Books of the Month - March 2016

With a bit of delay caused by the beautiful spring weather and a wonderful trip to Vienna, here are my reads for the month of March. It's so hard to pick a favorite, so maybe you can help: have you read any of them? Which one you liked most? 

1. Elif Shafak - The Bastard of Istanbul. Falling into the category of ultimate wanderlust books - set on the shores of the Bosphorus Strait, oozing of local flavors, this story captivated me from the first chapter. Speaking of which, it is interesting how all the chapter titles are the ingredients of a traditional dessert, ashure. Throughout the book, each chapter is named after a food or drink, except for the last one, to emphasize and develop the motif of this dessert. 

The novel provides a glimpse into Turkey's violent past, transgressing the borders, all the way to the United States, where Mustafa Kazanci, the estranged son of a Turkish family lives with his wife, Rose, and his step-daughter, Armanoush, of Armenian origin. When Armanoush secretly flies to Istanbul to learn more about her origins, she is hosted by her step father's family, becoming close friends with Asya, the bastard of Istanbul, and is warmly welcomed by her extended family: rebellious aunt Zeliha, with her short skirts and nose ring, and Asya's mother; Banu, the clarvoyant, older aunt; Feride, the hypochondriac, borderline bipolar aunt; Cevrye, the widowed high school teacher; her grandmother and great-grandmother, who all live together in a huge house where the only male presence is the cat. 

Armanoush's arrival leads to the discovery of a great secret, that links her Armenian and her Turkish families, with deep roots in the 1915 Armenian deportations and massacres. The book proved to be very controversial, as Elif Shafak was put on trial for allegedly "insulting Turkishness", facing a charge of three years in prison. Fortunately, she was acquitted due to lack of legal grounds and insufficient evidence. 

The Verdict: I liked everything about this book: the strong, beautifully written characters, the intrigue, the mystery, the set and even the way it was chaptered. I almost felt hungry all the time and all I wished for was to have read it before my Istanbul trip in 2011. It's a must read if you are headed for this part of the world in the near future!    

2. Anthony Doerr - All The Light We Cannot See. This historical novel is set World War II, telling the story of Marie-Laure, a blind French girl and Werner, a German orphan, whose paths collide in the attempt to survive the destruction brought on by the war in occupied France.  

Marie-Laure lives in Paris, where her father works at the Museum of Natural History, as the master of locks. As she goes blind at the age of 6, her father tries to help her become more independent, by building her a model of their neighborhood, so she can memorize it with her fingers and navigate the real streets by foot and cane. Upon the German occupation of Paris, they flee to Saint-Malo, where Marie-Laure's great uncle takes them in. 

Meanwhile, in Germany, Werner, an orphan of the coal mines, lives in an orphanage together with his sister, Jutta. Werner is a talented self taught mechanic, who can fix everything and event build radios. His unusual talent gets him into an elite Nazi military academy, where, as a member of the Hitler Youth, he trains to be a highly specialized tracker of the Resistance. His skills take him from Germany, to the outskirts of Russia, Poland and finally into France, in Saint-Malo, where he encounters Marie-Laure.  

The Verdict: There is so much more to this story, but I cannot tell you even the half of it, because it would be a spoiler. I can tell you that it is a great read, at times a little slow as there are a lot of descriptions, but there is so much emotion and so much mystery, that it is hard not to like it. I would definitely recommend it to historical fiction lovers.

3. Khaled Hosseini - And The Mountains Echoed. Another story about family ramifications and the amazing places where life can take you. This is a novel about separated siblings, whose bond is so strong that it resonates through generations, revolving not only around parents and children, but also around brothers and sisters, cousins and caretakers, exploring the complexity of human nature, from honor to betrayal and sacrifice in the name of a better life. 

Pari and Abdul are Saboor's children, left orphans after their mother's early passing. Their stepmother, Parwana, is bearing her own share of sibling guilt, and her brother, Nabi, is the only one who got out of the village and works for a rich family in Kabul. When he proposes to take them to the city, the children are excited, but their father is pained.  

Kabul is the place where the children's paths diverge and the road to finding each other is long, revolving around the globe, from here to Paris, then all the way to San Francisco. By the time we get to the reunion, via a Greek aid official living in the house in Kabul where Pari was adopted, we witnessed a tangled web of life stories, unified by a single red thread: yearning. 

The Verdict: And the Mountains Echoed is the first of Hosseini's books I've read, so it definitely got me hooked for more. I liked it a lot, from the way he constructed his story, and from the pictures he painted of Afghanistan, both before and after the war - it makes you think twice about the lives of people who lived in complex and conflicted country.

2016 Reading Challenge

2016 Reading Challenge
Gabi Lazar has read 10 books toward a goal of 50 books.

Airbnb - My First Experience

Finding affordable accommodation is key when traveling on a budget. So far, I used to go straight to when planning a vacation, but on my recent Brussels trip, after weighing in the pros and cons, I chose to try Airbnb for the first time.
First of all: what exactly is Airbnb?
Airbnb is a website where people from all over the world rent their apartments / houses to travelers. It has over 1,500,000 listings in 34,000 cities and 190 countries and it provides vacation rentals ranging from quirky tree houses to full fledged castles.

I was iffy about Airbnb when I first found out about it, having legit questions like: Is it safe? How will I make sure I don't end up in the house of an axe murderer? I pay upfront, so what if the apartment is nothing like the pictures?

After reading a lot about it and talking with friends who went through this before, I decided to put all my fears aside and take the plunge, so here I am to tell the story of my first stay with Airbnb.
The Airbnb booking process
I created an account on Airbnb, typed in my destination, check-in and check-out dates and set my preferences. To be able to rent a place, you have to provide quite a lot of identification tokens, starting with a fully completed profile, a phone number, a copy of your ID and sign in with your Facebook account - these are extra layers on verification, so that they can comb through the scammers. For extra peace of mind, it's good to know that hosts have to follow a similar process.

You need to be aware that you can rent out an entire home / apartment, a private room or a shared room, so be careful what you opt for when seeking accommodation. Depending on your need for privacy, you can choose one of these options, set your price range and start browsing. After reading a little on the neighborhoods of Brussels and knowing that we want to be close to Midi train station and a metro stop, we opted for this one bedroom apartment, in Saint Gilles.

The booking process was short and sweet - we emailed the host, and he gave us a pre-approval (it's an extra safety feature, everyone wants to have a say on who they accept in their rental), then proceeded with completing the transaction. When we reserved the apartment, we paid 241 EUR for 4 nights / 3 persons, bringing the cost to 20.08 EUR per person, per night, which I'd say is a very good deal, cheaper than any hotel I could find! Be mindful though - some units have cleaning fees, that add up to the total balance!

Checking in with Airbnb
Three days before the trip, I emailed the host and he provided me with his telephone number. I told him about our schedule and once we got to the airport, I gave him a call to let him know we will be arriving in the next hour.

He waited for us at the apartment, gave us the tour, showed us where to drop off the keys at the end of our stay and off he went! It took less than 15 minutes!

The apartment was exactly as pictured on the website, everything was functional, we had extra blankets, a fully equipped kitchen, and even some cooking supplies, if we fancied staying in for dinner. The rental was greatly located within 2 minutes of a metro station and about a 20 minutes walk from Grand Place, in an area full of bars and restaurants, yet very quiet and clean.

Why choose Airbnb over a hotel?
It really depends on what you want - if you travel in a group, on a budget and don't fancy any hotel amenities, like free breakfast or a pool, Airbnb is definitely worth considering. Also, a great pro, is that you get to stay in a more residential area and live out like a local for a few days.

Personally, I would choose an Airbnb place if I was traveling in a group, not alone, or for a more extended period of time. For safety reasons, before booking with Airbnb, I would ensure I read ALL the reviews and I would provide the address and the details of the host to someone from home, just in case.

With all that being said, my first Airbnb stay was a great experience overall and I would repeat it all over again, especially in more expensive destinations.

*** If you haven't joined Airbnb yet, you should know that following a referral link, will give both you & the person who refers you 18 EUR travel credit for renting and 89 EUR for hosting. This is not a sponsored post, it was just my honest opinion on my first Airbnb stay. ***

Have you ever used Airbnb?

How was your experience?

Belgium - Food Diaries

From historical riches to architectural gems, Belgium has it all - but if you're not interested in any of them, the foods & drinks will make you change your mind about this destination. It is said that Belgian food is served in the quantity of German dishes (true), but with the quality of French cuisine (also true).

Be warned though, food in Belgium is the nemesis of all diets - think fries, fresh seafood, puffy waffles, velvety chocolate goodness and probably the best beer in the world. Typical Belgian dishes include lots of potatoes, leeks, shrimp, white asparagus, Belgian endives, in addition to international staples like meat, cheese and butter.

On my most recent trip to Brussels and Bruges I made it a point to sample everything Belgium is famous for. Luckily, it was winter, so I didn't feel too guilty about it, knowing I have until summer to sweat off all the beer and chocolate. Not kidding! 

What were my favorite bites of Belgian goodness?

1. Fries - they're called French Fries everywhere in the world, but Belgians insist they were the ones who invented them. There are historical sources claiming that residents of this part of the world fried their potatoes ever since the 1680s, but the misconception about their name stems from the fact that American World War I soldiers thought they were being served fried potato chips in France, and not in Belgium. Here, fries are all over town, sold at fast food stands or in special restaurants called "friteries". Traditionally, they are served in a cone shaped white piece of cardboard, then wrapped in a piece of paper with the sauce on the top. Favorite sauces: mayo, ketchup, bearnaise. What makes these fries so special? Probably the fact that they are cooked in animal fat, giving them a distinct flavor. We've enjoyed them almost with every meal and we could not get tired of them - totally unhealthy, but who cares when you're on vacation?

2. Moules Frites - also known as cooked mussels. If you've been following me for a while, you know I have a thing for seafood, so it's no surprise that this was one of my go to dishes in Belgium. The mussels are steamed or cooked with onions and celery and they are served with fries, of course. This is said to be the national food of Belgium, but it's also popular in the neighboring France, and everywhere in Northern Europe. The portions are huge - it took two persons to finish the feast below. There are different varieties all over Belgium, my personal favorites being moules mariniers, cooked with white wine, shallots, parsley and butter and moules a l'ail, cooked with sliced or minced garlic. My favorite restaurant serving this dish was Chez Leon, in Brussels, but you can definitely find them everywhere.

3. Carbonade Flamande - the Belgian version of Beef Bourguignon, a savory beef stew, with vegetables, cooked with beer, instead of wine and served with bread or fries and mustard. It goes down best accompanied by a dark beer, and it is considered one of their national dishes, along with the moules frites.

4. Chicons au gratin - was my favorite side dish, aside from the fries. This is made with Belgian endives, topped with a cheesy crust and smothered in bechamel sauce. Sometimes the endives are wrapped with ham, mine weren't but they tasted very good. Belgian endives have a slight bitterness to them, but combined with the cheese and sauce they were actually delicious!

5. Waffles - if you go to Belgium, you have to try their waffles. I like waffles in general, I used to buy them from the store, or have my mom make them for me when I was younger, but the ones I had in Belgium win by any comparison. They are so fluffy and airy, that it feels like you're eating a cloud. Waffles are available on every street corner and you can top them with chocolate, fresh fruit, chantilly (cream) or caramel sauce. The best known varieties are Brussels waffles (light, crisp and of rectangular form) and Liege waffles (richer, denser, sweeter and chewier). The best ones we had were at the Waffle Factory, but Brussels & Bruges were full of street vendors, so you will not find yourself on a shortage of snacks.

6. Chocolate - you cannot say you went to Belgium and did not engorge yourself with chocolate, that just can't be true. This country is famous for the high quality chocolate, with over 2000 manufacturers competing to make the best chocolate in the world. Belgium's love affair with chocolate goes back as far as 1635, when the country was under Spanish occupation. By the 1750s, chocolate became very popular in upper and middle class circles, where it was consumed in the form of hot chocolate. From the early 20th century, Belgium started to import large quantities of cocoa from Congo, it's African colony, which led to a booming industry, and the invention of the chocolate bar and the praline. Chocolate is now one of the country's most lucrative industries, with 175.000 tonnes produced yearly, most of which for export purposes. One of my favorite things in Belgium was window shopping for chocolate, but if you are looking for the best brands, go for Godiva or Leonidas.

7. Beer - together with fries, waffles and chocolate, beer is one of the things that literally puts Belgium on the map of food lovers. The Belgians are fond of their beers, producing many different styles and this is not a surprise since their brewing tradition goes way back, to the Middle Ages, when monasteries used to produce beer to fund their upkeep. Most beers are served in bottles, not cans, and almost every style of beer has its specific glass, meant to improve your drinking experience. Belgian beers are supposed to be associated with food, just like wine. For example, if you eat seafood or fish you should pair it with Wheat beer, Blonde or Tripel beers work best with eel, chicken or white meat, Dubbel and other dark beers go with beef and dark meets and Fruit Lambics are most suitable for desert. We did not care about these rules, and I can say my favorite beer was the Morte Subite, a fruity beer, made of raspberry, cherry or even peach. The masculine side of the trip enjoyed Zinnebir, a golden blonde, malty, with a fine bitterness and a long aftertaste.

Over to you! 

Have you ever been to Belgium? 

And if you did, what was your favorite food? 

Bruges - Venice of the North

Bruges is the quintessential Belgian experience and must not be missed if you ever find yourself in this corner of the world. A fairy tale town, lined with buildings that seem made out of gingerbread, richly adorned facades and glistening canals, it is a northern alternative to the overly saturated Venice.