Europe

Outside the Colosseum
                                      Yeh, Bad Angle

There’s not very much one can do on a weekend in Rome if one doesn’t have one’s itinerary planned before one steps off the plane. I was one who hadn’t planned my itinerary in advance, so I missed out on a few of the Eternal City’s eternal attractions: the Papal capital of Vatican City, the shabbily romantic warrens of Trastevere, the noble and numerous Spanish Steps (though I may have walked down them). What I did get to experience, however, was the delightfully unsettling buzz of being in a space so dominated – physically – by a history so pervasive in Western culture that I felt at once connected with a place I’d only seen in books and on film. But despite the easy connection, I had much left to discover in the Italian capital.

I discovered that speaking Spanish with an improvised “Italian” accent gets one through most interactions on the street, and people are generally friendly, except for most older men working in service positions, who are all kinds of surly. I discovered that one’s obvious reluctance to dart across multiple lanes of fast-moving traffic pegs one squarely as a foreigner, if one’s looks and accent doesn’t give one away beforehand. I discovered that one can keep up with the renowned Roman sense of fashion with a dark gray blazer, jeans, button-down shirts, and black leather loafers – I got a few winks and smiles for the trouble. I discovered that the temperature need not be warm for Romans to gorge themselves (sexily) on gelato. I discovered the three-day Roma Pass, which was the absolute best 30 euros one could ever spend: free entry to two historical sites – including the gigantic Colosseum (Yowza! One really has no idea of its sheer size, name notwithstanding!), where one gets to skip all the other losers waiting in the hours-long line because they didn’t get the Roma Pass –, free and unlimited access to the public transportation system, and a rack of other deals and discounts one probably won’t end up using. I discovered that walking aimlessly through the streets of Rome, one feels suddenly urbane and energized, an exotic sophisticate surveying the latest great city to fall at one’s feet, until one’s feet begin to ache and one realizes that leather loafers were never meant for so much aimless walking.

Alas, my Roman holiday proved too short, though I managed to squeeze in a couple of brief, bright meet-ups with street art maven Jessica Stewart of RomePhotoBlog (at her book signing, no less!) and fly sister-slash-interior designer Arlene Gibbs, formerly of travel blog NYC/Caribbean Ragazza. Still, the City of Seven Hills holds many secrets, and once Rome has whispered in one’s ear, one is obliged to return and discover the others as well.

Take a look at some of the admittedly boring pictures of Roman architecture and other random stuff that I like. If you don’t like, then go to Rome and take your own pictures of the stuff you like!!!!! 😉

Ancient Tile Mural
Rosetta Stone
Coffee and a MapRoman Ruins
Vintage Airline Decals
Really Inside the Colosseum
Shadow and LightTeatro Metropolitano
Vespas Vespas Everywhere

Roman Architecture through the Ages Red Lights
Inside the Colosseum

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Despite $5 bottles of water and grey, rainy weather for most of the weekend, Copenhagen proved a welcoming and interesting little city, with an outsized cultural scene and friendly people. I arrived into the Danish capital early on a Friday morning and zipped quickly through the stylish and efficient airport terminal only to have my spirits dampened by the uninspiring currency exchange rate and the uninspiring gloomy skies (underscored by an uninspiring high temperature in the low 40s). With the excitement of getting to know a new place somewhat tempered by my aversion to the cold and my fear overspending—hell, of spending any money, really—I caught the bus from the airport to my friend’s house, passing alongside the blue-gray expanse of the Oresund and coursing through quaint little Danish neighborhoods with quaint little Danish houses, all with quaint little Danish flags flying on flagpoles in each yard. Danish Flag My friend Naomi is in Denmark with her son working on a Master’s degree and she was one of the first friends I made in Brasília when I moved there a few years ago. I was hyped about seeing her and speaking Portuguese on the streets of Copenhagen. And speak Portuguese on the streets of Copenhagen we did, with people looking curiously, then smiling at the three of us as we took advantage of the one sunny day that weekend and toured the historic canals by boat, wafted through legal weed smoke in the independent little burg of Christiania, and took in a couple of the offerings at the documentary film festival happening that weekend (specifically, we saw Paul Simon: Under African Skies and Tropicália). There’s something to be said for the way people respond to families with children, as opposed to single (and large) men on the street.

While Naomi and filho were at school, I took to the city alone, marveling at the seemingly large number of brown and black people in town (including several city bus drivers) and hitting up a few quirky coffee shops and eateries in search of what the Danes call hygge, which is roughly translated in English as “coziness.” I had a trio of delicious “smushis” (traditional Danish open-faced sandwiches served in sushi-sized chunks) at The Royal Café, proceeded to choke on the prices for curios at the nearby Royal Copenhagen porcelain store, then warmed up with one of the richest cups of hot chocolate I’ve ever had in life at La Glace, an old school confectionary with enough enticing sweet stuff to warrant an extra hour on the treadmill.

At night, Naomi and I met up with a couple of her school mates at the National Gallery of Denmark and had engaging political debate (Obama vs. Romney, Greece vs. Germany, McDonald’s vs. Burger King) while the DJ spun Scandinavian downtempo and people just sat and watched the light display and drank beer. After chicken curry and shawarmas (at two different places), we ended up at a surprisingly amazing and intimate concert by Alcoholic Faith Mission (had never heard of them); we were being told the happening party we’d stumbled upon was “ladies only” and the concert’s sound guy randomly intervened and invited us upstairs, where the set was already half over. I didn’t get a chance to say it at the time, but cheers, Random Sound Guy!

The weekend ended all too quickly, but I never got around to seeing the Little Mermaid and accidentally left a sweater at Naomi’s house—all the more reason to head back. Copenhagen, you were indeed wonderful. I’ll see you again soon. Save a smushi for me! More photos! Copenhagen Waterfront

The Royal Cafe Smushis
The smushis were good, y’all! (Crabcake, steak, and haddock!)
Golden Eagle, Copenhagen
Get a load of that price tag! This golden eagle is on sale at your local Royal Copenhagen store.

Nordic Sun, Copenhagen Copenhagen Toilet Copenhagen Dusk

Meninos Loucos
“Aiight, no more sugar for you, Li’l Man!”

And special thanks, Henrik at Wonderful Copenhagen, for your humorous and insightful pointers on getting along in “The Kingdom!”

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Need to get around Germany but don’t want to cough up a hundred Euros for a one-way plane or train ticket? Get Mitfahrgelegenheit! Meaning “carpool” in German, Mitfahrgelegenheit (roughly pronounced meet-far-guh-LEG-gun-hite) is popular and simple to use, thanks to the website (and Google Translate, considering I have no clue what I’m reading in German 90% of the time). It’s just a matter of searching for a ride between two places at a time that best suits you, comparing options based on the driver’s bio and rating as a reliable user (or not), then meeting at the designated point with cash in-hand and hitting the road. Yes, some measure of blind faith is required, and who knows how likely I’d be to use the system if I were a solo female traveler, but since you usually meet your driver and fellow passengers in a public place, you can address any immediate trepidation by just deciding not to get into the vehicle.

Last week, I mitfahred from Frankfurt to Berlin in a dusty, grey Mercedes minivan with driver and five college students (They looked college age, anyway. We barely spoke beyond initial pleasantries as we were all plugged up to our individual MP3 players). Dude hauled-ass down the autobahn, clocking in at five hours for a normally six-hour drive, with a ten-minute pee/cigarette break. We drove through leafy forests, underneath monstrous industrial windmills, and past Russian-built cargo planes at the Leipzig Airport. We plowed through fog banks and down steep hills and almost sideswiped an 18-wheeler. Halfway to Berlin, the driver stuck his hand back towards us and said in accented English, “Give me my money now, please.” I’m thinking, “Naw, potna. Not until I see a ‘Wilkommen in Berlin’ sign.”

Needless to say, we made it safely, and I’m open to giving Mitfahrgelegenheit another whirl. I just need to memorize the German phrase for “slow the hell down, mannn!” Or am I just getting old?

Berlin is known for being a hotbed of experimentation‬—in art, in music, even in hotel accommodations. In the edgy Neukölln district, intrepid travelers can capture the spirit of the open road at Hüttenpalast. Literally “hut palace,” this innovative little inn is housed inside an old vacuum cleaner factory, with throwback trailers (called caravans) and customized bungalows (called huts) arranged in a large, glass-enclosed “campground.” The small, but aerodynamic trailers harken back to family road trips in postwar Germany, while the bungalows—one shaped like a church altar, another like a house made of wooden blocks—evoke children’s toys. The vast common area features a library of hip coffee table books and art magazines, as well as the shared bathroom facilities (very common in European budget hotels). Traditional hotel rooms are also on offer for those wanting a more conventional experience or a little more wiggle room, but it’s sleeping in a retro-futuristic aluminum trailer that’s half the fun. After all, no one ever says “If the hotel room’s rockin’, don’t come knockin’.”

Inside the larger confines of the factory is a much-lauded garden, a summertime respite of flowers and trees where guests can eat, drink, and make merry. In colder seasons, the action moves inside, but the atmosphere is all about fostering social interaction among visiting guests and the surrounding neighborhood, which is why the hotel facilitates activities and requires Friday night guests to book Saturday night as well and make a weekend out of it. Breakfast is not included in the nightly rate for the hotel rooms, but the café serves up tasty, inexpensive fare. Also, like many places in Berlin, credit cards are not accepted, so be prepared to pay cash for all services.

For a uniquely Berlinesque hotel experience at a reasonable price, check in to the Hüttenpalast, and don’t forget to hang that “…don’t come ‘knockin’” sign up on the trailer door.

Hüttenpalast
Hobrechtstraße 66
12047 Berlin
tel. +49 (0)30-37 30 58 06
www.huettenpalast.de

Rates (July 2012):
caravans/huts – 45€ single/65€ double – croissant + coffee included
hotel rooms – from 65€ single/85€ double

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There was no rain in Spain on my recent trip, just dry, cool days with intermittent sunshine and lots of personal warmth. I hung out in Madrid a few weekends ago with a good buddy of mine from Bogotá, Roberto, who was in the Spanish capital studying and performing in a stage play. My only other time in Madrid had been en route to Cape Verde back in 2004—a short, 2-day stopover spent mostly scouring the city for Brazilian parties—so this time, it was all about seeing the sights.

Like most of Europe’s former imperial capitals, Madrid has the palaces, the museums, the landscaped gardens. Unlike other capitals (with the exception of Lisbon), Madrid has a flavor and atmosphere transmitted relatively intact to many of its former colonial holdings in Latin America, while itself being transformed and influenced by the millions of Latin American immigrants who have recolonized the metropolis—after living in or visiting Santo Domingo, Bogotá, Quito, Havana, Cartagena, San Juan, and Mexico City, just to name a scant few, I was on familiar territory amongst Madrid’s cobblestone alleyways, arched colonnades, and Arab-inspired interior courtyards.

After a short and restless hop from the States aboard a United Airlines flight actually operated by Aer Lingus (the national airline of Ireland, clover on the tail and all), I got to Spain* tired, but excited about the weekend in a fun city with fun people and having the opportunity to again speak Spanish in a Spanish-speaking society, something I haven’t done since leaving Colombia in 2009 (and Miami still doesn’t count as a Spanish-speaking society).

A 30-minute subway ride later, I had a sparse Iberian breakfast of coffee and a churrito (fried dough stick) before meeting up with my buddy and his stage mates at the cool little garage theater—Garaje Lumière, it was called—near the historic district of La Latina, where I’d be crashing with one of the actresses in the play. After greetings and introductions, I sat at the main entrance of the theater reading and fighting sleep while my friends rehearsed for that night’s opening performance. I tried to make it through until at least nightfall, but after lunch, I crashed, waking up every few hours to work or read. So much for sight-seeing on that first day.

I didn’t awaken until Saturday afternoon, just in time to meet Roberto and friends for paella, the famous Spanish dish made with rice, seafood and other meats, and special seasonings. Num! Drinks and convo in the Plaza de Santa Ana led to scrumptious paella at Marina Ventura, then to more drinks and convo at the rooftop bar of the Hotel Óscar. Compared to the exorbitant prices of everything in São Paulo, enjoying an urbane lifestyle in Madrid is pretty affordable—and 700-euro-a-month rents for refurbished 19th century apartments with two bedrooms and balconies overlooking Spanish plazas calls for serious chin-stroking consideration.

The sun dipped lazily below the horizon after 8pm as it is wont to do in the upper latitudes in spring and summer, and no sight-seeing was done. We did throw Roberto a surprise birthday party, though, and danced to Ne-Yo (not my choice) while imbibing adult beverages (I had Coke).

Sunday, we finally made the rounds of the historical center of Madrid. We didn’t actually go inside anyplace, but we wandered through the vast and crowded Plaza Mayor—prototype for every town square in the Americas from the Guadalupe River to Tierra del Fuego—, past the world’s oldest restaurant, complete with official Guinness Book recognition, across the courtyard of the royal palace, past the labyrinthine royal gardens (we were too lazy to walk back up the steps we would have had to descend to enter the gardens), and finally into El Corte Inglés, a fancy department store with a very necessary coffee shop where I could re-boost my waning energy with a one-euro-fifty-cent coffee that I paid for by credit card.

That night, I saw the final performance of the play—something about corporate secrets and lady torturers and jumper cables attached to gonads—über-experimental and completely in Spanish, so I got like 60% of what they were saying. Afterwards, we congratulated the cast on an amazing performance despite somewhat underwhelming material and everyone else congratulated themselves with alcohol (I had Coke) for the next five hours. Indeed, it was almost 4am when we left the theater and there were pretty much zero food options at that hour (which, back home, is called ‘fore-day-in-the-morning), so we settled for late-night grilled cheese sandwiches.

Question: In this age of globalization and multi-national corporations, why the hell isn’t there an IHOP in Madrid (or Berlin or São Paulo)? They would make a killing!

We woke up at noon on Monday, just in time for me to dash into the shower, pack up my crap, and hightail it down to El Retiro, where Roberto had a picnic planned for all his artistic peeps in celebration of the play and his birthday. Over homemade paella (Thanks, Roberto’s friend’s mom!) and some damn good cake and we lazed about on the grass, laughing about the jumper-cables-to-the-gonads and being serenaded with flamencos and boleros by several of the picnickers—there were at least four acoustic guitars in attendance at the picnic.

Soon, it was time for goodbyes and promises to email and/or call, then I headed with carry-on in tow towards the subway station with zero cash, thinking that I could pay for a ticket by credit card. Nope; the machine wanted the PIN that I never memorized because I never use the debit function of my card. This also meant that I couldn’t get money out of an ATM. And the Brazilian reais I had on me were no good because, at almost 5pm on a Monday afternoon, no banks in the immediate vicinity were open to exchange my cash. And I had no telephone with which to call Roberto or any of my other newly-minted friends for a two-euro loan. I was left to rely solely on the kindness of strangers, and in this case, that meant the subway security guard and the station attendant, who listened to my tale of touristic stupidity with understanding smiles and had pity on my poor cashless soul (an affected “foreign” Spanish accent and pre-printed boarding pass showing an imminent flight departure time helped, no doubt). They printed up a special subway ticket, swore me to secrecy, and sent me on my way with handshakes. Gracias, dudes!

*Important aside: The only major road bump and one of those things that tend to permanently shade your opinion of a place, or at least of a place’s government: suspiciously-long questioning by the immigration officer. The two other (non-black) Americans ahead of me flitted through with a few words and the quick thud of the passport stamper. My mistake, of course, was speaking in Spanish. I was asked about my arriving flight (normal), how long I had planned to stay (normal), and if my trip was business or pleasure (normal), then asked where exactly I was staying in Madrid (strange), then where my letter of invitation was (what?). Apparently, I was supposed to have either pre-booked accommodations at a hotel, or have a letter of invitation issued to me by the friends with whom I was staying (procured at the local police station, no doubt). I’m sure my face said, “I don’t know what the fuck you’re talking about” and he asked if it was my first time in Spain. I said no, the I’d been there in 2004, neglecting to mention that I had no hotel reservations even then, and had booked a nice little cheap hotel upon arrival at one of the tourist kiosks in the airport. I said that I’m aware that policies can and do change frequently, but as a U.S. citizen, I’d never heard of having to provide proof of accommodation for entry into the European Union (in fact, it’s NOT required, asshat). In Latin America, Spain already has a reputation for the “funny attitudes” of their immigration officials, and while the international gatekeepers of the U.S. certainly have a propensity for douchebaggery, let’s have a little perspective for chrissakes. You see that eagle on my passport? Stamp my shit and be done with it.

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The first thing you notice about Switzerland’s largest city – Zurich – is that, by comparison, every other city in the world looks worn-down and raggedy. The whole place smacks of affluence, from the clean comfort of the airport to the understated high-end street fashion (even old people rocked dark denim and leather jackets by somebody famous). In Zurich, they riyotch, beyotch.

Early industrialization and the development of banking services (a business not exactly pure as Alpine snow) helped the Swiss obtain one of the highest per capita standards of living in the world. Food and clothing in Zurich aren’t necessarily the cheapest, but public services and infrastructure are top-notch. I flew into a world-class airport on a world-class airline, hopped a train to the main station, where I met up with my CouchSurfing host (Björn – Swedish name, Swiss dude) for some lunch-time Thai, then took a sleek and efficient tram to within a block of his apartment.

Great Domes of Zurich

I rested a bit from the 12-hour flight until Björn got home from work and we hit the streets of Zurich just as the sun dipped behind the Alps to the west. We walked around the old town, and I marveled at how multicultural the place actually is (I encountered Brazilians, Eritreans, Sri Lankans…), in spite of murmurings about Swiss xenophobia. It was strangely comforting to be in a place surrounded so completely by mountains; I’d lived in Bogotá, which sits on a high plateau surrounded by the Andes, but with 8 million people, comforting is the last word I’d use to describe the Colombian capital.

Skyline at sunset.

Conversation took us past 900-year-old churches and 21st century electronics stores, then down towards Lake Zurich where we hopped aboard one of the water shuttles that augment the city’s transportation options.

Lake Zurrk

According to Björn, the whole city is walkable in about 45 minutes, and we seemed to be testing out that assessment. Finally, as the temperature dropped into the upper-40s, Björn broke out the fondue set and we had some traditional Swiss potatoes and cheese for dinner. So much for my no-carb vacation.

Downtown shopping alley. Expensive.

The next day? Cold, gray, and rainy: perfect weather for a museum visit! The castle-like Swiss National Museum – Landesmuseum Zürich in German – chronicles the history of Switzerland from the Stone Age to modern times, even mentioning the Swiss role as financiers of the slave trade (no pics allowed). I’m always shocked in European museums by the amount of guts and gore that appears in depictions of Christianity: severed heads and people nailed to crosses and whatnot. Victory over violence, my brethren! I was also mildly chided by the old lady taking tickets at the entrance to the museum’s World Wildlife Federation exhibition because, as an American, I’m in some way responsible for America’s lax environmental policies. I just let her talk, responding every now and then with a “Yes, ma’am.”

Landesmuseum Zürich, where they filmed ‘The Haunting.’

Then, I shivered over to the nearby Museum of Design Zurich, mostly because I was sans-umbrella, and caught the temporary exhibition on skyscrapers (my favorite type of building). Photos, blueprints, and scale models of structures in major cities comprised the exhibition, and I took the opportunity to draw São Paulo’s Copan building in the guest book, since other people had drawn buildings in the guest book.

I took this picture on the low-low.

Soon, it was time to grab my onward flight to Berlin, departing from Zurich Airport’s über-chic “low-cost” terminal.

The hoodrat section of Zurich Airport.

Björn, thanks a lot for the Alpine hospitality! Zurich, you are small but sophisticated and your people are worldly and affable. I will be back!

Zurich’s got “something for every taste.”

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In October, the air in Warsaw is cold.  Broad concrete sidewalks and large, drab Soviet-era constructions refract that chill, always present in spite of waning autumn sunshine.  But there is color that warms the streets in bursts: the golden, meaty glow of 24-hour Turkish doner kebab stands; the fluorescent charge of rooftop corporate logos that read Marriott, Orange, and Marks & Spencer; the multi-hued hum of nightclub signs hawking boobs and booze.  This weekend, with nighttime temperatures in the lower 40s, I was tempted to drop by one of these clubs for a little post-Cold War action and see how the Poles party.  With the Polish economy on fire and a future as bright as the Coca-Cola sign overlooking downtown, Warsaw is already overcoming its woeful history with vigor and style.

Warsaw’s story is a tragic one, full of conquest and destruction: after rounding up the Jews into Europe’s largest ghetto, the goddamned Nazis razed 80% of the city in quashing an uprising of the oppressed Poles, with over two million killed under Hitler’s grand plan for the virtual eradication of Poland and its people.  Once solidly under Soviet influence, the Russians imposed on the city Europe’s then-tallest building, the 757-foot-high Palace of Culture and Science, an ornate but foreboding skyscraper that reigned in solitude over the Polish capital for three decades. But sleek, modern towers in blue-tinted glass and corporate marquis now vie for air supremacy and a colorful, completely rebuilt Old City vibrantly outshines the functional but dour residential and office blocks built during the Cold War.  Almost no flat surface is spared from advertising pasteboard, not even the Palace of Culture and Science itself, as Warsaw proudly asserts her devotion to capitalism.

A brief weekend in the city certainly isn’t enough time to get to know the people, but I found the Poles to be polite (my presence elicited a few looks of interest, but hardly any stares in an overwhelmingly white—pale—city) and quiet, but helpful when asked and generally very fluent in English, which was good since I didn’t understand a word of Polish.  Not a word. A trip to a party or two gave a glimpse of Polish rhythm (they kept up pretty good with Rihanna) and the women are attractive and stylish (read: hot), high-heeled boots being the ladies’ footwear of choice.  Clothes, I found to be inexpensive.  Food, not so much.  I did, however, snag a 50-euro-a-night rate at the four-star Mercure Warszawa Grand via Momondo.com only two nights before the trip (no, they did not pay me to say that).

As Poland marches toward further integration with the European Union—they still use the złoty, not the Euro—prices will go up, but so too will the number of visitors, who come to experience this accessible bit of the former Communist Bloc (or, literally, Warsaw Pact), or to take in a bit of history about Nazi occupation and Polish resistance or research composer and favorite son Fryderyk Chopin at the city’s inexpensive but excellent museums.  Warsaw will also lose a bit of its Wild West feel, that air of anything-goes recklessness and conspicuous consumption that accompanies the first throes of unbridled capitalism in a society that hasn’t had it for very long; now is the time to go, before Starbucks, KFC, and Subway complete their conquest.

Meanwhile, even the city’s youngins are staking their claim on the de facto anthem of worldwide youth culture, hip hop (I mean, we don’t really break dance no mo’, but we applaud the effort).

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This post is part of a (quasi-)monthly series of eye candy at Fly Brother, imaginatively named VTP (short for Vintage Travel Posters). We’ll see how travel companies and bureaus have been enticing people off the couch since international leisure travel first became a bourgeois conceit.

The very name of Paris implies joie de vivre, je ne sais quoi, and savoir-faire.  Seriously, no other city compares with the French capital as a must-do-at-least-once-in-your-life destination and anyone who says they have no interest in visiting the place is just being a belligerent douche.  True, Air France is heavily represented, but what better carrier to whisk you off to a Weekend à Paris?  Unlike the service on US airlines, Air France at least offers stank attitude with panache!


Check out previous Vintage Travel Poster posts: Rio and India

This weekend, I’m in The City for a travel blogging conference, TBEX ’10.  And while I stood sweating in the sweltering Times Square subway station today with every color and creed on the globe represented on that platform, I remembered a post from last year, in which I compared the two capitals of the English-speaking world after visiting London; I’m convinced now, more than ever, that Noo Yawk’s betta.

Originally posted as I ♥? LON on Sept. 8, 2009:

The comparison is overused, but with London and New York City being the pillars of global culture and finance, as well as the launchpad and rocket booster, respectively, of the new millennium’s lingua franca, there’s almost no way to avoid comparing the two cities. Even culture bible Time Out London had to ask if New York was the better, upgraded, 2.0 Beta version of the swingin’ British capital.

Though New York isn’t a national capital and was never the center of a colonial empire, it’s always been a magnet for immigrants from overseas and transplants from the nether regions of the US. Still, London has a greater percentage of its population born outside of the UK and is home to much larger groups of various ethnic communities, whereas New York has a little bit of everyone, but certain groups have greater numerical dominance. London wins the diversity prize.

Speaking with some of my newly-minted black British friends in London, it’s interesting to see the relative lack of a unified identity similar to that of black Americans (which, essentially functions as our ethnicity). Unlike black Americans, who’ve been an established part of the US since its very inception, the black British experience has essentially been one of immigration over the past five or six decades, so each different group, be it Nigerian, Kenyan, Jamaican, Belizean, has a different set of identity markers and occupies a different place vis-a-vis other immigrant groups on the path toward assimilation into “British” culture and society, a necessarily basic response to being an immigrant. Folks are too busy trying to survive in a new and sometimes hostile environment to focus on carving out a shared identity with other strivers. This means a less coherent sense of pan-African/”black” identity and therefore less organized efforts to fight discrimination or encourage community empowerment. My friends also tell me that the black professional class in London is comparatively miniscule. Score one for the NYC.

That being said, I certainly see more thorough interaction between people of various ethnicities in London than in New York. I once went to a hip-hop club in Manhattan where there was an even mix, numerically, of blacks and whites. But even though people danced in close proximity to one another, they remained clumped into their racial groups, the dancefloor from above looking like a Dalmatian fur rug. In London, I saw countless racially-mixed friend groupings and a few black American expats in the city confirmed that day-to-day interaction in the UK is less yoked by racial baggage than in the States. London’s up on this one.

Notting Hill Carnival was fun, but much more subdued than I expected. There has been recent violence, and a teenager was killed this year, so with ordinarily staid British society trying to deal with that, maybe some of the flavor was lost. We Americans are some violent, aggressive, gun-totin’ brutes, so a shooting at a street festival doesn’t faze us as much. Besides that, summer in Noo Yawk means West Indian Day, Puerto Rican Day, Brazilian Day, Dominican Day, the Irish Festival, concerts in Central Park, house music in Fort Greene Park. Seriously, can hottie watching get any hotter?

Tranportation: New York, all the way. 24-hour subway service. Stations every few blocks in Manhattan. One-way, undiscounted cash fare, US$2.25 (compared with £4.00 on the London Underground – thas almost $7). Though “This is the Piccadilly line for Cockfosters” does sound better cooed over the PA system in Received Pronunciation than “Stand clear of the closing doors (ding, ding)” in some random chicken-fried twang.

Overall, I found London to be exhilirating in some aspects (people-watching in the Circuses, space-age window displays, the accents, the history!), underwhelming in others (semi-wack nightlife, uninspiring pubs, very average-looking people). I had very high expectations of the city and was all set to have it sweep me off my feet as it has several of my good friends, to consider a move to “the centre of the world” and knock ’em dead as the Next Big Thing From Across The Pond (yeh right), but that just never happened, despite heavy lobbying by my London peeps, Lord love them. I liked it. I didn’t ♥ it.

I’ll be back, though.

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The name of Istanbul comes from the Greek for “in or to the city.” Throughout most of its history, Turkey’s largest city and the former capital of the Roman, Byzantine, and Ottoman empires has been The One and Only City (how ya like them apples, Noo Yawk?). And with over 12 million people within city limits that straddle two continents, it’s impossible to even get a passing understanding of a culture nearly three millennia in the making.

Despite being in Istanbul (née Byzantium, followed by Nova Roma, Constantinople, then its current nom de guerre et plume) for a week, I chilled mostly at coffee shops in the European side’s 19th century districts sipping Turkish tea and trying to write and stay dry in intermittently rainy weather. I barely scratched the surface of the Old City, but when I did, crossing the Golden Horn at sunset amidst thousands of Turks in the streets celebrating the end of Ramadan, swarms of ferries steaming up and down the channel, and stately minarets lording over lands as far as the eye could see, I felt, for a brief second, the constant bustle and flow of what was, barely even a century ago, still the world’s most important crossroads.

I know some Catholic churches in Latin America with a lock on reminding sleeping sinners that they should have their butts in the pews on Sunday morning, but the five daily prayers at the hundreds of mosques in the city ain’t no joke:

Indeed, not knowing the language proved to be a hindrance, because even though many people know some English, it’s pretty hard to connect with folk when grunts and pantomimes are the sole method of communication. At least Turkish, a non-Indo-European language (meaning it’s very hard for English speakers), uses a phonetic spelling and a recognizable Roman alphabet. I don’t know how the hell I’m going to get by in Egypt (here’s hoping a few decades of British colonial control have worked their linguistic hoodoo in my favor). I didn’t get a general concensus on Turkey’s accession to the European Union or public opinion about the relatively conservative current government or Kurdish nationalism. Hell, I could barely order a meatball dinner (köfte menü, I finally mastered). But I did get the sense that Istanbul reveals her true self at her own leisure, and that she must be courted before she lifts the veil.

Guess which moment I get thrown against the seat back in front of me:

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