December 19, 2010

Love, Peace and Joy

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December 11, 2010

Paradise Found -- Or What Passes For It

Sadly, I take few pleasures from life in the Gulf. But going to the beach in December is one of them.

It is the start of beach season here. After an eight-month summer, the lovely weather has finally arrived. Families are out and about, hitting the parks and beaches.

The country inaugurated winter with a four-day weekend last week, and I stayed away because of the crowds (ok and because we were moving and I was sick). Instead, I went to the beach today and it was beautiful. It wasn't a really nice day -- too much smog -- but being at the beach alleviates all that for me.

When I'm stretched out on a lounge chair, with a book (or a kindle) in hand, listening to the water lap the shore, there's nothing better. No matter how many times in my life I do this, I don't think I'll ever stop being surprised at how therapeutic it all feels.

We plan to make the most of the winter. Maybe get a barbecue for our new, more-spacious patio. And I plan to spend more time at the beach.

A New Year's resolution.

October 23, 2010

Another Paris Interlude

Yes, yes, I realize it's been more than two months since I blogged. You see, I get these ideas and then ... I know, you don't care. You just want to see something, anything, written in this space.

I get that. Really I do. And my intentions are good. But I get an idea and then when I get to the computer ... I'd like to say it's age related, but I'm just kind of bad at remembering.

We are finishing up a three-week trip to France that has been very relaxing and easy-going. One week house hunting in the south, in the Languedoc region, and two weeks in Paris. The house hunting was interesting, but not terribly fruitful. And because two job leads fell through, not entirely practical, either.

Back in the city it feels like home to me. I'm oddly comfortable here. I probably wrote that in the previous post, too, and it remains true, even though the Paris of summer -- empty, warm, endlessly light -- has disappeared in October.

We went to the food fair -- my parents' excuse for visiting us here during this trip -- and came back with armagnac, foie gras and lovely fig chutney. And some death trumpets. Those are deep black mushrooms with an earthy taste and a bit of a chewy texture. The mushrooms have been one of the highlights of this visit. Being here in the fall brings with it so many good food things: pumpkin soup, fricassee of wild mushrooms, roasted figs ... It's my favorite time of year.

We also had the opportunity to go to Deauville to watch a friend's horse race. The horse, George, didn't finish in the money, but she is optimistic about his future. See below

In terms of being optimistic for the future -- what other options are there? We've had so much time to think lately, and ponder options and wants and needs. We're sort of sure what we want, we're not entirely sure of how to get it, and yet I am certain we will.

How's that for optimism?

video

August 17, 2010

Comfortable Again

We interrupt the usual Abu Dhabi whine-fest to detail the joys of being back in Paris.

Paris is a funny place. When I left, in 2006, I definitely needed a break from it. I suspect that is true of all cities, and maybe all places. Sometimes you just need to deal with a completely different set of circumstances.

In the last year or so, especially after we spent five weeks here last summer, we have been trying to return permanently. Paris, it is clear to me, is where my home should be. I am more comfortable here than I am in California. I know this place, and it suits me.

All sorts of ideas are cropping up in my efforts to figure out how to get back here, more or less permanently. How long must I work in Abu Dhabi to afford living here without constant work? What sort of company can I start that will fund a meager lifestyle? Is there anyone who needs a freelancer with my particular talents?

We stayed in the 11th arrondissement when we arrived. More than ten years ago, when I first spent time in that neighborhood, it was awful. Sketchy and dangerous. Now, it's more vibrant, a little more gentrified, a lot more expensive. There are still some dubious characters hanging around -- it seems to be a favorite spot for 20-something junkies and their dogs -- but it's nothing like it was in 1998. Or even 2004.

Part of this neighborhood wandering we are doing is to try to suss out where we would like to live. Some if it is pure daydreaming, but the reality is if we come back here, we won't be able to afford the old neighborhood -- the 7th -- and that's a shame.

Each trip back here we find new opportunities and get a little closer to life goals we weren't aware we had. And it's been a fabulous adventure.

August 4, 2010

(Fill in the Blank) Need not Apply

In the US, while we still have pay disparities between men and women and, I'm certain, between people of different races, it is nothing compared to what goes on here in the UAE.

It is not unusual for someone to advertise a job and say "Indians only" or Filipinos, for that matter. And your nationality is the key to your pay. If you are from the west -- Europe, North America, Australia -- you can command a salary far higher than someone with similar experience and education.

Salaries here at the paper run the gamut. And there are definite rumors that those journalists from the sub-continent are not paid as well as those from Great Britain for doing equal work. A colleague's wife is a naturalized American citizen from Russia. She was applying for a job, haggling at the point of salary. The manager, a Singaporean, was unwilling to pay her more than he, himself, made. And he told her he could get a Russian cheaper. She stubbornly told him that she was American, not Russian. It's a curious thing: citizenship determining salary.

This plays out in all fields. Filipina maids can earn more than Indian maids. Families are particular about which nationalities they have in their home. There is no great equalizer here -- everyone speaks English, those who are educated are often well-educated. I suspect at some point, skin color comes into play, too. But with the nationality looming large, it's hard to see.

July 30, 2010

Picking Through the Plastic

The amount of packaging here, for food products, is phenomenal. At our home, we go through an appalling amount of plastic wrap and plastic containers and foil and wrappers. We do recycle the containers by washing and reusing them, but there are so many other things we have no control over.

When I go to the grocery store, if I have bought any fresh food, I will emerge with between seven and ten plastic containers. Each one of these will be double-wrapped in plastic wrap. If the food is meat of some sort, then it will be on a styrofoam tray, wrapped in foil and then wrapped in plastic wrap. Muffins come in cupcake papers, in cardboard cupcake holders on top of styrofoam and wrapped in plastic wrap.

It's pretty awful.

And what made me think about this is actually cookies. There are some sugar wafers they sell here that I like. They appear to be made in Dubai, (the company is based in the UAE_ but imported from Lebanon. They also have English, and Spanish on the label. That kind of throws me -- the Spanish.

But perhaps their origin explains the packaging. They are sealed in a foil packet, and then put into a cardboard box. Then they are wrapped again in a foil-type wrapper. Because they are sugar wafers, they don't hold up well in the humidity. This is the only explanation I can think of.

Yet there is no question that everything here is over-packaged. Coming from a culture where it has been drilled into us to recycle and re-use, it's maddening to find the trash filled only with plastic and packaging. And it makes me feel guilty, because I know better.

But recycling is a long way off here. There are recycling bins in some places, and some neighborhoods claim to recycle. But anecdotal information tells us that the recyle trash bins go into the same truck with the regular trash. And if even if the municipality supported recylcling ... where would this happen? We have no recycling plants.

I still think there must be a better way. I have no idea what it is, though, so I do my part by re-using my plastic forks and washing my plastic containers. a

July 29, 2010

Random Thoughts

Random and pointless musing:

It takes a bit of ingenuity to live in a foreign country. It's not that it's difficult, per se, it's just that things are not always done in a manner you are used to.

After living in France so long, I know the French tricks by now. For example, you can't buy aspirin in a grocery store, you must go to the pharmacy. And if you forget how much income tax you owe you can simply go to your local tax bureau and ask them. You can buy stamps at the post office -- or at a bar that sells cigarettes. I had a whole list of these things, but of course now I've forgotten them.

(And an aside: this is why I haven't been blogging -- I get ideas and then forget them by the time I'm anywhere near the computer)

In any case, Abu Dhabi is no different. You can get just about anything you want here -- it's probably better, even, than the US in that sense -- but you need to know where to look. And, of course, that's the trick.

We are staying downtown for the summer, as I'm sure we've mentioned, in a high-rise apartment. Below us are dozens of tiny shops that sell hardware and materials. I don't know exactly what they sell, but they seem to pack a ton of stuff into their little shops.

Like other cities (Hong Kong, for example) the businesses here tend to cluster. We are in the hardware neighborhood. Several blocks over is the cellphone neighborhood, and closer to work is the tailor neighborhood. In these little enclaves, there are dozens of the same businesses. I don't have any idea how this works, in terms of competition.

In any case, I have gone to the little stores for various things, never knowing until I get there if they will have what I want. Tonight, I needed a light bulb. I'm pretty sure I could get one at the big supermarket, but I already did my week's shopping, and I'm not going back until I have to.
Keep in mind, too, that the temperature hasn't dipped below 95 in months, so when I go out, I plan it pretty carefully.

I decided I would go to the little shops tonight, after work. Somehow it seems a bit cooler at night, even though it isn't, really. So I walk over and out of six shops on the nearest side street, five are closed. I forgot that it is Thursday night, and while big shops are open later, small shops close earlier. And these shops cater to builders and handymen; Friday is the one day they take off.

I walk into the store, a bit tentatively. There are faucets and electrical adapters and drills on the walls. I have been to a store like this and had keys made and bought drill bits. Almost nothing is accessible by the consumer. The man behind the counter takes the proffered light bulb from me, and turns to the jam-packed wall behind him. Then, he slides out a hidden shelf filled with light bulbs.

He takes down a package of bulbs, opens the box, compares the bulb to mine and says: "Only frosted." My bulb is clear. I think a minute, and figure well, at least it will last until I can get to a place that sells clear bulbs. Remember, it's (and I've just looked this up) 97 degrees, feels like 118 ... I'm not interested in turning this into a project.

So I say fine. He says four dirhams. I think I've misheard him -- four dirhams is $1.09. For two specialty light bulbs. I give him a five, and he gives me back two -- saying there's a discount. There's always a discount, and I never know why or when. Prices are incredibly flexible here.

Now I have two lightbulbs. That's the whole story. I thought it would be more interesting. But it's not.

Wait till I write about shopping for clothes.

July 10, 2010

No Drinking Problem Here

I was aware of the unusual circumstances surrounding alcohol before I moved here. To wit, only non-Muslims may drink legally, and one may drink publicly only in hotel bars and restaurants. (This is a slight oversimplification, but you get the point).

In any case, I made sure to pack my trusty corkscrew. It's a waiter's corkscrew, with a double notch and it makes it easy to take the cork out -- no strenuous pulling.

Interestingly, though, I have rarely used it. Not, of course, because I am not drinking. Ha. But because almost all the wine available here has a screw top. It's a bit weird, and at first it doesn't seem like you're drinking wine. I like the ritual of pulling the cork, the satisfying pop it makes when it comes out.

But I have to say -- the screw tops are pretty easy. And on those rare occasions when we don't finish a bottle, we just put the top on and open it later. It keeps quite nicely.

As I mentioned, we are staying downtown, at the home of some friends. The apartment is well-located, about a half-block from a very large liquor store. You wouldn't know it was a liquor store, of course, unless someone told you. There are no windows or signs indicating what it is. It's just a red building.

I went last week, and took a colleague's just-arrived wife with me. I have a liquor license, and she doesn't (yet). So we went on a bit of a spree. There was a sale, with wine 40 percent off. Since the tax on wine is 30 percent, that can make for some well-priced bottles.

I have not seen many familiar labels, outside of the Australian wines. But it's been fun trying to pick and guess what might be decent.

One especially amusing grouping of French wines caught my eye: a Longue-Dog (with a picture of a dachshound) and a Chat en Oeuf (a cat sitting on an egg). I thought the puns were hysterical. A Languedoc and a Chateau-Neuf; how incredibly clever.

We opened the Longue Dog last night --it is a grenache syrah blend, a vin de pays d'oc or a tablewine. Blends, and wine made from out-of-region grapes in France are not afforded any AOC designation, but that doesn't make them less good.

In any case, the bottle was originally priced at Dh35, or about $9.50. Wine doesn't get much cheaper than that here. Plus the 40 percent off made it a bargain.

It was actually very good. Drinkable, smooth ... no complaints here. So I will buy it agian, and be amused when I do so. And next, we will try the Chat en Oeuf.

June 24, 2010

Packing and Moving and Moving and Packing

How did I get into this seemingly never-ending cycle?

I have vowed, many times, never to move again. This, of course, was never going to happen, but I never expected this.

Since I left France in 2006 (where I stayed put, essentially, for seven years) I have moved from Paris to Long Beach to Highland to Long Beach to Hong Kong to Long Beach to Abu Dhabi. Within these moves, there were two long-term stays in Paris, one month and three monts, each of which had several subset moves. In Hong Kong, there were three moves., and in Abu Dhabi, so far, two.

Now, we are preparing for another move. We have been asked to house sit for friends who are fortunate to have the entire summer off. They live downtown, a neighborhood we find too crowded, but they have a 14th-floor three-bedroom, three-bathroom palace. We figured why not -- our place is small, a change of scenery would be nice. They have two couches!! And a kitchen!! With a real stove!! Cold water in the showers!! And, best of all: no ants.

We have had an ant infestation since the weather turned super-hot (as opposed to merely really hot). They aren't in the kitchen, thankfully, but they are everywhere else. Climbing up the walls, in and out of outlets in search of ...water? cooler climes? They even drag their food inside to eat it. No kidding -- several times we have seen ants eating a dead bee or some such in our entry way. They have come inside to dine.

We have been reluctant to use poison because it's already hard to breathe here. And our home remedies (Windex) work a little. So there are ants that appear on my computer, and on my arm when I'm on the couch and across the coffee table and in the newspaper. It's maddening. They are tiny and very, very fast.

But back to the move. So now we are preparing to move into this new place until early September. For the time being, I'm packing just enough to get myself to work until my next day off. We don't own anything here, really, so it's just like getting ready for a vacation.

At least that's what I tell myself, as I realize that moving is inevitable in my life these days. Just like death and taxes.

June 16, 2010

I'm So Hip

There is an expression among women that goes a bit like this: "That (fill-in-the-blank) will go right to my hips."

I've heard it all my life, but it was never an issue for me -- until this week. I was lucky enough to be a skinny girl most of my life. Until I turned 30, and since then it's gone a bit downhill. But I've never been one to worry about dieting or food, really.

Then came the Italian vacation. I didn't worry then, either, and came home to discover that after two weeks of amazing pasta, pizza, pastries and a little gelato, my pants didn't fit. It's not that they were snug. It's that they didn't fit. None of them.

How did I not notice this as I ate my way down the Italian coast? Easy. I was wearing skirts or yoga pants the whole time. Pure comfort. If I had sen it happening, I might have eased off the Italian pastries. (OK, who am I kidding? I adore Italian pastries. My only saving grace in Paris is that I don't like French pastries).

While I acknowledge that I am fortunate it hasn't happened sooner, it still kind of freaks me out. How does that even happen? Two weeks? And in this case, it really did go right to my hips. Not my butt (where it usually goes), my hips.

I refuse to buy new pants, so I'm just going to have to get rid of the weight. A former co-worker said that one time, upon return from an Italian vacation, "my ass was so big I swear I could see moons orbiting its sphere."

So, it's back to salads, and good intentions. No booze, no pasta, no pastries to be sure. I've got to get rid of this extra weight -- in just six weeks I'm heading to France.

May 14, 2010

I should have stayed at work

It seemed like a good idea at the time.

Off work an hour earlier than usual, why not take advantage and go shopping? Real shopping, not grocery shopping. Pick up a few things I need.

I neglected to take one major thing into account: it was Friday night. Like a Saturday at home. What do you do in a country where there's nothing to do? Go to the mall.

Clearly, I was not the only one who had this idea. But I'll skip all the good parts and go straight to the trauma. And I'm not even counting the part where my taxi was rear-ended in a traffic jam trying to get to the mall.

No, it happened at the end. My colleague calls and says he and Paul and some others are going for a drink after their shift ends in 10 minutes. Do I want to join them? Sure.

So, I go outside and it's so humid my glasses fog over. Once they clear, I think I must still be having problems because what I see is roughly 70 people in a line for a cab. I also don't see any cabs. Not a one. None in the distance. None dropping people off. Zero.

I start to consider my options: Wait in line or take a bus. This mall is too far from home to walk back (about 1o miles), and I decided to go at the last minute and I'm wearing rubber flip-flops so even if I were closer, it would be a bad idea.

I go back inside for 10 minutes thinking maybe my timing is just off, that people are leaving in a big surge and things will normalize. Might as well wait somewhere cool than stand outside. When I come back there are now 100 people waiting for a taxi.

There are buses, but the system is Byzantine and there are no routes posted. Each bus has an end location, but that's it. I start to consider it, because I figure once I get somewhere more populated, a taxi won't be a problem. But then I remember the fare is 1 dirham, and I don't have any change. So I stand the line a while longer. Another 35 minutes or so. In this time, I have seen exactly three taxis come through. And there are another 50 people in line now.

There is also a huge crowd at the bus stop. As each bus pulls up (and there are only four), people run to get on. The buses supposedly run in 20-minute cycles, but they aren't regular cycles. So there is a mass of humanity cramming onto the bus that I think I want.

I finally decide to check out the bus option. See if maybe I can give them more than exact change, and let them keep the rest. When I get to the bus, which is not going anywhere near where I want to end up, I just decide to get in with about 60 of my closest friends. I actually get a seat, which is lucky.

Because I will be sitting in it for nearly two hours.

Not only are there no taxis, everyone is trying to leave the parking lot at the same time and there are too many cars. Imagine a Paris transit strike in 95 degree weather combined with the end of a game at the LA Coliseum. Nothing at all is moving.

Something is weird, but I can't tell what it is. Is it simply that it's Friday night? Is it that strange carnival across the road that suddenly appeared? And why isn't there any incoming traffic?

And, as I had two hours to ponder these issues, I figured some of it out. And this part makes it more ridiculous. One of the city's soccer teams played its last game tonight. I assume it won, but it doesn't matter, because it clinched the league title days ago. Tonight, however, is the night everyone decided to celebrate (and by everyone, I mean Emirati men-boys who drive overpowered trucks and SUVs and rev their engines and hang out the windows and sun roofs).

In the 90 minutes it takes my bus to go 500 meters and get out of the parking lot I also notice that traffic along the Corniche, the nearest main artery, is stopped dead. I'm not close enough to actually see it, but I can see the lights. And they're not moving.

It's the men-boys again. They are cruising and mucking up the traffic.

(An aside about traffic: It is the great equalizer. Even rich people in fancy cars can't pay their way out of traffic jams)

Eventually my bus gets to a place I recognize, so I get out. But now there is even more traffic because the cruisers have been diverted. And still there are no taxis (because there is too much traffic!) It's getting ridiculous.

I call Paul and ask him to come and pick me up because I can't get a taxi. Although as I'm waiting for him, they close the road I'm on and I realize he won't be able to get me. So we arrange for me to walk about a kilometer up the road (yes, in flip-flops and yes, now I have a blister between my toes) so that he can get to me.

At this point, I'm walking alongside the men-boys, who are blowing air horns, spraying me with silly string and throwing firecrackers. I am not enjoying myself. Not even a tiny bit. And have I mentioned it is 1:30 in the morning?

Just as I've about had it, an Emirati woman leans out of her SUV three lanes over and tells me to come over and get in. She is actually concerned about me. At the same time, I get a call from Paul saying he is in a taxi just behind me. I thank the woman, wave her off. She tries to insist. I try to tell her my husband is behind me. Finally, I get in the taxi.

And three and a half hours after I first walked out of the mall, I'm finally home.

May 12, 2010

A Handful of Sites

The longer I'm here, the more great blogs I come across. Recently some friends were teasing me about reading so many blogs, but hey -- that's a hobby, isn't it? (I don't think it's any less valuable than knitting in a place where it's 90 degrees at midnight)

In any case, feel free to take a look. The newest details the um, adventures, of my friend who has just moved to Kabul to help teach reporters to put together an English-language wire service.

Another describes life in Dubai -- and her life, with three kids and lots of staff, isn't remotely like mine.

Anyway, things I like to read.

(Speaking of which, two acquaintances recently published novels, and they come highly recommended. You can find them on Amazon. The Imperfectionists, by Tom Rachman, a former IHT colleague, and The Night Counter, by Alia Yunis, an Angeleno now teaching at Zayed University.)

Both are already on my Kindle, but I'm recommending them on word of mouth, because I'm saving them for my upcoming vacation and both have gotten raves.

May 7, 2010

My Mini Staycation*

*photos added

I needed a break. Even though my real vacation is just three weeks away, and I've only been working full-time since October, it has felt like ages since I've had a vacation.

Seven weeks a year and then a bout of unemployment will do that to a girl. Not to mention split days off since New Year's.

So I scouted around for a hotel in town that would feel out of town. We contemplated Dubai. Hotel deals are great here for weekenders, but not if you want to go on Wednesday and Thursday -- the days we had off. (Did I mention it was also the first time Paul and I had the same days off since we arrived?)

So this is what I did. On Wednesday I slept late and went to the beach. Good start, eh? I finished a so-so crime novel (An aside here: Who thinks Jesse Kellerman only got a book deal because his parents are Jonathan and Faye? Me.) and just generally relaxed. I was going to rent a lounge chair and an umbrella, but it was overcast, so I spread out on my towel. I also contemplated having a little lunch in one of the great boardwalk cafes that have cushy couches and swing seats -- but no, I wasn't hungry. This is the benefit of vacation: you can change your plans at will.

When I got home Paul and I got ready to go to a swanky bar for good-bye drinks for a colleague of ours. I'm sorry he's leaving, actually. But one day he woke up and decided he'd had enough. That happens a lot.

On Thursday I went to the mall. Sounds not so special, doesn't it? Well I actually went shopping. Usually, I have a very small window at the mall and have to do the grocery shopping in a certain time-frame. The sole reasons for this are crowds and taxis. Too much of one and not enough of the other. But here I was in the middle of the day. Leisurely looking at long skirts and cute tops.
Of course then I did do the grocery shopping (hey, the family still has to eat, right?)

After, I came home and got cleaned up for our "Big Night Out". The coup de grace of my staycation. We had made reservations at Bord Eau in the Shangri-La Hotel. The best restaurant in town at one of the nicest hotels. I really like that area because it feels out of town and it really isn't -- about 15 minutes away.

We hoped to get there for sunset, but I lagged. But we caught the tail end of it, and I'll post pictures ASAP. The view from the hotel area (there are three hotels, all pretty nice) is of the private beach area, an inlet of the Arabian Sea called The creek, and the Grand Mosque. Also some ugly construction, but it was my fantasy vacation, so I saw what I wanted to.

We arrived too early for our reservation, and so decided to wander along the beachfront. Then, to the rooftop bar of a restaurant called Pearls and Caviar, for happy hour. The space is lovely. Big sail-cloth ceilings and couches to lounge on. There was soft techno ambient music playing, and three couples a huge, circular space with the large bar in the middle. No one had to sit near anyone else. The back of the bar was roped off, presumably for VIPs, for later in the night. Bottles of expensive Champagne and vodka were chilling.

Part of the point of the happy hour, we assumed, was to get people there early, when it's still empty so that it isn't. (That made sense, right?)

So we lounged, sipping very nice mojitos and looking at the water. And we pretended we were somewhere, anywhere, else. I don't think we made a decision as to where we were. But we weren't in Abu Dhabi. That was the plan.

After cocktails, we strolled back to our restaurant. It's a newsroom favorite among a certain crowd and they said they would put in a good word for us. That good word got us an excellent table by the window with an equally excellent view of the water and the lit-up mosque. A stunning room, very opulent.

This was going to be our big splurge. Instead of the hotel, we opted for a fancy meal at a French restaurant. But splurges here are more like what real restaurants cost in big cities. Not so horrible. And I had a plan: The newspaper was offering a gift certificate to various fancy restaurants worth Dh500 if we subscribed to the paper for a year. The yearly cost is Dh300. We planned to subscribe eventually, so now was the perfect time. Free money. for a fancy staycation dinner.

We were greeted warmly in a city not know for its service. We were offered complimentary glasses of Joseph Perrier champagne, with a bit of raspberry liqueur. Kir royales. Some lovely nibbles.

The waiter read the menu to me while I held it, turning the pages he described everything on offer. After, the maitre d' came by to see how we were. He asked me in French and I replied in kind. Someone must have tipped him; it was entirely pleasant and made the whole thing even nicer.

I opted for the five-course tasting menu. Paul, who is much more sensible than I, opted for far fewer courses. I also decided to do the wine pairing. I have never done a tasting menu, and done a pairing only once, but not for so many courses. The food was flawless. And the pairing was lovely. My only problem is cocktails+champagne+five tastings = a little too much to drink.

The menu, briefly, for those who wonder: An amuse bouche of roquette and ricotta in pumpkin veloute. Another amuse bouche, I suspect just for us, of lobster and morelles in a light curry sauce. OMG.

My first course: Pan-seard foie gras in a gingerbread crust on finely chopped chestnuts. It was paired with what tasted like a Sauternes, but I didn't catch it when the waiter mentioned the name.

Second course: A pair of perfectly cooked scallops in a lovely sauce and nope, I don't remember any other details. I remember thinking the portion was perfect. The wine was a completely non-oaky Chardonnay from, I think, Australia.

Third course: Monkfish with tapenade and a choice of vintage olive oils to eat it with. I chose French, one that had something to do with Alain Ducasse and one that was Belarussian. The latter was the most flavorful. The monkfish, which I had actually been warned off, was very nice. It was served with a Chablis.

Fourth course: A small Black Angus filet served with peas and the restaurant's famous mashed potatoes with truffle oil. Sublime. I haven't had steak in maybe a year and I eat almost no beef here. Delicious. Paired with a very nice Medoc.

Fifth course: I asked if I could have the cheese course instead of the dessert. Of course it was no problem. Five cheeses, including a St Marcelin and a Fourme d'Ambert. Some not-too-toasted toast, and it was fabulous. As was the glass of Port it came with.

I was full at the finish, but not stuffed. I do regret having had so much to drink, only because I think it was a bit excessive. But it didn't ruin my meal -- not by a long shot.

After, the bill, with the help of the gift card, was extraordinarily reasonable.

Paul escorted me out of the hotel, poured me into a taxi and I happily went to sleep.

The perfect staycation.

May 2, 2010

What's That Smell

I had never thought of myself as having a particularly keen sense of smell. But in the last few years it has become increasingly clear that I do.

I can walk into a market and smell ripe peaches and strawberries and be filled with delight. I think my sense of smell has helped with my sense of taste -- nearly 70 percent of what we taste is related to what we smell. I like to think I can identify different ingredients in my food.

But it's not all roses out there.

I am also finely attuned to unpleasant smells. Paul can never smell these things. He says he's blessed. (Yesterday at work, I told him one of the stray cats must be annoyed; I was certain I smelled cat in one of the hallways leading outside. He didn't notice)

But forget pet smells and other unpleasant things like Metro stations or foreign taxi drivers. The thing that bothers me most is the smell of mildew.

One summer in Paris I was plagued by the smell. For weeks, everywhere I went it overwhelmed me. I was sniffing everything. It wasn't my clothes. Nobody around me ever noticed it. It was driving me mad. Finally, with the help of a very understanding friend, I realized it was me after all. My hair had mildewed.

Yes, it's gross. I know. It must have been during the heat wave in 2003 and I was always hot; it was impossible to cool down. So each morning I would take a cold shower and go out with my wet hair tied up. This went on for several weeks. Ultimately, it never dried, and thus the mildew. Ewww, huh?

That particular smell isn't one you encounter often in the states, because people have dryers in their home. There is usually no problem of leaving the clothes in the washer too long (and if you do, you know right away) and clothes dry fully.

This is not the case here. Clothes never dry fully. Even when they are put outside in the heat, there's always a dampness to them. And always a dampness in the apartment. It doesn't feel damp, but I can smell it in my freshly washed clothes.

It drives me crazy to put on clothes that smell like this, even faintly. And at work, it's not uncommon to sit near someone who also has that smell. How does everyone else not notice this?

One solution may be to send everything to the laundry, instead of just sheets and towels and clothes that need to be ironed.

The other might be just not to breathe too deeply.

April 25, 2010

A Sunny Outlook on Life

It's hard to say why I don't like it here in Abu Dhabi.

It can't truly be the weather -- that hasn't kept me from France, and as cold as gets in Chicago, I think I'd find that city very livable.

It isn't the job -- granted, I have had the luxury of three different assignments in six months, but I've enjoyed all of them and am very happy to have landed with my current gig. So work is peachy.

And it isn't the Teeny Apartment (at least not the teeny part). Paul and I have different schedules and manage to stay out of each other's way. Sure I'd like a bigger place, but that wouldn't make me love it here. Even with a grand kitchen.

So what is it about a place that makes it livable and likable? I wish I knew. If I could pinpoint it, maybe I could solve the dilemma.

For each reason I think it might be, I have an argument to counter it. Third world? I love Mexico and Morocco... Rude people? Hello Paris Metro. Nothing to do? I don't do all that much anywhere I live.

So here I am, with a good husband, a good job, good health insurance and making some tax-free money every month. I have the freedom to travel and I'm close enough to all sorts of interesting places.

Maybe it will grow on me. Maybe I will learn to love it.

In the meanwhile, I'm hoping to learn to make the best of it and look on the bright side.

That's one thing Abu Dhabi has going for it: plenty of bright side.

April 20, 2010

A Handful of Party Photos

For those of you who didn't catch the link on Paul's post about The National's birthday party (or on Facebook) here they are.

April 19, 2010

Making Me Sick

Food poisoning is a serious issue here, and I fear it's only a matter of time before I get really sick.

Paul and I have gotten ill at least five times in the last six months. Nothing severe, but food poisoning nonetheless. And from curious sources: A strawberry, non-dairy smoothie; packaged, unexpired couscous salad; freshly made hummos from the deli counter (although it may have been in the fridge for about three days after I bought it).

I'm not talking about shellfish -- I think you take a risk with that every time. Nor am I thinking of street food -- I've been to a few dicey places and had no trouble at all. And street food, in fact, has never made me ill.

There is a government campaign going on to try to combat the problem. It's widespread enough that people die from it here. Some children in Dubai ate bad Chinese food a while back and that got people's attention. Especially when, after an investigation, they let the restaurant reopen.

The problem isn't just lack of hygiene, although that's the beginning. It's also the heat. And the distance your food travels. And how it gets to you from wherever you buy it. The sign in the hot food part of the supermarket advises people to eat their food within two hours. On the other hand, if it takes you two hours to get home and it's 90 degrees out, I wouldn't really pay attention to that window.

Some of the problem, too, is culture. Certain cultures like to keep their kitchens a certain way. International cleanliness standards go above and beyond anything most of us do at home. We all know how many really good Chinese restaurants have B food ratings. It's less a concept of being unsanitary than not being familiar with new rules.

After a raid by health inspectors here the other day, a restaurant owner was very put out that he was cited for not having color-coded cutting boards: one for meat and one for veggies. He also didn't understand why he should use a clean rag for, well, cleaning.

Milk has a short shelf life here -- about three days before it expires -- but you can smell that, so you're a little safe there.

It's not as easy as it seems, to avoid getting sick here. Again, there is the heat to contend with. For eight or nine months of the year, temperatures are 90 or above. That means you;ve got to get to your transportation pretty quickly after you leave the grocery store with any chilled items. No waiting for the bus.

The grapes I bought the other day were wrapped in plastic and must have been wet -- the day I went to eat them they were completely moldy along all the stems. Things come from so far away and they use so much extra packaging here, you just have to be really careful.

No matter how careful you might be -- it's all just a crap shoot.

April 17, 2010

It's a Small World -- But We Already Knew That

In January 1994, I flew to Atlanta to interview for a job. It was a memorable trip for two reasons: I was there the day of the Northridge earthquake and Atlanta was in the middle of an unusual cold snap and an ice storm.

The sports editor drove me around town, giving me his best pitch for a move to Atlanta. It seemed such an alien concept to me. In the end, I accepted a job with the Los Angeles Times.

If you had told me then that I'd end up in France -- a place I had never been to -- in five years I would have laughed. And if you had told me in 2006, when I left France, that I would end up in Abu Dhabi -- well, it's beyond my imagination.

Which brings us to 2010. Here I am in Abu Dhabi, thousands of miles from Atlanta and Los Angeles, and I'm about to go work in the sports department for the first time since 1999. And for the same editor who interviewed me in Atlanta.

Small world indeed. Or, behave well, because what goes around surely comes around.

April 1, 2010

Passover: Abu Dhabi-style

It wasn't the weirdest Passover seder I've ever been to -- that honor goes to one that ended with a joint passed around the table -- but it was certainly the most makeshift.

I tend to lose track of time here. I'm off on Wednesdays and Fridays and the week starts on Sunday ... I'm always confused. My Mom gave me a heads up last week that Passover was looming. She may have asked what I was going to do.

What indeed. First, I had to find out if there were any Jews at my newspaper. And if you're reading this in the US, you're laughing out loud. No US newspaper has a shortage of Jewish journalists. (Ask anyone: we run the media). Certainly, any English-language daily with 250 editorial employees should have more than me, right? Well, it turns out it does. One more. There are rumors of a third, but if she doesn't want to be named, who am I to out her?

Personally, I like to think I keep a relatively low profile even as a Jew in America. Here, I'm very quiet about it. I had to note my religion on my visa application, but it doesn't appear on the visa itself. Local opinion seems to be "We like Jews just fine -- we just don't like their (i.e., Israel's) politics".

In any case, I made a quiet inquiry and found a religious fellow-traveler. I introduced myself and asked her if she had plans for Passover. She'd been here a few years, I'd been told, so maybe she knew of any other Jews. She said she had no plans, but agreed to try a seder and she invited some others. In the end, we were six: two Jewish girls, one non-Jew who had been in a Jewish sorority, two non-Jewish husbands, one girl from Northern Ireland and a Canadian.

There were rumors of a Passover care package being Fed-Exed from Ohio, but it did not arrive in time. But it's the thought that counts, right? The hostess couldn't find brisket so she made some sort of very tasty smoked meat that looked like brisket. When you live abroad you discover different cultures cut their meat differently. (Kind of like pork steak in Missouri; what part of the pig is a steak?)

There was a nice charoseth made with almonds, and tzimmes -- carrots and raisins simmered with honey and cinnamon. I was making coconut macaroons for dessert, so all we were missing was matzah.

Yeah, the important part. We used Wasa flat bread instead. Obviously that violates the rule of the law, but we felt it was in keeping with the spirit of things. We were making the effort. Surely that counts for something?

I downloaded a Haggadah onto my Kindle. It was called "Ina Gadda Haggadah" and it's like a Cliff's Notes version of the real thing. Perfect, actually, for Passover newcomers. It explained things, had the prayers and songs, and then a few jokes for good measure.

Paul noted the absence of the hills and rams and lambs part though, oft-remarked upon by my brothers.

We all took turns reading and enjoyed the company of new friends. Isn't that in the spirit of Elijah?

It felt a little naughty, to be honest. Sorta underground.

There is no prohibition against what we did. As long as we were in a private home, we could do as we pleased, religion-wise.

But it wasn't your everyday dinner party in Abu Dhabi.

March 31, 2010

And We're Back

OK.

I didn't realize it had been more than a month since I posted. Time flies and all. And thank you, Michael, for your heartfelt admonishment. I fear once you finish reading this you'll realize I wasn't joking when I said I had nothing to say!

This is the deal -- it's not that nothing has been going on, it's that I can't really write about so much of it. Either it's inappropriately personal, or it has to do with work -- and that's a no no. Or even the country. That's kind of a no-no too.

So, herewith some drips and drabs.

I'm obsessing about vacation right now. Most of you won't relate because you're in America and you're content with your two or three weeks every year, if it's even that good. And your bosses begrudge you even that much. But it's been more than 10 years since I was limited to that kind of vacation time, and counting the part-time and unemployment eras of my recent life, I've had it awfully easy.

Now, I haven't had more than two consecutive days off since early October, and I haven't had two consecutive days off since early January. So I'm really looking to get away.

We are fortunate to be able to take time in late May to go to Italy. I am WAY looking forward to that. Sorrento and Sicily. Sicily is likely to be a little to warm, but what the hell, at least there's stuff to see. And things to eat. And good company. It all sounds good to me.

But now, I'm dying for a mini-break. What we should have done was booked a three- or four-day trip to Istanbul, as our friend Robert did. Take advantage of winter prices and just bug out of town for a couple of days. I went to make a booking for mid April, and prices have doubled. It's crazy. So it's probably not an option.

So I came up with a new idea. What if take a pretend vacation? Stay here in Abu Dhabi in a hotel with a private beach or go to one of the fancies in Dubai -- we save on air fare, we feel like we're far away .... So that may actually happen. I'm aiming for next Thursday. And then I'll post pictures -- like a real vacation!

* * *

You know those shoes little kids have with roller skates built into them? I hate them. I'm certain that as a kid I would have loved them. Now, it's like having a cat underfoot all the time: It's all I can do not to trip over a kid everytime I'm in the mall. Children here aren't particularly well-behaved or even supervised, and they're always underfoot. (Or, as I saw today, on the tables in the food court). And they weave in and out on those stupid roller shoes.

What a cranky old lady, I know.

* * *

I had to replace the power cord on my laptop today. Not a huge deal, fortunately. On the other hand, it's the second time and it's quickly making my bargain laptop much less of a bargain. But the machine itself seems to be trucking along. (Fingers crossed)

Anyway, unlike Hong Kong, where I thought it would be easy to get computer stuff, here it really is easy. I stayed away from the small computer stores, mostly because of (in)convenience as they're all downtown and instead I went to the mall. Got what I wanted right away. Bingo!

Because it's already hot here -- we had two plus-100F days last week, and the avg temp the last two weeks has been low 90s -- running errands takes serious planning. And there's no question I take the easiest way, which is get my taxi driver to take me to the mall and try to accomplish everything possible in that same mall. One trip only.

* * *

Last night they recovered the body of a dead sheikh, who was in a glider accident in Morocco on Friday. He was one of 17-odd half/whole brothers of the ruling sheikh. We were pretty sure he was dead, but nothing could be done since there was no body. So everyone at work has been on pins and needles, waiting for the announcement, which we feared would come at a particularly inopportune time. That was almost the case -- because we had been waiting so long, when news came it was early enough we could scramble and make the paper come together.

In any case, we began a three-day mourning period this morning. And under the heading of how does this affect us, the self-centered of the world ... it means the bars are closed for three days. No alcohol. No upbeat music on the radio. No cultural events. No alcohol. Oh, did I mention that? It's a particular problem because we have a handful of colleagues leaving these last few and upcoming weeks, and so parties to throw and attend. One of them was scheduled for Friday night. Not anymore. And this colleague is going to Kabul, where I doubt she'll be having any raucous parties.

But hey, we're journalists. And more than a few of us are hard-core, hard-drinking Brits. (OK, more than a few of them). Where there's a will, there's a way.

Tomorrow: the Passover seder in the Arab country.

February 23, 2010

I Can't Complain

It's been a pretty decent week.

Got a pedicure the other day ... nice when you wear sandals all the time. Skipped out early yesterday for cocktails on the beach at sunset. Got a massage (Valentine's Day gift) tonight after work, my Friday. Treated myself to Indian street food. And I plan to head to the beach tomorrow.

Nope, can't complain at all.

The massage was great. It was in a hotel spa downtown, an oasis of calm in the middle of chaos that is that neighborhood.

Afterward, I went in search of vada pao, sometimes called wada pav. I know I said I hit the Indian food wall the other day, but not really. I've just cut back from many times a week to once or twice.

My colleague has been writing about delicious Indian street food. Here and here. (And yes, this is the same woman who gave me the most valuable information to date: How to make papadam in the microwave.)

I finally find myself in the right neighborhood and I ask the doorman at the hotel where to find the vegetarian snack restaurant. He asks someone and tells me to go down the street and it's right next to the El Dorado theater.

This is good news, because I actually know where the El Dorado theater is. So of course, once I find it, I discover it isn't the right one. It's actually a satellite version, much smaller and specializing in sweet Indian street food.

I call my colleague, apologize for interrupting her personal time and tell her I don't see what she is talking about on the menu. She asks to speak to the guy behind the counter. They speak ... I don't know. Hindi? Bengali? Probably.

He hands the phone to me and she says: You're at the wrong one. Ask him for directions to the restaurant. I hang up and think this isn't going to work out so well, since I had to call her in the first place because the guy didn't speak English.

He tells me "Straight, right at ADCB. Very tall building." So you know I've mentioned the whole address and directions thing. These directions would work much better if I had any idea what the ADCB building was. And I didn't. And telling someone "very tall building" means little when you're in a downtown area filled with high-rises.

Meanwhile, I've received a text -- after I've set off -- that says: Tell him to give you precise directions to their main spot, on Salam Street, behind the ADCB bank's HQ. I'm mumbling to myself. Precise directions? He doesn't speak English. No directions here are precise. But whatever.

Onward I go, undeterred. I cross the busy street via the underpass and make my way toward the water. I'm going straight. The last building before the big-dig construction site that is Salam St seems to have an ADCB on it. I turn right. I'm along the side of the building, next to where Salam St would be if it weren't a gigantic construction site and there is nothing behind this bank building.

I look to my right and see a gas station. I worry that the restaurant is actually across the construction site, on the other side of Salam St. But nobody told me to cross the street. So I wander some more, discover a Thai restaurant I had been wondering about (Aha! There's the Royal Orchid!)

Finally, I find it. By behind the bank building what everyone really meant was behind the bank building and through a construction area one street over and back two blocks through a parking lot.

Of course. But I've found it! Victory!

The waiter is nice (I have been warned that he might not be, and not to take it personally). He brings me a bottle of water, gives me some time to look at the menu, and I look for the wada pav, as it's called here (as opposed to what it seems to be called in Mumbai). There it is, right where it's supposed to be. By now I've forgotten what wada pav is and just know that I want to try it.

I order one, for Dh4.5 ($1.23). Spicy, medium or hot, he asks. Medium.

I am surprised when it comes out. It's an overstuffed sandwich that I am apparently expected to eat with my hands since no utensils have come with it. Imagine a dinner roll -- sort of like the sweet, doughy ones they used to have at Kentucky Fried Chicken. (I'm sorry! That's what they remind me of!) Between the two halves is a fried potato pancake, chunky and golden. There are chopped onions and chutney in there somewhere. The whole thing has a sweet and spicy delicious taste. Flavors I've never had. It's very, very good. I think if I were to discover this at a street stall, I would be amazed.

The waiter asks if there is something else I'd like to try. I get another text: If you are feeling really hungry, order a masala dosa. So that's what I ask for. There are more than 80 items on this one-page menu. I recognize only a few words -- aloo (potato) gobi (cauliflower) and daal (lentils) .

My masala dosa arrives. I don't know exactly what I expected, but this wasn't it. A fried crepe, slightly sweet, stuffed with seasoned potatoes. And it comes with three sauces that, presumably, I am supposed to pour over the crepe, or dip into. I'm not sure which. I get a spoon and a fork, but no knife. And the thing is huge. The first one was a small sandwich with big filling. This is a folded crepe the size of a large plate.

It was unusual and tasty and I can't wait to go back for more. Afterward, the waiter gave me a take-away menu and marked some things I should try next time. He explained that one column was south Indian and another north Indian.

My colleague's final words: That place is a treasure trove! Will require multiple visits.

February 15, 2010

Air Mail

Journalists know better than anyone right now that the internet is where it's at. And being far away, we don't know how we'd survive without it; e-mail and Skype are essential.

But that doesn't mean I'm ready to forsake regular mail.

I'm not sure Abu Dhabi agrees with me, though.

Trying to mail a letter here is a serious undertaking. There is one main post office and two (rumored) smaller ones on the island. The Emirates Post website says there are 15 post offices in greater Abu Dhabi. We have only ever seen the one main post office.

What it doesn't say, and nobody outside the post office seems to know, is how much it costs to mail a letter.

We have managed much of our correspondence by e-mail, but AT&T, that legendarily difficult organization, insists that we mail them proof that we live in the UAE. They insist on, among other things, a postmark from the country. (They also insist on a utility bill, which we don't have, but that's another story).

When we left California we had some time left on our AT&T contract. We asked them to cancel our service at the end of the billing cycle, so there would be no weird outstanding partial bills. We told them where we were going. We said no, we couldn't simply transfer our accounts to someone else. (Who wants someone else's old account??)

Many months later, they are still insisting on $150 for breaking our contract because we haven't (yet) satisfactorily proved that we live outside the country.

In any case, that was the genesis of my post office issue.

How much postage did I need to send a letter to AT&T in Baton Rouge, LA? I had a handful of stamps left over from my first weeks here, when I thought I might send postcards (that was when I thought there might be postcards of something -- anything -- to send). What I had was three stamps worth 350 fils and three stamps worth Dh2 each. I thought I could probably put all of them on the envelope and it would get there. But I wasn't sure.

So I asked a member of our office staff. Not only did she have no idea how much it costs to mail a letter, she didn't know that 350 fils is Dh3.5. She kept insisting that it was 1,000 fils to a dirham instead of 100. She went to another colleague. She didn't know either. I asked at least a half dozen other colleagues. Surely, I thought, someone had sent a letter, a birthday card, something -- home?

But no.

So the woman finally told me to call the mail room. The guy in the mail room couldn't have been less helpful. He insisted it would cost Dh90 ($24.50) to send a letter. I balked. He insisted again. I said look, I want to send a letter to my Mother (I was trying to make the point that it wasn't a business letter) and he said well, that's what it costs. I said seriously? For a letter? And he said, essentially, hey, if you want to know how much a letter costs to mail, go to the post office and leave me alone.

I went to the Emirates Post website to see if the information was there. Nope. No postage rates. Not even for a letter within the UAE. It helpfully gives you the definition of a letter, and a post card, but not how much it costs to mail one. (I did finally find that I could send an aerogram for Dh2. Who knew anybody even used those anymore?)

So I called the post office. And they were actually helpful!! The postal guy told me it was Dh11.5 to send a letter to the US. Joy! I happened to have Dh10.5 worth of 350 fils stamps, and three Dh2 stamps. I could send my letter. While I had him on the phone, I asked if there was anyplace other than the post office that I could buy stamps. He said some supermarkets carry them, but he couldn't tell me which ones. Mine, I know, does not. A small but not quite complete victory.

The post office is not near our house or the office and requires a special trip even though it isn't far by distance. It's just not in an area where we ever are. And there are very few post boxes on the street. I may have seen two since I've been here. Remember, too, there is no home mail delivery. So mailing a letter is almost as difficult as buying stamps (and requires going to the post office, just the same).

As it happened, I went to dinner with a colleague and the restaurant was right behind the post office. Which was open until 10 p.m. And which didn't have long lines. And which was staffed by someone fairly friendly.

I showed him my letter and he added up the stamps. Dh11 he said. That's what it costs (so the helpful guy on the phone was helpful ... but not right). I had Dh12.5 pasted all over it, so I was good. I expected him to hand me back the letter, and he surprised me by taking it to mail. And while I was there I bought some more stamps.

Now, I might be the only person in the newsroom who knows how much it costs to send a letter. But I might also be the only person who needs to send one, too.

February 10, 2010

A Mini Break


We went to the beach today, and it was just gorgeous.

This week, the weather has been especially cool by local standards, and it has felt very much like SoCal. Crisp and clear, with daytime highs in the low 70s and night-time lows in the low 60s.

For our shared off day, previous plans we had fell through so I asked Paul if he would go to the beach with me. He likes living near the beach, but he doesn't really like the beach itself, per se. So on the rare occasions he goes, it's because of me. But the beach, to me, is a healing and magical place. There is no such thing as a bad beach day.

I considered it my Valentine's Day gift. Who wants flowers and chocolate when you can have the beach?

The beach here has clean, fine sand and turquoise and pale green water. On a weekday like this, it's mostly moms and small children, with a smattering of foreign tourists. It's incredibly relaxing and the best part is it's like being on vacation.

As I sat on the sand I imagined I was far away, in some exotic desert island locale. I know that literally, all that is true. Abu Dhabi is is an exotic desert island. But not in a destination vacation sort of way.

Yet it still surprises me to go from the world where I live to the world of the beach -- it's like traveling hundreds of miles away.

We sat together for some time, watching people learn to wakeboard or swim a bit, although the water is considered cold this time of year. I fell asleep in the sun and Paul eventually went up on the boardwalk to read in a chair in the shade. We were both happy. Afterward, we had some ice cream.

A perfect day, and just a 15-minute cab ride away.

January 28, 2010

Baby! (It's cold outside)

It's all relative, of course, but it's a bit nippy here today.

Highs in the 60s with a brisk wind and it feels like ... well, I don't know what it feels like. Not like a SoCal autumn, that's for sure. That chill is crisp and brisk. And not like a Long Beach summer's eve, either. It's humid here, but not that damp.

What I do know is the wind went right through my thin, long-sleeved T-shirt.

And the cab driver had the heat on when I left the office.

But don't worry about me; Paul says temps will be back up where they belong -- in the 80s -- in just a day or two.

p.s. Yes, I am wearing my Ugg boots

January 27, 2010

The Cost of Living

Before we came here, we were warned that the city was expensive. We steeled ourselves for the worst.

In fact, the worst came in the form of rent prices, among the highest of any city in the world. We live in roughly 400 square feet and we pay a little less than $2,000 per month, but the apartment is furnished and it includes utilities (and, supposedly, maintenance). We'll see some of the savings, sure enough, come summertime when the A/C is all cranked up. It should be mentioned, too, that our rent is substantially lower than what most people pay for an unfurnished one bedroom in a decent neighborhood. But our space is less, too, it's true.

It's not unusual for grown people to share homes, with multi-bedroom apartments housing multi-roommates. Some of this has to do with the fact a lot of people are here sans spouse or other. But most of it has to do with the price of the apartments here and, more importantly, the scarcity of housing.

The problem is less one of high-cost housing so much as low-availability housing, and in the end, that's all that matters.

But the rest of daily living almost makes up for it. First, there are no taxes. No renter's tax, no sales tax, no income tax, no gas tax, no sin tax. (OK, a little sin tax: An alcohol license is about $80 per year, and alcohol is taxed at 30 percent). So the money I make is what ends up in my bank account and the price on the meal I'm eating or the new shoes I'm buying is what I'll be asked to pay.

It's pretty cool.

The tricky part in figuring this out, and why it has taken me three months to really come to grips with it, is the currency exchange. The UAE dirham (not to be confused with the Moroccan dirham) is worth 27 cents in a fixed exchange rate with the dollar. So there's a lot of math. This was a problem, too, when France was still using the franc. And that currency fluctuated, so prices changed all the time. Add in metric measurements for things and it takes a little work to get to the price of things. I believe I had the same three-month revelation in Hong Kong when I finally figured out the proper exchange rate there.

So I might balk at the concept of something costing Dh100, but it's actually $27, and when you figure my microwave (Indian made!) costs Dh128, then it's a wow! moment. But there's definitely a psychological barrier to a Dh100 bill when so many things cost less than Dh20 and nobody here likes to give change. This isn't helped one iota by the fact the cash machines dispense 100s, if you're lucky, and 500s and 1,000s more often.

It's like buying a candy bar at home with a $20 bill.

Which brings me back to my original concept of the cost of living. Each week I go to the bank machine, take out a whopping Dh1,300 and the machine almost always gives me Dh1,000, Dh200 and Dh100. You can't just go to the corner grocery with that kind of cash.

And after the bank machine I go straight to the grocery store to get some change. I've found myself in trouble a time or two, waiting too long to get to the cash machine and having only Dh100 for a cab to get me to the bank. That actually doesn't work, so I have to go to a medium sized grocery and buy something stupid, like a loaf of bread, which costs Dh3.50, so I can have change. I try to remind myself that everyone should have the problem of too much money.

Anyway, I've been going to the big grocery store after I hit the ATM. This has been a weekly thing, due to work schedules. And my grocery bill for a whole week runs about $60. I bought 54 items the other day, and only four of them cost more than than Dh10: Milk (Dh10), a Greek salad for lunch (Dh11.25), 8 oz of sliced butterball turkey (Dh18.50), and some cheddar cheese (Dh17.75). I also bought yogurt and sliced cheese and bread and several prepared meals, a variety of fruits and vegetables, some cookies and some bottled water and the most I paid for any of it was a little over $2.

And I thought making the transition from French groceries, which are reputed to be expensive, to US groceries, which are, was tough. Going from food prices here to those back home is going to be one huge jolt of culture shock.

It extends to other parts of my life, too. In Hong Kong, our housekeeper was cheap -- $8.50 an hour. Here, it's reaallly cheap: $6.80. And, just as is it is California, it's off the books for everyone. (My housekeeper has a regular cleaning job at a company; she does housework on her own time, and as far as I can tell cleans for at least half a dozen people in the newsroom).

After picking up some laundry the other day, I was muttering about the cost - Dh25!! Then I realized I'd had a full set of sheets and pillowcases washed and ironed, two pairs of pants and two men's shirts. Gulp. $6.80.

Taxis are a bargain. Flag fall is Dh3 (81 cents) and a trip from work to home is $1.50. With a tip, it's $2.70. Because we have our own drive to work, we pay a bit more -- a whopping $5.50 because he shows up every day at the appointed time, seven days a week.

So yes, we are living well while living frugally. And it's a nice reality.

January 23, 2010

The Provenance of Food

It's something I've been thinking about for a while, and going to the Indian Food Festival on Friday made me think of it again.

Where does your produce come from? And how do you make a choice? In France, the markets are required to tell you the provenance of the produce. Of course it usually varies with the season. Strawberries in February are usually from Spain and they don't come from France until a few months later. Just like winter fruits in California come from Chile.

But here in the UAE, it's not as simple as what's in season. They don't grow much here in the desert, although more than I had thought as evidenced by this feature on locavores in The National last week. Of course dates, but apparently carrots and eggplant and zucchini, too.

A colleague has an Abu Dhabi blog and he writes about something similar there, at Abu Dhabi Do!

I am particularly fond of bananas from the Philippines. They are sweeter and more flavorful than bananas from South America, in my opinion. (Of course, this is all just my opinion). I started eating them last year in Hong Kong, and here I have a choice. Bananas from the Philippines, from India or from South America. There are two brands: Chiquita and Estrella. I prefer the Estrella bananas.

And it's not just bananas. I prefer Indian pomegranates to Tunisian or Egyptian ones. They are sweeter and juicier. I also usually prefer tangerines (or mandarins or clementines -- they vary) from Egypt, but those from Pakistan, which are lately on sale, have been pretty good. The ones from China are very tiny, and seem hardly worth the effort.

I can choose from Omani or Jordanian eggplant, Arabian potatoes and mangoes from Thailand or India. There is a huge supply of produce from the US and from Europe, but aside from the French apples, I don't usually bother. (An exception being celery, because a lot of places don't grow eating celery, they have cooking celery, and the US is an exception).

We are seeing a lot of summer fruits from South Africa right now: Peaches, nectarines and apricots. And as the price is going down, I can tell we are getting closer to the season.

There was a better-than-usual selection of produce from India this week: Green cardamom and bitter squash and tapioca and gigantic yams. I have no idea what to do with any of this. But I took some pictures. I wanted to try some of the more unusual fruits: jack fruit and snake fruit, which looks like it has snake scales on it. But I was discouraged by someone who knows better.

But it's something to think about, knowing where your food comes from. The bigger surprise -- to me -- is that there is such a difference.

January 22, 2010

The World's Longest Palindrome

Somebody told me today that Malayalam -- the official language of Kerala, India, and a language spoken by 35 million people world-wide -- is the world's longest palindrome.

It isn't quite; it's one of a few that are the same length in English, and a Finnish word for soapstone dealer is officially the longest.

But never mind. Malayalam is spoken by over 773,000 people in the UAE, a country of only 5 million residents.

And I'm thinking about this because I learned the Malayalam word for saunf, a Hindi and Urdu word for fennel . In Malayalam it is called peruncheeragam. In Tamil it is shombu.

In English, it's called: sugar-coated-fennel-seeds-they-give-you-after-dinner-at-an-Indian-restaurant-that-taste-like-Good-n-Plenty.

This is all part of my quest to have some of the delicacies of Indian food in my home so I don't have to wait to go out to eat. I learned all these words so that I can go to the grocery store and, if I can't find what I want, I now know three different words in four languages that someone at the supermarket might understand.

Phew.

January 21, 2010

The Subcontinent Groove**

*This is long and disorganized. Bear with me, please.
**Link added to Indian Food Festival

Indian food.

I have it at least once a week, but I probably think about having it five times a week. I don't have enough free time to try all the things I think I'd like to.

I'm not sure if it's serving as a replacement for Mexican, or that Lebanese is now so plentiful at home I don't feel the need to make a special effort here. But it's what I think about. All. The. Time.

And today I made a breakthrough: A colleague gave me a basic do-it-at-home Indian 101 primer.

It started when she went out to cover the Indian Food Festival. She called in to check with me (I'm her editor) and said, "And it smells so good here!!" And then I said, "Well then you should bring me some!" And she did.

She arrived with three kinds of biryani (rice dishes), a dried beef dish (spicy), a cauliflower dish (it must have a real name) and some Indian sweets. It was a ton of food, and she was right, it did smell good. We shared with the others in our cluster (lest you think two of us ate four tubs of rice plus)

This venture of course opened the door for me to ask lots of questions. It's very multicultural here, and I don't think anybody minds answering questions, but I don't want to make assumptions. My colleague is Candian by way of Calcutta. I know from things she writes that she is a foodie.

She got me special rice with cashews in it. Nice. I discovered that the grocery I usually go to is known among subcontinenters as having quite good prepared Indian food. When the tea boys (men from Bangladesh and India) asked where she got it, they seemed pleased, and knew that we would share with them.

Every week Paul and I go to a restaurant called Nihal and every week I get the lamb vindaloo. After experimenting a bit in the beginning, I'm now afraid to try anything else because what if i don't like it as much?? If I were going five nights a week, I might be -- maybe -- willing to experiment. Switch it up a bit. But mostly, no.

So this gave me a chance. I have another chance next week when two of the interns who worked at the paper are taking me to a good Indian restaurant. I have decided to put my fate in their hands and eat whatever they order. But more on that after it happens.

Anyway, my colleague is amused that I like this food so much. I ask about the beef. Isn't that a bit unusual for Indians? No, she says, the Muslims eat a lot of beef. She goes on to tell me about some Goan pork curry at a place she knows. Pork? Yes, because Goa has lots of Portuguese influences because it was colonized by Portugal. I had heard about the great fish curries from Goa, so this was new, too.

So she decides to write down for me how I can eat Indian at home without too much cooking, since my kitchen is so sad. She tells me how to cheat with frozen parathas, and says I can cook them in the frying pan without any oil. And now I know that "aloo" means potato!

Next up: pappadam. I believe I may have mentioned this previously. She reveals that I don't need to fry a pappadam, no sirree, I can just pop one into the microwave and it will crisp right up. I cannot believe my good fortune in learning this. She tells me to look for a brand called Lijjat made by women in small villages in India, with a label in Hindi. The package is yellow and red.

(Please click the link to Lijjat, it's a fascinating history of seven semi-literate women from Gujarati who started a cooperative business that now employs 42,000).

So, for the pappadam, she says: Put only one in at a time, don't cover it, don't put it on anything. Microwave it for two minutes.

And don't worry if it smokes. Because it will clear up right away. Um, yeah.

I'm off tomorrow, and headed to the Indian Food Festival to check out the goodies. I have a recipe here for easy spinach curry, and if you leave a note or e-mail me, I'll pass it along.

Meanwhile, I'm going to buy some frozen parathas, some uncooked pappadam and I'm settin' up the microwave.

Afterward we can all have saunf.

January 6, 2010

The Teeny Tiny Apartment




More photos here at least until I can get them on Flickr, which is blocked in the UAE.

January 3, 2010

A Tale of Two

There are two interns who sit across from me at the paper.

One is Bangladeshi and one is Indian. They were both born here and neither is Emirati.

Their parents came here in the 1970s in search of a better life for their families. The grandfather of the Bangladeshi girl came even earlier, and would split time between Abu Dhabi and his home village. Both girls have two countries and none at the same time. Neither has spent any considerable time outside of the UAE, yet it is unlikely they will stay here. Each holds a passport for her ethnic country.

The UAE has no policy to naturalize citizens. It is happy to welcome immigrants to work, and even their families. As long as they leave.

There is a mandatory retirement age of 60 here and it applies whether you are Emirati or not. It is possible, from time to time, to get an extension of perhaps two years. But in the modern world, most people don't retire at 62. And while most anyone is welcome to work here, that's where the hospitality ends. Once a person has no job, that's the end of the line. Thirty days to leave town before the visa expires.

So imagine that you are one of these girls. You have friends and a community here You have attended college here. You would like to find a job, but as all over the world, jobs are a little more scarce than they used to be. You would like to plan your future, but you have no idea where that future will be. You are Emirati, but you're definitely not. Once the fathers of these girls retire, the girls must leave too.

They contemplate their options and try to think of places they could go. They are tourists, strangers really, in their "home" countries. And soon they will not be welcome in their adopted country, the only one they have ever known. There is a two-tier system here even for those who contribute to the society, who helped build it up. There is Emirati and there is not. Two families can live side-by-side, working at the same jobs at the same rate of pay and if you look closely you can see the discrepancies. Until recently, only one could own property. One will have a generous retirement. One will have free schooling for his children. One will have access to a marriage fund. And the other has to leave when the work is done.

Thoughts Get in the Way

I get several good blog ideas every day, but rarely when I actually sit down to write.

In the last few hours alone I've thought about young people who live in the UAE, Indian food, the lifestyles of people here who work very hard and where I might like to vacation. I'm sure I've covered Indian food (and have I mentioned how much I like it?? How and I can't imagine tiring of it?? Oh, yeah. I have). And nobody but me cares where I'd like to go on vacation. So that leaves me to dwell on the other two topics.

In a sense, they're related. So let's see where this takes us.

Most people who come here do so for money. For a job. For a better way of life for themselves or their families. The lucky ones, I suppose, get to bring their families with them. They are certainly in the minority. Most of the people who live here are foreigners; about 85 percent. The idea for so many is to leave their small villages to come here and work very hard and live very frugally and send home as much money as they can. It is not an exaggeration to say that entire towns and villages in the subcontinent are supported by those who work in the Gulf.

We run lots of stories about this. How there are more than 300,000 Filipinos here legally, and another 200,000 maybe not-so-legally. Sixty percent of them are skilled or professional workers, 25 percent are in the service sector and 15 percent are household workers. Our taxi driver and our housekeeper are Filipino.

Works from the subcontinent, though, outnumber all the others. And as bad as their jobs may seem to me, with bad pay and worse conditions, these jobs are better than what they can find at home. And this is something I try to keep in mind. I am far from my friends and family, much the same as they are. But I have Paul with me. And we have a small home, but we are not living six to a bedroom, or 24 to an apartment. The weather here is miserable nine months of the year, but we work in an air-conditioned office. We, too, are trying to save our salaries and send money home. But not like some of these workers.

It is not unusual for an immigrant worker to make around 2000-4000 ($544-1088) dirhams a month. And to send home all but 200 dirhams. We plan to stay for maybe 18 months. These workers plan to stay for many years. To stay long enough to put their children -- whom they rarely see -- through school. To feed their families. To build a home for when they must go back; one big enough for several generations. To provide dowries for their sisters. And when you consider that making $500 a month working six (or seven) days a week with one month off every two years is better than what you can do in your home country, you've got to wonder about the conditions in those home countries.

So this is its own land of opportunity. People come here for their own little slice of the economic pie, no matter how small. And we are all the same, but all different. I try to remember this every day, and I don't always succeed. I try to be grateful for this opportunity and for my good fortune.

It's probably not a bad way to start the year.


(To be continued)