Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Go local in Abu Dhabi visiting its carpet and fish markets

There's hardly a place where you can capture the quintessence of a country as much as in its local markets. More than tourist bazaars, where you are more likely to find mock-local products, especially made for tourists, hidden markets are busy with locals who, supposedly, know where to shop for grocery and other basic goods better than visitors.

When I lived in Rome, I used to go to two markets, the one in Via Trionfale for grocery, fresh bread, and food in general, and the one in Via Sannio for clothing, where I've always found fantastic deals for leather jackets.

In this kind of markets, local traders show their best, and grant customers with many pearls worth remembering: in Rome, for example, when a seller wants to convince you that his price is the excellent, he'll trump: "That's it! I want to ruin myself for you!" Said with Roman accent, it's truly memorable.

In Abu Dhabi, I spent a morning hanging around the carpet and the fish markets, and my expectations were widely met: if you want to buy truly local products, nowhere is better than a proper local market, mainly unknown by tourists. I went with a friend of mine who lives in Abu Dhabi and who wanted to buy a carpet. I'm proud to say that I have witnessed a proper bargain.

Acutally, my friend had already been there, had already chosen his carpet and had already started a negotiation, so we were to start the second round. I sat and enjoyed the show: both men (my friend and the carpet-seller) started shouting and waving at each other. As I'm Italian, and I know Arabs have a similar way of speaking with hands, I didn't worry about the dynamic talk.

I couldn't understand a word, as the bargaining was happening in Arabic, and I was somehow misled: "Good," I thought, "they are finding an agreement."

Not as quite. My friend darted out the door and the carpet-trader, undisturbed, still sitting on one of his carpets, whispered a wise "Aaahhh!". A little troubled, suddenly aware I had got it all wrong, I ran after my friend, more disappointed than the carpet-seller, who's certainly used to such activities and doesn't really look to rush with his sales.

In his white tunic and his desert in mind, he smiled at us as if thinking: "I know you are coming back." And he was quite right, actually: my friend stopped by the other sellers, but they were all loyal to their colleague and didn't offer a lower price.

"He's a very proud man, he must come from the desert, they are very strong people," said my friend patiently. I kept hoping to go back to see that man, I begged him to bring me there again and keep bargaining so that I could enjoy the show, but not a chance. Even if I couldn't understand what they were saying, there was something ancestral in their discussion, more genuine than sales in big department stores.

Never mind, we were off to the fish market, just opposite, near Abu Dhabi port.

The first thing I noticed is that it was spotless. After photographing some weird fish on display, and the biggest prawns and crabs ever, I ended up in the area where fast fish-cleaners prepare the fish according to the cooking needs of the customers. So they spend their day peeling, chopping, slicing and scaling any kind of fish bought from the neighbouring stalls.

Our morning ended at the Emirates Palace, claim to fame of Abu Dhabi luxury, certainly in striking contrast with the previous little markets, but also undoubtedly less lively.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Southern Italians are less clever than Northern Italians


If you are thinking that this title is a racist-based joke, you might want to think again. In fact, it's the result of academic professor Richard Lynn's latest research, nonetheless. I'm not sure what kind of sources Mr Lynn has used, but I'm ready to bet that the illiterate members of Italian Northern League party have played a substantial role in this enlightening work.

In his previous theories Lynn has argued that men are more clever than women and that the lighter the skin colour the more clever the person is. Needless to say, he's a man and he can boast a very pale skin colour. What a coincidence. Plus, he has white hair so I guess he's even more intelligent than white men with black hair. In his essay about Italy, he tries to make people believe that the more southwards you go the more stupid people are. In a nutshell, Sicilians are completely dumb. Never mind for the writers or scientists the island has produced.

The "proof" (what a proof!) would be that Southern Italy has had in the past a greater presence of Middle Eastern and North African populations, so mixing ethnic groups has proved fatal for IQ ranks. This, according to Lynn, has nevertheless caused differences in "income, education, infant mortality, stature and literacy." 

I can't list here all the evidence against this theory as it would take me a month and a post way too long for blogs standards. It would suffice to say that the professor (please note, professor, not lecturer) shows a deep ignorance on Italian literature, history, geopolitical patterns (past and present) and sociological studies. To the extent that even the most ignorant Sicilian would find enough arguments to dismiss this essay in less than no time.

Mr Lynn shows also a great ignorance on common knowledge, as I believe everybody by now knows that Arabs' discoveries in the fields of astronomy and maths are still in use and have tremendously contributed to modern tecnological achievements. Moreover, I'd like to add, since I originate from Sardinia (I'm less clever than Venetians but I'm less stupid than Sicilians), that in my island, the greatest traditions, social customs and crafts that we boast come from the Nuragic and the Middle Eastern civilisations. A modest research would have been enough to know this.

What I find worrying, however, is that the University of Ulster (or any university in the world) is willing to promote such absurdities, in an era when Cesare Lombroso's theories are widely proved wrong and with no supporting evidence whatsoever. Moreover, I find degrading that an university encourages racist theories that are just an offence to human intelligence, meaning by human any human, be them blond, brown or redhair, with blue, brown or green eyes.

Dear Mr Lynn, everybody, sooner or later, has to face their own sunset boulevard. The choice is between accepting it with dignity or frantically trying to impress with desperate marketing moves. You are clearly facing yours, and apparently more like the hysterical Gloria Swanson in her memorable movie, than like a Sicilian farmer who enjoys his retirement between family and great food.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Wrong side of the road

After having lived in Ireland for two years (and never found the nerve to hire a car at a Dublin car rental), I was totally bent on taking driving lessons in London: I wanted to be confident driving on what for me is the "wrong side of the road". Two and a half years have gone in London too, and I'm still at the starting point.

Admittedly, London has quite spoilt me: public transports work well and reach every corner of the city, both day and night time, so I've never really felt the need of having a car. However, since I drive when I'm home (I'm not Schumacher, let's say I can get the car move), I wanted to try, at least. But first I needed to learn how to behave as a pedestrian, and this didn't really depend on Dublin driving side.

When I moved to Ireland in 2005, it took me a while to understand where I was supposed to watch before crossing the road. Once, I was crossing a little street on my way to work and the biggest bus I can remember was about to hit me, when two heaven-sent hands grabbed me and kept me on the sidewalk.
Since that day, many times I promised in vain I would have paid extra attention when crossing the road in Dublin. And everywhere else, actually, I think I recall similar events when I lived in Rome, too.

After two years in London, my pedestrian behaviour has remained pretty much inalterated: a couple of times, I risked to be run over by a motorbike. Maybe it's after the last event that I've started being a little more careful on the street. A little, because everything is achieved step by step. 

Again, I was going to work (I could stop this, for a start) and I crossed a road drilled by the ever-present work in progress. Visibility was rather reduced by a bus just on my left, but I darted towards the other side of the road, all the same. Suddenly, I heard a motorbike break: I froze in the middle of the street, looked left, the rider, pale, froze too, for a couple of seconds the traffic stopped. I slowly realised I was still alive and all in one piece so, in a cold sweat, I reached the opposite sidewalk.

I'm not sure when, and if, I'll get used to the wrong side of the road. The good news is that I'll be probably leaving London for good this time, and I'm thinking about heading somewhere where cars keep the "right side".

Monday, March 15, 2010

Sex in public: a sign of freedom?

Recently, I have read an interesting post on Travel Blissful about "love customs" in different countries. The writer, Erica, stresses the importance of respecting every country we are visiting. Rightly so, I would add.

I'll never get tired (or maybe at some point I will) of pointing out that belonging to a specific culture doesn't make that culture necessarily right or the best one. People, wherever they are, should consider natural to respect their neighbours, but more so if they are travelling to a foreign country.

I have just got back from to the UAE, country that in the western public mind is very conservative and strict, and I struggle to understand why much of the British press gives a rather negative coverage of the Emirate. 

Two years ago a British couple got arrested in Dubai because they were having sex on a beach, and the police charged them with the count of offending public decency. In Italy they would have got arrested too.

In today's news, another British couple got into trouble in Dubai for having allegedly breached the local law and kissed in public. Kissing in public might be appreciated in some countries, but the UAE tourism office ask tourists to respect local laws. I think visitors can make this enormous effort until they get back home.

British people are usually obsessively respectful of the law, so this persistency reeks a bit of arrogance.

During the two years I spent in London, for quite a few times I've had the impression that the word decency was gradually disappearing from the dictionary, at least during the weekends. I, myself, have witnessed, in Shoreditch on a Friday night, very degrading performances involving young women boasting their "cool" drunkenness, and instead of feeling "emancipated", I felt outraged. 

But that's just me, I don't like such behaviours so I try to avoid places where I know they're common habit.

You feel unable to respect another country's laws and traditions? Stay home.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Out in the desert, dune driving

During my stay in Abu Dhabi I spent a day out in the desert. Needless to say, I loved it so much that I didn't want to leave, I would have gladly spent the night in a tent.

I'm not exactly a "risk-lover", though, so when I was told that we were about to go dune driving in a four-wheel-drive, I artlessly went: "I can't take photos if I'm in the car!"

"Nice try," must have thought our driver, but politely replied: "Don't worry, we will stop and you'll be able to photograph the cars behind us."

So, after having skillfully bypassed any London or Dublin car hire for four years in order to spare myself from driving on the wrong side traffic, now I was about to let a stranger bring me up and down huge sandy dunes.

"You know, cars can get stuck in the sand, drivers must be *really* good. You know, cars can somersault in dunes' peaks, drivers must be *really* good!" Those were just some of the warnings that went past my mind when our driver started up. Of course I was hoping he was *really* good. And he was, indeed.
Fifteen 4x4 Land Cruisers darting up and down the dunes were spectacular, and minute after minute the light in the desert seemed to change while we approached the sunset time, and every photo seems taken in different deserts.

This yellowish empty landscape has always fascinated me and I'm realising many people are attracted by such boundless view, but not as many can explain why. Maybe it's the very fact of being somewhere limitless, maybe it's due to the mysterious history that lies behind those territories, or maybe it's the charm of the "Arabian nights" that still lives in our secret thoughts.


Abu Dhabi desert has lived up to my expectations, and now I'm following Islam's greatest traveller, Ibn Battutah, in his adventures through the tales of Tim Mackintosh-Smith, and I feel proud everytime I read about a place I have visited too, and dream of spots I still have to discover.

Friday, March 5, 2010

From Europe to the Middle East

I've just got back from the Middle East and am missing it already. I've travelled with British Airways and I was very happy with their services: food is not bad, entertainment is more than enough and for literally any liking, since we could choose among a wide range of movies, tv shows, videogames and music (we could even create our own cd picking up one or more songs from the available albums!).

Admittedly this time I haven't searched or compared different prices or deals, as I stayed at friends' place. I've only compared a couple of airlines flying from Europe to Abu Dhabi, but it could be worth trying to pick up a Hotels.com discount code at VoucherCodes.co.uk to save on travelling.

I have loved my short stay in the Emirates and already thinking about going back. When I was there I didn't get the chance to write a lot, only a small post on Dubai, but now I'll be posting more on Abu Dhabi, my desert experience and what I've learnt about their society, tellingly, quite different from the views our media give us.

I have sadly noticed, since I came back, a very negative reaction here in Europe every time I say something positive about the UAE and, astonishingly, mainly from people who have never even been there and have no clue of how their society works nor what their culture is.

I'm not sure if this hostility stems from plain prejudice (that most of the times stems from ignorance and the fear of the unknown), or an unconscious jealousy that things are working quite well in the Emirates, while Europe is collapsing every day more due to the incompetence and corruption of our current (and past) crop of politicians.


Whatever the reason is, I'm very happy for the Emirate people, and hope they'll keep enjoying the resources of their beautiful country. This being said, I'm ready to tackle every aspect of the UAE I managed to acknowledge and write about it, before heading to Southern France at the end of the month.
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