Facing forward, looking back

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Happy New Year! I know it’s a bit late for New Year’s wishes, but I took the holidays off from blogging so I could concentrate on enjoying the break and the people and the food and the being home. (Aside: not true. I took the holidays off from blogging because I was generally lazy and unmotivated and indifferent to the notion of trying to string words together, but the end result is the same.)

It was a nice long break - a bit more than three weeks, and I got to spend some time in London and some time in Canada. The boat was tucked up right where I left it and there was very little drama in getting back on board. I lit the stove to get the chill off and it felt reassuringly like home. (My suitcase also found it nice to get home, especially because it had an unscheduled extra night in Istanbul before arriving a day and a half after I did.)

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How cozy does this look? How could you NOT want to come home to this?

And now I’m back in Baku. It was hard coming back. This time around the job feels like less of an adventure and more of a chore, and it’s taken some effort to get my head back in the game. It’s mostly ok now, and we’ve moved out to the stadium this week so that’s distracting. And I’ve got a couple vacation days to use up, and pretty soon things will start moving so fast that the time will (I hope) fly by.

Last week, after getting all the unpacking done and stocking the cupboards again, I had a quiet evening and ended up spending a bit of time looking back. More specifically, I looked back at my old blog, Go See Run Eat Drink. I do this sometimes - open up the old blog and pick a country at random and go back and read all the posts from when I was there. It’s great to be reminded of all the places I saw and the people I met and the fun and crazy and amazing things I got to do. That was one of the reasons I decided to blog in the first place - so I could go back later and remember.

This time though, I went right back to the very first post. I started Go See Run Eat Drink way back in 2008 (before Barack Obama was elected the FIRST time) when I was at the beginning stages of a plan to quit a job I’d been at for eleven years, sell a house I’d had for a decade, and spend a year traveling around the world. At the time I was 39 years old and living in Winnipeg, Manitoba. And though the blog did not go public until January 2009, that first post - for a select group of invited friends - was on July 30, 2008. That was six and a half years and 426 blog posts ago. (Astute GSREDGSWPL Readers will know that’s 275 at Go See Run Eat Drink and 151 at Go Stay Work Play Live. Oh, plus this one. 427.)

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Me on May 16, 2009. From this post about an experiment in packing my then-brand-new Aeronaut

I started reading from that first post and slowly moved forward in time, and it was wild. That far back I still wasn’t sure if I was really going to do it. Not at all sure if I’d really step off the cliff edge and pitch my life as I knew it in the bin and see what was out there. (Also back then I would have said “Throw my life in the garbage”).

Those first few posts are very different. Much shorter than an average post now (and with many fewer exotic locations and more frequent haircuts) but I could feel myself warming up a bit. Testing out gear, ordering luggage, planning the itinerary, and starting to deal with the thousand things that went along with wrapping up my life in a neat bundle. But over and over I could hear the hesitation. The reluctance to commit. I kept puttering on, researching one-bag travel, prowling Mountain Equipment Co-op, checking out package tours and gradually knocking the house into shape to sell, but not really doing anything irreversible like giving my notice at work.

Not that I wasn’t aware I was hedging. There was a post in October of 2008 that consisted almost entirely of just this quote:
"Until one is committed, there is hesitancy, the chance to draw back-- Concerning all acts of initiative (and creation), there is one elementary truth that ignorance of which kills countless ideas and splendid plans: that the moment one definitely commits oneself, then Providence moves too. All sorts of things occur to help one that would never otherwise have occurred. A whole stream of events issues from the decision, raising in one's favor all manner of unforeseen incidents and meetings and material assistance, which no man could have dreamed would have come his way. Whatever you can do, or dream you can do, begin it. Boldness has genius, power, and magic in it. Begin it now."

- W. H. Murray in "The Scottish Himalaya Expedition", 1951
As I was poking around Go See Run Eat Drink I also stumbled on a post I wrote but never published. The working title was simply “Anxiety” and was a kind of airing out of all my worries at the time. As I read it I couldn’t help but smile from my smug place in the future. Here, six years late, is that unpublished list of fears, along with comments from Future Pam about how it all turned out:
  • I'm scared my house will sit, unsold, until after my scheduled departure date. (It was fine. Sold quickly and easily.)
  • I'm scared that when or if my house does sell I won't get the price I need to make the budget for the trip work. (And it sold for a bit over the asking price.)
  • I'm scared about quitting my job - it's comfortable and pays well and I'm good at it and I like the people I work with. (All that was true but I’ve now found that same combination again and again in other situations. Well maybe not “comfortable” but everything else.)
  • I'm scared that I might give my notice at work and then something will make the trip fall through and then I'd have no job and no trip. (Obviously that didn’t happen.)
  • I'm scared about finding a new job. (This took longer than I thought, but then again I was starting from scratch in a new country and I was ridiculously ambitious about how long it would take.)
  • I'm scared about starting a new job and not being very good at it, at least at first. (It was fine. It turns out I really am actually pretty good at what I do regardless of what country it’s in.)
  • I'm scared a new job will never be as good as the old job. (Wow, was this ever wrong. Not that the old place was bad. But, well… this.)
  • I'm scared about giving up a lot of my stuff. (As I later predicted, and as EVERYONE who’s done this says, I got back to my 5’ x 10’ storage space and thought, “Why do I have all this STUFF??”. And now I live in the space of four-and-a-half tatami mats. And yet I still rent a storage space...)
  • I'm scared the trip won't be as great as it sounds. (*derisive snort*)
  • I'm scared I might be trying to fit in too much traveling in too little time. (I definitely did that. But now sometimes when I go somewhere I stay for months.)
  • I'm scared that I'll get locked into an itinerary and not be able to change. (Nope.)
  • I'm scared that I might wimp out. (Didn’t)
  • I'm scared that I won't wimp out. (Didn’t)
  • I'm scared that if I do wimp out, I'll never see Petra, or the pyramids, or the Great Wall, or ever actually leave Winnipeg and move my life forward (professionally and personally). (I saw all those places and more. And my life has moved leaps and bounds. And then more bounds. And anther leap or two after that.)
I didn’t read all of Go See Run Eat Drink again, because I have a job and didn't have 13 hours to spare that evening. But I did scroll through most of it up to the point when I actually left Canada. And what really struck me, if it’s not blindingly obvious, is how far I’ve come. Geographically, of course. That much is obvious: I started in Winnipeg and I’m now typing this sitting on my couch in Azerbaijan, with more than a few far-flung stops in between. But equally, or perhaps more so, I looked back and realised how many more big decisions and big changes I’ve made since I bundled up my life into that carry-on sized bag and boarded a plane.

I was in that old life - Winnipeg, the job, the house, the dog - for twelve years, and for most of those years not much big changed. In half that amount of time - the six years since I left - I’ve been around the world. Literally - I actually went all the way around. I visited 33 different countries on that first big trip and have chalked up a few more since. More importantly though, after I got back I turned right around and moved to a whole different country. Then I got to work on the biggest show on earth, the Olympic Opening Ceremony. And then I got to move to another other country and do that all again, expect in Russian. And now that’s kind of just what I do - go to odd and interesting places and help to put on huge exciting shows. And when I’m not doing that I live on a boat in the greatest city in the world. I say this not to brag, but because I feel really lucky.

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And here I am on August 4, 2016.

I often remember a few years ago when friends came to visit in London, bringing their two kids with them. It was in the spring before the 2012 Olympics, and as we walked through Trafalgar Square we went past the big countdown clock that was ticking away the days left before the games started. I remember commenting on how lucky I felt to be there - living in the city, working in the most amazing job, even just strolling with them through that spot. And then it struck me: yes, I am lucky. A lot of things had to go right for me to be there then and for me to be here now, starting with being born in a good country with a great family and a respectable brain.

But there’s something else too. Those advantages in life set me up, but where I am now is something I think I can take credit for. I had the idea and I took the chance, and that opened up a whole cascade of new ideas and new chances. And they're still coming.

In a way, I made this luck in my life.

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How could I have named the boat anything else?

Gear for the jetsetting lifestyle

Sunday, December 11, 2016

Slightly off the beaten track today - no festivals, no food, no sightseeing. Instead I’ve decided to tell you about two new things that I’ve discovered in recent months and that have made a significant contribution to my quality of life as a certified International Woman of Mystery. And let me just say right off the bat that I’ve not received any kickbacks in consideration of my lavish praise for these products, though I would be very happy to do so. Anyone wanting to pay me off is welcome to get in touch at the email address below. No gift is too big or too small.

First is a product that came to me through Kickstarter. In fact, I’ve been kickstartering up a storm lately, though mostly that’s Gerald’s fault. He keeps sending me links to interesting clever things, and when something is really clever and useful and reasonably priced why wouldn’t you want to support it? Like, for instance, the Mogics Power Bagel - weird name, awesome idea. And perfect for someone who travels a lot.

I’m a great fan of the international plug strips that have cropped up recently, like this one here:

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In fact, I think that every plug outlet on the planet should be like this - accepting North American, UK, Euro and Australian plugs equally, and generously equipped with USB ports. Could the UN maybe look into this please?

For a traveller though, there are a few problems with power strips like this. First, they are big and bulky, which is a definitely drawback. Second, while they accept any style of plug, they are only equipped to plug into a particular type of socket, meaning you still need a plug adapter to be completely versatile. And finally, if you’re trying to plug in things with large adapters, often you can’t use every outlet because the fat pluggy bit on the thing you’re plugging in is so large it hangs over the adjacent outlet.

Enter: the Power Bagel! The big innovation with the Power Bagel is its shape - by turning the conventional strip into a circle the whole thing becomes much smaller. More importantly, though, the round shape means that when you connect something with a bulky plug it sticks out away from the circle, leaving room for something else in the next socket. It seems obvious when you see it.

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No conflicts!

The cord for plugging in the Bagel wraps neatly around the outside and stays wrapped at the length you want without interfering with plugging stuff in. And though the plug on the end of the cord is the little North American style, you can also get a universal adapter that slots neatly into the hole in the bagel for storage. The adapter is very clever too, and the smallest plug adapter I’ve ever seen. And trust me, I’ve encountered a lot of travel adapters in my time.

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See how tiny!

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And here is my Power Bagel in action in my hotel room in Baku. It’s currently powering the local euro plug standing lamp, the UK plug power for my computer, USB cables for phone and wireless speaker charging, and a euro plug for the desk lamp. And there’s still one universal and one North American plug left.

Mogics also offers something they call the Power Donut, which only accepts North American plugs. It’s the same diameter but a bit lower profile. I suppose the single plug style would be fine if you never left the continent and were just interested in having a convenient power source, but my feeling is that for the small extra cost it’s worth having the flexibility of the universal plug sockets. Why? Well, when I visited Belgrade with Rob and Wes, there was only one plug point near my bed, and it was taken up by the only lamp for the room. Because I had the Power Bagel, I was able to plug the euro style lamp into the Bagel, along with everything else I needed and still only use the one plug point. If I only had the ability to plug in things with a North American plug I’d have been sitting in the dark. Hence, the wisdom of the universal Bagel even for people who only own things with North American plugs. Both the Donut and the Bagel sell on the Mogics website for $49 USD.

I do have two quibbles though. The Power Bagel comes with a cute zippered case - it looks like a donut, including the  hole in the middle. However, the plug adapter thing slots into that hole for storage, meaning that the only thing that’s not attached - the adapter - is the only thing that’s not held into the case. For a company that’s smart enough to think up such a clever device, that’s just plain dumb.

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Dumb

The other problem is that I’ve managed to blow the tiny built-in fuse in my Bagel twice now, though perhaps that says more about the power supply in Baku than the Power Bagel. On the plus side, the Bagel comes with a spare fuse packed inside the device and another spare fuse in the adapter. This means that I’m still operational, though I’m now working without any spares, and the shipping policy for getting more from the Mogics website is challenging for a person of No Fixed Address. In any case, the Mogics Power Bagel is still a hugely useful and very clever thing, and I suspect I will never travel without it.

Next up in the Go Stay Work Play Live lineup of Things To Not Leave Home Without is less a product and more a service. Or app. Or something. Whatever it is, it’s become an absolute necessity in my current ex-pat lifestyle.

Revolut describes itself as "the only account you need to securely send and spend money anywhere in the world.” Basically, it’s a smartphone app that links to a pre-paid Mastercard debit card. After downloading the free app, you sign up and are instantly assigned a virtual Revolut Card that appears on the screen and is functional right away, even as you wait for the actual physical chip-and-pin card to arrive in the mail.

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Here’s what the virtual card looks like. The real one is just like that too, with the nice purple colour. And my name on it. And no big black box covering the number. But otherwise it’s pretty much that.

After signing up you connect your Revolut account to an already existing bank account, which allows you to top up your Revolut balance from that account from within the app. You can even set it to top up automatically when your card balance gets below a certain amount. This easy in-app top up feature is currently only available if your primary account is in the UK or Europe, but you can also use a bank transfer to top up, it’s just not as fast or cool. And whenever a transaction occurs - either when you use your card in a store, or withdraw cash - you get an alert on your phone that’s very reassuring.

But none of that is really the point. There are other pre-loadable debit cards out there, and lots of different Mastercard options. The point of Revolut is that it operates in more than 120 currencies and instantly converts to your native currency using interbank rates. If I buy groceries in Baku and pay with my Revout card, as soon as the cashier pushes the enter button on the chip-and-pin device, the alert on my phone pops up to say I’ve just spent £23.31, which is 50.56 manat, at a rate of 2.1695 manat to the pound. This usually happens before the receipt is even printed. And - perhaps most importantly - it happens with no fees. My bank statements used to be littered with “Non-Sterling Transaction Fees". On previous gigs they added up to hundreds of pounds. Now… nothing. I used the card traveling in Serbia, and it was equally seamless. And now I use it for any transactions (often online) when the currency isn’t pounds sterling. When I withdraw cash from an ATM it’s the same. I get the same great exchange rate, and no fees (Mostly. Keep reading). I’ve just had a look through some old bank statements from 2014 when I arrived in Baku for the first time and I can see one withdrawal of 200 manat cost me £7.67 in fees, or about 4.7%. That adds up very very fast.

True, last time in Baku I got a local bank account and bank card and could withdraw cash from there without fees, but that meant managing deposits into that account, and making sure that the total held in the local account didn’t get so high that I couldn’t get it out if I wanted. Manat are not convertible outside of Azerbaijan, so it’s best not to hold an excess of local currency. Now I just have the cash my pocket - less than 200 manat - and the rest is safely held in my UK account or in virtual Revolut-land.

Which leads us to a big question that comes up with online banking services - security. I think most people are now accepting (if maybe not always comfortable) with online banking portals run by big, known international banks, but might be nervous about something app-based that occupies the same sort of place in your head as Angry Birds or that one where you toss virtual bits of crumpled paper into a virtual bin. Fear not. Revolut stores customers' money in a pooled account at the actual grown-up non-Angry-Birds Barclays Bank. And they apparently use the same encryption systems as banks. (For anyone who understands: Sensitive data is stored in PCIDSS level-1 compliant data centre and all data passed between Revolut servers and third parties is 2048-bit SSL encrypted and transmitted by VPN tunnels. Phew!)

Ok, I said there are no fees and mostly that’s true. Revolut makes most of their money from the credit card fees charged to retailers when you use the card for purchases. However, there is a limit of £500 per month on free cash withdrawals. That hasn’t been a problem for me, but Revolut recently announced they’re slashing that total to £200 month in February 2017, with a 2% fee per transaction after that. Apparently the costs associated with dealing with ATMs across the globe have become unsustainable for them to maintain the £500 ceiling. There’s been a big uproar in the online community about this, but from where I’m sitting it’s still a good deal. 2% after £200 is still a lot less than 4.7% every time. Perhaps I could search around a bit more and find a better one, but frankly I can’t be bothered.

So that’s the big big advantage of Revolut: (virtually) no-fee life in a foreign currency. However, there are also other fun things too. It’s instantaneous and free to transfer money to other Revolut users, which is nice if, for instance, you’re out for lunch and one person picks up the tab. You can easily and quickly send them your share through the app. Gerald and I have been trading about £7 back and forth for months now. Though often Gerald pays me back in euros, because that’s the currency he operates in. Which brings me to another fun thing about Revolut - you can hold money in pounds, euros or US dollars - the app has three built in “wallets” in those currencies. So if Gerald pays me in euros it goes into my euro wallet. If I make a purchase in euros the app will automatically take it from the euro wallet if there’s enough to cover it. If I don’t want to hold euros, I can easily exchange them into pounds at the same favourable rates Revolut always uses.

You can also transfer to non-Revolut people by sending them a code they use to access the money. And you can transfer directly to other bank accounts as well - a process I’m testing out for the first time right now. If it works and is simple and cheap it could become my preferred method for moving money from the UK to my Canadian accounts. Mostly, though, Revolut has become my day-to-day card for life in Baku ad my go-to card for anything that happens in a non-sterling currency. It's definitely made my life better.

An in other News About Pam: work is very busy because we all pack up for Christmas next week so there’s a scramble to get a mountain of tedious contracting and paperwork done. I’m fly back to London for a few days before I head home to Canada for Christmas and New Year’s, and then have a few more days in London before it’s back to Baku when we move to the stadium and get settled in for the long haul.

And finally, a few pictures of Christmas in Baku:

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Deck the hotel room with... cheap LEDs and plastic!

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And who'd have thought Baku would have a Christmas Market?

GRUB!: Azeri Style - The Pomegranate Edition

Sunday, November 27, 2016

After the previous week’s damp and misty outing, one might think I’d shy away from excursions for a bit. Dry out. Put my feet up. Enjoy a quiet Saturday. Then again, one might not know that the week after I visited Chirag Gala was the week of the annual pomegranate festival, and Sabina and Bag Baku were offering a day trip including transport, breakfast and, one had to assume, a lot of pomegranates. Pomegranates are, of course, one of the most traditional foods of Azerbaijan and are grown in many areas. One of those is Goychay, home of the Pomegranate Festival, and our goal for the day’s trip.

Goychay is quite a ways from Baku - the trip there was about 3 hours long, and started very early. This was fine on the way there, when the sun was shining and there was scenery to look at. I found the landscape weirdly familiar, as would anyone who’s driven across the prairies.

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Long straight road, railroad running alongside, generally flat land, and some hills off in the distance. What’s missing is fields of waving wheat and grain elevators, but all in all it was sort of homey.

The Bag Baku group this time was surprisingly diverse; I think this is the first time I’ve been the only native English-speaker in a tour group. We had people from Azerbaijan, Poland, Egypt, Germany, Switzerland, Singapore and Iran. Like I said, diverse. After arriving we all sat down to a traditional Azeri breakfast at a local restaurant, out in the late fall sunshine at one big table. The menu was pretty standard: sliced tomato and cucumber to start, along with some salty local cheese and lots and lots of bread, served with butter and honey. This was followed by hard boiled eggs in the shell and some alarming looking pink wieners boiled in their plastic wrappers. And of course lots and lots of tea. There was, however, one stand-out offering that I was delighted to discover: qaymaq! Astute Go Stay Work Play Live Readers will immediately notice the linguistic similarity with Serbian kajmak, and it turns out both are pronounced the same way and are a dairy-based sort of spread. However, while I thought that Serbian kajmak was more towards the butter end of the spectrum, Azeri qaymaq is certainly more like cream. Thick, unsweetened and maybe just a touch sour. Azeri creme fraiche perhaps? Whatever the case, it was delicious on bread with a drizzle of honey. And I’ve now noticed it on the supermarket shelves as well, hiding in plain sight all this time! It’s on my list to try again, though I hesitate to make it a regular part of my diet if only because it is really just very very thick cream and I have a limited number of pairs of jeans and I am already finding one pair a tad on the uncomfortably snug side.

But back to the pomegranates. After we were fortified with bread and qaymaq, Sabina let us loose at the festival site and we agreed to meet up again four hours later. Even at the time I suspected that four hours was an ambitious amount of time to spend at a small local festival, but off I went. The site was the local outdoor stadium, and when we arrived at about noon the place was already bustling. Around the outside of the running track there were dozens of folding tables set up with people crowded around so I pushed in to see what the fuss was about.

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I’m not sure what I was expecting from the Pomegranate Festival, but it was not mosaic maps of Azerbaijan, rendered in different coloured shades of pomegranate seeds.

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Nor, indeed, three-dimensional pomegranate peacocks. Or dolls. Or, in fact, pomegranates, made from pomegranate seeds (or perhaps just really really carefully peeled?) Though I suppose this is not miles away from the carved vegetable competition at the good old Lambeth Country Fair, so who am I to judge?)

It was an odd yet heartwarming display. Table after table of local people who’d taken the bountiful pomegranate harvest and tarted it up in odd and unexpected ways. There were also lots of plain pomegranates on display, and dishes of Nar Sherab, a sort of savoury pomegranate sauce that’s served with fish or grilled meat. (“Nar” is the Azerbaijani word for pomegranate. Short and to the point, which, given the popularity and ubiquity of the fruit here, is handy).

It took about half an hour to make a circuit of the track, and that included stopping the buy a small keychain souvenir half way around. (A hand carved wooden Maiden Tower, 4 AZN.) I also stopped at a stall to pick up some shower gel and hand soap made by a company that does really nice pomegranate bath products and was having a big big sale. Still, even after lingering at the pomegranate wine stall (No samples! Damn!) and doubling back to pick up Sabina and ask her a bunch of questions, there was still a LOT of time to kill, leaving me plenty of time to wander through another area full of food stalls, and, of course, people selling pomegranates.

But here’s the thing that really struck me about the pomegranate festival. It was very… homogenous. In a place with such a remarkable bounty/glut of pomegranates, I’d expected to see people doing all kinds of wonderful and interesting things with them. Pomegranate cakes and cookies. Pomegranate molasses and jam. Pomegranate t-shirts. Pomegranate hats. Pomegranate lip gloss. All the kinds of things you’d expect from a 21st century harvest festival in the western world. Instead, it felt like everyone was doing the same thing. You could buy pomegranates in many different varieties, or pomegranate juice, or nar sherab. With very few exceptions, that was it. The same was true with the food stalls. I'm used to seeing everything from cupcakes to jerk chicken at a festival site. Here, you could get kebabs. Or kebabs. Or, for a change, you could have a kebab. True, they were doing both the minced meat lule kebab and the chunks-of-meat on a skewer kind as well. And there were a couple of different meats available. Also, very popular among the kids was an offering of a large plain bun split open and filled with a cold wiener sliced long ways into quarters, with some kind of red sauce added (I’m guessing nar sherab, perhaps?). It reminded me of that popular kid’s treat - cold uncooked wiener. And there were sweets, all pre-packaged. And tea. Very little diversity of any kind.

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Then again, that’s kind of emblematic of Azerbaijan in a way. It’s a very homogenous society. Have a look at this picture.  See anyone tall and blonde? Probably not. Or if you do, I guarantee you it’s a foreigner.

Our time at the pomegranate festival eventually ran out, about 3 hours after one might have wished, but not before I bought a few pomegranates. These included some less common pale yellow varieties, including one very large one that I paid an extortionate 4 manat for. A lot of money in that neck of the woods, but I did not begrudge it. And finally we gathered again for a quick, late lunch and found our way back to the bus for the trip home. Which was an interminable, dark and dull drive and that’s as much as I’ll say about it.

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The haul of pomegranates

What I will do, though, is pass on my now-standard method of tackling the somewhat tricky pomegranate in the kitchen. Real pomegranate neophytes may not know that it’s only the seeds inside the fruit that are edible - the outside peel and the inside membrane are bitter and unpleasant. The seeds - called arils - consist of a seed kernel nestled inside a tart and juicy outer layer where all the flavour is. Sadly, pomegranates are a bit like beets in that tackling them unwarily can stain your fingers, hands, clothing, kitchen, wallpaper, and anyone passing nearby, including housemates, children, pets. Worse still, pomegranates seeds that get ruptured have a habit of spraying their juice in a way that reminds one uncomfortably of a scene from “Dexter”.

Here’s the trick:

1. Place a large mixing bowl in the sink and fill with water.
2. Using the tip of a sharp paring knife, score through the outside skin of the pomegranate along its “ribs”. These can be a bit tricky to identity, but usually you can see from the top that the fruit is not actually spherical but very slightly faceted. Score on the edges of the facets.

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It’s not absolutely critical to get these cuts perfectly placed, but it does help keep things tidy. It also helps to cut the crown out of the top of the fruit.

3. Hold the pomegranate under the water in the bowl and use your thumbs to open it up into chunks, a bit like separating a peeled orange. You should end up with 5-6 sections with most of the seeds exposed. The water will stop any spray, thus protecting your wallpaper.
4.  Keeping each sections under water, work the seeds loose from the pith and let them sink to the bottom of the bowl.

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In process

5. Discard the big sections of peel and let the small bits float to the top. Skim them off and discard them.
6. Once you’ve got all the seeds out, there will still be some seeds with bits of pith on them. I find if you rub the collection of seeds between your hands most of that comes loose and floats to the top.
7. Drain the water off, along with all the floating bits of pith, leaving a bowl full of tidy seeds, ready to eat. I store them in a tupperware container in the fridge and they stay fine for days.
8. Send a donation to Go Stay Work Play Live for making your life better. (This step is optional but encouraged for maximum karmic benefit.)

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And here’s a look at the difference between the seeds from regular red poms and the less common yellow ones. And yes, they do taste different. The pale ones are much sweeter and lack the puckering acidity of normal red seeds. (Side note - it’s totally fine to eat the hard kernel inside too - that’s where most of the fibre is. And indeed it is mostly impossible to each the outside juicy bit and discard the kernel.)

These days I mostly just sprinkle the seeds in my morning bowl of fruit and oats, but they’re also really nice in salads. And they’re often added to pumpkin flavoured qutab too, which is lovely. Or you can sprinkle them over cooked meats. And supermarkets often have fresh juice stands sitting right in the produce section where a young guy will chop open a pomegranate and stick in a squisher device that looks a bit like a medieval torture instrument and extract you a plastic cup of fresh juice.

And that is truly as much as I can say about pomegranates.

A Day Out: Castle on a cloud

Sunday, November 13, 2016

I’m lucky to have the Baku Hash House Harriers to hang out with while I’m here. As an ex-pat working in the same office and living in the same hotel as a bunch of other ex-pats, there’s a real danger of ending up spending all your time working and socialising with the same people. (Or of not socialising at all.) Given the pressure-cooker that ceremonies work can become, I try to make sure I get to the weekly hash runs on Sundays and to the casual Thursday night runs as well. Having hashers to hang out with means that sometimes activities come up that don’t involve running too, which can often be a Good Thing.

One of the local Baku hashers I met last time is the lovely Raul, a UK-based professional living in Baku and working on something to do with the government. Or possibly agriculture or er, economics. Or maybe all three. As you can tell, I’m totally plugged in to the details of Raul’s professional life. Whatever his job is, Raul is a bright and unflinchingly cheery soul and is utterly intrepid about getting to know the city and the country as a whole. He’s been here for a couple years now, and seems to have filled every spare moment with trips and tours and solo adventures on local buses to distant landmarks. As such, he frequently suggests activities to shake out the cobwebs and escape Baku, including this week’s topic, a day trip to the beginning of the Caucasus Mountains near the tiny village of Galaati. This one was organised by an outfit currently called Bag Baku.

I never managed to see much outside Baku on my first stint and Raul promised that the weather forecast was good, so despite the fact that I didn’t bring the right footwear or jacket for autumn trekking, I fetched up at the meeting point on Saturday morning with a positive attitude, a packed lunch, and a pair of dry socks (just in case). After a surprisingly short wait, we set off in a minivan full of other expats only a few minutes past 8:00am, which is frankly astonishing for Azerbaijan. Raul is fond of reminding me that in his experience, the Azeri language does not have a way of expressing the concept of something starting exactly at a specific time. “FROM, not AT” is his frequent refrain, meaning that when you say “Be at work AT 9:00am”, in Azeri that translates to “Be at work starting from 9:00am” which I’m sure you can see is a very different concept. I’m skeptical about whether this is strictly accurate, linguistically speaking, but if it is it would explain a lot.

Our goal for the day was to visit a ruined castle on top of a mountain. Normally at this point I’d link you to a Wikipedia page, but the entry for this particular site is so ridiculously short I’m just going to pop it in here, in its entirety:
"Chirag Gala (which means Lamp (or Light) Castle in Azerbaijani) is a ruined ancient fortress overlooking the Caspian coastal plains north of Baku in Azerbaijan. It is located on the top of a mountain, in the Guba Forest. It was constructed by the Sassanid Persians in the 5th century and was used as a defense for the khanate of Quba in the 18th century. Today the Chirag Gala is a historic site and is frequently visited by tourists. Because of the large rocks and rough road the Chirag Gala is almost impossible to reach with any vehicle. Most tourists and people travel by foot to the top of the mountain."
It seemed like a good goal, though the closer we got the the village that would be our starting point, the worse the weather got. When we left Baku it had merely been overcast, but by the time we reached Galaati there was a light misty rain, so we donned rain gear and I resigned myself to the idea that my feet were going to be wet for most of the day and that my running shoes - the closest thing I have to appropriate footwear - would probably never be the same.

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Here are Sabina from Bag Baku and Raul at the start of the trek, as we’re passing through the village. This was one of the better roads.

Sabina was our guide for the day, though “guide” turned out to be a strong word. Having been on many guided tours on several continents, I was expecting the usual running commentary as we ascended - historical context, local flavour - that kind of thing. Instead, it was mostly a companionably quiet trek in the rain. If asked, Sabina would venture an opinion but she was not a tour guide as we know it. This, coupled with the increasingly wet and muddy state of my feet, left me wondering if I’d made the right choice about how to spend my Saturday.

I trudged along with Raul and Sabina and the rest of the group strung out a long way behind us. They were made up mostly of two different categories of people - Turkish Language Students, and Locals With Even More Inappropriate Footwear Than Me. The Turkish language gang are around because their program had been diverted to Azerbaijan after the coup in Turkey. (The Azeri language is very similar to Turkish, and Baku was deemed a much safer location.) And the locals… who knows? I only know that one of them made it half way up the mountain in high wedge-heeled shoes before digging a pair of runners out of her bag (thus ensuring she ruined both pairs). And another woman made it all the way to the top and back carrying a large black leather purse and a separate tote bag. I think it’s safe to say we were a mixed bunch.

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The road continued to get steeper and muddier, and the higher we got the more mist closed in. Often it was better to walk along the grassy verge.

It was a winding four kilometre walk from the village to the start of the Chirag Gala Path - the point where the vehicle road ends and it’s only accessible on foot. Though I would not want to drive a vehicle on much of that vehicle road. Raul, in his capacity as Guy Who Knows Way More About Azerbaijan Than Me reports that the government allocates just 3 manat (about £1.50) per person per month for services in the regions of the country outside the main cities. That’s for all government services - education, health care, postal services, water supply, infrastructure, dog-catching, patriotic red, blue and green bunting… the lot. So I guess it’s no surprise that the roads around Galaati are not exactly Autobahn quality. In any case, we eventually made it to the top of the road and paused there before heading on the final leg of the upward climb. We paused because there was a small tea house that would later be serving us hot tea, and it had a bathroom. It also had two lovely friendly dogs, a flock of geese and two turkeys. Naturally.

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Teahouse in the mist.

The last bit of the path was certainly the most challenging, not least because the weather continued to worsen the higher we got. Or perhaps it was simply that we were climbing higher into the clouds. Either way, the path was narrow and wet and slippery and the going was slow, though the two dogs seemed to have no trouble at all and accompanied us all the way up. Finally, the castle emerged from the mist.

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This is as much as it emerged. Truly, I am not kidding when I say it was misty.

I’m also not kidding when I say it’s a ruin. There’s not much left of the castle, and it’s hard to get a sense of the shape it once might have taken. Still, it did feel like an achievement to get there and despite the fact that it was cold and wet, the mood of the group lifted as we clambered around on the slippery rocks exploring. It was the kind of thing that would give a UK-based Health and Safety Consultant apoplexy. Steep climbs, wet surfaces, and not a guard rail in sight. It might be a good thing that the mist was so dense, so we couldn’t see how high up we were.

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The view from the top. As you can see, I was not exaggerating about the low visibility.

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The main tower. Another scrap of info I found online claims that the tower "was built over a seam of oil and gas which allowed for lighting up signal fires visible to the distance of several dozens of kilometers”.

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Me at the base of the castle

Eventually we all got tired of standing in the mist with wet feet. (Or maybe that was just me.) In any case, we picked our way back down the mountain, with appropriately comedic moments of slipping and falling in the mud, which happened at regular intervals to about half of us. When we finally made it back to the tea house we were directed out behind the main house to a sort of rustic outbuilding that did not look quite as cozy as one might like after hiking up and down a mountain in the rain. Luckily, it turned out the place had a nice little wood stove that warmed it up very well, and the table was set for tea in the traditional Azrbaijani style.

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Tea in the outbuilding. It is not exactly Fortnum and Mason, but it could not have been more welcome. (Note: I got this photo is from the Bag Baku Facebook page. Because it was more interesting than my photo of the empty room.)

As we warmed up and draped wet clothing near the fire, one of our hosts brought out the samovar, which was set on the stove. The samovar holds water heated in the outside jacket by a tiny fire in the inside chamber, while the tea pot holds very strong black tea and sits on top of the samovar. When all was ready he filled each glass halfway up with strong tea and then topped up with hot water.

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Often it’s traditional to serve this sort of tea with jam. Not with jam in the tea, though. The jam is simply eaten with a spoon. A bit tooth-achingly sweet, but this is a truly sugar-loving nation. The candy section in my local grocery store is larger than the produce section. And Gerald reported seeing an Azeri coworker put eleven cubes of sugar in his coffee last week.

We sat around thawing and drying and chatting and eating our packed lunches. And I took advantage of having a few Russian-speaking locals around to brush up my language skills a bit, settling one and for all the distinction between ходить and приходить (Not). Once we’d thawed out and eaten and drunk our fill of tiny glasses of tea, we slowly moved out for the long walk back to the van. Happily, as is usually the case, the way back seemed shorter than the way out, and the weather improved as we went. And just as we reached the outskirts of the village, the clouds parted and we saw patches of green countryside and blue sky. And, of course, we saw our castle.

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How lovely would it have been to have been at the top when the mist cleared? Not so lovely to want to climb back up. At least not that day.

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Rounding the final corner with beautiful countryside spread out in the distance.

I got to put on my dry socks, but kicked myself for not packing dry shoes as well. Rookie mistake. And the trip back to Baku was surprisingly quick and quiet, with quite a lot of napping by quite a few people. Despite the fact that I was a muddy mess, I stopped in at a smart new qutab shop near the hotel where I warmed up and dried out a bit more. This shop is a definite keeper. They had three Azeri women making the qutab on the spot - rolling out the stretchy dough with skinny taped rolling pins, filling them to order, and then slapping them on the traditional convex shaped gas fired grill, which looks a bit like an upside-down wok. The qutab shop staff seemed to find me fascinating, asking about why I was so muddy, and bringing me a damp cloth to wipe the dirty spots off my day pack. I managed to sort of explain what I’d been up to with broken Russian and photos and hand gestures, and ended up having a perfectly lovely time waiting for my takeaway order.  And when I finally got home and put my feet up with my fresh qutab and a glass of wine I was suffused with the satisfaction that comes from sitting comfortably after a day of chilly physical effort and minor discomfort.

And of course the next day was the most perfect, bright, warm, sunny fall day you could imagine. Then again, my running shoes dried out fine so, you know, it's all swings and roundabouts.

Tourist Stuff: The Carpet Museum

Sunday, October 30, 2016

In Azerbaijan, carpets are what is technically known as "A Big Deal". Classed by UNESCO as "Intangible Cultural Heritage" carpets have been woven here for centuries. Therefore it's no surprise that there's a dedicated carpet museum in a prominent spot on Baku's Caspian seaside walkway. I didn't make it to the carpet museum during my first tenure in Baku, so lacking any more compelling blog topic to beguile you with I took some time on a quiet Sunday to visit the museum and report back.

The Azerbaijan Carpet Museum started life in 1967 and was first housed in a former mosque in the Old City. It then moved to a downtown building in 1992 after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Interestingly, that building was originally the site of the Lenin Museum, which makes me kind of proud of the Azeris for booting him out and re-asserting their own cultural heritage. Now, though, the museum is finally in a purpose-designed building that is particularly fun because it looks like a carpet!

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This is a very new building - opened in 2014, and designed by Austrian Architect Franz Janz.

It's a thoroughly modern museum, complete with 10 AZN admission price, though that included the audio guide. Sadly, the translation and narration of the guide was decidedly mediocre. For the most part it was so garbled and heavily accented that the effort of interpreting the audioguide was far greater than the resulting payback in interesting bloggable facts, so I mostly abandoned it and simply read the posted information accompanying the exhibits, which is all presented in both Azeri and English.

However, one quote from the audioguide had a certain poetry to it, and sums up the importance of carpets to Azeri culture and life:
"Where is my carpet, there is my home."
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Predicatbly, there are a lot of carpets in the carpet museum. They're mostly displayed on the inside of the curved walls that make up the building's skin.

It was interesting to read the small displays about the process of weaving the carpets, though since weaving is a kind of universal human skill, it was all pretty familiar. Sheep are sheared. The resulting wool is carded and then spun into yarn. The yarn is dyed. And then it's all strung up on a loom. It seems to be mostly the same everywhere, though I did like the story about how, before shearing the sheep, they'd drive the flock back and forth across a river to clean them. Sheep Laundromat!

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There are still carpet weaving workshops in Baku that spin and dye wool, seen here drying in the sun in the back streets of Baku's fast-disappearing Sovietsky district.

(It was actually a sheep-ish kind of weekend overall. Back in September during Eid al-Adha I was given a gift of some sacrifical meat. Of course. I mean, who among us hasn't been given two kilos of random cuts of ritually slaughtered sheep by a work colleague? If I had a nickel for every time... Not being overly well-equipped with mutton recipes, I stuffed it in the freezer until the weather turned cool. On the Saturday of Sheep Week I finally thawed it out and spent a lot of time trimming the two kilos into 750 grams of meat and 1250 grams of bones and stuff. The meat turned into a very tasty stew and the trimmings made a small amount of surprisingly rich stock. Check me out - making stock from scratch!

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The stew on the back burner and the stock on the front. That stock ended up as about half a cup once it was strained and reduced. But what a half-cup it is! It's now in the freezer awaiting a suitable moment to shine.

But back to the Carpet Museum. Naturally, there are about eleven zillion carpets displayed, along with other woven household items like bags and curtains and horse blankets and such. It all had a tendency to be a bit same-y, especially the second floor, which was devoted to the imperceptible regional variations in design and production in the different carpet producing areas of Azerbaijan. I say "imperceptible" but of course they were only imperceptible to the untrained eye. I'm sure the preponderance of the buta figure in one areas vs. the use of rhombuses is another is blindingly obvious to some. I am not among them.

Much more compelling was the fact that dotted around the three floors of the museum were five or six working looms with women sitting at each, weaving carpets on the spot. This was absolutely excellent.

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This woman was working at a hugely impressive pace.

Unlike the carpets I saw woven in India where each thread is simply looped through the warp yarns and could actually be pulled out even after the carpet was finished, in Azerbaijan the threads are actually knotted in place. (Which really makes much more sense.) They use a tool that looks like a combination between a crochet hook and a straight razor. A long piece of the right colour of yarn is knotted around the warp thread in the right place with the hooked end of the tool and then trimmed with the razor bit. This all happens at an astonishing pace. Then, every few rows, the woman would stop and trim the knotted yarns so the finished carpet emerged. Again, this is different than in India, where the carpets are trimmed all at once after they're woven by people with very long scissors.

Also along the way, the weavers in the museum used a sort of toothed basher tool to push the knotted threads down into the already woven bits to keep the pile of the carpet dense and even. This quick thump-thump-thump noise of them whacking at the knotted yarn echoed around the otherwise funereally quiet museum in a very pleasing way that brought a bit of life to the place. And while the women that weekend were all making pile carpets on their looms, there were a lot of flat-woven kilim style carpets on display as well. (And in what felt like an oddly coincidental twist, there was a display of kilim from Serbia being shown in a ground floor exhibition space. Sadly, they did not also have an accompanying buffet table groaning with meat and kajmak, which was disorienting and made me wonder if those carpet were REALLY from Serbia at all.)

The top floor of the museum ends with the story of modern carpet making in Azerbaijan. In the 20th century there was a movement to codify a lot of the traditional designs by transferring them to graph paper so they could be recreated accurately in large modern workshops. My notes from the museum say they also established a school of excellence but extensive googling has not revealed any further details. In any case, the upper floor did devote a lot of space to the most famous carpet weaver and designer of that period Letif Karimov, after whom the museum is named.

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I liked a lot of the more modern designs, including this one by a guy whose name I did not record. Sorry, modern carpet guy.

Notably and disappointingly absent from the museum is any mention of Faig Ahmed, who must surely be the most exciting and modern carpet designer working in Azerbaijan today. It’s tragic and inexplicable that his work is not displayed at the museum because it is totally, mind-bendingly awesome. Here are a few pictures to illustrate, and bear in mind these are NOT photoshopped images. These are photos of actual, physical woven carpets.

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So, so, so cool.

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Are you kidding me?

Like I said - awesome. Check out the whole catalogue on his website. And then write a letter to the Azerbaijan Carpet Museum and tell them to smarten up and buy a few original Faig Ahmeds because it's just criminal that he's not represented.

Of course there's a small gift shop in the museum, but I didn't pay much attention there because I've already got a couple very tiny carpets from my last trip. Plus it turns out that boat life and handmade carpets don't really go together so well because those little carpets turned a sad shade of grey dishearteningly quickly when subjected to the normal wear and tear of foot traffic on the boat. Too bad there was no display in the museum on how to clean towpath mud out of your carpet.

And finally, I was pleased to see that the gift shop was also celebrating Sheep Week with a little display that showed that even though they're not hip enough to have any melting Faig Ahmed carpets, they do still have a bit of a sense of humour.

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GRUB!: Serbian Style (Subtitle: Death by Food)

Sunday, October 16, 2016

As I mentioned last time, I recently took a few days off for a quick trip to Belgrade (in Serbia, of course). It’s perhaps not the first place you’d think to go from Baku, not least because it’s more than 3,000km away. The flight was about 10 hours long and involved an annoying amount to travel in the wrong direction - to Qatar - before I changed planes and made it to Nikola Tesla Airport. On the plus side Qatar Air gets two thumbs up for serving me a hot breakfast on two consecutive flights and having a lot of cheesey superhero movies on tap. Belgrade, though, was merely the setting, not the purpose of this trip. The real reason for the trip was to meet up with some old friends who were in the middle of a longer trip that involved a four day stop in Belgrade.

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Here’s a look at part of Belgrade's Kalemegdan Fortress, which is set in a large, green park in the centre of town at the confluence of the Slava and Danube rivers.

Rob and Wes have been vacationing together for years, so I was honoured to be asked to join them. Though in a way this was simply the extension of the Dinnerus Maximus tradition that started in London in 2011 and was always intended to involve the possibility of more exotic locations. Certainly the agenda for Belgrade was highly food-centric, since Wes had already researched and booked a private food tour that promised to be six hours long. As it turns out, any previous dinners together could be viewed merely as training for the non-stop food fest that was to be Belgrade.

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Wes and Rob, at the start of the food tour, still blissfully hungry and unaware of the scale of the event to come

First, though, a bit about Belgrade itself. I wasn’t sure what to expect, but was pleasantly surprised on all fronts. I arrived a few hours before the guys, so I wandered a bit in the central part of town which is pleasingly pedestrian friendly, and got a local SIM card for my phone, and had a really lovely lunch at a Lonely Planet recommended restaurant, and marvelled at the favourable exchange rate with the Serbian Dinar, and sat on a series of benches in the park surrounding Belgrade Fortress, all while trying to stay awake after my overnight flight. And I geeked out a bit about the Serbian language, which means you have to sit through that before I tell you about the food.

Serbian is a distinct language in itself, but part of the Slavic family (Russian, Polish, Ukrainian, etc.) and uses it’s own version of Cyrillic which has a few different characters than Russian Cyrillic. I found it very familiar and was only slightly less comfy with it than with Russian, which is to say in Serbian I’m an utter moron whereas in Russian I’m merely an idiot. The really fun thing about Serbian, though, is that is it basically the only European language that displays synchronic digraphia! (Stay with me here because this is actually cool. No really.) Digraphia means that two different alphabets are used by the language. Most often this means that one alphabet was used historically, then replaced with another ("sequential digraphia"). In Serbia though, they use two different alphabets at the same time! There’s the Cyrillic one I mentioned, and a modified Roman one too. You see signs in one, or the other, or both, and the population read and write both interchangeably. Synchronic digraphia! The Go Stay Work Play Live Phrase of the Month.

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I was so taken with this concept, which I discovered while noodling around at lunch on that first afternoon, that I bought this little fridge magnet.

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And here’s a street sign showing both scripts

But back to the food, er, I mean the city. Wes’s food tour was brought to us by Taste Serbia, who you should all book with right now because they were GREAT. It’s a small operation, but their website is really nice, because the two guys who run it - Djordje (pronounced “George") and Goran - are IT professionals by day (Djordje for a local ice cream company, which will become important later). In their off-hours though, both are dedicated foodies. Djordje and his wife Maia were our guides for the day. They picked us up at our apartment at 1pm and the three of us squeezed into the back seat of Maia’s car for our first stop, a tiny neighbourhood pastry shop selling traditional rolled burek pastries in a variety of flavours. Burek are a favourite breakfast food and especially popular after a night out. The place we went to is open 24 hours a day, and is apparently busiest in the hours after the bars close. Djordje ordered a small mountain of them for each of us, which was our first clue that Djordje’s notion of portion control was going to be a major challenge as the day wore on. The burek were served with mugs thick plain yogurt to drink, which is the usual accompaniment.

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Filled with cheese or meat or mushrooms or greens or onion & garlic 
or cabbage or sour cherry or...

Djordje gently suggested that we not eat all of what was presented, and arranged to get the leftovers packed up for us to take away before we hit the next stop on the tour, a traditional kafana. Kafanas exist in most former Yugoslav states, though they take different forms in each. In some countries they’re strictly for coffee and alcohol but in Serbia, happily, they are all about the food. A Serbian kafana is a sort of bistro / pub / family restaurant and usually includes live performances of traditional music along with the food. Sunday lunch at a kafana is a favourite Serbian family activity and the food at our kafana was not in short supply. Witness the buffet table. There's an equal number of dishes on the far end, masked by the enormous bowl of fruit.

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Here’s Djordje at the buffet, loading up a sample plate for me, and instructing Rob and Wes to copy his choices. We went at it slowly - visiting the buffet for about five different courses. Or was it seven? It was still early and yet it was already starting to become a calorie-soaked blur.

If I start getting into a blow-by-blow of all the different things we ate I’ll have to consider renaming the blog Go Eat Eat Eat Eat. Instead I'm going to concentrate on a few key Serbian treats that kept coming up again and again, the first of which is kajmak (pronounced KI-mak, to rhyme with highjack). Kajmak is a sort of butter/cream product that was described to us as “layered milk fat”. It’s used as a condiment or topping for breads but also on top of grilled meat, which Serbia has a lot of. It’s sometimes described as being similar to creme fraiche or clotted cream, but none of the kajmak I ate reminded me of that. I found it much more like a tangy whipped butter. At first I wasn’t sold, despite Djodje’s frequent imprecations of “More kajmak!”. However, by the next day’s lunch we were found ordering extra bread and kajmak so I can begin to understand the fervent Serbian devotion to it.

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Here’s our first plate of food at the kafana - mostly cured meats, including some very nice dry local salami and lovely sort of ham like proscuitto. That white ball on the right that looks like a tiny scoop of ice cream is kajmak. And the tobbacco-like stuff at about 7 o'clock was a sort of dry shredded pork fat kind of thing. Oddly tasty. We called it "pork floss". Surely there's a marketing idea in there...

The other ubiquitous Serbian delicacy we kept running into was ajvar (pronouced EYE-var. To rhyme with, er…orange.) Ajvar is savoury sort relish / spread made of roasted sweet red peppers. It’s even more more-ish than kajmak, and a staple on any Serbian table. Traditionally a winter food, homemade ajvar is prepared by families in large batches in the fall and preserved in jars. It’s very labour intensive, what with all that roasting and pepper-peeling, but it's also available commercially, even in Azerbaijan, where I can get it in sweet or hot varieties at my local grocery shop. I’ve been spreading it on all kinds of things, kind of like Serbian salsa. It’s got a distinctive bright orange colour and silky texture and is sometimes even referred to as vegetarian caviar. (Even though it is clearly nothing like caviar expect in that it is a spreadable foodstuff.)

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Wes and me at the “more kajmak” lunch. And almost-empty bowl of ajvar can be seen in the bottom right.

So the kafana was our introduction to a lot of traditional Serbian foods - the preserved meats, kajmak, ajvar, and a lot I didn’t mention specifically. We also had chicken soup, lamb soup, many different salads, goulash, potatoes, a few different ground grilled meats, and a nice smattering of desserts. Frankly, we were all well on our way to groaning insensibility by the time we left the kafana and headed to the next stop, where we concentrated on my favourite course: dessert!

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Ambar restaurant is on a newly redeveloped strip of former industrial land along the shore of the Slava river.

Ambar has an extensive menu, but we were there to try a medley of favourite Serbian desserts. These included a Serbian version of Floating Island - a cloud of meringue set in a dish of custard, which I’ve seen on Masterchef but never tried. (Verdict: Nice, but unlikely to win out over anything with pastry or chocolate or caramel in it). We also has a very nice sort of mille feuille of sliced peach and creme patissiere and a sour cherry pie, sour cherry being a popular flavour in Serbia.

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These were both very very good. Not pictured was a dish of Kokh (pronounced with that throat-clearing sound at the end). It was a piece of plain sponge cake soaked in cold milk and served sitting in a puddle of cold milk. It was not a hit. Because… ewww. Why? Why would you do that to cake? What did that cake ever do to you, Serbia??

By this point, since we were having dessert, I sensed that the end of the tour must be drawing to a close - a seriously rookie mistake. In my defense, my brain was probably not working properly due to extreme ajvar overload (Ajvarloading, perhaps? Ha!) (Ok, I'm sorry about that. Sometimes I can't help myself. It's genetic.) In any case, I was mildly alarmed when I found out we had TWO more stops to hit, including another kafana. Luckily, on the way to the next spot Djordje produced a jar of his grandfather’s homemade rakija, the traditional fruit brandy of Serbia usually made from plums, which loosened the mood somewhat.

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Here’s Rob and Wes in the back seat, Rob having just sampled the rakija

The specialty of our second kafana was Serbian sač, (pronounced “saatch”) which I though I’d know all about since saj is a big deal here in Azerbaijan (I have to blog about Azerbaijani saj some time…). Serbian sač is both the physical cooking vessel and the foodstuff it produces. The sač is a large round metal dish that gets stuffed with meat and potatoes and left to roast slowly over coals for a very long time. Serbians don’t use a lot of spices in their cooking (basically it’s salt, black pepper and red pepper). However, despite (or maybe because of) this minimalist approach, the meat that comes out of a sač is beyond succulent.

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This is the sač we were served - a large piece of pork that was simply sublime. It was almost sweet, and a bit sticky, having roasted for hours in it’s own piggy goodness. (You may have detected by now that Serbia is not a vegetarian wonderland.) Also, ironically, the kafana where we had this piggy goodness was housed in a former synagogue.

Luckily we were allowed to take a doggy bag of the leftover pork which was very nice for breakfast the next day. And miraculously we were still able to squeeze into the back seat of Maia’s car for the trip to our last stop - more dessert! On the way Djordje produced another round of homemade rakija, this time his uncle’s variety made from quince and after a few sips of that we found our way to a beautiful sort of taverna that jutted out into the Slava river, away from the centre of town. It was a lovely and quiet and Djordje managed to restrain himself and only ordered one type of dessert, a cooked apple served with lashings of whipped cream, along with a cup of very strong coffee served in the Greek / Turkish style with lots of gritty stuff at the bottom.

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Wes and Rob waiting for more dessert.

By the time we finished up we were almost in a paralytic food coma, and it was dark, and Djordje and Maia were not just guides but friends. We drove through the darkened city in Maia’s car, laughing and talking, and marvelling at the amount and quality of food we’d enjoyed and listening to Djordje and Maia tell us not just about food but about Belgrade and Serbia and their lives and whatever happened to come up. Then the car was pulled over at a corner shop and Djordje hopped out and returned to deliver the coup-de-grace - ice cream bars. They were the ones he made in his day job at the ice cream company, the Serbian analogue to a Magnum bar. And like the trained eating machines we had become, we ate.

The whole food tour was fantastic, and turned out to be just the beginning of three days of fun and food in Belgrade. The following night we returned to Ambar restaurant (home of the sour cherry pie and the weird milk cake) and had their unlimited Ambar Special - an unending succession of small plates that once again has us on our knees after fourteen individual courses. At one point the waiter came over and asked “Shall we continue?”. When we said yes and managed two or three more courses he eventually conceded, “You are Canadian, but you eat like Serbians!”. High praise indeed. Other things happened in Belgrade too. We walked around, and did a tour of the fortress and went to the Nikola Tesla Museum and the Automobile Museum and had some local craft beer and went into a nice Orthodox Church.

But mostly we ate and talked got caught up with each other, which was really the point all along.