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CAPITAL IDEA: Reykjavík: A quick guide

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Welcome to another “Capital Ideas” – our somewhat idiosyncratic, ever so slightly tongue-in-cheek guide to various world cities, perfect for the ever discerning readership of this blog. We know our readers are always visitors, never tourists (an important distinction).

Do feel free to contribute your own ideas or suggestions in the comments section, we’d love to hear your thoughts, too.

Capital: Reykjavík

Oh God, don’t even think about doing it. What?

You know what I mean — I can read you like a book. I’ve no idea what you’re referring to.

You’re going to try and lead off with the “my mum’s gone to Iceland” gag, aren’t you?  Really, you think that little of me?

Yes. Charming. The very idea! My gags are expertly crafted, and besides most of our readers have no idea about Iceland, the British frozen goods store, and their longstanding tagline — so there!!!

Okay, okay, let’s get this over with.  Blimey, you’re a bit glum today.

Isn’t that appropriate if you want to talk me about the land of the midnight sun? I thought most people ended up depressed or mad. Please, let’s leave the ridiculous stereotyping to me.

You’re normally very good at it. Stop trying to distract me. Reykjavík, you may be interested to learn, is the northernmost capital in the world.

So I’d need to pack my thermals? Yes.

Guessing this isn’t a beach holiday? No. At least, not in the conventional sense.

I normally like going somewhere hot for my vacation, somewhere I can relax. Then you’d be missing out if you dismiss this sort of vacation out of hand, you’d be visiting a truly wonderful city. But, hey, if you like relaxing in a hot pool, you could still give Reykjavik a try.

Hardly sounds like Club Tropicana. Think about it. Iceland is only there because it’s a mass of volcanic activity. Remember when Eyjafjallajökull grounded all transatlantic flights a few years ago?

Yes, still struggling with this. You’re suggesting I relax by the side of an active volcano in Iceland rather than my plan to relax by the side of a pool in Hawai’i? No, even though I may at this precise moment be tempted to push you into an active volcano. What Iceland does have is plenty of geothermal springs. You must visit the Blue Lagoon.

Is that the one with the creature or with Brooke Shields? Neither. It’s a geothermal spa located in a lava field outside of the city. Even if it’s a freezing night, the water in the pool averages around 100 °F. And there’s plenty of supposedly healing minerals that you can cover yourself in. It’s quite the experience.

Sounds it. Have you done it? Yes, and very enjoyable it was too. A little bit of wind chafing around the neck though. Your body might be enjoying the pool, but your head is still battered by the elements.

Okay, I’m definitely intrigued, but I think I need a little more than slapping mud all over myself and wandering into a geothermal pool. What else can I do? Well, from the centre of Reykjavík you can get a daylong bus tour to the Golden Circle.

I hear their cashew chicken is wonderful. No, the Golden Circle is a popular tourist route that will allow you to see the Icelandic countryside. You will see the stupendous Gullfoss (Golden Falls); Þingvellir (Thing Fields), a national park that was the site of Iceland’s first parliament in 930AD; and Geysir — the first geysir to be recorded in printed material (if Wikipedia is to be believed). Certainly, when it comes to geysers accept no substitutes. If you’re lucky, you might also see a pack of Icelandic ponies.

Aurora Borealis? I beg your pardon?

The Northern Lights. Will I see that during this bus tour? No, this is a day tour. There are night tours that will take you out in the evening in the hopes of seeing the lights. If you’re away from the city and the light pollution, your chances improve. Of course, nothing is guaranteed that you’ll see anything so don’t get too downhearted if you don’t see the lights. However, if you want to try and stack the cards in your favor then you could stay at The Northern Lights Inn.  One further advantage of this hotel is its convenient location to the Blue Lagoon.

And Reykjavík itself? What should I do there? No pun intended, but it is a really great place just to chill. Wander the streets. Take a walk by Tjörnin, a delightful lake in the center of town. As you wander the city, you’ll notice plenty of public art in the city. Walk down towards the harbor and check out Jón Gunnar Árnason (The Sun Voyager). Visit Hallgrímskirkja, the city’s impressive Lutheran church, and at all times keep yourself caffeinated. So many good coffee shops in the city for you to sample.

But what about the food? I hear fermented shark is popular. You mean hákarl. If you find it, you’re more than welcome to try it. Good luck with that. I think Icelandic cuisine has moved on from the shark and puffin stereotypes. Not surprisingly, you’ll be able to try some amazing seafood. If you really want to dine out, Siggi Hall is the most famous Icelandic chef, so you may want to try and get a reservation at his restaurant inside the Hotel Odinsve.

What should I read before I go? It’s Iceland, you should give some Icelandic sagas a try. They detail the early colonization of the land. Penguin has an anthology if you want to dip your toe in. Halldór Laxness is the only Icelandic winner of the Nobel prize for literature (nothing lax about him there). He won the prize in 1955, and as a result a lot of his work has been translated into English and remains in print. The Fish Can Sing and the two-part epic Independent People are easy enough to find. Mál og Menning is a bookstore in downtown Reykjavík has a good selection of Icelandic literature available in English translations. More recently, Hallgrímur Helgason’s 101 Reykjavík has probably been the most successful novel to come out of the country.

Wasn’t that made into a movie? Yes, back in 2000, so you could check that out if you so wished.

And I should listen to plenty of Björk? And don’t forget Sigur Rós, Of Monsters and Men, and Bjork’s original band, The Sugarcubes. If you happen to be visiting late October, you could go to Iceland Airwaves, the country’s biggest musical festival. It’s certainly a great city to scour record stores.

If only the beer were cheap. Well, you can’t have everything.

 

STAY TUNED for a new Displaced Nation post tomorrow.

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CAPITAL IDEA: Singapore: A quick guide

Welcome to another “Capital Ideas” – our somewhat idiosyncratic, ever so slightly tongue-in-cheek guide to various world cities, perfect for the ever discerning readership of this blog. We know our readers are always visitors, never tourists (an important distinction).

Do feel free to contribute your own ideas or suggestions in the comments section, we’d love to hear your thoughts, too.

Capital: Singapore.

Wait a moment, isn’t that an island? Well, it’s actually made up of 63 islands, but Singapore is, in fact, a city state.

Like the Vatican? There’s fewer Cardinals, but yes, the Vatican is an example of another city state.

All I know about Singapore is that chewing gum is illegal. As a confessed chewing gum addict, I think I’ll have to pass on this one. Some forms of therapeutic gum is allowed.

So I can get hold of gum? If a doctor or dentist sells it to you for health purposes, then yes.

What else is banned? Candy? No, in fact, when I was last there I noticed that Singapore immigration put out bowls of hard candy as you went through passport control.

That’s definitely preferable than dealing with Homeland Security.Isn’t it?

This still isn’t quite explaining why I should visit. Well, being a well developed, self-contained city state, it’s easy to get a sense of Singapore quickly and it’s easy to get around.

So I should go because it’s convenient? No . . . Well. . . Yes, I suppose it is. Everything is easy and doable. You won’t have aggressive taxi drivers trying to trick you over fares as you leave the airport. It’s a very well-run state. That’s interesting to see, and it means some of the more stressful elements of travelling, aren’t such a problem here.

Wouldn’t that be primarily due to Singapore’s soft authoratinism? Hey, I thought you only knew about the gum?

I’m smarter than I look. Considering your looks, that’s not too difficult, but to answer your earlier question, yes, Singapore’s laws can be draconian at times, and it’s these laws that make it, on the surface, a well-run state that you’ll feel very safe in for the duration of your visit.

What else do I need to know? Well, being a financial and business center for the region means that there’s a large number of European, American, and Australian expat communities in Singapore. 40% of Singapore’s residents are foreigners. Accordingly, no matter where you’re from, you’ll find something or someone to remind you of home. What’s also useful to remember is that English is one of Singapore’s four official languages. Don’t assume that that means that everyone speak it, but a large number of Singaporeans do, which does make it a more convenient destination in terms of being understood than most other Asian destinations.

Will I be able to understand Singlish? You’ll have better luck understanding a drunk tramp screaming at you on Sauchiehall street. The Singapore government strongly discourages Singlish, but personally we find it charming and a rich part of Singapore’s identity.

Okay, so if I do decide to go, what should I do there? If you’re with young children then you need to make a visit to the Singapore zoo? They do an amazing night safari.

Really? The zoo? I was expecting an answer a little more imaginative than that. It is a nice zoo, though. You can also visit the botanical gardens that houses one of the world’s largest orchid collections.

Orchids? Don’t mock. You can see an orchid dedicated to Princess Di AND one dedicated to Margaret Thatcher.

Umm. . .sounds thrilling. The must-do is checking-out Orchard Road.

What’s that? It’s the main road through Singapore. It’s the social epicenter where people come to…and forgive me for using this phrase…shop til they drop.

Are they that into shopping in Singapore? Yes. Orchard road isn’t shop after shop, it’s high-end mall after high-end mall. It needs to be seen to be believed. For a not quite so high-end retail experience, but just as fascinating, visit the Mustafa Centre in Little India. You’ll be able to find anything in this department

I thought this site had cultural pretensions. All I’m hearing about is shopping, zoos, and flowers dedicated to Maggie bloody Thatcher. One of our favorite museums can be found in Singapore.

What would that be? The National Museum of Singapore. They really do an excellent job of presenting the island’s history. It will you a marvellous grounding in the Singapore. Once you’ve finished there you can head over to Raffles for a Singapore Sling.

Wasn’t Raffles a gentleman thief? You’re thinking of a different chap. This Raffles, is Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles a member of the East India Company who founded the city of Singapore. The Raffles Hotel is named after him. It’s an ornate colonial hotel that is worth a visit. It was also here that the cocktail the Singapore Sling was invented.

What’s in it? Gin, Cherry Heering, Bénédictine, and fresh pineapple juice. It’s a very attractive pink color. Drink it in the Long Bar. Bowls of peanuts are also provided in the bar, you’re expected – nay encouraged – to throw the peanut shells on the bar floor. It’s the only place in Singapore you’re allowed to litter. The Long Bar was a favoured hang-out of Ernest Emmingway and Somerset Maugham.

What other food should I try? Kaya toast is my favorite. Kaya is a fruit curd made from coconut and sugar, spread it on hot buttered toast and at with a runny, soft-boiled egg – it’s heaven. Also, if anything is made with pandan – be it bread or cakes – then gobble it down. Pandanus leaves make the most mundane item delicious. You should also go to Clarke Quay to try Chilli Crab, and Little India for some Fish Head Curry.

Fish Head Curry? Sounds gross. It’s an experience, and one I didn’t find unpleasant, though I don’t think I’d want to make a habit of it. The eyes are the best bit.

Should I eat durian? I would say, yes. It’s an experience, you should try it.

What’s it like? Initially, it tastes rather pleasant. There’s a creamy custard taste. It’s the second taste that may make you retch. I’d describe that second taste as being a mix of raw onions, halitosis, and burnt dog hair. In my experience, you may want to try it first as an ice cream flavor before you build up to the real deal.

What should I read? For fiction, A Many-Splendoured Thing by Han Suyin, King Rat by James Cavell, and Far Eastern Tales by Somerset Maugham. For history, try A history of Singapore, 1819-1988 by C.M. Turnbull.

Thanks, I’m off to try and find some durian ice cream. I’ve had garlic ice cream, can it be any worse? Careful what you wish for.

STAY TUNED for a new Displaced Nation post tomorrow.

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CAPITAL IDEA: Paris: A quick guide

Welcome to another “Capital Ideas” – our somewhat idiosyncratic, ever so slightly tongue-in-cheek guide to various world cities, perfect for the ever discerning readership of this blog. We know our readers are always visitors, never tourists (an important distinction). As it’s Valentine’s Day we thought it only right to take a look at the world capital of romance – Paris (not very original — ed.).

Do feel free to contribute your own ideas or suggestions in the comments section, we’d love to hear your thoughts, too.

Capital: Paris

Paris, Texas? Um, no.

Don’t be too quick to judge. I hear it’s lovely. I’m sure it is. I liked the movie, if that helps.

Not really. So I guess you’re this is all about the other Paris — the city of love? That’s the one.

Ahh, so this is an easy Valentine’s Day tie-in post? I’m disappointed. Could you have not gone with something a little more left-field for a romantic destination? Such as?

I dunno. Cardiff? Sacramento? Sometimes it’s best to stick with the tried and tested.

Why should I go? I think the British expat writer Lawrence Durrell put it well when he wrote the following about Paris:

The national characteristics … the restless metaphysical curiosity, the tenderness of good living and the passionate individualism. This is the invisible constant in a place with which the ordinary tourist can get in touch just by sitting quite quietly over a glass of wine in a Paris bistro.

But I heard Paris can send a man mad. You’re probably thinking about the likes of Toulouse-Lautrec and the perils of consuming too much absinthe.

No, I mean modern-day tourists. Ah, then you’re probably thinking about Paris Syndrome; it is, in the words of Wikipedia, a transient psychological disorder encountered by some individuals (primarily Japanese tourists) when they visit Paris. It is characterized by a number of psychiatric symptoms such as acute delusional states, hallucinations, feelings of persecution (perceptions of being a victim of prejudice, aggression, or hostility from others), derealization, depersonalization, anxiety, and also psychosomatic manifestations such as dizziness, tachycardia, sweating, and others.

Sounds weird. It is. One of the contributing factors is that many Japanese visitors have an idealized image of Paris as the city of romance and sophistication and trying to reconcile that image with the rude and noisy metropolis they instead encounter is simply overwhelming.

Um, so you’ve written a guide extolling me to go to Paris as it’s Valentine’s Day and Paris is the city of romance and at the very same time you’re also telling me if I go with that expectation I could break down with a psychological disorder? Amazing. You know this would never happen in Sacramento. True, they are no reported cases of Paris Syndrome affecting visitors to Sacramento.

Well, if I go — and I manage not to break down with a psychological disorder — what should I do? The obvious tourist checklist is taking a walk along the Seine, having a wander around Montmartre, making a visit to Notre Dame, climbing the Eiffel Tower, and catching an unsatisfactory glance of the Mona Lisa at the Louvre.

But I thought this site (and this nascent series) prided itself on shying away from the obvious? We do, we do. If you’re looking to uncover the “hidden” Paris you can take that suggestion literally and go to the Catacombs.

I see what you did there. Merci beaucoup! Catacombes de Paris were built following the removal and evacuation of the Saints Innocents Cemetery (Cimetière des Innocents) in the late 18th century as the medieval cemetery was no longer sanitary and was considered the cause of numerous infections in the area. On a related note, you may want to read Pure (2011), by the somewhat displaced English novelist Andrew Miller — about the breaking up of the cemetery.

Thanks for that, but can we move onto a different topic? I don’t think visiting catacombs is a particularly romantic move on my part. Do you have any romantic suggestions? I know a couple who spent the weekend trying to find the best macaroons in the city. If you’ve got a sweet tooth, you may want to give that a try. Laudree is famous for theirs — in fact, they claim to have invented them, so you may want to start there. Another macaroon purveyor definitely worth trying is Pierre Herme. Indeed you’ll do well to resist eating all their pastries and sweets.

You’re going to try and convince me to go on a guided walk, aren’t you? You seem obsessed with them. I do think walking around a city rather than hopping from metro to taxi is a better way of getting to grips with a city, and if you can do that with a knowledgeable guide, so much the better. I’ve heard good things about Paris Walks, so you may want to give them a try. Alternatively, we are living in the age of smart phones. If you don’t want to be with a tourist crowd (and I totally understand why that may be the case), then why not download a walking tour direct to your phone? Invisible Paris offers three walking tours for you to download that are absolutely free. The walks highlight aspects of the city that other guides ignore.

What’s a must-do? Embrace the cliche and go for an evening stroll along the Seine.

Is it easy to get around? Yes, the Metro system makes getting round the city easy. As a visitor it’s well worth purchasing a Paris Visite Pass, which allows you access to all of the city’s public transport

And where’s good to eat? Any recommendations? It’s Paris. You won’t struggle for decent places to eat. You know the drill when it comes to avoiding tourist traps.

What should I read? If you want to brush up on Paris, then you may want to give Graham Robb‘s Parisians: An Adventure History of Paris (2010) a try. Also worth a look for the befuddled foreigner trying to make sense of the city is The Sweet Life in Paris, by displaced American food writer David Lebovitz — it tells the story of his move to Paris. For a solid historical overview of France’s capital city, try The Seven Ages of Paris (2002), by British historian and TCK Alistair Horne. And for a work of fiction sometimes the obvious is the most appropriate — and that’s The Hunchback of Notre-Dame (Notre-Dame de Paris, “Our Lady of Paris”), by Victor Hugo.

What should I watch? You can go all New Wave cool and watch The 400 Blows (1959, dir. François Truffaut), Breathless (1960, dir. by Jean-Luc Godard), or Bande à part (1964, also dir. by Jean-Luc Godard). The antithesis of these is the Old Hollywood glamor of An American in Paris (1951, dir. Vincente Minnelli). Of course, what I’d really advise you to watch is one of my all-time-favourite movies — Les Enfants du Paradis (1945, dir. Marcel Carné). In fact, as it’s Valentine’s Day today, watch it tonight!

But I have reservations at the Sizzler tonight! The Sizzler?

Hey, it’s Valentine’s. I thought, why not splurge? Hmmm, maybe Paris isn’t right for you after all.

STAY TUNED for a new Displaced Nation post on Monday.

If you enjoyed this post, we invite you to register for The Displaced Dispatch, a round up of weekly posts from The Displaced Nation, with seasonal recipes, book giveaways and other extras. Register for The Displaced Dispatch by clicking here!

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CAPITAL IDEA: London: A quick guide

LondonWelcome to the first “Capital Ideas”. It is a new feature here at The Displaced Nation. It’s our somewhat idiosyncratic, ever so slightly tongue-in-cheek guide to various world cities, perfect for the ever discerning readership of this blog. We know our readers are always visitors, never tourists (an important distinction).  Do feel free to contribute your own ideas or suggestions in the comments section, we’d love to hear your thoughts, too.

City: London

Where is it? On some damp, mildew-ridden island in the north Atlantic.

Why should I go? Because it’s one of the world’s great cities. An exciting modern city with a diverse population of eight million there’s something for everyone. With hosting the Olympics, 2012 was a great year for the city and infused it with a self-confidence unusual to the British. Quite simply, this is the perfect time to visit London.

So is it true that when a man tires of London he is tired of life? Not if he’s living in Dalston.

I don’t know anything about Dalston. You’re not missing much.

What are the must sees? Well, if you want to be that tourist, you know the one who wears pristine white sneakers and white socks, keeps their passport safe in their fannypack and planned their trip after taking out a Rick Steeves travel book from 1986, then the basic checklist is Big Ben, Buckingham Palace, St Paul’s, Tower of London. You can do all that by popping on one of those tourist trap sightseeing bus tours. You’ll get to sit on the top of a double-decker with other fannypack wearers — it’ll be beautiful.

Hmm, I don’t have a fannypack. Not to worry. You’re a The Displaced Nation reader, you want something a little more “not for tourists,” don’t you?

You know me so well. Tours can be good fun for the visitor limited in time. However, instead of those overpriced bus tours, we recommend London Walks. Brunel’s Thames tunnel, in particular, is one we’d recommend for a fascinating and sadly forgotten part of London’s history — it was once considered the eighth wonder of the world.

What about a walking tour that sounds a bit more “fun”? Well, provided you’re not traveling with kids, you could also do a pub crawl. That fun enough for you?

Absolutely. Any other suggestions? Spend a morning at Lincoln’s Inn Fields. There you’ll be able to visit two fascinating museums that are among our London favorites. There’s the Hunterian Museum (an C18th collection of anatomical specimens including the skeleton of Charles Byrne, known as the “Irish giant”) at the Royal College of Surgeons and across the fields is Sir John Soanes’s Museum (the former home of architect Sir John Soanes, the museum contains his extensive collection of antiquities and paintings). Or, if you’re in the city in the summer then venture to the north of the city and visit Highgate Cemetery. There you’ll be able to get a guided tour of the western cemetery – resting place of Michael Faraday and Christina Rossetti. In the eastern cemetery rests Karl Marx.

What’s a must-do? Spending time on the South Bank. Here you’ll find the National Theatre, the Royal Festival Hall, the Globe and the BFI Southbank (formerly known as the National Film Theatre). So the perfect place to take to showcase the city’s cultural merits.

Is the city easy to get around? Yes, although Londoners like moaning about the public transport, the city is home to one of the world’s best public transport systems. Familiarize yourself with the London Underground (known as “the tube”) and you can travel around the city easily and relatively cheaply. If you are a night owl then you need to remember that the underground stops running trains between 12.00am and 12.30am.

I hear the British cooking is awful. Do I need to pack sandwiches when visiting London? That outdated stereotype. London is home to some of the world’s best restaurants. And don’t forget how I mentioned earlier that London had such a diverse population, that’s reflected in the city’s restaurants. Whatever you fancy, be it Eritrean or Burmese, you can find it in London. Our recommendation is that you take a trip to Brick Lane for a slap-up Indian dinner.

Hmm, my mate John visited London last year and said the food still sucked. Did John stick with the tourist traps? New York is a great city for eating, but if you only go to restaurants at Time’s Square you’re not going to get that impression. One easy tip, never eat in an Angus Steak House.

So the locals don’t all eat jellied eels? No, but if you do want to experience an old cockney-style pie and mash shop, then we recommend Goddard’s at Greenwich. If you’re being really adventurous and want to unleash your inner pearly queen by having some jellied ell then this is the place to do it.

Have you ever tried it? Yes.

Did you like it? Let’s just say it was interesting.

What should I read? If you want to brush up on London, then we’d suggest Peter Ackroyd’s London for a nice, meaty read about the city, as well as his book The Thames. Other books we’d suggest are Iain Sinclair’s London: City of Disappearances, Henry Mayhew’s London and the London Poor and James Boswell’s London Journal. And, of  course, you can’t visit London and not be reminded of Dickens (do make a trip to the Charles Dickens Museum  , at 48 Doughty Street). We think Bleak House and Our Mutual Friend best show off  Dickens’s writing on London.

What should I watch? Notting Hill.

Really? Yes, it’s the most accurate cinematic depiction of the city.

I’m going to say this again, really? It’s so accurate that there’s even now a Notting Hill Carnival. This happens once a year where fans of the film get together and dress up as their favorite characters from the film and reenact their favorite scenes. Our top tip is that if you’re in London at the same time as the carnival, you should dress up as Julie Roberts or Hugh Grant and go up to people and tell them your favorite lines from the movie. They’ll love.

I really don’t think that’s what the Notting Hill Carnival is all about. Hand on heart, it’s true.

Hmmmm . . .

STAY TUNED for tomorrow’s post, a new Random Nomad interview.

If you enjoyed this post, we invite you to register for The Displaced Dispatch, a round up of weekly posts from The Displaced Nation, with seasonal recipes, book giveaways and other extras. Register for The Displaced Dispatch by clicking here!

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