Portugal is changing, and it’s changing quickly! The last time I was there in 2011, it was much more run down than it is today. Tourism is booming, there’s construction everywhere and prices are skyrocketing. I don’t remember seeing expat-centric spots in Lisbon like the TimeOut Market, Heim Cafe or Comoba back then. Most food was very cheap, traditional and it was mostly seafood and potatoes. Now, it’s everything under the sun, and a lot of crappy overpriced tourist traps like you’d see in Paris or Rome, but also a lot of fancy joints that surprised me and are very glass-and-steel in tile-and-brick Lisboa. The neighbourhoods have completely changed (or maybe it’s just me that’s grown up!) and Bairro Alto, which used to seem so hip, now just seemed dodgy. I instead gravitated entirely to Principe Real – with their incredibly cool spots such as the Embaixada, Pavilhão Chinês and A Cevicheria – and Sao Bento, with it’s beautiful parks and cafes, blooming jacarandas and orange and lemon trees everywhere you look and smells of happiness. I also spent a ton of time at LXFactory, which is like Amsterdam-Noord, Christiania and Parkdale all rolled up into a nice little art bomb.
With travel, of course, comes the food fiesta. It made me laugh to see kogel mogel, a childhood treat that I got when there was no candy around (ahem. communism.) and I was permitted to swirl sugar and yolk together, being reincarnated as a luxury boutique delicacy. Sampling the foods of the different regions made me think about the hierarchy that we place on certain cuisines. Italian and French food equals fancy and upscale, and the majority of high-priced restaurants in downtown Toronto serve foods typically from there. Vietnamese and Mexican food is casual and cheaper, and Portuguese, Polish, Ethiopian, Greek, etcetera is super casual. There are of course exceptions here and there, but this is typically the drill here. So my brain exploded when I found myself sampling Presunto ham, Azeitao cheese and wine from Alentejo and realizing that Prosciutto, Roquefort and Chianti didn’t really hold a candle to these delights. Don’t get me wrong, I fully understand the pride of a region in its products and the need to distinguish them from others, but I had that “Chinese dumplings are Polish pierogies are Japanese gyoza are Ukrainian varenyky” moment and for that second, the world seemed a little smaller. I also felt like I had unearthed a great secret, a Cava of Champagne proportions, and I felt enlightened. Sue me.
The wine regions of Portugal are devastatingly gorgeous. I have this fantasy that I’ll get a field job with UNESCO visiting their locales to make sure they still… I dunno… use the proper brass in their doorknobs or something, and get a chance to see every place in the world deemed a heritage site. The Douro Valley nearly brought me to tears with it’s gentle beauty, and the Algarve Atlantic coast stunned me with its raw, untamed and completely different topography than the rest of the country. I see why those clever surfers gravitate there. Those beaches will absolutely make you melt.
I was coming back from a meeting last week and passed by the flagship Greenhouse Juice Co. just off of Yonge street, and got their recipe for Gingerbread cookies. Now my home smells like heaven and I have treats to share with my friends.
The holidays are a tricky time for many people. Not everyone has somewhere to be when the carollers are singing and the lights are twinkling, or where they do spend their holidays isn’t particularly peaceful. I missed my old friend Gray yesterday (having watched the beautiful Heisenberg at CanStage, which made me wholly reevaluate my minimalist-set-thumbs-down stance of yore), and remembered how crappy the holidays were always for him. I hope whatever you all do, and whomever you’re with, that you feel content. Much love to you all.
I have a serious attachment to my bicycle. I’ve never been particularly aware of it, but I’ve been in London for a month now and I’ve finally understood what that pang in my heart is about. Have you ever seen a kid staring at you wide eyed and licking their lips absently as you eat an ice cream cone near them? That’s how I stare at cyclists. Like a desert hiker without water.
I have the same attachment to my bicycle that I think people have to their pets. I love it without reservation for it has never led me astray. It’s not like that boy that you love madly but he’s always let you down so you’ll never really trust him. It’s like the one who’s never let you down so you love him even more.
It’s a recurring symbol of my life. My mom’s husband taught me how to ride a bike when I was 6, it was pink and had one of those wooden sticks in the back so that he could control it and keep me from knocking my teeth in. He might as well have taught me how to fly. Once I mastered stickless tricks, I bolted over to my friend’s house and got the crap kicked out of me by grandma when I came home long after dark because I lost track of time.
When I met a boy at a young urban dinner party eight years ago, he asked me out for a bike ride. I was in my mid-twenties, and surrounded by peers who drove BMWs and drank martinis and wore really high Jimmy Choo’s and talked about investment and mortgages and were super serious and super mature. I was none of these things. When he checked my tires for air and filled them up without hesitation, I knew I had met a kindred spirit.
And then, well, Amsterdam. Then there’s that.
I’m a kid. I think I know now that I always will be. But that little shit who got her wings at 6 in a crummy concrete Gdansk playground learned how to breeze through the toughest of times on two wheels that day. And that stays.
Africa has such a strong romantic hold over so many people’s imaginations. This rich continent that is filled with sights, sounds, smells, textures so vastly different from what we are daily exposed to holds such a lure, such an appeal to many who grew up with something different. The liveliness of Africa, the bustle and energy and flow of it, so refreshing from the stiffness of Western society, the timidity of Western puritanism and the depravity of Western religions, wakes up all of the senses. It’s incredible how travel opens up your heart and your mind.
Now, I do realize that I’m making generalizations about the whole of Africa based on my experience of five days in Morocco, but gimme a break, I’m excited over here. It was a marvelous introduction to a continent that for me has largely seemed out of reach and out of budget.
Marrakech Airport is a lovely and modern marvel, and really close to the main city. Customs was quick and polite, and there were cute little stores at which to grab a bite and cash exchange stalls throughout. Once we arrived in the Medina, or “Old City”, which is enclosed by a six foot stone wall, the energy instantly amps up as ambitious shopkeepers and restauranteurs fight to lure you into their establishment. This is where you quickly begin finding the balance between rude, exasperated brush-offs and smiling, polite no-thank-yous. I found that if you acknowledge the seller but firmly say, “Thank you, No”, that that seemed to work best. Ignoring them outright not only does nothing, but seems to incense them and certainly leaves the impression of a rude Westerner. Saying “No” without smiling also seemed to result in conflict, with the seller defensively maintaining that he’s not looking for money and allowing you to look for free. Being overly friendly means you’ll be hanging out talking about Aunt Flo and her hip operation last year, and how your mother never thought you should waste your time in culinary school and your grandma was really pretty and looked a little bit like Marlene Dietrich and oh my is that the time?
The streets of Marrakech are, to me, a mix of the neverending windiness of Venice, the grittiness of Havana, the knick knacks of Mexico and the buzz of Istanbul. Getting lost is fun, when the sun is up. Once it’s set, the frustration of every street looking the same and local boys purposely trying to disorient you by giving you wrong directions becomes annoying pretty quickly. You can rest a little easier knowing that since the suicide bombing of the main square in 2011, and because right now the King happens to be away on business in the US, the city is swarming with plainclothes officers.
The main meeting place in the Medina is the Jamaa El Fna square, which sits surrounded by heaps of “souks”, or local shops. The square is a lot of fun during the day, crawling with snake charmers, henna artists, buskers, horse-drawn carriages and the omnipresent scooters and bicycles. The air is heavy with diesel fumes and smoke from cooking, and in the summer I’m sure that the heat doesn’t help. Going in November was a brilliant idea, as the days were a gorgeous 24° C with clear blue skies, and the nights were crisp and relaxing and encouraged much tea consumption without a fear of sweating your Djellabas off. At night, the market transforms into a plein air eatery, with 50 or so stalls offering local delicacies or tourist experiences. There are many repeats – there are about 6 stalls selling snails, another 6 selling hunja (spiced drink, made of ginger, anise, turmeric, cinnamon) and cake, about a million selling fresh squeezed orange juice, several selling brochettes and several carts with desserts, cactus fruit, avocados and dates, among others. What really sets them apart are the vendors. They cover the spectrum from aggressive and belligerent (Nr. 15) to shy and quiet (Nr. 69), loud and generous (Nr. 14) to grumpy and shady (Nr. 42). Of course we tried everything, but there were certainly standouts:
Nr. 14: the calamari guy (who also sells “bunkercrotch” – some kind of white fish?). These guys are amazing (say hi to Ali if you go!), are super generous with portions, salt everything well and throw in super-spicy peppers and limes with the orders. Loved this place. Avoid the sole, too many little bones, there are other things much more delicious.
Nr. 69: the hunja guy. This guy was my buddy. He rewarded us every time we came back with a little piece of cake here, a little sprinkling of Thymol crystals to clear our sinuses there, a little top-up everywhere. He smiled and tried to connect despite speaking zero English or French and shooed away anyone who pulled on our sleeves and whined at our backs.
Nr. 42: chicken brochettes, aubergine and fries. Yummy in my tummy.
I have to say however, that by far my favorite, most rewarding, delicious dining experience was when I approached a local stall off of one of the souk corridors. Clearly not meant for tourists, this literal hole-in-the-wall housed a young Moroccan man with a giant pot of chickpea soup and a milk crate full of day-old pitas. I watched for a moment as local Moroccan men walked up to him, sat at the little bench in front of his window, offered him a 5 dirham coin and received a small bowl of soup drizzled generously with olive oil, a sprinkling of cayenne pepper and a round pita. They ripped the pita apart, soaked it into the soup, and ate hungrily. I walked up to the man and asked if I could get one. He seemed confused, probably wondering if I was lost and asking for directions. I asked again in French. Same blank stare from him, but now one of the patrons in the corner perked up and said to me “Oui oui” and then instructed the man in Berber to pour me a soup while he quickly gobbled up what remained of his and offered up his seat at the teeny tiny bench. I thanked him and asked if the soup came with bread, and he smiled and said that it did. They watched with obvious fascination at my enjoyment of what is presumably a very modest local meal amidst what they must consider much more attractive tourist fare, and yet the soup was the most delicious of all. Seeing me finish my bowl, the owner signaled if I wanted a little more, and brushed my money away when I offered it to him. I wish I could tell you how to find him, but the best I can offer is to turn left when leaving the Photography Museum and then left again. He’s somewhere in there, in a blue and white tiled makeshift kitchen, keeping the neighbourhood happy.
After a couple of days of meandering around the Medina, we took off on a trek across the High Atlas mountains, through Ourzazate, countless Berber villages, and Zagora towards the Sahara desert and the Algerian border. We passed fields and fields of olive trees, orange trees, dates, ceramic shops, argan plantations and cactus plants. The roads were a flurry of donkeys, goats, children, women draped in bright-coloured kaftans and men in patterned gandoras, with the occasional nomad trekking along with all of his belongings atop some small animal. Once in Zagora, we left our vehicle and jumped atop a few camels and were led far out into the desert, where, just past sunset, we stopped at a tented Berber camp for some eating, drumming and singing around a fire pit. It warmed my heart that we were joined by a group of young University of Waterloo students who were working internships in Switzerland and visiting Morocco for the weekend, and it felt like by having those energetic, smiling young faces around, that my little brother was enjoying the experience with us. It was amazing. We caught a couple of hours of sleep, watched the sun rise over the gorgeous African landscape, and camel trekked back to Zagora where we proceeded to drive back to Marrakech.
All in all, I don’t know if we could have packed more into the timeframe. The trip was fantastic, and it feels a little surreal to be back in Amsterdam. Today I looked with some sadness at my creamed corn soup and mayo cucumber salad and wished that I could have some cactus fruit, chicken brochettes and mint tea. But I guess that’s how quickly you can develop traditions. In the shake of a donkey’s tail.
Istanbul is a gigantic town. I’m told that there are 13 million people living there, and what I notice right away is how light it is. For some reason, I was convinced that it was a city shrouded in darkness. I have no idea why, I just did, maybe because of the prejudices inherent in much of news and television, maybe because of my own biases, maybe because of pure ignorance, but it’s beautiful and sunny and light and warm. Mosques are airy, friendly and inviting, there are street vendors selling candies and mussels and nuts, people playing music and singing, trams and men with pushcarts scurrying by. There are seagulls everywhere, and the fish market is a bustling wonderland. Galata seems to have been adopted by many expats as their neighbourhood of choice, and little craft and art and candy stores line the whole stretch all the way to Taksim. Schoolboys mischievously hitch rides on the back of moving vehicles and poke passersby and giggle. The smell of baklava is everywhere and every street corner has a merchant with unique offerings. And people are very genuinely curious about tourists and not only engage in conversation, but keep it apolitical, respectful, friendly and light.
An enchanting experience, very humbling and very welcoming, amidst sophisticated, genuine and unbelievably warm people.