I was going up from the school canteen, desperately searching for Internet. I needed to fulfill some meaningless task: paying a bill, booking a restaurant, I forget. It was one of those hectic inter-trip days filled with boring classes and droning itinerary-planning that take away from the pleasures of exchange. I was hardly calm. It was hardly serene. The skimpy Internet finally showed up as I climbed to the third floor.
I might have been expecting an email, but I received the one I didn't want. I re-read it another time and double-checked the sender. It was a one-liner, like a caption of a cartoon: unexpected, thought-provoking, offensive. It said so much yet so little. It raised more questions than it answered. I reserved my emotions.
Anyone familiar with these types of ailments will know the number matters. What stage, what grade. One in a thousand, apparently, but that wasn't the probability I wanted to know. I quickly called her and was met with an overriding nonchalance I took to be a sign of gravity, of dealing with the situation. It would have been easy to blame the system which seemed to have missed the signs years ago, but even with that there was restraint. I myself settled on clear-headedness until the numbers were known. There is no point despairing over the unknowable.
For the entire time, messages like "Hi David" scared me to death. I took refuge in silence, of unknowing. Breaking it was facing the truth, like a ringing phone after an interview. The false alarms are so foreboding.
One such conversation was grave. An instruction from him to oblige any of her phone calls. I read the tea-leaves correctly. They thought it had spread, according to a scan; the number then would be 4. I started thinking about the Obit, like the finale of The Economist. It might have read like this article.
But I didn't start writing. It was a false alarm.
Now, risks of recourse seem low. This is my exceedingly composed reaction to trauma. It is composed because of my characteristically blunt approach to life: people die. The discount rate in life is much too high to spend it doing things as means to ends. Long-term goals are overrated because you might not be alive.
The NHL is a protected ecosystem that allows thirty teams to exist when far fewer are economic under true market conditions. 9 years after the first lockout effectively removed the Leafs from contention by (handi)capping its lineup, a second lockout reignited some Stanley Cup dreams, by admitting the Leafs to the post-season predicated on a reduced denominator resulting in an increased standard deviation and therefore the role of luck. Of course, a seven-game series is hardly won by luck. A team that is twice as good will only lose 17% of the time. Therefore, it should not be surprising that the Maple Leafs are on the cusp of reasonably assured destruction (only 8.7% of teams have achieved a comeback from trailing 3-1, nhl.com).
As a hockey player in my youth, my interest in the Leafs peaked in 2004. They had assembled an all-star line-up including triumvirate of Sundin (though injured), Mogilny and Roberts supported by star defensemen Kaberle and McCabe as well as Cujo-replacement Belfour, Nieuwendyk from the Devils that had expelled us one year earlier, Nolan by a last-minute trade from the Sharks, and crowd-favourite Darcy Tucker. The team racked up over a hundred points and defeated the senators for the second straight year in the first round. It lost to the Flyers, what is largely considered to be an upset. Worse, the champion was not one of the five competing Canadian teams, though Calgary did make it to the final.
As a younger person, the draw of sports is benign. It is even helpful in nurturing teamwork, determination, and most importantly, the acceptance of defeat. Sports is a high predictor of future success, more than where a university degree is from. But sports also has an evil side. It is a distraction from what matters in life. It is a modern day release valve for the wars not fought and the build-up of cave-men, hunter-gatherer testosterone. The unglamorous side is exemplified by the riots in soccer stadiums and the incident in Vancouver that seriously damaged our nation’s good reputation.
Sports is an opportunity to turn off the brain and join the bandwagon. Beer guzzling fan(atic)s are modern day Colosseum attenders hungry for a good fight. In the worst case, it is ascribing your own happiness not to your own accomplishments but to the accomplishments of others. Whether they win or lose, you have absolved yourself of any responsibility. I myself found this fourth playoff game a pleasant distraction from issues that require action. But it is a short term fix; when they lose, your problems will not be fixed. You just have less time to deal with them.
The struggle for Germany dominance has de-railed Europe since the 18th century and continues today with the Eurozone crisis. It is Europe’s largest country, by population, and by wealth. It is a vast nation with important cities in every corner, the result of the string of city-states that vied for dominance in the Holy Roman Empire. The present Germany is a federation of 19 länders that unified in 1871 after it defeated France for the first of three times in the past century and a half. War-guilt, remuneration payments, communism and Fascism have been unable to halt its inscrutable rise. It is sufficiently different from continental Europe that it merited another visit, this time to the capital of Bavaria. It is a city known for football teams and beer halls. It was Hitler’s first conquest.
Unlike France or Britain, Germany does not have an obvious premier city. Berlin is the political centre, dating back to pre-unification days when it was the seat of power of the mighty Prussia. It has since experienced more in the history books than any other city in Germany. But Munich has its own charms too. Start with beer culture. Waddling, throwback waitresses juggle full-litre mugs filled with liquid gold. The go-to brand is Hofbräu, perhaps guzzled at the festive beer hall downtown, accompanied by a serenade of live traditional German music. The dunkels are a delicate balance lathery and crispy. They are lightly carbonated, as all good beers are, so that downing a litre is no work at all. With some Bavarian sausages (the white ones) in mustard or a slab of crisp suckling pig, the beers become a gastronomical statement. Further away, near the Hauptbahnhof, Augustiner Braustuben does full-litre beers for less than 6€ (9€ at Hofbräuhaus) with a similar enough environment. Or take it outside at the Viktualienmarkt, where scores of diverse sun-loving drinkers properly act out a true caste-free beer-garden. Continue at the Viktualienmarkt by buying some prosciutto (2€) and cheese (4€) or some cheap 1.5€ wine and 2€ carrot juice. 20€ is guaranteed to satiated any hunger from museum-hopping.
And museum-hop you should. Begin with the Alte Pinakothek (the Louvre), continue with the Neue Pinakothek (the Musée d’Orsay) and finish with the Brandhorst (the Pompidou). For 12€, you get an excellent audio-guided tour through the last 800 years of art history. Then, venture out to stroll around the Englischer Garten, a nude-ridden nature-scape sure to bring out some questionable ageism. Further away, the BMW museum (reserve early for a look at production) and the adjoining Olympic park embody the industrial-natural equilibrium that characterizes Munich.
Munich is a lively city and definitively German, a term that is hard to define but easy to notice. Perhaps it is the efficient, industriousness that demands on-time trains and busses (a notable difference after leaving Italy). Perhaps it is the slightly cold but incredibly helpful people who appear sombre up until a pint (or two) of beer is poured. Maybe it is the ultra-modern architecture that meld with anachronistic buildings of old. Munich is a tempered Berlin. It is more comfortable but less expressive, more accessible but less interesting. But a visit to Europe would not be complete without a visit here. There no need to wait until Oktoberfest to go.
Another fabled matriarch of historic Italy, this culturally and financially rich centre is far removed from the sketchiness that pervades the rest of the country. City-centre, north of the river Arno, is a culturally rich version of Milan, with the same grandiosity. South, hilly roads weave through gardens and churches, providing for an awesome view of Florence centre. Behind the fantastical domes and ostentatious displays, villas pop out of the mountains of the distant landscape. Florence is a feast for the eyes.
A focal point for the city is its museums. They are expensive, but worth it. Start with Michelangelo’s statue of David at the Galleria dell’Accademia (16€ with line skip, reserve in advance if possible). It is a gargantuan, gorgeous sculpture in a domed room made precisely for that purpose. It is the most awe-inspiring spectacle of Florence. Another place with unconscionable lines is the Uffizi Gallery, which showcases the Birth of Venus and some Caravaggio masterpieces (16€ with reservation, reserve in advance if possible). The collection is the direct result of the wealth of the Medici family, who created the first banking empire and used the wealth to collect rare pieces of art. For something less crowded, the Museo Nazionale del Bargello (5€) also showcases a solid collection.
The views of the city are world-class, maybe better than the ones in Budapest or Prague. Piazzale Michelangelo, Basilica di San Minato al Monte and the Villa Bardini Gardens (10€) all offer a breathtaking sight after a rigorous walk. The Giotti clock tower, a standalone tower beside the Duomo, gives a compelling 360-degree bird’s eye view.
Food is cheap and tasty. At Il Latini, patrons line up for the 7:30pm seating. They are quickly ushered in to tables already loaded with bread and wine. The wine is charged per glass, estimated by a scribbling bean-counter based on the volume remaining in the glass. Perfectly salted prosciutto-on-melon fly out of the cold-cut station (6€). A cylinder of salami is ominously large. Pastas (8€) come immediately, hearty and fully flavoured. The cheap prices and sociable waiters let customers lose themselves in the food. All pretentions are dissolved at the door; go to Il Latini to let your guard down. The total bill came to 35€ for two. It was the most fun dining experience of exchange. At Ristorante Buca San Giovanni, an underground wine-cellar come restaurant, fresh half-balls of buffalo mozzarella and lightly cooked tomato garnish an eggplant strudel (11€). Gnocchi in a slightly sour sauce is 9€.
At night, tourists make way for gyrating Guidos (think Jersey Shore) under disorientating lights and screeching tunes. Aggressive rompers resemble sharks circling unsuspecting (and sometimes suspecting) prey. Drinks are cheap at €3, though I wouldn’t have missed the 4€ surcharge for being the less desirable gender. Cover was 10€.
An hour and a half north, Verona is a smaller but architecturally similar city. It is also imbued with a copious mix of culture and beauty. As a stopover between Florence and Salzburg, I managed to fill an hour with a trip to Juliet’s house (from the Shakespearean tragedy) and a meal at Osteria Al Duca (Romeo’s house; 20€ lunch for 2 courses with wine). It was a fine last look at Italy before heading off.
The North of Italy is vastly different from the south. When it unified in 1861, the North was hesitant about taking on the debts of the south, as is the problem in the European Union today. The mountainous landscapes, rich history and culture and beautiful cities make for world-class destinations and respectable living space unadulterated by the grimy nonchalance that infects the south. The peninsula has a fantastic range of sights and could make for a well-rounded trip on its own. The Romans chose a good place to make their home.
The great economic (see “Merchant of Venice”) and military (see “Othello”) power of renaissance Italy that gave birth to Marco Polo and Antonio Vivaldi is a beacon for tourism today. As the city sinks, frazzled day-trippers (like us) quickly devour the sights before it will be submerged. An island like Hong Kong, but with canals like veins to outrival Amsterdam or Bangkok many times over, this legendary city of the water remains a sight to surprise despite all the buzz. It is a tourist’s mecca with only 60,000 inhabitants, decreasing still from the inflated prices of demand-supply imbalance.
Escape the hordes with a trip to Buramo, a 40-minute boat ride (6.5€ each way, starting at Venice-F.te Nuove) through the Adriatic that touches down in the many other islands surrounding the city. Buramo itself is touristy enough, but homely from the box-of-crayon monopoly-houses that lure fishermen in. Da Ramano, the risotto aficionado that welcomed such artsy-folk as Matisse and Hemingway, alone is enough reason to go. The crayfish risotto, caviar black from the ink, is a perfectly flowing al-dente with a sweet tingle. It is the best risotto I have ever had.
In Venice, it helps to stray aimlessly through the claustrophobic alleyways and escape the caffeine-wired, picture-snapping tourists and the crappy knick-knack shops in their following. The cold, stinky sea-chilled air has a mind of its own, regulating the hot sun-draped island. It navigates though the alleyways too narrow to fit an umbrella, under arches made for midgets better than you or Google Maps can. At night, these imposing architectural features make for a spine-chilling race out of Venice – a maze full of dead ends and sketchy characters.
The holy grail of Venice is Piazza San Marco, an open tract of land with the famed Campanile and St. Mark’s basilica. Scores of uniformed Gondoliers, though conspicuously missing the red scarf, sell the over-expensive yet essential ride though the canals of Venice (60€ for 30 minutes). At night, the young (and not-so-young) congregate either at Campo Santa Margherita or Campo Santo Stefano. For students, best is probably Il Caffè, an easy-to-find spot for the most disorientated.
For some classy dining, Alle Testiere is tiny outgrowth with top-notch food. You are squeezed into a corner to enjoy cheese-stuffed ravioli with perky tomatoes and lavish swordfish for 20€. And surprisingly for Italy, bread, water and cover are all free. Gelato and cafés are ubiquitous and perfect for a break from the walking required to traverse this bridge-infested island.
Venice is a city worth seeing and experiencing. The crisscrossing scrawny roads, tourist packs and reliance on walking can be angering at times. But it is substantially different that words cannot supplant experience. It won’t go down that easily.
The unknown principality turned 4th-largest city of Austria is the historic birthplace of Mozart and location of Sound of Music. It surpasses all expectations, surrounded by mystic mountains, prolific greens, rolling hills, dashing architecture and sunny-yellow palaces. Mozart-figurines, like red-coated ducks, and scantily dressed pasture-girls, make for a touristy feel. But the breathtaking views allay any reservations about coming to this hidden gem.
Begin the views from the Modern Art museum, then another from the castle. A final view of the land can be seen from the Untersberg mountain, which can be reached via the terminal stop of Bus 25. At the fortress, an amateur string quartet blasts Eine Kleine Nachtmusik for the touristy crowd and goes way off-script from the website which advertises an orchestra. Another way to peruse the countryside is to take the 10-line to the airport, but get off two stop earlier at Hangar 7, the testosterone-filled exhibition of Red-bull planes, helicopters and racecars.
Museums are largely boring and bare-boned (Salzburg Museum, Mozart’s Residence Mozart’s Birthplace, Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac), but they are free with the Salzburg Card. It was 23€ for 24-hours, the best city-card deal on my exchange and includes everything mentioned in this blog. For some Sound of Music, the Mirabel gardens and the Hellbrunn Palace are both filming locations and have the manicured pastures of the film.
Salzburg food is as uninspiring as it was in Vienna. The advice here is to go for the cheapest, closest thing. Andreas Hofer Weinstube is a safe bet if you want traditional Austrian cuisine. More impressive is the beer, which often includes the hometown brewery Steigl but also a wide range of Belgian ones at Alchimiste Belge, a smoky student pub.
The Portuguese in its heyday controlled the world. Today its legacy lives only through Brazil, the colony that will host both FIFA and Olympics in upcoming years as it vies for world-class status. (It itself has problems of a third-world country but growth of the first-world.)
Portugal has remained outside of relevance. It resembles Spain of decades ago. It is poor, unconfident, unaspiring. It is the underperforming but not exactly misbehaving student in the class (until last week, at least, when the courts stopped dead any attempt at austerity). It has a tiring hatred of Spain, the bolder big brother that, if not for the banking and housing crises, would be a leading European country. After the dictatorships ended, Spain pulled away from Portugal in a most apparent pace. Portugal today is Spain thirty years ago. At dinner, I asked for sangria, to which a waiter replied "thank god we are not Spanish". He then assumed us to be Americans to which I replied "thank god we are not American". I was joking; he wasn't. In many ways Portugal is like a Catalonia, but one that got away.
It is the last bailed-out country on my trip (Ireland, Spain, Greece; it would have been the full set had I predicted Cypriot troubles). It is probably the most concerning. The cheapest alcohol on my exchange came in the form of 500mL of wine for 2€. It has none of the vitality of its Spanish neighbors. Children on busses blast music, or sing to them. At best, it's annoying. One youngster (5 years old?) took Gangham style to his liking though his Korean accent was a bit lacking. The national dance move seems adequately summarized by the Portuguese phenomenon “Vem Dançar Kuduro” or "Oi Oi Oi".
The food remains peasantly. Bread and water are forced upon you, some worth it and some not. Twice recommended Ramiro Restaurant, was on the sketchy "Green Line", and run by a chubby, smiling, conniving man out of some mafia movie. I had no mind to enjoy the food. Redemption came at Tasca da Esquina, the multi-coursed outfit of celebrity chef Vitor Sobral. A mix of squid, calamari and goodies from the sea stays classy amidst the generous dole of mushrooms and a mouth-filling eggplant puree. Four courses require no contemplation at 18€. Taberna Moderna had the best covert despite being free: an exploding impaled diced tomato covered with salt and herbs. Iberian ham (14€) is topped with potatoes and red peppers in grimy, home-cooked goodness; it is reminiscent of the forward flavours of Barcelona, though the Portugese chefs would never admit it.
The coolest strip in Lisbon is LX Factory. Read a book in Ler then get a delicious euphoria-inducing slice of chocolate cake at Landeau. Go over to Beléa. for a look at the palace and, more importantly, creamy custards (a Portuguese specialty adulterated by Chinese dim-sum restaurants). Centre Lisbon has a stately Rossio square, a tilting Chiado (see the 5-star Toronto restaurant) and a harbourside promenade. Nearby, a fashion and design museum, Mude is a free visit. Stare at a bottom-dwelling flatfish with protruding eyes, or a feisty shark, or an innocuous (half annoyed and half unimpressed) turtle with the whole cast of Finding Nemo at the aquarium. Finally, go up the castle for a view of this glued-together city.
Further south, life grinds to halt. Adult men play billiards midday on a Monday. Shops and attractions close for lunch or a siesta, not sure which. The Vodafone store is largely incompetent and cost me an exchange leading 27.50€ to stay connected over five days. An unnerving line of patrons developed, of all shapes and sizes. An unsmiling, despondent server calls her co-worker, sick from home, to fix the issue.
Tourists seem to go there for the relaxed pace of life, or for the cheap sangria (500mL for 6€). It is relaxed because they accept their poor fate. It is cheap because of its poor fate. At a rally in Chiado, a poster decries the 0.1%. This is the most specific stratification yet. I feel deeply empathetic towards the other segments of the 1% who were too poor to be included. It is a sultry country with a less than sultry life.
It caters to the business-savvy crowd that devours The Economist, its sister magazine, like soup. It itself is more like dessert: infrequent, inessential but hopelessly yearned for. The Economist explains what keeps us alive (and wealthy); Intelligent Life explores what we live (and work) for. This two-monthly publication is a British version of The New Yorker; it is easier to digest and more practical to read.
Intelligent Life explores culture. But it is relevant instead of artsy-fartsy. In the past few issues, the opening of the Ritskmuseum, Amsterdam, (which I despairingly missed) and a op-Ed on les miserables (which I just read) made appearances. Pages are lined with short articles on food, music, fashion, museums - all the trimmings of haute-couture but it manages not to be stuffy. Then, longer 5000-7500 word feature articles explore pointless but reassuring articles. Precisely, they reassure us that there is more to life than work.
For the shrewd businessman (and businessmen-to-be, I.e. you), this publication is a fast-acting culture pill that is easy to swallow. Furthermore, the writing exceptional. The editor's note is not some contrived attempt at uniformity and self-promotion. It actually explains who wrote the articles and why they were chosen; avid followers of The Economist will be surprised that real names are used rather than those of famous thinkers or conquerers. And every article flows in prose and will delight any sesquidilianist. While the economist focuses on clarity of expression, Intelligent Life focuses on delivery.
I have said many times that The Economist should be required reading before interviews and dates. I was joking about half that statement, though that was before I found out about Intelligent Life.
That the country was the recipient of three bailouts is barely noticeable until you dig a bit deeper. On the surface, the new subway cars stop at new subway stations. Google maps is well integrated. A lot of the architecture is ugly concrete blocks but a lot are redeeming. But troubles show through. The busses are either early or late but never on time. There is an inherent laziness or, rather, non-chalance that is unnerving. Restaurants are open around the clock but museums are parks close at 3pm. One desperate bar owner lured me in (I'm terrible at saying no) by telling me to come drop by that night, then proceeded to sell me orange juice (which I would've accepted had it been freshly squeezed). Upon my refusal, his next tactic was to send a good-looking waitress my way. When I said I wasn't thirsty, she asked me to buy her a drink.
Another solicitation arose from Greek Jehovah's Witnesses who spoke Chinese better than I. It is surely a helpful language to know to lure in the helpless migrants who can't speak English and want to feel included. It was a good chance to practice my mandarin though. For the longest time I had no idea what they were attempting to do. I don't really know what Jehovah's witnesses are other than that it's an extreme cult of Christianity, let alone how to say it in Mandarin. Needless to say they were surprised by my English or as they called it "Ko Yin" (accent).
That it is a poor country can be witnessed by the brand-new Areos hotel that cost 40€ a night or the feast you can buy for 20€. A carafe (25mL) of wine was 3€. As the bar-owner exhibited, these parts are fraught with fraud so I asked the waitress if it was indeed 3€. She didn't really understand why I needed to ask; she's never been to Paris, I guess. But they are sly elsewhere: bottled water is poured on arrival, 2€; bread is another few. I found it pointless to complain because it still didn't add up to much.
A SIM card for 11€ comes with 500mb, one of the best deals in the eurozone. An innovative idea that appeared in the letters of The Economist was that should Greece drop out of the euro, it should change completely to a mobile-phone currency. It then eliminates the tax evasion that brought the country to a standstill.
The way to manage the odd operating hours in Athens is to hold off on lunch until after 3pm. Then, on one day, you can reliably do the historical sights (flagshipped by the acropolis and the new acropolis museum) then do a trio of museums (benaki, Byzantine and Cycladic). They are all more or less free. The acropolis is indeed as grand as proclaimed. This homage to the patron-goddess of the city, Athena, is the focal point of Athens. It is quite the climb. Like the heroic defenders who spilt blood to defend the holy monument, I did as well though of a less courageous variety. I had been afflicted with the most unconscionable nose bleeds, maybe because of the altitude or the dry weather.
Some of the best moments of the city comes from strolling the vender-filled pedestrian streets. The flea markets near Monastiraki are particularly boisterous. Some subterranean shops have sharply decline staircases that induce the most severe claustrophobia. Most things are overpriced and bargaining is expected. I purchased a 14€ item for 10€. She said it was already marked down and I was happy with the price she quoted. I am not much of a bargainer, clearly.
If time permits, go to Mount Hymettus to prance around age-old monetaries and torn down basilicas. The views are worth the trip. (Take the 224 bus to the terminus stop, then walk up the hill). Then go to the other side of town to the harbor city of Piraeus. Walking down the habour gives you a feel of how desperate the Greeks really are. After a few steps another restaurateur asks you to dine at his deserted location. Still they are quite principled and directed me to my intended destination: Ammos restaurant for some seafood grub. For 18€, 500mL of wine, a Greek Salad, deep fried zucchini and mussels. I was certain they calculated the bill incorrectly so I tipped the waiters grandly.
The Greeks are still a prideful race. One security guard at the Acropolis screamed whole-heartedly to bring down a waver of a foreign flag. When asked what was the offending flag, he said that it didn’t matter. The only flag allowed at the Acropolis was that of Greece. A taxi driver (who gave me a 50€ taxi ride for the price of 10€) blamed the problems of Greece on politicians, bankers and immigrants. Until Greece becomes disillusioned, they will remain the sick man of Europe.
Turkey has the longest standing application to the EU; it is still a matter of debate. On most things Turkey is European. By geography, it is closer to Europe than is the annoying Cyprus. Economically, it is stronger than any nation currently in the EU. Turkey's GDP rose by 8.5% in 2011 after a 9% increase in 2010. But it is definitively un-European because it is not Christian.
Historically, Turkey has always been the natural divide between the East and the West. Two straits: the Dardanelle (Hellespont) and Bosphorus (do the cruise) divide the continents. The Persian Wars was the first war between the two. The epic movie 300 depicted the Turks as some unworldly race with painful body piercings atop domesticated giant elephants. Divisions persisted: first with the split of the Roman Empire, which was based partially then wholly in Istanbul; then with the predominance of Islam that today persists and precludes the country from European membership.
Istanbul was created (first as Byzantium, then as Constantinople) to rule the Eastern Roman Empire. Its nucleus is on the European side, as the Romans wanted; as a result, the city is oddly familiar. Despite the religious hollering on loudspeakers tantamount to American Idol auditions, and women in headscarves, the country is polyglot, liberal and accepting (as the Ottomans were). But some Asian tendencies show through. Most every conversation I had with the few English-speaking Turks led to a question of origin. Dissatisfied with my being “Canadian” (that is, indeed, where I am from), each and every one searched deeper for my provenance. Zealous restaurateurs (and troubled youth) shout out salutations in Asian languages, most commonly Japanese, but the occasional “Ni Hao” as well.
The historical sights are a must: Hagia Sophia, the Blue Mosque, the Cistern and the Archeological Museum are all huddled together and can be done in half a day. Ominous spires stick out as though impaling the sky. They signpost the dome-dominated mosques that look like carbon copies in a real-life Assassin's Creed. Then hop over to the newer side of Istanbul to stroll down Istiklal Caddesi, have a Turkish coffee at Ada Cafe & Bistro and see some Modern Art (modern by any standards, not just Muslim ones) at Istanbul Modern. But you’ll notice, you are still isolated to the European side. So make sure you take the cruise down the Bosporus to see Asia-minor (2:30pm leaving from the south end of Galata bridge for 10 TL). For the night, there is an excellent view from Artiste Terasse.
For food, any restaurant is really as good as another. They are all similarly run-down and fly-infested but serve authentic Turkish food. Little candy shops around have Turkish delights of all shapes and sizes. Then there’s meat-on-a-stick and fish stands everywhere. None are worth recommending but they should all suffice.
Istabul is the only city traverses two continents. It flirts with familiarity while remaining foreign. It is surely worth a visit, if not just to say you’ve been to Asia on your Europe-crawl. That it was the ancient seat of the Roman Empire yet a Muslim strong hold for centuries afterwards is extra.
Paris is France and France is Paris. The two are essentially the same. Paris accounts for over half of the country's economic output and is by far the largest city by population. Many of the stereotypes of French inexplicability has nothing to do with the Italian-like consistently-tardy southerners of Provence, or the Anglophiles of Brittany, or the hardy no-nonsense beer guzzlers of the East, or the always-smiling wine growers of Bordeaux. But these other stereotypes don't matter because Paris is France and France is Paris. And when a city is as notoriously famous and unparalleled in scope, it has the right to be a bit cocky.
That doesn't mean the rest of France isn't worth a visit. Together they can hardly compete with Paris. Each of the following cities can be reliably done in one day. Train is the best way to get to all of these places. But make sure you book your tickets well in advance, lest pay exorbitant prices. Also, away from Paris, English is sparse. French is helpful at most museums.
Take line C out to Chateau Versailles (Rive Gauche) or Versailles – Chantiers. If you’re going to see one royal palace in Europe, this is it. The palaces of the other royal families of Europe would be stables at Versailles.
A 3-hour bullet train from Paris takes travelers to the most famous wine country in the world. But the city didn't live up to its name until a modernization project revitalized the coastline and transit system. A weary venture out to the suburbs has a Michelin star hidden for 25€ (La Cape). Then another irksome voyage takes you to some eerie warehouses turned to unconventional haute-art displays. One garage was filled with piles of junk so whether "art" was loosely interpreted was up for question. More important, at Max Bordeaux, fill up a card with 25€ and go absolutely wild. 25mL range from 0.50-25€ (bottles range from 10-700€. this is probably your only opportunity to try such expensive wines. Then have another glass with cheese and charcuterie at Le Bô Bar
25€, 3 courses
A 30-minute ride from Paris with the Palais des Beaux Arts is all the rage. It has a manageable cross-section of French and European art including Rodin's sculpture with the twisted neck, also seen in Stockholm. Get cheese and charcuterie at La Cave Jacques Dumas and a beer at La Capsule in the Belgian tradition.
It is 2 hours away nested deep in the Loire valley. Apparently the train ride is scenic (as is the bike ride if you so choose) but I missed it, arriving and leaving in the dead of night. The real sight here is the Château des ducs de Bretagne which has an excellent display of the World Wars (from a French perspective, a side rarely considered since histories are written by the victors) and a history of the city. Avoid Les Machines de l'île. It's a bit childish. To eat, Le Duo is “cheap and cheerful” option for lunch, as one commentator described.
The petit casino and outdated architecture aren't what it is talked up to be.
It doesn't really feel like France as it is dominated by tourists and foreign brands that cater to the rich and famous who come for the various shows at the Palais. Tonight, it's a fashion show; next month, the famed film festival. A line of restaurants, mostly Italian, are reasonably priced and have menus posted outside for your scrutiny.
An odd triangle that juts out into the Mediterranean is a perfect viewing spot for the surrounding cities but it itself is a bit run down. The Picasso museum is worth visiting though.
As Italy encroaches, the values change. Punctuality, for example, is blatantly disregarded. One bus to Èze decided not to show up. Another was 40 minutes late. When asked a Frenchmen, he replied it's raining. Nevertheless, Nice is a sight to behold. From the Avenue of the Americas with its panoramic views of the Mediterranean to the Chateau (Castle Gill) with its panoramic views of the city, the menu of sights are plentiful. The best museum is the Chagall museum, a Russian-Jewish painter of the 20th century, twice-exiled and said (by Picasso) to be the master of colour.
The search for Michelin stars takes us to Provence for a reasonably priced three-courses at the restaurant of the Japanese Chef of the French School, Keisuke Matsushima, who comes out to receive you after the meal. The patronage is a largely oriental and often Japanese speaking. The purée in urchin shell is a sight to behold, and easy to swallow. The risotto in a buttery cream had crispy thin-cut leeks and a ring of pea juice that is incredibly fun to clean up. The fish was a bit oppressed by the olive juice and had an uncertain bitterness that dulled the senses. The puff pastry shattered on contact and only repaired by the soft lob of caramel ice cream. By culinary standards, it was a reasonable if formulaic. But slow and forgetful service failed to live up the Michelin standard as proudly alluded to in its bathroom decorations.
43€, 3 courses
Ombrine grillé, artichauts épneux sautée à cru, riquettes, olives noir de Taggiasca, jus de diable (Umbrine)
A small chunk of lamb is so tasty it requires the utmost rationing. Thankfully, there is a most delightful mushed eggplant topped with chickpeas and raisins. This favourite vegetable of the Italians is pulverized beyond recognition to act as sauce together with a laddle with a sweet marsala that runs capriciously through the contours of the eggplant.
28€, main and some snacks
Selle d’Agneau du Quercy laqué au tandoori / Aubergine au feu de bois /
Pressé d’épaule aux herbes fraîches / Jus corsé au masala (lamb, eggplant, herbs, marsala)
This tiny, dark restaurant in the old part of Nice is run by some wonderfully charismatic and hilarious restaurateurs. It takes us on a trip of its own. The Italian influences are sublime: the dish of small fish resembled the poignant salads of Rome. The generous cuts of tuna soaked up the lentil and olive oil for a definitively Niçoise dish. And finally, deliciously rich fois gras on toast is as French as it gets.
10€ for appetizers, 20€ for mains
Michelin starred chef Jacques Maximin retires in Cagnes-sur-Mer at a seaside restaurant a a few minutes outside of Nice. The patio is sunny and great for people watching (namely beach-loving pedestrians). The food is ridiculously overpriced because the normal 25€ formule was unavailable. That the French can put a cheap menu on a website and not have it is tantamount to a bait-and-switch, especially when the restaurant is as out of the way as this one. Admittedly, the fish is resoundingly fresh. But in a bouillabaisse, the flavours aren’t as salient.
45€, three courses
I am on the last leg of my exchange so my proclamations are bittersweet. Exchange has both raised and dampened spirits to the extremes but the aggregate result is decidedly positive. Under no alternative scenario through time and space would this adrenaline-pumped experience have been possible and for that I am deeply grateful. I have not earned this luxury so I receive its benefits in complete modesty.
But the grass is always greener and so my relaxing weekend in my new mother-country (my first weekend in France since my weekend of arrival, and therefore the first weekend I have not had to scurry around in search of a sim-card on my phone) and its awe-inspiring views of the cote d'azure have reminded me of the equally beautiful home I've left behind (minus the CN tower perhaps). Whether it be the Canadian flag waving confidently in front of the Fairmont Monaco or the Canadian-accented sommelier at wine-tasting or the badges of Canada Goose - they all induce the strongest fevers of homesickness. But more than anything is the headstrong and unpretentious food of Toronto.
In many ways it is more successful than Paris. not by Michelin stars, certainly, but Toronto has opened over a thousand restaurants in the previous year, a pace matched by only a few cities in the world. In gastronomy, Paris is a white dwarf and Toronto is a new-born star. Both have their own redeeming qualities.
Toronto life just published its top 10 new restaurants of 2013. Despite my restaurant hopping across the corners of Europe (today I go to Cage sur Mer, a no-name train stop en-route to Cannes even the most alert travelers would miss completely for some simple seafood in the retiring outfit of a well-decorated Michelin star chef) at a rate of a few Michelin stars a week, I am hopelessly homesick and wanting some Canadiana cuisine. The food in Europe is always intricate and well laid-out. But they are rigorous in place of fun; Torontonian eateries on the other hand are always exciting, from the innovative 10-courses at Shōtō to the sharing plates underneath at Daishō to the family run hole-in-the-walls like Edulis to the feel good esprit of Hopgood Foodliner (all top 10 in 2013).
Despite my efforts to stay on top of Toronto's food scene (I am a top 50 blogger on Urbanspoon) all but one eluded me. Of course that simply means a lot more to go around this summer.
And by some twist of fate my dealings with the perennially bureaucratic and top-heavy organization that is COMSOC have reminded me of Queens and Kingston. I surmise that Queen's Global Markets, the new darling of COMSOC (ratified this year) is the fastest growing committee by reputation. If anyone were to compare the club today with that of a few years past, it would be impossible to recognize. Luckily, I am the only remnant of those hard days and thanks to the previous cochairs, the new offspring which is QGM has a stellar cast and an admirable position in an overpopulated space. We asked some ridiculous questions in the interviews (ranging from Giffen goods to growth rates in random countries to Michelin star figures) but candidates surprised us over and over again. I look forward to the opportunity to working with everyone to continue the committee's ascent next year.
Three more trips and then it is over. Then, a whole new adventure to come.
Oslo has the distinction of bearing no significance until recent history. In 1850, it had a measly population of 30,000 and grew only to 230,000 by 1900. Its fame derives from its recent discovery of oil, leading to its becoming the premier city in the world for standard of living and cost of living. It is the Middle East of Europe but it has not been complacent. It recognizes that the oil will dry and it must develop sustainable industries. Its oil-support and shipbuilding industries are the best in the world.
It is a painfully expensive city to live in. A can of coke at the store costs 25 NOK ($5); an unspectacular croissant is 32 NOK ($6). Transfers from the airport are 160 NOK ($29) and a single-ride bus ticket is 30 NOK ($5). The young and hip sip one of the 14 microbrewery beers on tap (they must sip, else pay a fortune) at Grünerløkka Brygghus for around 69 NOK ($13). It is in the Thorvald Meyers Gate working-class area. To keep your shirt on, refrain from alcohol in Nordic countries. They have a history of prohibition and then exorbitant taxes that give drunkards headaches. Also, the Oslo Pass (220 NOK = $40) is useful. It includes a day pass to the transit system, the ferries to the islands and all museums worth seeing.
Oslo is the cross-section of idyllic nature-scapes and culturally relevant museums. A short ferry ride out to the peninsula reveals a bucolic, pristine land of ice and snow. It could be the set of Game of Thrones (which is actually filmed in Iceland).On the islands nearby, most famously the Hovedøya Island, rocks like sleeping giants have eye-popping monopoly-houses jutting out at varied elevations and at awkward angles. A plane ride reveals a sparsely inhabited Norway where the first signs of spring are showing through. The melting ice in the rivers are like aged porcelain that crack randomly yet uniformly with time.
The museums everywhere are a testament to this rich country’s newfound interest in the arts. Munch and Ibsen, the most famous figures of the insignificant Norway of their times, are prominently displayed. The National Gallery has a room with Munch’s Madonna and The Scream. It also showcases The Thinker and rooms of works by famous impressionists. The Ibsen museum is a neglected reconstruction of the famous playwright’s former home across from the palace. Guided tours, which generally leave on the hour, connect the writer’s abode to his subject and to his themes. On the peninsula: the Norsk Folkemuseum is an open air trip through history with a domineering, dark toned church; the Kon-Tiki museum showcases the eponymous raft that journeyed across the oceans. A few more sights to quickly glance at are the Royal Palace, Opera with a sloping and accessible roof and Vigeland Sculpture Park.
The food is overly expensive. So the cheaper offsprings of notable restaurants present a compelling compromise between price and quality. Michelin approved good-value restaurant Oro Bar (offspring of former 1-star Oro) is modern-chic with bar-like tables from which well-to-do patrons casually drink overpriced wine. The bread is served with some extension of the yellowy Swedish sauce with hints of curry; it is to die for. The cauliflower soup adorned by shaves of chorizo had a muted bitterness that delivered full body. The Norwegian Salmon with dill smelt like plane food; instead it was a perfectly cooked bastion of freshness in a sweet squash purée. But most impressive were the pebbles of pomegranate that itself regulated the baseness of the fish. Unfortunately, the three specks of chocolate that were “dessert” were unacceptable and derailed the entire meal. At Lille B (offspring of Bagatelle), DIY combinations included one of tuna and saffron risotto. The risotto was rich and colourful. Further inspection revealed a piece of shrimp hidden in the middle, a happy lagniappe. Four thickly sliced medallions of tuna on arugula justifies the 200 NOK ($36) price tag if it had not tasted intolerable. The idea was to make a sour vinaigrette for the arugula which would soak the tuna in citrusy goodness but the result was a bland mush. The lady beside me asked for salt. I asked for balsamic vinegar.
So the food in Oslo can be better, not least so that it can justify the sky-high rates it goes for. Yet the overall experience in the city was resoundingly positive. There is a culture of mutual respect to one and all, regardless of place. People expect the best from one another. The honour system is widespread: passes on ferries and trains are loosely checked; coffee service has jars on the side for payment; I flew to Stockholm without getting out my passport.
Stockholm is the more sophisticated cousins of the burly Vikings. Their stately squares have concert halls (where the Nobel Prize is presented) and royal residences, both of which have excellent guided tours, are the result of its power in the 17th century when it conquered half of the Holy Roman Empire in the Thirty Years' War. It has a richer history, and therefore the city is noticeably older than Oslo. Today, Sweden is far from a world power, but is has good hockey teams and furniture. Its economy, like its Nordic neighbours, is also thriving.
It is also noticeably less expensively than Norway because its currency is 10% weaker. But the Stockholm card (which is worth getting) is a painful $100, and includes all museums and a two-day pass on the transit system. In the winter, the short days are mirrored by flimsy business hours (closings at 3pm – 5pm), meaning some rigorous planning is necessary. One simple half-day trip is to Djurgården, a nature-filled island a stone-throw away from city centre. Cross-country skiers glide through the melting snow. It is a common equation in an otherwise distinguished land of half-frozen rivers, moribund trees and expansive plains. Start with the museums on the east (Nordic Museum, Vasa Museum, and whatever in that area that floats your boat), then cross through Skansen, an open-air historical museum to get to Rosendals Trädgård. Beside greenhouses with exotic plants is one filled with picnic tables. A healthy layout of desserts is a splendid sight after much weary trekking. A small kitchen serves hearty fare to a predominantly Swedish clientele. Today, most people seem to be transfixed on a dark orange tomato soup but I went for a sprawling brisket. Despite the meat, vegetables so fresh that they might have been grown in situ defined the meal. For once, skin-on carrot actually tasted good. The final stop on the island is Thielska Galleriet, a boutique art gallery that currently has an exposition on Munch. Other museums to consider are the Swedish History Museum for a quick brush-up on Nordic history, Fotografiska for a display of some great and not-so-great photographs and the Hallwyl Museum, an attempt to make historical fashions edgy (undergarments and all are showcased).
Illums Bolighus has intriguing knickknacks reminiscent of Swedish design; just don’t tell anyone it’s based on Copenhagen. Also, walk down old town to get to Sodermalm and take a view of the main island from the Northern coast.
The food in Stockholm is a far leap from the dollar breakfasts at IKEA. The meatballs at Pelikan (180 SEK) are fifteen times more expensive but were a juicy delight to chew through. Go early, lest wait an hour for the table. For something more formal, Ulla Winbladh is a cottage-like signpost on Djurgården island that serves traditional Swedish fare with an innovative spin (2 courses at 335 SEK). To start sashimi bass in a beautifully light and tangy mayo; on top, crispy bacon, herbs and fish roe. Then, veal medallions on a red wine vinegar reduction. The results were fine but the bass was a bit salty (like many things in these parts) and the veal tasted as did many that came before it.
The espresso bars also tend more towards the English standard of crispy lattes on trendy wooden bar tables. At Kaffebrenneriet (Oslo), the latte comes in a bowl, allowing for the art to stretch into a beautifully enlarged heart. At Mellqvist Kaffebar (Stockholm), trendy patrons sit on bar stools to sip lattes with asparagus topped bars. Decaf is still difficult in these parts, as grinds are taken from a cheap grinder.
The Nordic countries are expensive but so would be the Eurozone had its currency not collapsed. With the high price comes a prevailing sense of quality in every corner. Flying out of the distant Ryanair airport of Skavsta, my 90 minute bus ride had uninterrupted 3G service. Free wifi was on the plane trip from Oslo to Stockholm. A pervasive calmness takes over. Three brawny men sat beside me at lunch and talked in hushed voices in an ever-so composed manner. Arguing and rowdiness is strongly disreputable. In a world full of shouting, brinksmanship and acting, much can be learnt from the Nordics.