Secret tales of the cities

Qatar Happening, October 2016. Original article.

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Secret tales of the cities

If you look closely, cities are full of poetry. We went on a search for random and obscure poetic attractions and found plenty to love in New York, London, San Francisco – and also in Seattle, but only in the rain.

For a visitor, sights that only show up when they feel like it can be frustrating when you’re on a schedule. In New York, anyone can go look at the Statue of Liberty, but if you wanted to see the larger-than-life art of Jenny Holzer at the Guggenheim, you had to be there at the right moment in 2008. That’s when it was projected across the entire front of the museum: “More people and new offenses have sprung up beside the old ones – real, make-believe, short-lived.” For a moment, Holzer’s bold poetry prompted New Yorkers to stop in their tracks.

Temporary sights are often all the more magical: you’ve seen something that was only there for a brief moment. The permanent attractions are there for anyone, but these subtle, poetic installations are often the purview of locals. Created by artists, they’re placed not in galleries but where people might not expect to come across them, rendering them all the more powerful. Like four years ago, when visitors to London’s Shoreditch area could briefly spot the poetic art of Robert Montgomery out in the wild. You could be walking along the street, and suddenly be faced with giant posters with the artist’s poetic musings: “This city is wilder than you think, and kinder than you think. It is a valley and you are a horse in it. It is a house and you are a child in it. Safe and warm here, in the fire of each other.” Read on a giant billboard, it stayed with you all day.

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Image courtesy of Rainworks

In part because we don’t expect to find it, street poetry will often feel hard-hitting. Last year, locals and visitors in Seattle were treated to what was literally a rainy day project: local magician Peregrine Church adorned the city’s pavements with words that can only be seen when it rains. “Rainworks” used biodegradable, water-repellent spray to stencil poems onto the concrete pavement, rendering the letters dry when it rained and hence readable. “Worry is a misuse of the imagination,” declared the wet pavement, cheerily. Each poem wears off after about six weeks, but “Rainworks” sells kits to anyone who wants to create their own rain poetry – meaning they could pop up everywhere.

The New York City subway has been treating its passengers with random moments of poetry since 1992, when the Metropolitan Transportation Authority launched “Poetry In Motion”. First off was an excerpt from the Walt Whitman poem “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry”: “Just as you feel when you look on the river and sky, so I felt / Just as any of you is one of a living crowd, I was one of a crowd.” London’s “Poetry on the Underground” scheme is 30 years old this year, initially launched to bring poetry to a wider audience. Shakespeare features frequently among London’s Tube poems, which may well be the perfect place to contemplate the meaning of sonnets written in Early Modern English: “Where the bee sucks, there suck I / In a cowslip’s bell I lie.”

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The marquee at the corner of Turk and Larkin streets in San Francisco’s Tenderloin has been called the world’s largest fortune cookie, because there’s always something new to see there. The sign, with its rotating selection of quotes, is managed by Bill Brinnon, who works at the tire shop next to the sign. It’s been going since the 1958, and it’s still changing every three to six weeks, depending on the feedback and current events. This winter, a David Bowie quote appeared a few days after his death: “The truth is of course that there is no journey. We are all arriving and departing all at the same time.”

In New York, there’s a fantastic piece of city poetry that you can still catch, if you’re quick. It’s painted across the entirety of a Brooklyn parking garage, courtesy of Steve Powers. “EUPHORIA IS YOU FOR ME,” the garage boldly declares, in what has become known as a love letter to the borough. Earlier this year, the garage’s owner announced it will be torn down, causing an outcry among people who’ve come to love the upbeat poetry that you can’t help but read every time you pass it. The black and white text wraps around the entire building, creating what the artist calls a “block-long poem”. The garage is still standing, but don’t wait too long: by the spring the building, and the poem too, will be rubble.

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Hampi: A sacred patch of India

Qatar Happening, August 2015. Original article (p40-41).

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Hampi: A sacred patch of India
This spot in central India is out of the way, but Hampi’s elaborate landscape of ruins and relaxed village life is nothing short of magical.

It’s only 10 o’clock in the evening, but all of Hampi seems to be asleep. As India demands you adjust to its temperament, I’m trying to sleep too, but I’m distracted by a smell drifting in through my window. There’s only shutters separating me from the world outside, not glass, as Hampi is a small village and this is actually a family house. The smell is pungent but not unpleasant, so my curiosity drives me to peek outside: four cows stare back at me. They’ve gone to bed for the night too, and this is their spot: right in the middle of the street.

Hampi is a place that’s very easy to like. The ruins of this once-grand city stretch out for several kilometres, meaning there’s endless things to explore. It’s truly an amazing place: it’s as if a group of giants once had a play-fight here, throwing the great big boulders around. Today the rocks sit where they landed in the landscape, and the villagers live their lives while the travellers roam about. It feels different here, like another kind of India: while most of the country will overwhelm your senses, Hampi will let you catch your breath.

Make sure to bring good walking shoes to Hampi, as most of the sights are spread out through the landscape. Stretches of road are surrounded by ever-more amazing ruins, and you never quite know if you’ve reached your destination because the maps are vague and directions general. But you’ll know when you’ve reached Vittala Temple, the star attraction in Hampi. Elaborate stone carvings are found on every surface, and one is more incredible than the last, concluding in the ornate stone chariot whose wheels could once spin. The architecture brings frequent of representations of Hanuman the monkey god, people with hands folded in greetings, rows of elephants, gods and goddesses, scenes from epic tales, flowers and patterns, plus the various stages of attraction. Everything is sacred.

The Royal Centre is the other key site in Hampi, and here the highlights come thick and fast: the Underground Shiva Temple, which is partially submerged; the elegant Lotus Mahal, with its onion-shaped arches; and the Elephant Stables, which are massive but playful with the various shapes of domes, each enclave big enough for numerous creatures. But maybe the best part is the random temples strewn around in the landscape? Hampi will constantly distract you from your plans, in the best way possible. One day I stumbled onto a massive statue with four arms, called the Mustard Seed Ganesha, and then some temple whose name I forgot to take down; it’s covered in elaborate carvings and anywhere else it would be a major sight – but in Hampi it’s not even on the map.

There’s always more to explore in Hampi, but you’ll be forgiven if you leave having missed a few sights: some of the best times you’ll have in Hampi will certainly be spent lounging around. Make sure to trim the nails on your eating hand, as most meals won’t come with cutlery: you shape the food into balls with the right hand and push it into your mouth with the thumb. After a vegetarian curry or dhal off a banana leaf, make sure to have some masala chai, or maybe a glass of sweet lime.

Every night, crowds are drawn to the ruins at Hemakuta Hill, where they watch the sunset, surrounded by the monkeys who seem to enjoy the sky spectacle too. The hill is just up behind Virupaksha Temple, Hampi’s working house of worship. People bring flowers and coconuts, the latter broken on a rock before offered to the god in question. As I tip-toe around inside, not quite sure where non-hindus can go, a holy man motions me over; he presses yellow powder against my forehead and tells me I’m welcome. The best part though, is Lakshmi the Elephant, who oversees the temple. She will let you pet her, and if you give her a coin, there’s a blessing for you too.

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Sicily: The eyes, the belly, the heart

Qatar Happening, May 2015. Original article p106-107.

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Sicily, Italy:
The eyes, the belly, the heart

Sicily’s overwhelming Baroque architecture will fight hard for your attention, but in the end it’s the food that will win you over. The pasta, yes, and certainly the gelato – but best of all, the cannoli.

You think Sicily is going to be similar to the rest of Italy, but it really isn’t. This island is a different creature, a unique culture found across the water from the boot-shaped mainland. Sicilia may be an Italian island, but its soul is its very own.

There’s a lived-in feel to Sicily, creating an atmosphere far more homely than the polished squares of Northern Italy. Sicilian village squares fill with ladies in black at lunchtime, and coppola-clad men at dusk, as the locals claim these spaces as their own. Though the backdrop to this neighbourly charm is gorgeous, elaborate baroque architecture, which is found all across the island. Curvy, deep façades host dozens upon dozens of stone sculptures, showing us the detailed faces of the saints, the cuddly cherubs, the swooning angels.

3000-year-old Palermo remains a city the making, proud and ready for its next heyday. Sicily’s biggest city is a little worn around the edges, sure, but it’s got better things to do than to stay on top of all this upkeep. So many little churches, all those charmingly narrow streets, not to mention the massive cathedral and the Norman palace, the latter not just a historical attraction but also the seat of the Sicilian Assembly. Don’t miss the Fontana Pretoria, a Renaissance concoction of nymphs rummaging around in the water. When it was built in 1573, the spectacle shocked the church-going locals to the extent they named it the Fountain of Shame.

The pride of the newer part of Palermo is the Teatro Massimo, the third-largest 19th century opera house in Europe and a symbol of Sicily’s key heritages: cultural creativity, old world bureaucracy, and Mafia influences. All the travel books are clear on this: Don’t mention the Mafia! But sometimes a friendly local, eager to set things right, will bring it up: “You do what you can and try to make an honest living,” one man said. “Sicily is so much more than just the Mafia.”

Like the food. The food! The Sicilians may have invented the Mafia but they also created the wonder that is gelato ice cream. This island has gelato shops the way the rest of the world has tobacco shops, always there to provide a hit of creamy, sweet goodness in a whole alphabet of flavours. Ask for black chocolate, Sicilian almond, or maybe best of all, the local pistachio. The best gelato is found on Sicily’s east coast, which is two hours from Palermo by car. Noto is a little town boasting a stunning little historical centre, but the star attraction is possibly Corrado Costanzo, supposedly one of the best ice cream shops in the entire world. Try the almond and cinnamon and eat it while swooning up the street, taking in the stone buildings which glow red as the sun is setting.

Another medieval hillside town worth a visit is Modica, where you’ll exhaust yourself climbing the steep streets, passing a cattedrale here, a chiesa there. While Noto is the place for ice cream, Modica’s claim to fame is its chocolate, specifically that of Antica Dolceria Bonajuto. Everything is made from traditional recipes in the kitchen behind the counter, creating bold chunks of chocolate flavoured with vanilla or lavender, or maybe have some with chilli pepper that goes straight to your head.

But the star of Sicily’s east coast is probably the Ortygia peninsula in Syracuse. Ortygia looks like it’s been dug out of yellow stone, stacked within the walls like a perfect timepiece. Myriads of alleys open onto little piazzas, where espresso is served to patrons stood at the counter, one foot resting on the low-slung rail. The Siracusa cathedral incorporates columns from the Greek temple which once stood in its place, renowned throughout the ancient world for its large golden statue of Athena. Mary stands in her place today. Make sure to stick around in Syracuse until dinner, maybe for a plate of tomato-salty linguini topped with piles of claims, or go for the gnocchi – it’s made not from potato but from clouds. Then, round off the evening with a trademark cannoli: the crispy pastry, ricotta cream, and a sprinkle of pistachio will be the highlight of your day. You may not speak Italian, but this is a language you’ll instantly recognise.

A Swedish treat

Qatar Happening, March 2015. Original article p110-111

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A Swedish treat
The cobblestoned old town, the royal castles, the Södermalm cafes, and the archipelago wilderness just at the doorstep – Stockholm is the picture of Scandinavian cool.

Is Stockholm the best little city in Scandinavia? The capital of Sweden is certainly a hot contender: a picturesque town with yellow-toned buildings and cobblestoned streets, surrounded by water as the city spreads out across the neighbouring islands. Stockholm feels like a metropolis, but any local will tell you that the skärgård is possibly the best part: over 30,000 rocky islands make up an archipelago ripe for discovery.

Landscapes vary widely across the archipelago, from ancient villages where many Stockholmers have summer houses, to coves, beaches, lush greenery, and big flat rocks. Waxholmsbolaget runs a comprehensive ferry service around the archipelago, with the five-day ticket as the top choice to really get a chance to explore the historic community at Dalarö, the nature reserve at Grinda, and the cradle of Swedish porcelain at Gustavsberg.

But there’s plenty to charm you in downtown Stockholm too, starting with the Gamla Stan neighbourhood. The city was founded here in 1252, and today it’s a popular place to eat, drink, shop and wander. The winding cobblestoned streets require sturdy shoes, but it’s worth it for the scenery of sagging buildings in shades of yellow, red and orange. A walk around Gamla Stan will take you to the Nobel Museum, which has the story of the prize and its founder, Alfred Nobel. The Swedish chemist and engineer held 355 patents, and his legacy continues to honour men and women around the world for their achievements in science, literature and peace.

Stockholm’s Royal Palace is located downtown, but the most impressive royal experience is the Drottningholm Palace, a quick boat ride away. This UNESCO World Heritage-listed castle is the home of Sweden’s King and Queen, but in true Scandinavian spirit, part of the building and the grounds are open to the public. The beautifully manicured gardens are worth the trip alone. ABBA fans can get their fill at the ABBA Museum, which has everything and then some: all that elaborate clothing, lots of gold records, Benny’s piano, and the helicopter from the ‘Arrival’ cover. You’ll walk in, promises the museum, but you’ll dance your way out.

Sweden’s world class art museum is the Moderna Museet, with its excellent collection of art from the 20th and 21st centuries. Visitors will find works from big names such as Picasso, Dalí, and Irving Penn, and benefit from the museum’s tradition of keeping close relationships with artists such as Marcel Duchamp and Andy Warhol. This mix of worldly connections and Scandinavian cool is typical of Stockholm, whose cutting edge style still manages to remain true to its traditions. Look for the Dalahorse to take home as a souvenir – this distinct shape has become a symbol of Sweden. Visit around midsummer and you’ll experience something uniquely Swedish: tall maypoles are raised as the country pretty much shuts down, as everyone gathers to sing, dance and eat on the lightest night of the year.

While it’s not the cheapest place to travel, Stockholmers will go a long way to compensate with their friendly, polite manner. A good place to meet them is the thriving Södermalm district, which has some of the best coffee houses and watering holes in the city. Try a jam tart at Gildas Rum, browse a haven of vinyl records at Pet Sounds Bar, or a burger and fancy beer at Akkurat. Local treats such as lingonberry jam, crayfish, crispbread, and pickled herring are ones to look out for, plus the classic Princess cake topped with green marzipan.

Most Swedes speak great English, but you may want to learn a few words: hej (hi), tack (thank you), and fika – the latter is untranslatable but provides a vital clue into the Swedish way of life. Practically speaking, fika is a coffee and a sticky cinnamon bun, but it’s all about the spirit of sitting down and taking a moment to enjoy life.

Getting lost in Morocco

Qatar Happening, January 2015. Original article p110-111.

Screen Shot 2015-01-28 at 01.56.50Marrakesh and Essaouira: Getting lost in Morocco
The thousand-year-old square at the heart of Marrakesh is covered practical black asphalt these days, but the snakes seem to have no problem charming their way across the paved Djemaa el-Fna. It’s an intriguing place, Marrakesh – even with the new century elbowing in, there is something indisputably ancient about it. Every night the crowds gather around the storytellers in the square, where grilled meats and rich couscous are the grand prize as smoke rises from the market stalls.

The Medina, the old town of Marrakesh, contains the soul of the city. Colourful spices are stacked high and newly tanned leather pokes at your nostrils as you wander through the streets; the fresh orange juice from the square doesn’t taste like any other juice. If you do nothing else in Marrakesh but wander around its deep, sprawling souk, you will be just fine: this is the stuff of fairy tales. Deep into the maze the shops get less glossy, with the whizzing and banging of goods being created on the spot, in the spaces between the display fronts. Pale leather is tanned, dyed fabrics hang overhead, metal is hammered into shape.

Marrakesh is the sort of place you come to experience, not to tick off a list of attractions. But of course, there are plenty of sights worthy of visiting too: the Badi Palace is massive in stature and an oasis of calm in a hectic city. The name means ‘The Incomparable’, a testament to its former glory, but now it all belongs to the storks, with its decaying walls surrounding a tranquil square. The Saardian Tombs is another prize sight; no expense was spared when building this decadent mausoleum. The Berber Art Museum is located in the beautiful Jardin Majorelle, providing insights into the culture of the region’s original inhabitants.

Courtesy of a well-developed train and coach network, visitors can travel around Morocco with ease. Two hours west of Marrakesh is Essaouira, a small coastal town with a distinctly bohemian vibe. Tucked inside white walls that are slowly being eroded by the salty wind, Essaouira means ‘The Beautifully Designed’, and this is no lie. Apparently Jimi Hendrix wrote ‘Castles Made of Sand’ before he came here, but looking at the crumbling castle just off Essaouira beach, you may well choose to believe the myth that the song is indeed about the Borj El-Berod. You’ll get your feet wet, but you can wade out to the sand-covered ruin, which is split down the middle now, and halfway reclaimed by the sea.

Essaouira is a place that encourages you to remain shoeless on the beach, eating berries for breakfast and fruity tagine for dinner. It arrives underneath its flowerpot lid, a few chunks of meat with a few nuts and prunes chucked over the top. Bright yellow couscous is served on the side, no alcohol and asleep by 10pm. The fish market provides a cheap and quick lunch – point to what you want and they will cook it in front of you. Around the ramparts of old Essaouira the waves never stop crashing, covering the expanse of rock below with bright white foam. Keep walking a while longer and you’ll reach beyond the tidy, more touristy part of the city, entering into the area where the locals live. School children squeeze by in the narrow streets where the grannies linger in doorways. The shops are attended by the men, chatting to each other while serving customers. Naked chickens are nailed to walls and eggs are balanced precariously, everything available for a prize.

And no matter where you go, the smell of mint hits you square in the face. Moroccan mint tea may well be the most memorable thing about the country. This isn’t some lazy teabag in tepid water, but a revelation: a fistful of fresh mint leaves gets showed in a glass, hot water is added and a bowl of sugar provided – who’d ever think something so simple could be so wonderful.

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Qatar’s mobile revolution

Qatar Happening, October 2014. Original article (p52-53).

Screen Shot 2014-11-02 at 14.13.59Qatar’s mobile revolution
With a smartphone in almost every pocket, the number of apps in Qatar is booming. Here are some of the most popular apps right now for moving around, getting informed, and staying connected.

Remember way back when the internet was new, how people worried that technology would isolate us from each other? Why go and meet your friends if you could talk to them via instant messenger? Why go to the shops when you can buy things online?

Fast forward to the present day and what’s happened is the opposite: the internet is adding to life, not taking away from it. Especially now that the internet comes with us in our pockets, this digital layer on top daily life is proving very handy whenever we want to find information, or reach out to other people.

Just look at some of the most popular mobile apps in Qatar lately – they’re all a means for interaction – socially or with businesses. San Francisco-based Uber has proved a very welcome addition to Doha’s transport scene, joining Dubai-based Careem in enabling locals to book taxis from their phones. Those preferring Karwa should soon be able to use the QCab app to do the same.

Other popular apps in Qatar are often similarly aimed at improving the experience of moving around town. The Doha Airport app tracks arrivals and departures for all airlines, while iTraffic provides routes from A to B, aided by real-time information about traffic conditions.

Especially for newcomers in the country, these kinds of apps can be very helpful to find their way around, both in town and in bureaucracy. The Qatari government has also released a range of apps aiming to help with administrative tasks, ranging from pest control to help with visa processes.

There are plenty of apps catering to leisure, dining and entertainment too; one of these is The Entertainer, which also provides discount vouchers. Hellofood is a handy food delivery app, while Al Cinema is a popular choice for finding local film listings. The Katara app, and On Qatar, are good for finding cultural attractions.

A growing entrepreneur scene
An exciting newcomer to the Qatar app scene is Evently, a listings app run by four Qatar locals: Mufeed Ahmed, Nasser Al Naama, Aisha Al Naama, and Fawaz Mohamed. As the name suggests, Evently provides information on upcoming events, including exhibitions, concerts, sports and conferences. Interestingly, there’s also an integrated ticket service, where users can book paperless tickets and be billed through their mobile services provider.

Evently is a result of the emerging technology entrepreneur scene in Qatar. The first inspiration for the business started in 2011, when the founders entered an ideas competition for young people across the MENA region. This eventually led to an invitation to the Digital Incubation Center in West Bay, after which they quickly launched Evently for Android, BlackBerry and iOS.

Right now, the Qatar Business Incubation Center is promoting the Arab Mobile App Challenge, which is still accepting submissions until 15th October. In order to qualify, at least one team member must be a citizen of a Pan-Arab country. This competition funnels winners into an accelerator programme, where developers can get mentoring and support for their ideas.

After all, the market for new apps is growing: Qatar has the highest penetration of smartphones in the Arab region. According to research from Analysys Mason, around 35 % of all mobile phones in Qatar were internet-enabled in 2013, a number likely to rise to nearly 60% in 2018.

On top of this, people in Qatar spend about 23 hours a week accessing the internet on their mobile phones, according to a 2013 study from Northwestern University in Qatar. Over 90% said they rely on the internet for their news, although Twitter users may want to consider the TweetCred app, which scores each Twitter account for credibility. So next time Twitter reports breaking news, this plug-in makes for a quick and easy way to figure out which source on a feed is most likely to have genuine information.

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Oslo

Qatar Happening, June 2014. Original article.

Screen Shot 2014-06-01 at 10.50.45Oslo: A northern exposure
The capital of Norway is a breath of fresh air. Walk down Karl Johan Street and you’ll find yourself surrounded by trees and open spaces, even though you’re in the heart of a country’s capital. The Royal Palace sits at the end of Karl Johan, a modest home for a king by most standards, yet one of the grandest things you’ll see on a visit to Oslo. Like the Norwegians themselves, the capital has a practical spirit, focusing on function instead of luxury, nature instead of skyscrapers.

While cool in temperature, Norway make up its dark, long winters by delivering what seems like neverending sunshine in the summer evenings. And how many capitals can lay claim to having a forest within city limits? The Oslo Forest is great for cross-country skiiing in winter, while the summers deliver ample opportunities for hiking or cycling along marked trails, as well as canoeing or swimming in natural lakes. Largely uncultivated, the Oslo Forest will have you feeling like you’re deep in the woods, although with plenty of lodges dotted around to provide food and rest.

Norway’s most majestic fjords are located on the west coast, but visitors to the capital will find plenty of attractions also along the Oslo Fjord. Day cruises from the capital depart from Oslo Harbour. The ships pass through narrow sounds, opening up to charming bays and tiny islands, dotted with the small wooden buildings where locals make summer homes.

While Norway can be an expensive place to eat, drink and travel, the focus on nature as the star attraction means it’s possible to experience a lot on a budget. The city centre is walkable, with plenty of opportunity to relax in a park, or on a bench or cafe looking out at the Oslo Fjord. Make sure to sample a few local dishes, such as elk, reindeer or other wild game. Redcurrants make a refreshing snack, with cloudberries being more difficult to find but definitely worth a taste if you do. With a long coastline, fish is in ample supply in Norway, and you may well be able to find more exotic sea creatures, even whale, on the menu. Although the best treat to buy and take home is the brown cheese, Brunost. Try it on bread at breakfast, and marvel at how something can taste so much like cheese and caramel at the same time.

Art lovers will find plenty to like about Oslo. The National Gallery displays iconic paintings from Norway’s national-romantic period. The famous “Scream” is the pride and joy of the Munch Museum, dedicated solely to the life and works of Edvard Munch. Following on from the naturalist tradition, Munch broke with tradition when he developed his emotional painting style, seeking to express “the most subtle visions of the soul”.

Children visiting Oslo, and adults too, will be impressed by the massive Viking ships at the Viking Ship House. Having been buried in the ground around the year 800, these ships now stand as proud examples of the heyday of the Scandinavian Vikings. Another impressive sight, and a favourite among locals, is the Vigeland Sculpture Park, where Gustav Vigeland created 212 larger-than-life sculptures in granite and bronze. The centre figure is the Monolith, a 14-metre-tall column carved out of a single stone, but the best fun is probably running around taking photos with the sculptures in the park. Frogner Park provide a great spot for strolling in the summer, with 14,000 roses scattered around amongst the trees, some of which are up to 250 years old. The heated pools and waterslides at the Frogner Baths are a popular spot on hot summer days.

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