December 23, 2009

It's Beginning to Look A Lot Like ...

Happy Holidays

Trying to Get Legal

This is a country that has lots of rules, in terms of personal behavior, and few rules in terms of safety.

I cannot buy alcohol in a shop without a license and to get that license I need a letter of permission from my employer. The same holds true if I want to, say, get a driver's license. Or change jobs.

On the other hand, apparently I am free to let my child ride in the front seat of the car, standing up against the dashboard. Or to let said child hang half-way out the window or stand up through the sun roof. Forget about car seats; I've never seen one here.

The regulations for building safety here also are few and far between, although the government is making some headway there. In its efforts to be business-friendly, the country is quite worker unfriendly.

But I digress and that's a whole other post. This is about me trying to get some booze for the holidays.

A colleague told us during Thanksgiving that he'd found an easier path to getting an alcohol license. One still needed three photos, a copy of the visa and passport, an employment contract and a "letter of no objection" from one's employer. But instead of driving all the way out to Khalifa City, the license could be obtained at a Western-style grocery store.

This was good news. In early December I asked the newsroom manager for my letter and I figured I'd get around to the store sooner rather than later. She produced it within a few days and it was valid for a month.

Today I had a doctor's appointment nearby the grocery store and could run both errands in the same outing.

But. (And there's always a but here)

It turns out that the grocery no longer provides this service to its customers. I seem to remember hearing that at Christmas-time something happens. I'm not sure if the government steps in and says, "Whoa!" or if the owners of the market don't like the volume, or if it draws too much attention to them and they've been doing it sort of surreptitiously .... Regardless, on this day, they were not providing the licensing service. I needed to go out to Khalifa City police station, the clerk said, and handed me a form.

Khalifa City is a good 25k from my home, and I was a good 10k farther away at that moment. The clerk was encouraging, telling me it wouldn't take long to get the license this way -- same-day service, apparently, as opposed to going through the grocery which might take a week. And they were open till 3 p.m. she said, so I could get there in plenty of time

That, as you may have deduced, is the key part of this discussion.

So I manage to get a cab with few hassles. Good start. He is willing to take me to Khalifa City, and more importantly, willing to wait there for me while I get the license. Khalifa City is a suburb of Abu Dhabi. It's off the island, and is a collection of large villas that cater to Western expats. (Or, as my taxi driver none-too-subtly suggested, only white people live there). But it has few amenities, in terms of shops and restaurants and there are almost no taxis available. While we are in a residential neighborhood now, we are not really in the suburbs.

Anyway, the taxi driver says he'll wait for me, and suggests that I check all my documents and fill out the form before I arrive. As I'm doing so, I realize I don't have the necessary photos. Everything here requires photos, and I spent the better part of an afternoon yesterday trying to get them. It's not that it's difficult, it's that the shops that provide them close from 1-5 and I never seem to remember this.

Again we encounter the time-frame issue.

The taxi takes me past my house, I pick up the photos and some extra documentation, just in case, and off we go out to the boonies. Past the lovely Grand Mosque, past the new sports stadium and almost to the airport.

I get there, the taxi parks, I go in and find plenty of people sitting around doing nothing ... except for the person who handles the alcohol license. That person, clearly, has gone home. Or gone somewhere. Too bad, the Emirati behind the counter sings to me. Closed! I say, but I thought you were open until 3? Now it is only 1. I admit that I kind of beg. Are you sure? Really, I was told 3, I say. Come back in the morning he says. I ask him to check my documents; I don't want to come back a third time. He waves me off to another colleague, who only says to me that she doesn't handle the licenses, come back tomorrow. They both vaguely wave to a third colleague who is praying in the corner.

(Yes, I see the look on all your faces )

I wait for him to stop praying. You're not supposed to watch people pray. It's considered rude. So I sit down so as not to be so obvious. He sees me out of the corner of his eye when he gets up, but tries to avoid me. I call out to him and ask him to look at my documents. He clearly speaks very little English. He hands me a form. I tell him I already have the form. I ask him to look at my documents, please, to see if I have everything. He says come back tomorrow in the morning.

Dejected, I leave and the taxi driver is surprised to see me so quickly. Finished already he asks? No, I say. They're closed. At 1. He feels bad. Where to, he asks? Home, I say.

We chat a bit in the car. He tells me where I can buy alcohol without a license. He likes to drink a little, he says. Whiskey with his friends on his day off. He asks me how the license is supposed to work. I know that he cannot afford to buy alcohol in the hotel bars and restaurants. I don't need a license, necessarily, but it will be good to have. He gives me his phone number so I can call him in the morning, if I want to go back.

When I get home, I realize we have driven nearly 70km. In a town this size, that's a lot. The taxi bill is ridiculously high by local standards. Just under $30 with a tip. My daily trip to work costs $2.70, including a very large tip.

And I still have nothing to drink.

December 20, 2009

Listening For the Call

The call to prayer is a fact of life here in Abu Dhabi. It is broadcast five times a day.

I like it, for the most part. It gives me an idea of the time (dawn, mid-day, afternoon, sunset, night) and it is a pleasant melody. It reminds me of a cantor chanting in a synagogue, oddly enough.

The call here seems different than in other Muslim countries I've visited. My recollections of Marrakech and Cairo are that the recordings are high-pitched and scratchy. Not at all pleasant.

Here, there is a mosque approximately every 300 meters -- at least one in every residential block -- so it is unusual to be out of range of the call. A person is not expected to cross a major street to get to the mosque. And if you have to go five times a day, it needs to be convenient.
(Let's leave aside for the time being the question of how anyone gets any work done ...)

At the newspaper, there is a mosque down the street, and a special mosque for workers of our company (not unusual). The speaker is right outside the entrance where I sit, so I hear it all the time. I'm often surprised to hear it, as in "Huh, it's already 7 p.m.?"

Our new apartment is about 150 meters from the mosque in our block of villas, and the sound bounces around our little patio. Our apartment is U-shaped, with the patio between the two sides. We keep the windows open this time of year, and the call to prayer is really the only thing we hear outside of the chirping birds and the hum of traffic from a nearby major road.

But I didn't expect to hear it quite so loudly in the morning. when we were at the hotel, we could hear it through the double-paned glass, and I only heard the noon-time call. Paul would know he had stayed up too late if he heard the morning call.

For the last few days, I have been woken by the call at dawn. It startles me, and incorporates itself into my dreams. Clearly, I'm not sleeping very well if it's waking me. I suppose it's a better way to be woken than having a cat poke me in the nose. It's slightly more subtle.

And I always know what time it is.

December 16, 2009

Moving House (As the British Say)


No gmail access (and thus no access) for two days combined with a move equals me being behind in blogging. At least, that's my story and I'm sticking to it.

We moved over the last of our stuff this morning before work. This on the heels of a huge Ikea run and a grocery run, in addition to more crap then we thought we owned. And we haven't bought anything since we've been here, so why was there so much stuff?

Let's recap: We signed for an apartment we said we didn't want. It took us three days after the lease began to get keys. ("I've lost them. No, I have them. No, I've lost them. We need to call the locksmith. Come another time.) The apartment flooded on the fourth day. We started to move on the fifth day, by which time the inch-plus of water covering the floor had been cleaned up. More moving yesterday. This morning we moved out of the hotel. Now we just have to unpack -- and there's nowhere to put anything.

The apartment is furnished, so I was able to get most of the things we needed in one long Ikea trip. But just because a place has furniture doesn't mean it's move-in ready. So I shopped for sheets and towels and blankets and pillows and dishes and silverware and glasses and pots. We have the bare necessities now. And bear in mind I have no storage, so the necessities really are bare.

Today I picked up the laundry -- all that new linen had to be washed, and we have a machine but no dryer -- and tonight we'll sleep there.


The laundry episode was a bit amusing. When I dropped it off on Monday, it was all still in the package. The laundry guy didn't seem to mind. We were lucky to discover (OK, it's not luck -- we asked around) a laundry right behind the office, making it quite convenient. Our new place is in an entirely residential area, making it nice and quiet, but less convenient for getting things done.

So I drop off the laundry and I ask the guy does he want me to take everything out of the packages. No, he says, no problem. "No problem" is a mantra here. Nothing is ever a problem (especially, I imagine, if you have a lot of dirhams). We count the things: 6 pillow cases, four sheets, a comforter cover, four bath towels, four hand towels. Done.

He asks my name. I say Leah. He says two days. I say Wednesday? He looks at the calendar and says yes. I say do I need a receipt? Some sort of paper? No problem, he says. I say you'll remember me? Yes, he says. No problem.

I returned today, and found the laundry, like so many small shops, is closed from 1-4. Sometimes even until 5. My third trip out side, I discover he's finally open. I walk in. He says Leah! I say hello. He says six pillow cases, four sheets, eight towels and goes in search of something under a table. Out he comes with my laundry, nicely packed and stacked in a re-usable shopping bag.

I'm pleased it's all there. I'm pleased he remembered me. I'm surprised, too. But sort of not. This often seems to be the way things work here. Mysteriously.

We hadn't discussed price yet. Fifty-two dirhams he says to me. I fork it over. All my linens washed, dried and ironed for $14.

December 12, 2009

Aggression and Testosterone

Anyone who knows me knows that I like men. I've worked in male-dominated departments for years with few incidents. I don't think I've ever been accused of being a feminist man-hater.

Having said all that, however, I've come to find myself quite ill at ease in this male-dominated society I now live in.

I am surrounded by men and more than that, I am part of a society that seems to have no place for women. And certainly not Western women.

There is an aggression here that is unsubtle. You see it on the roads, and in the sheer numbers of men out on the streets. But I don't fear for my safety; I fear for my visibility and my sense of self.

In this society, I don't really exist. And that's weird. And rather than inspiring me to step up, it has made me shrink back. Serious business deals aren't done with women. The real estate agent addresses Paul and I'm just in the back seat of the car, along for the ride.

Women here wear the abaya for religious and cultural reasons. It protects them from the prying eyes of men who are not related to them. And I actually get that. But it also puts them in the background. They are shadows that fill in the margins around the men.

And so I struggle to find my place among all of this.

December 7, 2009

Junk Mail -- Any Mail Will Do

I've been looking fairly compulsively at my mailbox at work lately. And I know this is silly, because who would send me mail?

But it's not entirely , because there is no national postal system here, in the way that people in most other developed countries think of it. Yes, you can send mail to and from the UAE, but where it ends up ... depends on how you address it. Because there is no street address system here.

For example, I live in the Sahara Residence 9 on Electra St. If you send mail to me at that address, there's a good chance I would get it. And my laundry, Atlas Cleaners, lists its address as: Behind the Green House Building on Najda. If you don't know where the Green House Building is, you're out of luck. (And behind is rather relative -- there is a two-sided alley "behind" the Green House Building)

My company has a PO Box for mail, and so everyone has everything sent to that address. And while the system seems odd to me, it also seems to work. I actually received mail addressed to Leah and Paul, The National, Abu Dhabi, UAE.

And that was from my bank.

I don't have an address for our new apartment. The broad description on the contract is Street 19, Flat No. 11, Al Muroor. When I go to sign up for Internet service, I will also tell them the sector and plot number -- in the hopes they will find me.

There are rumors that a new mail system is forthcoming. But it won't be based on addresses, it will be be based on GPS coordinates. That should be interesting; one wrong number and your mail ends up in Namibia.

This is not to suggest, either, that the mail works well going out. Stamps seem available only at the post office, and I have seen just one of those. A colleague tells me they are available at certain hotels as well -- but not mine. There also are very few post boxes. I tried to mail a letter from work, but was told there was no option for that. Which is funny, because you would think if mail comes in, at some point it goes out. But nevermind.

We discovered when we finally were able to get a stamp and mail a letter that it takes three weeks to get the U.S.

Maybe they use carrier falcons.

(And for those of you who would like to send us real, actual mail, this is how best to find us: The National/Abu Dhabi Media Company/PO Box 111434/ Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates)

November 25, 2009

Thanksgiving, Part II

I did it! And it was awesome!!

I actually pulled off a Thanksgiving dinner with all the trimmings (except pumpkin pie -- my fave) for six people.

And it was all thanks to my Mom's super suggestions and advice, and Paul's invaluable help. I just don't get how all you Thanksgiving makers make all those dishes simultaneously. I ran out of hands a few times. Paul jumped in to make the mashed potatoes while I finished up the gravy, green beans and stuffing (and entertained and early-arriving guest).


One bottle of Champagne, four bottles of red wine, one 12-pound turkey, seven potatoes .... you get the drift ... and one meal with five contented companions. We were five Yanks and a Brit, and we talked some shop -- the one thing we all have in common -- and a little about our adopted country and what the holiday was about. But it was just nice to do a dinner in a home. A dinner party. A special dinner party.

You don't really need the details though, as you're all about to embark on your own. So as I wish you all the best for a wonderful holiday, I will leave you with this anecdote.

I'm cooking the turkey, we're about halfway into the time. I hear a switch click and about five minutes later realize that not only was my water not boiling, but the turkey had stopped bubbling.

I thought this was weird. Who would guess that you could turn off the main gas line from outside the kitchen. In fact, from a switch that is (and was) right next to the door to the bathroom. Which has no light switch inside.

Well, you can.

I finally made the connection between the switch and the fact the oven turned off -- and then had a bear of a time (and a bit of a panic attack) trying to get the oven back on. I was only halfway through cooking!! What would I do with a half-cooked turkey??

Our hostess, who might have known what to do (but really, I don't think so), was sound asleep. I wasn't about to wake her. We had already invaded her apartment to make the dinner.

Now this wasn't the first issue with the oven. The night before, on the advice of my mother, I tested the oven to see if cooking times were accurate, if it had any weirdness, and it did. In fact, the night before I was planning to make a cake to test the oven. When I set the oven, it never got hot. Again, a dilemma. And again, my hostess was not available.

It turns out with this particular oven, a well-regarded brand (Siemens), you must leave the oven door open for three minutes so that the pilot light can catch properly. Never heard that one before. I eventually figured it out, the cake was fine (it cooked on the fast side), and I had an idea of how the oven was running.

So with the turkey, I made sure to leave the door open at the start. But now, I had no gas. The switch was on again, but that made no difference. Finally, we found the door to the gas panel, and there were some convoluted directions. It seems that we could restart the gas by turning various nozzles and switches and get it started again. The diagram explaining all this bore no resemblance to what we actually did.

After a 15-minute delay, we managed to turn the oven back on. Phew.

That was the only major mishap (OK, Paul, who was taking the turkey out of the oven -- which was by now two inches deep in boiling turkey juice -- almost dropped it when the oven rack slipped and he had only tea towels to hold on to the roasting pan. And I dropped the leftover cake on its head on my way home.)

But considering I had a handful of pots and utensils not quite meant to do what we needed them to do (too small, too big, too shallow, too deep) the whole thing turned better than I could have hoped.


(check this link in the next day or so to see photos)

November 24, 2009

Thanksgiving, Part I

As many of you may have read on Paul's blog, I decided to make a Thanksgiving dinner for a handful of people.

(We're doing it on Wednesday, because we're both off that day. When you do Thanksgiving a. abroad and b. in the newspaper business, you have it as close to the day as you can with the most people available.)

For most of you, this is not terribly remarkable. But it's my first turkey. And Thanksgiving is absolutely my most favorite holiday. I find it sad that I have missed Thanksgiving at home oh, about 9 of the last 12 years. My friends in Paris put together amazing Thanksgiving dinners, and I think my all-time favorite was the rotisserie turkey we got one year. But ultimately, I like my Mom's best. Always have, always will.

And so, in a bit of a panic, I called her the other day to let her know the plan. She was very calm and encouraging. I really appreciated that last part. I was pretty pleased that we managed to find all the necessary things for the meal, but frankly, I've always stuck to the cranberry relish and pumpkin pie as my contributions. I don't know the first thing about turkey, gravy or stuffing.

After studying recipes on the web and talking to my mom (her advice: follow the directions on the turkey, don't forget to clean out the packages that are inside and don't stuff the turkey your first time) I think I can do it.

Right now, I've just finished prepping the gravy and it smells so good! It makes me really enthusiastic for the rest of the meal.

I'll leave that on the stove for a few hours, and afterward, I'm heading to a friend's house to test her oven. It's beautiful and brand new, but I don't think she's used it for anything other than toast. So i'm going to bake a chocolate cake (couldn't find brownie mix) just to make sure it's all good.

I'm so excited!!

November 20, 2009

I Love to Say Vindaloo

I've been making my way through the menu at the Indian restaurant across the street.

Paul and I share one night off, and we go out. We've been to Nihal three times so far, and are planning to go until we get tired of it or until we move, whichever comes first.

So far, for main courses, I've stuck to the lamb: Masala, Korma, Vindaloo, Roganjosh. (And now you're thinking well, that's four and she's only been three times. Paul got lamb once, too!)

I like the vindaloo quite a bit and it has potatoes in it. The rojanjosh has thinner sauce, but better quality lamb. The Korma is more of a traditional curry (or what I think of when I think of curry). I swear there was coconut milk in it, but all the recipes I've seen say the meat is marinated in yogurt and that's what makes it so creamy. In any case, the meat in the Korma was of a really low quality. It was tasty, but gristly and chewy. I don't know if that was unusual, or if the different sauces are designed to mask the qualities of the meat.

The restaurant also serves Chinese food, and what they call Continental food. I'd like to try the Chinese -- the Indians here have a decent reputation for Chinese -- but not at the expense of my once-weekly Indian. And Continental, it turns out, just means fish and chips.

Paul has mostly stuck to chicken. Last time he got the Chicken Tikka. He likes curry, and Indian food, almost as much as I do. But he's allergic to something in the curry, so ordering for him is tricky. By process of elimination, we think he is allergic to cayenne pepper. So if he asks for his curry not spicy, he doesn't usually have a problem (or hasn't so far).

We've also had the lentil soup, the spinach soup, the vegetable samosas and naan. Oh, how I love naan. And we haven't even tried the stuffed naan yet. We always end up with too much food, but that's fine by me: It mealeftovers for work the next day. I'm still looking for a different appetizer. The samosas are made with a biscuit-like crust, and are pretty heavy (considering that inside the biscuit is yellow lentils and maybe peas?) Dinner for two of us is never more than $20, and it's only that expensive because we're trying to sample different things.

But my absolute favorite part of the meal is the papadam. Oh how I love papadam! They are thin, crisp wafers/bread made of lentil flour. I think they should sell them in the store or a bakery or somewhere. I'm pretty sure they're fried, so that rules out making them at home. (Speaking of Indian food at home: Have you all tried the Indian Roti that Costco sells? Those are easy to make at home and so yummy!)

I think Trader Joe's -- or maybe it was the Monoprix in France -- had mini papadams in the chips aisle. But they were flavored, and they didn't really taste like real papadam. I think they have a pretty short shelf life, like they get soggy if they aren't eaten right away.

So I haven't yet figured out how to get more papadam more frequently. On my way into work, I see a shop sign that suggests the shop sells papapdam, but the store is always shuttered.

As to when I'll get tired of Indian food? I'm pretty sure we'll move first.

November 16, 2009

Looking for a Place to Call Home

House hunting is something I was actually looking forward to. It's always a treat, I think, to see how other societies live. And the chance to stock another household -- especially with inexpensive furnishings -- was appealing to me. I would get to nest all over again.

I had heard that the housing market in Abu Dhabi was tight and that affordable places were practically non-existent. Having had a nightmare of a search in Hong Kong, I was expecting this. What I didn't expect was the difficulty in actually seeing places here in Abu Dhabi.

There are three ways to find an apartment, from what I can tell: word of mouth, online listings or an agent. But the agent doesn't work quite the way you'd expect. An agent will only show you properties he (or she) represents. So if I see a place online that looks appealing, I have to contact the particular agency that handles it. And then the problems start. Bait and switch is definitely an issue here. It seems that whatever apartment you see an ad for has just been rented. But there's another one that's almost as good ...

Also, I'm not comfortable in this society -- whether I have reason to be or not -- going to viewings alone with a man. This means I have to drag Paul along, whereas in the US or even France I would simply find a place I liked and then bring him in at the end. Much easier.

I'm not sure either of us has mentioned this yet, but there are no proper addresses here in Abu Dhabi. You identify where you live by the closest known landmark. It's not unusual for someone to give you party directions that read like this: Walk behind the White Furniture building until you see a pile of dirt. Go around the dirt to a pathway on the left. Cross the street and go over the fence. The house you want is on your right.

So, if I find a place online that I like, I have to find it. This can't be done by taxi, really. I have to get the owner or the agent to pick me up and take me to the apartment. Again, a very specific commitment that both of us must make.

I have seen eight apartments. All but one were in villas and several were of new construction. The construction standards here appear shoddy. I think because there is a lot of pressure to get things up., the finishing touches are often missing. Frankly, it feels like the fancy vacation homes in Mexico. Almost complete but not quite. (Nice ironwork on the stairways, but the steps aren't edged properly, for example).

The first two places were spacious. They had really high ceilings and roomy rooms. But they were too far away, just off Abu Dhabi island in a place called Between Two Bridges. These places would require a car. They were also a little pricey. Not by local standards but by my budget standards. (We are here, after all, to try to save a little money.)

(An aside: apartments are paid for by the year. Yes. One check. For the whole year. Fortunately, the company will take the apartment and then take the rent out of our paychecks. Phew. Imagine trying to come up with $25K in advance??)

Next we saw an apartment owned by the company. We had hoped to get one of these, but the only one(s) available were two bedrooms and too expensive. I noticed when we looked at that apartment that one of the bedrooms had a lock on it. That's because people here tend to share apartments. Sometimes whole villas. One of the options we (briefly) considered was renting a room in a villa with a colleague. He is here and his wife is back in England. The other tenant was moving to Dubai. I never had much luck with roommates when I was younger. I'm having trouble imagining it at this stage of my life. But it's quite common here -- and was moreso, when apartments were scarce.

We heard a tale the other night of four employees -- photographers, perhaps? -- who had a four-bedroom villa with a small building in the back. They made an arrangement with a Filipina woman to stay there for free, and in return she cooks for them. Sounds too much like a fraternity house.

But I digress.

The upside of the company apartment was its proximity -- 10 minute walk -- to the office. The downside was its location in a fairly undeveloped neighborhood filled with furniture makers and dirt roads. And the price.

So I went back online and started to make more inquiries. I found a place that, until today, had been a front-runner. It was offered by the landlord (thus no agents fee) and it was within walking distance (100 meters or so) of the office. It was in a nice neighborhood and had fancy cars in the garage, so probably the neighbors were fine. So what, you ask, was wrong with it? Well, it was billed as furnished. This translated into "whatever the last tenant left behind." It was all decorated. Each room had walls painted in brilliant colors: hot pink, turqoise and canary yellow. But still, it was really close to work.

The next place we saw was a bait-and-switch. It turns out the apartment that was advertised was still occupied, but we didn't know that until we arrived. It was in a great residential neighborhood, a good start. So the landlord took us up three flights of stairs to the top of the villa. It was a nearly-new apartment, with tall ceilings and big rooms. It also had a great wraparound rooftop terrace. And a price tag 40,000 dirhams (nearly $11,000) higher than the apartment that was advertised.
Too bad for us. By the time we saw the originally advertised place, we'd been ruined by the lovely spacious one.

It didn't help that the other one was ground floor, with low ceilings, and bad carpet and a hole-in-the-wall kitchen. The landlord said it would all be cleaned up, and that he'd pull out the carpet (which covered granite floors). But I don't think so.

On to another set of apartments and another agent. Another aside here -- we have had dealings with agents and landlords from Saudi Arabia, Jordan, India and Syria. Sort of sums up the UAE.
The last two apartments: The first was in a nice neighborhood, and very close to a good mall (good mall = good grocery store). It also was close enough to a big road that taxis wouldn't be a problem. The apartment was relatively new, but badly built. It was spacious, on the second floor of a villa, and had big windows. We liked it well enough. Certainly more than anything else we'd seen.

Then, on to the next one. Here's where there's a little more trickiness. I thought we were going to see three apartments, but after seeing the second one, it turns out the third one -- the one I had originally expressed interest in -- was rented. Like magic. Things like that seem to happen here.

But here we are at the last apartment, and it may truly be the last one. We liked it. It's pretty close to work, although not really walking distance unless the weather is really comfortable. It's very tiny, but is indeed a one-bedroom. The kitchen is small -- most of the kitchens here are not very impressive -- and is part of the living room. But the place is furnished, and has wardrobes and the furniture isn't awful and if I want new furniture, the landlord will take away the old. And there was a washing machine! And a little patio out front! So this is where we stand.

Do we take the tiny but cute place? The price is right, and so is the location. But is there a better place out there?

We don't have to move for another month, but we also don't want to get caught short. And Paul is loathe to be dragged to anymore places once he's found one he finds acceptable. Having looked at all the online ads, I know that there aren't a lot of options in the price range we're looking at. I know there are a lot of really awful places out there, and we've been pretty lucky so far.

I'm used to knowing instantly when I've found the right apartment or home, and that was not the case today. But it came close.

We'll post pictures when we finally make a decision.

November 13, 2009

Abu Dhabi Photos

Finally got around to taking -- and posting -- some photos.

As you'll find out, there's not a whole lot to see here. But maybe this will give you a little taste.

November 12, 2009

The Feeling of Fall in the Air

The weather has cooled here, finally breaking 90 degrees. It's all the nicer because the humidity right now is under 50 percent and there's a breeze. It's actually pleasant.
As much as I hated going out when I first arrived, I now want to spend as much time outside as possible. I went to the beach on Tuesday, and it was just a really nice day. The beach, unfortunately, isn't open yet; it's still under construction. People nearby told me it would open Nov. 16, so I'm looking forward to that. Instead, I sat on a really nice outdoor deck and had some ice cream and read my book. I was a little overdressed for the beach. You can't very well stand on the street in shorts and a tank top and hail a cab. So i had on linen pants and a tank and a button down shirt covering it, and packed beach clothes in a tote.
But it's one thing to sit on the ladies and family beach in a tank top, and another to do so on a deck. So there I sat, all bundled up.
This isn't unusual for me.
I wear long sleeves almost every day, and often have two shirts on for better coverage, so I've been looking forward to the cooling trend. As hot as I feel when I'm outside, I try to look at the women in full abayas -- black ones -- and take comfort that I'm not as covered up as they are.
We have a dress code of sorts at work. The idea is to dress modestly, so as not to offend Muslim sensibilities. That means sleeves to the elbow for women and skirts below the knees. Because the office is so cold, I just go ahead with the long sleeves and wear pants. After a while I layer on sweaters and scarfs as needed. What I'd really like on weekends -- when it's particularly cold in the office -- is my Ugg boots. But I can't imagine wearing them on the street.
People say it will be comfortable like this until March, at least.
That would be amazing.

November 11, 2009


Going to the grocery store here is a treat. There are several little groceries on almost every street -- probably four small stores within a few steps of our hotel -- and I haven't spent much time in them. I would imagine they're like a corner grocery in any big city.

But the big groceries, the ones in the shopping malls, are pretty amazing. They are what the Europeans call Hypermarkets, with groceries and dry goods and clothes and electronics. And the grocery sections have a vast selection. The yogurt aisle will rival any I saw in France. (And in France, a yogurt aisle is like a U.S. water aisle)

The cost of living here is high only because the cost of housing is high. Food is not a major expense, unless you opt for one the many fancy restaurants in the hotels. But that is the case in almost any city.

I do our weekly shopping on Wednesday, usually. It's the day off I share with Paul. I like it when he goes with me, because it's easier to handle a week's worth of groceries with two people and no car of our own. But he shops like a guy: He goes in, gets what's on my list, and gets out. I like to look at all the amazing things. That's how I find all the new treats I bring him, like teriyaki flavored rice crackers. So while I appreciate his help, I think I'll probably go on my own next time.

Because Abu Dhabi is an expatriate city, there are goods from all over. In the Lulu Hypermarket, located in the Al Wahda Mall, the array of vegetables, for example, is incredible. You can get four kinds of eggplant and three kinds of pomegranates and a host of things I couldn't identify if my life depended on it. I like that each item has, under the price, the country of origin. I don't know what makes Tunisian pomegranates half the price of Indian ones, though. I can figure out why the perfect tomatoes from Holland are so much more expensive than the imperfect ones from Yemen. But I don't know that they taste better. And for the life of me, I don't know why lettuce is so astonishingly expensive.

Often, in foreign shops where you can get products from home, you pay for the privilege. This isn't usually the case here. A can of soda is 27 cents. You can get cereal and cake mix and Nestle's Quik and Peter Pan peanut butter at about the same price it costs in the U.S. (or less, in the case of cereal). French-branded yogurt is more expensive than local (which is 27 cents for about six ounces). And local cheese is cheaper than imported cheese. But it's still cheaper than at home. I paid about $11 a kilo ($5 a pound) for sliced Dutch cheese. But Feta cheese from Saudi Arabia is 11 dirhams (about $3) a kilo.

Prepared food is astonishingly cheap. I can get a small container of hummous or labneh or cut-up fruit or olives for about $1. A six-pack of fresh pita bread is 27 cents. So there is definitely an incentive to bring my lunch to work instead of ordering out.

What I'm not used to is doing the shopping for a full week, and not cooking. We're still in the hotel, and while there is a full kitchen, there is no stocked pantry. So cooking is often more trouble than it's worth. (And I find I'm missing key things, like a frying pan or a carrot peeler.)

So it's too bad I don't have the outdoor markets I had in Paris, but I have something different here. Next, I hope to find the equivalent of a souk with spices and teas. Abu Dhabi is so good about bringing the world here, I just wish I could find more of the UAE in Abu Dhabi.

Drive Me Crazy*

We have decided not to get a car here in Abu Dhabi. At first, it was for practical reasons. Why get a car when taxis are (supposedly) readily available and quite affordable? It seemed like short-term, it wasn't a good use of resources.

But now, the reason we won't get a car is the traffic.

Imagine an entire city populated by 16-year-old boys who have just received their licenses and are driving SUVs. Now you can begin to picture Abu Dhabi. Drivers give no quarter. They are extremely aggressive. The goal is to be the first one to the next light. And then there's the honking. You honk if the person in front of you stops too quickly (nevermind that you are the one tailgating). You honk if someone doesn't go *before* the light changes. You honk if you even suspect someone might want to get into your lane. Sometimes, there is no obvious reason for the honking.

Presumably all the drivers here have driven in their home countries. Presumably, too, the rules of the road are similar. Yet most other countries do not have the reputation for dangerous roads that the UAE has.

The blocks here are very long, and there is often no way to cross except at the light. This makes jaywalking desirable, and terribly dangerous. To thwart jaywalkers, the traffic authority has placed wrought iron barriers with pointy tops along the medians, to keep people from crossing the median on foot. But in the places where one is allowed to cross freely, there are always people darting across the road. And I swear drivers speed up when they see pedestrians, just so they can swerve and honk. It's crazy. And as traffic backs up, it is common for pedestrians to try to cross between cars. Most of the major streets are four lanes on each side, so it's kind of tricky to cross, even when the cars are stopped.

And because the blocks are long, the only way to get to the other side is to make a U-turn. U-turns are very big here. And it makes crossing against the light especially dangerous. So when crossing, you have to look out for the right-hand turners as well as the U-turners. The crossing light, in theory, saves you from the U-turn drivers. But you're on your own for the right-hand turners.

There are merge lanes on the right side of the road where the side streets intersect. In most of Europe, the traffic on the right has the right of way. That never happens here. It is not unusual for two cars to try to turn right at the same time. And then, for some inexplicable reason, they stop dead. Drivers don't wait until the way is clear, and they don't go fast enough to get out ahead of the oncoming cars. On the other hand, you will never see an oncoming car slow to let the merging car in. He will always speed up.

Paul says it's clear the taxi drivers do not own their cars, because they abuse the transmissions by going into overdrive between lights *my brother-in-law Alan says the proper term is "kickdown."

And the other reason not to have a car is parking. That is truly something to see. There are parking areas between the main streets and behind the buildings and shops. Cars park diagonally, as in a normal lot. But cars also parallel park in the middle, between the two diagonal lanes. And sometimes there is a double line of parallel parked cars, making passing quite difficult. This does not keep people from using the parking lots as streets, either.

The whole thing makes driving in Italy, or New York City, or even Hong Kong, look like child's play.

October 31, 2009

Mmmmm, French Fries

I splurged on dinner tonight.

Usually, I try to make something to bring in to work, but I'm not often successful. Paul eats sandwiches, but the lunch meat here is a bit, uh, processed for me. The turkey is smoked and of course there's no ham. In the lobby of our office building is a Gloria Jean's coffee kiosk. They also sell salads and I get one about every other day. The lettuce in the grocery is very sad looking, and I figure it's a good way to get vegetables with some regularity. So that takes care of lunch, but by dinner time I'm hungry again and have usually gone through my supply of "healthy" snacks: a yogurt or some grapes or some pretzels.

Everyone knows that newspaper editors eat badly at work -- it's the nature of the beast. When you work from 2-10 -- spanning lunch and dinner without a break -- your options are few.

Here at the paper someone often will place a take-out order, and Chinese seems to be especially popular. This surprises me. In a typical week I've seen people here order Chinese, Thai and Vietnamese. I can't understand why they're skipping all the good stuff! I was very happy last week when someone opted for Indian at my not-so-subtle suggestion: "Is there a good Indian place around here?"

Tonight I went to the tiny falafel shop about a hundred yards away. It has one tiny table and a guy behind the counter. There are schwarma spits in an adjacent window. It's a zillion degrees in the little place, and the kitchen is in the storefront next door. The counter guy opens a little pass door to communicate with them. He puts a bowl in and they put stuff in the bowl.

I'd been there before, and there was a bit of deja vu to Hong Kong when I looked at the menu. Seventeen items on the English side and 34 on the Arabic side. I've seen enough middle eastern food to know that "not for you" is probably not gonna be a problem. And I wonder what those extras are. (It can't be the chicken livers, which I swear I will get one time, because those are on the English menu).

I ordered an Arabic mix falafel. The regular falafel is mashed into a split pita, with some tahini and a bit of cucumber/tomato mix. It costs 3 dirhams, or 82 cents. Mine was much fancier and costs a whopping 9 dirhams -- $2.45. To make an Arabic mix falafel, you use half a pita, smash in some falafel, put on some eggplant slices, four french fries, the tahini and cucumber and what looks like coleslaw. Then you wrap the whole thing in some sort of thin Arabic bread like a burrito and put it on the panini grill so it melds together.

Back to the french fries, though. I love french fries. Especially French ones but also the kind I get at the mid-east style kabob places in Paris. I don't know why they're so good -- I know they aren't cooked in bacon grease, which isn't halal. But why would they be so much better than U.S. french fries? Anyway, french fries. I wanted some. So I asked the guy behind the counter, who really doesn't speak English, for french fries. Do you have french fries I said. Soda, he asked? French fries, I said. Falafel he asked? French fries. Then another guy popped his head in and said French! to the guy behind the counter, who still didn't get it. I gave up. I saw the guy put them on my sandwich, so I'm pretty sure they have them. If they were on the menu list (or at least the English menu list) I could point to them. But for now, no french fries.

Instead, the guy picked up a Kleenex, used it to grab a falafel ball, and handed it to me while I waited. It was warm and tasty. I appreciated the gesture.

And now I'm trying to find out how to say "french fries" in Arabic.

October 29, 2009

All of Life is Logistics

It took me 40 minutes to get to work today, and I live just 5 kilometers (3.1 miles) from the office: 20 minutes to get a taxi and 20 minutes more to negotiate through traffic.

We are trying to decide where to live, and this certainly is a factor.
On Tuesday evening, I went to look at two different villas -- my first foray into house hunting. They both were large and appealing and relatively affordable, traits I'm led to believe are rare here. But they were also just off the island of Abu Dhabi, in an area imaginatively called "Between the Bridges." Between the bridges also means "pretty darn far from anything."

What makes that particular area appealing for most expatriates is its residential feeling. The neighborhoods are desert suburbs, with three-story villas lining each brand-new road. But you have to have a car to live here, and that's something Paul and I agree on: Neither of us wants to drive in this city or even in this country.

Every day is like Mr Toad's Wild Ride, and I can't figure out why people are such bad drivers here. Traffic-related deaths in the UAE are behind only Afghanistan and Iraq, and alongside Niger and Angola. That is, it is probably the most-developed country with the worst traffic accidents.

Living in the "suburbs" can make for a nice quality of life, but as in California, if you spend all your time on the road, then that quality is already diminished. The agent said we could arrange for a regular driver to take us to work, but what about groceries and errands? Even walking a few hundred meters (which I find to be a conservative guess) is not an option in this heat.

We have also ruled out Dubai. The neighboring emirate has a lot going for it. It has a thriving nightlife and lots of activities. Its beaches are lovely and the rents are much more affordable. But it's a 90-minute drive away. No dice.

So I'm starting my search. I don't know exactly what I'm looking for, only what I'm not. I would like to be near work and near a taxi stand. I would like a clean neighborhood without too much traffic. I would love a nearby park. An ocean view is probably out of my price range, but I did see an ad that looked too good to be true: 1 bedroom, 900 sq feet, with a sea view, near a good mall and affordable. I can only guess what's wrong with it. I'll surely call and see.

I had thought we had plenty of time to look since our temporary housing (a one-bedroom hotel room of about 650 sq feet) is good for two months. But others have suggested it will take nearly a month to do the paperwork, and if getting a bank account has been any indication (yes, non sequitur) they are all right. So I've looked a bit online, and made some notes. Colleagues are passing along tips about neighborhoods ad agents.

Let the search begin.

October 28, 2009

Two Weeks In ...

So I'm here in the middle of the desert, trying to get a handle on this place. A poor man's Las Vegas? Not really, because we're sitting on a ton of oil. A less-polished Las Vegas? In many ways yes, although the hotels here are gorgeous and the quality of the restaurants there is good. There is definitely not the same aspect of excess and the sin part of it isn't as obvious. We who drink alcohol, for example, are hidden away in the Westernized hotels or private homes. The conspicuous consumption exists; but it's hidden away behind tall walls and black abayas.

It is difficult to describe a city that is at once both cosmopolitan and nearly third world. There are lovely buildings and gardens, there is a sense of business in the air. But there are also men -- workers -- loitering everywhere, laying on the grass, trying to find some shade. Internet access is expensive and difficult to get. The police are well-hidden in a police state.

There is no overt censorship, for example, but self-censorship works nearly as well. The concept of writing a blog while working for the paper is a touchy one. I know we are not supposed to have them without prior approval. Because I am read almost entirely by close friends and family, whose numbers likely do not reach triple digits, I am continuing to post. If I get banned, I'll simply send out mass e-mails to those who are interested. But in the meanwhile, I am careful about what I write and I do not post from work.

I don't love it here; but I don't hate it either. After two weeks -- admittedly a very short time -- I'm at best ambivalent. I like my job and I like the people I work with. I'm keen to earn a good salary. But I feel constrained by the climate and the culture. I dress more modestly than I ever have, yet I'm constantly aware of being stared at. It isn't just warm here, it's hot. Still-in-the-90s hot. Hot as in "I'll just stay inside until it's time to go to work, thank you" hot. As a result, I'm bored. No Internet at home yet (we need residence visas); bad cable; almost caught up on books, which I am rationing. On workdays, it's less of an issue. I work 2-10 and I sleep late. The idea of even venturing a few blocks to try to find a yoga class is daunting. It's not easy to walk here or to drive here. Cabs are cheap, but not always plentiful (like around prayer time; many cabs are driven by devout Pakistanis). Nothing quite like standing in the hot sun with long sleeves or a sweater hoping to catch a taxi so i can go somewhere to walk.

I haven't seen the gulf/sea/bay -- whatever it is -- in daylight hours. It's been too hot to go anywhere and take pictures. We have had some lovely night-time adventures. We went for drinks last week at The Brauhaus, a German (obviously) bar in the luxury Beach Rotana hotel that was celebrating Oktoberfest. We went with colleagues and sat on the outdoor patio. There was a light breeze which mad the 80-plus degree temperatures feel quite pleasant. Paul remarked that it felt like a Club Med: Lots of well-to-do foreigners in an exotic location. I believe the feeling passed fairly quickly.

We had a fabulous meal at the same hotel, in a restaurant called Finz that stood on stilts in the water. We had a table overlooking the sand and water, and the food was very good. We started with rolls shaped like starfish and made with seaweed, and more made with squid ink and sea salt. They came with three dips: butter, crab butter and seaweed-labnah. (And speaking of butter, we had a mustard-butter mix at The Brauhaus that was really interesting).

My rambling point, and I do have one, is that I am neither content nor discontent here. But I do feel a bit in exile. I suppose that's to be expected. "They" say it takes a year to get comfortable. A year!! And in the recesses of my bad memory, I forget how I struggled to adapt in Paris, which now seems like a second home. (And my mother points out I struggled to adapt in Santa Barbara and Missouri ...) The trick is to find our niche here. To make a home as best we can and to work around the tricky things rather than trying to fight through them.

Wish us luck.

October 23, 2009

Tea Time

There are times in my life when I feel particularly American. In France, I felt most American when confronted with a lot of nationalism. Here, just now, I feel it keenly in the office and in the shops. The caste system of India apparently has migrated to Abu Dhabi with the Indians, and I'm not comfortable with it.
Perhaps this has to do with my own social standing -- very solidly middle class.
At work, we have "tea boys" who are, in fact, men. They wear uniforms and silently move among us, offering tea or coffee served just the way we like it. Others on my desk seem quite pleased at this service. The idea is you pay a sort of gratuity monthly (50 dirham per month, about $14, is recommended) and then when you get to your desk in the afternoon your hot beverage arrives just as you like it. I don't drink coffee or tea and so I'm at a loss as to what to do here. But it's more than that. I don't like being waited on like this. One of the men came over to me the other day, after I'd been studiously avoiding him several days. He asked "would you like water, madam?" I did, in fact, want water -- I had been outside longer than usual and was very hot.
But it's no chore for me to get up, walk 30 paces and get it myself out of the machine. So I didn't know what to do. I said OK, yes, thank you. And he said quietly "two dirham." Now water from the machine costs 1 dirham (27 cents), so I guess the two dirham (the plural of dirham is ... dirham) includes the gratuity. I handed him a five dirham note. He brought my water, and then some time later, came back with four dirham. Since we had said two, I wasn't clear what I was supposed to do. I think I should have said please keep the rest of it for later in the week. That, I suppose, would have been the proper thing. But I got nervous. Already uncomfortable with the entire arrangement, and not wanting to make a big deal out of this (and yes, I realize it already was too late) I just waved him away generically with the change. And all of this is over 27 cents. But it's more than that. It's the servant aspect of things. While there have been many, many times in my newspaper career where I haven't had time to get up for the bathroom, much less for a bottle of water, this is not one of them. It's different, though, when a friend is already going to the machine and picks up a soda for you, too. I don't know why, it just is.
And then it extends to the grocery store as well. Our first trip to the grocery store, the boy (and he was a boy) grabbed our shopping cart and pushed it across a major street and down the block to our apartment. Yesterday, the boy bagged my groceries and I remembered reading that I was supposed to tip him, but I couldn't remember how much. I asked the cashier about home delivery for groceries -- things like water and other beverages are too heavy to lug, even if it weren't 90 degrees out. She told me they didn't have that, but that the boy could take the water to my home. I had taken a cab to the store; this certainly wouldn't work. I saw later, while waiting for the taxi, that other people had the grocery boys wheel their carts to the cab stand, wait in line with them, and put the groceries -- water and all -- into the trunk. For a mere five dirham.
I understand that these guys are trying to eke out a living. They wouldn't be here doing what they do if they had better options, would they? What I don't know is how formal their relationships are with the newspaper, or at the grocery. Have they been hired? (And yesterday, one of them came by with an envelope that said: "The tea boy is going on vacation for two months. Donations accepted.") Did they just show up, because this sort of thing is common in this part of the world? I don't know. There is nothing like this, in the States.
I don't think I'll get used to this anytime soon, and I'm sure it's the American in me.

October 19, 2009

Stay Tuned

We're having some Internet issues here. Nothing major -- it's just that we don't have any. There is the cyber-cafe in our hotel, but no access in our apartment.

Today I went out to the Etisalat compound -- the Emirates' official telecom company -- to try to sign up for service. I had a letter from the hotel allowing me to have the Internet access in my place, but that didn't satisfy the Etisalat people. They want a permanent residency visa, and we don't have those yet. Moreover we don't expect them for a month.

So for now I am exploring alternatives. There seems to a way we can get a mobile modem that allows us 10GB per month but I have no idea how much 10GB is in terms of our daily usage, and at the high price they are asking ($135/month), it might make more sense to use the cafe. On the other hand, I just did the math and if 10GB is sufficient, then it's a wash.

If those of you who are far more computer savvy than I have any suggestions, please don't hesitate to send them along.

October 17, 2009

The Long and Winding Road

And so the adventure begins.

We arrived after 24 hours of traveling and the first thing we did was go out for a drink. About par for the course, I'd say. A friend picked us up at the airport, and we met up with another soon after. Look at us: Brand new country and already we're social butterflies.

I like to think I'm already acclimated: went to sleep after midnight, stayed asleep for seven-plus hours. Got up and started to do things. The truth is, I'm utterly discombobulated. I know we are 11 hours ahead of California, but frankly we were traveling so long and through so much weird times (leave the house at 6 a.m., arrive in NYC after dark, at 5:30 p.m. local time. Get on the red eye to Abu Dhabi, fly all night, arrive the next night at 8 p.m. ....) So I'm pretending that all is fine and I'm on schedule. I'm also pretending that I wouldn't give anything for a nap right about now (it's 2 p.m.)

We start work tomorrow, Sunday, and meanwhile we have a host of errands to run. First on the list: get an internet hookup. We are staying in a hotel for the next two months, and while the accommodations are not luxurious they are more than comfortable. But we have to get online. The hotel has given us an official document that says we have permission to have Internet installed in our room. I still have to figure out where to go to get the ball rolling.

Right now both Paul and I are sitting in the downstairs internet cafe typing away. We've become so accustomed to our laptops -- with all its secret documents and passwords attached -- that it's quite foreign to be on another machine for personal use.

We managed to hit the bank and the grocery store this morning ... stocking up on bread and cereal and milk and yogurt. It wasn't a big store and the kinds of things they had were varied. If I knew how to cook Indian food, I'd be in pretty good shape. I didn't find any sandwich meat, but I did see Pakistani mutton. Grocery prices seem pretty reasonable.

It's hot outside, in a humid hazy sort of way. Not utterly uncomfortable, but not pretty. I have no clear sense of direction yet, and would love to see the ocean, but don't know where it is. I'm trying to decide what to make of things here, and I've decided it's much too early to tell. There is a lot of traffic, crossing the street is hazardous, buildings are unremarkable. It feels like a third-world country with some money, but there is little coherence.

It feels less crowded than Hong Kong, and much less convenient. I haven't seen the ubiquitous food stands and store-front laundries. It might be a factor of my location, but I just don't know.

There are lots of men wandering/loitering outside. Perhaps it's cooler outside than wherever they live. There are no bars to congregate at; maybe it's a way of hanging out without spending money. We haven't yet seen a lot of women. The Emirati men are notable by their traditional dress: White gowns with red checked head coverings. It is quite obvious that men are the majority population here. Also, that foreigners are a majority as well.

Now, mind you, I haven't been here even a full day yet and first impressions are often deceiving. I guess I'll give it a few more days :) ...

Next up, we get cell phone numbers and internet access -- check out the mall and get ready for a full day of work -- the first in many months for me.

Tonight we'll study our style guide, finish reading the day's newspaper (it's very nicely designed, and has a great Saturday magazine), and get used to the idea of a daily routine.

I can't wait!

October 6, 2009

So, Abu Dhabi

By now anyone who reads me knows how much I love to pack. And that's just for a trip. Imagine me trying to pack up my belongings and my home.

And now stop laughing.

Moving a household -- whether or not you are taking your furniture with you -- is no small endeavor. And moving to another country is even more logistically challenging. I have chosen to focus on the logistical stuff -- address changes, bank accounts, bill paying, cat removal -- but that still leaves all the other stuff to be done and if you think I'm purposely avoiding it, you're right.

We are approaching D-Day. That is, delivery of the storage truck. We figured if we made a specific date then we'd have to abide by it. So the truck arrives on Monday at 12:30 p.m. and whatever we want out of the apartment has to be packed and ready by then.

It is, not surprisingly, a daunting task. Our concept of what is precious to us -- and what can be left behind for renters -- changes daily. I am working across the apartment from the collectibles and pottery to the kitchen, with dishes in between. The display cases are empty, so now on to the china cabinet. We also have realized we have woefully, laughably underestimated the number of crates/boxes we will need. We haven't even considered the books yet, although we will have to.

Because it took until last week for the company to send us visas, we weren't ever certain about our departure date and so it was easy to procrastinate. And now, even though we still don't have the tickets in hand yet we know we are leaving on Oct. 15 and that is only 10 days away. OK nine.

So today I'll do a little bit more and then find some excuse to stop. I figure if I can do one set of cabinets each day i'll make it. But I'm keeping my fingers crossed.

September 22, 2009

New Home! (For Sidney)

If all goes as planned (and yes, I know I'm tempting fate!) Sidney will be on his way to his new home on Sunday. In Little Rock, Arkansas.

My fabulous sister-in-law Kati Garcia (soon to be Kati Grabham?) has offered to make room in her home and her heart for Sidney. I'm not usually this sappy, but hey, this is Sidney we're talking about.

Miss Kati arrives in San Diego on Thursday to get married, and told me to have the cat ready for transport on Sunday, when she heads back home. Pending the OK from the vet on Thursday -- and he is doing very well these days, so I don't anticipate any issues -- I'll send him via LAX, he'll get on her plane at Dallas and she'll pick him up in Little Rock.

Don't you just love happily-ever-after??

September 17, 2009

Please Rescue Me

This has been a difficult post to write. While we are looking forward to our new adventure in Abu Dhabi, Sidney can't join us.

He's just too old to make yet another trans-oceanic trip -- especially one that will take 20 hours. Many of you know that Truman didn't survive the trip home from France, and that was three years ago now.

So yes, I'm trying to tug at your heart strings and hoping one of my very few readers will know someone who can offer a good home to Sid. He needs lots of love and attention and will give it back in return.

Despite his size -- 21 pounds -- he's very gentle.

I love this cat more than I can describe, and those of you who know me know I wouldn't do this if I didn't have to.

Drop me a note if you have any ideas. I've already reached out to his vet and am planning to paper Long Beach with posters.

Thanks so much

September 6, 2009

Up Next

Our fabulous five-week run of funemployment is winding down, and we have new and exciting things on the horizon.

The most important thing we accomplished here in Paris (aside from perfecting the art of doing nothing) was that we found jobs!! Both of us!! Working for a newspaper!! In Abu Dhabi. (note lack of exclamation points). Truth be told it will be, I am sure, another in what has been a long string of adventures for us.

As with Beijing, Hong Kong and Paris, I have plans to continue blogging. It's likely there will be the stray post from Long Beach, most probably dealing with the logistics of yet another overseas move. We expect to settle in sometime in mid-October.

So stay tuned.

September 4, 2009

Come Over for Dinner

Putting on a dinner party seems daunting, but it gets a whole lot easier when you have the helpful french merchants to help you plan it. We decided we would have a dinner, and that I would cook. We had had people over on previous occasions, but not at the current 17th arrondissement apartment. Because the Marais apartment is used primarily as a vacation rental, it isn't set up all that well to cook. But the place we're in now has someone living in it full time and so there were actually lots of pots and pans and utensils.

Ultimately, this meant instead of roast chicken from the butcher I was going to make a real dinner. Cook, in fact.

I decided to make magret de canard aux peches -- duck breast with peaches. Now Paul always gets nervous when I make something for guests that he hasn't seen me make before, (I think I'm a pretty good cook, he is occasionally skeptical). But I have made this before, it was just a long time ago, and in my own kitchen with a gas stove and an oven I knew well.

First stop was the butcher. Going to the butcher here is actually a pleasure, rather than a chore. You tell the butcher what you want, and then you can ask for little tips. How long should I cook it? Do you think it's better to put it in the oven or in a pan on the stovetop? And the butcher is always happy to oblige. 14 minutes he said. 7 minutes each side -- whether in the pan or under the broiler. It's my choice, he said -- no difference. That alone would have been helpful. Then, I asked him what he though I should serve as a side dish. I said I had planned to serve it with peaches and he said are you going to use butter to cook them? Of course, I said (although last time I think I cooked them in some of the duck fat). Well, he said, then you don't need anything else. Another side dish would be too much. The peaches were sufficient.

And then, the ultimate. He prepped the breasts for me. I was a bit concerned at first, because it was a straight butcher and not a bird butcher. So he didn't specialize in duck breast, but more in beef and porck. Thus, the duck came prepackaged. But he took them out of the package, cut off the excess fat while leaving plenty to cook with, then scored the fat twice and showed me how to slice it when it was ready. I was just so pleased that he'd done all the hard work. In the end, all I had to do was get it cooked -- whether in the oven or in the pan. My choice, of course.

(A side note here. Those of you who have had roast duck, perhaps in a Chinese restaurant, know there is very little meat. The difference between a magret and a fillet -- both are breast meat -- is that magret comes from ducks fattened to make foie gras. Thus, the breast is very large -- the size of a good-sized chicken breast, in fact, and very meaty. Duck is more like red meat than like poultry.)

The we went to the wine store. I told the owner what I was serving, and asked him to recommend a wine. He asked if I wanted a red and I said yes. Not too expensive, I added. He scanned his reds, thought a minute, then picked out a E4.50 wine and said "This one." He never tried to upsell me, or convince me to get something I didn't want. I asked him for something and he gave it to me. It's a neat trick, isn't it, to actually get what you want. Then I asked him if the E20 Champagne was any good. It was a few euros below all the others, and I was trying for something good but again, not too expensive. Oh yes, he said. That one is excellent. Again, no effort to make me feel cheap, or feel bad that I wasn't going for a big-name Champagne.

So far, the hardest part of the dinner was done. All the figuring out of stuff. I added some very nice cheese, including a Normandy Livarot made with Calvados, some great bread from the now-open bakery across the street (and it was still warm when we bought it!!) and knew we'd have a dessert from one of our guests. That's the other thing I've learned in France. I used to try to do all of it myself, and now, when someone asks if they can bring something, I let them. Usually a dessert, because that always seems like such a hassle.

In the end, we had a lovely meal, with very good company. We had two bottles of Champagne and three and a half bottles of red. We had a view of the Eiffel Tower through our floor-to-ceiling windows, one of our guests brought a marvelous Bourdeaux which we had with the cheese course, and we oohed and aahed over the darling tarts brought for dessert. (the lemon tart with lime shavings was amazingly good).

Life here can be incredibly civilized. I know in my heart it's impossible to duplicate this sort of thing in California, and believe me, I've tried. It just goes against everything in American culture. We don't want to linger over dinner, talk about non-work topics with our friends, invite interesting people over and see what happens. We don't want to drink too much wine, or drive too far to get where we're going, or interrupt our TV schedules.

And it's a shame.

In any case, life is different here -- even cooking dinner for friends -- for both good and ill. And as reluctant as I am to leave, I think I'd like to do it before my current love affair with Paris comes to an end; before we have our first inevitable fight.

August 29, 2009

Random Paris Thoughts

I have all these ideas when I'm walking around, and of course when I sit down to write I can't think of anything (except to brag about my new iPod!)

So, here goes: A random collection of things I've been thinking about the last week or so.

The bananas in Hong Kong were the best I've ever eaten. ... Food prices in Paris seem higher, but upon weight conversions, etc., really aren't any worse than Ralph's. ... The Fran Prix in the Marais is markedly more expensive than the Monoprix in the 17th, which seems slightly counter-intuitive. ... At the Paris Plage festival, there was a big old jungle-gym type thing that was incredibly dangerous to my American eyes, and all Paul and I could think of was: The insurance for that thing must be really high! ... The best thing about the Marais, to me, is that we are half a block from one of the best bakeries in Paris, and get to enjoy fresh and still-warm baguettes daily. ... I found a butcher at the Bastille market who sells the most amazing roast chicken I've ever eaten. ... I am realizing that all I have to say is about food. ... I love having fresh flowers in the apartment, but all the florists are still closed for the summer. ... Speaking of closed, doesn't it seem a bit odd that a shop that specializes in ice cream would be closed for the month of August? ... We had dinner at one of our favorite restaurants, right at the base of the Eiffel Tower. I never get tired of going there. ... I find my French has come back rather well, but I can't grasp certain vocabulary words that used to come easily (like puree for mashed potatoes -- but maybe it was the wine) ... Everyone raves about the efficient Metro system here, but it is the bus system that is the real star of public transportation. You get a mini sight-seeing tour with every trip. ... It's amazing to see the population of a neighborhood triple as summer comes to an end.

August 28, 2009

Summertime, and the Living is Easy

It's a funny thing about memory. While I enjoyed my time in Paris, I'm not sure I ever decided, consciously, "I don't want to leave Paris." I guess I always imagined I would, in the beginning, and then it turned into a sort of resignation. "I've been here seven years now, probably just going to stay."

In any case, I found myself thinking this morning, while walking through the Marais, "I don't want to leave Paris." We have had a perfect confluence of events here. Empty streets, beautiful weather (today is especially gorgeous) good times, good food, ultimate relaxation.

When you are on vacation, it's easy to forget what December is like -- short and dark days -- and to ignore the daily indignities that go with city living.

We are all too aware that our remaining time is short, and I'm not exactly in a panic, but I certainly am reluctant to get back to reality -- whatever that entails.

One thing is sure: We will do this again.

August 25, 2009

Something for Nothing

Since we arrived, some people have been offering free 10-minute massages on the Pont St. Louis. It seems to be a crazy concept: A visitor sits on a little canvas stool and someone gives them a quickie 10-minute body massage. After walking by a half dozen times, I decided to give it a go.

It wasn't a hot day, so that wasn't an issue. And it wasn't a weekend day, so there wasn't a big crowd. I just sat in the chair and the woman got ready for my massage. It's free, she said. And we don't do your front and you must leave your clothes on. (As if ... I'm sitting on a public bridge!)

And then she proceeded to knead my neck and shoulders, then my back, then my arms and legs. I was totally blissed out, as you can tell from the photo.

I tipped her E1.50 (which is what happened to be in my wallet) and she asked me to sign a petition asking (the city?) permission to conduct this public service in the winter, in the Metro. And presumably not on the train itself .

What better publicity than a free trial of something like this? I think perhaps it was organized by a massage school in town, although I'm not certain. They gave me a slip of paper with an email address, presumably to make a paying appointment. They also had the url of a youtube video.
The blurb with the video says:

Un super concept de Convivialité Citoyenne et Job de complément pour Etudiants, Chômeurs, Retraités. Formation rapide et gratuite, y compris à distance.

Roughly translated, and my French friends will be sure to correct me if I err: A super idea of of citizen friendliness and a side-job for students, the unemployed and retired people. A quick, free course is available, and can be taken by correspondence.

What a way to de-stress from the rigors of city life!

August 24, 2009

If You Wish Hard Enough ...

You may recall my iPod has been relegated to an iPaperweight. Big red X of death and all.

Well, I got an extremely pleasant surprise (OK, a really exciting surprise) when my sister- and brother-in-law arrived in Paris over the weekend and gave me a shiny new iPod for my birthday. Seems they read my sad blog entry and thought of the perfect gift.

Honestly, it's too much. I hadn't wished for a new one -- it's an extravagance right now -- and figured I'd just use my old one on batteries once I got home. Having said that, of course, I can also say: "I love it and am thrilled to have received it!"

It's a shiny silver iPod Classic with 120GB of space. More than I can listen to in a month. And so now I will sync from my laptop, maybe put on some photos, download a movie or two ... and I'll be good to go.

August 20, 2009

Maybe You Can Go Home Again

We are settling in so nicely here in Paris that I almost don't feel as if I'm away. Obviously I don't have my apartment and my things, but I do have Paris, and that turns out to have been mine all along.

I am surprised at how easily I fell back into the rhythm of daily life here and accepted all the little differences that occur to distinguish life here from life in California.

I know, too, that if I stay long enough I will find the daily annoyances that used to drive me crazy and will, again. But for now, I am reveling in it. Someone forces me off the sidewalk? Quelle suprise! No bakery open in the 17th for blocks and blocks? Of course, it's August. It helps that I do not have to work, nor navigate my way to and from anywhere on a regular basis. I can simply enjoy the city on my terms, and I have been doing that.

Earlier in the week we went to the Parc Monceau so Paul could run. It was my first time there, even though I'd known of it forever. But it's not in "my" neighborhood, so I never really had cause to visit. It's lovely there, and I was surprised by all the hustle and bustle. We were there late morning, around 11 I'd guess, and there had to be 30 joggers out, crowding the path around the park. I felt like I'd stumbled into a race.

There were kids visiting, too, from whatever daycare/daycamp/dayschool. I love watching little kids on excursions here. They hold hands in pairs or trios and have name tags pinned to their shirts. Then they snake around on their way to getting where they're going (in this case, it was the duck pond.)

I can't -- and won't -- compare living here to living in Long Beach. It's not a fair comparison as each has its own charms. While I'd love a local park in Long Beach where there are no homeless people taking up all the benches, I'd also love a beach in Paris that wasn't man-made and planted along the Seine.

You take what you can get wherever you are, I think. And right now, I'm taking all I can from Paris.

August 13, 2009

Hanging Around

When we said were going to hang out in Paris, we really meant it. If we do any true, touristic sightseeing, it will probably be accidental, or maybe out of a sense of obligation near the end of our stay. As in: I always did want to see the Chateau at Fontainebleu.

For now, we're just taking in the sights around us, and, as usual, I marvel at all the things there are to see. (And, within the next few days, I hope to post some photos on flickr)

We are in the Marais, always chock-full of people and interesting shops. Walking over to the Bastille area today I passed a man singing opera in the arcades of the Place to Vosges, very near to the fancy Pavillon des Reines hotel. (video to come)

The last several days there have been rock concerts at the Hotel de Ville. There is always something going on at Paris Plage, along the quay. We found free massages offered by massage students on the bridge between the Ile St Louis and the Ile de la Cite.

Of course, this is summer, but that doesn't always mean there are more things around. In fact, because a good number of locals get out of town, it often means there are less. The outdoor markets, for example, are sparsely populated by merchants and there are no weekend markets that feature, say, arts and crafts or brocante.

Still, it's a feast for the eyes, and I love just walking down the streets, looking at different neighborhoods and hanging out.

Maybe we'll take a boat ride one day, and manage to hang out and sight-see in one fell swoop.

The Day(s) the Music Died

My iPod died on Saturday, but it took several days for the coroner to pronounce.

It began by jamming, and not producing sound. The first shop fiddled with it and up came the red x of death. He shook his head sadly, and said I might have some luck with another shop. I tried a specialized Apple shop, and the guy gave me a sad smile as he listened to the off-track whir of the hard drive.

Now I have an iDoorstop as my brother Dan said. Or maybe an iPaperweight.

I don't fault Apple so much -- it fell off the bed, albeit it was a short fall. It's possible in the last 18 months it has banged around and this was the final straw. But it does seem to me that iPods are so ubiquitous there must be many accidents like this and they probably should have a lifespan of more than 18 months.

I love my iPod, and I loved my iPod before this. I never would have guessed it, but I was made for an iPod. When I lived in Paris full-time, I was rarely seen on the street without the earbuds. My own personal soundtrack for life.

My first one, one of the early generations, had some battery issues and while it plays it doesn't hold much of a charge. Paul got me a new one for Christmas in 2007 and I fell in love with him all over again. There was no gift that year that I wanted more. And this one was inscribed, which made it all the more special.

The guy at the store conceded that iPods weren't made to be repaired and the cost to even try would be more than getting a new one -- especially in the U.S.

And if this one weren't sentimental, I'd probably just turn around and buy a Nano on my return -- something within my budget until I decided to go back to the Classic that I have. Either way, I won't make a decision until we get back in September.

Until then I'm just kind of sad about it.

August 7, 2009

Evolution of an Evening

One of the things that happens here, that doesn't happen quite so often at home, is the accidental social event.

Last night we dropped by a friend's place, where we will be staying later in the month, to meet the woman who is there now and sort of get the lay of the land.

We parted company five hours later.

It was innocuous enough: we came in off the street rather warm and she offered us something to drink. Some Rose? Some red wine? Water? Orangina? We opted for Rose, and after taking a brief tour around the apartment, we sat down to chat and drink and have some nibbles. (All good Parisian hostesses offer a little something with the wine.) We finished the Rose and moved on to the Cahors. By the time we finished that bottle, (effortlessly, I must say), I looked at the clock, saw it was 9:30 p.m. and decided we should probably eat something.

We had a change of venue to the brasserie down the street and settled in for more conversation. That's the other thing: you get to meet some fascinating people out here. This woman, with whom I have several friends in common, graduated from the same University as I did. Her husband worked at the IHT a few years before I arrived, but it is her tale that is most interesting. She initially wanted to cover Latin American affairs at the Miami Herald back when women didn't really do that. She got a Ph.D in International Relations so she could do it, and still they were reluctant.

Many cities and university professorships later, she is teaching journalism in Abu Dhabi. How's that for a grand adventure?

We both ordered moules frites, one of several things on my must-eat-when-I'm-back-in-Paris list, Paul ordered a salad, and we talked for another two hours.

That's the fun of it -- we thought we'd stop by to check out the wi-fi connection, and closing in on midnight we were on the Metro back to the Marais. We didn't overstay our welcome, or impose on her plans ... it just sort of evolved, as things like that so often do here.

Accidental social event indeed.

August 5, 2009

Twinkle, Twinkle

We were invited for dinner tonight, to the apartment of friends who live in the 7th, mere blocks from my old stomping grounds. While I'm enjoying the variety of a new quartier, I really do miss the 7th and its wide boulevards, numerous trees and open spaces.

Dinner was nice, Nicola made a tarte aux pommes avec confit de canard (apple tart with shredded duck) and I got to see one of my favorite kids in the world -- her son Luke. We also were introduced to her new son, Ben.

On the way back to the metro, as we were crossing a street I looked up and saw the Eiffel Tower twinkling. This is the first time since we've been back that I've seen it -- lit up or not. My heart thrilled. All these years later and I still love the Eiffel Tower.

It doesn't hurt, either, that Paul proposed to me underneath it, and as it was twinkling. So I don't mean to be all sappy, but it was definitely pretty cool. If I see it another hundred times in my life I won't ever tire of it.

LAT Update

The woman house-sitting for us in Long Beach e-mailed to tell us the Los Angeles Times called, and asked if we would subscribe -- for 50 cents a week.

Because she answered the phone, and not I, she said "No, thank you." Were it I who received the call the answer would have been: "I would pay you $4 if you could get it to my door."

But you all know that already.

Ah, Paris

We're actually here and I think sometimes, maybe you can go home again.

I've got this strange dilemma: Paris-Long Beach, Long Beach-Paris. They are two very different places, and offer me two very different things. But I'm equally at home in both of them, for now, and glad to leave one for the other, if only temporarily.

Tuesday evening, once we had settled into our Marais apartment (ok, Liz's Marais apartment -- and for those of you wishing to visit Paris, I highly recommend her place.) We went to the ATM, went to the grocery store, found out one of my favorite bakeries is open the whole month! And then we strolled over to the Ile St Louis.

We were hanging out on the quay, enjoying the magnificent weather, watching people line up for Berthillon ice cream (and did I have my camera? sadly, no). The summer flavors are here: peche de vigne, fruit de la passion, fraise de bois, pamplemousse. Each mouthful offers an amazing flavor burst that's hard to describe. You can tell that the flavors are only offered in season, and made from real fruit.

Afterward, revelling in the still-light sky at about 9:30 p.m., we met up with a great friend of mine, and had some wine and Badoit and good conversation. She and Paul got into a really good discussion of philosophy, of all things, and that was sort of their point: She could name a half dozen well-known philosophers, he none. And how that was a cultural thing.

When we finally went to sleep, I marveled at how I could be in one of the noisiest quartiers in the city, yet it was silent outside because we're within the courtyard -- no sirens or cars or people like in Long Beach.

We have more to do today -- find me a sim card for the cell phone, head over to the Luxembourg Gardens so Paul can run, meet up with friends for dinner.

And so much to enjoy.

July 30, 2009

Adventures in Paris

We're hitting the road next week, again. Paris-bound for the rest of the summer.

Once I started blogging, I wished I had done this in Paris as I was getting to know the city. Now I have the chance to know it in a different, more leisurely way, and from different neighborhoods.

I hope you'll check in from time to time to see what we're up to.

July 29, 2009

The Loss of a Newspaper

This week we finally gave up on the LA Times. It had nothing to do with the cutbacks, although we have noticed how thin the paper has gotten. It had everything to do with the fact the circulation department, or what passes for it these days, couldn't manage to deliver it.

If it seems to you that we should be the last people who should be canceling their daily newspaper, you would not be mistaken. And we have replaced it, for the time being, with the Long Beach Press-Telegram (a shell of its former self, but that's another post).

If you were to look at our delivery records, you would find that at least twice a week we would call for a replacement paper because someone had stolen ours. The circulation department seemed not to notice the unusually high replacement rate. And oftentimes, the replacement paper wouldn't come, either.

I got fed up a few weeks ago and asked to cancel. The rep apologized, and asked if I would be willing to give them another chance. They would deliver the paper in plastic with my apartment number on it. I agreed. The next day, the paper came wrapped in plastic with my apartment number on it. But that was the last time.

Two weeks more of spotty service, more annoyance and another phone call. Would we be willing to give them another chance? No, I said. I gave you a chance. They suggested it was my fault because I live in an apartment, and they couldn't deliver to my door. I told them if their delivery agent purchased a key, then all the subscribers in our building could have the paper delivered to their door, thus solving the problem of stolen papers. (I discovered during this process that my paper was not the only one to disappear). The rep asked if a supervisor could call me, and noted the problems in my file, recounting back to me the troubles I'd had.

I didn't want to cancel the paper. How can I tell people they need to continue to support print papers if I cancel? So I agreed, again.

The supervisor never called, the paper arrived sporadically, and when only half of the Sunday paper arrived this week (clearly someone had picked through it) we gave up.

I called yesterday to cancel the paper. The rep asked if I would give them another chance. I said no. He asked if there was anything they could do to keep me and I said no -- all I wanted was to get the paper I was paying for.

We didn't ask for a discount, or for our money back for papers we didn't receive. We didn't ask for a special deal or special treatment. All we wanted was the paper. A seemingly simple request.

Maybe it's not so much that nobody wants the paper, but that nobody can actually get it.

And by the way -- our Press-Telegram arrives at our door every morning, wrapped in plastic.

July 24, 2009

Welcome to Utah?

We have encountered the weirdest phenomenon here in Utah. A rash of unfriendly, aloof, unpleasant locals.

And this is weird because Utahans have a reputation for being warm and welcoming. Inside the national parks, the employees have been just great. But outside, it's been odd. Maybe because these are small towns -- but the volume of visitors has to be really high. And it's not your typical locals hating the hands that feed them like you find in the beach towns or the ski resorts. People in those places aren't known for being friendly. Utahans are.

We have had dismissive hotel clerks and rude waitresses and candy-shop owners who clearly aren't interested in our business. Lest you think we are uptight city folk, we'll let you be the judge.

Waitress to restaurant customer: Hold on, I only have two hands! Waitress to restaurant customers who have just been seated: Are you ready yet? At another spot -- Me: Are the bagels fresh? Her: I have no idea. At the candy store: Me: Do you sell candy by the piece or only by the pound? Owner: I prefer to sell it by the pound, but I guess I could sell you a piece. At the sporting goods shop, regarding rental equipment: Unless they close the canyon, no refunds and that's just the way it is.

Some of it is the delivery. And maybe we're overly sensitive. But we're a New Yorker and a Southern Californian; we're used to brusque. This was just unfriendly.

We haven't encountered any rude tourists. And I'm guessing the behavior of the localss isn't as obvious to the hordes of Europeans visiting because it's a cultural thing, and they don't know any better.

But it's too bad -- the personal experiences have almost overwhelmed all the great things we've seen and it doesn't make me want to recommend Utah for anything other than its sights.

Having said that, if you find yourself in Springdale, Utah, in the middle of Zion National Monument, go to the Pioneer Restaurant for an awesome, well-priced steak dinner and ask for Ashley as your waitress.

And skip the candy store.

July 22, 2009

Technological Mix-up

This is a bit odd: Great cellphone reception at the Grand Canyon, no Internet access. Zero cellphone access at Bryce Canyon (and in the surrounding towns) and free wi-fi in all the hotels.

Picking Pretty

I am blown away by Utah. Driving from the Grand Canyon to Bryce Canyon I saw some of the most amazing scenery I've ever encountered.

After touring Bryce, I found myself comparing it to the Grand Canyon. The GC is, in fact, quite majestic. It's lovely. But it's just ... oh, I can't even put my finger on it. But I feel "guilty" for not being as fascinated with it as I think I should be. Yup, it's pretty. You bet, it's pretty cool. Now what?

But Utah, oh my. With the colors and the hoodoos and the arches. Maybe it's slightly more accessible, right there on the the side of the road, as you drive past and it's up-close and more personal than that vast, gorgeous canyon.

It's sort of like Brad Pitt and George Clooney: There's no denying they're both handsome and sexy, but for most people, one stands out over the other.

There must be a more adequate way to describe this! I wonder if I post a photo of each, you'll be kind enough to help me out.

July 21, 2009

Raining Cats and Dogs

Liz and I left the 114 degree climes of Las Vegas on Monday morning about 10 a.m. on our way to the Grand Canyon. It was already hot and we weren't sorry to see the neon behind us. We were tooling around in our PT Cruiser and heading southeast (?). Driving past Hoover Dam was cool; I've never been. Lake Mead looked a bit weird. Not quite clean, although it may have been the way the sky was reflecting on the water.

We had heard the forecast of scattered thunderstorms, but didn't think much about it. About 50 miles into Arizona, the Emergency Broadcast System broke into our Classics radio station to warn about flash flooding at mile 28 and back to the Nevada border. We took note, and were glad we were clear of it.

Then we took a closer look at what was ahead: Huge thunderclouds in the middle, obvious rain coming down in shadow from the clouds in that weird Charlton Heston way; a major duststorm to our right and beautiful clear skies to our left. We weren't sure what awaited us. Liz oohed and aahed at the lightning and I, who don't like it, just hoped it stayed on the horizon. I'm a flincher and that's all I need at 75 mph, thunder claps.

But we drove right into an incredible storm. I can't believe how hard it rained. It was one of those summer downpours that comes down so hard, it usually lasts only about 20 minutes. But not this one. We drove through a horrendous storm for 100 miles. Fortunately there wasn't a lot of traffic, and I was able to drive slowly and hydroplaned once. At one point, though, I had to pull over. I absolutely couldn't see a thing -- and Liz had to guide me to the shoulder because I wasn't sure there was one. It was kind of hairy, actually.

When we finally got to the Grand Canyon, six-plus hours after we left Vegas, it was clear again. Temps had dropped to the 60s and we got to walk around the Canyon, which is just stunning. Liz had the foresight to sign us up for a Sunset tour and so we got on a bus that stopped at some amazing vistas and we had a knowledgeable tour guide giving us the scoop on all the stuff. He knew that sunset was at 7:43 and said he was certain of only one thing: Not that we would be able to see it with all the clouds, but that it would, indeed, set.

We got a pretty nice sunset, but not the spectacular canyon colors we had hoped for. But we weren't terribly disappointed.

Liz booked us a room at the Bright Angel Lodge, a series of cabins along the rim of the canyon. We're about 15 yards from the edge, I'd guess (although at this point, if I were telling the story to Paul, he'd say: "You have no idea how far 15 yards is, do you?") *It's actually more like 100 feet. She got up at 5:30 a.m. to go on three-hour hike. I had the idea of sleeping a bit later and still enjoying the morning light in the Canyon, but apparently people who stay here don't sleep. They talk loudly and are out (and in and out and in) the door between 5 and 6:30. I finally got up, cleaned up our stuff and was outside and it was still just 7:45 a.m.

It's pretty here; it's peaceful; it's nice nature for a city girl. Next stop: Bryce Canyon.

Vegas, Baby

One year to the weekend, coincidentally, I am back in Vegas. With a journalist, even. My friend Liz and I are taking a road trip. She has flown in from New York and we are spending two days in Vegas on our way to touring several Western National Parks. Vegas has not been immune from the financial crisis, and hotel rates were very cheap this July. Except for Saturday, July 18. I don't know why this is. But when the Stratsophere is charging upward of $125 a night on Saturday and $29 on Sunday, something is afoot.

So, our options slightly limited, we opted for the Golden Nugget. I've probably been to Vegas, what? two dozen times? and I've never been Downtown, much less stayed there. And for those of you who think the clientele in fancy Vegas -- Caesar's, Paris, Mandalay -- is downmarket, well you ain't seen nothin' till you've been down on Fremont street and in and out of the downtown casinos.

The Nugget is a lovely hotel. It's four-star, clean, spacious and comfortable. Our first night there, with the blackout curtains drawn, we slept something like 10 hours. It was gorgeous.

The people -- well that's a whole 'nother thing. It's actually kind of sad: The saggy, hard-looking and overweight showgirl types who have bad teeth and don't look a day under 50, although they probably are about 30. The dealers and cocktail waitresses who look like they're just trying to get through a shift. Hey, I know work isn't glamorous. And that kind of work really isn't. But there's usually an illusion about it. But not Downtown.

The upside of downtown for tourists is cheap tables and penny slots. (Although we discovered that coins seem to have gone out of fashion; now you play with -- and for -- tickets on the machines. Quieter, but not more fun.)
I played a few hands of blackjack at an empty $5 table and won about $35. It was a thrill. Liz, it turns out, has no idea how to play blackjack, and the whole thing amazed her. We played a little video poker (she doesn't know how to do that, either) and I taught her how to play video blackjack while we sat at some casino bar drinking our 99 cent margaritas and $2 Coronas. For those of you who saw "The Hangover" we definitely had the opposite experience. Were there two tamer people in town? (OK, two tamer people who weren't holding up "Repent Sinners" signs?)

I'm always excited when I get to Vegas and then after 36 hours, max, I'm ready to hit the road. The neon, especially downtown, is thrilling. The Fremont Street Experience is weird. The 114 degree temperatures I could do without. No matter who I go with, we always have grand plans, and end up shopping and eating and ready to bail on the place as soon as we can.

But Vegas was just the beginning ... now on to the Grand Canyon.