nina on the go

Stories of this Canadian girl's adventures exploring Europe...join me!

Thursday, November 30, 2017

my whirlwind days in Hong Kong...dim sum, ding dings, and long horns

So flying to Hong Kong from Frankfurt for 3 nights is not something most people think makes a whole lot of sense...Germans for sure not. But, I am so glad I did! Hong Kong now lives in my imagination and inspires me in a way that a city hasn't impacted me for some time. It was my first trip to Asia. It won't be my last.


Honestly, I've never really had a strong urge to explore most Asian countries. I'm not sure why. It could be because I don't really enjoy the attention I receive about my height, and well, in Asia I was pretty sure that the attention would be exponentially increased (I wasn't wrong). If any of the Asian countries had really intrigued me before, then it was India, but I really didn't want to go there alone.

As I was planning where to go I pulled out a map and quickly realised that I also didn't feel like flying over North Korea in this current political climate, with Trump due to be in that region the exact week I was planning to be there. So, Japan was out, and so was South Korea - both incredible countries, I have no doubt.


Hong Kong proved to be the perfect choice for me. It is a very safe, easy-to-navigate, inexpensive and incredibly interesting city. I had no qualms walking down any street I decided to turn into, wandering around, getting lost, and exploring the fascinating corners that I came across. It is like New York (a city I know very well) on crack. Apologies if that comparison isn't fair, but the noise, the bright lights, the cultural impacts as obvious as fire hydrants on every corner, the shiny bank towers looming over the very busy waterways below, ferries, tourists, quick getaways for locals, and food, such great, great food.

The very cool Mid-levels Escalator in Central

Soho happenings


Hong Kong has energy. I still feel it as I sit and write about it 3 weeks later. There is so much life buzzing by, which I found incredibly life-affirming, coming from the chattering of the masses and the hum of constant traffic. But what struck me like hammer to the head was the aroma wafting over the streets. I couldn't place the smell and still don't know what it was, but when I bought a rice noodle-soup bowl with beef balls (a very unfortunate translation), radish and broccoli from a street kiosk, I recognised the same intense aroma floating over the sidewalks. I can only assume that it's an ingredient in the broth.



On my first morning, I took the bus in order to see more of the city, to the Peak lookout at the top of Hong Kong Island. The weather was a beautiful 27 degrees Celsius and the skies were blue with just a hint of haze. I opted not to do the hour-long circular walk around the peak in the interest of time, but I have heard many recommendations that it's a must-do tour. I just had a shamefully short period of time to do everything on my list!

View from The Peak

I loved travelling around this city, swiping my Octupus card everywhere I wanted to go. With an Octopus card (identical to London's Oyster card) you can pay for all of your public transport needs: ferries, buses, and the metro. When you need to top the card up just head to any 7-11 store or metro station - it's very easy and very handy. The fares are so cheap that even with my island-hopping, 2 long bus rides, and many metro jaunts, I didn't even spend 15€ in total.

The Peak lookout platform

Visitors, listen up! Don't do the Hop-On, Hop-Off bus tour in Hong Kong. Really. First of all, it's much more cost effective to get an Octopus card, and secondly, you will miss out on so much of Hong Kong's flair - like riding on the Ding Dings (Hong Kong's authentic double-decker tram cars - my new favourite thing to do!). You also shouldn't miss the experience of Hong Kong's incredibly efficient and very clean metro system. There is so much going on in the under ground, and you never need to wait long for a ride!


After the Peak, I bused back into the city and then jumped on the ferry to Lantau Island from Pier 6 at Central Station. It's roughly a half-hour trip, out among the many fishing boats and ships zigzagging through the South China Sea. With my rice bowl and beef balls, for which I didn't even pay 3€, I disembarked the ferry at Mui Wo and walked directly to a waiting bus driver (New Lantau Bus #2) who was frantically waving me over. I climbed aboard and settled in for the windy, approximately 35 minute trip, to Po Lin Monastery and the Tian Tan (or Big) Buddha.


As I walked towards the long steps leading up the Buddha, which I knew lay ahead of me, I saw the cows. I am quite the fan of cows, not sure why, maybe it's a Canadian thing. Here on Lantau Island, the black and terracotta-coloured longhorns were just wandering around the monastery grounds, checking out tourists or trying to ignore them, while Big Buddha watched over his flock.


Huge and silky, curled up (as much as cows can curl up) on the grassy patches among the tourists or looking into the shops and picking out souvenirs.



Although the Tian Tan Buddha is relatively young, completed in 1993, the impression he left on me was one of historical significance, of being in the presence of someone who has been entrusted with the care of millions who adore him. It felt as if I had spent tender time in the presence of a wise old soul.


Whether you are Buddhist or not, it's difficult not to be in awe of the dedication with which the Chinese acknowledge and humbly (as far as I could see from the non-tourists around me in silent reverence) submit to Buddha and the deities serving him. At the very least, I found it very beautiful.

The Offering of the Six Devas

The Po Lin Monastery is much older than it's Buddha neighbour - built in 1906 by 3 monks from the Chinese mainland. It's a complex of various ornate buildings, infused with gold accents, dragon heads, every colour of the rainbow, and small buddhas which hang under the eaves like chubby gargoyles.

Po Lin Monastery
The intense, but calming, scent of incense permeated the air among the monastery grounds. Worshippers could buy bundles of incense sticks to burn and place in large and small cauldron-like pots filled with sand. Back in the city, I noticed many sand-filled pots with burnt incense sticks outside kiosks and stores lining the sidewalks.


Back on the bus, after spending a little bit of time in contemplation (which such a monument invariably effects), I headed toward Tung Chung, on the northern side of Lantau, in order to take the metro towards my evening destination of the Mongkok markets in Kowloon.


Everywhere I go I take photos of hanging laundry. I don't know why, but I love laundry...except my own. In Hong Kong, clean clothing and sheets and towels hang out of most windows and off most balconies, dressing up the sides of narrow apartment buildings like fringe on a well-worn suede coat. 


Old men sit on make-shift stools of stacked crates or plastic boxes and just watch or wait, I'm not sure. Small shops line the sidewalks selling everything from dried sea creatures to teas and packages of, what I can only assume, are mysterious herbs and potions. Kiosks offering fish balls, beef balls, soups and skewers, bowls and sweets, pop up all across Kowloon, creating an enchanting, almost whimsical atmosphere among the crowds (at least that's how it made me feel!). You can't go hungry in Hong Kong, but you might need to stand in line!


I stood out walking down the street as if I was screaming 'Hey look at me, I'm a really tall white girl!', so I didn't need to actually say anything to anyone - they noticed me immediately. I just smiled and took photos. Usually I try to blend in when I'm touristing, but here I realized there's no chance that I'll look like I belong, so I'll just stand in the middle of the street and take photos. The men sitting on their crates just watched and didn't seem to care one bit.


For a while I walked away from the big, bright lights of the main streets and crowds, in order to get a feeling of where people actually lived. But, here in Hong Kong, people live everywhere. I turned a corner to go down a narrow road overflowing with, not tourists, but families and elderly folks. I had stumbled upon a real market. Shoppers were picking up bamboo (for what?), riffling among tables of large, unfamiliar fruits, perusing dried animal parts like duck necks and octopus tentacles, and admiring every vegetable you could ever need. I was on Canton Street - only locals, no white people (that I saw), everyday life. I could've stayed all day.




I continued on towards Ladies Market and then the Temple Street Night Market (the 'must-sees') and honestly, I pushed my way through those pretty quickly. There was an insane amount of tourists looking at kimonos, tiny buddha figurines, jade jewellery, teapots, 'I love Hong Kong' t-shirts and other standard tourist market fare. In every other country these market wares make me crazy - everything 'Made in China' - but here that's how it should be :)



 By 8pm I was exhausted, totally jetlagging, and very hungry. I decided that I desperately needed some dim sum and sum drink drink.


Tim Ho Wan, whose Kowloon restaurant has a Michelin star, is said to have some of the best dim sum anywhere, and so since I had never tried it I figured why not head to the best. It is also very inexpensive. Win win. I ordered spinach shrimp rice wraps and BBQ pork buns (which so many onliners have said is an absolute must!). Both dishes were so delicious and filling and cost only 6€ total! The sweet pork filling of the buns still makes my mouth water weeks later. But, like a macaron, one or at the very most 2 is enough...3 is just too much of a good thing. So, go with a friend!


Another must-do in Hong Kong, which I had read a lot about before I came, is to ride the Star Ferry. These ferries are a cultural phenomenon, shipping 70,000 people daily between Kowloon and Hong Kong Island. National Geographic has named the Star Ferry crossing as one of the '50 Places of a Lifetime' - check! Because it is such an efficient and reliable source of transport, and very inexpensive, it is beloved by locals and tourists alike.


I also made sure to check out the Hong Kong Island skyline while I was on the other side of the harbour. It is an incredible sight, unlike one I have ever seen before. Honestly, my words can not do it justice. All I can say, if you have the opportunity, short or long, to visit this city and an outer-lying island or two, then don't miss it. I am already trying to figure out when I can get back...this time for much longer.


Stay tuned for my upcoming post on hiking the Dragon's Back Trail, named Time Magazine's Best Urban Hike in Asia!
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Tuesday, October 31, 2017

parma love...cheese, ham, and an Italian

I was excited about Parma. After booking nights in Venice, Milan and Bologna, I knew that I wanted to spend a little bit of time in the countryside, to find some quiet, to write, and to eat. What I actually mean is, I wanted to experience the local specialities that Anthony Bourdain had shown me on a late-night re-run, which I just couldn't get out of my head.

Flash forward a couple of weeks, and I was pulling up in a taxi in front of an old monastery about 5 kms outside of Parma, smack dab in Italy's northern region of Emilia-Romagna...the mecca of all things Italian cuisine.



This is the land of sun-kissed tomato fields, damp, sea-salted cellars filled with hanging Mortadella, Prosciutto di Parma and Culatello di Zibello, and where chunks of Parmigiana Reggiano sit on shelves and wait and wait and wait some more.



(My mouth waters just writing this...and remembering.)

Think Italian and food, and there's a good bet you're picturing something that has its roots in Emilia-Romagna - the much-touted 'food basket of Italy'. Lasagne Verdi. Bolognese. Prosciutto e Melone. Aceto Balsamico di Modena. Porcini Mushrooms. Tagliatelle.



As the taxi came to a halt in front of the arched entrance to the inner courtyard, dust from the gravel path enveloping me as I stepped out, a man stood up from the bench beside the doorway. He greeted me warmly and we shook hands. I gave him my name and said that I had a room for two nights. 'Yes, I know', he said and waved me inside, taking my small suitcase out of my hand.



I should say that the place looked deserted. In Milan, where I had had two meetings the day before, the woman who had driven me to each appointment told me that in August all of the Italians head to the sea. Milan had also been deserted, and here, as I looked out across the golden fields surrounding the monastery I barely even saw a car, let alone a person. Except for this one Italian, who was now checking me in.

He had thinning hair, a three-day beard, was wearing a t-shirt and cut-off jeans and seemed molto rilassato (very relaxed). The Italian led me across the courtyard, past large abstract sculptures which were elegantly scattered around (I later found out that most of the monastery is a museum, while only the monks' former quarters are part of the hotel) and in very broken English he said, "Oh by the way, the bistro is closed. The owners are on holidays." I stopped walking, and in my most friendly tone, said something like "WTF?" I'm kidding. But, I did stop and say, "What do you mean it's closed? I don't have a car as you know, and I will need to eat something over the next two days." "Yes, yes, no problem. I cook for me, so I cook for you too. Yes?" YES!


I asked the Italian when I should come down for dinner and he said around seven. "We'll start with a drink. Prosecco? Yes?" YES!



At the door to my third floor room, he took out a large iron key (the exact one the monks probably used) and opened the small wooden door. I felt a little bit like Alice as I bent down to go into the room. The walls were massively thick...feeling ancient and cold, but the room, actually two rooms (a sitting room plus bedroom and bath) was beautifully new and clean, with a gorgeous fresco painted on one wall. I thanked The Italian and he left, and I began to unpack my things and take a look around.

I decided to go outside and walk the grounds surrounding this impressive building. The warm wind blew over the fields of tomatoes lying dormant among golden arms of grass waving softly to and fro. I have never seen tomatoes growing like this, endless plants just lying out on the ground. The Italian would later tell me that this area around Parma is known for growing some of the best sauce tomatoes in Italy. They smelled earthy and meaty and sweet as I held one to my nose; it looked like a large Roma tomato to my amateur eyes, but I didn't understand what he called them when I asked.



Shortly before seven, I slowly made my way downstairs and outside. My long summer dress, which I had paired with a denim jacket and ballerinas, swayed in the breeze as I walked across the gravel courtyard towards the bistro. The doors were locked, but the Italian came out almost immediately and let me in. He smiled and checked me out a little bit, in a grinning Italian kind of way (which I just ignored) and asked if I would like a drink. I nodded and looked around at the open room which had small white tables and chairs neatly arranged around the edge, while a large bar filled the entire centre of the bistro - wine glasses waiting on glass shelving, bottles standing at attention along the counter, and braids of garlic hanging and wafting.



The Italian served me a glass of a local, chilled, sparkling red wine, called Lambrusco, which I had never heard of and immediately fell head over heels in love with. I took my wine outside onto the patio. I wasn't the only guest, which I began to realize as another couple saw me and immediately came over to the patio. They got the Italian's attention and ordered drinks (of course) just as he was about to join me. He apologised, went to serve them and then returned a few minutes later with a plate of thick slices of white Italian bread, buttered with heaping layers of prosciutto di parma, mortadella and salami di parma. "You hungry?" YES! The Italian said he wanted to show me the great hospitality the region is known for. I thought he was already doing a fantastic job of that.



Once the other couple left, and the sun had gone down, he said he would start cooking us dinner. It would just be a simple bolognese sauce with spaghetti, if I was okay with that, because there was a family who he also had to cook for. That would be no problem, I assured him and followed him back into the bistro. I had no where to be. Just here...with my Lambrusco.

The steaming plates of Spaghetti Bolognese came out, first to me, then to the others. At some point during this first evening he started calling me 'princess' which no one has ever called me in my life and I don't know why he started. Quite possibly it was the only 'flirty' word he knew in English. Eventually, he joined me and we ate the simple, but magnificent pasta. He had sautéed shallots in olive oil, and added black olives, and diced tomatoes from the field he had picked that morning.



The family left, he cleared the dishes and filled my glass. It was late (Italian dinnertime is always late) and he poured himself a glass of white wine and sat down beside me on the bench against the wall. He chattered about his work; he was just filling in here at the monastery for ten days and would then head back up to Milan where he worked as a chef. He told me about his girlfriend, who he had earlier mentioned was missing him and constantly sending him loving texts. 

Her name was Francesca or Magdalena or some beautiful Italian name like that. He put his arm me, casually, like he'd done it a million times before. I laughed because it was just so subtle, so, I don't know, Italian. I took his arm and gave it back to him, and said ‘Just friends.' And he grinned, leaned into me and said, "Yes, but really good friends, no?" Ahhh no. "No, no, just normal friends." And with that, I decided that sitting here in the middle of nowhere and drinking with a super-friendly Italian dude might not be the best idea. I said good night.



I slept like a baby in the stillness of the Italian countryside, and awoke to an azure-blue sky with just faint wisps of clouds rolling gently by. The Italian lit up when he saw me, and enthusiastically said good morning, as I entered the bistro for breakfast. I laughed and returned the greeting. He reminded me a bit of my puppy. Very, very friendly. Always in a good mood. Pretty much the perfect kind of host if you think about it.



Before taking a taxi out to the monastery the day before, I had wandered through Parma's old town wanting to get a feeling of this region's reputation of being the culinary centre of the world (or maybe just Italy). The old town was easy to navigate, quaint and pretty, and almost completely empty. Except for me, pulling my orange carry-on suitcase over the cobblestones (not easy my friends), and two middle-age ladies exploring the church, there was not much going on here, on this hot, August day.



I almost always read a lot about a place before I visit, checking blogs and platforms, in order to glean recommendations from locals. Therefore, on this day in Parma, I made my way to La Forchetta, a small trattoria on a quaint side lane within the centre of town. And, when I saw 'Parmigiana-reggiano 26 mesi' on the menu I ordered it almost immediately. How lovely, and a bit strange, to be able to order just chunks of really old parmesan! What I didn't know of course (but had expected) was that this was no ordinary parmesan.

The plate came with bricks of crumbly, pungent cheese along with two small pots, one with honey and one with aceto balsamico di modena (originating just miles away). I dunked and dipped, experimenting with the lovely contradiction of flavours: sweet and savoury, creamy and smooth, mild and intense. Honestly, this was a truly unique dining experience for me...and it was divine.



I spent my free travel day hunkered down in my monk's room, trying to work out some finicky details  within my book project, for which I needed a distraction-free zone. This room was perfect - no TV, barely-functioning wifi, no radio, just quiet.

At around 7 pm, as I walked back across the courtyard towards the bistro, I saw the Italian sitting on the bench under the arched portico smoking a cigarette. “Where were you for lunch? I had cooked for you.” I took a step back. “Really? Oh! Sorry about that (the Canadian in me never sleeps). I just decided to keep writing. I hope I didn’t put you out.” He brushed his hand away although I’m not quite sure that he had understood me. He stubbed his cigarette out and flicked it into the terracotta pot on the ground beside the bench, and stood, waving me through the bistro doors.

Again, he offered me a cool glass of Lambrusco, and again I accepted it very hapilly, and brought me a plate of thick bread heaped with ham. Now this was no ordinary ham, which he made clear to me. Unfortunately, I’m not a foodie (and I'm not going to pretend to be) so except for the salty, flavourful meat, which was delicious, I can’t really describe more about it. Of course, I couldn’t tell that there was about a 40€ difference between this and what I ate yesterday. All I can say was that it was very tasty.



The Italian took great care of me, often checking if I was hungry and apologising that he had to cook for the other guests first. I definitely wasn’t hungry, and it was honestly so sweet having that kind of attention paid to me after what has been a rough couple of years in that department. I assured him that I was blissfully content sipping wine, and then he asked if I wanted to come into the kitchen while he cooked. I loved that idea, and followed him with wine in one hand, and my camera in the other.

He said he would be making us something different, as he didn't want to eat spaghetti again. "Something better for us" he grinned. Okay. I was just thinking that this is all pretty perfect and I can watch and learn how to make a few different Italian dishes, from an actual Italian person - glad I hadn't wasted extra money on a cooking class here!

Before I had come to Italy I had looked into cooking classes, food tours, cheese-tasting afternoons and walking excursions around Parma, Bologna and Cinque Terre, but most of the tours were for a minimum of two people, and I was flying solo. So, since he kept reiterating that he wanted to show me the area’s "very good" hospitality, I was more than pleased with this turn of events.



I just hoped that I would remember how to make these, actually very simple, dishes and then also really do it. My problem is follow through. I have lots of great ideas, but the fewest come into fruition and there are no good excuses for why that it is. Well actually, I blame it on netflix.

I watched as the Italian cut off a large, and I’m talking huge, chunk of butter - was it possibly half of a stick, and put it into the already warm pan. Then he picked up a bundle of long, luscious-smelling sage leaves and began pulling off the leaves and added them to the butter. Done. Simple as that.



Add to that Tortelli, a regional stuffed pasta, ravioli-like, from Lombardy, filled with ricotta and spinach, and we had the most savoury and simple meal which would have cost loads in an Italian restaurant in Germany. He spooned seven large Tortelli pockets on my plate, coating them with the sage butter mixture and I’m telling you, it was more than plentiful. We should all try and eat as simply, as locally, and as serenely everyday. I think we would be happier, lighter on our feet and the world would benefit.

“You like?” he looked uncertainly. “Yes, I love!” I assured him. “It really is perfect,” I complimented. He beamed and said, “Ya? Good. Good.” So sweet really.



Receiving two home-cooked meals while on my seven-day Italian vacay was so not on my radar. But, it sure made me happy. And as the Italian drove me to the train station the next morning (“You don’t need to take a taxi! Princess, I have a car of course.”) I knew that these two days spent outside of Parma, being be-cooked (a lovely German term, meaning that someone who cares about you cooks a ton of food for you, while you sit and do nothing) with plump tomatoes, juicy hams, regional pastas and wines, was going to stay with me for a long while. I’m not sure if it was just the cooking, or maybe the monastic-infused hallowed rooms, or maybe just the inspirational Italian-ness of it all. You know, the cooking and loving and gesticulating with such passion and abandon!

The Italian took my head in his hands and pulled me down for a kiss - really, so fast I didn’t have time to react, and as he held me there, I gently pushed him away and smiled and said “Okay, okay, stop the kissing.” “It’s just a kiss!” “Yes, but what about your girlfriend?” “I have no problem!” “Wouldn’t she have a problem?” He grinned and held his hand to his heart, “But I have no problem!” Oh my. I laughed, said goodbye and turned towards the station’s entrance.
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