Monday, December 9, 2013

Lost in Jerusalem

Many months ago I got it in my head that we should be part of an underground supper club.

Maybe I had eaten too much fried chicken, or simply gotten a foodie high from all the collaborative dinners with friends. Whatever the reason, when I found a little article about Once Upon A Table, I wanted in.

We missed the first event in Melbourne but signed up to hear about the second one. So when the call went out for a new venue, I messaged Adam from Japan and said "we have to do this!". I had no idea what I was getting us into. Always the best way to start an adventure!

Adam took the lead while I finished my APAC travels and much was done by the time I met all the girls. Led by Angie Ma and Vittoria Chiarilli, the team consisted of a lovely bunch of talented and energetic women: Bridget, Aurora and Sophie - along with their amazing families who pitched in along the way - especially Vitti's young daughters.

The planning and imagination involved was clearly more than I anticipated. Bridget and Aurora planned the scene, Angie and Vitti concocted the menu - all based on a middle eastern theme. The title was "Lost in Jerusalem". This resonated with Adam especially as his father was born there. 

Adam contributed three dishes: Shush Barack (lamb dumplings in yogurt sauce), Mjaddara (Rice and Lentils) and Hummos (which I made to his recipe). I helped prepare the Fattoush (lovely dressing of lemon juice, pomegranate, olive oil, sumac, salt) and the sweet potato latkes.

The menu was a smorgasbord, which is the whole point. Vitti and Angie and the team put their hearts and souls into everything. Labne from scratch, fresh flatbread with Za'tar, grilled eggplants, and the sardines were a surprise favorite of mine.

The meal was paired with wines kindly donated by the Tasting Table and each came with a story - half from Isreal/Lebanon, half from Australia. The Chateau Musar was truly unique! There were local beers thanks to Kwencher, which I didn't try. The produce was thanks to Pino's Fine Produce and was fresh and beautiful.

For me the biggest surprise was the effort put into the decorations. I had no idea that our home would be transformed into another world. You can see some of the professional shots on facebook.

Inside the fabric draped from the ceiling under the direction of Bridget; six months  pregnant and standing on the back of my couch to hang fishing wire, I was impressed. Rugs covered the floor and cousins and poofs created an exotic ambiance. Sophie made muddled vodka/cherry cocktails with sugar laced rims. I served smoked trout wrapped in cucumber as the guests entered.

Outside on the rooftop terrace we were given the most gorgeous Melbourne day - the kind of legend since they happen so rarely. Clear blue skies, no wind, and the warmth lasted even after the sun set. We had heaters on standby but never needed them. The guests arrived at 7 and sat down to eat around 8:30.

Aurora was the mastermind of the outdoor decorations, inspired by the souks (markets) with items hanging above the guests and lights and flowers brightening every spare space.

The plates were donated by Royal Haman - gorgeous tourquois with exotic patterns. Aurora's sister Sammie made the little placename pots with olive branches, rosemary and jasmine. The table sat 24, and I got to be one of the lucky guests.

Our day started at 9am when the tables and chairs were delivered. We worked all day and I got to sit around 9pm to join the guests, but the rest of the team worked the rest of the night. I felt a bit guilty, but enjoyed the company, ambiance, food and wine. Oh, and the weather, it was a magical night.

After all the wining and dining was complete the guests left happy with homemade baklava wrapped with a bow. And we got started with cleanup, at midnight. We had to crash a bit before 2am. 

Our flat looked like a tornado from Arabian Nights hit it. But on Sunday the cleaning fairies came (Angie, Sophie and Vitti) and day by day we are putting it back together.

I have to admit, I kind of wish we could have kept the fabric up a bit longer. In the end it was more work than I knew and so much more fun. I feel lucky to have met these amazing women and to have a partner who was willing to go on this adventure with me. Next time - he gets to be the guest.

Sunday, September 1, 2013

Weekend in Sydney

This past week I participated in our Australia launch events for our new Cross-channel marketing platform. Melbourne was first, obviously, and Sydney was second. Since the event was at the Taj Blue at Woolloomooloo, I decided to stay at the hotel. It turned out to be a good choice for an unusual trip to Sydney.

The weather had just turned from deep winter to early spring and we made the most of it. It was good to see old friends and make new ones. I finally feel like I'm figuring Sydney out a bit, not as much like a tourist these days, but still plenty to explore.

I took this weekend to enjoy my new toy (Lumix GF6) and discovered a fun setting that makes your scenes look like miniatures. So I enjoyed bringing the iconic harbour down to a different size.

Friday night we revisited our American diner favorite Jazz City Diner in Darlinghurst. Saturday we slept in, a delightful experience these days. JC had us over for dinner and showed us the view that must be seen on NYE to properly appreciate, but was still stunning. My new camera didn't let me down and took decent shots without a tripod.

Sunday was a leisurely day starting at the Fish Market - a bit of a let down if you've ever been to any other fish market but still it had good food and some unique seafood on display.

We wandered over to Darling Harbour and watched the families play in the fountains as the Father's Day fireworks were setup. We hid from the sun in the National Maritime Museum that had an exhibit of Ansel Adams and photos from the Elysium Antarctic expedition. Both were wonderful, but I felt the Ansel Adams photos were not well lit; too much glare. Still, there is nothing like seeing an original print from the master of the art. All black and white, all water themed. It made me nostalgic for Yosemite (and sad it is burning) and the California coast of my childhood. I was pleasantly surprised to get a blast from the past in a city so far away.

We took a water taxi back to the hotel and I still had enough daylight for an evening jog around the botanicals with a sunset view of the bridge and opera house. Dessert came from a shop boasting the best Gelato in Australia - and I cannot argue this point.

It was a very restful and beautiful visit. I'm glad I took the time to appreciate Sydney more, Melbourne still has my heart, but there is plenty to enjoy in this Northern metropolis.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Security Theater

I travel. A lot. I fly mostly international and I've gotten into a reasonable routine. I still remember the first times I flew as an adult, the feeling of being rushed and lost and crammed into a small space.

But now I am mostly zen about airports. They are what they are, massive, complex systems that churn through millions of people and are somehow some of the safest places in the modern world. You don't get to retain your privacy or personal space in this context and it is all better once you accept that.

But there is one thing I take a stand about: Body scanners in US airports. They represent to me all that has gone wrong post 9/11 with the over reach of a "security at all costs" mentality. They are not actually known to be make us more secure (, are very expensive and it is unclear what the additional radiation means for your health (

Note that staff are not required to go through, but are sent through the metal detector. If it does no harm, why make the exception?

I'm not usually one for theater, but in this case, since I have the right to opt out of the screening, I always do. My minor way of taking a stand. And since I am a seasoned traveller, I'm on time and not in a rush, so their pressure tactics don't work.

The first thing they do is give you a sour look. Then they make you stand somewhere away from your bags which have now gone through the x-ray machine and they call for a "female assist". This is when the shame and grope punishment goes into full swing.

The request for the assistance takes time, enough to consider, if I were a terrorist, what could I accomplish with my bags inside the "secure area" and me (unchecked) on the other. Not much I conclude. But then they open a gate, next to the old fashioned metal detector they send staff through and usher you into the secure area WITHOUT any check!

At this point I could have brought a gun through without detection. And because they treat you with disdain (this is a punishment for not following the rules, not actually enhanced security) and not mistrust, they do not keep an eye on you at all times. I'm guessing a criminal worth their salt could pass a weapon to a partner easily.

The female assist then asks me to point to my bags (without touching them). I have typically two carry-on bags, a laptop and removed shoes. That is 4 items to pick up. This is where my revenge kicks in. She has to pick up these bulky items and awkwardly carry then to a side table. Note that she is distracted and laden with my baggage at this stage, so my compliance is essential to this process. Another opportunity?

Safely at the side table she begins her speech. It is a dry tired thing describing in painful detail the embarrassing but "professional" pat down she is about to perform. Sometimes I smile through, sometimes I rush her on.

Her blue gloves are applied with firm pressure over every surface of my body. It is a slow pat down, and far more lingering than necessary unless you are looking for pre-cancerous lumps. And trust me, I have had pats downs in London, Germany, Dubai, Beijing, Singapore, etc. those are quick and to the point, "confirm you do not have a lumpy weapon like object on your body" is their objective. Not so in the US.

It is a show, to make me uncomfortable standing out, and uncomfortable from touching that is just on the edge of what they can call "professional". They even put their fingers in your waist band and run along, front and back.

Then they scan their gloves for residue and waive you on when the machine clears me. Like a lover who has suddenly lost interest.

It makes me sad that America suffered a massive terrorist attack on 9/11 that involved airplanes. But we cannot fix that moment in time. No other country in the world I have been to has found this necessary and many of them have been facing terrorist threats for far longer. I would feel better if studies showed cost effectiveness and safety. But the avoidance of accountability is clear enough to me.

I hope more people choose to take 10 minutes of their time and opt out. If not on principle than at least for your own health.

Today the TSA agent in Miami said "are you opting out because of radiation? Because we turned it down". That's comforting: before it was too high because no one bothered to check. Now it is lower, but still there are no independent tests showing lower is safe and all I have to go on is a security agents' assurance.

Thanks, but I'll take the light massage instead.

Thursday, March 28, 2013

The Great Ocean Road

It took me two years, but I finally made it to the destination usually at the top of the list for Melbourne tourists.

I didn't want to take a standard day trip coach bus tour, I wanted a bit more freedom and adventure. So Adam arranged the car and a place to sleep in Apollo Bay so we could take advantage of the lingering days of summer over two days. We started our day at Prahran Market for our favorite weekend treat: fresh grilled mushroom burgers (no meat) on sourdough rolls with onions, Parmesan, and chipotle mayo. They are served outside Market Lane coffee, where my current favorite is the Juan Ticona pour over served in beautiful blue hand made cups.

The morning was promising in Melbourne, but Victoria weather had other plans for us, so we prepared for a rainy, cool weekend along one of the most dangerous shipping lanes in the world: Bass Strait. We thought we were prepared, but on our first stop at Bells Beach, the ocean caught us off guard and we wandered with wet shoes and socks back to the car. The torrential rain started about 100 meters from the car and we just avoided being soaked through. Lesson learned: don't turn your back on the ocean and there is a reason Aussies always wear thongs (flip flops). Thankfully our socks dried quickly in the back window of the car.

Bell's Beach is a surfer's paradise (high surf) and it was busy with surfers and people prepping for an upcoming RipCurl Surf Competition. The sign warns of Strong Currents, High Surf, Submerged Objects (from wrecks), and Unstable Cliffs. We watched a few surfers catch waves in and made a temporary friend when a beagle decided to follow us. He was friendly until we played fetch and he got a bit territorial over his new found stick. We hope he found his master eventually.

We continued on our way, Adam driving so I could gaze out on the left at the coastal views. In the misty rain it reminded me of growing up on the North Pacific Coast in California, like driving on Route 1 near Ft Bragg. But the terrain was different in key ways. The rocks were new to me, the surf was rougher, the foliage was denser. We were lucky to spend some time on the Great Ocean Walk as well as in the car, and all the plants seemed strange and exotic.

We tried to catch the sunset, but we underestimated the time to get to a good lookout point. We were hoping to view it from the 12 Apostles, but we were literally laughed at by the woman at the Apollo Bay visitors center when we asked if we would make it. She directed us to the Cape Otway lightstation instead.

On the way to Cape Otway, we took a quick stop in the dense rainforest in the hills just above the cape. This is where the carnivorous black snail lives and the trees are lush and moss covered. It rained on us, as can be expected in the rain forest. So we ran from giant frond to giant frond seeking some cover, ultimately just getting a bit wet. The trail was well maintained and we managed not to slip and fall, even though Adam was wearing flip flops. There were no snail attacks, but we did find a dead one on the path, so clearly we were lucky.

Turns out, Cape Otway lightstation closes at 5 and we arrived at 6. But we figured we'd find a good view from the Great Ocean Walk leading off to the West.

Instead, we found ourselves in dense foliage with occasional rain showers and the feeling that just around each corner we'd see ocean and sky. We reached the Cape Otway cemetery and realized that if we hung around for sunset, we'd be wandering past the cemetery at night, and we'd been watching too many zombie shows to feel ok about that.

So, no sunset views, but we saw a field full of kangaroos and a mom and joey bounding across a field cleared for grazing cattle. At one stage we turned a bend in the road and saw 4 large cows calmly standing on the "shoulder". We were glad they hadn't decided to take a leisurely stroll across the road. The smell of Eucalypts in the rain was lovely. We got back on the road at dusk, the most dangerous time to drive in an area populated with wild kangaroos. On one stretch, we had a near miss as we cruised passed a full grown brown kangaroo calmly lingering in the other lane. We hoped he cleared out after us so no one hit him from the other direction. They can be especially dangerous because they jump up and go through the windshield. I slowed to about 40kph after that for a strained drive the rest of the way to Apollo Bay.

We stayed the night in Apollo Bay at the Sandpiper Motel. It was the perfect spot to rest our heads before a long drive the next day. We broke our fast at Nautigals Cafe, run by women and nautically themed, and set out for Wreck Beach, the 12 Apostles and Loch Ard.

Wreck Beach is a tricky place to get to, which is why it is the perfect stop for the adventurous. No coach tour busses or campers can make the journey. All the vehicles we met were 4WD, but we motored on in our little Hyundai. The road is not paved, and not really 2 lanes, a bit better than a logging road, but only because there are some houses on Moonlight Head Rd. At one point we had to stop as a Kangaroo came bounding straight at us, with a car behind it blocking its path. Just before colliding with us it veered right and into the brush. Quite nimble, those roos!

The guide book told us it was a 90 minute hike and strenuous, and that was spot on. We saw only two people and their dog as we wandered the beach and came across a few anchors left by big wrecks from an era long gone. The rock formations are alien and the tide threatens to eat the beach you are standing on. We were lucky the tide was out enough to see what we came for. GOW stands for Great Ocean Walk.

We took the advice from the guidebook and kept an eye on the ocean at all times. We got a bit wet, but kept a safe distance. After the trek up the hill we were ready to visit the renowned 12 Apostles. Unlike Wreck Beach, 12 Apostles is meant for mass tourism. Big parking lot and wide walkways, all flat and accessible. The wind whipped and the waves rolled in around large stone pillars standing against the ever pounding ocean. While impressive they had remained, it was clear they too would succumb and the land we stood on would also eventually crumble against the never relenting tide.

The photos don't do the waves justice. The water was the blue of arctic waters, colored by the sand it tore off the beach, white with the froth of the waves. I only counted 9 Apostles, but I guess that is why the helicopter tours are popular, probably get to see all of them from a bird's eye view.

We stopped at Loch Ard just down the road from the 12 Apostles and found the perfect enclosed beach where you can watch the waves from ground level pummeling the rocks and beach. 

Looking back at the cliffs showed the impact of the salt and the sea. I got one jump shot in before we got in the car for our journey home.

I finally ticked this one off my bucket list, in the style I wanted. I do hope to return for some more wild ocean time. Maybe next time we will drive all the way to Adelaide!