friend K.R. in a new year email he sent to all of us, wishing us more similar
Also my friend J.D. describes herself as "a collector of moments".

Note3: After writing this, I watched the movie Waking Life:
-"I keep thinking about something you said.
-- Something I said?
- Yeah.
-About how you often feel like you're observing your life...from the perspective of an old woman about to die.
-- You remember that?
- Yeah. I still feel that way sometimes.Like I'm looking back on my life. Like my waking life is her memories."

Note 4: few weeks after writing this, I came upon a blogpost where a girl is telling her stories long before retirement, made me smile :)

Friday, May 22, 2009

Snapshots from Rome

Remembering Rome I pass two red lights on my way back home. Charming, sensual and elegant like its citizens, grandiose like their ancestors. The city of seven hills.

Feet pounding the cobble stone I roamed the city looking for a poster of the Godfather for my beau who was in a mafioso phase at the time. Explaining in broken Italian "foto ... Il Padrino". After flipping through Sophia Lauren's black and white pictures and posters of old Italian movies I can't recognize, at dinner time I finally find It. I go home with the unique father and son scene, only to find that a friend has gotten him the same picture in a glossy postcard format conveniently
purchased from the United States (and that's when I scream "damn the supermarket culture").

The kiosks display postcards from Roman Holiday, Audery Hepburn and Gregory Peck at the Fontana di Trevi, La Bocca de la Verita, at the Coliseum, at the Piazza di Spagna, sipping coffee, eating gelato, speeding away on a motorino. Simply romantic in black and white... as the movie ends, Audrey Hepburn, when asked what city she liked most in her tour around Europe, casts all political correctness expected of a young princess like her, and says " all means Rome"

ALL this build-up to find a piazza di spagna that is filled with tourists clad with shapeless shorts, armed with cameras and sipping fizzy drinks, people selling cheap imitation designer bags, flowers with colors too bright, and a huge Bvlgari ad behind the Obelisk.
I simply hate the pictures I took that day.

Yet all this, plus the queues for the hop-on hop-off tourist bus (which by the way I don't recommend, go on foot), and the plastic neon miniature monuments, Pakistani carts selling fruits and juice, plus all the pick-poketing, and the commercialization of elegance (see photo above) do not devoid Rome of its charm.

I can still recall
my first breakfast, delicious bread, zucchini, eggplant and goat cheese, at a bistro two blocks down from my hotel. Years after, while reading The Food of Love, I imagined the place as its setting and its owners as the people who run the restaurant in my book.

I remember fewer times when I have enjoyed walking by myself like I did when in Rome.
Feeling the Roman Empire in the stones of the Aqueduct, and in the carved marble of the street sign of Via del Corso. Treadding narrow streets, following the sound of water at night, to find a vast piazza and a sight that takes my breath away, the Fontana di Trevi (not recommended by day). Wandering around to find I've come to the same exact spot (the plateau up Piazza di Spagna) but from the top of the hill, and looking at exquisite little balconies transformed into little family owned restaurants.
Feeling like a celebretiy while sipping a coffee that costs 5 euros at the renown Café Greco (that's in 2004, when coffee elsewhere cost 90 cents).
Doing the leche-vitrines*, to find that everyone -but myself and other tourists- is out of Vogue. (* French for window shopping, yes I'm being pretentious here)
There are few cities which I fail to describe in words, Rome is one of them.
Wait for my next trip, maybe that will let me depict it better.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Clinging on...

To perfect moments that will never come back again
To places where we've found happiness and had a collection of perfect moments (which by the way require the presence of the same set of people, the same mood, conversations, songs and perhaps the same weather and food)
To people that fit us like old pears of jeans or comfy worn out shoes yet that are soo out of fa
shion (or to those jeans we've outgrown since the last time we tried them on)
Going in circles, trying to smell old breezes instead of breathing fresh air
Struggling to recreate memories instead of making new ones
It's just so pointless to cling on, I wish I could let go...

You've got to get yourself together
You've got stuck in a moment and now you can't get out of it

Photo: house in Larache, Morocco - w
hen God closes a door, he opens a window

Monday, May 18, 2009

The Taste of Homes

Mounir's song (طعم البيوت)

The taste of objects lasts a few hours and then it withers and fades
In our hearts and memory the only taste that lives is that of our homes

Walls that embrace many hearts
Doors that engulf the lives of a king or a guard
Windows that hide young beautiful girls peeking through

In our street each house holds a secret, well guarded secrets

At dusk people would gather with loved ones
And the house would watch and remember
Each stone has a heart

You step in …
The house awaits you with open arms
And its tells you the tales of those who lived, the tales of a thousand years before

* translated with a bit of imagination

Houses with a taste

Beit El-Suhaymi, Cairo (photo above, bathroom ceiling which witnessed a unique moment -photo by Francisco Fuentes)
Casa Batlló, Barcelona

Monday, May 4, 2009

On Identity

When asked about my identity, whether I feel this or that, whether I totally belong here or there, I try to explain as best as I can that I cannot give a simple one-word answer. People ask and ask again, trying to corner me to get one answer or the other, trying to guess or judge based on their own frameworks, to weigh characteristics in favour of each classification, to observe until they can trace a pattern.

I simply cannot give my answer in one word, why is that so hard to understand?

I am not a fan of labels, classifications, bagging, herds, flocks or boxes. I simply do not see myself fitting into one or under one no matter how hard I try. People still try to form an opinion, throw value judgements, point out things they perceive as contradictory and fail to understand. For some odd reason, they feel entitled to an explanation.

I quote Maalouf "The identity cannot be compartmentalized; it cannot be split in halves or thirds, nor have any clearly defined set of boundaries. I do not have several identities, I only have one, made of all the elements that have shaped its unique proportions."

I try to describe identity as something more complex than solid colors or neat stripes that never mix. I ramble on, how I see it as a mishmash of crazy colors on a palette, oil paint defying the borders, oil paint on a decent classic wooden palette (not those plastic modern ones where colors are scqueezed and confined into little square spaces, when I see this ugly plastic object one word forms into my mind: ghettos ).

yellow with a streak of green as it befriended blue, white sprinkled with pink as it fell in love with red, a blue that dared to jump around the palette and could never go back, to light blue or even navy blue, it simply came back as purple.

Hard to explain, Maalouf does it best, nothing I write will compare to his book.

On identity, Amin Maalouf

Since I left Lebanon in 1976 to establish myself in France, I have been asked many times, with the best intentions in the world, if I felt more French or more Lebanese. I always give the same answer: "Both." Not in an attempt to be fair or balanced but because if I gave another answer I would be lying. This is why I am myself and not another, at the edge of two countries, two or three languages and several cultural traditions. This is precisely what determines my identity. Would I be more authentic if I cut off a part of myself?

To those who ask, I explain with patience that I was born in Lebanon, lived there until the age of 27, that Arabic is my first language and I discovered Dickens, Dumas and "Gulliver's Travels" in the Arabic translation, and I felt happy for the first time as a child in my village in the mountains, the village of my ancestors where I heard some of the stories that would help me later write my novels. How could I forget all of this? How could I untie myself from it? But on another side, I have lived on the French soil for 22 years, I drink its water and wine, my hands caress its old stones everyday, I write my books in French and France could never again be a foreign country.

Half French and half Lebanese, then? Not at all! The identity cannot be compartmentalized; it cannot be split in halves or thirds, nor have any clearly defined set of boundaries. I do not have several identities, I only have one, made of all the elements that have shaped its unique proportions.

Sometimes, when I have finished explaining in detail why I fully claim all of my elements, someone comes up to me and whispers in a friendly way: "You were right to say all this, but deep inside of yourself, what do you really feel you are?"

This question made me smile for a long time. Today, it no longer does. It reveals to me a dangerous and common attitude men have. When I am asked who I am "deep inside of myself," it means there is, deep inside each one of us, one "belonging" that matters, our profound truth, in a way, our "essence" that is determined once and for all at our birth and never changes. As for the rest, all of the rest -- the path of a free man, the beliefs he acquires, his preferences, his own sensitivity, his affinities, his life -- all these things do not count. And when we push our contemporaries to state their identity, which we do very often these days, we are asking them to search deep inside of themselves for this so-called fundamental belonging, that is often religious, nationalistic, racial or ethnic and to boast it, even to a point of provocation.

Whoever claims a more complex identity becomes marginalized. A young man born in France of Algerian parents is obviously part of two cultures and should be able to assume both. I said both to be clear, but the components of his personality are numerous. The language, the beliefs, the lifestyle, the relation with the family, the artistic and culinary taste, the influences -- French, European, Occidental -- blend in him with other influences -- Arabic, Berber, African, Muslim. This could be an enriching and fertile experience if the young man feels free to live it fully, if he is encouraged to take upon himself his diversity; on the other side, his route can be traumatic if each time he claims he is French, some look at him as a traitor or a renegade, and also if each time he emphasizes his links with Algeria, its history, its culture, he feels a lack of understanding, mistrust or hostility.

The situation is even more delicate on the other side of the Rhine. Thinking about a Turk born almost 30 years ago near Frankfurt, and who has always lived in Germany, and who speaks and writes the German language better than the language of his Fathers. To his adopted society, he is not German, to his society of birth, he is no longer really Turkish. Common sense dictates that he could claim to belong to both cultures. But nothing in the law or in the mentality of either allows him to assume in harmony his combined identity.

I mentioned the two first examples that come to my mind. I could have mentioned many others. The case of a person born in Belgrade from a Serb mother and a Croatian father. Or a Hutu woman married to a Tutsi. Or an American that has a black father and a Jewish mother.

Some people could think these examples unique. To be honest, I don't think so. These few cases are not the only ones to have a complex identity. Multiple opposed "belongings" meet in each man and push him to deal with heartbreaking choices. For some, this is simply obvious at first sight; for others, one must look more closely.

Who does not perceive a personal friction in Europe today that will certainly increase between being part of an old European nation -- France , Spain , Denmark , Great Britain -- and at the same time being part of an emerging continental identity? And how many Europeans from the Basque Country to Scotland still feel a profound and powerful attachment to a region, its people, its history, and its language? Who in America today can consider his place in society without any reference to his old ties: African, Hispanic, Irish, Jewish, Italian, Polish or other?

That being said, I must admit that my first examples do possess something distinctive. All of them are about people who belong to different components of society that are violently opposing one another today; people at the border in a way, crossed by lines of ethnic, religious or other fractures. Because of this situation, that I do not dare call "privileged," these people have a special role to play: building bonds, resolving misunderstandings, reasoning with some, moderating others, smoothing and mending conflicts. Their inherent vocation is to be links, bridges, mediators between different communities and different cultures. This is why their dilemma is full of significance. If these people cannot live their multiple belongings, if they constantly have to choose between one side or the other, if they are ordered to get back to their tribe, we have the right to be worried about the basic way the world functions.

"Have to choose," "ordered to get back," I was saying. By whom? Not only by fanatics and xenophobes of all sides, but by you and me, each one of us. Precisely, because these habits of thinking are deeply rooted in all of us, because of this narrow, exclusive, bigoted, simplified conception that reduces the whole identity to a single belonging declared with rage.
I feel like screaming aloud: This is how you "manufacture" slaughterers! I admit it is an abrupt affirmation but I will be explaining it in this book.

This article is excerpted from Amin Maalouf’s "Les Identités meurtrières" (Grasset, 1998), Translated for Al Jadid from the French by Brigitte Caland.
Justify Full
Photo: my foot+bell-bottom jeans, foot of an ancestor - Saqqara (photo by F.F.)