Tuesday, September 29, 2009


One big reason we decided to move to Abu Dhabi was the ease with which it would allow us to travel to many locales in Europe, Asia, and Africa. Our first opportunity to take advantage of this benefit came about recently as a result of Shannon's Eid-al Fitr holiday, and, wanting to experience a drastic change of scenery, we decided to visit our good friends, Marcel and Anina, in Switzerland.

Marcel and Anina proved to be consumate hosts, and upon arrival whisked us off to Marcel's parents' place just off Lac Léman (Lake Geneva) in western Switzerland, where over the next two days we toured a castle nearly 1000 years old, partook in a wine tasting at a local vineyard (one of dozens in the region), and trekked through lush mountain valleys draped in diaphanous fog.

We then left Marcel and Anina and took the train (I gotta give a 'shout out' to Swiss public transportation!) south to the canton of Ticino where we visited Locarno and Bellinzona. In Locarno, known as the "sunny living room window" to the rest of the Swiss, we were able to sample a more Italian/Mediterranean way of life with warm and sunny vistas on to Lago Maggiore and relaxed sidewalk cafes along palm-tree lined boulevards.

We also took a funicular (I love that word) car up to the Madonna del Sasso, an old church where it is believed that the Virgin Mary appeared to a local monk. While up there at a small cafe, we slaked our thirst with some fine German beer and enjoyed more spectacular views (after a while, the beauty of this country overwhelms you and you find yourself almost numb to it...a strange feeling indeed).

The next day we made a quick stop in Bellinzona to see its three famous castles, Castlegrande, Montebello, and Sasso Corbaro. Why three castles, you ask? Bellinzona is located at a point where several key alpine passes converge, making it one of just a few northern entry points into Italy, and thus very strategic. It faced everything from Frankish "barbarian" invaders during the end of the Roman Empire to medieval warring popes asserting control over northern Italy.

Ironically, its biggest threat stemmed not from any man made weaponry but from the periodic flooding of the Ticino river. The pictures don't really do them justice, but the castles are very impressive.

For our final leg, we journeyed back north to Zürich and rejoined Marcel and Anina, who showed us a city fascinating in its blended ethos of the old and new. During our sight seeing marathon, we explored medieval/Reformation era churches such as the Frau- and Grossmünster (seeing the Chagall stained glass windows in the Fraumünster was both a beautiful and worshipful experience) as well as the modern architecture of the Museums of Design and Art and the University of Zürich.

We can safely say that with its history, urban vibe, good food, exquisite views, and amazing public transportation, we fell in love with Zürich. Marcel and Anina...vielen dank!

Thursday, September 17, 2009

The same but different

Today is the one-month anniversary of our arrival in Abu Dhabi. During our time here, we've discovered that while on the surface a store, restaurant, or even internet service might appear to be just as it was back in the states, it is in fact not the same at all. From little differences like all light switches having to be flicked downward to turn the lights on and the fact that voicemail and street addresses are not used, to more substantial ones like maniac drivers (it is routine to see cars turn left, blinkerless, from the far right lane) and internet censorship, we have discovered that while Abu Dhabi might have all of the trappings of a modern American metropolis, I think it's safe to say, "we're not in Kansas any more." This is, of course, obvious. Yet, there are moments when you might be forgiven for thinking you're back in America, whether it's while you're shopping at Gap in the mall, ordering a scoop from Baskin Robbins, or sipping a grande latte from Starbucks (both of these, by the way, are fortuitously located across the street from our apartment building).

Where the yuppie-Bedouins frequent.

PB & Chocolate is just as good as back in the states.

Notice the dusty car--this is, after all, the desert.

Even the Colonel has made it to the Middle East.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

A church and two mosques

On Friday, we had our first church experience in Abu Dhabi. For those of you not familiar with the week schedule here in the UAE, the weekend falls on Friday and Saturday, with Friday noon prayers acting as the time of communal worship for the Muslims. With a mosque next door, we have been able to observe from our balcony men flocking from all directions with their own prayer rugs to kneel toward Mecca.
The mosque becomes so crowded that dozens of men fill the surrounding courtyard, shaded or not.

Since Friday is the holy day for Muslims, most Christian churches here follow suit and hold services on the same day. With no Presbyterian option in Abu Dhabi, we decided to try the next closest deonomation theologically, the Anglican church, in this case, St. Andrews. As it turns out, all church buildings in Abu Dhabi are located in one designated section of the city, and most congregations (there are at least a hundred) share facilities, holding back-to-back worship services throughout the weekend. St. Andrews' compound, for instance, houses over 60 congregations from multiple denominations. We found it to be liturgically rich and diverse, with a few too many crying children (the nursery opens next week). We'll probably give it another shot.

On Saturday, we visited the Sheik Zayed mosque a little south of where we live. The Zayed mosque, or "Grand Mosque," on which construction still continues, is the sixth largest mosque in the world. We could attempt to describe the beauty and grandeur of this massive structure, but instead we'll let the pictures speak for themselves:
Shannon outside mosque.

Shannon inside mosque, wearing Abaya, looking a bit uncomfortable in the sweltering heat. All women must be fully covered while touring the mosque.

Sam dwarfed by a huge doorway.

Female ablution room - where Muslim women go to clean their hands and feet before prayer.

The halls are mopped constantly so that the white marble floors are spotless despite so many visitors.

Shoes are not allowed on the inner courtyard or inside the prayer room.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

A foodie in the UAE: baking 101

We’ve been in Abu Dhabi over two weeks now, and I’ve eaten out more than I can bear. Our boxes haven’t arrived with my cookware yet, but last night I decided to get back in the game. I made lentils and rice that turned out pretty good, not my best, but a decent, hearty meal. Tomorrow we are going to an expat gathering, and as the token southerner, I was asked if I knew how to make cornbread. I thought, sure, of course I can make cornbread. No problem. I’m excited to use my brand-new Italian gas range anyway. So, after work today I found my trusty cornbread recipe and pulled out the ingredients I carefully selected during the week, and got started.

Step 1: preheat oven to 425 F. My oven is in Celsius but I am prepared for that and use an app on my cell phone to make the conversion to 218 degrees. Piece of cake. Oh, right, my oven has numbers 1-8 on the dial, not temperatures. I get out the oven manual and find out that if I am only using the bottom burner, which I am, the dial should be at #8 to get a temp of 220 Celsius. Close enough. Twenty minutes later, after moving the dial down to 7, my oven thermometer (I brought one from home) reads 500 degrees Fahrenheit. So much for the chart in the manual. Down to #6, it still reads 450. Play with it a bit, settle on #4.5. I am now realizing I’ll probably not be able to slow-roast a turkey in this oven.

Step 2: Mix the dry ingredients. I start with corn flour; I couldn’t find cornmeal at the store but figured this would be about the same. Wrong. Instead of course yellow granules I find a fine, bright white powdery substance. Not sure if I’m making cornbread any more, but on we go. I add flour, sugar, baking powder, salt. No problems here.

Step 3: Add the wet ingredients. I realize I’ve forgotten yogurt and send Sam to the Lulu, our corner market, to get a pint of yogurt, which I’ve smartly found out is equivalent to 500 ml, just in case. He calls shortly after to say yogurt is sold in grams, not pints or liters. Large containers of yogurt are 400 grams. My cell phone says that’s about 14 ounces. I need 16. That’s 1 full container plus 1/8th of a container. Not pretty, but it can be done.

Oh, except the one mixing bowl I have is too small to hold the wet ingredients too. I only bought one, because we have several coming to us in our shipment, now nearly 2 weeks late. Okay. I call Sam again and he’s still at the store. After a bit of a scavenger hunt he finally finds a bowl large enough for my needs. He comes home triumphant with 570 grams of yogurt (1 large and 1 small container) and a bowl. My husband is a saint, by the way.

Back in business, I add in the 400 gram yogurt plus a little over half of the 170 gram yogurt. I guess that’s about 500 grams. Who said baking needs to be scientific? I add milk, eggs, sure, sure. Final step is to add melted butter. Hmmm, now noticing that one stick of butter is 200 grams, which equals 7 ounces. I need 2 ounces. So, that is 2/7ths of a stick. I am now opening a bottle of beer (for me, not the cornbread).

Final step: Bake. I taste the batter before slipping the pan in the oven and find it has a somewhat seltzer-y flavor. Perhaps baking powder here is not the same as in the states. But I’ve come too far to stop now. I set the timer for 20 minutes.

The cornbread is done, but it is so pale that I can’t bear to take it out of the oven. I turn on the broiler for a couple minutes to brown the top, a little trick that can make many foods look more appetizing. Still, nothing can mask the off-putting taste and strange texture of this wannabe cornbread. It’s much like a very large, spongy, slightly bitter pancake. Sam’s reaction is “I bet with a little honey it’ll be good.” He’s so sweet. And he’ll probably be eating off this for days ‘cause it ain’t making it to the dinner party. Not my proudest baking moment, but I’m not giving up yet. Tomorrow afternoon, armed with more beer and Sam on deck for emergency Lulu runs, I will be making cupcakes.

The cornbread that wasn't.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

A foodie in the UAE: Ramadan

This is my first post on our blog, not because I haven’t wanted to write or haven’t had the time, but because I have had so many new experiences and thoughts about this place that I’ve had trouble picking out one topic. I decided it’s best that I start with something I know well, so while Sam provides you with deep philosophical insights about life in the Middle East, I am going to periodically write about food – eating it, buying it, cooking it, and any other gastronomically-related activities that come to mind. Those of you who know me will agree that this is appropriate.

Eating has taken on new meaning since we arrived. Not only because the ingredients and dishes are different, but because we are in the month of Ramadan, which means Muslims are fasting (no food, water, or even gum) between sunrise and sunset for 30 days. At the same time, all residents and visitors to the UAE are required to respect the fast by not ingesting food, water or gum in public. This is a rule that is taken very seriously and is punishable by law, so that even at work there is a special “lunchroom,” which we have affectionately dubbed “the infidel room,” which has been set aside for all non-Muslim employees, complete with blacked-out windows and a screen in front of the door so that it is impossible for anyone fasting to see what is going on inside. If am hungry or thirsty during the work day (which I usually am within 15 minutes of arriving), I must leave my building, walk across the simmering parking lot, and up about 40 stairs to get to it. Seriously, not even sips of water at the desk are allowed.

Knowing that people are most cranky and least productive in the afternoon hours during a 14 hour fast, most businesses (including mine) close between 2 and 3 pm so that people can go home and nap during those most difficult hours before sunset. After sunset, the fast is broken with the traditional Iftar meal, a virtual feast, and the city comes alive with activity. Because of the shortened business hours, most need to re-open in the evening to make up for lost time. Thus, you can find pretty much any service available from 8 pm to 1 am (no lie – we had workmen in our apartment at 11 pm last night drilling holes in our concrete walls to hang curtains until we kicked them out in order to keep from being mobbed by our neighbors), which then means that people stay up to the wee hours of the morning, get a few hours of sleep, and then rise before the sunset to have breakfast, renewing a cycle of sleep-deprivation followed by hunger, followed by over-indulgence, etc, etc. We are about two weeks in to Ramadan now, and everyone is acting a little kooky.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

A humbling reminder

Yesterday, I journeyed to the American embassy here in Abu Dhabi in order to get our marriage license notarized so that I could then apply for a residence visa. As it turns out, I showed up an hour and a half early and so had to wait in a shaded outdoor seating area. And yes, it was damn hot! During my time waiting, no less than 4 men from Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Iran initiated conversations with me (as the only white American male there, I suppose I stood out). One middle-aged Pakistani man had received his high school education in New York, but then had to move back to Pakistan due to a family emergency. This man could not help but heap accolade after accolade on America, saying that he hopes to be able to return there again some day. Shortly after this conversation, a young Iranian man introduced himself to me and exuded such excitement as he told me he had won a green card in a lottery and so was moving to Ohio where he hoped to earn a bachelor's degree. I asked him when he thought he might return to Iran, to which he replied, somewhat incredulously, "Never."

As I reflected on these encounters later that night, I couldn't help but thank God that I am an American. Now, please do not misunderstand me. I, by no means, believe that America has an unblemished record when it comes to its actions towards those both within and without its borders (see Howard Zinn's A People's History of the United States), but I do believe there's a reason why so many flock to our borders. While America is many things to many people, it seems to me that multitudes around the world hold America in such high regard because it is a country built on the belief that ALL have a right to be freed from any tyranny which plagues them, whether that be a tyranny of dictatorship, skin color, gender, age, or socioeconomic class. With this freedom, one is then empowered to define themselves however they see fit rather than having their lives predetermined according to something beyond their control. Does it always work this way? Sadly, no. But it's the idea and its gradual realization that attracts so many, and which makes America so unique. It is this America for which I am so humbly grateful.