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Japanese Sojourn

23 Apr
Kyoto

Kyoto

I carried around a sense of melancholy during my first two to three days in Tokyo. There is something about being on the outside of a society that is very familiar and very foreign at the same time that is both thrilling and disorienting. You observe as smartly dressed Japanese women engage in animated conversations on the metro, as a father and his young son play inside a shopping mall elevator, as young people tease each other in a restaurant. You’re in a thoroughly modern, advanced country, perhaps the most developed in the world. And yet language remains a barrier. You observe the tumult of everyday life in Tokyo, on the outside peeking into the lives of others, and feel a twinge of sadness.

Luckily, the Tokyo blues faded, and I eased into my very foreign surroundings. When my traveling companion and I got lost- which happened frequently- we asked for help as best we could, with smiles and gestures, and people obliged us with their own smiles and gestures. It was not uncommon for people to begin walking us to the metro platform or restaurant we were looking for, to make sure that we were on the right path. I never encountered such courteousness in my travels in Europe, and if in Mexico a man offered to help me find my way, I would have become deeply suspicious. One particular joy of traveling in Japan was the security that pervades life there. Women at cafes leave their purses at their tables while they go to the bathroom, trusting that they will be there when they return. Leave something behind at a restaurant? Go back to retrieve it, and it will be right where you left it.

I also couldn’t help but notice the stunning lack of inequality in Japan. There are no visible signs of poverty or suffering, no shantytowns on the outskirts of town as one enters the city from the airport (as in Paris), or within the city. Streets were clean. And yet if Japan sounds like a quaint, Alpine village of quiet people who keep their heads down…go to a baseball game. Or a karaoke saloon. Or a bar. The Japanese know how to let their hair down.

From the neon lights and endless skyscrapers of Tokyo to the shrines and temples on every corner in historic Kyoto, Japan took my breath away every day. It also doesn’t hurt that I was there during sakura, the brief window when cherry blossoms bloom all over the country. The sight of those pink-white flowers every day was a constant delight.

As my trip to Japan becomes more and more distant in time, certain memories will fade. But my positive impression of the country- the kind people, the sounds, the sights- will not fade any time soon.

Dónde Comer y Tomar en la Ciudad de México

11 Sep
Chaibar

Chaibar

Solo viví en la Ciudad de México (otroramente conocida como el Distrito Federal) durante diez meses, pero en ese plazo corto, me gustaba explorar mi colonia, la Condesa, y la colonia aledaña, la Roma. Por esa razón esta lista tiene un sesgo por esas áreas. Abajo encontrarán algunos de los locales que extraño y que felizmente visitaría en el futuro.

Chaibar– Ubicado a unos metros del Parque México, Chaibar significa mucho para mi. En el principio, cuando no conocía a mucha gente en mi nueva ciudad, y mas adelante, tras un día laboral intenso y estresante, Chaibar servía como mi refugio. Los empleados siempre eran amables y abiertos, y crearon un ambiente cálido que atraía a la gente día y noche. El chai es cremoso y sabroso, hecho con ingredientes naturales y leche de soya, con tres opciones posibles- té negro, té de limón, o campechano, una mezcla de los dos. A mi siempre me gustaba el campechano. Chaibar es un buen lugar para tomar tu te y mirar el mundo pasar.

Libreria El Péndulo– Es una cadena de librerías que se denominan “cafebrerías”, con restaurantes en las premisas. La que está en la Condesa, en calle Nuevo León, donde me gustaba desayunar los fines de semana, cuenta con músicos en vivo los sábados por la mañana. Hay una cosa que siempre pedía para desayunar, los Huevos Macondo. Era un desayuno con sabor muy mexicano, con un huevo frito encima de una quesadilla llena de quesillo, huitlacoche y flor de calabaza, cubierto de salsa verde. Acompañado por un café o jugo, y sobretodo con un buen libro, es una buena forma de comenzar el fin de semana.

Jalil Sabor a Hogar

Jalil Sabor a Hogar

Jalil Sabor a Hogar– Visité este restaurante en Roma Norte poco después de su inauguración, y de pronto entablé uan amistad con los dueños, quienes fueron muy sorprendidos cuando les dije que soy libanesa. Pero si mi cara no les convencía de mis orígenes, mi afinidad por su comida lo hizo. Pedir el plato libanés, un surtido de comidas distintas, es la mejor forma de probar todo en un solo lugar. Aunque las hojas de uva rellenas nunca han sido mi comida favorita, me encanta las que preparan aquí, llenas de arroz y carne y bañados en aceite de olivo. Eso, y el kipe crujiente (la cosa en forma óvalo en la foto), eran mis favoritas, aunque en realidad todo es rico.

Helado Obscuro– Vine una noche con una amiga, y cuanto más nieve comimos, mas borrachas nos pusimos. Aquí sirven nieve con licor, y con MUCHO licor. Unos ejemplos de los sabores que ofrecen son absenta y frambuesa o Kahlua chocolate. También vale la pena ir por la música y el ambiente 100% hipster.

Gourmart– Los dueños de este restaurante colombiano modesto en la Roma Norte siempre te saludan con una sonrisa. Tienen una carta sencilla, con solo dos opciones de comida de lunes a viernes. El café colombiano es una buena forma de comenzar el día, fuerte pero nada amargo, y por la tarde las mejores opciones son el  sancocho, un guisado que lleva pollo desmenuzado, elote, rajas de aguacate, una salsa no picosa, y arroz, y el sudado de albondigas, que son albondigas bañadas en una salsa de jitomate y cebolla- todo servido con una arepa al lado. Esta comida es muy buena para el alma cuando hace frío.

Rosetta

Rosetta

Rosetta– Tenía ganas de conocer este restaurante desde que leí noticias sobre ello antes de llegar a México, y por eso pensé que cenar en Rosetta sería una buena forma de festejar mi cumpleaños. Y cuando llegamos esa noche lluviosa, no me decepcionaron. El ambiente es íntimo, y no es de sorprender, ya que el restaurante ocupa una casa porfiriana en la Roma Norte. La gastronomía es italiana con un toque mexicano. Recuerdo un pan divino, crujiente por afuera y con una masa esponjosa por dentro, un primer plato de hinojo frito, y una pasta hecha con un ragú jugosa con sabor a ajo. Para resumir, lo recomiendo para cualquier ocasión especial.

Riviera del Sur– He ido a este restaurante/bar en la Roma Sur varias veces con varios amigos, y siempre me ha gustado por su buena comida yucateca. La sopa de lima es como una sopa de tortilla pero mas sencilla, los kibis son muy parecidos al kipe libanés, y los tacos de cochinita pibil son una rica forma de consumir el puerco (sobre todo si te gusta lo dulce). La Riviera es amplio y tiene un ambiente amigable, así que es un buen lugar para pasar el tiempo con amigos.

Mercado Roma

Mercado Roma

Biergarten– En la azotea de Mercado Roma, un mercado a la moda donde hay puestos que venden todo, de los sandwiches vietnamitas a las paletas, Biergarten es un bar de cerveza inspirado por los mismos que se encuentran en Alemania. Te da la oportunidad de disfrutar de una buena cerveza al aire libre. La carta de comida tiene buenas opciones, y si la cerveza no es lo tuyo, los ‘smashes’ son una buena opción de cocteles.

Los tacos callejeros cerca de la  Sumesa, Calle Oaxaca y Avenida Álvaro Obregon. Es difícil describir este lugar porque es un puesto callejero sencillo, y tengo que recomendarlo sin ningún enlace, ni foto, ni una buena descripción de su ubicación. Espero que siga allí y que no haya cambiado. Hacen tacos con una variedad de rellenos, con frijoles pintos y papas fritas crujientes encima. Simplemente es lo mejor. Imprescindible comerlo con una botella de Coca Cola.

También cabe mencionar: Lardo, Temporal, Azul Restaurante

Where to Eat and Drink in Mexico City

11 Sep
Chaibar

Chaibar

I only lived in Mexico City for ten months, but in that short time, I enjoyed exploring my neighborhood, Condesa, and the neighboring Roma neighborhood. For that reason this list skews heavily towards those areas. Below are some of the places I now miss and would gladly visit on any future visits to the city.

Chaibar– Located just off of Parque México, Chaibar is very meaningful to me. During the times when I felt either lonely as a newly arrived expat who didn’t have many friends yet, or disillusioned after a long, stressful day at work, I always found Chaibar to be a refuge. The employees were always so warm and friendly, and they created a convivial atmosphere that attracted people day and night to this closet-sized space. The chai is creamy and flavorful, made will all-natural ingredients and soy milk, with three options available- black tea, lemongrass, or ‘campechano’, a mix of both. I always enjoyed the campechano. Chaibar is a good place to drink your tea and people watch.

Libreria El Péndulo– This is a small, local chain of bookstores that also have restaurants on the premises. The Condesa location, where I liked to eat breakfast on the weekends, had live music on Saturday mornings, which was a lovely accompaniment to the meal. There was one item I liked to order, called Huevos Macondo. It was a tasty Mexican breakfast, a fried egg on top of a tortilla filled with cheese, huitlacoche (like a very pungent mushroom) and squash, all covered in a mild green sauce. With a coffee or juice, and especially with a good book, it was a great way to start the day.

Jalil Sabor a Hogar

Jalil Sabor a Hogar

Jalil Sabor a Hogar– I first visited this restaurant in Roma Norte shortly after it opened, and quickly became friends with the owners, who were quite surprised to learn that I’m Lebanese. But if my looks didn’t convince them of my origins, my fondness for their food did. I found that ordering the plato libanés, an assortment of different dishes, was the best way to get all of my favorite tastes in one place. Although stuffed grape leaves have never been a favorite of mine, I loved the ones here, moist and full of flavorful rice and meat. That, and the crisp kibbeh (the football-shaped item in the picture), were my favorites, though everything on the plate is delicious.

Helado Obscuro– I came with a friend one night, and the more ice cream we ate, the drunker we started to feel. Not only does this ice cream shop serve liquor-infused ice cream, but the ice cream is VERY liberally infused with the alcohol. Think flavors like absinthe raspberry and Kahlua chocolate. It’s also worth visiting this spot in Roma Sur for the very hisptery music and décor.

Gourmart– The owners of this modest Colombian restaurant in Roma Norte always greet you with a smile. They have a simple menu, with two specials served for lunch each weekday. The Colombian coffee is good first thing in the morning, strong but not bitter, and in the afternoon the best choices are the sancocho, a stew filled with chicken, corn, avocado slices, mild salsa, and rice, and the sudado de albondigas, meatballs in a tomato-onion sauce, all served with an arepa on the side (a corn-based wafer). Especially comforting on a cold day.

Rosetta

Rosetta

Rosetta– Intrigued by reviews of this restaurant that I had read before I arrived in Mexico, I thought that a dinner there would be the perfect way to celebrate my birthday. And once we showed up on that rainy night, I was not disappointed. The ambience was homey and intimate, which is not surprising given that the restaurant occupies a former 19th-century home in Roma Norte. The cuisine is mostly Italian with a strong Mexican streak. I recall having bread that was divine, with a crunchy crust and light and airy dough, an appetizer of crispy, fried hinojo (a leafy herb), and a pasta dish with a meaty ragu studded with garlic and all kinds of delicious spices. All in all, a wonderful restaurant for a special occasion.

Riviera del Sur– I’ve been to this restaurant/bar in Roma Sur several times with different friends, and I’ve always enjoyed the Yucatecan food. The sopa de lima is a citrusy, pared-down tortilla soup, the kibis, which surprisingly are a lot like Lebanese kibbeh, are a good accompaniment to a cold beer, and the tacos de cochinita pibil are an ideal pork-delivery system (and are especially good if you have a sweet palette, since the pork is cooked in a citrus marinade). La Riviera is spacious and friendly, a good place to get a drink and relax with friends.

Mercado Roma

Mercado Roma

Biergarten– On the top floor of Mercado Roma, a swanky market with food booths selling everything from banh mi to popsicles, Biergarten is a German-inspired beer hall that gives patrons the chance to drink a pint of beer outdoors while enjoying good music. The food options are good-I remember having poutine covered in gravy- and if ice cold beer on tap is not your thing, the smashes are a great cocktail option.

Street tacos near Sumesa grocery store, Calle Oaxaca and Avenida Álvaro Obregon. This one is hard to describe because it’s a street food stall, and I have to recommend it without a link, a photo, or a firm description of the location. I hope that this place is still there and still as good as usual. They make tacos with a variety of meat fillings that are topped with whole pinto beans and crispy French fries. It’s the best taco around.

Honorable mention: Lardo, Temporal, Azul Restaurante

I’ll be coming where dreams are made of

9 May
New York

New York

Just two weeks into my stay in Washington D.C., I went to New York for a few hours one day. Why? Because I could. Shortly after arriving, I found out that one can take the Bolt bus from D.C. to New York in 4 hours and for as low as $12-16 each way. I quickly made plans to see a friend who lives in Brooklyn, works at U.N. headquarters, and whom I hadn’t seen in 8 years. I was too bashful to ask her if I could spend the night at her house, knowing that the last thing she needed was to prepare lodging for a guest in addition to caring for her kids. I wanted a no-hassle trip. So I decided to make it a day trip.

The sun was out, the air was cool, and I walked the streets feeling carefree. The bus dropped us off in the Soho/West Village area, which I had always heard about and surely seen on the big screen. I had heard that there was a part of New York that didn’t feel hectic and crazy, with narrow, cobblestone streets and a less frenetic pace of life. I didn’t exactly feel like I was in the middle of Nebraska, but rather that I was walking streets that were bursting with all of the best of city life: conviviality, diversity, vibrancy. There seemed to be a buzz in the air, a crackling energy. Yes, in the evening the streets got crowded, but people were congenial, friendly. It wasn’t a scowling, unfriendly city; it was full of neighborly people of all walks of life. So I strolled the area for a few hours, stopping occasionally to get a slice of pizza, later a hot tea, browsing stores and churches, until the evening came. I had a wonderful time at a restaurant in Chinatown catching up with my friend and her kids, and then I caught the bus back to Washington. I was home before midnight.

I couldn’t help thinking, as the bus pushed through the darkness of Delaware and Maryland that night, if I had chosen the wrong East Coast city to live in. New York had grabbed a hold of me.

Being a Foreigner

18 Sep
Angel de Independencia

Angel de Independencia

Because I tend to have a general attitude of “I don’t give a fuck”, for the most part, I don’t mind being a foreigner. That’s not to say I go around playing music loudly at night, or littering in public places. I’m conscientious. But I don’t take myself too seriously, and I don’t like when others do. You only have one life, so why sweat it? If I have to smile and ask a waiter, “I’m sorry, I don’t know what that is. Can you explain?”, I don’t mind. I don’t blush and swell with excessive pride. I have done this being a foreigner thing before, and I know that sometimes you just have to accept that you look different, sound different, and generally don’t know your way around (at least at first).

I don’t want to be someone who feels especially special and unique by virtue of the fact that I am foreign. When you’re 20 years old and studying abroad during junior year of college, you content yourself with knowing that if anyone wants to know how that is said in English, or what it’s like in America, they can go to you. There were times when I studied abroad in Spain when I would be the only American in the room, and I felt special. One should absolutely accept that being a foreigner offers a unique perspective on things. But it is not all that is unique and special about you. That’s to say that when I go home to spend the holidays with my family, I know that there are aspects of my identity that are more important to who I am than my exoticness, my otherness. I think it is people who have difficulty separating the two who have a tough time readjusting when they go back home.

I also can’t forget that being a foreigner from any old country and being an American abroad are not the same thing. I’ve generally found that being an American in Europe and Latin America means being received warmly, perhaps with a sarcastic remark, and rarely as the first emissary of your kind to visit these shores. I have met maybe three people for whom I was the first American they had ever met. Being an American means you are never too far from familiar things; you turn on the TV and see the same actors with unfamiliar voices; you see the same junk food in the stores, the same golden arches and half-bitten apple at the mall. Here in Mexico, you see hamburgers offered at a lot of restaurants. Breakfast menus often include “hot cakes” (although it seems that someone came here in the 1950’s with that name and it stuck; nowadays we call them pancakes). I try to balance out consuming familiar things, such as the jar of peanut butter that I have at home, with consuming things that I know I’ll find only in Mexico, like eating a $5 lunch that includes soup, appetizer, entree (enchiladas, taquitos, fish), and a modest dessert. As I write this, I sit in a café where the soundtrack and the ambience could be lifted straight out of Valencia Street in San Francisco’s Mission District. It’s almost too familiar. I want something disorienting, different, exotic.

But then again, I think about how much I stuck out like a sore thumb today at lunch when I ate at a fonda near work (one of these homespun restaurants offering a menu of the day that is typically only open for office workers during lunch hour). Sometimes it’s thrilling to not look like anyone around (although let’s face it, with my Lebanese Mexican looks I rarely blend into my surroundings), and sometimes it’s tiring. Sometimes you just want to go unnoticed. Again, you don’t want your identity to rely too heavily on being a foreigner, but sometimes you have to embrace the fact that you’re not from here. At the very least, I feel safe. I know that it’s entirely possible that I could wind up in the wrong neighborhood or the wrong taxi and all of a sudden being a foreigner is not cool, it’s an invitation to victimhood.

All in all, I mostly feel happy. Still a bit disoriented- I’m still learning streets in my neighborhood, and then I’ll work outward from there- and still a bit lonely, as I don’t know many people yet, but still very grateful for this feeling. Being a foreigner here makes me feel deliriously alive.

Begin Again

30 Jul

It is fitting that I recently saw the movie “Begin Again”,  a charming musical starring Keira Knightley and Adam Levine. The music stayed with me for days, but that title has really stayed with me. It comes at the perfect moment. I, too, am about to begin again.

Where to begin? In late April, I wrote the post How to decimate company morale, and two days later I quit my job. It was a scary thing to do, because although I had been looking for a new job, I never thought I would make that leap without the safety of a new one waiting comfortably for me when I departed. I was glad to be gone, but scared out of my mind. Did I have enough money to live on? What would I tell potential employers when I was no longer gainfully employed? More importantly- what would I tell my family? So initially, I freaked.

And then I remembered My own reasons to love Mexico City, and I began to think about moving there. Because, if not now, when? I hesitated…I continued applying for jobs in San Francisco, though I found my eyes glazing over as I read each new job description. Same old shit, I thought. The idea of living and working abroad began to appeal more and more. I kept thinking of a former colleague, a Mexican, who once assured me, “You’d get a job in Mexico right away.” Professionally, the idea of moving to Mexico City appealed to me.

Personally, it had its appeal as well. I have been happy in San Francisco these last five years; it took time for me to make friends, yet slowly but surely I made friends here. And yet I hesitated to buy a home or make other serious commitments to this city. All I could think was, what if I get a home and then get an opportunity elsewhere? There was always a part of me that didn’t want to be tied down to the city. I wanted to be able to leave, just in case. I have no mortgage, am not married and have no kids. Why not pick up and leave?

So, egged on by my friends, who encouraged me to go for it, I began contacting people in Mexico City in my industry. Sure enough, I got a bite or two. Potential employers who wanted to meet me in person. In the first week of July I went to Mexico to interview with them. During my brief stay there, I spoke with people who asked if I was sure I wanted to leave such a wonderful place as San Francisco. They asked if I really wanted to deal with the traffic, the noise, the pollution. I began to have doubts. But during my last days there I spoke to other people. Those who said that they loved living in the city, that they loved what it had to offer. I walked around, admired storefronts and restaurants and parks. And I saw myself living there and being happy. I was offered a good job, and I accepted it.

At age 33, I feel truly excited to start this new chapter. In these last few weeks in San Francisco, I am seeing the city as if with new eyes, enjoying its hidden (and not so hidden) gems. I am enjoying the company of dear friends, assuring them that I will be back to visit (and it appears I will have a lot of visitors when I’m there). I am excited about this new direction in life, and confident that I’ll be happy in my new country and city. And so I begin again.

 

My Own Reasons to Love Mexico City

24 Feb
Palacio de Bellas Artes, as seen from Correos

Palacio de Bellas Artes, as seen from Correos

Just as I have been harboring fantasies about moving back to Mexico City (it’s the daydream that keeps me going), I see Global Post’s new listicle, 27 reasons to love Mexico City. I lived in Mexico City in the summer of 2006, and have been back on business trips in 2012 and 2013. What do I love about Mexico City, and why would I even dream of leaving San Francisco for the Mexican capital?

– Culture. You have Librerías Gandhi. The new Museo Jumex.  Palacio de Bellas Artes, as seen at left, where I saw the Ballet Folklórico de México. Art both classical and modern, a thriving intellectual and music scene.

– Food. Mushroom empanadas at El Bipo. Quesadillas de huitlacoche. Sipping on palomas (tequila with pineapple juice). All the sweet, fresh juices only found in country. The food in Mexico is worth gaining a few pounds.

– Green space. Yes, even in Mexico City. Parque de Chapultepec is the lungs of the city, with lakes, museums, a castle, music, street vendors, and people watching that never gets old.

– History. Within the central city plaza you have a cathedral, a presidential palace, art deco galleries and restaurants, and an ancient temple. Where else do you experience such a comingling of history?

– People. Mexicans are warm, welcoming, witty, easy to laugh, and the reason to come to the city and stay in the city. Without its residents, a city is just monuments and museums. It is the chilangos that give Mexico City its vibrance.