Category Archives: Travel

In pursuit of the Northern Lights

We ventured to Iceland on a whim. All it took to convince us were a couple of ill-referenced blog posts illustrated with a collage of pretty pictures. It was only weeks later, when our Lonely Planet guide arrived, that the reality of what we were about to experience on the fringes of the Arctic, in December, started to seep in: four hours of daylight and a probability of driving through deadly snow blizzards. But at least we had greater chances of encountering the rare and unpredictable Northern Lights.

My travel buddy and I are the adventurous type who travel on a budget, with no more than 10kg strapped to our backs while sleeping in stuffy hostel dorms. The only thing we had booked prior to landing was a rental car, a place to sleep on our first night, and a return flight six days later – what happened in between was basically us winging it. So as you can imagine, our pursuit of the Northern Lights was as unpredictable as their actual sighting.

05-iceland-ring-road-map

We drove counter-clockwise across the empty and secluded Icelandic ring road in our modest VW Polo. Even though the ring road is considered as the main road round the entire island, where goods are transported from one remote town to another, what struck me most was how you could drive for hours, wherein the only signs of life were wild Icelandic horses and grazing sheep.

Bend after bend on Route 1, a procession of snow-capped mountains would morph into jagged black rocks covered in patches of green moss. It was so unreal that, at times, we were obliged to roll down the windows, let the Arctic air in and lean our head out to be part of the view rather than a mere spectator.

Processed with VSCO with f2 preset
Don’t call the Icelandic horses, ‘ponies’

Driving in Iceland made me think about how architecture shapes not only spaces, but also our minds. As humans we’ve evolved so much since our hunter-gatherer days in the savannah that looking into a screen feels more real to me than being out in the wild. It took a while to get used to the untouched landscape that panned out before us, and as clichéd as it may sound, the majestic views were often perceived like a movie-set or a painting.

It was the perfect mental detox, for I could be alone with my thoughts and, as we saw the authentic landscape unfold through our windscreen, I questioned what Malta would look like if it weren’t so heavily built up.

The route from Keflavík International Airport to Reykjavík transported me back to my childhood in Naxxar, treading through ix-xagħri in my denim dungarees and steering my bright pink bicycle across fields that are now mega-supermarkets and concrete blocks of houses.

Processed with VSCO with f2 preset
The Icelandic Ring-Road

In fact, it isn’t a country you’d visit for its bustling city life or architectural landmarks. As we hopped from one town to another, manoeuvring through potholed gravel roads and single-lane timber bridges, hoping to stumble upon ideal conditions for Aurora sightings, we would stop to stretch our legs and walk along the most surreal natural wonders.

Fortunately, we were in Iceland during a ‘heatwave’, when thermometers stood at an average of eight degrees Celsius, which wasn’t as cold as we had predicted. This meant there was barely any ice on the majority of the ring road, making it easier for us to explore independently.

Around the Golden Circle, a few kilometres outside Reykjavík, we witnessed a gushing geyser hurl boiling water up to 70 metres in the air, visited the roaring Gullfoss waterfalls and the bubbling geothermal pools nearby. My favourite part of the journey was when we meditated in front of the famous Jökulsárlón, the glacial lake in the southeast.

Days are short and nights are long there in winter. The sun hovers on the horizon, making the panoramic views a photographer’s paradise. We arrived at the edge of Vatnajökull National Park late in the afternoon, and clouds hung low. Most of the Asian tourists were making their way to the parking area, where engines of big white coaches were humming, ready to whisk them away, giving us the privilege of exploring the lake in solitude.

Processed with VSCO with f2 preset
Jökulsárlón is the deepest lake in Iceland and one of the country’s prominent natural wonders.

Everything was at a metaphorical glacial pace, almost at a standstill, distinct echoes of the ice breaking off at a distance. The light catching the ice that crashed off the glacier during its final journey into the Atlantic reflected a luminous blue on to the still water, like a mirror.

In fact, I found the lagoon to be more magical than the overrated Northern Lights. We had been tailing after them for almost five nights, constantly monitoring the Aurora forecast and, on a clear Friday night in the remoteness beyond Borgarnes town, our chances looked promising.

The sky was clear, moon shining brightly. Everything seemed perfect, except that we were both freezing. I, in particular, was getting impatient. Teeth-chattering and arms crossed, we stood there in complete darkness, waiting for the Aurora to emerge. I remember that by midnight, all the thermal and fleecy underlayers weren’t enough to keep us warm.

We had read how the lights were formed when the Earth’s magnetic field drew the sun’s flares towards the North Pole. Albeit special, it was an underwhelming experience, possibly because the photos I had seen online had raised my expectations. The Aurora visible to the naked eye was a thread of faint emerald green specs, shimmering across the sky. But on camera, the very same vision appeared to be much brighter and definitely more spectacular. Perhaps the ones we saw weren’t strong enough, we remarked the next day.

Actually, the photo published has a story behind it. We were convinced we were alone on top of the little hill at the Fossatún camping grounds. But just a couple of minutes after witnessing the lights, a faint flashlight approached us.

It was an Asian man with half his face concealed in a black bala­c­lava, carrying a DLSR on a tripod. He showed us a remarkable image of the same Northern Lights we had just witnessed –  which on the screen of his camera seemed much more luminous – and, in the bottom left corner, a silhouette of two people: “Iz you!” he said enthusiastically.

screen-shot-2017-02-17-at-9-33-41-pm

And that experience brought our road trip to full circle, flying back home with our backpacks laden with more memories than dirty laundry. Indeed, travelling to the fringes of the Arctic in December was a bold idea, but it was what made it special. Challenged by treacherous mountain roads, lack of daylight and unpredictable weather, our quest to drive around Europe’s most sparsely populated country was an eye-opening experience, realising there’s so much more to Iceland than the Northern Lights.

Originally published on The Sunday Times of Malta. 

The story of the Maltese balcony

I usually get to know a city intimately by doing two things: walking and looking up. By walking, I’m more likely to discover places which haven’t yet been rated on Trip Advisor and by looking up, I can appreciate the architectural features a city offers.

I have a thing for balconies. When travelling in Paris last June, I embraced the art of flânerie to savour the beauty of the wrought iron balconets. Later in Berlin, I witnessed residents’ attempts to recreate a picnic area in their own balconies, complete with plants, colourful striped parasols and a satellite dish to ensure no game of Bundesliga is missed. Meanwhile up north, Stockholmers seem to rarely use curtains in an attempt to invite every photon of light indoors.

Although every manner of balcony adds to the unique personality of a city, no balcony in Europe tells a more fascinating story than that of the Maltese balcony.

Photo 2 (1).jpg

Clipped to Valletta’s golden walls, the traditional gallarija immediately strikes visitors as distinctive and extremely versatile. Its aesthetic, proportion and colour enrich the visual aspects of our streets through bright paint, wood and simplicity.

But where do these balconies come from?

It all started in the late 17th century, when Valletta acquired the first timber enclosed balcony on the island. It is widely held that this was the pine green one in the Grand Master’s Palace, stretching from Old Theatre Street up to St George’s Square. However, we have no record as to whether this was locally designed or imported.

The Maltese balcony is probably a derivative of the Spanish style balcony, which in turn is strongly influenced by the Arabic mashrabiya. However, the ethos of the Maltese balcony is different.

“In Arabic culture, the mashrabiya, literally a ‘peep-hole’, is a lattice screen enclosure generally built as a wooden window frame, which screened the window space completely,” architectural historian Conrad Thake says. “This style of balcony presented the Muslim female with her only direct contact with the outside world.”

Meanwhile, the function of the Maltese balcony is more of a theatre box and serves as an unobtrusive platform whereby one can witness the unfolding events on the streets below, designed to be seen, as well as to look out from.

“Put simply, the mashrabiya was a means of hiding away from life outside, whereas the Maltese balcony provides a platform through which you can participate in the life outside,” Thake says.

Winston Churchill said that the buildings we shape end up shaping us. The spaces we live in and the way we interact with them have had a significant impact on our culture. And the balcony is not only climatically and architecturally an important feature, but also a sociological one too.

Photo 3 (1).jpg

On a practical level, the balcony is used to provide light and to control the climate. It’s also common to see the day’s washing hanging out to dry on balconies.

In the early 1990s, anthropologist Sibyl O’Reilly Mizzi observed this indigenous cultural phenomenon and wrote how:

“Many houses have a closed balcony, an ideal observation post for the street below and the activities of passers-by, without one’s self being observed. Towns and villages [in Malta] are densely populated, so there is almost always someone passing, some activity to interest a watcher. It is a perfect arrangement for neighbours to watch each other surreptitiously. It enables them to become familiar with the daily routine of everyone in the neighbourhood. Any deviation from routine, even a minor one, is immediately noticed.”

Two decades later, the balcony’s function on a practical level still exists, but what about its sociological use? Do people still spend their afternoons sitting in their balconies as they once used to?

While many in Valletta still adorn their balconies with a collection of plants, drapes, lights and effigies of saints during religious feasts, or use it for storing things, very few are those who casually while away their time interacting with life outside.

Wandering through the streets of Valletta on your average Sunday afternoon, most balconies are open to let in the crisp sea breeze, clothes hang outside to dry, while music can be heard having a duet with the pigeons’ clapping wings. But otherwise, I could only see two women peering out of their balcony at the world below.

The balcony is moving on to a new chapter in its history.

Its function of knowing from the inside what is going on outside seems to be declining. But is this a threat to the traditional Maltese balcony?

Not necessarily. Paraphrasing Churchill’s quote, it seems like it’s no longer the architecture that is shaping us, but the opposite.

10 mouth-watering dishes from Malta

Malta’s cuisine relies heavily on locally available produce such as tomatoes, honey, olives and other vegetables, which thrive in the warm but harsh climate. Recipes have been derived from other Mediterranean kitchens, the Sicilian, French and North African all seemed to have left their mark, although there are also traces of British occupation – oddly enough, the Maltese still enjoy their tea served with a splash of milk!

Here are ten Maltese dishes that have come to represent the island and its rich cultural heritage.

●●

The Savoury

1) Soppa tal-Armla (literally: Widow’s Soup)

It is hard not to notice the irresistible smell of authentic home cooking when walking through the narrow streets of a typical Maltese village before midday. Up until half a century ago, Maltese women would leave their broths to cook slowly on their small paraffin stoves from early or mid-morning.

widow soup recipe

Is-soppa tal-armla is considered to be the most traditional Maltese soup recipe, borrowed from a past where the poorest widows boiled the cheapest greens as a warm and healthy alternative to rich protein meals. Its contents are typically green and white vegetables, potatoes, carrots, beans, peas, cauliflower and others, all mixed together with a tomato paste (locally: kunserva).

In Malta, soups were not always meant to be a starter – very often, they were intended to form a nutritious meal by themselves, and frequently, any leftover soup would be eaten again for supper with a poached egg, or served with a ġbejna (a Maltese cheeselet made from goat’s milk), typically prepared by the widows themselves.

2) Torta tal-Lampuki

The lampuka (or the small dorado, dolphinfish or mahi-mahi) is a shimmering silver and golden fish that swims between Malta and the sister island of Gozo between the end of August until the beginning of November, before making its way towards the Atlantic.

The Maltese are very fond of their lampuki, and when in season, it is very likely that you’ll hear lampuki vendors roaming the streets with their small vans yelling: Lampuki ħajjin! (They’re alive!) to emphasise their freshness. Insider tip: fresh fish tend to have clear eyes and red gills.

This popular fish can be cooked in a variety of ways: either shallow-fried or oven baked. It is generally served with a rich tomato sauce mixed with capers, onions, olives and fresh herbs. However, a local’s favourite way to cook lampuki is in a pie, combined with spinach, olives and any other ingredient that would tickle the Maltese housewife’s imagination. Each family tends to have their own unique way of making lampuki pie, since recipes are usually handed down from mother to daughter.

If you’re visiting Malta in season, make sure you try Busy Bee‘s recipe. For the catch of the day, visit the Ix-Xlukkajr restaurant in the quaint fishermen’s village of Marsaxlokk.

3) Timpana

The timpana is definitely not a good choice for the weight-conscious. The recipe is thought to be adapted from Sicilian cuisine and is – more or less – macaroni enclosed in a pastry. Traditionally, the dish was prepared for a Sunday meal, but this was during a time when women were still taking their large trays of food to the communal ovens in the village bakeries.

The timpana is nowadays prepared as an entrée for Christmas lunch, followed by turkey. It is prepared with penne-shaped pasta, blended in a rich tomato and minced meat sauce and mixed with eggs and cheese. Finally, the whole mixture is wrapped in a short-crust pastry and topped off with a flaky puff-pastry to resemble a pie.

4) Pastizzi

Pastizzi are the most popular savoury snack on the islands. They must have already been much-loved in the days of the Holy Inquisition, since records archiving 18th century lifestyles in Malta highlight that the navy mention cheesecakes and pastries, possibly similar to modern-day pastizzi.

pastizzi u te fit tazza

Pastizzi look almost like croissants, but are rolled in a flaky pastry, stuffed with either salty ricotta or mushy peas. They’re typically bought from little tuckshops or pastizzerias, nestled in almost every corner of every village.

The most famous pastizzeria in Malta goes by the name of Crystal Palace (in Rabat, Malta) – known by the locals as ‘Tas-Serkin’, which is the owner’s nickname. The shop’s popularity isn’t due to the fact that they make the best pastizzi, but because the shop is always open. This is convenient for young clubbers who frequent nearby discos to pop by for a late-night (or early-morning) snack.

Make sure you enjoy your pastizzi with a classic cup of tea or a bottle of Kinnie (Malta’s very own tangy orange-flavoured soft drink).

5) Fenkata (Rabbit Stew)

Rabbit meat was relatively affordable during the Middle Ages and was considered the ‘beef of the lower classes’. In fact, both rabbits and hares were hunted in large quantities until prohibited by the Knights of St John, in order to safeguard the island’s meagre resources. The dish became popular after the lifting of the hunting ban in the late 18th century; today, it is one of those concoctions widely identified as the ‘national dish’.

A fenkata would typically consist of two courses – the first dish would be a huge bowl of spaghetti tossed in a rabbit ragu, wine and herbs; the second dish would be the actual rabbit meat cooked in a similar sauce, served with peas and fries. One of the most authentic places to try fenkata is at the United Bar in the rural village of Mġarr (Malta).

●●

The Sweet

The Maltese menu does not really contain a lot of sweet dishes and desserts, since main courses were usually followed by fresh fruit or local cheeses, such as ġbejniet. The desserts we now know tend to be borrowed, and the majority is similar to those served in Sicily.

6) Qagħaq tal-Għasel (Treacle or Honey Rings)

The honey ring dates back to the 15th century and is widely associated with Carnival and Christmas periods. It is a ring pastry filled with qastanija – a mixture of marmalade, sugar, lemon, oranges, mixed spices, cinnamon, vanilla and syrup.

Although not very difficult to make, the sweet rings do require time and patience to prepare. It is usually served with a round glass of wine of a warm cup of English tea.

Qagħaq tal-Għasel can be bought from any grocery shop or local confectionery, although Caffe Cordina‘s secret family recipe is acclaimed as the best sample of this gooey treat.

 7) Pudina tal-Ħobż (Bread Pudding)

The 18th century Maltese were very poor and bread was considered the most important food – in fact, some pensions were even paid in bread. Thus, in order to economise on food resources, they would leave their stale bread pieces to soak, and by adding some sultanas, candied peel and chocolate they would transform it into a sweet pudding. Unfortunately this delicacy is becoming far less popular among locals since it is considered time-consuming to make.

8) Christmas Log

In continental European countries, such as Germany, France and Belgium, the traditional Christmas log (or Buche de Nöel) is made out of an Italian sponge cake coated in chocolate. The Maltese version, however, consists of crushed biscuits, dried cherries, nuts and liqueur, mixed together in condensed milk, then rolled in the shape of a log and coated in melted chocolate. It is refrigerated overnight, and served in round slices at the end of Christmas lunch.

9) Kwareżimal

During the period before Easter, most Maltese used to fast by denying themselves meat on Wednesdays and Fridays. They also avoided sweets. The kwareżimal (derived from ‘quaresima’, the forty days of lent) was the only ‘sweet’ that was allowed during the Lenten season.

Although recipes tend to vary, it is traditionally prepared with almonds, honey and spices, containing neither fat nor eggs. As a biscuit, the kwareżimal is quite large, approximately 15cm by 5cm wide and 2cm thick, and has an oblong shape.

Even though Lenten rules are no longer insisted upon, the kwareżimal is still in demand, especially around Lent and Easter periods, as tradition dictates. These days, they are served while hot, and should be enjoyed with unsalted pistachio nuts or chopped roasted almonds on top, or a thread of local honey.

10) Kannoli (Ricotta-filled cornets)

The kannoli are deep-fried pastry tubes filled with sweetened ricotta, sometimes candied peel, and icing on top. They are generally served in the finest cafés on the island. You can enjoy an icing-covered kannol with a view at the Fontanella in Mdina, where they are served only on Sundays and Public Holidays.

Originally published on The Culture Trip.

Networked Intimacy

Whether it’s for work, study or leisure, it has become fairly common for twenty-somethings to pack their suitcases and jet off to travel the world. What could have once been a unique experience in terms of travelling alone and to experience one’s culture anew, has now become somewhat of a lived dichotomy between being home and away through the marked use of technology.

In the pre-networked days, to travel alone meant leaving your whole world behind you to teeter into unknown cultural terrains. The only news from home would be through snail mail or the monthly (expensive) phone call.

Nowadays, the Internet holds our world together in a network infrastructure, and wireless Internet devices, make our networks portable. What’s more is that online communication (such as e-mail or Skype) is free and instant, championing both constraints of these classic communication methods. Therefore, tethered, we carry a sense of ‘home’ with us, through our mobile Internet devices.

During my solo travels in Asia and continental Europe, the smartphone was my Swiss Army knife of sociality since it carried my physically scattered social networks intact. It offered an instant portal to people, news and memes that kept me up to date with the rhythm of life in Malta. As heavenly as it might read on paper, in practice, it proved to create somewhat of an inner-conflict.

In a sense, I was in-between worlds, because my best-friends weren’t necessarily in the city I was nor in Malta – but on the Internet.

For instance: while I rattled my bicycle to and from the library, in a quaint cobble-stoned city in the Netherlands, one of my best-friends attended pub-quizzes behind the York Minster after lectures, while another boiled haggis for occasional Sunday lunches in Glasgow. The three of us Maltese ventured alone, yet social networking apps such as Facebook messenger or WhatsApp allowed us to remain pretty much together.

Irrespective of where our loved ones are, the idea of here and there is somehow shattered through this newly acquired networked intimacy. The phone has facilitated communication with all our friends, irrespective of where they are, altering our perception of time and space; it has come to represent a ‘mobile home’.

My German friend Saba had once told me, “I moved from Germany four years ago, I went to Botswana, I went to Luxemburg, to France. I always took my friends with me, through my smartphone. That’s how I felt. Now I can talk to my friends instantly through my phone.”

Like Saba, my friends travelled with me from the Philippines, to Italy, to Belgium and to the Netherlands thanks to the Internet, and more intimately via Skype.

Video-conferencing (like Skype or FaceTime), is a fairly new and very common means of maintaining close contact with those that matter most. The quality of the call makes up for physical meetings, when these are not possible. While living in the Netherlands, my Polish housemate used to Skype with his mother in Warsaw almost every evening, “I feel that we are near each other during the conversation,” he used to tell me.

Our brains seem to record so-called ‘real’ and ‘virtual’ events so similarly that modern technologies conspire to blur these realms as well. As a matter of fact, we code face-to-face and online experiences similarly, often with equal realness. One may notice this in everyday language, when we speak of online encounters as if they were real: How is Sarah doing? Fine, I guess. I spoke to her on WhatsApp. Did you meet her new boyfriend? Yes, I saw them together on Facebook.

The sense of visual immediacy experienced via video-conferencing and modern social networking creates a simulation of presence and intimacy. Such that, even when people are physically distant, social networks could act as a connective tissue, coordinating and synchronising conversations with friends who are scattered across the world that would otherwise dissolve into silence.

Nonetheless, these mediated communication platforms do not merely substitute face-to-face interaction, but constitute a new kind of presence.

The Internet and smartphone could be used to either enhance a sense of belonging to the place where one is physically present, or it could alienate the individual from fully experiencing the actual place, culture and surroundings.

From my experience, technology compensates for rarity of physical encounters, but doesn’t replace them. Even though the Internet eliminates feelings of distance, the sense of presence and level of intimacy is only short-lived. At the end of the day, we all need to live certain aspects of our lives together with the people that we love most, and cannot be replaced through a screen.

Before the emergence of online social networking, communities were formed around a fixed geographical space and therefore led to a tangible concept of what it means to belong and feel at home within a given space.

Now the Internet beckons us to ‘come together’ across a medium, suggesting that we can feel and experience home, and belong somewhere that is not necessarily the same place we are physically bound to.

Living in a network society, it has become easier for me to define home in terms of people who are scattered, than a physical town or city. To the upcoming generation, our sense of belonging need not necessarily be tied down to residential geography but a new, emotional geography.

This article was originally published in the December 2013 issue of The Sunday Circle.

How I spent Queen’s Day in Amsterdam

Yes, I was in Amsterdam for Queen’s Day.

I was right at the heart of the thriving street party, and for the first couple of hours, feeling totally bummed, isolated and drowned in orange.

edit_DSCF8440

Having (unintentionally) left my phone charger in Brussels, I had no way of reaching my friends when my battery went flat. And after spending most of my morning walking to and from the train station hoping I’d be lucky enough to meet someone I knew, I finally decided to take the plunge, and sweep the streets alone.

edit_DSCF8446

Thankfully though, the sun gave us a peep show for the über-special occasion. Painted in a gorgeous celestial blue, the sky was spotless. And replenished with serotonin, I ventured through the bustling streets of Amsterdam until I had no energy left.

edit_DSCF8465

edit_DSCF8447

Being alone, I was obliged to throw myself in the crowd and be part of the passion between the community. The whole day brings with it an incredible sense of belonging.

Everyone is Dutch on Queen’s Day.

amsterdam queens day

Queen’s Day or Koninginnedag is basically the Dutch Queen’s birthday party. The current queen’s actual birthday falls on January, however she decided to keep celebrating it officially on her mother’s birthday in April, because it’s supposedly warmer.

edit_DSCF8350

Everyone from the young, the old, their pets and your average Spanish, Italian, Asian, was parading the streets, participating actively in parties, flea markets and live performances.

edit_DSCF8449

Despite being overcrowded, the atmosphere was very relaxed and joyful. With a sense of admiration, I observed old men wearing orange-afro-wigs, dancing salsa with their women (also clad in orange from head to toe).

amsterdam queen's day

I also witnessed a woman in a  wheelchair wearing an orange boa around her neck and an orange cowboy-hat, families pushing orange prams, boat parties in the canals with topless male DJs wearing orange angel wings providing the entertainment.

edit_DSCF8500

Everywhere in the city was orange: balloons, steamers, banners, foods and drinks. Wearing orange clothing and creative accessories (even a simple wrist watch or a shoelace) was indeed compulsory.

edit_DSCF8484

My map-less route led me into the Jordaan (Jewish quarter), where people sold their second hand items and others performed. There was a talented blind woman who played the flute, accompanied by a precious young girl on the violin. I walked past a band of brothers who sang Drops of Jupiter to the beat of a drum-set and an acoustic guitar outside their garage door, while their mother offered cups of tea and homemade cakes to those who stopped to listen.

edit_DSCF8455

I also stumbled upon a coffee shop by the canal in the corner of Noordermarkt, known for its famous apple pie. It was incredibly busy, but tasting the Mother of Dutch apple pies was definitely the culinary highlight of the trip.

edit_DSCF8508

The next morning, it was headlined that Queen’s Day attracted c. 700, 000 people to the city of Amsterdam alone.

edit_DSCF8499

Oh, and why all the Orange? Well, the colour refers to the name of the Royal Family: The House of Orange.