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Retrovalogue: France and Italy

Retro Travelogue from 2004 trip to France and Italy full of broken links and missing pix. Embarrassing jokes, juvenile observations, outdated references, and ridiculous quotes retained for posterity’s sake.

9/14/04

I was flying into Chicago at night
Watching the lake turn the sky into blue-green smoke
The sun was setting to the left of the plane
And the cabin was filled with an unearthly glow
In 27-D, I was behind the wing
Watching landscape roll out
Like credits on a screen
The earth looked like it was lit from within
Like a poorly assembled electrical ball as we moved
Out of the farmlands into the grid
The plan of the city was all that you saw
And all of these people sitting totally still
As the ground raced beneath them thirty thousand feet down

Well, replace “Chicago” with “Paris” and you’ve got the beginnings of the Honeymoon Hullabaloo (not to be confused with a Brouhaha, HB). I would love to write up a full-blown travelogue of the three weeks we spent in Europe, but I have neither the time nor the creativity to do so. Instead, I’ll offer you bite-sized reports. Well, make that nibble-sized. Mouse-nibbles at that.

So. We arrived in Paris on a Monday and in order to stay awake and adjust to our new time zone, we spent the day promenading around the Saint Germain neighborhood on the left bank of the Seine River, staggering around the grounds of Notre Dame Cathedral, and limping to have a sushi dinner at Orient Extreme (the “Extreme” stands for “extremely high prices”). The rest of the evening was a blur but I have some hazy recollection of chowing down on some decadently rich Berthillon ice cream (undisputed champ of the best ice cream in Paris) before passing out. This is the view from our room:

[remind me to find that pix]

9/15 Nibblet: Jardin du Luxembourg is so much prettier in the fresh, lush late summer than it is in the chilly, dormant late winter. The spiky, purple-topped artichokes, the rows of straight and strong chestnut trees (which we don’t have in the US), the anemones, the dahlias, the . . . uh . . . something or other pretty flowers! KA-BLOOM!

[pix]

And the prize for the best deep, dark, rich, hot chocolate in Paris at a reasonable price goes to (drumroll, please) Cacao et Chocolate! Sorry, Cafe de Flore; I love ya, but my wallet does not. I mean, seriously. Who pays $10 for a hot chocolate? In other news, anyone else hear Bush say “internets” last night? That guy . . .

Nibblet 9/16:

These boots were made for walkin’
And that’s just what they’ll do
One of these days these boots are gonna walk all over you.
(“you” being the streets of Paris)

After a shot of caffeine (cafe con creme) and bite of pan con chocolate (where a thin layer of chocolate was painted on top of the pastry; LAME), we headed up to Montmartre (pronounced “Moan-mart” and no wonder after we hiked up the eleventy-hundred steps leading to Basilica de Sacre Coeur) the highest point in Paris. We could have taken the funicular up the steep hill, but where’s the pain in that? Here’s a pix I took of the Basilica when we reached the top and I cleverly covered up the extreme need to catch my breath and rest my aching legs by insisting on stopping, focusing the camera, fiddling around with the buttons, and taking a picture.

We walked from a house of God to a house of sin: the infamous (“infamous is when you’re more than famous!”) Moulin Rouge. We walked from there to the house of the dead: the rather serene cemetery of Montmartre (“A dreaded sunny day, So I meet you at the cemetery gates”). Upon our return to the Left Bank, we walked from Saint Germain to the Pantheon in the Latin Quarter and then to a house of God again: the Paris Mosque and its lovely courtyard. We walked to the Jardin des Plantes for some more ka-BLOOM action, walked along the Seine (number of dead cats along the way: one. number of injured old men in a bike accident: one. number of stunning cathedrals: one.), and finally, to collect some mezze to eat at home, walked to Au Bon Marche (the city’s largest food market; at 2,700 square meters, you can imagine the time it took to find the hummus). Whole lotta walkin’ that day. My poor Abibbas will never be the same.

In other news, how is it that finally getting poor, busticated Cressie washed (Ultimate Deluxe Wash, that is) makes me think that she goes faster now?

9/17 Nibblet: Centre Pompidou looks like a huge hamster cage turned inside out. Here is someone else’s pix of this wacky complex. Marais has a tiny shop that sells the self-proclaimed “best falafel in the world” (although it could have stood a little more tahini, IMHO). Cafe viennois and crepes at bustling Bastille where the huge column not only commemorates the storming of the prison and the end of the monarchy but also TP’s and Najm’s birthday. Les Halles was once a thriving marketplace for 700 years but has been replaced by shabby 1970s mall-type stores. The only cool thing in that area now is this guy, “The Listener”:
[pix]

Dinner was had at the restaurant “Paris” at Hotel Lutetia where, during WWII, the Nazis camped out to enjoy the art deco and posh surroundings and where, during the height of dinner-time, our hosts’ three-year old, strong-willed, strong-legged boy ran roughshod over said surroundings. Note to self: do not feed children multiple scoops of chocolate ice-cream at 10 o’clock at night. In other news, apparently I have become the proud new owner of a machete.

Live: 9.17.2004 bon jour, mon petite bloggeuers! i’m attempting to write on an incredibly busticated, teeny tiny (isn’t every thing in france?) sony vaio right now whilst balancing the laptop on my knees and sitting on a balcony that overlooks saint germain and a buncha parisians smokin’ they ciggies, tossin’ back they cafe cremes, and not scoopin’ up after they puppies’ poops. all’s well here. great weather, great walking tours, and great location. off to italy tomorrow! miss youze guyz!!!

Madame Baji
directly above the metro mabillon
saint germain, paris

9/18 Nibblet: We flew from Paris to Naples on some no-name airline (ok, fine, it had a name, but you had to ask the crew for permission to use your portable device: “Can I use my Rio?” “No.”) and after spotting our driver (hint: he held a big, white sign with our names emblazoned on it), we zipped in and out of the crazy Napoli traffic (LB! I saw a Fiat Panda!), arrived in Sorrento, and checked into our no-name hotel (ok, fine, it had a name, but it was located directly on the busy highway on the cusp of town; this meant that despite the beautiful view it afforded of the coastline and Mt. Vesuvius, we had to risk our lives every time we stepped out onto the World’s Narrowest Sidewalk).

Eager to sample some of the famous Napoli pizza, we stopped at what we thought was the main square to eat at the first restaurant we saw : “Restaurant Number Two”. Worst. Pizza. Ever. Pasty, doughy, limp . . . how can this be? Upon further investigation (i.e. 2 minute walk away) we found the proper Piazza Tasso which was packed with much better restaurants, excellent people-watching perches, and Brits as far as the eye could see (in fact, we heard more people speaking English than we did Italian). We consoled ourselves on our bad lunch with gelato (pistachio gets a B; watermelon gets a B-) and returned to the hotel and tried to take a nap (where the pillows made out of either (1) wadded up towels jammed into thin cases or (2) a huge brick of foam). In the evening, we flirted with death and returned to the Piazza where we were rewarded for our bravery with dinner at Donna Vittoria, an excellent restaurant (good service, delicious meals, inexpensive bill, and the waiter will behead and fillet your fish for you). We celebrated our reversal of culinary fortune with some more gelato (strawberry gets an A; chocolate gets an A+). On our walk along the coast of the Bay of Naples, TP was overwhelmed by the beauty of the cliffs and the sea and was subsequently inspired to eat his third helping of two scoops ™ of gelato (sicilliana gets an A; egg nog gets a D).

In other news, TP and I were browsing around for a new bed (futon days are nearly over) and whilst doing some research, I came across this article. Anyone wanna drop $20,000 for a comfy night’s rest? And, in yet other news, today LB and I met Yasmine’s and PPP’s friend today!

 

9/19 Nibblet: Woke up early thanks to an insane rooster who could not tell time. Tried to get TP’s hair cut (he was sporting some molto bushy noggins) but the barbershops were closed on Sundays. Learned the difference between an Italian’s version of cafe latte (“white coffee” because it’s basically milk with just a teaspoon of coffee) and cafe con panna (espresso topped with whipped cream), both of which are preferable over the hotel’s caffe orzo (a coffee substitute made with barley and tasting of burnt towels). Many, many more choices. Can’t go wrong with cappuccino though:

Got a Fodor’s guide (lame), two mosquito bites (drat), and dinner at the marina with accompanying festivities, frolicking, and fireworks (holiday). Gelato report card:
vanilla cherry, C-
coconut, B
profumi di sorrento (citrusy), A
vanilla, B
plays well with others. listens carefully. completes homework assignments.

In other news, Ramadan Mubarak, y’all!

 

 

9/20 Nibblet: During breakfast, I swear I think I saw one of the 200 Brits staying at the hotel butter their ham and dunk it into their burnt tea. We spent the morning traversing Sorrento and hanging out at the marina where all of the ships were docked. We picked our way down a steep, stone staircase to watch the Mediterranean blue waters lapping at the sides of the ferries, hydrofoils, and sailboats bobbing at the port: loverly.

After chillaxing by the pool for a few hours, we caught the Circumvesuviana train to Pompeii. Our timing was perfect because by late afternoon, the tourists had disappeared and the slanting sun gave everything a warm glow (I believe photographers call it “sweet light”).

Considering the city was devastated by earthquakes, a tsunami, and exploding Mt. Vesuvius’ whose lava buried the city and whose cloud of ash blocked out the sun, the Forum, the villas, the uh thing with the things, the gargoyles, and the tiles were incredibly well-preserved and restored. To learn more, clickety click right hyah. TP even made a couple of friends, one of whom was thoughtful enough to demonstrate how the ancient residents died of carbon dioxide asphyxiation. For more gruesome pix, check it. We gave ourselves a self-guided tour of the grounds, pointing out the fig trees, trying not to trip over the ruts in the cobbled streets, and contemplating what the frescos were attempting to depict. If we had had more time, we would liked to have visited Herculaneum (the lesser-known but equally destroyed neighbor; kinda like Brian) but the trip to Pompeii was very edutaining.

We had dinner at Il Lanterna which, besides the refreshing insalata caprese with ripe tomatoes and fresh basil, creamy risotto with perfectly cooked asparagus tips, and hearty, belly-warming gnocchi ala Sorrento (sorry, fellow fasters), boasts original Roman mosaics illuminated under the floor on the way to the self-cleaning, self-flushing toilets. A leisurely stroll along the calm streets (traffic was mild on this Monday night) was followed by . . . you guessed it.

Gelato report:
Peach, A+
Cannoli, A-
Walnut, B
Fig, A
Zuppa de Ingles, A- but with some extra credit homework, a potential A.

In other news, for you South Park fans, the Motion Picture Association of America has given Team America: World Police an R rating. Yeah, that movie with the puppets. Rated R.

 

9/21 Nibblet: By now, we were used to the slamming doors (7:00 a.m. so as not to miss the free breakfast), the cannon explosions (8:30 a.m. sharp, again at noon, and once more for good measure at 8:30 p.m.), and the insane rooster (5:00 a.m. until he darn well pleases). After a decent breakfast at Fauno’s at Piazza Tasso, we wandered down to the docks on the off chance that we could catch a hydrofoil (like a ferry but faster) to Capri. Success! Make that expensive success. 19 euros and 30 minutes later, we arrived on the shores of Capri. Luckily, our captain was not seduced by the Sirens who hung out and rocked their tunes thereabouts. But the sheer, white cliffs, the deep, mesmerizing waters, and the warm, drugging weather were enough to lull anyone into a dreamy, beatific state.

Our first pit stop was at the restrooms near the docks where a grizzled old woman with yellowing white hair clipped her dog’s toenails with one hand and snatched up 50 cents each with the other. I suppose it was worth it since this place at least had tissues whereas the Pompeii PeePee Facilities did not. We spent a fair amount of time thereafter waiting for the bus at the Marina, taking the bus up the incredibly precarious, hairpin turns up the mountain to touristy Anacapri, and waiting for another bus (whose fearless driver shrugged off ear-piercing shrieks when his bus scraped another bus taking the same curve) to the Blue Grotto. With limited time on the island, we chose lunch over seeing the famed blue waters of the Grotto. I will spare you the mouth-watering description of my meal, but I will share with you my own personal shock and awe when I got the bill: 44 Euros! Oh, my poor poor wallet.

Back at Piazza Vittoria, we poked around the villa before we decided to work off our decadent lunch by hiking down Scala Fenicia: the “Phoenician Stairway” that is cut into the rocks and connects Anacapri’s Villa San Michele with the Marina Grande far below. Far, far below. Like, 900 steps below (yes, I counted each and every one of them). The walk only took about 20 minutes which means that the stairs (good exercise, some shady and cool spots, and 20 minutes) wins out over the bus (nauseating, jam-packed, and 30 minutes). One caveat: the stairs win for the downhill trip only.

Back in Sorrento, we made up for our extravagant lunch by going grocery shopping and making our own dinner at ‘home’: a little of this and a little of that and we were sated for a mere 6 euros. Gelato report:

Lemon, A+ valedictorian
Tiramisu, C-
Mint, C+ but can make up grade during summer school
Chocolate, I think you know the grade for this one

In other news, apparently I bring harmony to the cosmos, I am popular in the northern parts of China and Taiwan, and you do NOT want to mess with me or I will go Shaolin on your ass. Also, I make one mean veggie lasagna.

 

it has come to my attention (courtesy of myself) that these nibblets are turning into huge, jaw-unhinged, only-an-anaconda-could-swallow bites. so, back to mouse nibblet sizes we go.

9/22 Nibblet: After purchasing our all-day, all-zone, all-modes-of-public-transportation (bus, train, funicular, metro) pass for 6.40 euros, we boarded the “direct” (meaning direct to each and every stop along the way) train to Naples. We arrived in the (rather crummy and run-down) Stazione Garibaldi and made our way through the (usually unmarked) streets until we found the arch-rival “best” pizzarias in Naples. When Trianon’s gates slammed shut in our faces just as we were within a foot of entering it, we spun on our heels and decided to grace the (some say) more popular, less expensive, and equally famous da Michele’s. Although also famed for long lines, da Michele’s at 4:00 p.m. on a September Wednesday was not so crowded that we couldn’t quickly find a seat and be served fresh Vera Pizza D.O.C. rated pizza (of which this 19th century establishment always has and presumably always will offer only two kinds: marinara and margherita. Don’t believe me? Check out the menu).

After lunch, we took the metro to the posh Chiaia district, got turned around no thanks to Fodor’s map (a plague on Fodor’s houses!), and ended up far away from the sea-level “Riviera” but with great aerial views of Naples below.

Train. Donna Vittoria’s. Davide “Il” Gelato (speaking of which, why did no one tell me about this?!?!?!(triple interrobang!)). Report:

Amaretto, B (given by TP although almond-flavored anything (except actual almonds) makes me want to vomit through my nose and so I would have given it an F-)
Chestnut, B
Tutti Frutti, F
Perfumo di Sorrento, A

In other news, I came to realize that I sorely need to update my playlists on my mp3 player as this weekend’s seemingly unending road-trip to and from North Carolina proved. Don’t get me wrong, I love my Le Tigre and my Ramones and my Fugazi (I think I saw one of the guys the other day) HuskerDuSleaterKinneyArchersofLoafYeahYeahYeahsSleaterKinneyLizPhair (classic, not the new stuff)PavementFetchinBonesRadioheadCafeTacubaNinaSimoneCarborundum (sigh) TheSmithsShellacMuleDeerhoofPizzacatoFiveEnonPJHarveyHelium (wish they were still together) WeenFolkImplosionInterpolLiarsDr.DreTheShins, etc. as I ever did. But I gotta get some new tunes. Any suggestions?

 

9/23 Nibblet: Decided to have an adventure and see if we could visit and stay the night in Ravello with no reservation, no notice, and no map. Packed a few things in a small bag and hung out at Bar Tasso while waiting for the tourist office to open so we could book a room for that evening. Boarded the 11:35 a.m. bus at 12:00 p.m. and made our ascent along the tortuously twisty roads up and along the mountain. The coastal view was not only breath-taking, it was also breakfast-taking. Note to TP: do not down four shots of dopio espresso macchiato before venturing on a veritable roller-coaster ride without a plastic bag.

Upon our arrival at Amalfi, where we had to switch to another bus to get to Ravello, we stopped for a light lunch, hiked up to San Andre Dome Amalfi, took some pix of the cathedral that brought to mind the Mezquita (mosque/cathedral) in Cordoba, and hiked back down to the marina. After some confusion and some jostling around, we boarded the bus Italian-style (all elbows and no quarter given) and wove our way up the cloud-piercing mountaintop to Ravello.

When we disembarked at the town’s square, I spotted a bus with the name Hotel Marmorata, Best Western on it; our hotel! I ran up to the driver and asked if there was room for two more people on the already completely filled bus. He shook his head and said, “only one, not two.” I tried negotiating at little more, explaining it had to be two until the woman next to the driver spoke to him, spoke to the passengers, got a vote, and spoke to him again. He nodded his head and let us sit on the edge of the raised platform that separates the driver from the passengers. Backwards. All the way back down the mountain. Turns out we had caught the only shuttle to the hotel (which was actually at the base of Ravello rather than at the top) which was dedicated solely for the comfort of the entire busload of American senior citizens on a package tour of the Amalfi Coast. The elderly tour group applauded us when they heard we were on our honeymoon and then began a game to see which couple in the shuttle had the most years of marital bliss under their belts (45 years was the winner). Lucky we were that we caught this shuttle as it turns out our belief that the hotel would be within walking distance from the square was completely wrong. After a little showdown (our lengthy hotel bus vs. a towering tourist bus both trying to negotiate a tight curve with several cars lined up behind each; we won), we arrived at the hotel. The location and view here was pretty amazing and you could walk down the staircase from the pool directly into the Med. Our balcony opened up to a wonderful view from which we could see the sea churning, crashing, and foaming only a few feet away.

After a dip in the pool and the Med, we washed up and got some recommendations for a nice restaurant in the nearby coastal village of Minori. It was only a 10 minute walk, but we had to share the same skinny highway with buses, motorcycles, and cars with the cliff on one side and sheer drop to the sea on the other. We found a hidden staircase that was a shortcut to the square, hung out and watched the locals promenade up and down the marina, wandered around yet more Roman ruins, and had dinner at Gardinera. Best pastry shop in the entire coastal region hands down: La Pasticceria Salvatore De Riso. I think I had about three cannoli and several scoops of limone gelato that night. A+ all around. No joke, this poem, written by an anonymous 17th century poet, could well have been talking about the kind of cannoli served here.

Beautiful are the Cannoli of Carnevale,
No tastier morsel in the world,
Blessed is the money used to buy them;
Cannoli are the scepters of all Kings.
Women even desist [from pregnancy]
For the cannolo, which is Moses’s Staff,
He who won’t eat them should let himself be killed;
He who doesn’t like them is a cuckold, Olè!

In other news, LB, TP, and I met up with Najm (who gave me a very thoughtful, very slayerific birthday present that combines both of our joys in one book; thanks, maign!) and LR (with whom I am going to be tres nerdy and hit the lib’ary today) for dinner last night. And Cybermom, those aloo prathas are wonderful! Ithna muzidaar!

 live: 9.23.2004 buon giorno, bambino bloggerinos! writing to you from sunny sorrento on the amalfi coast. gorgeous weather, spectacular views, but crappy pizza. naples is where pizza supposedly originated but this is no good. the pizza in rome was much better. you will be happy to hear that we have been enjoying anywhere from two scoops (trademark) to seven scoops of gelato per day. profumo di sorrento gets an A. tutti frutti gets a D. hope you are all well! ciao!

9/24 Nibblet: Woke up to the soothing sounds of the sea lapping at the shores early in the morning (luckily before Bruce “friends call me ‘Slammy'” Slammerson began his morning ritual of testing the strength and integrity of the hotel’s doors). At breakfast, we were warmly greeted by our senior citizen pals from the day before (“Hey! It’s the honeymooners! How ya doin’, honeymooners?”). Seated at the balcony, we watched the waves below continue to get darker and more choppy. Our hopes of taking the friendly ferry rather than the breakneck bus back to Sorrento dimmed and sputtered out as I spotted a black flag upon the water.

We caught the SITA bus back to Amalfi even though the bus was completely full and we ended up spending the next 10 minutes as far in the front of the bus as one could get and still be inside it: me, standing next to the driver and trying not to jostle his elbow as he drove; TP on the steps of the bus trying not to bang his head on the windshield or fall out of the door. We arrived in Amalfi in one piece (yay!) but the inclement weather had stopped all of the ferry travel that day (boo!). Luckily, the combination of front seats, 4 ‘forte’ motion-sickness pills from the farmecia, and no espresso helped make the ride a smooth one.

Savvy locals us, we jumped off at the Piazza rather than the train station and had an excellent lunch at The Garden. Back at Hotel Girasole, the chilly wind bringing in smoke from one of the ubiquitous fires in the hills drove us from the pool and forced us to take a nap inside. In the evening, we spent our wild Friday night touring the grocery store with as much attention to the displays as we would any museum. Later, I prepared a lavish grocery store dinner while TP tweezed out the glochids embedded in his fingers that he got after trying to wash a prickly pear by hand. Ah me. So ended our trip to the Amalfi Coast. Buona Sera, Sorrento; Bon Jour, Paris.

In other news, apparently in honor of Halloween, we spent much of this weekend watching terrifying, nightmare-inducing, disturbing, creepy movies including one romantic comedy with zombies flick (where, during one particularly gruesome scene, two patrons leapt from their seats and ran out of the theater). Plus, holy role-reversal, Batman! I spent yesterday painting the bathroom while TP fixed an amazing dish of Iraqi Lentil Soup with Meatballs. Yum.

 

9/25 Nibblet: Happy Birthday to me! With the chill and rain keeping people indoors, we spent most of the morning watching “Robin Hood” (the good version, not the cheesy version) in Italian but with the dubbers using the same voices and cadences as the original actors.

Sibilo : E voi. Chi ha potuto voi essere, signore?
John Piccolo : Sono sir Reginald, duca di chutney. E non attacchi la vostra linguetta fuori me, capretto.

(Hiss: And you. Who might you be, sir?
Little John: I am Sir Reginald, Duke of Chutney. And don’t stick your tongue out at me, kid.)

When the rain abated, we hit the Snacketeria, meandered through the streets, and sat by the pool soaking up the humidity and heat before our return to Paris. We packed up our belongings and waited for the car to take us to the airport (the driver was late by an hour which, I suppose, in Italian timing, was right on time). At the Naples Airport, we checked in, grabbed a bite to eat, and waited for our plane to arrive. Number of cents extra they charge for ketchup: ten; number of open head-wounds caused from falling on the slippery floor: one; number of people gathered around aforementioned head-wound victim: twenty-five.

Paris was cold and rainy, so we made haste in gathering our luggage, catching the RER back to the city center, and running in between the drops back to the apartment where friends, presents, and chocolate raspberry cake awaited me. *contented sigh*

In other news, only one week left until Election Day. And for the laziest of D.C. voters, we . . . I mean someone can elect to vote “curbside”! Sweet! Check out this insult to chimps everywhere: Ook, ook.

9/26 Nibblet: Back in the land of the croissant, we spent some time doing Sunday morning chores around the house (it’s amazing how many crumbs trail behind a three-year old boy) before we took a walk along the Seine and lingered at the used book stalls. Taking advantage of the Musee d’Orsay’s half-price Sundays, we thoroughly explored the train-station-turned-hotel-turned-museum (psst – that mystery pix in the previous post was the view from the inside of one of the museum’s clocks which, if you get closer to the glass, affords this view). I made a special stop to visit my and LB’s room before wandering up and down and up and down the complex. One particularly eye-catching exhibit was the art nouveau furniture. The style of the pieces appeared to be influenced by Hector Guimard’s famous script of the Parisian Metro sign.

We spent several hours inside, on top of, underneath, and then back inside the musuem and then headed outside for some fresh air. We caught some sun and did a fair share of people-watching at the Jardin des Tuileries. As the children pushed their rented wooden boats around the fountain and shrieked with glee when their boats made it safely to the other side without crashing into other boats or ducks, a lively band played some marching music (I can’t call them a marching band because they were pretty much standing still) under the Arc de Triomphe du Carrousel (not to be confused with its much larger sister, the Arc de Triomphe at Etoile).

The combination of sunshine, sitting, and sweet crepes (of which we had several which makes crepes our new gelato) took its toll and after packing for our trip to Lyon, we snoozed the rest of the late-afternoon, evening, and night away. Crepe report card:
Sugar and lemon, A+
Nutella, A
Cheese, A

9/27 & 28 Nibblet: Thanks to Monsieur I-don’t-like-to-read , all you get today are pix. Well, ok, a little text. TGV to Lyon. Lyon to Chateau Gaillard. Tour of Chateau des Allymes and Tour de St. Denis. Three hour hike through the Alps. Delicious, familiar, safe, mouth-watering, missed-you-so-much-Pakistani-cuisine. 12th century farm house with cable tv.

Mont Blanc

Mer de Glace

Bustling Rest Stop

Crossing Swiss Border

Championeire Water Pump

In other news, Gojira and I totally have to apply for this position! Because we arrre the best and everyone else is the worrrrst.

9/29 Nibblet: After our daily alarm clock went off, we found out that our little pink farmhouse in La Championniere was still sans hot water. My cousin, Riz, picked us up, took us to her house, and there, I tried to take a hot shower. I say “tried” because I managed to shampoo my hair, rinse, and soap up before the water cut off. Not just the hot water; all of the water. So with a thin film of soap rapidly drying on my skin, I bellowed for help. Apparently, there was a notice from the construction crew nearby that they were doing some work that morning and that the neighborhood’s water would be shut off for a few hours. Alas, in this sleepy little village, no one really checks the mail on a daily basis and so the notice went unread. Riz came to my rescue by heating up half a bucket of bottled mineral water for me and 10 minutes later, I got to rinse off. The only highlight from that little incident is that I can now say “why, yes, I have bathed in Evian water!”

Since TP needed to wash up as well, we zipped over to Riz’s sister-in-law’s house which, despite being nine centuries old, had both hot and running water. Alack, we zipped too quickly and Riz kinda crunched up the car against the wall. Oops. Now running even later than we were, we scarfed down our breakfast and drove into Lyon to meet Gojira’s mere and chien. The second largest city in France, Lyon is a sprawling metropolis located between Fourviere, ‘the hill that prays’ and Croix-Rousse, ‘the hill that works’ and is split in the middle by two rivers, the Rhone and the Saone. Mrs. Gojira’s apartment was in a very lovely neighborhood that bore a striking resemblence to Saint Germain with its chic shops, bustling cafes, and spotless boulevards. Mrs. Gojira welcomed us warmly and immediately fed us a wonderful leek pie, fresh and healthy tomato and avacado salads, and all sorts of cheeses. We shared some stories about Gojira (heh heh), saw some family pictures (ha ha!), and eventually bid her and MacDuff adieu.

We drove up to Fourviere hill and worked our way down from the Roman Ampitheater (where TP stole a bunch of grapes) to the Notre-Dame de Fourviere Basilica to the St. John Cathedral. We had a clear view of the city below at each stop.

9/30 Nibblet: Travel Day, so not much happened. We took an early morning walk through the fog around our little village and came across a whole patch of grapes, blue berries, and figs. Free food! Walked a bit more, bid bon jour to our neighbors, scurried past the homes with wildly barking dogs, and took some pix of the cornfields, the houses, and the animals.

Riz picked us up so that we could have breakfast at her house before heading out to Lyon to catch our 11 a.m. TGV back to Paris. Unfortunately, her husband was operating on D.S.T. (Desi Standard Time) and didn’t arrive until quite late. We reached the Part Dieu train station at 10:59 a.m., just in time to watch our train (and our reserved seats) slide out of the station. We were assured that we could board the 12 p.m. train (there is one every hour to and from Paris) so long as there was room enough. We found two seats together, tried to look as inconspicuous as possible, and when the conductor came by to check our tickets, we meekly handed them over. He glanced at the ticket, glanced at us, shook his head and said something in French of which I only caught “un probleme.” We asked if he spoke English. He looked at us again, took the ticket of the passenger next to us, reviewed it thoroughly, and apparently found un grande probleme with that guy’s ticket because he passed our tickets back to us with a curt “c’est bon” and focused his attention and glower on our neighbor instead. Whew.

We arrived in sunny, balmy Paris and immediately hit up La Croissanterie for their wonderful croissants, flan, and cafe creme. TP bought me a cool, orange messenger bag from Mandarina Duck for my birthday. We strolled around the neighborhood, did some window-shopping, and finally returned to the apartment to take full, uninterrupted showers. Stink waves be gone!

In other news, thx to Abez for the great gingerbread punjabis (I got the @-man and the pirate), thx to Najm for the moist brownies (excellent sehri material), thx to Literaunty for the spicy haleem and southern peanut salad (TP had haleem for sehri this morning!), and thx to Chai and HBiddy for the laughs (and not killing me for leading you in a complete circle downtown).

10/1 Nibblet: We spent Friday morning taking the metro up to the Arc de Triomph and promenading down the Elysian Fields. Along the way, we passed by the Louis Vuitton shop that was oh-so-stylishly under construction:

We stopped at Pizza Pino for lunch where we shared a pizza with beef, two kinds of cheese, and an egg (whaaa?). The pizza was humongous and could possibly rival our neighborhood’s jumbo pizza that made the cover of the City Paper this week. We walked along the chestnut tree-lined boulevard and stopped for some crepes. We continued on to Place de Concorde and stopped for Belgian waffles liberally dusted with powdered sugar. We strolled through the Tuileries, crossed the bridge, and finally made it back to the apartment by late afternoon (just in time for a nap).

Upon waking up from the nap, we learned that several Tunisian guests would be arriving soon for a house-warming party (i.e. excuse to shop in Paris) and were asked if we could help out with the dishes, ironing, dusting, distract the toddler, move the chairs, put out the plates, and greet the guests. The old crew from Hammamet (see Tunisian Travelogue for details) showed up with their finery wrapped around their necks, brand names wrapped around their bodies, and high-falutin ‘tudes wrapped around their heads. TP and I escaped onto the balcony for some fresh air and to give the guests some privacy in which to discuss and eye each other’s clothes, shoes, and latest acquisitions. The “fabulous set” decided to go to a “fabulous restaurant” and our only amusement came when they could not identify any of the dishes (upon the advice of a friend, one guy ate a whole scoop of wasabi before dashing off to the bathroom to wash out his mouth) or operate the eating utensils. After getting our fill of fakeness, we passed on joining the group for dessert and, in full anti-social mode, took off on our own before calling it a night. Seriously, I chose getting away from those people over getting some Bertillon ice cream. *shudder*

In other news, despite the near freezing temps that are predicted tonight, I’m going out to see Interpol! For free! I heart free.

Last Weekend in Paris Nibblet: We decided to start our early Saturday morning with a jaunt through the neighborhoods and ended up climbing down 85 steps down a circular, stone staircase into the depths of the Parisian sewer system and mass grave known as the Catacombs. We wove our way through the dark, wet tunnels decorated with skulls and bones and tried not to imagine that the dust on our shoes was bone grit and the drips on our heads were not blood. Since it was our honeymoon after all, my favorite design was of the skulls artfully arranged into a heart:

Awww, how romantic!

We spent the afternoon perusing through the open-air market where we were dazzled by the [radio edit] and the delicious [radio edit] and the scrumptious [radio edit] which we picked up for our picnic lunch at Luxembourg Gardens. After a brief sit-down at Cafe de Flore, we watched a battle of the bands take place when a chanting, finger-cymbal-wielding Hare Krishna parade marched through a lively brass band (complete with crazy dancing lady) playing in front of the Saint Germain church.

It turns out that throughout this particular Saturday night, Paris was celebrating its Second Annual Nuit Blance (“White Night” or “Sleepless Night”), a city-wide contemporary arts and culture festival where you can visit a theater, enter a number of museums, or see exhibits at an art gallery from dusk to dawn. We walked to the riverbanks to experience the “Foghorn Concert” performed by 15 barges sailing down the Seine (recall the honking notes of the spaceship in “Close Encounters of the Third Kind”). People filled the streets either as performers (tiny local bands set up their sets at almost every corner) or audience members (did I mention how much I love free?). Some artists displayed their talents with vegetables. Some artists left their marks directly onto the streets of Paris:

The night was very surreal, made doubly so when hordes of rollerbladers took over the streets for several long moments. We spent the rest of Sleepless Night wandering around the city, taking a nap (but it was artistic sleeping, so it was ok), and by Sunday morning, touring the Louvre for free (FYI, free rules!). Actually, Nuit Blanche aside, the Louvre would have been free anyway because the first Sunday of every month is free. After touring the Islamic Art Exhibit (portions of which were on loan from the NY Met), we walked to Place de Concorde, hung a left, and met our touristy obligation to visit the Eiffel Tower (which had been closed due to a worker’s strike earlier). We capped off our last day with ice cream directly from the one, the only, actual Bertillon shop on Ile St. Louis. Final gelatoish report:

Coffee: A
Earl Gray Tea: B+
Grapefruit: B
Extra Dark Chocolate: A+++ valedictorian, best in show, undisputed champion of the world.

In other news, that concludes the travelogue so now what should I blog about? Any suggestions?

10.02.2004

bon jour, mon petite bloggeuers! thank you all for the lovely birthday greetings! and special props to LB for managing to update me blog whilst i am away. i’m back in paris now after a little sojourn to lyon (love that 2 hour super fast, super sleek TGV train ride) to visit one of my eleventy hundred cousins. on our visit to mont blanc, we ended up hiking for three hours from mer de glace to the town at the foot of the mountain. hey, a hike downhill all the way is STILL a hike. we stayed in a charming little farm house (not quite 12th century, but close!) and ate tons of fantastic desi food for the first time in a month. we only have a few more days left in paris and then it’s back to DC. hope you all have been well! perhaps each of you can be kind enough to recap a month’s worth of your blog posts for me? that would be great. thanks!
Madame Baji
directly above the metro mabillon
saint germain, paris

10.05.2004

*sings* “Back in the US, back in the US, back in the US of Aaaaaaa”

Ahem. Ok, I’ve finished butchering the Beatles’ tune now; you can unplug your ears. Flew in to DC yesterday evening and boy are my arms tired. *rimshot* But seriously, my arms are tired, my neck is sore, my back is aching. Why, oh, why did I pack my suitcase full of heavy candles and shampoos and perfumes and glassware and shoes and rocks? And why were most of the pillows I slept on for three weeks apparently made out of wadded up towels crammed into thin pillowcases? And why is the euro so darn healthy and the stupid dollar so lame? And why can’t I get a cafe creme or a cafe con panna or dopio espresso macchiato when I step outside the front door anymore?!

So, blurb version until I get my thoughts together: wonderful time, great weather, lots of pix, rich food, plenty of fresh air and exercise, swimming in the Mediterranean one day and hiking down the Alps another day. Now. Excuse me while I go lay down for a while. I have a mild case of lag of jet. *thunk*

Retro

I’m thinking of bailing on FB. For Ramadan, I thought I would abstain from my usual ridiculous, frivolous updates and maintain radio silence for a month. Focus on within. Simmer down. Thing is, Eid hit and I still didn’t feel like I had anything to say or want to share. Part of it was the onslaught of tragic news on the global and local levels – how could I joke about anything when atrocities were being committed all over the place? [Yes, travesties occur all the time everywhere but it just seemed super intense this summer]. Part of it was that FB instituted a new messenger app which had some backlash news about the gossamer thin bounds of privacy. [Could be true, could be not, but it’s probably true]. Part of it was that I didn’t want some of my ‘friends’ to be privy to my life, my pix, my wit anymore but didn’t feel like unfriending them. [That would cause even more of the type of drama I am trying to avoid]. Here’s the rub: I still have stuff I want to write if only for myself. I want to document stories that my kids can enjoy some day. I want to express myself the way I used to. I will probably keep FB for a while longer if only to see pix of my family and share the same. But I think I’m going to go retro and return to the blog. Watch this space.

Travelogue: Pakistan 2004

Well, hell. A recent perusal of my goings on in PK (triggered by the Superb Blurb below) made me want to fix the broken links and add the missing photos but I can’t access it anymore. Who knows which of my myriad names and passwords I used to create the blog but before I completely forget the address too, I’m going to recreate the posts here. Please be patient while the reconstruction is occurring.
1.16.2004

After suffering through middle-row syndrome on the entire twenty-two hour voyage from DC to Pakistan, LB and I reached Islamabad early Friday morning safe and sound, albeit quite disheveled and sleep-deprived. Upon arrival, our parents, my grandfather, and my uncle greeted us at the gate and as we had no checked-in luggage to wait for (carry-ons, zindabad!), whisked us home where we were met by the rest of the family. Stomachs rumbling from lack of food, we were treated to deliciously hot omelets (the healthy vegetables balance out the glistening oil and cheese, or so we try to convince ourselves) and strong tea (tooth-enamel-etchingly strong). Heads buzzing from lack of sleep, we napped for a few hours and rinsed the travel grime off using the good old fashioned, familiar pink plastic bucket with dipper that we have used for nigh on a decade or two.

Later that afternoon, more grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins came to visit and filled us in on all the family gossip and politics. The lounge could have doubled as a train station with so many people coming and going. Each person talked over the next, attempting to capture our bleary attention, to get his or her story told and voice heard, and to rush to share the latest news before someone beat them to it. We spent the whole day indoors, eating several meals at the huge Lazy Susan table in the dining room, meeting family and new friends (that’s when I met Abez and Owl) taking several naps in various beds, and trying and failing to make definite and substantive plans for the remainder of the visit. It was good to be back home.

Al Bariyah

I know. Not much to report for this day. But it gets better, trust me!
1.17.2004

There were wolves baying at the moon and angry, I-mean-business barks and snarls piercing the night. A moment of disorientation and quiet descended and then was shattered by further yips and yaps and yelps. According to the Winnie-the-Pooh clock on the wall that had been keeping time with unsynchronized beats, it was 3:30 a.m. — there’s a 3:30 in the morning now? Several thoughts occurred to me: I was in Islamabad (even if my circadian rhythms were still in the U.S.); I was now fully awake with no possibility of sinking back to sleep; and the guard dogs next door were mighty upset about something (possibly intruders, possibly wild boars, possibly a threatening leaf on a tree branch) and wanted the whole neighborhood to know it. Apparently, the whole neighborhood (my sister included) successfully managed to ignore or block out the incessant barking as I was the only one creeping around the house looking for snacks and a comfortable place to read. On her way to medical school classes, by 6 a.m., Chai found Professor Baji, in the lounge, with a candlestick. Well, replace “candlestick” with “Into Thin Air by Krakauer” and you win.

After a hearty breakfast, it was immediately time for lunch. We went to my grandfather’s house where we were wildly entertained by my mother arguing with her father over the precise events that occurred on the day umpteen years ago when the principal of her school called my grandfather in for a discussion over my mother’s behavior. We lingered over lunch and pored over family photographs ranging from the early 1900s to the early 2000s.

Babuji's House 1933

I heard a strange buzzing coming from my bag and it wasn’t until I cautiously and with great trepidation opened it that I realized the sound was from my borrowed cell phone. My uncle had lent me a cell phone to call or ‘to text’ (a perfectly cromulent verb nowadays) our tech-savvy family in order to make plans, call ahead, and goof off. It was our first full day in town and I was already receiving phone calls! [2013 edit – OMG, how dated. Admittedly, I still don’t have a smart-phone (certainly not an international-compatible one and strenuously discourage text messages since I don’t have a data plan but still…]

The call was from my cousin who, cognizant of our limited time in town, offered her services to chauffeur us to the shops at F-7’s Jinnah Super, F-6’s Supermarket, and F-6’s Kohsar Market for some whirlwind browsing. Driving back and forth, we saw familiar friends (Mr. Books! Book Fair! I’ve missed you!) and hated enemies (although I can’t remember if the family ban was proclaimed against United Bakery or Prince Bakers – one disrespected my grandfather and one hired my cousin but which was which?). Mentally marking the my favorite clothing boutique Khaadi for a return visit, we returned home for dinner and half a game of Monopoly that involved quite a bit of yelling, cheating, fining, and shady transactions. I think I won.

Stay tuned for the next episode: Freezing in the Foothills of the Himalayas.
1.18.2004

Damn those hellhounds! Damn them all to . . . well, hell, I suppose. With confirmed sightings of jackals and wild boars in the area, I was less surprised, but no less irritated, by the early morning doggie alarms coming from the house next door. Once again, I resigned myself to being fully awake and slid down the banister (it’s tradition!) to read until the rest of the family arose and prepared for our outing to Murree. Even though the sun was brightly shining and it was a pleasant spring-like day in Islamabad, we bundled up in warm layers. We boarded the coaster my uncle secured for the twelve of us and were on our way (fun fact: Pakistanis call the hybrid mini-van/bus a “coaster” which seemed more like a roller coaster than a smooth and steady vehicle by the time one reaches the twisted, treacherous, nausea-inducing, narrow roads to Murree).

Murree toll

Approximately 40 miles (or 60 km for you metric-heads) northeast of Islamabad and over 7000 feet (2100 meters) high at the foot of the Himalayan Mountains, the Queen of the Hills, as Murree is allegedly known (competing with India’s Darjeeling for the title), was once a 19th century hillstation, or resort, for British troops garrisoned on the Afghan frontier in Peshawar. Murree is now a popular domestic and international tourist destination for people seeking cooler climes, beautiful vistas of the forested hills, and the possibility of sneaky clouds slinking through the windows.

Murree hills

We wound our way up the slender streets and watched the birds of prey (hawks? vultures? kites?) tilt and wheel at eye-level. We made a brief stop in Bhurban, about 9 km beyond Murree, to stretch our legs, visit my uncle’s latest construction project, and take advantage of the panoramic view of the snow-capped mountains. After standing around and shivering for a while, we scrambled back into the coaster and returned to Murree to seek refuge and lunch at my aunt’s father’s summer house. Because most visitors come to Murree in the summer to escape the heat and dust and humidity of points south, the house had been unoccupied and therefore unheated by the time we reached it. Still donning our coats, hats, scarves, and the occasional gloves-sans-fingers, we alternated huddling around the free-standing heater and positioning ourselves to be in the path of the direct sunlight streaming in through the wide windows. We devoured the steaming prathas, curry chicken, and blessedly hot tea that we brought along. We took turns washing our hands in what must have been glacial water and then walked around outside to appreciate the eye-candy of the tall pine trees, the clear blue sky, and the Kashmiri mountain range nearby.

Murree trees

Murree hawks

By late-afternoon, we drove down to the “Mall” which is Murree’s popular strip of clothing stores, restaurants, and tourist shops. Half of our group ventured out to browse among the throng of people bustling along the sidewalks and main street while the other, more sensible, half remained cozily ensconced within the warm coaster. We raced the setting sun down the hills and reached Islamabad by nightfall.

Best Tree in Murree Murree landscape Murree Mall

Stay tuned for the next episode: Girls’ Day Out.
1.19.2004

Nestled at the foot of the Margalla Hills, the capital city of Islamabad is neatly if not logically divided into eight zones: administrative, diplomatic, residential, educational, industrial, commercial, rural and green areas. I remember a cleaner, calmer, less traffic-snarl-ridden city but these days the population is up, the pollution is rampant, and the tension is high. “Islamabad, the Beautiful” but not everyone thinks so. This is not to say that the whole town has gone to the dogs . . . those maddening, barking, insane dogs. Each sector has its own thriving shopping area, some pretty public parks, and beautiful mosques.

My grandfather lives in the elite neighborhood of Sector E-7, home to the opulent, jaw-dropping, incredible Faisal Mosque which holds the title of the largest mosque in the world (Baghdad started one up, but, well, you know how things are going on there these days). My father, sister, and I took a long, early morning stroll around E-7, passing by several palatial residences – including one Abdul Qadeer Khan whose house was the only one with flowers growing across the street near the guard’s hut – on our way to Faisal Mosque.

Faisal Mosque

Completed in 1986, King Faisal Mosque (named after Saudi Arabia’s King Faisal) features a large prayer hall, a small mausoleum for Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq and four sky-scraping minarets (which, if memory serves me correctly, sports real gold crescents on each minaret). We turned the corner and saw a sheep grazing on a grassy slope. We turned another corner and saw an enormous banyan tree that had been sorely abused and burnt up by some ignorant youths.

Burnt up Banyan Sheep & Bird Pak Post

We had a pleasant walk and followed it up with a pleasant trip to my aunt’s beauty salon DePilex. My sister and I were treated to soothing, cleansing facials and when we were glowing and refreshed, my cousin picked us up and took us shopping. Eight khussas, three chappals, and one antique collection of tiles later, we came home and relaxed. In fact, we relaxed so much that some of us fell asleep while I was recounting the storyline of The House of Sand and Fog. [2013 edit – really? What possessed me to recap that movie? How very odd]. The rest of us eventually followed suit and we all napped the remainder of the afternoon away. We rounded off the evening with Abez and Owl at the allegedly hip, funky “CJ’s” (short for Civil Junction) in Sector F-7, sipping cappuccinos, savoring ice creams, and snickering over their humorous menu entries.

Cafe menu
1.20.2004

“Wake up, baby dolls,” my dad sang to us. It was still dark outside and I was disoriented simply by the fact that it was my father’s voice waking me up rather than those rabid, flea-bitten mongrels next door. The ancient routine was followed as Dad hovered in the doorway to see if there was any movement forthcoming and when the only observable motion was us burrowing deeper under the covers, he would repeat the wake-up call until one of us (me) got up. Today was the day we were going to visit “the village” which is really a misnomer because it covers several villages but the sun was not even out yet and it was too early in the day to debate semantics.

We had stick-to-your-ribs porridge (liberally sprinkled with sugar and full-fat milk) and some chai (equally sweet and fatty) for breakfast to carry us through the drive to Lala Musa, about 90 miles southeast of Islamabad. The drive was smooth and pleasant with my uncle as pilot and tour guide and me as co-pilot (with no map, no directions, and no sense of where we were) to provide the questions and the chatter. Along the way, we passed Pajeros, Mehrans, Margallas, and brightly decorated jingle trucks and buses that are commonly seen trundling down the streets.

Paki Bus Paki Sweeper Paki Train

Occasionally, we would see a line of goats being lavishly treated to a buffet of rich, leafy greens – little did they know that Eid Ul Adha was right around the corner and that their V.I.P. treatment was going to end in an R.I.P. ceremony! Poor kids. When we arrived in Lala Musa to pick up my aunt, we were treated to our second breakfast and had more chai, roasted chilgozas (pinenuts), and these delicious sesame-themed, brown sugar-sweetened, cracker-like thingies (can you guess that I don’t know the name?).

We drove through the district of Gujrat which, despite its dusty roads and equally dusty children, is incredibly lush and green thanks to the irrigation provided by the Jhelum River and Chenab River, two of the five rivers of the Punjab which merge to flow into the Indus. My uncle deftly navigated the car down the roads that were becoming less paved and more ditch-laden until we reached Ladian, the Bhatti family’s ancestral village. We paid our respects at Uncle Aziz Bhatti’s grave, Inna lillahi wa inna ileihi rajioon (We are from God and to Him we are returning). Uncle Aziz, my grandfather’s brother, was honored with the highest military award in Pakistan, the Nishan-e-Haider, for his part in the 1965 war with India (here‘s a detailed account).

Aunty Zerina Uncle Aziz Aziz Bhatti

We strolled around my great-grandfather’s house where my father and aunt shared their memories of the place: there’s where Baooji used to sit us down and teach us; this room was shared by two families; all of the cousins would line up and sleep here on the rooftop during the summer. I waved hello to the neighbors – Madame Water Buffalo and Donkey Sahib.

Babuji's House Water Buffalos Donkey

We visited a nearby school and were allowed to peek into several classes where the uber-obedient, neatly-uniformed children would leap to their feet and stand quietly at attention while the principal introduced us (even though it was time for recess and they were itching to run outside). The school was very well-run, had a strict curriculum, and even had its own mascot seen here in repose.

Monkey on Wheelbarrow Principal & Eskool Schoolkids some chick

At lunch at our relatives’ house, we listened to the on-going debate over whether the village of Ladian (site of the famous Aziz Bhatti’s grave, access to a major roadway, near a good school) or the village of Bhurch (bigger population, on the route from Lala Musa to Ladian, large mosque and good school, no wiki page) was better. We then called on more relatives and friends in Bhurch where we were running from house to house, poking our heads in to say hello, and taking a quick tour of the public school (Fun Fact: in Pakistani/British terms, a private school is a private or fee-paying school and a public school can also be a private school. Whaaa?). The sun was starting to set and we did not relish the idea of our fragile car swerving in the dark to avoid a barreling truck and then falling into one of the massive craters on the dirt road that led back to Lala Musa, so we said our goodbyes, I got a quick motorcycle ride out of the village, and we headed back through Kharian.

Burch Mosque Dad & Eid Dinner

Stay tuned for the next episode: Well, not much, but wasn’t today’s entry enough to satisfy you?! Honestly!
1.21.2004

To make up for yesterday’s full day, we did little to nothing on this rainy, windy Wednesday. My grandmother loves making dresses, socks, baby clothes, you name it. She is a sewing machine! Well, not literally. Anyway, the morning was spent dashing off to the Naval Market, the Naval Headquarters’ shopping area where family members of the Pakistani Navy can conveniently pick up anything from fresh chicken to kitchen supplies to buttons. My grandmother’s agenda that day was to allow us to choose the color of yarn we preferred for the wool hats she was going to knit for us. My sister and I chose two colors each because skilled seamstress and knitter that she is, my grandmother intended not only to make multicolored, winter hats, but to make them reversible!

The next outing through the drizzle was planned by my aunt and my cousin who took us to Jinnah Super and Supermarket where we picked out some traditional souvenirs, some buttery-soft pashmina scarves, and some pirated CDs and DVDs. We came home for lunch and then went to visit various family members around town, like this guy, the newest of 32 cousins.

hip hop pants

By evening, we were enjoying one of my absolute favorite dishes – haleem
– at my grandfather’s house when the following exchange took place:

My grandfather began, “So, Baji, have you ever been to London?”

“Yes,” I replied, “many times. Although, I am going to Scotland and Ireland soon with my friend and I’ve never been there.”

He nodded his head absently, not really paying attention, and posed the question, “Have you ever been to Wales?”

With a stunned look on my face and after a long pause, I replied, “Uh, yes.”

He cleared his throat and asked in a booming voice, “Baji, have you ever heard of a town called Merthyr Tydfil?”

The stunned look turned to shock, the pause lengthened, and then I burst out laughing, “Uh, yes. I was BORN there!”

Totally ignoring me, he continued, “It’s got one of the strangest spellings of a name I have ever come across. I learned about it a long time ago. M-e-r-t-h-y-r T-y-d-f-i-l.” He noted my look of total disbelief. “Seriously! I can show you where it is on my atlas.”

My mother cut in as she gasped for breath after laughing so hard, “The only reason you know about that town is because I wrote letters to you from there when I lived there and your granddaughter was born there! You didn’t learn about it from school or reading about it. It has nothing distinguishing or extraordinary about it!”

He smiled contently, “Yes, it has quite an odd spelling.”

1.22.2004

While the city’s layers of pollution washed away in the heavy rain, we spent the morning looking out of the windows, longing to be outside ala the kids in “The Cat in the Hat”. The Cat finally arrived in the form of one of my closest cousins and her crew. The decibel level increased proportionally and the marble floors did nothing to cushion the sound. Someone suggested we continue our lovely reunion somewhere else. Braving the now deluge of rain, we stopped by my shopaholic cousin’s place where we were offered tea and a thick layer of frosting with a little bit of cookie underneath with which to rot our teeth.

We had a two-for-one birthday lunch at my aunt’s house later that afternoon. Having lived in various countries around the world (and conveniently feeding my voracious appetite to travel by providing me with a place to stay), my aunt has picked up an eclectic array of recipes. The buffet-style feast she prepared for us this time came from Myanmar/Burma. The Ohn-no-kauk-swey, or Burmese Noodles in Coconut and Chicken Broth, was served along with several small dishes of garnishes from which one may pick and choose. I loaded mine up with cilantro, lime wedges, and fried noodles. De. Lish.

That evening, my sister and I had intended to spend the night with my cousin’s in-laws in Rawalpindi. Tooling along Faisal Avenue (a.k.a. the “Islamabad Highway”), we neared Islamabad’s entry intersection “Zero Point” when my sister announced that she didn’t feel well. Apparently, she had caught my mother’s 24-hour bug and despite the nap earlier, she felt queasy and tired. We debated turning around but could not seem to move fast enough. Although the SAARC convention had ended a few weeks prior, traffic in this area remained at a near stand-still this evening. My sister’s groaning and warnings of nausea increased in urgency and frequency until they culminated in her rolling the window down and decorating the side of the car with bits of dahi baras, birthday cake, and assorted goodies. Silence descended over the car as we took turns patting her back, handing her tissues and water, and concentrating on an opening, any opening, in the traffic to allow us to make a movie-worthy, tires-squealing, 180-degree turn.

We finally made the turn, crawled along, and stopped at a light. One of the city’s many little beggar children approached us, knocked on the door to get our attention, and began her spiel. The girl pressed her “sad hands” against the car and my sister gasped,

“Be careful! Be careful!”

Not understanding the English warnings, the girl plowed on. My sister tried to explain again in Urdu,

“Ulti hai!”

The light bulb popped over the girl’s head, she looked down at the vomit-stained door, and a sneer of disgust to beat all sneers formed on her face. Oh, man. That look. I wish I had my camera. She backed away rapidly, sneer still in place, wiping her hands on her clothes as we drove off in a burst of shrieking and manic laughter.
1.23.2004

It was quiet. Too quiet. I woke up in a strange bed and lay there for a moment to think. Faint recollection of Chinese food personally prepared by a Bangladeshi chef the night before. Blurry images of playing Battleship. KK giving me an insider’s tour guide commentary by pointing out the spots where the would-be assassins laid in wait for Musharraf. Ah, yes! Rawalpindi, the more crowded, busier, bossier sister of Islamabad. I was staying with my family in Pindi that day and the room was blessedly quiet. My cousin and I wanted to talk in some relative peace and quiet so we caught up late into the night and again early that morning. We had an amazing breakfast of puris and chanas (with a squirt of lemon/orange from the lemon/orange tree outside) and more puris and chana. My cousin came by to pick me up a few minutes later and since tradition dictated that we offer anyone coming through the front door some food, we happily joined her in eating a little bit of chana and only a few more puris. Gotta love the elastic waistbands of the shalwar and the belly-concealing flow of the kameez.

Back in Islamabad, my father, my cousin, and I braved the rain to hit the shops. We inadvertently swindled one store owner out of the proper price of some papiermâché  boxes. See, we had negotiated and bargained and finally bought some boxes from him the day before. This day, we insisted that he sold the boxes to us for one (lower) price when we later found out he actually sold them to us for another (higher) price. “It’s okay,” my cousin later consoled us, “he’ll just overcharge the next guy and make it up.”

We bought some more copyright-scoffing DVDs and some Fruittella for my still-recovering sister before returning home. After many hours of planning, re-planning, canceling plans, and reinstating plans, we had a cousins consortium at my aunt’s house with the singular purpose of putting away as much ice cream, nuts, and assorted goodies as we could. Mission Accomplished.

Superb Blurb: Let’s Pretend This Never Happened

Let’s Pretend This Never Happened: (A Mostly True Memoir) by Jenny Lawson

In addition to taking a drink every time she says, “I suspect,” you may also consider taking a breath every time she makes you laugh your left lung out. You’ve been warned.

[Jenny calls her husband to report that sadly, she had to bury her dog and now vultures are trying to get at him. The dog, not the husband.]

Then Victor realized that I must be using his hands-free headset, and he got all kinds of pissed off that I was “getting it sweaty.” And that’s when I hung up on him. Because getting a headset sweaty was kind of small potatoes compared to the fact that I was brandishing a machete at large raptors, while considering the pros and cons of hiring a pimp to dig up our dead dog. Victor kept yelling at me though since technically I didn’t actually know how to hang up a hands-free headset, but I explained that he was wasting his breath, because I’d already hung up the phone in my mind and wasn’t listening anymore. Then he got really shouty, so I started singing “Total Eclipse of the Heart” to drown him out and that’s when my neighbor showed up again.

She seemed more concerned this time, possibly because I was belting out Bonnie Tyler and crying while swinging around a machete over a partially disturbed grave. Or possibly it was because she was thinking, “You’re totally getting that headset all sweaty.” People are weird, and it’s hard to guess what’s going through their heads.

NYC Good Eats

What’s that, Gojira?  Too busy to contribute?  Too bad.  *yoink*

[Advisory: This is from a 2009 post Gojira wrote (on her old blog which explains why I couldn’t find it on this blog despite my creative searching) so the opinions may have changed, the places may not even exist any more, and the links will have to be accessed via the link above].

Baji and TP are finally getting a vacation and coming to the city and Baji has requested recommendations even though I fully plan to have all meals and snacks with her during her stay. In no particular order:

Brunch – Supper (East Village)
If you’re old and grumpy like me, your tolerance for supper at Supper (terrible service, annoying crowds, long waits, but wonderful, affordable food) died out circa 2004. (Mint butter pasta, I miss you!) Thankfully, brunch appeared there a few years later. Like the dinner menu, the brunch offerings are unique, delicious, and remarkably affordable. Bonus: no wait, no crowds, excellent service. Have the polenta and a side of bacon (those instructions are for me, not for Baji). $15 per person

Dinner – Frankie’s (Lower East Side)
One night a middle-aged female tourist came up to me on Avenue A and said she had just eaten at Supper:

“Strangest Italian food I’ve ever had. They didn’t even have meatballs on the menu!”

We didn’t know each other; she just really needed to share. She did not find in me an understanding soul for her savagery. I felt truly sorry for her from the tips of my elitist NYC toes to the top of my supersnobby French head (or is it the other way around?). In any case, she would surely say the same about Frankie’s, which has Italian food that is quite simple while being different from what you might expect if you were an uncouth chicken-parm eater slash mouth-breather (although it must be said that they do have meatballs on the menu). It’s a bit pricier than some of the other options here (except Nobu, duh). Main dishes are around $16, unlike Supper and Lil Frankie’s $11–$12. At Frankie’s, everything has been determined to be wonderful. Even should-be-boring steamed broccoli rabe evokes the same awe as the creme brulee (which is marvelous—and big!). $20–$30 per person

Another Dinner – Lil Frankie’s, not actually related to Frankie’s, but related to Supper (EV)
At Lil Frankie’s, one eats the rigatoni polpettini and one eats it a lot. $15 per person

Another Dinner II – Epistrophy (Little Italy/Soho-ish)
Just saying a restaurant is unpretentious is pretentious. But somehow, Epistrophe manages to cultivate a romantic, sort of scene-y aura that attracts pretentious Euro types while genuinely remaining unpretentious (although certain parental units have complained that it’s too loud). It’s damn good. And yet another example of “weird” (=normal) Italian food. No meatballs. $15 per person

Dim Sum – Mandarin Court (Chinatown)
Mandarin Court’s a little tricky: Some days lots of trays with many options come around frequently, and on other days, it’s just the same two trays over and over again. But either way, you will get a good meal (you just might not get baby bok choy when you want it). One thing to keep in mind when in Chinatown is that no one there (and probably no one Chinese, period) cares what you think, what you want, or when you want it. This is generally closer to charming than annoying because it’s not an affectation. On the Lower East Side, the waitstaff with their “I’d rather be modeling” attitude work hard to deliver bad service; in Chinatown, it’s effortless. They really don’t give a shit. My point being: When the dessert tray at dim sum comes around at the top of your meal, grab your dessert(s) NOW. Don’t expect the dessert tray to come around again when you’re ready for it. And at Mandarin Court the service isn’t bad, just indifferent. Overeating will run you $10-$12 per person.

Burger – Royale (EV)
This one inexplicably never turns up on the best-of NYC burger lists. I don’t get it. It is by far the best burger I’ve had in New York ($8, fries are extra but they’re kind of crap; onion rings aren’t much better). The service is great. Shake Shack (location: nowhere you need to be) is good too – their fries are amazing – but the lines are retarded and you should only eat there if you’re in the neighborhood around 5pm (or if you’re retarded).

Cupcakes – Sugar Sweet Sunshine (LES)
Repeat after me: Sugar Sweet Sunshine is the best. Magnolia is the worst. I don’t even like cupcakes and yet I love the ones at Sugar Sweet. The trifle at Sugar Sweet is also insane. Seriously, NRA-card-carrying, shoot-people-from-the-bell-tower insane. Get it. But leave the shooting to the trifle (no worries, trifle has terrible hand-eye coordination and at worst will make you dance like Bugs Bunny when Yosemite Sam shot at him before being hauled back to the asylum, aka your belly).

Splurge – Nobu (the only reason to go to Tribeca, ever)
You must have: black cod with miso, rock shrimp tempura (times a million), ceviche, yellowtail sashimi, praline parfait for dessert, and then some sushi for good measure. If you’ve never been to Nobu, the waiters will tell you what to get and how much. Listen to them (the pricey specials can be avoided, though). It’s a splurge at about $100 a person, but for the best meal you’ll ever have, one you’ll think about for months to come, it’s unquestionably worth it. My only complaint about Nobu is their cheap-ass splintery disposable chopsticks. I have strong feelings about their subpar sticks and can work myself up into quite a state on this topic. But anyway, hot damn is it good. Don’t let anyone talk you out of getting two orders of the rock shrimp tempura (ahem, certain fathers of mine).

Snacking at a Dinner Place – Momofuku Noodle Bar (EV)
Marry Nobu, cheat with Momofuku. It’ll be awkward when your children are born with marked chicken-bun features, but worth it (especially if you didn’t get a prenup). $10 for two brilliant, valedictorian chicken buns

Japanese Takeout – Ogawa (location irrelevant)
The shrimp tempura roll awaits you and it does not bear hidden, insidious lettuce. Embrace the roll, love the roll, be the roll.

Comfort Food – Mama’s (EV)
Fried chicken, mashed potatoes, the only meatloaf I am willing to eat, garlic-infused broccoli, etc. This place always strikes me as pricey when I’m paying, given that it’s not really a restaurant, but you can easily make two meals from one, so it’s really not that bad. $12 for a main and two sides

Jerky – Jerky (?) (LES/Chinatown-ish)
Does this place have a name? I don’t know. It’s around Ludlow & Canal and all it sells is jerky. I don’t recommend the beef; it’s kind of boring. Chicken is not bad, but pork is really the way to go. And no, this one is not for Baji. It’s pricey at $14 a pound, but it’s the only time a stranger has asked to share my food on the street (yes, I shared and the stranger was duly impressed with the jerky).

Runner-up Splurge – August (West Village)
It’s in the West Village, therefore the service is excellent and the ambience is elegant yet warm. Just eat whatever, it’s sublime. $30 to $50 a person

Thai – Sea (EV)
Cute, affordable, tasty. The kind of place in which you might be tempted to order every single one of the appetizers. Know what happens when you do that? I do. It makes people uncomfortable, because apparently it’s what restaurateurs do when they’re sizing up the competition. And the people next to you will stare. Do it. $12–$15 a person

Banh mi – Nicky’s Vietnamese Sandwiches (EV)
A very out-of-the-ordinary combination of flavors (to me) plus ingredients that when looked at closely (avoid doing so) resemble bologna and cat food equals: a virtuoso performance by a sandwich. Bravo. $5

Coffee will be had at Cake Shop and ice cream will be had at Il Laboratorio del Gelato, which I am frankly indifferent to and think is overpriced, but I am indifferent to almost all ice cream and all ice cream in New York is overpriced so I am not to be listened to on this front. Baji, I believe you will enjoy this place. And it’s still cheaper than that empire of heinosity Coldstone Creamery. Shudder. I got a cone there once and had thrown it away by the time I got to the end of the block.

What’s that? Manhattan continues north of 14th Street and south of Delancey? I don’t believe you.

Separated at Birth and Several Years: Dooce and Joffrey


Except, you know, we love dooce®.

Bronson Pinchot Update

For some unfathomable reason, the search terms “perfect strangers” and “bronson pinchot” are the first and fourth most popular hits for our blog for all time: “perfect strangers” reaching a whopping 2,678 views and “bronson pinchot” coming in at 742 views. Nicely done, Gojira/Kuozzle.

Well, all you Balki-lovers, you’ll be pleased to hear that yes, Mr. Pinchot is hosting a brand new show: The Bronson Pinchot Project debuts Feb. 11 at 10:30 p.m. ET on the DIY Network.  Enjoy.