Berkeley croissant class – July 13 – 6-9 pm

Bonjour mes amis! Vous aimez les croissants? Bien sûr!

Want to learn to make croissants in time for Bastille Day? Bien sûr!

Robin O’Donnell, local baker extraordinaire, will be offering a three-hour class from 6-9 pm on Friday, July 13th. You’ll come away with not only croissants and dough, but the knowledge to impress your family and friends for your “brunch du 14 juillet” (You are having one, right?)

The class is just $50 and will be held at Robin’s home kitchen in Berkeley, just off of the northside of the UC Berkeley campus.

Slots are limited, so RSVP (by contacting Cyrus) soon!

Eat Your World, pentaquery edition

Last week, I came across the website of Eat Your World, a relatively new concept that merges two of my favorite things: wanderlust and essenlust (that’s right Germans, I’m inventing new words in your language!). So I tossed them five questions by e-mail. (Also known as a pentaquery. Yes, I’m neologizing up the wazoo.)

1) How and when did EYW get started? Where are you based? What’s been the best thing you’ve eaten since you started this? Most surprising?

Scott: In late 2009 we were traveling through Colombia. We’ve always traveled a lot, selling stories as a freelance writer (Laura) and photographer (me). As we normally would do in our travels, we were searching for the most authentic local dishes. While in the beautiful city of Cartagena, we looked at each other and realized we should be doing this for a living. Nothing makes us happier than finding the dishes that define a city or even a culture—well…except eating them. Within an hour we came up with the name, and I ran to the nearest computer to buy the domain. It was literally $10 and a dream.

Laura: We’re based in a super diverse neighborhood of Queens, called Jackson Heights. It couldn’t be more suited to us—you often feel like you’re in another country here, for better or worse. And the food is wonderful: authentic, unpretentious, cheap, and delicious. It’s proven an awesome place to learn about other cultures’ foods in our own backyard.

Scott: New Orleans was one of the first cities we chose to highlight after starting the site. I think we made ourselves sick eating so much amazing food (which started a recurring theme for many of our trips). When Laura told me one of the dishes was BBQ shrimp, I thought of shrimp grilled on a barbecue. However, it instead was giant shrimps with probably a pound of butter and the most delicious, unique flavor. We ate it for breakfast because we had so many more dishes to try that day. It was surprisingly beautiful and hit all the senses. It was a shame we had no time to go back for a second serving.

Laura: “Best” is a really tough call—we seem to find something we love in every city we cover. Some all-time favorites include a perfect taco al pastor in Mexico City, Delhi’s chole bhature (a.k.a. best breakfast ever), this historic take on “meat fruit” by Heston Blumenthal in London. Surprising, well—as far as foods go, I was pretty surprised by how much I liked this chicken-fried steak in Austin, Texas. It’s one of those famous regional foods, but having grown up in New Jersey, I’d never had before. I didn’t get it—but now I get it.

In terms of cities, Detroit surprised me; it’s so diverse and has such great Middle Eastern, Polish, and Greek influences on its dining scene, but even its really old-school foods, like basic sliders and city chicken, were terrific. Same goes with Buffalo, NY—the wings are perfection, of course, but its sponge candy has become one of my favorite sweets—and even Amsterdam and Prague — always the cities whose food you hear dissed all the time. I don’t get it!

2) What do you make of the hipster/organic/upper-class/trendy aspect of food? Do you consider yourselves a counterweight to that?

Laura: I wouldn’t lump all those things together—I guess there’s the trendy fetish with food and Top Chef-dom, and then there’s the organic aspect, which might be seen as “upper class” but at heart is really a backlash against the industrialization of our agricultural system. Of course, it can go too far—I don’t understand the point of $4 organic bananas!—but it all means well, I suppose. Same goes with the trendy side: I think it’s mostly a good thing, if it means more people paying more attention to food, what they feed themselves and their families. A “locavore” menu that sources ingredients locally is now a very hip thing to offer, and though it’s admittedly easy to poke a little fun at how extreme the local-artisanal craze can be, I love the idea of supporting local farms and producers whenever possible. But even though Eat Your World’s definition of “local food” is not exclusively what’s actually produced in the area, we recognize that local soils, waters, and climates definitely influence what’s eaten in a place, especially when you’re looking at a region’s past. So along with food that’s indigenous or traditional, locavore is our third criteria for what gets covered on Eat Your World.

To answer your second question: I don’t think of us as counterweights to anything; we just take a unique approach. We examine food through a cultural prism, considering a locale’s history, past and present demographics, native ingredients. We were travelers long before we were professional eaters in any sense, and food has always been our favorite jumping-off point for exploring new places. To us, that’s just what makes sense. It’s not going to be everyone’s idea of what they should eat in a city, but there are plenty of other sites out there covering a city’s hottest restaurants. And hopefully everyone eats some of that city’s distinct foods while in that city. What’s the point of traveling if you’re only going to eat Italian food everywhere you go? (That is, when you’re not traveling in Italy!)

3) How can people incorporate EYW into their everyday lives, whether they live in Winnipeg or Wellington?
Scott: Unfortunately, we have not yet covered the two cities you mention, but locals (or travelers) in those areas can add their local foods to our site and help build our database. For example, someone from Winnipeg can upload some smoked goldeye; from Wellington a traditional pavlova. If you’re not into taking pictures of your food, you can write a Food Memory on virtually any topic that’s food-related (e.g., your favorite meal ever, a childhood memory of food). On the site, you can read our weekly updated blog, which features Q&As from local-food producers, recipes, news, and travel photos/stories, or you can just browse the content we have on the site and learn about 28-plus cities and the foods that define them. Maybe you’ll plan your next trip!

Laura: In the sense of applying the EYW philosophy to day-to-day living, we’ve had users tell us that thinking about our criteria—what foods might be considered native, traditional, or locavore—and applying them to their own hometowns is a fun, even challenging learning experience. We’re hoping that people take pride in whatever foods and drinks their area has contributed to the world, and that they want to show them off! And people anywhere can otherwise make the extra effort to eat locally sourced foods in their town. (Those foods can be shared on EYW, too.)

4) Do you guys make money off the site? What are your day jobs?

Laura: We do aim to monetize the site via advertisers, but it will be a while before we quit our day jobs. Since 2003, when we started traveling more seriously, I’ve worked as a freelance writer and editor. Currently I freelance regularly for two different magazines as a copy editor half the month and spend the rest of my time, about two weeks, working from home on the site and any other writing assignments that crop up.

Scott: I’m a freelance photographer, but have been working in educational publishing for about seven years. I’ve done everything from shooting the photos you see in books to licensing and researching images. Now I manage a staff and deal more with operations and budgets. I look forward to working full-time on the website one day soon!

Laura: The fact that we’re both freelancers has been key to being able to travel as much as we can afford, and think outside the traditional-career box.

5) What’s your culinary guilty pleasure?

Scott: The website gives me an escape from the rules and regulations I put on my relatively healthy New York lifestyle. When traveling, I’ll drink amazing new beers daily, as we did in Amsterdam. I don’t eat beef when I’m not working on the site, but in Prague I ate a raw-beef dish called tatarák (similar to steak tartare) twice, it was so delicious! I am also not a big dessert eater normally, but it seems that in every city we visit, I fall in love with another sweet, unhealthy piece of deliciousness, like sticky toffee pudding in London.

Laura: Oh, I have so many guilty pleasures. Late-night greasy pizza—or street meat—in New York City. Late-night eggs at a New Jersey diner. Salt-and-vinegar potato chips on the beach. Cold leftover Chinese food out of the fridge. Pigs in a blanket with spicy mustard. Swedish Fish [the candy] and Kit-Kats and chocolate-peanut-butter-crunch ice cream. I’d go on, but I’m getting really hungry.

Americans, our mobile phones cost way too much

So it’s no secret that we’re moving back to the US in April. As can be expected, I’m starting to think about all the logistical things that we’ll need when we get there, particularly mobile phones.

Right now, Bex and I both have unlocked iPhones. We are prepaid customers with, a German MVNO of E-Plus. We spend probably something like a combined €40 a month for prepaid access on our phones. It costs us €0.09 for outgoing calls to any German number, €0.09 a text to any German mobile, and €10/month for 1GB of 3G data. This is fantastic. (Don’t want to go with Blau? Here’s a handy chart easily comparing the 14 different options.)

So, in the US, what are our options?

If we want to keep our iPhones, our choices are pretty limited.

We can either go with AT&T (and sign a new two-year contract). For two people (family plan), 550 minutes/month, unlimited texting and Internet on both phones: $170/month.

Or, we can keep my existing T-Mobile plan. In that case, we’re looking at $80/month for unlimited everything for one line, nearly double that (about $150) with another line. And, of course, because T-Mobile and AT&T use different 3G frequencies, we’re limited to EDGE speeds in the US.

Another possibility is H20 Wireless, the only AT&T MVNO in the US, which offers unlimited text/minutes and 1GB of 3G data at $120/month for two phones. They don’t get stellar reviews, but as far as I can tell this largely has to do with their terrible customer service and the fact that they claim to offer unlimited (which turns out not actually to be unlimited).

$120/month is obviously better than $170/month, but it’s obviously not as good as what we’ve been paying here in Europe (€40 or $53/month prepaid for two phones, including 3G.)

Of course, if we sell our iPhones and get something else, like an Android phone, then we can get better speeds on T-Mobile and their MVNO, Simple Mobile.

The worst part, in the US, we get charged for incoming calls as well! As far as I know, this is the only country in the world that does thing. Why can’t we have service in the US?

CTIA, I’m sorry, but you’re just ripping us off.

Photo credit: Yutaka Tsutano

Update (March 6, 2012): I just found out about Straight Talk, an AT&T MVNO that offers $45/mo for unlimited min/text/data. Recently, the company started offering a SIM-only plan (BYO phone), which can be used with the iPhone. Some folks like it so far. Very interesting.

Hidden Europe: five questions, five answers

I first discovered hidden europe in mid-2011, admiring the ethos, voice, and style of the magazine, which touts: “Welcome to hidden europe. We promise a fresh perspective on well trodden trails, and a cool look at undiscovered corners.”

I sent over a few questions by e-mail to the magazine’s founders and editors, Nicky Gardner and Susanne Kries, the two Berlin-based women behind the organization.

CF: How did the magazine get started? How do you get the word out?

NG: Looking back a few years, I’d say Susanne and I were struck how the world of travel is all glitz and gloss, too wrapped up in the experience of the traveller. At least, that’s the impression you get from the travel industry and from the majority of travel publications. Our own experience of travel was so very different, much more rooted in communities. It was quieter, gentler. So we launched hidden europe as an antidote to modern mainstream travel writing. And it’s worked. We concentrate on the everyday and fleshes out the life of real people in real places. It is a sad truth that much of the travel pages in magazines are nowadays merely advertisements in disguise.

SK: Often a very feeble disguise, if I may say so. And that is one of the things you will not find in our magazine: advertising. For us it is important to write quietly about a place as opposed to taunting promo slogans. We are a niche publication, but one with an extremely loyal readership in about 30 countries. In our writing, we seek to recover the simplicity that underpinned some of best travel writing of yesteryear. And it is that style together with an eclectic mix of topics that our readers enjoy. I’d say our subscribers are the best PR we have, but we also reach out with our regular e-brief, called ‘Letter from Europe’, and have a modest presence on twitter (@hiddenEurope). And our work is widely quoted.

CF: Are you guys really self-sufficient? What are your day jobs? How much time are you able to devote to the magazine?

SK: We are a small editorial bureau. hidden europe magazine is one part of a portfolio of things we do, though certainly the one for which we are best known. Of course we do a fair amount of travelling both for the magazine and other projects. We rely on a mixed portfolio of work: writing, editing, consultancy. Travel is part of our jobs, but in truth being a successful travel writer is 90 percent writing and 10 percent travel.

NG: We also write for various print and online media. These past twelve months our material has been featured in publications from northern Norway to Ukraine. And we have a good relationship with Thomas Cook Publishing, for whose best-selling guidebook — Europe by Rail — we are responsible. We have also taken other projects on board, like last year’s Bus-Pass Britain title for Bradt Travel Guides. So, yes, we are self-sufficient. But make no mistake. We both work formidably hard. It’s not all fun.

CF: What’s been the most hidden-est place that you’ve been to in 2011?

NG: Well, Karelia was a highlight in 2011. While we were travelling on the trail of Orthodox spirituality on the Finnish side of the Russian-Finnish border we came to a place called Ilomantsi. It is a small town on a lakeshore and we stayed over night in the town’s sanatorium which is a bit like staying in a hospital. Given the preponderance of less healthy inmates, it made us feel virtuously healthy.

SK: But the real gem there was meeting Father Jannis, the Orthodox priest who serves that remote community in Ilomantsi. He is Greek, but had studied in Finland, marrying a local woman and adding Finnish to his impressive portfolio of languages. He was wonderfully welcoming, even to the extent that he spontaneously switched from Finnish to English during the Great Vespers on Saturday evening to make his English-speaking guests feel welcome. I remember that we went to Mendin’s Kebab and Pizzeria later that evening. I guess for Berliners a kebab imparts a feeling of home.

NG: And we had another memorable journey to Tetovo in Macedonia last year, where we met Abdulmuttalip Bekiri, the presiding Dervish in Tetovo. Wherever we go, we really take time to seek out lesser known communities. Tetovo was really a fine moment. It came as a happy antidote to some less memorable episodes as we travelled through Macedonia. I still shiver when I think of the horrendously cold monastery where we stayed on the shores of Lake Ohrid right by the Albanian border.

CF: How can people apply the “hidden” ethos to their own backyard, or wherever they are that’s not Europe?

SK: What a good question. ‘Hidden’ is a state of mind. When travelling, divert from the main road and check out the byways. When arriving at a small place, go to a café, sit down and let the world go by. In a nutshell, adapt what we might call the principles of slow travel. hidden europe magazine is very much about slow travel, about deceleration rather than speed. The key to slow travel is a state of mind — and that can be developed anywhere, even at home. We published our “Manifesto for Slow Travel” three years ago in hidden europe magazine. It has since been picked up more widely, online as well as in other print media. If you are interested, you can read that text online on our website.

CF: What place are you most excited about discovering in 2012?

NG: We are very much looking forward to visiting San Marino next month, a tiny country that strangely enough neither of us has ever been to. It’s a curious relic of Napoleon’s romp through central Italy, a little geopolitical oddity. Just the sort of quirky spot that’s calculated to appeal to hidden europe.

SK: But it is not just about discovering new places. Sometimes there’s real pleasure in revisiting routes and places that have featured on earlier itineraries. In the week before Easter, we are going to take the Bernina railway from Tirano (in Italy) over to St. Moritz in Switzerland. This is a fabulous route. Last time we rode the train from north to south, and that was captured in a feature for hidden europe. This time we shall take the Bernina from south to north: a different direction, and surely a very different experience. On a more adventurous note, we are looking forward to making tracks for Russia again.

Belarus not restricting Internet access after all?

January 5 Update: Here’s what I edited for Deutsche Welle today: Contrary to reports, Belarus plans no Internet censorhip

So I was perusing tech news online today and I came across this IDG news story: “Belarus said to restrict access to foreign websites.”

Belarus has introduced a law that imposes restrictions on citizens and residents in the country visiting or using foreign websites, according to Global Legal Monitor, an online publication of the Law Library of Congress in Washington.

Under the new law, which goes into effect Jan. 6, transactions from Belarus on the website of a foreign Internet company such as would be illegal, and the Internet company may be sued for violating national law, wrote Peter Roudik, the author of the article.

As Roudik wrote himself:

The newly published Law imposes restrictions on visiting and/or using foreign websites by Belarusian citizens and residents.

…owners and administrators of Internet cafés or other places that offer access to the Internet might be … fined and their businesses might be closed if users of Internet services provided by these places are found visiting websites located outside of Belarus.

Probably Amazon would close access to its website for visitors from Belarus.

Sounds pretty sinister. So I thought I would seek comment from my Internet-minded colleagues, including Keir Giles, who I recently interviewed for Deutsche Welle. He’s the director of the Conflict Studies Research Centre, an Oxford-based non-profit research center that provides analysis on Russia and the region.

Giles speaks Russian (I don’t), and after digging through some of the links, and here’s what he came back with after reviewing the original, Russian-language text of the law.

“The only people who are banned from using foreign services altogether are commercial entities, and then only for use in their business. Which would be a bit of a blow if you run a business, but it’s administered by the tax police, so you can see why they’re doing it – revenue collection not censorship. They’re closing loopholes by specifying in the legal process exactly what the crime is and what the penalty is.

Giles added that this wasn’t much of a story, except that it’s been misrepresented by the US Congress link.

He called what the US Library of Congress blog post “hugely misleading, and it makes it look like a blanket ban, and massive censorship, when it’s not. No Great Firewall of Belarus.”

Later, he chatted to me the text of the full decree, saying that the “list of banned content is in Art. 8. Not a word about whether websites are foreign or not.”

This is the complete administrative violations code which the new law adds to. The addition is tucked in behind ‘breaches of official procedure for distributing compulsory free copies of documents’ and ‘disclosure of service secrets through negligence.’ The new law really does just set the fines for the offences established in the decree.”

“Also, there doesn’t seem to be any basis for the suggestion that shopping on Amazon would be illegal, and Amazon could be sued for shipping to Belarus,” he added. “The law only affects businesses actually set up and registered in Belarus itself.”

I’m still waiting to hear from Peter Roudik, the director of the Global Legal Research Center at the Library of Congress, and a native Russian-speaker for his comments.