Tuesday, February 15, 2011

A Weekend in Marrakech

Morocco is a surprisingly easy jaunt from London. Just 4 hours and you don't even have to fiddle with your watch -- same time zone. So in continuance of our program of meandering around the Arab world while revolution is afoot, Pam, Simone and I took advantage of the winter-break weekend and visited Marrakech.

Local opinion on the unfolding situation in Egypt was varied: different perspectives were proffered by young vs. old, male vs. female, level of education, etc.: just like politics anywhere. But everyone was definitely paying attention -- you almost had to tear the shopkeepers away from the Al Jazeera broadcast in order to conduct business.

It turned out that we were in Marrakech the night that Mubarak stepped down. This was received with general jubilation. But alas the excitement spilled over into some gang violence that we were unfortunate to witness while walking home from dinner. No guns, just fists; some blood though. Despite the pall this encounter cast over the evening, our visit was otherwise without incident.

The walled-in core of the city, the Medina, is a crazily convoluted network of ancient streets and souks. During their brief period of colonization the French eschewed the old city and chose to build anew, outside the walls. A fortunate decision, leaving intact a marvelous labyrinth of medievalism. Wandering the passageways you feel transported in time, yet it is behind closed doors that you find the true delights: inventive modern extrapolations of the indigenous design and color.

Here Simone lounges at the Cafe Arabe, a hip hangout overlooking the souks:


This is the beautifully rendered islamic courtyard of the legendary Mamounia Hotel:


Our somewhat more modest accommodation was a renovated Riad -- a traditional Moroccan home with inner courtyard. Well-located with a vibrant food market just outside the door, and decorated with a very refined (i.e. Pam-worthy) sense of style:


The dining room at the Riad Kniza:


And beyond these modern interpretations, a true highlight was a visit to the Madrasa Ben Youssef, an islamic college built in the 16th century.

The inner courtyard:


A scholar's "cell", with desk and other implements:


Detail of the central courtyard's elaborate bas-relief calligraphy and zellige tile-work:


Just outside the Medina wall is the Jardin Majorelle, later acquired and tended by Yves Saint Laurent. Complete with a succulent landscape rivaling Santa Barbara's Lotusland:


Typical street within the Medina:


Donkey caravans apparently replacing the camel caravans of old...a concession to modern times?


We shopped for ingredients with our cook, who later instructed us in making pastilla:


After lunch it was time to do some serious shopping. We strategically disguised ourselves for better bargaining power. As you can see, this shopkeeper was completely taken:


Sampling the goods:


Antique dealers Mustafa and Abdullah, my new best friends (post-transaction):


On our last day we took a brief excursion into the Atlas mountains, just 50 km from Marrakech. Beautiful and geographically similar to the Eastern Sierra, but with the added interest of Berber villages.


-- fin Maroc --

Monday, February 7, 2011

Jordan

With the unrest in Tunisia having spread to Egypt, it seemed inevitable that Jordan would be the next to fall. Coinciding with the mid-winter lull, we perceived an optimal time to visit the Kingdom...no crowds!

So Pam and I flew to Amman with a group from London, soon finding ourselves in a jeep heading out to Wadi Rum – one of T.E. Lawrence's favorite slices of desert, located on the border between Jordan and Saudi Arabia.


The landforms are magnificent, the sand is an intense red, and the only inhabitants then and now are Bedouin nomads.


Being February, the temperature was cool-ish – actually very comfortable. We had a chance to climb some of the rock outcroppings. Here yours truly crosses a natural bridge:


Before long we spotted an accomodating beast of burden:


I was too busy wrestling the monster to the ground to take any photos of that action, but suffice it to say, Pam soon had her saddled-up:


We 'camped' in the desert that night – it was incredibly peaceful and fun to hang out with a small number of fellow travelers and local Bedouins.

Later, we followed the path of Indiana Jones (and innumerable camel caravans before him) to Petra. Walking through a narrow slit canyon or "siq" for 2.5 miles, we suddenly arrived at the fantastic "Treasury":


Carved in-situ, from the solid sandstone somewhere between 100-200 B.C., it truly is one of the most fantastic sights in the world. Just incredible that the Nabataeans were able to create it with the most primitive tools while achieving such perfect symmetry and detail. The contrast with the curvy, natural forms of the unadulterated sandstone is sublime.

We dismounted our trusty ride...

... and went forth on foot along the formerly colonnaded main street of Petra, studded with relics from Roman and Byzantine eras.


Interestingly Petra became lost to history before the dawn of Islam (622 A.D.) hence has no islamic buildings nor motifs. For more than one thousand years it was known only to the Bedouins who kept it a close secret. First discovery by the West was in the early 1800's, by an intrepid Swiss explorer who promoted himself as an indian muslim to obtain access.

We hiked up to "The Monastery", so-called as it briefly functioned in this role in byzantine times. (Though like the other magnificent facades in Petra, it was built as a Nabataean tomb.)



After all this excitement, we took a day off to 'chill' on the shores of the Dead Sea:

Doing what we do best, just frolicking happily!



Sunday, January 30, 2011

Homage to the Brontë Sisters

Though it was the midst of winter, Pam determined it time to visit Yorkshire to pay homage to the illustrious Brontë sisters. Joining the other 11 ladies in her book club, we took the train north for two nights in the village of Haworth. Various competing accounts of the Brontë's suffering and genius were proffered by our leader and assorted guides. Much mediocre lamb pie and chips were consumed in debate of the various theories. Thoroughly over-informed, we found the best way to clear our heads was by hiking the moors, just as Emily, Charlotte and Anne did when in search of inspiration...


As Pam channeled the steely determination of Jane Eyre in the crisp morning...
...we surveyed the snow-dusted hardscrabble farms from the hanging moorlands:

Looking back, the forlorn village of Haworth, where Mum and all five Brontë girls would be stricken with 'consumption' (tuberculosis) predeceasing their minister father by decades. Also joined by their over-indulged, n'er-do-well brother Branwell, who did himself in with alcohol and opium, thus ending his reign as lord entertainment at The Black Bull (the village pub).

The church where father Patrick ministered, with well-populated village cemetery in the foreground, as seen from the parsonage where the family lived out their lives:

The countryside is traced by forlorn, beautifully built dry-stone walls from another era:

At last we reached our destination: the ruins of a farmhouse widely believed to be the inspiration for Wuthering Heights:

Could it be Catherine and Heathcliff?

(Click on any image to enlarge.)


Sunday, January 23, 2011

We go to a "Ceilidh"

It was the idea of Simone's soccer coach, Mr. Fern, a lively and fun Scotsman, after having been duly impressed with by the soccer parents wild abandon at the nightclubs of Cairo during the girls' varsity tournament in Egypt: We should have a post-season follow-up in London, celebrating Robert Burns' birthday at a traditional "Ceilidh" (kay-lee), a scottish dance party.

So just 8 hours after my arrival at Heathrow, Pam was slipping on her highland plaid stockings (which were summarily vetoed by Simone). Soon we were on the Piccadilly line, headed for the appointed rendezvous at Hammersmith Town Hall. The public event was well-attended, with some 300(?) eager-to-party types, mostly in their 20's and 30's, most claiming some scottish heredity or affiliation. Quite a few of the men, including Mr. Fern and his friend from ASL were sporting kilts. To Pam's dismay, the many plaid stockings were on display by the lasses.

I would describe the event as "square dancing on steroids", with live band and a 'caller' walking us through each rowdy number. It started with a cafeteria-style dinner featuring Haggis (per Wikipedia "a traditional Scottish dish made from minced offal and oatmeal etc, boiled in the stomach of a sheep etc; traditionally served with neeps and tatties and accompanied with whisky"). Many of the men, who were mostly in their 20's and early 30's, were dressed in kilts. At one point the whole show was interrupted by a bagpiper, leading a processing with a plate crowned with a Haggis. Then one kilted gent stepped on stage to perform a recitation of Burns' Address to a Haggis (English translation below...note the pro forma insult of the French) in the most amazing, fully incomprehensible brogue. At the climax of the poem, he violently pierced the Haggis with a blade, and downed several shots of whiskey. Apparently this whole ritual is part of the traditional Burns Dinner, a favorite holiday in Scotland through which they celebrate their national bard.

We whirled and twirled, swilled beer and wine to chase down the Haggis (surprisingly tasty, IMHO), and had a thoroughly excellent time. Welcome home -- gotta love this place!

Good luck to you and your honest, plump face,
Great chieftain of the pudding race!
Above them all you take your place,
gut, stomach-lining, or intestine,
You're well worth a grace

as long as my arm.

The overloaded serving tray there you fill,
Your buttocks shaped like a distant hilltop,
Your wooden skewer could be used to fix a mill
if need be,
While through your pores your juices drip

like liquid gold.

His knife see the serving-man clean,
And then cut you up with great skill,
Making a trench in your bright, gushing guts
To form a ditch,
And then, 0h! What a glorious sight!

Warm, steaming, and rich!

Then, spoonful after spoonful, they eagerly eat,
The devil will get the last bit, on they go,
Until all their well-stretched stomachs, by-and-by,
are bent like drums,
Then the head of the family, about to burst,

murmurs “Thank the Lord".

Is there a pretentious soul who, over his French ragout,
Or Italian cuisine that would make a pig sick,
Or French stew that would make that same pig ill
with complete and utter disgust,
Looks down with a sneering, scornful attitude,

on such a meal? (as Haggis)

Poor devil! See him over his trash!
As feeble as a withered bullrush,
His skinny leg no thicker than a thin rope,
His fist the size of a nut,
Through a river or field to travel,

Completely unfit!

But look at the healthy, Haggis-fed person!
The trembling earth respects him as a man!
Put a knife in his fist,
He'll make it work!
And legs, and arms, and heads will come off,

Like the tops of thistle.

You Powers who look after mankind,
And dish out his bill of fare,
Old Scotland wants no watery, wimpy stuff
That splashes about in little wooden bowls!
But, if You will grant her a grateful prayer,
Give her a Haggis!

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Kate & Wills! Kate & Wills! Finally something worthwhile to blog about!

OK, Ok. Maybe the Royals are not the center of your life as they are here in Old Blighty. The non-stop TV coverage is entertaining and campy to the extreme. Example headline: "Kate says, 'I Wills!!!'"

It's hard to watch this drivel without involuntarily conjuring the image of Kate Middleton as the new Weight Watchers mascot a few years down the road. But I feel that even if Kate and Wills continue the trend of royal disappointments, unlikely the country will finally give up on it all. It's just too darn fun - just ask Pam, she eats it up.

Meanwhile I'm convinced that the commoners are doing their best to exterminate me. So many close calls just trying to cross the street! Perhaps it's the angst engendered by the unending politeness expected of us all in daily life -- road rage being the one release.

The English drivers are the most wound-up in the world. And everyone is so intent on the rules --both following them and hoping to catch someone else not following them. Like a pedestrian crossing the road outside of a zebra crossing (see Abbey Road album cover). IDIOT! I'll teach you! (Increase pressure on accelerator, alter course for offender...)

Like all strange customs, one finally gets used to it (or in this case, dies). Until you venture to a normal country. Normal being just about anywhere other than the U.K.. For example, Simone and I were just in Cairo. Now the traffic there is insane: 19 Million people and cheap gas. But do they make a sport out of trying to kill pedestrians? Rather not.

About Cairo... We were there for Simone's soccer championships against the other top international schools in the EMEA region. I found the geographic setting, in the middle of bleak desert salvaged by the massive Nile, stunning and powerful. Between games I managed to sneak out for a bit of sightseeing. As forewarned, The Pyramids were smaller than expected:

Actually, it was truly a treat to finally see the Pyramids. I arrived early in the morning and, being alone, managed to get ahead of the armada of tour buses dumping their payloads. So I was able to wander around the archaeological site completely on my own. There is a large area near the pyramids littered with crudely excavated mastabas. Reminded me of the setting for the opening scene of The Exorcist.

It was actually quite dangerous, with gaping tomb shafts just waiting for the careless wanderer:

Down below, 5000 year stone images stand guard over the tomb:


The soccer went well too. ASL finished a white-knuckled third place, very respectable. The final game was a poetic finish for Simone's soccer career at ASL: they won against the well-supported host team (Cairo American College), Simone scored a key goal, was awarded MVP, and did not get hurt! What more could a soccer dad ask for?

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Year 1 coming to a close

Umm. It's no longer February, that's for sure. What has happened, as I understand it, is the earth proceeding some 120 degrees along its path of revolution around the sun. Given our extreme latitude here in Old Blighty (some 50 degrees north) together with the inclination of the earths axis of rotation, we now have absurdly long days, lush greenery all around, scantily clad people out and about, sidewalk dining, Wimbledon, outdoor theatre, and many other delights.

As I recall, the change began somewhere in March. Just about the time the blog entries trailed away. Sorry, but everything just started to click -- experiences piling on top of adventures, one after another, with no down time. I.e., no more dark, cold snowy days spent hovering over the laptop.

Just to bring things up-to-date, here is what's been going on:
  • March 10: Pam goes to Madrid for an art tour with the Women's Club
  • March 16: Jon skis Courchevel with Jean-Girard Galvez and his Paris buddies
  • March 19: Jon joins the Knightsbridge Golf School for a weekend in Spain
  • March 23: Jon skis with college roommate Alberto Finali in Crans-Montana Switzerland
  • March 27: We all go to California for Spring Break, visit friends & family, ski excellent late season powder at Kirkwood
  • April 10: Pam and the girls return to London for Spring Semester at ASL
  • April 16: Jon and brother Mark go to Fiji for an amazing week of SURF!!








  • May 1: P, J & E spend a long weekend in magical Bruge, Belgium. S. stays in London to take the SAT :(
  • May 5: Pam is joined by Kate Ditzler for a biking tour through Umbria, Italy with a group headed by Sarah (Greer) Bertasi
  • May 13: P & J are invited to a lavish fund raiser (the ARK gala), hob-nob with London's hedge funders, and dance to The Killers
  • May 15: Jean-Girard comes over from Paris and he an Jon fly on to Barbados for the annual "Caballeros" surf/windsurf/golf week
  • May 28: Pam goes with the women's club to St. Petersburg, Russia to see the Hermitage and other cultural landmarks
  • June 16: Girls finish school and we ALL go to Barcelona for a wonderful 4 days -- our new favorite city in Europe
  • June 21: Simone starts an internship at the Hummingbird Bakery, while Pam and Elie depart for New York to get Elie set-up for her month long design program at Parsons.
So there you have it. Obviously. But rather than attempting to dive into details on the above, lets just revel in the glory that is London at this time of the year.

Everyone here realizes that most of the thrill can be ascribed to our mutual suffering through the winter. Yes, we all agree, its only because of the sheer torture that we've endured that makes it all seem so wonderful when the thermometer breaks the 20C (68F) barrier.

The funny thing is, this realization does not dampen the experience. Damn but doesn't that sunshine feel good on the skin, bring color to the scenery, and make one want to smile upon your fellow man? Never mind that a north wind just kicked in, the temperature has dropped 10 degrees in 10 minutes, and clouds are once again scudding overhead -- lets strip off our shirts and throw frisbees in the park!

For us desiccated Californians, the heady greenness is indeed intoxicating. It seemed the trees morphed from twig-fractal displays to lush, verdant, shade-giving monsters in just three weeks. This happened at the peak of the tulip bloom, these having emerged from secret plantings of military precision in every public space throughout the city. Next up were the azaleas and rhododendrons -- I didn't even realize that we were surrounded by them until they erupted in color. And the lilacs, ahhh -- not to mention the hosts of other intensely scented blossoms. And all the while, the rosebuds push upwards at a tantalizingly slow pace...

So suddenly the outdoors, and therefore every reach of the city is alluring, especially in the balmy evenings. Amongst our favorites were a impromptu picnic called by our friend Colleen Graffy near her home in Battersea Park. She, the consummate hostess, put it together after work, plying one of the nearby trendy delis for a tasty assortment of cold salads etc, and arriving with her nifty traveling champagne kit (holds a bottle and four glasses). We chatted, supped and sipped as the sun slowly sank below the horizon at 10PM.

Another started with a dinner with another pair of ASL parents at "The Providores and Tapas Room" on Marylebone High Street. This is a Kiwi-run modern "small plates" style restaurant, extremely tasty plus an extensive assortment of NZ wines on offer. From there, we walked to the Open Air Theatre in Regents Park for a performance of Arthur Miller's "The Crucible". It was excellent, and the setting, overshadowed by spooky trees wavering in the breeze, was eerily perfect for the Salem witch-hunt theme. We walked home at midnight, not able to cut through the Park as it closes at night, a 45 minute stroll in shirtsleeves. Literally the moment we reached our door, the skies erupted in thunder and rain...perfect timing!

Oh..there is Simone. Just back at 11:45PM. She's been at work (an internship at a hip cupcake chain called "Hummingbird") which then led to a dinner with friends at "Entrecote" -- a one-size fits all french brasserie serving perfectly broiled sirloin smothered in bernaise. She made me a special cupcake, but unfortunately it melted on the bus and had to be discarded. Damn! But maybe for the best as I wolfed down three boxes of similar fringe benefits last night.

Friday, February 26, 2010

February

I had reconciled my psyche to a monochrome existence, and even found beauty in it. For example, the morning outlook from the upstairs window:

But, with consternation, I find myself forced to adjust to yet more changes.

This morning a foreign yellow orb appeared in a strange colored sky -- blue, I guess you would call it. I ventured out, and found that I could do without the usual gloves, scarf and cap. I stumbled upon this sad tree, apparently infested with some kind of white mold:


...and the Primrose Hill sledding ground has been attacked with a green and yellow slime:

Ah to be back in the Alps, where white purity reigns. Here Pamela, just last week, posed prior to a plunge down the pistes of Verbier, Switzerland:

Thanks to a local's tip, we later joined the pilgrimage to the "Cabane du Mont Fort", serving the finest fondue and raclette to be found at 8,000':

Still, this is 3000' below the peak, which had an awesome view. Sadly, I did not bring the camera, but someone else did. <== check this out.

Yes, the visuals are stunning, but overall we did not love Verbier. In fact, it burst my romanticized vision of 'ze alps'. Yes the mountains are awesome, but the snow was poor by our standards and the crowding extreme. Some authentic quaintness, but a lot of over-the-top commercialism, with entire families running around in $$ridiculous$$ "Moncler" ski outfits. And though I knew it would be expensive, I figure we could have saved an entire village in Africa from starvation in what we spent in one week.

Of course the girls did swimmingly, quickly determining that the apés ski scene was the place to be with no applicable age-limits at the clubs . Flaunting their exotic american accents, they made lots of friends in the wee hours. Life is tough at the top for Simone and friend:

And Simone and I did manage one thrilling run down Mont Gele (home of the 2008 Extreme Skiing Competition) on the one quasi-powder day we had.

Speaking of the girls, this morning they posed just before slamming the door on their way to school flaunting their new hairdo's (unfortunately both a little 'undone' by last night's pillow time):