Hong Kong, A Food Mecca For Every Self-Respecting Foodie

Hong kong streets/Image: Hong Kong - November 2011© MojoBaron/Flickr

Hong Kong streets/Image: Hong Kong – November 2011© MojoBaron/Flickr

Other than being an exciting global city, Hong Kong is also a foodie’s paradise. It’s not just the number and quality of high end restaurants in almost every corner of the city, but also the dazzling selection of local and international flavours that satisfies even the most demanding taste buds. So whether you’re in the city for a short break or on a long culinary mission, you should definitely skip your hotel’s all-inclusive buffet meals, and instead explore the numerous gastronomic treats that Hong Kong has to offer.

Here’s a quick introduction to Hong Kong’s essential food map.

Fiery flavors. From trendy Korean eateries and super spicy Sichuan cuisine to  real mexican tacos  (to wash down with Cuban cocktails at Mamasita’s Cantina), Hong Kong has something spicy for those of us who like it hot.

Michelin stars everywhere . There are around 60 Michelin Star restaurants in the city for year 2017. Considering how small Hong Kong is, this clearly shows that food is a serious business in this city. And the best thing is the MS list doesn’t include only upscale restaurants, such as the exquisite Four Seasons Lung King Heen, Umberto Bombana’s vero Italiano Otto e Mezzo or Shikon’s  famous Sushi. The world’s first  Michelin Starred Street food Stall is the latest innovation in a city where street food is little short of sacred.

Street Food Hong Kong Style © David Guyler/Flickr

Street Food Hong Kong Style © David Guyler/Flickr

And speaking of the devil… Nothing beats a good food truck or a quaint food stall. I personally feel instantly happy when I see one, it just adds so much colour and life to a city. Street food, found in the local food stalls otherwise known as dai pai dong  is an important element of the Hong Kong spirit, and a must-try for every serious culinary tourist. Some of the delicious local treats include Hong Kong curry fish balls, egg waffles, egg tarts, and pork ramen. For more adventurous foodies, stinky tofu is another Hong Kong classic.

Traditional Chinese Dim Sum Tea Houses. Dim Sum, the local version of brunch-like tapas, is the heart of the Cantonese culinary culture. You can enjoy dim sum like the locals do, traditionally as a morning tea gathering, or during any time of the day you crave a fluffy white bun and a hot cup of tea. Dim sum signature dishes include steam pork buns, shrimp and pork dumplings, and delicious rice rolls filled with pork, beef and vegetables. Located right in the middle of the high end Central, Luk Yu Tea House has been a dim sum hotspot since colonial times, and has still preserved its colonial-style design and retro charm.

Image: Fresh BBQ pork noodles© Ernesto Andrade/Flickr

Image: Fresh BBQ pork noodles© Ernesto Andrade/Flickr

Hong Kong native Cha Chaan Teng. Since the 60s the Cha Chaan Tengs in Hong Kong have been serving the Chinese version of western food at reasonable prices. Nowadays, they are more a cult thing, but they are still extremely popular as an important part of the city’s identity and history. Famous Cha Chaan Teng such as the Australian Dairy Company, and Capital Cafe serve generous portions of comfort food like scrambled eggs with rich buttery thick toast and milk tea.  Don’t miss Honolulu Coffee Shop’s famous egg tarts, while retro Mido Cafe will take you for a trip down the memory lane to Hong Kong in the 60’s.

You can always rest your tired feet in the Bing Sutt Starbucks. The  traditional Bing Sutt restaurant has been something between the basic dai pai dong and the more upmarket Cha Chaan Teng. In the 50s a Bing Sutt was basically the standard Chinese diner serving Chinese Western food classics. A wave of nostalgia in Hong Kong has revived the interest for Bing Sutts, with Starbucks opening the world’s first Bing Sutt Starbucks in Duddell Street. If you’re in Central, you can have Starbucks coffee with a twist, in a 60s cult ambience of tile floors, green-metal-frame windows, old fans and vintage wall posters.

Image: Hong Kong Duddell Street Starbucks© tszchungwing/Flickr

Image: Hong Kong Duddell Street Starbucks© tszchungwing/Flickr

Hong Kong, Asia’s Perfect Example of Feng Shui

The Star Ferry has been one of Hong Kong's Feng Shui hotspots/ Image: Silver Star Hong Kong©Bernard Spragg. NZ/Flickr

The Star Ferry has been one of Hong Kong’s Feng Shui hotspots/ Image: Silver Star Hong Kong©Bernard Spragg. NZ/Flickr

With the Year of the Rooster already starting on a rough patch in the Western world, Chinese astrology and Feng Shui are always interesting to follow. As someone who has lived in the “West” most of her life, I was always intrigued by the idea that there’s another way to explain the world, other than our western dualism of good versus evil ,or Christianity’s belief in one higher force that in the end restores the moral order in our world. The Chinese school of thought focuses on a holistic understanding of one’s self and one’s surroundings, and the art Feng Shui and Chinese astrology have been important parts of this idea.

View of the Harbour from the Peak/ Image: The Peak©Eugene Lim/Flickr

View of the Harbour from the Peak/ Image: The Peak©Eugene Lim/Flickr

I first became aware of the importance of Feng Shui while I was travelling in Hong Kong, and I felt amazingly strong and euphoric walking down Victoria Harbour’s Tsim Sha Tsui promenade. I later discovered that this was not incidental: Hong Kong is amongst the most important Feng Shui cities in the world, as it has mountains behind and waters in front.

Here’s what you need to know about this ancient art that has blossomed in a futuristic city.

  • The Chinese Feng Shui (literally meaning Wind and Water) is based on the idea that the energy (chi) of our environment affects the energy of our lives and, subsequently, our health, success, and well-being. When the five natural elements (fire, air, water, wood, metal) around us are balanced, we too are balanced and feel harmonious and happy.

    Chinese Astrology Symbols © GanMed64/Flickr

    Chinese Astrology Symbols © GanMed64/Flickr

  •  Hong Kong’s notable Feng Shui buildings include the HSBC tower whose entrance is guarded by two bronze lion statues, as well as buildings with gaping voids in the middle, also known as dragon holes.
  • Hong Kong’s prosperity has been attributed to its good Feng Shui, but there are great examples of Feng Shui in the West. Think about the most prosperous and culturally rich and diverse cities that you know such as New York, London, Melbourne and Paris. They all have a strong element of water, sea or river, that has energised them and helped them flourish and become global cities.

    Rivers were sacred in ancient Athens/Image: Ancient Athens - Reconstruction 1©Patrick Gray/Flickr

    Rivers were sacred in ancient Athens/Image: Ancient Athens – Reconstruction 1©Patrick Gray/Flickr

  • From the druids to the ancient Greeks, the “West” was also familiar with the importance of the natural elements in life. But in our journey to modernity and to fully embracing logical thought, we lost the connection with this ancient knowledge. In my native Athens our government buried the city’s sacred rivers-which were worshipped as Gods by the ancients– in order to built highways. Athens never came anywhere close to becoming the great city it was known to be in antiquity and in the recent years it has been brought to its knees by poverty and austerity.
  • Being one of the most densely populated cities in the world is not an obstacle to Hong Kong’s good Feng Shui. Energy does not get stale here, but moves effectively and fast. The city’s highways are its “rivers” while its high-rises are the “mountains” that move the energy and bring luck and prosperity, according to the laws of ancient Chinese wisdom.

    Hong Kong's famous elevated walkways/Image: Street bridge walkway, HK © faungg's photos/Flickr

    Hong Kong’s famous elevated walkways/Image: Street bridge walkway, HK © faungg’s photos/Flickr

  • When it comes to big cities in many parts of the world we tend to see the things in a black-and-white scope. Most of us believe that megacities are crowded, polluted and bad for us. In this sense it might appear as a paradox that 70 percent of Hong Kong is countryside, country parks, and protected green areas. Nature feeds the megacity with plenty of Feng Shui  energy.
  • Hong Kong doesn’t only have Feng Shui skyscrapers but also has fantastic Feng Shui spots for nature lovers. Its world-famous Peak is a great spot to feel the city’s great energy, and enjoy breathtaking views of the iconic Victoria Harbour. There are several nature trails for hiking lovers nearby. Asia’s best urban hike, Dragon’s Back, is another idea for those looking for a more intense and memorable hike.

    Dragon's Back hike, Hong Kong © Rick McCharles/Flickr

    Dragon’s Back hike, Hong Kong © Rick McCharles/Flickr

  • The famous Victoria Harbour and the Star Ferry are what has been described as Hong Kong’s Feng Shui  centre of the city. An integral part of the city’s history and cultural heritage, the Star Ferry has never had any difficulty winning the hearts of the people, and it has been described the perfect combination of the five natural “chi” elements.

A newfound appreciation for Sex and the City 2

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When Sex and the City 2 was released a few years ago it was a huge letdown to the SATC fans around the world. Those who, like me, grew up watching the popular 90’s show had high expectations that the second movie (and the first one too as a matter of fact) would measure up to the original epic series with similar wit and spirit.

But the outcome was disappointing, to say the least. In the second movie the characters come across as extremely shallow and selfish, even though none of them any longer has to deal with the single New York gal drama. The scenario is lazy and does not do any favours to the weak storyline maimed by constant bitching and navel gazing. For all I know, It could have been an episode of “the Real Housewives of New York”. I remember watching the film in a London theater thinking it cannot get any worse than that.

I won’t get into more details about how bad an impression it made. I have read some pretty aggressive reviews, including some really angry bloggers taking it out on the web. SJP gets a lot of the slamming (as she did anyway during the series) and if you ask me she does not deserve it. If anything it is her solid acting that makes Carrie look exactly as she is supposed to: self centred, childish and selfish.

And then last night when I put my-tired- feet on the sofa and watched it for a second time it finally dawned on me. You see, the real SATC finished in Paris on that very well made last season finale. There is nothing else to say after that, because the whole point for the existence of the show was the single girls’ game and the (dis)enchantment. Once that problem is settled, you get Real Housewives. So what was the film about? The film (no doubt made for profit by the producers) was what we could call Carrie’s Dream: A dream or a fantasy single girl Carrie has one particularly hot Summer afternoon in her tiny New York apartment: a dream of lavish apartments , glamorous parties and designer clothes, as well as luxurious jets awaiting to fly her and her chums to exotic faraway places, and the only worry in sight the struggle to keep the sparkle alive between her and the man of her dreams. And mostly the very challenged idea throughout the original series that you can afford a collection of Manolos (among other designer names) on a columnist stipend.(A day’s work typically including lunch out with the girls, popping to Gucci to treat yourself with a pair of shoes or a bag, and lots of strolling around town with a cappuccino in hand). Those who have read the original book by Candace Bushnell may snort ironically right now. You see, there was little doubt how Carrie could afford her Manolos and it surely wasn’t because she was paid generously for her writing.

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So therefore Carrie’s dream starts way before the film Sex and the City 2 was made: Her life as a writer in NYC already belongs to an imaginary realm. Which makes SATC 2, as a romantic poet would say “A Dream within a Dream”.

The cues pointing to my dream theory are numerous. The most obvious of course the fact that the film does not take itself seriously. It does not even try to become more real or inclusive but proudly displays its over the top aesthetic. Garish gay wedding with bonus Lisa Minelli performance? Check. Handsome butlers in $22,000 a night suites? Check. Last minute Christian Dior shopping to ride a camel?Check. At the end of the day it becomes 146 minute trip to Wonderland where you are requested to leave your brain at the door (you won’t need it anyway) and indulge in this purely eye candy experience.

In the beginning of the film Big and Carrie snuggle up in the hotel bed and watch black and white movies on the tv. Here we are also reminded not to get too stressed or too eager to identify with either of them. (Not that it is possible for any human being to identify with Big, I mean the guy does not even have a name during the series). Carrie and Big are just another version of old movies’ characters: Cary Grant and the Hitchcock blonde. You are allowed to escape to that New York city with them, avoiding comparisons, expectations and disappointments. You are allowed to leave your lousy day at the door: that colleague that treated you badly,your money problems, your tired thoughts about life. You are allowed to indulge, two feet on the sofa and a glass of wine on the side. You are allowed to sneer and snort ironically and with delight. And go to bed at night to dream of faraway places too.

And that’s what happened to me after a physically and mentally strenuous day, I put my feet up and I let go. I ended up enjoying watching Sex and the City 2, and in my mind, I finally got it.

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Lost in Translation: are we meant to transcend language?

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What would humanity be if humans did not use language to communicate? What if we had a more advanced, telepathic way to send each other information via images?

The other day I was watching the film Lost in Translation. For those who have not seen the film it is unique photographic experience and one fascinating trip to the Japanese urban and traditional imagery. The powerful effect of photography supersedes the effect of language, in fact the whole movie shows how weak and ineffective language is compared to image. The complexities of the vernacular are demystified and reduced to mere incoherent utterances and comical mishaps . Throughout the film there is a communication fail and gradual deconstruction of the -usually revered- language.

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The image then replaces the word. Telepathy or if you like an undefined inner connection than enables instant knowledge takes place. The two protagonists do not communicate primarily through speech (which has the ability to bring details of their past and life details back home in the present) but via connecting to their surroundings and surrendering to the present. There is somehow the instant knowledge that their surroundings take form as the externalised inner world. They create their reality and the confusion and noise outside is a reflexion of the inner noise.

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Communicating with images would of course require a new perception of reality and a new purpose for communication. Immediate access to an image would mean immediate access to the purpose and the intention behind it. It would require honesty and truth, both of which language is a master at concealing and distorting. An image is clear. “One picture is worth a thousand words.”

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An image is non linear in the sense that it encompasses information to be absorbed in random order but also in different ways: you would not necessarily have to think and analyse the image and come up with a mental evaluation/response. Instead you would “feel” or even experience the message as a whole-a type of encoded hologram. (hologram: greek word holos (whole) and gramma (message).) One would have a psychological, mental or spiritual response to it. But to do that one would need to have developed those “receptors”. Eventually including telepathy of course.

Lost in Translation is a great example of communicating through images and accessing information through visual stimuli instead of a narrated story. The fascinating hyper-urbanised Japanese setting is a real inspiration to get a feel of what communication and the nature of a message would feel like, once humanity moves past the Age of Reason.

Thinking about relocating abroad as a “trailing spouse”? Some things you should know.

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I may use it in the title but I dislike the term “trailing spouse”. To me it describes someone who lets her or himself be carried abroad like a another piece of luggage and from there lives trapped in a semi-stigmatised existence, confined in the role of the housekeeper and the emotional supporter. It might be true that once (you know in the olden days) when couples relocated, the wife was not expected to do much other than support the husband’s career, volunteer in the local community with women in similar situation, and attend weekly get togethers with expat women so she can vent about her expat life.

Nowadays, however, with globalisation having transformed completely the international work dynamics, a spouse should be able to do better than that. First of all, finding work abroad is much easier and much more common. People can work remotely with a laptop and a good internet connection. There is much more mobility, diversity and flexibility. So theoretically the life of the “trailing spouse” has become much easier and uncomplicated.. Right?

In my experience I have met some pretty amazing people living abroad, trying to support their partner’s career while they work hard to find their own decent place in the new society. It usually takes a lot of courage, strength, and dedication to make things happens. Often it is a huge blow to the pride. But you have to work with your self and the personal issues that every one has and find your way.

I know because I am one. Having lived abroad several times for my own sake and ambitions this was the first time I let my partner’s career goals decide where I will be.

Here is the list of things that in my opinion you should consider before deciding to take the leap:

Your motto: good research.

The Country: The country where you relocate can make or break your success story. Being “abroad” in one part of the globe will not be the same as being “abroad” in another. In short, don’t just jump with excitement in the prospect before researching the place. If you move for example in Paris, France you will have a completely different life from if you move in Oslo, Norway. Which means that if Paris is what you have fantasies for and you move in Oslo to have a similar “european” experience you will be disappointed. (the opposite is true as well, desiring to live in the woods and find yourself in the middle of a big chaotic city). Of course in this example i use extremes, Parisean lifestyle is lightyears away from Scandinavian. I know that it does not depend on the “trailing spouse” where the relocation will be but I am only highlighting patterns you should avoid. At the end of the day the connection you personally have with the country and its people will determine your willingness to work hard to integrate.

The Country: Romantic Ideas vs Real facts. You may have already visited the place and find it charming, romanic, refreshing… Only because you have seen it as a tourist. You have done all the cool stuff and somehow that makes you feel that your life there will be like that, a constant amazement. Almost every place in the world can look charming when you are a tourist. But think that once you move there you might not live in the cool city centre because the rents will be just out of reach. You might find yourself in a suburb away from amenities and attractions. When the initial newcomer’s excitement fades, would you like to live in THAT place permanently? Will the transport be convenient to use on a daily basis? What do the people do for entertainment and does that match your expectations? Are you attracted to the culture, people and society?Remember you will be a newcomer there, you need all the conveniences you can get. Is this place what you think it is or a beautiful holiday memory?

The Language: This one is a HUGE HUGE factor. Do you speak the language of the country you are going? If not ,are you willing to learn it? I mean really learn it, beyond ordering “a big cappuccino please”. Your partner will probably be fine speaking in English at work but the same unfortunately will not be true for you. In certain parts of the world many people will look at you in shock,bewilderment and even contempt if you don’t address them in their language. Think that learning the language is not optional when you relocate and especially when you have not already secured a job.

The job: Getting a job in the new country might be easy or difficult. it depends on the place you are, the language, your own field and skills, and in many cases nationality, ethnicity, race etc. (Sad but true. ) If you plan to work asap try to find out what people in your shoes generally say about their experience. Don’t take things for granted. You might be hot stuff in one country and in another get constant rejections. Be prepared, disappointment might come. While volunteering at a swedish shelter I met a girl , a rather fierce go getter from Spain who had moved to Stockholm because of her Swedish boyfriend. She wanted to get a job the next day. You could see she was like a lion in a cage, she was not ready to take the blow to her pride and surrender to the new hard reality where her CV did not get her any interviews. Even the simple task of handing food to the homeless had become for her a competitive task where she had to prove herself. Only a few months later she moved to Germany to work in her field. Having said that there are many well educated professionals who endure much longer than that in order to be with their partners. The reason why I think this example is important is because many people today, especially if they have invested a lot in education and personal growth, lose their sense of identity and self worth once they are removed from their jobs and careers and thus feel lost and disorientated.

Money. This is something you will probably need to sort out with your partner. His or her salary might sound alluring in dollars or yuan but once you calculate your expenses according to the cost of life in the new place you realise that your lifestyle might actually worsen. Plus his salary, if you have no job will be used to support the whole family. Will you be happy to live in a smaller apartment, have no car and depend on your partner for pocket money?

I don’t mean to sound too discouraging. At the end of the day each of us is different and will take the decision considering what they have to give up and what is important to them on a personal level. But you have to be well informed-know what you are in for.

Living abroad can be a very rewarding and unique experience. Plan your “escape” wisely.

And if you try and fail don’t beat your self up. Always kudos to you for having tried.

Cultural Talk: There can only be one Hong Kong

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Lately I have been following closely the debate surrounding the Hong Kong Occupy Central movement. Labeled as a struggle against China’s anti-democratic administration by the western media it has gained popular support in the western world as a fight for freedom.

It drew the attention not only of the media but of the international watchdogs, who quickly seized the opportunity to lecture the Chinese about democracy and begin to suggest various democracy monitoring mechanisms. I am not going to quote all the reasons why democracy is one of the most abused words masking western political hypocrisy or why permitting third parties to interfere and stick the democracy-meter in your mouth is a bad, bad idea. As a Greek and national of a country that in the last years has been shaken with tear gassed demonstrations, illegal taxation and vast unpunished political corruption and still this country is democratic, I feel like today’s sense of democracy leaves a lot to be desired.

But in any case the young Hong Kongnese have their cause and what motivates them night after night to take the streets is basically the desire to be free to denounce the alignment with China’s administration and policies. In every relationship, after all, a person has the right to voice their desires and intention and act upon them.

What however remains a question is after a hypothetical “divorce”, what would the new alignment be, since the UK has long now resigned from its former active role . To fully answer this question one must examine the identity of the Hong Kongnese people, who they are and who they identify with most.

To me the Hong Kongnese identity can be compared to that of an adopted child that is taken from its biological mother at a very young age and raised by a another mother. The child’s uniqueness, charisma and beauty is a combination of its upbringing (thanks to the foreign mother) and its natural charisma (thanks to the biological mother.) You cannot isolate either side to describe her. A grown up now, she is trying to get used to her birth mother’s ways and realizes that their newly found co-existence is much harder than she had expected.

Behind Hong Kong’s uniqueness there are some interesting facts . Here are few that culturally underlie the debate about Hong Kong:

Hong Kong was Chinese territory taken by the British
. Described as scattered fishing villages before its occupation by the imperialists, it was Chinese soil built and developed by the British. As a British crown colony needless to say it also did not enjoy democracy at a time where colonialism was still in effect.

Hong Kong was a gateway and entrepot to China before its opening up by Deng Xiaoping in 1978. The special interest the West had in Hong Kong was closely linked to its proximity to China and the trade potential attached to it.

After China’s opening up Shanghai has been gradually replacing Hong Kong’s role as an international port. The dynamics between the relationship of the mainlanders and the Hong Kongnese have rapidly changed. Now it is the mainlanders that are financially ahead and are calling the shots. This has been a huge blow on native Hong Kongers sense of self and pride.

Desired by both “mothers” Hong kong has been also neglected by both. When leaving in 1997, The British failed to supply the Hong Kongnese with full British citizenship as perhaps they ought to have done to support their growing feelings of identity loss. At the same time the Chinese have been gradually trying to rapidly integrate Hong Kong to what it has been interpreted as erosion of identity.

Hong Kong is a small place and China does not pretend to care about Hong Kong’s identity. Neither China was ever obliged to be oversensitive about an ex British colony.

However it should.

Hong Kong is a unique place built from scratch as a hybrid identity city state. It has been the ground for bold urban architectural experimentation: highrises and skyscrapers built on the steep and hilly topography of Hong Kong island, elevated roadways and a record of escalators, as well as sights skillfully integrating nature and hyper urbanism. Hong Kong’s international airport is one of the busiest airports in Asia built on large artificial land that was created by leveling two islands.

Even though the population is in majority ethnic Chinese, it has been home to different nationalities that prospered in different trades. It prides itself on a variety of authentic international cuisine available and high standard English speaking touristic services. It is a truly global city and a jewel to be carefully preserved by the Chinese.

But mostly for all the above it is a true piece of history. It is a reference to the past and a leap to the future. And for the Chinese who have invested millions in creating replica European cities like Venice or Paris, Hong Kong is the real thing. In fact there cannot be a second Hong Kong. But what will keep the flame alive is proudly declaring a Hong Kong identity that deserves to be voiced and preserved.

Hong Kong’s value as a unique historic global city and cultural investment will only increase with time if China allows it. It is loved by millions around the world, Chinese or not. It is a symbol, and just like everything precious there is a duty attached to it to protect and preserve.

Confessions of a Facebookholic

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I vaguely remember these last few months before I opened a Facebook account. It was a particularly cold chinese Winter back in 2007 and I was a language student in Beijing. I did not have a soaring social life and I frequently spent the night in watching a movie or reading a book. These two activities were done always unobstructed, without me having to check on my laptop, a mobile device or an ipad to connect to others. Weirdly enough I never felt lonely too, despite spending most evenings alone in small 27th floor Beijing apartment. Every now and then there was always something to do with someone, who might not have been classified as a “Friend” but neither was there any pressure to become one. However nothing felt wrong.

There were of course established Facebookers around at the time. Usually they were younger girls around 18-20 years old that were too eager hang out with the “right” crowd (whatever that meant for them) and dismiss people who would not impress them in the first three minutes. I was watching them daily checking their Facebook accounts while browsing pictures of themselves posing and partying, and I thought what a waste of time narcissistic habit that was. (And imagine back then “selfies” were not even popular)

Six months later I got a Facebook account.

Seven years later and I feel I might be the last one of my generation that did not realize on time what an addiction Facebook is. Just like alcohol or smoking it depends how well you handle it. But it has not been inviting you to handle it well.

Facebook is a great marketing tool, especially if you are a creative artist, writer or self promoter and want to share work. It also artfully creates excuses through sharing to stay connected with people with whom you would otherwise might not stay in touch. Even if the latter might sound to some more like a curse than a blessing; we do live in times where self promoting and networking are essential for professional survival.

Recently I read this piece written by The New Yorker’s Joshua Rothman which I found to be spot on on my own experience. Rothman argues that Facebook and social media in general have become our Kafkaesque “altruistic punishment”: This is how we “punish” ourselves when we are being asked to contribute to the good of the community by posting our life success but we fail to do so. When this happens viewing the posts of others can only make us feel like we are being judged for failing to contribute with a similar if not greater success story: a photo attached to an update on a job promotion, an exciting job offer, an international lifestyle.

In that sense Facebook’s hyperconnectivity does not make us feel better about ourselves. Staying in on a Friday night, for example, can only get worse if you decide to check what your Facebook Friends are doing. They are either connected or not, but both cases are likely to make you feel worse about yourself.

But above all it is the false sense that the virtual space you enter is a real space where people enter to have a common social experience for a defined period of time , like they would do for example if they went together in a pub to get a pint. The only person you really confront when you seek sociability on the web is your own lonely and insecure self.

I am still on Facebook and I am not planning to quit. But I can only imagine how lonely my Beijing winter might have felt if I had spent it on the web, and I am thus grateful for the “naivety” of those older times.

A trip to Oslo and how Norway compares with Sweden

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Last weekend I made my virgin trip in the Norwegian capital Oslo. In my mind I expected to see a mini version of Stockholm: beautiful high arched older buildings in the heart of the city and in the outskirts gigantic highrises, mainly 70s housing projects of the Million House Programme.
Instead I encountered completely different scenery. My first impression was that nature and urban space seemed to co-exist in balance with each other. During our train journey from the airport to the city I could see small communities here and there existing in perfect harmony with the surrounding nature.
Exploring the city later, I realized that Oslo is filled with neo modern architecture which often uses elements of Feng Shui.
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Residential area art

Residential area art


The presence of water is meant to incorporate natural elements into this brand new community

The presence of water is meant to incorporate natural elements into this brand new community. In this pic Skywalker and little Alia strolling by the water


Feng Shui?

Feng Shui anyone?

So my impressions when comparing Oslo to Stockholm are:

As I just said the city is an oasis of architectural projects that you normally would not expect to see in a place that small (the population of Norway is half of Sweden). In this sense you get to see buildings that stand out, instead of buildings that(like in a place like conformity loving Sweden) all look the same. Generally there was the impression of a more European sense of individuality and uniqueness so unlike Sweden where you strongly feel you should either adopt the ways of the north or die.
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Oslo is more expensive that Stockholm ( at least 20%). Yes, I know we are talking about one of the richest countries in the world. I was amazed when on two occasions the waiter in the place we had dinner appeared to be expecting us to leave a tip. I am sure he earned a huge salary, was fully insured and received something like 2 months of paid holiday leave from his job. (ok I am exaggerating a bit but he surely must suspect that many of the tourists he serves food to are poorer than him. This weird thought struck me after waiting in the queue at a Trip Advisor endorsed restaurant and chatting with two American ladies behind me, who after learning that I am Greek they bluntly observed how expensive this restaurant must be for me. I was too polite to make the same observation about them. )

Norwegian people are friendly and smile to strangers. This is a first in Scandinavia. In Stockholm smiling or talking to strangers makes you a loony. (as it does back home but for slightly different reasons, you are supposed to assault them instead or at least give them angry looks). The people we met seemed so genuinely kind and helpful, even people who looked like they had immigrant backgrounds (and thus kinda expect them to look glum and reserved) seemed chatty and relaxed and spoke to us. (On one occasion in a Middle Eastern supermarket four different people came and spoke to or stroked our baby.) In general people looked happy, there I said it. Also Norwegians had something that I cannot explain well in words, a kind of positive vibe. (Except from that mean security woman at the airport on my way back who declared I was chosen for a random security check and gave me the most intrusive, hostile hands search, she even put her nasty hands in my jeans).

The food was more expensive but it was better. We tried everything, from the expensive to the middle eastern pizza. The bad was much better than the bad in Stockholm and the good was top marks. Whoever says that Norway has no variety of food in the supermarkets because it is not a member of the EU speaks nonsense. We went two times in two different markets and the variety of things like fruits and veg was the same as Sweden. (In the middle Eastern supermarket it was much better in fact.)
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Alcohol is not sold in the supermarkets. Exactly like Sweden’s Systembolaget, there was a special governmentally owned chain that sold anything over 4% of alcohol. Shame, it make you suspect that this sunny fun loving culture transforms into snow covered red eyed monsters in the Winter strolling through the streets in the darkness of the day in search for comfort booze.

We were blessed with excellent weather so maybe that was also a crucial factor shaping the positive experience.

The city center was filled with happy crowds and even a day after the bank holiday it still felt completely like a holiday. (No business looking people walking around and offices were empty, I am best guessing EVERYONE had informally taken the day off, ha!). The parks in the city center were filled with artists and several choirs who performed for people.

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An interesting fact about working in Norway that I found out recently: There is a compulsory unpaid 4 week summer shutdown in July as everyone is supposed to be away on holidays. The staff is however encouraged to save money by having a part of their salary withheld during the year especially to cater for this month.
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Which one prevails?Urban space or nature?

Which prevails more: Urban space or nature?

To be fair with Sweden there seems to be many lifestyle similarities between the two countries from the info I get from expat blogs about Norway. The majority of expats complain about the same things that almost all expat here complain about: They never make local friends as locals sticks to their high school friends, in the workplace people avoid confrontation and instead take problems directly to the boss, and generally people shun initiative and individuality.

So is it a favorite holiday destination? Definitely. I would visit Oslo again if I had the chance in the future and I would make sure to pick a warm month of the year so that I could enjoy this beautiful city one more time.
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London: Leicester Square Night Story

2007-Saturday night in Leicester Square tube station and I am standing in front of the escalators descending to the Northern Line and the last train to Morden. I have spent the evening having dinner in China Town around the corner. I remember wearing my relic Topshop jungle print dress and my black Ben Sherman coat. (they still made Women’s wear in 2007). Around me the Saturday night crowd darting about up and down, left and right, in a hurry to catch the last train. The lovely familiar Saturday night London chaos!

Nobody is paying attention to anybody and I am sure somewhere in the background there is live music playing A Stairway to Heaven or something of that sort. Standing in front of the escalator I am being verbally abused by my companion for the evening who has apparently gone on a rant about something that I no longer remember. I feel my expressionless face radiating boredom and indifference. Finally, as soon as he turns around and disappears, I take the escalator and head for the Northern Line.

As soon as I reach the busy platform I notice a man approaching me. He is short and skinny, pale and hairless and is holding what is looks like a leather briefcase. He reaches out and pulls my arm.
“Don’t be afraid” he says. “Don’t be afraid, I don’t want to harm you. I am completely gay” I stare at him blankly. He swiftly opens his briefcase and pulls out what looks like a king size photographer’s portofolio which he leafs through for me. Inside there are professional pictures of handsome male models, most of them semi nude. “You see?” he says reassuringly.

“I saw you standing up there and overheard that American Monster talking. I saw the expression on your face. Please stay away from that Monster that Beast, that horrible….”

The train arrives and we take it together. He takes the seat next to me. He tells me he is usually like that. Recently he was in Venice and he just entered a shop to tell a sales girl that she is beautiful. She was so pretty I had to tell her. But he is not into women sexually, he repeats.

I smile, I like him. We have a brief Leicester Square to Clapham South tube friendship that the other passengers can overhear but pretend not to pay attention to our shocking personal confessions.

“Do you know how old I am?” he asks me. I have no idea. He could be anything between 30 to perhaps… 40.
“I am 48 years old” he says “You want to know my secret? A capsule of fish oil every day for the last years.”

We reach my stop. A big crowd is getting off the train with me. Nice to meet you, I say.
I get off the train slowly. I let people pass by me and head really slow for the escalator. I am the last person on the platform to reach the escalator.

Suddenly I see his reflection through the corner mirror; he is standing behind the wall, lurking, his back glued on the wall, head turned to my direction, waiting for me to turn around the corner. As I turn I greet him again, feigning surprise.

“So you got off here” I say. We take the stairs to the tube exit together.

“I meant what I said. Stay away from the Beast”.

I promise

He says goodbye, storms out and disappears, being suddenly in a hurry and I too take the road home smiling to myself.

My First Day in Beijing-The Kindness of Strangers

I spent Winter 2007 in Beijing and that was my virgin journey to Asia too. One Sunday afternoon I boarded an Air China flight from London to Beijing, half drunk and not sure what I was doing. You see, I had this brilliant idea to buy the friend who drove me to the airport a couple of drinks to thank him for the ride. He was Russian; he could take a bit of drunk driving, but it turns out I couldn’t handle the intercontinental check in intoxicated. I was ordered by the airline to remove the extra luggage weight to avoid a hefty fee and in my blurry rush ( I was going to miss my flight apparently) I misplaced my ipod, books and all survival related gadgets, only to find myself half an hour later sitting lonely and confused in a ready to take off plane for the other side of the world. Still under the spell of white wine, I started crying.

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The purpose of my trip was to improve my Mandarin language skills by taking a 3 month 7 hours per day intensive language course. Having already completed a one year Mandarin language course in London, I thought the knowledge in my Mandarin textbooks would be good enough to give me a sense of familiarity, but when I landed in Beijing 10 hours later, all jet lagged and flustered I felt like I had landed on another planet. Nothing I saw or experienced felt familiar in any way. Until then China was for me images picked up from Bruce Lee’s action movies, a combination of stereotyped China Town aesthetics with the occasional traditional architectural elements of pagodas here and there. I expected to see compact and “Europeanized” Hong Kong (which at the time I had never visited). Instead I found myself in a vast, chaotic smoggy megacity that at the time resembled an endless construction site: Highway after highway that connected eerily identical gated communities of residential towers, sprawled in a bare treeless land and keeping a very unfriendly distance from each other. The background noise night and day (and I mean all night) was that of construction drilling and sawing as new towers and gated communities sprang up.

View from my apartment, 27th floor

View from my apartment, 27th floor

As I was dropped by my airport guide at a spacious studio apartment on the 27th floor of one of these towers, dizzy and dehydrated, I had the disconcerting feeling that I had just landed in hell. I had no idea where and how to initiate my Chinese living experience as literally everything felt completely alien. For a person like me who had spent all her life in compact European cities, this was like exploring a new planet.

I remember walking outside, walking past the military dressed guards and seeing a big loitering crowd standing at the edge of the highway, watching. A young man approached me and spoke to me in Mandarin. I realized that unlike a listening exercise at my language school, his accent was hard to grasp and I could not understand what he was saying. I told him I needed to find a bank and a supermarket. He said he could drive me to both. I was so exhausted, muddled and my mouth burning with dehydration (the apartment had no water) that I went with him in his car. The man did as he said, took me to a cash point and waited until I got money and then he drove me to what it looked like a shopping mall. “The supermarket is here” he said and dropped me there. In my confusion and unspeakable relief to see a Carrefour in front of me, I forgot to ask him if he was a taxi driver and if he wanted money. He did not ask for any money though and just drove away.

Already late and nothing looks familiar

Already late and nothing looks familiar

After doing some shopping, I realized I had absolutely no idea how to get back. I did not even remember what “home” looked like. All the highways looked the same and all the gated communities were completely identical. My airport guide had provided me with a hand drawn map of where I lived. When I asked her for the exact street address, she had replied the place had no official address, just a name. It was already dark outside and I had started feeling panicky when some elderly Chinese couple approached me, “Where are you going”? They asked. I showed them the hand drawn map and they both nodded in recognition. “You are going the wrong way” they said “Your house in the other direction on your right hand side”.
I followed their advice. From the corner of my eye throughout my return home, I could see them walking on the other side of the pavement and silently keeping pace with me, making sure I got home alright.

Inside my Beijing apartment

Inside my Beijing apartment

In the next 3 cold Winter months that followed I got familiar with all the highways, bridges and underpasses of my “neighborhood”. I met lots of Beijing-ners and always made small talk with the taxi driver that drove me home. The conversation always started like that “Ni shi Meiguo ren?” (Are you American?) “Bu shi, Wo shi Xila ren” (No I am Greek). Xila ren! They replied always in astonishment. In the city of 20 million Chinese I was a rare species.

For me Beijing remained overwhelming, stripped of tradition when it came to aesthetics and architecture, but at the same time one of the most original places to experience China. I never really warmed up to its vastness, its impersonal highways and suffused with luxury, sanitized shopping malls, (Golden pillars hosting a paradise of Italian fashion, often accompanied with shocking sanitation facilities) which always contrasted with the loitering crowds and heavy smog outside. Its luxuries served however as a pleasant getaway from its harsh realities.

Tibetan restaurant Beijing

Tibetan restaurant Beijing

There was a lot to be explored, experienced and learnt. Looking back I would not change Beijing for anything. If you could scratch underneath its hard surface there was an incredible energy emanating from that megacity that was transforming, so quickly and miraculously, that its eagerness to move into the Future nurtured my mind and soul. It was inspiring. It was happening and it attracted young people from all over the world thirsty for its energy and vibe, proud to become witnesses to its transformation.