Unexpectedly Arabic: al-Episode ﺏ

This was my first trip to the Gulf in living memory, and Abu Dhabi turned out to be even weirder than I expected.

Let’s start with the obvious: the city is filthy rich. Not as in “prosperous” rich, but as “ridiculously loaded” rich — a while back, CNN figured that, on average, the net worth of any citizen of Abu Dhabi (who only make under 20% of the resident population, mind you) is a cool US$15 million. This is a city of nearly two million people and vast five-lane boulevards, without even the faintest attempt at a public transport system: the rich are chaffeured around in their Mercedeses, the middle class drive their own humongous SUVs, and the poor like me commute by taxi, which are ubiquitous and ridiculously cheap (metered fares right across the city won’t climb above Dhs 10, or US$2).

The Hilton Abu Dhabi is a bit awkwardly located at the edge of town, but it does have a marvelous sweep of the Gulf right next to it, complete with free (for guests) “Hiltonia” spa/gym/pool/beach complex right across the street. The shallow lagoon between the city and the Marina district’s shopping malls was the temperature and texture of warm spit, but there were enough hot Arabic babes in bikinis (yes, seriously — probably mostly Lebanese/Egyptian Christians) to make up for it.

Causeway to Marina Mall Arabian mixed grill at the Hilton

An interesting twist to the experience was added by Ramadan, the Muslim fasting month. Work thus started at 8 (notionally — few bothered to show up at the office before 9), ran straight through what would normally have been lunch, and ended by 2 PM, when everybody headed home to sleep the last hours of the fast. Abu Dhabi, being rather less uptight than some countries in the region, allows restaurants to keep operating for us kaffirs through the fast (as long as they do so behind closed curtains), but as everybody else was also fasting I went with the flow and opted for “Ramadan lite”: a (big) breakfast around 8 AM before work, and then fasting — no food, no drink, no nothing — until evening. And I have to say, I have a newfound respect for people who stick to the regimen for an entire month, especially those who manage it while working outside in the sweltering heat instead of just sitting out in an air-conditioned office.

But the fun began after the sun went down at 6 PM the first strains of the call to prayer wafted in from the mosque to announce that the fast was over. After nibbling on dates and drinking a glass of ridiculously sweet (but energy-packed and quickly absorbed) juices, everybody tucked into giant iftar feasts. Our spot of choice with my colleague Firas was the unassuming little joint behind the Hilton Baynunah, which had unremarkable if decent food, and truly remarkable shisha (water pipe) that makes your eyes roll around in their sockets as you sink into the cushion with a stupid grin on your face after each puff. (All hail Al Fakher!) So after eating, everybody just sat around, digesting their meals, puffing on shisha and occasionally sipping away at the vast variety of bizarre (and often tasty) juices the Arabs have come up with to replace alcohol. (Tip: lemon with mint; not a few sprigs, but a whole load of leaves blended in. Da-yamn.) For the locals, this continued on all the way to the suhur morning meal before sunrise around 5 AM, after which everybody slept a little more again, and then the cycle repeated.

Inside the Emirates Palace Model of Guggenheim Museum

On my last night, I wheedled my colleagues into paying a visit to the Emirates Palace, Abu Dhabi’s attempt at surpassing Dubai’s iconic Burj al-Arab (the sail-shaped “7-star” hotel). Dubai forked out $1 billion to build theirs, so Abu Dhabi tripled the budget and spent $3 billion. Here’s a math problem for you: if you spend $3 billion on a hotel with 300 rooms and assume full occupancy at $1000 a night with no running costs, how long will it take you to recoup your original investment?

At any rate, the hotel was (seemingly) right next to the Hilton, and I even considered walking there on the weekend, but in the end we went by car and it’s a good thing we did. Security stopped us at the gate:

“Have you been to the Emirates Palace before?”

“No, we haven’t. We’re just going for a drink.”

“OK. Drive straight ahead, take the second right at the fountain, go around the palm trees, then take the second left at the traffic circle, go up the ramp and you’ll get to the main lobby.”

Yessir. We navigated our way through the maze, deposited the car with a valet and walked in. And walked, and walked, and walked some more. Ever been to one of those 10,000-room hotels in Vegas? That’s precisely what the Emirates Palace feels like, only minus the crowds and the slot machines, and the gold is mostly real. We enquired about places for a drink, and the concierge helpfully suggested the Caviar Bar for champagne or the Havana Club from a cigar and cognacs. We opted for the cafe instead, where tasty Turkish (not even Arabic!) coffees served by an army of pretty Filipinas cost around US$10 a pop, and then set off to explore some more. Tucked away in a corner was a fascinating expo on Saadiyat Island, Abu Dhabi’s shot at buying itself onto the world map — with a budget of roughly $27 billion, they’re going to transform a barren desert island into a cultural oasis, and they’ve b(r)ought in branches of the Guggenheim and the Louvre to make sure it blooms, with the first buildings scheduled to be ready by 2011. Your oil money at work!

And then it was time to head to Abu Dhabi airport, a surprisingly un-spiffy structure (under renovation/expansion, of course), for my flight back home. I’d blown a few miles for a bump up to business class, which allowed me to breeze through the premium security queue (muahaha) and check in in no time. The smoky contract lounge was pretty crappy, but I managed to spend my last dirhams on some superluxury dates and then sat around in one of the tentacles of this recursive cephalopod while an insanely confusing boarding procedure took place. Passengers were bused to the plane, but us biz/first pax were not allowed to board the buses for ordinary plebs: instead, we had to wait for our very own bus, which meant sitting around on plastic bucket seats long enough to miss the pre-flight champers on board. Yay.

The bird was coming in from Jeddah and, despite thus having a good 10 hours flight time, was one of Singapore Airlines’s regional models without lie-flat seats. I’d figured this out ahead of time (although, it must be said, only after booking my upgrade), but in the end I was very happy I splurged: two hours into the flight, we were diverted to Mumbai for a medical emergency, where we were treated to three hours cooped up in a plane, watching slumdwellers in Dharavi poop next to the runway. Not too bad in a business seat, probably rather less pleasant back in steerage next to the babies screaming their heads off.

Eventually, though, the flight did take off again and we landed in sunny Singapore. And that was the end of this company-paid adventure: up next, Saudi Arabia or maybe even Iran?

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Unexpectedly Arabic: al-Episode أ

Ending up in Greece in the first place was a bit of a surprise to say the least, but consulting threw me another curveball at 8:30 on Wednesday morning. As I’d already finished what I set out to do, how about going to Abu Dhabi instead — today? Well, umm, err, why not?

So I spent the morning trying to figure out how to get there, booking flights and hotels and packing up and checking out two nights ahead of schedule. There were no sensible flight connections from Athens to Abu Dhabi, but I could take a direct flight to Dubai in the evening and cover the remaining 170 km by taxi. The travel agent offered a choice between Olympic, one of Europe’s worst airlines, teetering on the edge of bankruptcy for years with Greece flouting EU rules to subsidize it while unable to find a buyer; and Emirates, one of the world’s best airlines, with enough awards and devoted passengers to make Singapore Airlines quake. It didn’t take too long to decide. (And the Olympic flight, with a Kuwait stopover, would’ve taken longer.)

I took the train out to the airport (“next stop: Pallini”), checked in for my flight, gasped when I saw yet another passport queue of Olympic proportions but was relieved to find it fast-moving, and once through embarked on my perennial pre-flight entertainment ritual of “Find the Power Socket”. After my iPod was juiced up, they started boarding and, smiled in by Emirates stewardesses wearing as much makeup as the Singapore Girls but topped off with pillbox hats and poofy token veils, I navigated to my seat in this B777-300ER. (Incidentally, Emirates’ business class seats look absolutely amazing, but that’ll have to wait for another day.)

First impression: people flying Emirates don’t have just Louis Vuitton handbags, but Louis Vuitton luggage. Second impression: pretty tight seat pitch. Not unusually bad, but by no means generous, and reclining the seat makes it slide forward, reducing the pitch even more. The seat lottery had given me an end aisle, next to the toilets (d’oh), but with nobody behind. This was an advantage, because Emirates’ “ice” entertainment system uses a touchscreen, which means people poking at your headrest when they want to change the channel. (Well, the controller does have a dinky joypad as a substitute, but it’s, well, dinky.) That’s pretty much it as far as negatives go, as the system is otherwise amazing: 500 (!) channels of movies, TV programs and audio, with a nice big screen and a very responsive, high-res interface that slaughters poor old KrisWorld. The handset is in the seat in front, not by your side, which makes it oh so much easier to tweak volumes and channels, and stops you from pressing the wrong buttons by accident to boot. The only downside was that the selection loaded was so un-edgy it hurt: not a single movie I was particularly interested in seeing, no comedy that would qualify as even mildly racy, not even a single DJ mix. Well, at least they had “Best of Ayumi Hamasaki” and the latest by the Chemical Brothers — and there’s another feature that just sold me onto EK for my next long-haul flight: free power sockets for every other seat, even in economy!

Getting permission to leave Elefterios Venizelos took a while, but once in flight dinner, somewhat oddly called “lunch” despite being served at 7 PM, was served. This was pretty impressive: we were handed menus, and while this reduced to “lamb or fish?” when the service actually came around, the actual meal was a cut above the usual: a little plate of Greek mezze, a Greek salad (yay, feta!), and “Perch cooked in spetsiota sauce” which was, well, white fish in tomato sauce. It all looked great though, because — and I know this will sound stupid, but it’s true — the containers were all jauntily sail-shaped or triangular instead of square. Of such small touches is pizzazz made. Dessert was a honey-soaked pastry, the only Arabic-feeling thing on the menu (although the menu claimed that it, too, was Greek) and an on-your-pillow-in-good-hotels piece of chocolate. I was little disappointed/surprised not to have an Arab meal option, but it was still pretty impressive to have a menu so localized for a single destination, and overall it was definitely among the best economy meals I’ve had anywhere.

Dubai Airport is a giant construction site, and we were treated to a long bus journey from the plane with not one, but two stops: one for transiting passengers, the second for those terminating their journey in Dubai. Alas, midnight is peak hour at DXB and there was another long passport queue waiting, but at least this time I’d had the foresight to visit the loo first and 45 minutes passed fairly painlessly. My bag was waiting in the pile next to the conveyor belt, I grabbed a sliver of dirham from an ATM and headed to the taxi queue for my onward journey.

The next 150 km were almost hallucinatory. First lengthwise through the even more fast construction site of Dubai itself, past the towering spire of Burj Dubai, the billowing sail of the Burj al-Arab, the Chinese temples of the Ibn Battuta Mall, and kilometer after kilometer after kilometer of the elevated Dubai Metro track. Eventually, though, the buildings petered out and it was just a ten-lane highway slicing through the desert. An eerie tan light as the streetlamps were filtered through the sandy air, an occasional roar from the left lane as Emiratis speeded past in their tinted-window SUVs at 250 km/h, and at almost every intersection the bulbous, cephalopod figure of an oversized mosque, floodlit green and topped with red lights in the minarets staring out into the desert like eyes. Warning signs posted by the side of the road proclaimed: “Beware of road surprises”.

There are three Hiltons in Abu Dhabi, and the second one my driver took me to was the right one. (Later it turned out that, locationwise, I should’ve booked the first one after all.) After an effortless checkin, I crashed into an opulently huge bed at 3 AM, wondering what awaited me next morning.

Erratically Hellenic: Epeisodion δ

Alas, my time in Greece was cut short, so instead of a full-fledged epeisodion this will only be a capsule summary of the two places I had time to visit.

Detail of the Parthenon Restaurants in the Plaka

In the end, I quite liked Athens. It’s a bustling Mediterranean city, not quite as terminally hip as Barcelona but definitely getting there, and the contrasts kept things interesting: the modern technoparks of the northern suburbs where the office was, the gritty port town of Piraeus, the restored neoclassical buildings of Plaka and their smoky tavernas and the ultrahip bars of Thissio just a short stroll away… and towering above it all the 2500-year ruins atop the Acropolis. I’d been there as a kid, and I remembered precisely two things: it was bloody hot, and it was a long hike to the top. Some twenty-odd years later, both statements remained true, and even in notionally off-season September the place was packed with tourists (and scaffolding).

Full picture set: http://jpatokal.iki.fi/photo/travel/Greece/Athens/

Aegean Sea off Spilia, Hydra Patriotic house in Hydra

On my solitary Sunday, I took the advice of a local colleague and headed off by ferry to Hydra, the third-closest Saronic Gulf island to Athens. My pictures do it no justice: on this sunny, breezy late summer day, it was gorgeous. Blue sky, clear waters, blindingly white houses, cobble-stoned streets with no cars, seaside cafes serving up frappes, topless women suntanning on the rocks… I spent half a day just walking around, and loved it.

Full picture set: http://jpatokal.iki.fi/photo/travel/Greece/Hydra/

Erratically Hellenic: Epeisodion γ

The Greek language or, more specifically, its script fascinates me. Membership of the club of scripts that remain in use and essentially unchanged for 3000 years is pretty exclusive: off the top of my head, I could only think of Chinese, Greek, Tamil and Amharic (Ge’ez), and checking with Wikipedia shows that Ge’ez and Tamil actually only barely scrape past the 2000-year mark. (Hebrew, that resuscitated zombie, doesn’t count in my book.)

Hydroneta restaurant

The fun thing about Greek is that it’s an alphabet, so once you learn to map your math and physics classes to those initially bizarre sigmas and chis, you can puzzle out what things say pretty fast: in under a week, I was reasonably fluent in all-caps, tolerably reading lowercase script (not a feature of Ancient Greek, mind you, but a Carolingian perversion regrettably transmitted to Greece in the Middle Ages) and still totally flummoxed by handwriting.

What surprised me, though, was the extent of divergence between the letters as imported into English (via Latin) and their modern-day pronounciations. Beta isn’t beta anymore, it’s “veta”; gamma is sometimes gamma but more commonly “yiamma”; and delta isn’t a hard D but a soft “dh” akin to “then”. Instead, Greek has a whole host of unintuitive consonant clusters, so “MP” is read “b” (as in eggs and MPEIKON for breakfast), while “NK” and “NT” are “ng” and “d” respectively (as in the aerial porpoises of ferry operator “PHLAIINK NTOLPHIN”). Vowel clusters are even stranger, with “OU” for “U”, “AI” for “E” and lots more, and one phrasebook (correctly) bemoans that there are six ways of spelling “I” in Greek. Here’s a test: where is “NTOUMPAI” (Ντουμπάι)? Why, “Dubai”, of course.

Exodus to the exit

Similar shifts can be found in the way the meaning of entire words have changed on their way to English. Every highway interchange and emergency exit is an exodus, any picture is an eikon, and a polemika is not a war of words but a war of blood and steel. A trapeza is neither geometric shape nor circus act, but a bank; an organismos is not a living thing, but an organization; and the many Ethnika Somethings of Athens are not narrowly racist, but broadly national. Conversely, some words you’d expect to know aren’t what you’d think: a polis is a city, but the police are astinomia, and a car isn’t an automobile (fie, hybrid Latin bastard!) but an avtokinito (as in “kinetic”).

Erratically Hellenic: Epeisodion β

My first night in Athens, I set off on a quixotic quest for a quintessentially Greek food: souvlaki. I do this more often than I should, fixating on something that I think should be representative of local cuisine and usually finding out after hours of searching that, in fact, it’s out of season or, worse yet, totally out of fashion. My hotel was on the edge of Exarcheia, the district best known as the home of the Athens Polytechnion, a famous hotbed of student anarchism and, indeed, riot police and communist graffiti are still to this day a major feature — so you’d think cheap, greasy fare like souvlaki should sell well. But as I walked around and around, I found little ouzeris, English pubs, not a few pizza places, a large number of cafes, countless pastry shops and even a lost-looking organic juice stall — but absolutely zero souvlatzidikos. Eventually, I conceded defeat and had my dinner at Goody’s, an ubiquitous (and pretty tasty) Greek fast food chain that at least offered a decent horiatiki salata and a “Pita Pita” sandwich, which, as it turns out, was souvlaki in all but name.

So what is souvlaki, anyway? It’s a word of confused meaning, as even in Greece, it can mean either lamb meat grilled on a skewer, or grilled pork wrapped in pita bread (aka gyros, and almost but not quite the same as doner kebab). “Pita”, incidentally, is another of those words that means something entirely different in Greek than in the rest of the world. Quite frankly, I’m still not sure what it means, except that it seems to cover everything except those flat pocket things. The “pita” used to wrap a souvlaki is indeed flat, but a bit puffy and entirely unpocketed; the “pita” of a spanakopita (spinach and cheese pastry) is deep-fried and flaky; and the “pita” of a milopita at McDonalds is exactly identical to McD’s apple pies, a mysterious combination of starch, grease and scalding innards.

A few days later, having gathered some souvlaki scuttlebutt, I ventured down to Monastiraki and its famous trio of souvlaki joints: Thanasis, Savvas and Bairaktaris. A mecca of pork they may be, but these days Mitropoleos street is smack dab in the heart of tourist central, and the evil threesome have figured out how to maximize their profits: if you sit down and take a look at the menu, souvlaki portions start at an outrageous 9 euros, and they all involve platters with salad and french fries. Not listed on the menu, but needless to say far more popular among the Greeks, is the real souvlaki which has to be ordered as a “souvlaki sandwich”: they’re made on the fly, served in a greasy wrap of paper for take away only, and cost a far more reasonable 1,70 euros a shot. Tzatzikilicious!

One thing that really surprised me was the pastry shop phenomenon. Every day on my way from work, I walked south one block and east two blocks from the Metro station to my hotel. Within these six city blocks of possible routes there were, without exaggeration, at least 20 places to load up on pastries: at least a dozen cafes with big pastry shelves, half a dozen dedicated pastry shops with just a little heated-up counter, and few old guys sitting on the street with tables piled high with sesame rings. I sampled one almost every day, never choosing the same place or same thing twice, and while they all pretty much looked the same from the outside the variation in tastes and textures was astounding. I even found out that it’s possible to screw up spanakopita: one chain cafe offered terrible triangles with sour, vinegary mash inside, while the independent little shop that made its own used precisely the same ingredients and managed to make the feta, spinach and crumbly crust dance in perfect harmony.

Greek salad (horiatiki) Moussaka

Probably the best meal of my trip, though, was at a little restaurant on Hydra. The island is inundated by tourists and all the restaurants there cater squarely to them — for example, nearly all the much-advertised seafood is in fact imported frozen from far away — so, not being in the mood to chew on defrosted kalamari, I picked a small joint that had Greek diners and reasonably priced non-fish meals, and opted for a moussaka and Greek salad. And, well, damn. Half an egglant reduced to a pulpy mess on the inside, a layer of mince and tomato, a drizzle of cheese… I’m drooling as I write this! And the salad, too, was simplicity itself: a bed of cucumber, tomato, bell pepper, onion and kalamata olives, a single big chunk of feta, a sprinkle of oregano and (very) generous slathering of olive oil on top. No wonder every Greek seems to walk around with a spare tire…