Monday, September 24, 2012

Welcome Back to Dhaka!

After bidding adieu to the boys, I went to Bulgaria to see my family and friends. I will tell you now one thing about me – I am mad about reunions of any kind. I am fiercely sentimental and just love reviving the past one way or the other. So, on this trip, I managed to reunite with two of my best girlfriends, my family and my middle school class!!! Typically, every time I go back, I organize a mini reunion of my high school class but this year I decided to see whether I can get together with my middle school peeps – some of which I had not seen for 23 years (yes, I am THAT old, ok??) !! We only managed to uncover 8 of us, but even that ensured a fabulous evening of endless memories, drinks and constant inane giggling. There was the obligatory “so, what do you do now?” and the ever unnecessary “oh, look at my kids!” to “OMG, do you know what happened to HER??” It was a blast. We’ll do it again in another 23 years, I hope.

So, then I climbed the plane again to fly back to Paris, spent 8 hours at Charles de Gaulle Emirates business class lounge (oh, my God!, such good food and endless champagne) and then hopped on the flight to Dhaka through Dubai. I have 4 words for you “Airbus 380 business class.” CAPITAL OH MY GOD! The damn thing had a BAR in the back. OK, so I have not flown business class too many times in my life so you can bet I was enjoying it. And flying Airbus 380 was the cream of the crop in that respect. Thus, you can imagine that once I stepped on board, it took a lot out of me not to behave like a lunatic and squeal every time I saw something awesome, like the private bar in my seat, or the massive screen of my private TV, or the nice mattress for my fully reclining chair, or every time the stewardess came by to offer me a selectoin of champagne and my favorite French white wines (you bet I got off that plane with a massive hangover!). And then there was the bar at the back. Even though I had decided that after watching two movies and having dinner, I will go to sleep so that I am not a complete wreck once I arrive in Dhaka the next morning, I just could not resists and spent the rest of the night arguing the political situation and its possible causes and remedies with a Maldives banker and a Lebanese marble exporter. I felt like a million bucks!

While I was in Bulgaria, the unfortunate anti-Mohammed movie incident began unfolding, and it made me even more anxious to get back to Dhaka. To the few who have asked whether we are OK – yes, we are, thank you so much for the concern. Hats off to Bangladesh, which lives up to its fame of a modern, peaceful Muslim democracy and has only allowed a few contained protests. In all fairness, traffic in Dhaka is so bad, and the diplomatic zone can be reached only through a small bridge so as a result any potential protesters are naturally deterred by the realities of Dhaka life. And if any crowd does manage to come through and gather at the Embassy, since we are on the tail end of monsoon season sooner or later it begins to rain, and the demonstrators eventually disperse. As a matter of fact today was the first day when people actually managed to demonstrate for real for at least 10 minutes in front of the Embassy– we did the obligatory “duck and cover away from the windows” as prompted by the loud embassy speakers. Unfortunately, the recording got stuck later on and we had to listen to the “duck and cover” order for about half an hour after everything was over to the utter fascination or horror of the visa applicants (depending on their age) who kept wondering what was going on.

Other than that, Dhaka greeted me properly back. In the span of a week, I managed to regain my almost constant Dhaka sinus infection (awesome air we breathe here), obtained an unsightly allergic rash all over my legs (who knows why), had a mild flu, discovered some massive amounts of mold of pleasant ghastly pale blue color all over the upper sections of my master bedroom closet (my fancy boots are inside, y’all!), had the side mirrors of my car stolen (actually sort of hacked off with an axe or something) within the 15 mins it took for me to shop in a local supermarket, and the Diplomat got a nasty food poisoning which resulted in a night spent in the bathroom hugging the toilet seat for him.

The highlight of the week was Son’s fourth birthday party. Themed “Dinosaurs,” it involved some surprisingly unsophisticated decorations from Party City and Oriental Trading and 18 screaming kids. I had the brilliant idea to invite all of Son’s school buddies and their parents since we barely know each other and it would be fun to hang out. As a result, an hour into the birthday on a peaceful Saturday late afternoon, 18 screaming children were pouring out of every nook and cranny of our apartment, some literally hanging from the furniture and bars on the windows, others crawling from under some other furniture, and yet others eating food from the floor while Son was breathlessly running around like a headless chicken happy to tears with his awesome party and itching to tear into his presents. At the same time, about 20 parents were coolly standing around, sipping bubbly and other non-child related libations and mostly ignored the mayhem while having a rather pleasant conversation with each other. The gaiety was a bit marred by the fact that I had prepared to have a “dino hunt” for the kids (I read about the idea on a website for awesome moms and their super awesome creative child parties) and for the purpose had bought 50 small plastic dinosaurs and dispersed them around the living room. Sadly, the parents were not aware of my super awesome non-creative idea and soon started stepping on them with their bare feet – you can only imagine how a small plastic sharp T-Rex feels like when you step on it unaware and while balancing a crystal wine glass. So much for the dino hunt. Other than that, I must say it was a pretty solid birthday bash indeed! Now we are looking forward to my own birthday soire to take place this weekend. Yey me! Oh wait, that means I am older now. Ugh.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Chateaux, wines, tennis, planes, trains and automobiles

So, I would like to summarize my latest observations from France in this fairly crude, American manner:

1. Practically no one in France speaks workable English. Or German. Or Spanish. Or any other language whatsoever. I am not saying they should. Just that they don't. I now speak horrendous menu-driven French out of necessity. My pronunciation is a mix of Spanish, triple-rolled tongue and a lot of randomly swallowed consonants. The effect is magnificent.

2. French people stir their coffee for hours. Even if there is no milk or sugar. Makes the observer dizzy.

3. France is shockingly efficient and modern country. I am saying it as a compliment. Even though I have been there before, I have always thought of it as a country of wine and womanizing as opposed to excellent engineering, efficiency in every detail and high technology.

4. There is no free wi fi anywhere. What?????

5. The TGV speed train rocks.

6. A one month vacation is enough to drive me crazy from idleness.

In the past 2 weeks, the Diplomat and I criss-crossed the multifaceted country of France and ate and drank wine to exhaustion. We left Paris in a neat VW and headed over for a week of exploration in the Loire valley. I had an ambitious agenda consisting of gazing at multiple chateaux and other historic fabulosities, combined with daily wine tasting, while the Diplomat had an even more ambitious agenda of finding as many tennis courts as he could. The man researched the availability of tennis courts and partners to play with a zeal I have never observed in the performance of his domestic chores. In the absence of appropriate partners, I was brought onto the courts to demonstrate my tremendous lack of skill and ever expanding thighs (blame the wine tastings and the ubiquitous baguettes). I remain enchanted with the chateaux - we visited Ambois, Chenonceau, Azay-le-Rideau, Chambord, Ussé à Rigny-Ussé, Villandry and I remained hungry for more. I honestly cannot say which one is better than the others, but one thing I'll say - it was good to be rich in France! 

Loire valley wines are a delight. It is a region of pleasant dry whites and I was in heaven - mostly coming from the Chinon grape, the wineries there produce light, fruity and delicious cheap wines (think Vouvray!) and sparkling wines that we just couldn't get enough of. The problem was that every time we went to taste, we had to buy at least one bottle. Which also meant that we had to keep drinking them since we could not exactly transport everything back to Dhaka. And so we did. 

After we were done with the chateaux we decided to spend a couple of days in Sancerre and Pouilly-sur-Loire, where Sancerre (duh!) and Pouilly Fume wines are liberally produced. Let me just say here that my love story with white wine began one day many years ago with a bottle of Pouilly Fume and the rest is history. I was in wine heaven!! What a wine, people! Made from Sauvignon Blanc, it is full-bodied, fragrant, yet delightfully dry. The Diplomat had to drag me out of every tasting cave while I was trying to buy more and more bottles. Also made of Sauvignon Blanc, Sancerre is nice but a tad too dry for me. More like drinking acid juice at times. Oddly enough, folks there delight in telling you at length about the terrain where the vines grow. In one tasting cave in particular, a young enthusiastic lady kept waving energetically in front of me random rocks and prattle in high-pitched French about the origin of the rocks and the vines they grow on each one. One can feign interest for so long, you know. Especially when already tipsy on sour dry wine. It is possible that I dozed off towards the end of the geological discussion. 
 It was in Pouilly-sur-Loire that we had a dinner in a pretentious little restaurant called "Le Coq Hardi," a name that kept sending me into fits of third-grade laughter (just sound it in your head and you'll get it). After a stern maître d’ met us at the door looking like a replica of the bad guy in the Matrix, and had a mini, thinly veiled heart attack that we apparently had the nerve to show up without a reservation, he led us to a table for two while looking at us in clear distaste. Mon Dieu! We were punished by being left to wait without menus for about 15 minutes. Thankfully, we had tasted extensively that afternoon and had arrived rather happy at the restaurant so nothing could really dampen our spirits. As we started to slowly despair (while giggling inanely most of the time), the other waiter, a gangling supertall youth all of a sudden came and lit a candle on the table giving us a cryptic surreptitious look while doing it. That must have been the magic sign that we have finished our penance since from that point on, menus, water and bread were bestowed upon us in a most serious and grim manner. The Diplomat decided that his counter offensive would be to smile absurdly at all three waiters (there was also lady, who looked like a brooding lost soul among the tables) every time he would sight them just to see what the effect would be. As a result, at the very end after we paid, the maître d’ gave us a half-tooth smile clearly thus granting us his benevolence.

We left the region sated and exhausted and headed to Paris, where the next early morning, Grandma deposited Son with us at the Paris airport after their happy one month cohabitation in Sofia. We immediately jumped on the TGV fast train and in 4 hours were in Provence to begin a further week of doing nothing at all. Through some magic, we somehow upgraded our minuscule rental car (booked for free on points) to a BMW SUV and after stuffing inside it 3 large suitcases, 2 small ones, a tennis bag, hyper child, Diplomat and a couple of fat thighs, we happily arrived at the delightful Mas Antonine, a house where we had rented out an apartment for the week. The place was pure paradise - nestled among rice fields, it had a swimming pool which cold waters could not deter a determined Son to play inside while shivering uncontrollably. The next few days were spent sightseeing in Avignon and Marseilles, home cooking and paying obscene prices for endless carousel rides for Son. 

Then we repacked our multiple suitcases, dashed back to Paris, and I mournfully bid Son and Diplomat "au revoir" as they climbed on the plane back to Bangladesh. I, in turn, crammed myself along with other sardines in a packed flight to Bulgaria to spend 5 days with the familia in Sofia. Don't worry, this vacation is coming to an end on Friday even for me. Sigh...