Friday, November 25, 2011

Thanksgiving in the Sand Box

Thursday was a work day here in UAE and of course they don't celebrate Thanksgiving so it was off to work. A little strange, but when there isn't much around to remind you it's Thanksgiving, it's not too bad.

On Friday afternoon, the Epic crew and some friends got together for a Thanksgiving dinner. We had all the basics: Turkey, homemade stuffing, mashed potatoes and gravy, cranberries and pumpkin pie so it really tasted like the real thing, just with different people. We certainly missed all our family and friends and remain thankful for Skype, Facebook and email so we can stay in touch.

One of the hardest things for me is missing out on the Black Friday sale madness. In case you didn't know, I am one of those crazies who gets up at the crack of dawn in order to get the free $10 gift card or stuffed toy given to the first 100 customers. Not so crazy as to set up a tent the night before (I'm a purist and think that's cheating), but I do get up pretty early on Black Friday. NOTHING even close to that here and even finding a good sale is a bit of a challenge.

Today, we're off to find a Christmas tree. I've actually been surprised by the amount of Christmas stuff you can find. Not at all like back home, but we'll be able to scrounge together a tree and a few decorations - enough to make it feel like the holidays. I'll keep you posted and get a few photos.

Happy Thanksgiving all - hope you enjoyed your holiday!

Thursday, November 24, 2011

We saw Yanni! ... ooops, not THAT Yanni

A couple of weeks ago, I saw an ad either on the web or the Weekly Abu Dhabi magazine for a free concert at Brighton college (which is within walking distance of our compound) put on by the Abu Dhabi Big Band group and featuring Gershwin. Specifically Rhapsody in Blue with guest Yanni on piano. I thought, how cool! I love Gershwin and the chance to see Yanni? WOW!

In hindsight, I realize that most of you would immediately assume that this wasn't THE Yanni (or at least you'd have a fair amount of skepticism and ask a few questions). I didn't and did indeed think we were going to see THE Yanni and here's my defence:

1) Yanni (the real one) was scheduled to perform in Dubai earlier that same month so I figured he was friends with someone in Abu Dhabi and agreed to come and do this little concert for free. (yes, I know how lame that sounds NOW, but it seemed perfectly reasonable at the time)

2) Who calls themselves Yanni that isn't the real Yanni? That would be like Mary Cher Smith calling herself Cher and expecting people to know she wasn't the real one!

3) In the last 2 months Britney Spears, Paul McCartney, Kim Kardashian and Micheal Bolton have visited Abu Dhabi. And Tom Cruise is scheduled to visit Dubai in a couple of weeks for his Mission Impossible movie debut. So, celebrities come here .... often, so why not Yanni?

4) Now that I'm working full time, I have fewer brain cells to dedicate to logical thought.

Weak defense, but that's all I got. What's great is by this point, I've convinced Brian that we're going to see the real Yanni. Well, actually he was quite skeptical, but being the perfect husband that he is, kept it to himself and just nodded and smiled and came with me to the concert.

So off we went to the concert, which was fantastic - I love Gershwin and the Abu Dhabi Big Band Group is really good. Rhapsody in Blue was the finale of course, so I waited expectantly to see Yanni. And of course I did see Yanni, and he was a very good concert pianist, but he was not THE Yanni. By this point of the concert I was pretty sure that I had been mistaken so wasn't overly surprised, but Brian and I did have a pretty hearty laugh about it on the walk home.

Next time, I'll read the fine print. :)

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Ahhhhh, Paris

One last post to wrap up our trip to France because who can resist a few photos of the Eiffel Tower? :) After our weekend in Bordeaux, we arrived in Paris via TGV train around 5:30 and it was already starting to get dark, and was still drizzling. Brian had researched good directions from the train station to the subway to our hotel so off we went and after some trouble buying a metro ticket (we didn't have any coins) we were on our way.

We stayed at one of the Marriott hotels since we had travel points and it was a very nice place (see room photo below). It was also very near the Arc de Triomphe and Trocodero park, which has one of the nicest views of the Eiffel Tower in the city. We got settled and then headed out to see the sights and get some dinner. Here are a few photos to oooh and ahhh over.

Our beautiful hotel room at the Marriott Trocodero

The view outside our hotel window.
Ahhh, La Tour Eiffel at night.
Every hour the Eiffel tower begins blinking with thousands of tiny white lights!
The cute little Parisian cafe where we had dinner, called the Victor Hugo
The Arc of Triumph which sits at the beginning of the Champs Elysee - Paris' most prestigious shopping district ... unfortunately, the stores were closed at this early hour. :(

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Wine Tasting in Graves: Carbonnieux

Our last Chateau in Bordeaux was also in the Graves region and called Chateau Carbonnieux. This was in many ways the prettiest of the Chateaux we visited with grape vines winding their way up the walls of the inner courtyard of the property and rolling hills of vineyards. They also had a collection of old (early 1900s) cars on display which was quite interesting.

The bad news? ... my camera batteries died and I didn't have any spares with me (I can FEEL my Dad cringing as he reads this and then shaking his head with disappointment). I know, Dad, I should ALWAYS CARRY SPARE BATTERIES!

Chateau Cabonnieux is one of the oldest in the region and makes both white and red blends, which was interesting. We had a nice tour through the sorting room, the barrel rooms (separate ones for red and white due to different temperature needs) and we got a demonstration of the weekly stirring of the white blend. For white wines only, they stir the sediment up from the bottom each week to give the wine more structure and flavor. They had a barrel with a glass bottom just for us tourists so we could see her stir up the sludge ... yeah, I didn't think it made a very appetizing picture either, but it was interesting to know.

We also learned that many French wine makers add limestone powder to their white wines and egg whites to their reds to improve the flavor and structure of the wines. For the reds, they whip up a bunch of egg whites and then add them to the top of the vat of red wine and let it settle to the bottom over a period of time (can't remember if it's days or weeks). They then give all the yolks to a local baker and they make a French sweet called Canelle (Can - ah - lay). Imagine a very eggy muffin glazed with sugar and you'll be close. Something about the egg whites gives the wine blender just the taste they are looking for, I guess.

And that was the end of our wine tours and our time in Bordeaux. That afternoon we hopped back on the TGV (high speed train) for our 3 hour trip back to Paris, which you'll hear more about in the next post. For now, I'm off to drink some of that fabulous red wine with dinner. :)

Friday, November 18, 2011

Wine Tasting in Graves: Chateau Haut Bailly

After our rainy day in Bordeaux, we were off to more Chateaux on Monday - this time in the Graves region. Graves means gravel in French and the region is named after their soil with is very gravelly. This is good for varieties like Cabernet Sauvingnon and they also grow Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Chardonnay and Semillion in the region so most of the Chateaux in this region make both white and red wines.

Ironically, we went to the one of the only Chateaux that makes only red in this region, but it wasn't an issue 'cuz it was some really good red. Chateau Haut-Bailly was purchased by an American family who now runs it. They have updated the equipment, but still have many of the old vines (some pushing 100 years!) Their unique approach is to plant multiple varietals in the same plot of land, so you'll have a Cab Sauv plant next to a Merlot next to a Cab Franc ... interesting idea. They then mark each plant with a ribbon to let them know when to harvest that varietal since they mature at different times. It makes for a pretty plot, but I wonder if it's confusing for the pickers?

Here are some pics of our adventure at Chateau Haut Bailly.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

A Rainy Day in Bordeaux

Wine tours don't run on Sundays during the off season, so we had the day to ourselves to explore Bordeaux. Unfortunately, 95% of the stores were also closed on Sunday so shopping wasn't on the agenda. Instead we wandered the streets of Bordeaux and dodged the raindrops - we both carried umbrellas the entire day as it rained pretty steadily all day long. We actually enjoyed it for the most part - it's the most rain we've seen in almost a year and it was a refreshing change from hot and sandy.

Later in the afternoon, we decided to spend the rest of our day at a wine bar Brian found on Trip Advisor. It sounded like the perfect place to have a nice bottle of red wine, a cheese plate and people watch. It was a really good plan and according to the web directions Brian found, only a 10 minute walk from our hotel. You can already guess what's coming, can't you? ... about 45 minutes into our walk we stopped someone and asked for the street name we were looking for. First, the nice French gentleman asked if we spoke English, and then he shook his head and said, "you are quite far". Once we stopped laughing we got directions back the way we came and took the tram. Turns out, the street name was on the opposite side of the street behind us and we missed it and just kept going.

What's even better is that when we did finally find the wine bar (over an hour after heading out) we were met with a closed sign on the door. Apparently, this place is sooo popular that they can close on Sundays! (sigh) But never fear, we were in Bordeaux so finding another spot to enjoy a bottle of wine didn't take long. :)

Here are a few pics from our wonderfully rainy day.

Tomorrow we head to the Graves Region for some more wine tours!

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Wine Tasting in St. Emilion: Chateau Fonplegade

Our final Chateau visit in St. Emilion was Chateau Fonplegade. This Chateau also makes a Grand Cru (see previous post) and a second level wine under a different name. Fonplegade seemed a bit more high tech and are currently experimenting with cement barrels to store some of their wine. It's the first vintage to try this, so the jury is still out on what kind of a difference it will make. At the very least, they looked interesting. :) Another photo you'll see below is of their blending room - again, it all looked very high tech and Brian and I could imagine a slightly drunk mad scientist at work in the lab concocting all sorts of yummy red grape juice! Enjoy the photos.

A cool view from the inside of one of the wine vats.

Doesn't this look like the perfect spot for Thanksgiving dinner?
The mad wine scientist blending room.
The funky wine barrels mentioned above.

Friday, November 11, 2011

The Town of St. Emilion

In between our Chateaux visits, we spent some time in the little town of St. Emilion. This town is a UNESCO heritage site and really really cute. It sits atop a hill and you get a great view of the town and the vineyards. At the top of that hill stands a lovely church and of course, there are wine shops and French bakeries as far as the eye can see. Here are a few pics to enjoy.

Next up? The Chateau Fonplegarde, also in St. Emilion.

Wine Tasting in St. Emilion: Chateau de Ferrand

Our first Wine Tasting tour took place in the St. Emilion region which was about a 45 minute drive from Bordeaux. The drive was beautiful, although rainy, as the trees are all turning color right now and starting to fall.

We started at Chateau de Ferrand = Ferrand Castle or Manor House (the French don't use the term winery) and had a wonderful tour of the grounds, the barrel room, the bottle room and then, of course, the tasting room where we were allowed to try 4 of their wines. Chateau de Ferrand is a St. Emilion Grand Cru, which is to say one of the highest rated wines in the region. Most Chateaux make 2 levels of wine, a Grand Cru, which is their best and then a 2nd press which is a lower quality and under a different label so as not to dilute the Chateaux name and reputation. This is different from US wines where the label (i.e. Bergstrom) will make a number of different wines at various qualities and usually call their best one a "Reserve". Here in Bordeaux region the other labels may not even be easily tied to the original Chateau. For example, at Chateau de Ferrand, the Grand Cru label is Chateau de Ferrand and the 2nd label is something else, which I tried to look up on the web and couldn't find. A Google search of Chateau de Ferrand only brings up that label ... I guess they're serious about not getting the two confused. The most interesting thing for me about this Chateau is that it is currently owned by Baron Bich (which the owner of the Bic pen company in the US). His daughter married a guy from the Chandon family (famous California champagne winery) and now operate this Chateau. Can you imagine the party they must have had for that wedding? :) Here are a few pics of Chateau de Ferrand.

Next we'll visit the cute little town of St. Emilion ...

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Getting to Bordeaux

For the 3 day Eid holiday, we headed off to Bordeaux, France to do a little wine tasting, enjoy some fall weather and relax. The trip would be considered long by our old standards, but when a trip home now takes around 20 hours, a mere 9 to get to Bordeaux doesn't seem too bad.

We left just before midnight to catch our 1:40am flight to Paris from Abu Dhabi. We both had a nap before heading out and got a fair amount of sleep on the flight over. Air France is fairly nice, especially the food, but the seats aren't that comfortable (not like Etihad! :) Luckily, most of the passengers wanted to sleep since we were due to arrive in Paris at 6am so the flight was quiet and restful.

We arrived in Paris, Charles du Gualle, got our luggage and headed off to the TGV - the high speed train that can take you all over France and many parts of Europe. While our French is a bit rusty, we managed just fine and settled in for the 4 hour train ride to Bordeaux - more sleep in seats that were much more comfortable than the plane.

We got to Bordeaux, St. Jean station just before noon and were met by our Wine Tour Guide Pierre-Jean and whisked off to our hotel, a nice little Best Western in the heart of town. We had about an hour to rest and find some lunch before heading out on our first wine tour of the trip. And since we were both starving, we resisted the rest and headed off to find lunch.

Lunch was quiche and a pizza from a small shop and I think we were supposed to have it heated, but didn't know the words or didn't understand the question or something. We ended up eating both cold, which was fine, but kind of funny. We also found a chocolate shop across the street and had to stop in for a few treats! :)

Then it was off to meet the small group headed to St. Emillion for our wine tour of the afternoon. More on that tomorrow. In the meantime, here are a few photos of Bordeaux - more to come in future posts.

Beautiful little church at the end of a street near our hotel

It was rainy for our whole trip, but we didn't mind after such a hot summer in Abu Dhabi.

This tram travels all over Bordeaux and ensures the center of town is mostly pedestrian.

These flowers are planted outside a church. I loved the color combination and how tightly packed they were.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Eid Mubarak!

Another Islamic holiday starts tomorrow, this one called Eid Al Adha or Greater Eid or Festival of Sacrifice. The festival to commemorate the willingness of Abraham (Ibrahim) to sacrifice his son Ishmael (Isma'il) as an act of obedience to God, before God intervened to provide him with a ram to sacrifice instead. The meat is divided into three parts. The family retains one third of the share; another third is given to relatives, friends and neighbors; and the other third is given to the poor and needy. (and yes, I pulled this off Wikipedia!)

Although this is called 'big' Eid, I've heard less about it than Eid Al Fitr ('little' Eid), maybe because little Eid comes after the fasting month of Ramadan and as such is a bigger deal? Or maybe because I'm working full time now and not reading the newspaper as regularly or trolling the Abu Dhabi websites and circulars for things to keep me busy. :) What I do know is that the official holiday starts tomorrow (Sat) and we get 3 days off of work (Sun-Tue). Five days off (Fri-Tue) - can't say I've ever had a holiday like that back in the US.

When you work for an airline, these holidays are all about where you plan to travel. For the past week, the most common small talk has been around where everyone is spending Eid. It's really not much of an option to stay home for 5 days when you have such amazing flight discounts so most employees jet off somewhere or have friends or family visit them. (Our discounts also include spouse, parents, parents-in-law and children up to age 30 and 10 supplemental tickets per year for anyone you want). When I joined Etihad in September, the policy was that you had to be working for 3 months before any of your flight discounts kicked in, but just this week, they changed things so your immediate family discounts are valid from day one - nice change but a few weeks too late to affect our holiday plans.

So what are the Stolls doing this Big Eid? We cashed in some leftover Delta Sky Miles and are off to France for the weekend. From Paris, we'll take the high speed train to Bordeaux and spend almost 3 days wine tasting, eating and relaxing. The high temps listed are around 60F so we're looking forward to having to wear socks and sweaters! (the weather is MUCH better here now, but still in the high 80s) Today we'll be packing, cleaning the apartment and determining exactly how we'll bring our allotment of 6 bottle of wine back with us from France. :)

Enjoy your weekend be it long or short! Eid Mubarak!

(Below is one of the emails we got for Eid - sending email or card greetings is common at all the Eid holidys. I thought this one particularly beautiful so thought I'd share it.)