Sunday, February 27, 2011

So Slow

Internet here sucks. Have lots of stories - they will have to wait. ANd photos!! Have been dancing with dolphins, swimming, lazing about.

Friday, February 25, 2011

Welcome Back Kotter

Day 5: Doha, Qatar. Pronounced Kotter, like Welcome Back Kotter. They actually have 2 more letters in their alphabet than we do and both of them are in this word, hence all the confusion over pronouncing Qatar. And the fact that the natives are Kah-TAR-ee. 
A souk, new (they bulldozed the old one to make way for the new). 

Dyed chicks

Sad puppies in tiny cages. Help! Turkish coffee, sweet strong and delicious.
A very posh racing and horsey stuff center. The horses have it made and they are gorgeous. One takes a fancy to Wally.
And of course every fancy riding school needs its own mosque...

The Museum of Islamic Art by I.M. Pei - fantastic. 
The art is fresh, modern and a thousand years old. The building is blocky from the outside, soaring and light inside, and the galleries are dark and envelop you like a hug.

I have more pictures but the censors disapprove.

I get a t-shirt with this proverb taken from a modern-looking plate:
“Foolish is the person who misses his chance and afterward reproaches fate.”
Yahyaibn Ziyad, tenth century
Wally and Jane went dune bashing in 4 wheel drives, or as we are calling it, Dust Busting. Looks scary; he has photos.
Lina says Qaddafi is the George Bush of the Islamic world. Some of his better quotes: 
“I won’t shut down the internet but I will arrest anyone who uses it.”
“Women have the right to run for office whether they are male or female.”
“People without electricity will be watching TV in the dark.”
I don’t think it sounds any better in Arabic.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Afloat in the Middle East

Day 3 of the trip and the rest of the group is off to see camels (2 and a half hours by bus and no thank you). We decide to explore Abu Dhabi, starting with the hospital - Wally’s eye bulb (as the doctor calls it) is acting up. He’s fine, hospital is clean modern efficient. Wally now has his Abu Dhabi health card. 
Lunch is as much exploring as we have time for in Abu Dhabi, the boat is leaving. Hmm......nope, we get on the boat. 
At cocktails we have a talk about the robotic camel jockeys. It’s funny but we all think it’s a put-on. 
Day 4:  Dr Lina Khatib from The Center on Democracy, Development and the Rule of Law at Stanford on The Changing Face of the Arab City, or as she calls it, “The Perils of Doing Fieldwork in the Middle East”.
I had been stressed about reading up and keeping up - no worries. Lina is fascinating, clear about the confusion that is the Middle East, funny, thought-provoking, and a wonderful storyteller. We are privileged to have her here. 
If you’re not interested in what’s happening in the Middle East skip down to On A Lighter Note
 She tells us: 
Tunisia, Egypt, Bahrain, Yemen, Libya, Morocco, Iran, Syria. The media used to report events, now it drives events - none of what’s happening would be possible without social media. 
The Syrian government infiltrated Facebook and Twitter and put out a rumor (untrue) that the planned demonstration was really a government trap, so no one came. Then they said “okay, you guys - go ahead and use Facebook and Twitter” but everyone knows it’s not safe, the government is watching.
Why the unrest? Miserable living conditions, massive unemployment, most of the population is under thirty, corruption is epidemic (In Tunisia the family of the dictator’s wife owned everything. Really everything.) Tunisia has the highest level of internet control in the world, topping China. Scary. 
Need more reasons? Autocratic rulers, no opportunity for expression, and minorities have few rights, even if they outnumber the ruling sect/tribe/nationality. 
On a social level things are pathetic - Presidents act like monarchs: Qadafi has ruled Libya for 42 years, Muhbarak ruled Egypt for 32, and they position their sons to rule next. Elections are theatre and everyone here knows it, the pro-government demonstrations are really hired thugs who beat up the protesters. And the rest of the world doesn’t seem to get it. But the bloggers and dissidents don’t give up. 
So why have they tolerated these dictators for so long? And why protest now? The people were hopeful when colonialism ended, but they became cynical and disillusioned, the dictators were as bad as the colonials, and one dictator was worst than the last. And the people were poor; if you don’t have enough to eat you’re more interested in feeding your family than freedom of expression. But Tunisia has an educated viable middle class, and if you remember that’s where this all started.
SO what does the government do when the protests start? So far they’re all the same: 
they dismiss the protests as insignificant, then they crack down. Then the send in the hired thugs (calling them pro-government) instead of the Army (that would be repressive and bad PR). Then they appear on TV and make false concessions. And they all use the same bad hair dye.
So far the US has supported stability over democracy, our rhetoric does not match our actions and it’s no secret here. We mouth human rights, freedom of expression, but we wait to see who wins and then we say “Oh yeah, we supported him all along.” We are fast losing what credibility we have left. 
So what’s next? Libya is tribal and the two biggest tribes have come out against Qadafi, so it’s likely he will fall. But the smartest minds in the Western world and the Arab world did not see this coming. There is and old Chinese curse, “May you live in interesting times.” These are interesting times.
She also tells us the both Dubai and Abu Dhabi have been purposely designed with no gathering place, no central square. No critical mass, no revolution. That’s planning ahead!
On A Lighter Note:
In the afternoon we go by Zodiac to Sir Bani Yas Island, Sheik Zayed’s private game preserve. Imagine loading the entire Day Lounge of Sunrise Assisted Living into bouncing zodiacs off the back of a rocking ship, then bouncing them half a mile across the waves and you get the idea. 
Is this a snipe hunt? No, with our driver Amer (from Jordan, remember the locals don’t work) we take off in an African safari Land Cruiser to see Arabian Oryx, Gemsbok, Eland (huge, horse like) Giraffe (skittish), Cheetahs sleeping off their Gazelle breakfast (lethargic) Peacocks, Frankincense trees.
Had a gazelle sexing lesson. It’s the horns (isn’t it always?) There is a fancy resort, Anantara on the island. 
I am truly in the mobile unit of Sunrise Assisted Living. At the evening lecture fully half of the people fall asleep - the sound of soft snoring can be heard over the talk. 
Rocking to sleep
Quiet - you can’t hear your neighbors
The staff is efficient and Jane said “They are like Golden Retrievers, so eager to please.”
Sailing at night, exploring during the day.
The caliber and accessibility of the Stanford Faculty Leaders. Have a question? It will be answered over breakfast, cocktails, or while wandering the souk.
That flipping loudspeaker. You can turn it off in your room but not in the hall.
Wake-up calls. Am I late for school? Puhlease! If we’re late leave us behind: you’ll only have to do that once.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Jail Break

Day three and we make a break for it. We knew the ship holds a hundred or so, but as we are on a university study trip, we assumed we’d have lectures as our small group, go off just us twenty to see the sights. Wrong. Today all of us are scheduled to see an Arab Village - a tourist village, a re-creation not the real thing. Why does not begin to cover it. 
The afternoon delights boggle the imagination, and are presented with great enthusiasm: a visit to a Formula One track. No cars, no race, just the track. Wait, it gets better. Followed by a visit to a theme park that will have all the sights of the world: Paris, Venice, the pyramids of Egypt. When it’s finished. In 2030. Call me then and I’ll think about it.
Apparently we’re not the only ones discontented, and we have fomented a palace coup. There is a heated meeting in a lounge, a bit of a scramble. They can get us into today’s Mosque after all, not be just photos from the parking lot. We agree to try the morning’s events.
First stop: A fish market, cool and clean. I have only seen fish this fresh at the end of my line, and they are beautiful. Most fish markets are smelly and none too clean - this is hospital clean. Here they fish early, eat it for lunch - remember  there was no refrigeration, so no fish dinners. 

Hamoor, grouper - my favorite. We see:
Blue crabs
Fat tuna
black and white lobster
And Sultan Ibrahim has clearly had better days.
A mosque that holds 40,000 people, made of white marble from India. 

Women have to don traditional garb to enter, and I have found anonymity again. I understand just a little what it must be like to be a woman here. We look like Dementors from Harry Potter. It is hard to walk.
Past and present
The world’s largest chandelier, the world’s largest carpet. 
Our Abu Dahbi Guide: All the superlatives are in Dubai...except the cheapest. Yeah, and this mosque.
The local guide says Muslims are allowed four wives, but you must treat them all equally. “Do they live together or does each wife have her own house?”
“Each her own house. We say you cannot have two swords in one sheath.”
Sounds more like one sword in four sheaths to me.
80% of the people in the Emirates are imported workers. The locals get $67,000 per year each from oil revenues and don’t have to work. There’s no unemployment, you just send the imported workers home when the jobs go away. 
The sheik of Dubai knows the oil will run out, so he’s betting on tourism and a tax haven for rich folk. And an end to the global recession. The jury is still out. Abu Dhabi has so much money they are not concerned. Yet. We joke that it’s no longer Dubai, it’s Don’t Buy.
In Abu Dhabi the wealth is too much to digest. 
Palaces everywhere, larger and more opulent than the fanciest resort hotels I’ve ever seen, and I’ve seen some pretty cool stuff. A hotel that cost $2 billion to build, The Emirates Palace Hotel. We book for lunch and abandon the others at the Arabian Village. Seriously, we are IN Arabia - why go to a theme park when we are in the thick of the real thing?
In this incredibly opulent hotel we go thru an airport style screening right inside the door. It’s cheesy, it doesn’t fit with all the luxury, and at lunch it all makes sense. On the terrace two (empty) tables over are generals, admirals, more stars, gold braid, gold anchors and fancy uniforms than I’ve ever seen. They give us the once over, then ignore us. There is a defense fair going on. Everyone’s shopping for the latest in weapons. It’s weird to see helicopters over the mosque.
We have lunch on an opulent terrace overlooking a mile long white sand beach - sand imported from Algeria, local version not up to snuff. Brightly decorated camels are led by, red tassels swinging. No one is swimming on the turquoise water. The beach is nearly deserted.
The desserts are sprinkled with gold leaf. 
The restrooms are palace worthy. We wander around and realize the hotel is empty. Maybe the Princes and generals want privacy, but it’s high season and except for a Japanese tour group and a whole bunch of snappily uniformed staff, the place is deserted.
The car that is to take us back to the ship can’t get into the port. We sort that out and discover we don’t actually know where the ship is. Oops. The port is huge, and we realize everything - all the stuff to build the hotels, the palaces, all the armaments for sale, every pane of glass in every high rise has to come in thru the port. 
A young man in a car stops to help us - security? and helpfully says “Maybe that ship hasn’t come in yet.” We assure him it was here this morning when we got off, and eventually he finds it. Whew.

The Never Again Tour Company

You know those busses full of pasty faced people staring dully out of the windows? Ever wonder how they got there? Now we know. Today we were herded on and off a bus all day. A photo stop outside the gates of the Burj Al Arab. We had lunch there two days ago, zipped right thru the gate. Standing in the street taking photos of things you’re not going to see? Please!
To the mosque - we were supposed to have a tour, we all brought our headscarves, there is a big kiosk outside with descriptions and admonitions about the tour...that we’re not taking. It says tours offered today, but here we are in the parking lot taking photos (again). I’m seeing a pattern here. I would never be happy as a paparazzi.
To Burj Kalifa, the tallest building in the world. 828 meters. You do the math. With tickets to go to the top!
It was supposed to be the Burj Dubai, the Dubai tower, but in 2008 they ran out of money. The Sheik next door lent them the money to finish, hence the name, Burj Khalifa. Paybacks are a bitch.

It is astonishingly graceful and elegant. From the top you can see how much of the city is empty lots or half-built towers, something you can’t appreciate from the ground. 
We are herded back onto the bus and on to the Al Boom Arabian Village. There is an abandoned water park in front, the desert weeds having reclaimed everything that isn’t paved. Most of the Al Boom has gone bust, but there is a sad little bit in back where we are herded into a windowless room for a buffet lunch. 
A picture is worth a thousand words. 
Our semi-private bright green astroturf grotto. In the dark, can’t see the food. That’s a good thing. No ideas what we are eating, guides equally clueless but less concerned. Yes those are plastic grapes, and they smack you in the head when you enter and leave. One of the guides says what a lovely lunch, wasn’t that fantastic, and I don’t know whether to take her temperature or smack her. 
On to more delights: a cruise of Dubai Creek. 

The diesel fumes in the cabin are overwhelming. There is a top deck - fresh air! Fewer fumes! But as there are already fifty people up there we are told we must bake and be fumigated in the airless indoor diesel lounge. Wally does a bunk and sprints up the stairs, comes back for me just as I am about to lose my mystery lunch. 
We stumble thru dark dusty dioramas at the Dubai Museum and after stumbling around in the dark Jane and I find the archaeology section, brightly lit, with three thousand year old bronze daggers and carved stone pots with lids intact. Much better than the dusty moth-eaten birds.  
We are just settling into our room aboard the ship when we are startled by a man loudly welcoming us aboard. After a search under the bed (no one there) we discover the volume switch. I expected an announcement for the required safety drill, but not a wake-up announcement every morning (early) piped directly into my room, and cheery reminders (every time I settle in for some peace and quiet) that we’re about to miss the next ersatz delight. Makes me feel like I’m nine years old and late for school. 
The boat rocks us to sleep. 

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Adrift in the Emerald City

Dubai is the Emerald City from the Wizard Of Oz. There is the tower, the Burj Khalifa in a smoky haze. 
We hop on a double decker bus to get the lay of the land and find another ginormous high-rise city just over the horizon. It looks like an Architecture competition come to life, glass curtain walls of every color, towers of all shapes, twisting, offset, tubular, weirdly angled. No one is working. Cranes dangle in the sky, half finished glass buildings look like they’re missing teeth. 
Palm Jumeira, the man-made island. It more than doubled the Dubai coastline - from 60 kilometers to 140. Beachfront property to order. Residential on the fronds, hotels on the trunk. There is a metro station on stilts a hundred feet above a massive construction pit. The pit is clean and totally empty. Not even a wheelbarrow. And there are few people to be seen. 
Burj Al Arab - the tower of the Arab, shaped like a sail has a heliport at the top of the hotel. It looks like a big white frisbee that got stuck. A quarter sphere glass elevator whisks us up 600 feet in about ten seconds to dine cantilevered over the water in what looks from the outside like an aluminum taco. I expect to see George Jetson and his boy Elroy zoom up and dock. Everyone is taking photos, milling around the windows, the staff dodging camera-wielding tourists. A particularly long lens causes a traffic jam.
We dine along the banks of the ancient port, Dubai Creek. Dhows, wooden boats that turn up at both ends like an Arabian Nights slipper are parked three and four deep, offloading paper wrapped bales  - it could be a hundred years ago - and on-loading wide screen TVs. The cabins are fretwork, several stories tall, of elaborately turned wood painted French blue. Old and new, function and future.
In the morning we head to Mall of the Emirates. Ski Dubai sticks out of the top of the mall like a badly parked Millenium Falcon. It is ten minutes from the time you slap down your credit card to slapping your skis on the snow - pants and jacket and boots in one line, skis in the next, up the escalator thru the doors and it’s 28 degrees and the snow is perfect. It’s weird skiing by fluorescent light, the run is short, narrow and getting crowded two hours later when we leave, but it’s a blast. Outside it’s in the seventies. This must be weird in the summer when it gets to 120. And incredibly popular.
A buffet to meet our fellow travelers, Stanford and not. I hate buffets. Canes and hearing aids abound. We hope for the best.

Almost 24 door to door

Sixteen hours in the air. three hours to the airport and that hurry-up-and-wait of international flight. three hours late. Almost 24 door to door

Mattresses - it makes a difference. Despite all the hype Emirates (business) was just so-so. Fleet of black cars waiting for our flight. All new - a woman driving a  white Toyota wearing black from nose to toes flicks a cigarette out the three inch gap in the passenger side window. She's done this before.

We go to bed with the window open listening to the sigh of the traffic below. At 5:30 it sounds like an orchestra tuning up - riffs and trills, long notes and grace notes, practicing that difficult passage. Then the voices start - call to prayer. I am entranced, Wally says it's all recorded and automatic, just like the church bells in France. He rolls over and goes back to sleep - I must have too, for I wake half an hour later for a slower, softer sounding orchestra, reminds me of my childhood church days - "May the Lord bless you and keep you. May the Lord make his face shine upon you. May the Lord lift up his countenance upon you and give you peace." Have you ever walked by an opera house when someone was having a lesson? Or a church when a choir was practicing? It's a bit illicit, those stolen notes, that music not meant for your ears. That is how I feel as I lie in bed.

I listen to the whine of a distant airplane, the shuffle of the traffic, At 6 I hear what I think is a really determined scooter. It's a leaf blower. Some things are the same everywhere.

We are in the Emerald City from the Wizard Of Oz. I have photos to prove it, but alas - they won't post.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Onion Soup Weather

It's raining, it's cold. It's soup weather.

My friend Aileen shared a fast fabulous recipe for onion soup with me many years ago when I was staying with her at Gypsy Trail. So long ago we had to go to the clubhouse to make scratchy copies of the recipes I wanted. Over the years I've changed it a bit to make it easier for me, to conform to the things I usually have in my pantry. The recipe is at the end, but as I find seeing a carmelized onion is better than hearing about one, here goes:
I use a copper dutch oven with a stainless steel interior - I wore out the tin one in about a year. And I use a combination of butter (for browning) and olive oil (for not burning). It takes a while...
and you have to be careful to stir frequently or the bottom burns and the top is still deceivingly pale.
Not yet..
..okay, now. Add garlic, then flour and mustard...
and the cognac.

Use the best. If you're going to all the trouble of making something, why cheap out? It really does make  a difference.

After you flame the cognac, add the water and this stuff. Yum.
 Let it simmer for a while...
...ladle into bowls, top with cheese...
...and broil until bubbly.
I like it with a crispy white wine, like an Arneis from the Lange or the Roero. Prima has some wonderful whites from the Piemonte region of Italy. Wally likes it with a buttery chardonnay, or a pinot. Prima has those, too. 

Buon Appetito. And thank you Aileen.

French Onion Soup
four generous servings

4 cups thinly sliced onions
1/2 teaspoon sugar
1/4 cup butter
1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
2 cloves garlic, minced
3 tablespoons flour
1/4 teaspoon dry mustard
1/4 cup good cognac or armagnac
3 cups water
1 tablespoon Better Than Bullion chicken 
2 tablespoons Better Than Bullion beef
1/4 teaspoon nutmeg
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce
1/2 cup good dry vermouth

6 slices sourdough french bread or ciabatta, toasted
1 cup grated gruyere
1/4 cup grated Reggiano parmesan

Saute onions and sugar in butter and olive oil over low heat until well browned. For me this takes about half an hour. Thomas Keller has an onion soup recipe that calls for browning the onions for four hours - if you have the time and patience, go for it. Not me, I'm in the garden.

Add garlic, stir and saute until fragrant, about a minute or two. Add flour and mustard, cook and stir two minutes more.

Add cognac and ignite - I use a fireplace match or one of those flame-on-a-stick candle lighter thingies. This after burning off all my knuckle hair several times. Not fun. 

When cognac is burned off, add water, Better Than Bullion (beef and chicken), Worcestershire, nutmeg, and pepper. Simmer about 20 to 30 minutes.

Preheat broiler. Stir vermouth into soup. Put toasted bread into bottom of ovenproof bowls, ladle soup over. Top with a generous layer of cheese and broil a few inches from the heat until melted, bubbly and beginning to brown. Watch like a hawk!

Serve immediately. Cold melted cheese can be grim. Wally likes this with Caesar salad, I prefer something really vinegary, like butter lettuce with mustard and champagne vinaigrette. And shallots. Sort of harmonic convergence in the allium family. A few lilies on the table, or some chive blossoms in a little vase...that's a botany joke. Never mind. Eat your soup.

Three pair of shoes...

...two pair of pants. Half a dozen tee shirts, one grown-up linen shirt. Two dresses, one with leggings just in case. No jewelry except the earrings I'm wearing. A sweater, a cashmere shawl that can double as a blanket, the one I got with Jane at the Loro Piana outlet near Florence.

If Jane can do it so can I, I told myself. She went to South America for three weeks with no checked baggage. When we met her in France she had a small rolling bag with a bright yellow nylon bag on top - it is a color that says Jane. It is the color of her mini cooper. She had everything we had - biking gear, grown-up clothes for dinner, sporty things for day. She looked fabulous.

Other friends were in SF for the weekend and were dismayed when we showed up in Wally's Mercedes sedan to pick them up. "Oh no! Don't you have an SUV? Our luggage will never fit!" It did - barely, with two bags stacked between them in the back seat. You know you're in trouble if you need a Suburban for a weekend's worth of luggage.

At the last minute I tucked in an extra tee shirt, a pair of shorts. And one extra pair of walking shoes, just in case.  No hair dryer - I will use the puppy-breath hairdryers at the hotels. No lotion, teensy bottles of shampoo and face stuff.

I even have hiking boots. I am stoked. We will see - when I arrive and don't have something I consider essential my euphoria may fade, but I have some clothes I've never worn that have their own frequent flier cards.

As I was heading out the door yelling last minute instructions to the housesitter (who really just wanted us to leave so she could have some peace and quiet) I threw in a big floppy hat. I'm ready!

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Limoncello Recipe

Oops - forgot to post the recipe. I could type one out for you, but the best description of the whole process is the  Recipe at Limoncelloquest- it has the whys and wherefores and should satisfy even the most inquiring mind.  The person who wrote it seems just the sort of person you'd like in the kitchen with you when you're making your first batch, and sitting next to you in a lawn chair when you take your first sip. Check it out.

p.s. be forewarned about making Limoncello - patience required. A friend once bought me a poster "God grant me patience, and I want it right now." That's me! we'll see how I do with the waiting and the filtering.

Left over Lemons

A bunch of people asked what I do with the lemons left over from zesting for Limoncello. Honestly, you can comment and I will respond! This is what I did:
My friend Jane gave me this juicer - it's fabulous! Check out Willimas-Sonoma for a variety of juicers - remember, margarita season is almost upon us. So with the help of this handy dandy juicer I juiced...and juiced...
..and I froze the juice in these nifty silicon ice cube trays from Sur La Table.

When they were solid I dumped them into ziplocks, and I will have fresh(ish) lemon juice no matter what my lemon trees are up to. To add to soups, to zip up steamed vegetables, to drizzle over grilled fish, to mix with melted butter and dip asparagus.
Come for lemonade in the garden. We can sit under the buckeye and watch the leaves unfurl. The daphne is blooming and it smells heavenly. 

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Fear of Not Flying

I almost gave up skiing last week. It was the first day I'd skied in a year, and runs I'd raced down the year before I fought all the way down the hill. Had to stop halfway down to catch my breath and wait for the world to stop spinning. I thought it was over. It had snowed the night before and there was a layer a few inches deep of wet snow over ice. Skiing felt like my first attempts at driving a clutch.

The next day, freaked out, I stood at the top of the steepest section, took a deep shivering breath and pushed off. And I flew. I danced. I hula danced. I flipped up the sides of the runs and carved across the ice.  No stops, no resting, just flying and whooping and laughing and tears from the cold freezing to my face.

I listened to others slide across the ice, their skis sounding like cheese graters on cement. I listened to my skis chatter together as I carved around a corner. By the time we left, I was looking for steeper stuff. Skiing well is a whole let easier than skiing poorly.

Awesome. Can't wait to ski again.