Chacun a son Gout

Once upon a long time ago Wilf and I were in a pub in London. We were looking at the bar snacks, and on offer were packets of potato chips – crisps – in the flavour ‘roast beef’. I decided that was too weird to eat and passed. And I’ve always kind of regretted that – after all – a bag of chips? Don’t like ’em, don’t eat ’em. Since then we’ve been to Japan twice and Turkey and India and have sort of adopted ‘Sure, I’ll try that’ as a motto to live by.

And then I was in our local Fairways market. And there, in the ‘ethnic’ section was a display of potato chips from Scotland:

Steak flavoured crisps! I’m in. And, after tasting them I’d have to say – apparently texture contributes a lot to the taste of something. Do they taste like steak or beef? No. What do they taste like? I don’t know. But you know what they aren’t? Salty!!! Half the salt of a similar sized package of North American chips.

Of course, if I’m going to continue on my path of ‘brave eating’ I guess I’ll have to go back and get the package that was beside the aberdeen angus steak flavour.

What do you suppose ‘Haggis and cracked black pepper’ is going to taste like?

Christmas 2014

When we were writing this letter last year it looked like 2014 was going to be a quieter year than 2013, which seemed like a good idea after all the activities of that year. Then….. 2014 happened!
After 14 years in this house we finally bit the bullet and took on the big project – hardwood floors. In January we packed up the contents of the house, moved out and let the contractors at it. Six weeks later we moved back in to beautiful new floors throughout. Many thanks to Joan & Doug for letting us bunk in with them for the duration. Over the summer we had the outside of the house repainted, finishing off the sprucing up that began last year. And next year – kitchen counters?
Once again 2014 was a year of travel. Sharon’s Mom celebrated a big birthday with all the family in Las Vegas over Easter – shows, excursions & helicopters made for an action packed trip. In August both Sharon and Wilf had big trips. Sharon joined girlfriends Nan & Lisa in Birmingham, England to attend the “Festival of Quilts” – a week of shopping and looking at quilts at the Big Show! Later in the month Wilf’s fly-fishing club had an excursion to the north end of Vancouver Island to fish for salmon on the beach at the mouth of the Cluxewe River. According to the locals, it was the best salmon run in 20 years. It was a wonderful experience we shared together.
In September we returned to Istanbul – Wilf celebrated his 60thbirthday there and this year he celebrated his 75th in that great city. We enjoyed the city once again, then boarded a cruise of the Black Sea. After 12 days of interesting ports, including Bulgaria, Romania, and Russia we arrived in Athens, Greece then moved on to a week in a villa on the island of Crete. It was a truly memorable trip full of great sights, great food and time with good friends, Nan and Greg.
Christmas will be spent with Sharon’s parents and brother Bill in Victoria. We will cross Australia off the bucket list this winter and a family trip is planned for fall 2015. Truly, we are blessed to be able to travel the world and come back home to our wonderful spot by the sea. We appreciate so much our family and friends and look forward to another year of adventures.
Wishing everyone a very Merry Christmas and a healthy and prosperous New Year.
Love,  Sharon and Wilf


More adventures in bathing.

And so the great adventure, Autumn 2914 version, begins. We are in Istanbul – we were last here in 1999. It was pretty straightforward to travel from Victoria – Victoria to Toronto direct (~4 hours) followed by Toronto to Istanbul direct (~9 hrs). Long flight, but not complicated. 

Because we arrived at 9:30 am I figured that we’d be too early to check in to our hotel – and we’d be tired. So maybe a visit to a Hamam would be in order. One thing and another, we found a Hamam that met our requirements and made a reservation. 
Most hamami are segregated – there are either seperate facilities, different times of the day or different days of the week. Which is fine, but the first places we found would have had me going in the morning while Wilf did??? And then Wilf off in the afternoon leaving me unattended. But we found a place – for tourists- that is co-ed. 
After a visit to the Hagia Sofia (in the 15 years since our last visit they’ve moved the scaffolding from one side to the another) we found ourselves at the Hamam, tired, disheveled and hours early for our appointment. No matter – they swept us in and got us settled. 
As is traditional men get a large towel wrap to wear in the bath. To preserve modesty women are given a pair of shorts and a bikini top in addition to the wrap. A pair of wooden clogs completes the ensemble and off we went. 
The main room is a large domed area with a huge marble platform in the centre – 8 people can lay out easily. The platform is heated – as is the floor – and we layed down to relax in the heat. Around the outside of the room are big marble sinks and small basins. We could go and pour water over ourselves – mostly to cool off. After awhile we were called into a smaller room where there were two marble massage tables and two muscular guys. First up we sat down by the big sinks for a rinse and then a scrub. Sort of like being worked over with a potscrubber. 
Once we were scrubbed there was the small problem of hauling my weary slippery self up off the floor, but big guy helped me get the job done. I’d forgotten about the Ottoman sitting on the floor thing…
Next up was the soap bubbles – the masseur had what looked like a big pillowcase in a pail of soapy water – the case would be full of air and bubbles – it was a strange sensation as the hot bubbles poured over me – by the time he was done I was covered from my neck to my feet in a layer of bubbles about 4″ thick. 
After the bubble bath and a rinse – a massage. That worked out the kinks! In a more traditional set up there would have been a very thorough scrubbing to take off a couple of layers of skin followed by a massage that takes you apart and then puts you back together. None of this was quite as rigorous but it was just the ticket. 
After it all we changed out of our wet things and into a dry towel. The attendants then used more towels and lots of flapping and wrapping to get us all bundled up – we sort if looked like gift wrapped packages by the time we got to the lounge area to enjoy fresh and delicious orange juice. 
My bathing beauty!

What I did on my winter vacation

2014 is half gone and I haven’t checked in for an age – so this will be a quick recap.

Rather than take a winter vacation this year we underwent another project.

First – pack up about 85% or our belongings and have them moved to the garage:

Second – have a lot of wood delivered:

We then moved out for six weeks, while a lot of this went on:
And when it was over – new hardwood floors throughout!
Along the way we repainted our bedroom, changed some appliances and light fixtures. We did NOT do the heavy work ourselves. Alain, Nathalie and Kyle of Woodfellow Flooring did the work on the floors and it is beautiful. With an open plan house they had lots of strange angles and no places to hide. And they did a wonderful job. The installation is lovely and the finish just gleams. And they took extra special care in getting our home back in shape when they were done. We would recommend them if you need new floors in the Victoria area.
While I’m in a recommending mood I have good things to say about AtoB Moving – they came to move our stuff and did a great job. They were quick and careful and had the contents of most of the house packed into the garage in very short order. They really worked hard. And when the time came to move back in they were as quick and careful as the first time around.
Moving out, having our house in an uproar made for a strange winter. But the end result is worth it!

Starry, starry night

Once upon a time I was doing some reading about the Byzantine empire, and there was discussion of the mosaics in the Hagia Sofia in Istanbul, which are nice, but not as good as the basilica in Ravenna, Italy. Hagia Sofia was pretty impressive, and I figured that would have to do, because what were the odds of going to Ravenna? Well, guess what. Ravenna is 90 minutes east of Bologna. An easy day trip. So of course a trip became part of the 2013 Sharon and Wilf Tour of Churches, and Eating. 

From the train station it is about a 15 minute walk to the old town of Ravenna. The centre is mostly pedestrian streets and the town has a lively feel to it. First up is the Arian Baptistry. And there, on the ceiling:
To modern eyes this may be John the Baptist baptizing Jesus, observed by his apostles. Back in the day this was pretty seriously heretical, showing Jesus young and obviously human, attended by a pagan river spirit as well as saints. 
The magnificent mosaics of the dome are all that remain in this small building. 
The real fireworks begin at the Basilica de San Vitale:

There is also a mausoleum that is a little mosaic jewel box, including the most beautiful field of stars:

It is quite humbling to look at these mosaics, with all their millions of tiny tiles, that have been in place for more than a thousand years.

Bolonga la Grassa

I think our favourite type of food is Italian – I tend to cook Italian-ish and that’s often our choice in restaurants. And yet, we’ve always found eating well in Italy to be a challenge. It has always seemed darn near impossible to get away from the dreaded tourist menu and the same dozen dishes, often badly done. Venice was the most difficult.

Then we came to Bologna. Bologna la grassa – Bologna the fat – is one if its nicknames. It is a foodie city. And more importantly, it is not a touristy city. Not like Rome, Venice, Tuscany, the Amalfi coast. There is a huge university here – somewhere around 100,000 students, which keeps things lively. And there is a big trade/convention centre in the new part of the city. In fact the biggest trade show of the year is going on this week – the ceramic tile people are in town. (Seem like a quiet bunch)
But what there is not is hordes of tourists in busses and all the infrastructure that they need. There are lots of things to see and do, but mostly the people around us are the local people doing there own thing.
The great thing about this is that it is easy to avoid the dreaded tourist menu. Being tourists we’re always wanting to eat too early, but we’ve managed to turn this to our advantage. We show up right at noon when its not busy and we can have the full attention of the wait staff and tell them we want to eat the specialties of the region or the town. We’ve been eating such good stuff! 

Antipasto plate in Ravenna.

Pumpkin filled ravioli with walnut sauce for me, salama de sugo with mashed potatoes (and sparkling red wine) in Ferrara.
Parmesan cheese and Parma ham in …. Parma!
The only downside is that after these huge lunches, with wine, there’s no way we can face dinner! But I think one good meal a day beats a couple of indifferent ones, anytime. We may have more of a challenge ahead of us as we head to the coast and the more touristy areas. Here’s hoping!

A tale of two cities, Dubai edition

You know how it is – go away on a big trip, come back and fall into life and suddenly almost a month has gone by and the last part of the trip hasn’t been told. Hmmm – sorry about that!


Seeing Dubai was the starting point for this whole adventure, and throughout our trip people kept telling us ‘If you think that’s great, what ‘til you see the one in Dubai’, so we were pretty excited to actually get to the city. A little bit sad, too, because it meant the end of our great adventure, but first – a city to explore.

From our berth at Port Rashid we could look across to the famous skyline. Here’s a shot from later in the day, with the late day sun glinting off the Burj Kahlifa:


The Burj is 163 stories tall, which means that those other buildings around it are also very tall, which in turn means that things are spread out quite a bit further than we first thought. The scale of everything is quite deceptive.

A bus service was in place to take us to the Dubai Mall, which seemed like as good a place as any to begin our adventures. We’re getting used to these giant Asian and Middle Eastern malls right? And the Dubai Mall is connected to the elevated train system, right? Well, yes and no.

Turns out the Dubai Mall is immense – 1200 shops, to begin with. I’ll tell you about it later. And it is connected to the train. By an air-conditioned sky walk (like Calgary’s Plus 15 network on steriods), which was nice. The presence of moving sidewalks throughout should have been a clue. It was probably about a kilometer to the train, but it was interesting, being above the traffic, looking down into one after another construction site.

There is an old town part of Dubai, which we visited on day two. But the city has pretty much been built since the early 1980’s. That does make for a certain kind of organization – there is a main expressway that runs parallel to the coastline, and the metro runs above and to the side of the expressway. On either side is a forest of high rise buildings – mostly office space but lots of condominiums, too. And shopping centres. Moving away from the transit corridor we could see subdivisions of various types laid out.

Reading the guide books most of the attractions seem to be centred around shopping centres – want to go skiing? Mall of the Emirates. Skating or a trip to the aquarium? Dubai Mall. Fancy shopping with an ancient Egyptian motif – there were at least two malls with that theme. We had a suggestion from a friend to check out the Ibn Battuta mall, so we decided to do that first, which was why we found our way to the metro and took the long ride to the suburbs.

I’ll let you look up Ibn Battuta for all the details – short version is that he was a famous scholar and explorer in the Medieval Arabic world. And the mall named in his honour is divided up into sections representing some of the many places that he visited. The guide books are quite sniffy about it, and the concierge at our hotel seemed surprised that we would bother going there. But it was a hoot. Totally over the top. The condescension comes, I believe, from the fact that it is not a really high end mall. No Chanel or fancy French designers. It is 1.3 km long – you can pay a couple of cents for a ride in a cart if you decide you don’t want to walk back and forth. Where else, after all, can you stop in what looks like a mosque and find a Starbucks?



or a full sized Chinese junk dashed on the rocks in China?


Our cart driver took us via Tunisia:


so that we could get back to the exit for the train, which was the Egyptian area:


All around the world, and groceries, too.

From Ibn Battuta we decided to head to another shopping/entertainment complex, so back on the train, then a taxi to the waterfront. We were headed for the Jumeirah district, where among other things they have a souk. We were in the souk in Muscat, which was very interesting. This one would be different, being indoors, for one thing. But since the temperature was about 35outside,  indoors seemed like a good idea.

First clue that we’re not in a regular souk – the lapis lazuli inlaid floors:


Everything very pretty, very elegant, very just so for the tourists.


Kind of like the Disney version of the real thing….

While we were in the Emirates is was hot, a bit humid (but not like Asia humid) hazy and threatening rain. In fact we ran into rain showers in all three Emirate cities. What this meant in Dubai was poor visibility. We had talked about going to the Burj al Arab hotel for a drink in the bar and a look at the view out over the Palm Islands, but decided that we probably wouldn’t be able to see anything. Instead we made our way to one of the hotels in the Jumeirah district where we could sit and look at the Burj al Arab itself.


It was very pleasant, and they didn’t seem to mind sweaty, windblown tourists, so we had a beer and read some newspapers and admired the view. What with the rain some of the locals were considering it a bit cool and certainly too chilly to go to the beach, but from where we were sitting we could see the hardy Europeans sitting down on the beach. In the picture above that is a little lake that we over look, with little hire boats to take you about – something to do, don’t you know!

We made our way back via taxi, train, and moving sidewalk to the Dubai Mall – which was now wide awake and going full steam, unlike in the morning when things were just barely opening. We found a familiar site:


for a restorative cup of Timmie’s best before finding our way back to our shuttle bus.

It was all very interesting, but it was strange, too. We had covered a lot of ground and seen many sights. But it was all within the confines of highly organized private spaces. From one shopping centre to another via public transit. Through private walkways to and from the shopping centre. Everything was corporate, branded, managed. It was all perfect, tidy, safe and clean. But there was nothing spontaneous, nothing lively, nothing real.

First two Emirates

So – here we are in the desert – and its raining! Go figure! In fact it has finally cooled down enough at night that the cruise director decided to have our first night time deck party. And then it rains….

We didn’t join any shore excursions in Fujairah. The ship had a shuttle organized to a local mall, so we went along hoping for wi-fi. Sure enough, a Starbucks obliged and we had a chance to check in with the world. Not much to take pictures of – we kind of treated it as another at sea day. In fact we actually spent the afternoon on the pool deck and went for a swim. Usually it is so hot up there that I risk spontaneous combustion if I set foot on the deck.

Abu Dhabi was also rainy and overcast. And this really isn’t a bad thing – it kept us from being just slayed by the sun. Again we decided against any shore excursions, and again a shuttle was laid on for a local shopping centre. While both Muscat and Oman were very low key cities, Abu Dhabi is hugely developed and full of skyscrapers. We went to the Marina Mall, which is huge. And being a Saturday it was packed – locals, expats, tourist. A blizzard of shopping. And of coffee drinking – because it was so chilly outside!

From the mall we could see the very big and very famous Emirates Palace Hotel – we thought we’d walk over for a look see. After about a 45 minute walk around the perimeter we approached the gate, only to be told that long pants were required – for Wilf. So, back to the mall we went.

And still everyone is saying – pffff. Wait til you see Dubai!

And after the lush and tropical part of the trip

then comes the desert. And I must admit when we arrived at Muscat, in Oman my first thought was ‘Wow – they must be some tough people to live here’. The city itself is green enough, but it backs right up against the most desolate range of low mountains. Not a blade of grass to be seen. Until the early 1970’s there was very little here, so the Sultan has gotten a lot done since he took charge.

One of the main things to see is the mosque. There seem to be many ways of measuring how big a mosque is – by some reckonings this one is the third largest in the world. When we saw the mosque in Casablanca it was the second largest – don’t know if it still is. Anyhoo, the mosque in Muscat. Oman is a very conservative country, and we were told repeatedly that we would have to be covered up for this tour – long pants and sleeves for women, nothing low cut and our heads had to be covered. This did not stop many people from showing up on bus in crop pants, short sleeves, you name it. Before we got off the bus the bus driver inspected us and issue abayas (long sleeved, floor length black coats) and or head scarfs to those who didn’t pass. Before being allowed into the grounds we were scrutinized again by a policeman – a few adjustments but no one was rejected.

Was it worth it? Yes, it was. A lovely lovely garden and building. Enormous crystal chandeliers, a huge rug, carvings, tile work – all just beautiful.

After the mosque we visited the souk – one of Oman’s special items is frankincense. It smells fantastic. There was lots of tourist stuff, but it was also a souk for the Omanis, so it was fun to visit.

Even if it was 37C in the burning sun (and less than 30% humidity at the height of the day)