Thursday, May 15, 2014

Monumenta 2014: The Strange City

This year The Grand Palais has invited Russian artists Ilya and Emilia Kabakov to exhibit at the annual Monumenta exhibition. The nave of the Grand Palais is an enormous space to work with and to curate an exhibition that can effectively make use of its grand volumes. Previous artists have done it fairly well. This year's 'Strange City' installation has been partitioned off into various parts, taking the visitor through a journey of differently-themed sections, each meant to inspire introspection into the human condition.

Sunday, May 11, 2014

Places: Parc Zoologique de Paris

After renovations that lasted four years, the Paris Zoo finally re-opened its doors again last month. I took my son and a friend last Friday.
We had pre-booked our tickets online to avoid long queues but it was a surprisingly quiet day.
The zoo has undergone a €164 million overhaul which has turned it into a theme park-like space that's been sub-divided into five biozones: Madagascar, Amazon-Guyana, Europe, Patagonia and the Sahel-Sudan - the single largest area in the zoo, and home to the animals of the African Savannah. We saw all of the big cats but missed out on the white rhino though - which was of particular interest to the boys because of it endangered status.
The zoo has been completely rebuilt and now looks less like your average zoo, and more "like Jurassic Park", as my son put it.

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Books: RED INK by Angela Makholwa

Title: Red Ink
Author: Angela Makholwa
Published: 2007
Genre: Fiction

In a word: gripping. I love watching the TV show Criminal Minds, and reading Red Ink was like watching an extended show of it. Angela Makholwa writes boldly about the violence that is at the centre of her crime novel. She's descriptive and does not shy away from the details of the blood and gore. In the same way that I cannot turn away from Criminal Minds, I could not stop reading.

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Books: THE HAPPINESS PROJECT by Gretchen Rubin

Title: The Happiness Project
Author: Gretchen Rubin
Published: 2009
Genre: Memoir

I finally read Gretchen Rubin's Happiness Project. It has been on my kindle for a while, but I felt that it would have been a better read in paperback - but in the same breath I could not bring myself to pay for a paperback copy having already downloaded the ebook. It is one one of the most useful and enjoyable books I have read this year.
It is part memoir, part self help. The author spent a year exploring what is is that makes people happy and testing out whether putting into practice some of her readings could help her become happier. I know, it sounds all really navel-gazing and very much like a self help book. It wasn't any of those. Not really. Rubin has researched her subject extensively and takes some esoteric philosophical debates and breaks them up into digestible chunks to be applied to your everyday life.

Monday, May 5, 2014

# Bring Back Our Girls

The tweet that started the online campaign for Nigeria's government to take action, and bring home the more than 200 schoolgirls abducted by Boko Haram militants on April 14 finally has the World talking.
In praise of social media, the petition has now overshadowed reports on the wars in Central Africa and Syria, and the crisis in the Ukraine. Finally the World is paying attention.
Emboldened by the inaction of the Nigerian government, the militants have acted with impunity once again and abducted eight more girls.
This story is heartbreaking in more ways than one can imagine: not just in the families' frustration over the government's  lack of active response, but in the future that these girls face if they are not found. Adding my voice in one small way to a petition that needs the World's action.

Saturday, May 3, 2014

Books: AMERICANAH by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Title: Americanah
Author: Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Published: 2013
Genre: Fiction

I have been sitting on this review for a while. Writing it feels like being unfaithful in some way. Here goes: I was disappointed. I loved every single one of Chimamanda Ngozi's books. A friend gave me a copy of Purple Hibiscus when it was first published, and since then I have read and re-read the stories in The Thing Around Your Neck; have sunk my teeth into Half of a Yellow Sun - eagerly waiting for its release now that Biyi Bandele has had the genius to make a movie of it; and like everyone else that is a fan of Adichie, I eagerly anticipated the release of Americanah - especially since it promised to also tackle that 'hair issue'.

Thursday, May 1, 2014

French May Day Blues

My muguet and a single rose are on the dining room table in water, thanks to hubby. He was out early this morning and came back bearing gifts and bonheur - happiness. The selling of flowers, without a permit, is permitted to the general public only on this day. It is a tradition, along with the marches around the world on this International Worker's Day.

I was watching the France24 debate and once again astounded at the conflict the French go through each time one of their large national conglomerates fails - thus requiring being sold off to another (often foreign) conglomerate - and the debates that this raises each time.  Business reason and good economic sense fail and instead make room for a sentiment of nationalism based entirely on the nostalgia of an economic power of yesteryear, what one analyst called a form of "nostalgianomics".

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Solitude for Gabríel Garcia Márquez

I have yet to meet anyone that does not profess to loving One Hundred Years of Solitude, and to follow it up with how 'Márquez's magic realism brought Latin American to the world.' It was at some point, when I was in my 20s, a literary rite of passage for those that aspired to be well read. Well, I confess: I still have to read it.
It has been on my reading list for years, and like Ben Okri's The Famished Road, I just cannot read and finish it. Maybe it's just me and magic realism. But with 2014 being the year I read everything, One Hundred Years of Solitude has just crept up the reading list - nothing like the death of what the world calls a brilliant writer to suddenly make one seek out a piece of their work - or in this case, a Nobel Prize-winning piece of their work - if only to understand what the world has been talking about all these years. Gabríel Garcia Márquez, or 'Gabo' as he was affectionately known throughout Latin America, was a prolific writer. Colombia and his adopted Mexico, together with the world mourned the loss of a remarkable writer on April 17, 2014.

Sunday, April 27, 2014

Happy 20th Anniversary South Africa!

Today marks the 20th Anniversary of South Africa's first democratic election of April 27, 1994. South Africans will go to the polls once again on May 7 to cast their ballots in the fifth democratic election of the country. By all standards, the country is still a young democracy. In just two decades it has changed from being a country with a legally mandated national policy of racial oppression to one that is transitioning to being inclusive and representative of its diverse people.

I have been watching  BBC's South Africa Direct series and Working Lives shows which have been covering the country - presenters have been meeting and interviewing South African's from all walks of life, discussing the social and economic issues with captains of industry, average working and middle class South Africans, and my all time favourite population sub-group: the 'Born Frees'.
This is a term used to refer to the generation of young South Africans who were born after 1994. They are the ones who will be voting for the very first time this year. The are the ones who did not grow up under apartheid, and the ones who see a South Africa of possibilities, no matter the colour of their skin. That on its own is something to celebrate.

Despite progress made in the past twenty years, the challenges of high unemployment , rising inequality, stagnant economic growth rates, and persistent industrial action in the mining sector remain at the forefront of economic and political debate for this democracy that is still in its nascent stage. Disappointment in progress that has not happened fast enough; anger for slow service delivery to the poor; despondency in a government that has not changed the lives of many; and in equal measure  determination to be a part of the change will be all the emotions that will decide voter choices next month at the polls.

Today however,  for South Africans across the country and in the diaspora, marks the day South Africa truly became a nation free to all. Happy Freedom Day South Africa!

Monday, April 21, 2014

Books: THE WIFE by Meg Wolitzer

Title: The Wife
Author: Meg Wolitzer
Published: 2003
Genre: Fiction

The Wife opens with Joan Castleman making the decision to leave her husband, Joe while en route to Helsinki where he is to be honoured with the Helsinki Prize, a literary award which is the culmination of what he has worked for all his life. Meg Wolitzer takes the reader through the lives of Joe and Joan: from Joan's days as a freshman at Smith. She goes on to have an affair with his professor, Joe. His marriage crumbles, his wife leaves him, taking their baby son with him. Joe and Joan move in together - while he attempts to write the great American novel, she works, supporting his writing dream and in the process abandoning her own writing ambitions. They raise their children, she works, she edits his writing, and ultimately writes his books for him, and he gets the accolades while she plays the dutiful wife by his side.

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Hidden delights at Le Kaïku, St Jean-de-Luz, France

I made reservations early and we apparently got the last table for four. Who would have thought that St. Jean-de-Luz, a small fishing town would require advance booking for their restaurants. It is a 15 minute drive from Biarritz, and like the other small towns in the region - St. Jean-de-Luz also had its own charm.
We walked around the bustling, cobbled streets, and slowly made our way to Le Kaïku. It is hidden away - a step or two below the pedestrian path, with a small sign and menu board outside, which is so obscure you'd probably walk past it.
Again, not a huge restaurant - but one with an open kitchen and a clientele that ranged from young couples, to more mature couples and young families in between. The restaurant only serves one seating at lunch - and I cannot count the number of people that were turned away.

Friday, April 18, 2014

Sundowners at Le Comptoir du Foie Gras, Biarritz France

One of the things we delighted in was the local custom of saving those few hours before the sun sets for tapas and sundowners. Around 7pm, the tables outside most restaurants came out onto terraces, or pavements and were quickly populated with people.  Le Comptoir du Foie Gras served up foie gras with its perfectly chilled bottles of rosé.
'A hole in the wall' my husband called it. A bit, but not quite. The tables are barrels that have been placed randomly around the bar counter.

Les Rosiers, Biarritz France

As if the Basque region had not been a gourmande's delight all on its own, we found yet another gem in Biarritz where we had one of the finest meals at  Les Rosiers.
It is not on the tourist trail in the city, it was a bit of a drive from our hotel. Hidden away in the residential non-descript part of Biarritz, this was a gem of a place. Small, with an approximate seating for twenty. The service was excellent, the food was excellent, and en plus, the chef - whose feet I was ready to kiss after our meal - came out and made the tour around the restaurant meeting the patrons. It was a great evening, served up with genuine smiles and bonhomie. 

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Exploring Espelette & tasting Basque cuisine, France

We hired a car and decided to explore a bit further beyond Biarritz. I have always been curious about the the town Espelette - a curiosity fed by references to the spice produced in that area: piment d'Espelette. The spice is not fiery as one would expect from a chilli product - but has the mildness of cayenne pepper.
The town is a 30 minute scenic scenic drive from Biarritz, and has built its entire tourism around the production of its peppers, which are harvested, hung up to dry outside houses and celebrated in a festival d'Espelette in October. We walked around the town, bought the local produce which comes in the form of dried spice, salt flakes, jam, jelly and every condiment from mustard to olive oil. The signs in Espelette, as in many of the small town around this region are in the Basque language, and you will spot the Basque cross on everything from the linen, to the ubiquitous souvenir merchandise, as well as the green, red and white of the Basque flag.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Sea, Surf and Espadrilles - A photo tour in Biarritz

There is a fairly laid back attitude among the locals in Biarritz, almost typical of most towns with a high community of surfers. We walked around discovering little corners of the town. It is not a big town, and the community spirit amongst the locals was a refreshing change from the brusqueness of the Parisians.
Every other store tempted with delights of some Basque delicacy, or pastry - leaving us with no choice but to get into the spirit of things. So we stopped at Pariès and sampled the mouchons - a type of macaroon; the owner of the 'Real Chocolate' store plied us with his piment d'espelette-flavoured nougat; Maison d'Adam - which is a famous pastry shop specializing in Basque macaroons and the delightful Basque cake became our go-to place for their takeaway goodies - we returned again, and again in the week we we there.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Eating at the fishermen's port at Chez Albert, Biarritz

A five hour TGV trip from Paris to Biarritz, a walk around the town for an hour or so, and we were ready for dinner just after sunset. Reservations were made by the hotel concierge at Chez Albert, and for a change I went in blindly. I have written often about striking a balance between well-rated, as per  Trip Advisor or in Michelin Guides traveller tips, and local knowledge when it comes to picking restaurants in places foreign. I let the concierge be the local knowledge in this case, or more simply the one who refers all hotel guests to Chez Albert. Who knows?  As we left the hotel though, I did a quick search on Chez Albert and read some positive reviews.
A friendly host and a menu of mainly seafood dishes, with traditional Basque dishes. I have made it a point to sample some of the traditional culinary delights of Basque cuisine while we're here, but on this night I kept it simple, sticking with the catch of the day of a roasted Saint-Pierre served with vegetables. Their paëlla looked and tasted just average - although I must admit I am not such a fan of this dish -  too much of everything in one dish for my liking.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Books: THE TRINITY SERIES by Fiona Snyckers

Title: Trinity Rising  &  Trinity On Air
Author: Fiona Snyckers                      
Genre: Fiction                                    
Published: 2009  &  2010

The first two books, in a series of three written by Fiona Snyckers were meant to be my holiday reading. I finished them in two days, before the Spring break. I could not put them down. They were hilarious. The protagonist Trinity Luhabe, is a young 'born free' South African about to begin her first first year at Rhodes University. Even though her father is a former Robben Island prisoner and anti-apartheid activist, and her mother a former activist and social worker,  "Trinity Luhabe is so over the whole Robben Island thing."

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Books: FASTING, FEASTING by Anita Desai

Title: Fasting, Feasting
Author: Anita Desai
Genre: Fiction
Published: 1999

I enjoyed Fasting, Feasting enough to finish it but can't really say it is was one of my favourite reads. Anita Desai weaves her story around an Indian family with three children - all three of whom represent the family's ambitions in some way.
Uma, the eldest is unmarried, clumsy and not particularly bright. The author describes her hunger for knowledge, and her attempts at being scholarly - but it is apparent that her thirst for knowledge is probably that of a spiritual kind. For this her aunt Mira-Masi, a widow and a rather odd character becomes Uma's guide. She encourages Uma's search for spiritual knowledge, inviting her for spiritual retreats and ashrams, much to Uma's parents' discouragement.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Tea break at Le Café Kousmichoff

Not quite high tea, but good enough. I met a friend, who is a very good designer and photographer, for tea this morning. It ended up being lunch at Kusmi Tea on the Champs-Elysées. I've walked passed the Kusmi Tea store  a few times but only recently learnt that this is their flagship store in Paris, and en plus, that there is a tea house with a terrace beyond the colourful tea canisters displayed in the store.
It does not have the old world feel of Mariage Frères with its wood panelled interiors and that slightly sultry feel to it. In fact Le Café Kousmichoff  is just the opposite - bright decor, Havana-inspired (or is it communist-era inspired?) prints on the wall and an interesting mix of old school black and white photographs. I 'turned tourist' on the waiters and went about taking pictures here, there and everywhere as they tried to get our orders.
As per the blurb at the back of the menu: "Café Kousmichoff offers Franco-Russian fare which is a tribute to the history of Kusmi Tea founded in St.Petersburg in 1867 by Pavel Kousmichoff and established in Paris since 1917."

Monday, April 7, 2014

History lessons in Bayeux, Normandy

"A wealth of history can enrich us"  

This trip was an entire history lesson wrapped up in a holiday. A visit to the Normandy D-day Beaches was long overdue, and as much as we did not see even a fraction of the numerous historial sites that commemorate the Second World War around this area - we saw enough to come out of it more knowledgable than we had been.
If you do go, be prepared to visit  a very small town. You can probably walk the length and breadth of Bayeux in two hours. Its entire tourism is managed around the famous Bayeux Tapestry and its War Museums. Bayeux was the first city to be liberated during the Normandy D-Day landings of 1944. It was also the only city that was not destroyed during the German bombings.