Friday, September 26, 2014

Spanish Holiday: Sitges...

When we told people we were going to the coastline along Barcelona, everyone said, "You have to go to Sitges!".  Noted.  Even better was that Sitges (pronounced "see-CHESS") was only about half an hour away from our hotel to it made for a nice day outing.  

I read that Sitges is the summer playground of Barcelona so was expecting tons of crowds and while it was definitely full of people, it didn't seem overwhelming at all.  In fact, it was one of our favorite side trips...

You can tell that this is definitely a city where people say things like "Oh I have an apartment there..." striped awnings and seaside views are the name of the game but not in an unattainable, gated mansions on the cliff kind of way...

The main seaside drag is full of palm trees and cafes - or rather "chiringuitos", little places to grab a bit. Since we had already been in Spain for a bit at this point, we settled on a kind of half thai, half spanish place run by Australians called (appropriately called "The Beach House" ).  Super friendly to kids and super friendly to just about anyone - it was just a nice vibe and one of the meals that we remember fondly, and mostly because it was just friendly...and the food was pretty good too.  Kind of how I imagine Australia to be...

We would have stopped by the beach which looked lovely  - chairs for rent by acre it seemed like - but storm clouds rolled in and cut that plan short (though it didn't do much to break the heat. )  But always good to leave something to come back for!

Planning a trip to Spain? Check out the other Spanish Holiday posts from our trip!

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Notes from the Field: San Salvador, El Salvador...

Land at the airport and be on the beach with a drink within 45 minutes? Yes, please.  This sounds like a little something I would like.  And yet it was a big part of what life in San Salvador was like for Natasha who blogs at La Vie Overseas.  Her current posting recently brought her to Kabul (read about that garden spot here), but below she reminisces with us about pupusas and quad-exhausting volcano hikes from her couple of years in El Salvador.  Follow her continuing adventures on the blog, facebook, and twitter.

Diplo-mat or Diplo-spouse (or other)? Diplo-spouse

Current Post:  Kabul, Afghanistan – but this Notes from the Field is about my former post, San Salvador, El Salvador

Three words to describe your current former post: Surprising, fulfilling and “¡A huevo!” (technically that last one is two words, loosely translated to mean “F— yeah!” in Salvadoran slang Spanish).

Best thing about San Salvador: It’s close to everything. You can spend the morning at the beach, the afternoon in the mountains and the evening in the city.

You have visitors in town for the weekend in San Salvador, what does the weekend look like? Depending on the arrival time of their flight, it’s straight to the beach at la Costa del Sol, where, through our dues to the employee association that runs the commissary, we also had membership to a beach club. (I always promised guests that they could be on the beach, coconut drink in hand, within an hour of landing.) We’d then head to San Salvador (about a 45-minute drive from the beach club, 30 minutes from the airport) to unpack, relax, freshen up and enjoy a cocktail on our balcony overlooking the beautiful San Salvador volcano. For dinner, we’d take a short stroll across the street to La Pampa Argentina, a nice steakhouse.
The next morning, we’d drive up the San Salvador volcano for típico breakfast at one of the restaurants with a nice view (Las Brumas is a good one; there’s also a La Pampa that serves breakfast on the volcano). We’d then head out to the western part of the country to drive the beautiful Ruta de las Flores and stop to explore the little towns (Juayua, Ataco and Ahuachapán are favorites), do some shopping and, depending on the season, maybe visit a coffee finca. Lunch at Jardín de Celeste or at least a cafecito and snack at Flores de Eloise is a must. There’s also ziplining in Apaneca for the more adventurous visitors (we never went in El Salvador but did go in Costa Rica.) We’d then head back east/south and stop for a sunset michelada (and maybe dinner, depending on our appetites) at Beto’s restaurant in La Libertad, set on a cliff overlooking the Pacific.

For the partygoers, Playa El Tunco isn’t too far away – a mix of surfers, backpackers and city dwellers looking for live music and dancing at several bars and clubs situated along the beach. For a more low-key night, a half-hour drive would have us back in San Salvador, where we could enjoy some Salvadoran craft beers at Cadejo or some drinks at Paseo El Carmen, a pedestrian-friendly area in the neighboring city of Santa Tecla with a few restaurants and bars.
On departure day, if time allows, a visit to Sento for a luxury mani/pedi and/or massage is a must (these three appointments can easily take four hours – I’ve done it!). For those looking for a more rugged experience, hiking Santa Ana or Izalco volcanoes would fit the bill. On the way back to the airport, we’d stop at Olocuilta, a town right off the highway that boasts the best rice-flour pupusas (they are traditionally made with corn flour, as explained below) around.
If you’re in San Salvador, you must try: Pupusas, the national food. The basic version is a tortilla-like disc made of corn flour stuffed with a mild cheese called quesillo and pureed red beans. There’s also cheese with loroco (a native Salvadoran plant with edible flowers), chicharrón (fried pork rinds) and ayote (a type of squash) . Gourmet versions include basil, shrimp and all kinds of other fillings. The best part? Individual pupusas usually cost between 25 and 75 cents.

What are your go-to sources for learning about the culture or things to do/experience while you’re at your post city? Other blogs (Foreign Service or not) are always good resources. There’s a good Facebook group (Expats in El Salvador) as well. I relied more on word-of-mouth from others in the Embassy community and CLO recommendations, particularly for travel tips.

Most difficult about living in San Salvador: Security constraints. Due to high levels of gang-related crime, the RSO is pretty strict about walking/running so you have to drive everywhere. With the exception of malls, the beach and a couple other places, you can’t really walk around safely.

Biggest adventure at post? That would have to be our diving trip to Utila, Honduras, which involved a 12-hour journey via microbus and ferry from San Salvador to Utila.

When did you realize you were far from home? When our sponsors took us to our beach club (realizing we had a beach club) our second day in country. It sort of dawned on me that my life was going to be very different than the one I left behind in Washington, DC!

What’s the most important thing about re-creating your home at post? Having a few familiar items – photos, our coffee maker, our magnet collection – really makes a place feel like it’s “ours.” This is especially important at our current post, Kabul, because we had to pack pretty light given space constraints. But our fridge here looks just like our fridge in San Salvador – covered in magnets from all our travels!

Three things you can’t live without at post? (Good) coffee (I blame El Salvador and its delicious coffee for worsening this habit!), my laptop and my camera.

One thing you thought you couldn’t live without but have had to? Honestly, you don’t have to go without much in San Salvador. Almost anything you can’t find/buy locally, you can order through the DPO.

What’s the best advice someone ever gave you about the diplomatic life? Be patient with yourself. Arriving at a new post can be overwhelming, what with a new culture, language, job and a host of other things, not to mention the logistics of moving, unpacking, getting settled, etc. It’s OK to not to get unpacked, find a job, learn your way around the city and meet a new group of best friends right away. On the more practical side, Dani at The Hot Pot Blog recommended packing sheets in my luggage – something I did for both San Salvador and Kabul and that has made a big difference my first nights at both posts. (Read about Dani's adventures in New Delhi on her own Notes from the Field!)

What’s your daily uniform? For working at the Embassy in San Salvador, skirts/blouses or work dresses and heels or cute flats. For weekends/casual wear, a comfortable dress and flip flops – usually over a bathing suit!

You’re having guests over on Saturday night, what’s on the menu? When hosting a dinner party, I usually try to focus on having one star of the show. (I’m talking about the food, of course.) So I might do a simpler main course and sides – a roasted chicken, garlic mascarpone mashed potatoes, sautéed greens and a salad – followed by a homemade carrot cake with maple cream cheese frosting. Or if I’m feeling ambitious, I might make Chicago-style deep-dish pizzas with a couple fresh sides but an out-of-the-box dessert. If we have out-of-town guests, I might enlist the help of our empleada in making traditional Salvadoran chicken tamales (wrapped in plantain leaves instead of corn husks), casamiento (rice and beans) and tortillas.

Dream post for next assignment? Why? We are in the midst of bidding so I don’t want to jinx our actual choices for our next assignment, but I would love to return to Latin America one day – specifically, South America. My husband is a Foreign Service Officer with the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), which means our assignments are limited to developing countries. Many of USAID’s already limited South American Missions are shrinking – both in terms of size and budgets – as the economies in those countries are growing (a good thing, of course!). So landing a tour in a place like Bogotá, Colombia or Lima, Peru while we can would be amazing.

One thing you wished someone had told you before arriving?  If you work on the local economy as a spouse (i.e. outside the Embassy), you should buy a second car. We made it work for the eight or so months that I worked for a local NGO, but it would be much easier with two vehicles. Even though we lived where a lot of other Embassy employees lived, with varying work schedules, gym/sports activities and other after-work commitments, it wasn’t always a guarantee that my husband could get a ride.

Parting thoughts? Don’t let the news dictate your opinion of San Salvador. Yes, there are serious security issues there. But for the most part, the problems are isolated to specific areas and common sense (and RSO recommendations, of course) will dictate where you should/shouldn’t go. El Salvador is a beautiful, warm (both literally and figuratively!) and welcoming place with so much to see and do.

If you have your own blog, what are three of your own favorite posts?
  1. On surprising moments during my tour in El Salvador: That JUST Happened
  2. On why San Salvador is the best post ever: El Salvador: As Good as it Gets?
  3. On reasons to visit El Salvador: El Salvador for Visitors

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Kit Kemp's Ham Yard...

This past trip to London didn't leave too much time for sightseeing but I did squeeze in an early breakfast with a college roommate in the wee hours.  The thing is, when you start meetings at 7:30, that means you have extremely flexible and loving college roommates who are willing to meet you at the crack of 6:00 for breakfast.

Now the trick to London is finding a place that actually will serve you breakfast at that hour.  Someone had suggested to my friend the newly opened Ham Yard Hotel, designed by Kit Kemp.  As she works with some of the most beautiful fabrics in interior design, she would have the scoop like that... I have no scoops so I'm always game for something new. Turns out, the hotel really starts breakfast at 7 and not 6, but that didn't stop us for giving ourselves a bit of a tour of the beautiful spaces.  The staff was kind enough to serve us a coffee in the atrium (photo below) which ended up being one of my favorite rooms.

I didn't sleep here so I can't speak to that, but if the photos are any indication, I'm guessing I would have slept rather well.  I know we were there in the wee hours but service wise, it would have been nicer to see a few touches like staff willing to get a cab or a car given the slightly hidden courtyard location, but mostly we were too busy catching up and noticing all the decor touches to notice.

In addition to the bars and restaurant, there is also a bowling alley (and spa too) in the hotel and I think it's the kind of place where you probably want some pretty hip looking lane kicks...

But mostly, after our coffee I was trying to figure out what it is about this place.  It's actually not a hidden thing... There are actually a lot of elements in her designs - the patterns in the wall paper, the layers of texture in the fabrics, the patina of quirky vintage pieces like a big hunting scene painting or a one of a kind lamp, that just add a lot of life in the space. Up until a year ago, before coming to the Scandinavian style here I might have found it busy...or mixed up....or too noisy, but when you're often surrounded by opposite, I relished sitting in a mix that looks lived in, and chosen specifically - but not a choice taken too seriously.  I didn't get a chance to look through Kit Kemp's Book which they had in the lobby, but if I'm lucky enough to go back, I'll have to make the time.  I just might learn a thing or two to bring back here...

All photos from Ham Yard Hotel.

Monday, September 22, 2014

Cable Traffic n.14 ...

Happy Monday and a few odds and ends from around here: 

1.  #London: I barely seemed to have time to snap this one pic from a quick overnight to London - between meetings and the fog, there didn't seem to be many opportunities for a good photo.  Still, when your meetings are to this view, I don't complain...

2.  Norway the Slow Way: This was a great piece that popped up this weekend in the NY Times Travel Section.  It chronicles a trip on the Norwegian coastline, made in part by the author for a search on his grandfather's roots.  The family story is quite interesting; but so are his Scandinavian cultural observations, which after a year of being here in the region, I find pretty on the mark.  And finally, someone that can explain the allure behind slow TV... getting a feel for the trip with the interactive components embedded in the article are icing on the cake.

3.  Fall Colors: I definitely don't believe that (despite cool breezes that tell us otherwise) summer ends before September 21st, but even I have to admit that fall days are here.  Fall wardrobing isn't going to be doing much for me this season given bump constraints but I am eyeing some fall colors.  A mani or pedi would definitely be in order but Copenhagen isn't the easiest place to get one of those, as is the case with most services.  Still, my eye is on this color - also something tells me Tom Ford probably makes then shiny - just the way I like them.

4.  Just Read: In anticipation of a new book club this week, I read Jess Walter's The Financial Lives of the Poets in my favorite style - in two sittings the day two days before.  I really enjoyed his Beautiful Ruins and ultimately found that to be the better book of the two - likely because of the Italian factor... Plus, stories of those who seemingly knowingly make one poor financial decision on the back of another at the risk of their family bring me down.  That being said, the protagonist's inner monologue is really well written  - and I found myself laughing out loud more than once because of a particularly good turn of phrase.

Friday, September 19, 2014

Spanish Holiday: Tarragona...

After we wrapped up in Barcelona on our Spanish Holiday, we packed off for a small town, right outside of Tarragona, which we picked because of a hotel we had points for.  Tarragona, was about half an hour away and we ended up heading in twice - once to visit the city, and once to take diplo-tot to her first Cirque du Soleil performance (tots note: if you're working on getting little ones to sit through performances, cirque is a good place to start.  Performances are really only about an hour and a half w/ intermission, have fun treats, and lots of things going on and its' okay to exclaim when you see something magical)...

July in Tarragona is HOT.  No doubt about that, but the center of the city, right off the water, offers lots of cool corners to duck in for a granita while you take in the Roman ruins and the city's architecture.  And of that there is plenty, so much so that most of the historic center is a big UNESCO declared heritage site.  Tots can be pro-ruins since there's much to run around in and climb - and it's pretty spectacular that someone who is just over three years old can have so much fun on grounds that are well over a thousand...

Equally charming is the historic center itself, even outside of the ruins.  The Catalonian flag of the separatist movement seems to have quite a stronghold here and the amount of buildings and windows proudly displaying them was pretty prominent - much more so than in Barcelona for example.  I did ask a few people in stores and such who indicated that it wasn't necessarily a majority of people, but those who support the movement are quite vocal about it.  

We went earlier in the morning into town to beat the heat and found the streets pretty quiet with the exception of the cathedral. I think we just had some bad luck on timing as several buses pulled up, making the line to get in rather impossible so we settled for another walk around it.  I know there are also additional museums to see, but we kept our agenda focused on the ruins, taking in all the little winding streets with balconies, and consuming jamon and granitas...Not a bad plan if you ask me on a July day...

Thinking about Spain? Check out all the Spanish Holiday posts here, or more from different trips to Spain.