Amsterdam – Part I


I found Amsterdam to be a romantic city with its canals, old-fashioned street lamps, picturesque shops and cozy coffee houses. Night fell swiftly at 4:30 pm and the decorative lamps cast a golden glow over the canals and cobbled streets. It’s a compact, walkable city, however a word of warning – beware when crossing the street! Squadrons of cyclists advance at a fast clip. I nearly got myself run over more than once.


Christmas wreaths hung in windows and adorned doors. As I walked along admiring them, I thought to myself – in France, they’d be stolen overnight, along with the bicycles.

There’s a sense of virtuousness about the Dutch which I find deeply appealing. They look virtuous as they cycle energetically along (whole families sometimes, the children in a little cart attached to the bicycle or riding on the crossbar), fresh-faced and smiling, their bodies lean and fit. They also employ a no-nonsense pragmatism in their politics. A progressive city, Amsterdam has the most liberal and tolerant policies with regards to prostitution and soft drugs. Prostitution is legalized. There’s a common sense to this. By working in a controlled environment, prostitutes are protected from violence and exploitation. As for health issues, they must undergo regular medical examinations to prevent the spread of STDs. This sounds safer and saner than what one sees in Paris – male and female prostitutes lurking behind trees in the Bois de Boulogne.

As for legalized hash and marijuana, the benefits are a safer product, elimination of dealers and illicit revenue going towards criminal organizations and drug cartels.


As is the custom in all northern European countries, coffee and cake (koffie en gebak) is a morning and afternoon ritual in which to enjoy almond and butter cookies, apple turnovers, gingerbread, streusel, different cakes and fruit-filled pies. Coffee shops and tea salons abound.


My hotel (link below) was perfectly located at number 15 Keizersgracht, a long road that runs parallel to a canal and winds around the city. A 10-minute walk from the train station, the hotel has soundproofed rooms equipped with comfortable beds and a deluxe espresso machine. Small shopping streets, lined on either side with boutiques, coffee shops and restaurants are just up the road. I was charmed the whole time I was there. (If you book your train tickets well in advance, you benefit from a considerable discount.)

Don’t expect sunny weather. Although fairly mild, it’s generally overcast during the winter months and even blustery as winds gust in from the North Sea.


MORE TO COME – the canal houses, more photos, and the famous Rijksmuseum.

a different kind of Christmas Eve

sapin chez Rana

Last night I spent Christmas Eve in the north of France (in Lille) with an Iraqi family in their beautiful new home.

Majid is the brother of my French-Iraqi friend, Kaïss. Rana is Majid’s wife. They have four children. Seeking asylum from the never-ending violence in Iraq, Majid, Rana and their kids arrived in France – from Baghdad – in October 2014. For the first few months they camped out in Kaïss’s living room. They had sold all their earthly possessions and were living out of suitcases. In 2014 Baghdad was an extremely dangerous place to be (Iraq is still an extremely dangerous place to be.) The lives of Majid and his family were in danger. A civil servant, Majid had been the victim of ISIS car bombing attempts. Another brother, Issam, was the victim of an Al-Qaeda attack a few years earlier. On a Baghdad street, he was randomly shot in the spine. Today, a paraplegic, Issam is confined to a wheelchair.

Not one single Iraqi family has been spared the violence and destruction inflicted on their country.

So Majid and Rana sought asylum in France. It required much planning and paperwork. With their children, they arrived in Paris via Istanbul. Kaïss met them at the airport, drove them to Lille and welcomed them into his small home. Eventually the four kids, not speaking a word of French, were allowed to start school. Majid and Rana took advantage of the free French lessons given by the Town Hall (in every city in France, free French lessons are offered to new arrivals.)

They eventually found themselves a teeny-tiny apartment to rent. The apartment was damp, dark, and full of mice. In the winter, the back bedroom was so damp, cold and mouldy it was declared a health risk. The kids had to move out of the back bedroom into the front room where all six of them slept. There was insufficient heating. (In Baghdad they had left behind a very nice house with a garden.) They lived in that apartment for two years while waiting for the decision from OFPRA (Office Français de Protection des Réfugiés et Apatrides) – The French Office for the Protection of Refugees and Stateless Persons.

Majid and Rana were summoned to the OFPRA office (based in Paris) many times for in-depth interviews. Their dossier was being studied for eligibility to be awarded the right of asylum. Due to extremely high demand, it’s a very slow process.

During this time Majid was extremely unhappy. He wanted to return to Iraq. “I don’t even want to be here,” he would say. “I want to be at home in my house with my mother and brothers and sisters up the street.” He was angry, and rightfully so. During the 2003 invasion of Iraq – when the Bush Administration decided, illegally and illegitimately, to pulverise Baghdad and remove Saddam – Majid and Kaïss lost their father. Out of the 12,125 violent civilian deaths that occurred in 2003, their father was amongst the victims.

The total Iraqi violent death toll since the U.S.-led invasion is in excess of 1.2 million. This statistic is before ISIS.

The number of Iraqis approved to resettle in the United States is shamefully low.

In the meantime and back in Lille, Rana excelled at French lessons. An engineer by profession, she was not content to follow the free French lessons at the Town Hall (overcrowded classrooms, inadequate infrastructure and non-personalized instruction). She sought and found a better language school which offers smaller classes and personalized instruction. She purchased her own textbooks, studied very hard, and today her French is near-fluent (both written and spoken.) Last night I was looking at her notes. She was explaining to me a complicated rule about French grammar.

She’s eager to find work and start earning a salary, as is Majid. (In France, while your dossier is being examined by OFPRA, you are not allowed to work.)

Six months ago the family was admitted into Lille’s social housing program, into a spanking new building located on the north-west side of the city. It’s a beautiful top-floor apartment spread over two floors with three bedrooms, two bathrooms and a large outdoor terrace overlooking the rooftops of that part of the city. One of the first things they bought was a barbecue for grilling lamb chops and kibbeh – minced meat ground with bulghur wheat and spices. Iraqis love all kinds of grilled meat (and fish).

The apartment gleams, and Rana has decorated it with tasteful furnishings and knick-knacks.

So last night we sat down to platters of rice, bulghur, roasted chicken, a chick pea and lamb dish, vegetables, salad, and a refreshing yogurt drink with mint in it.

table two Rana

me on the right, Rana in the middle, Kaiss’s wife on the left

dinner Rana

Majid foreground, his older brother Kaiss background

After dinner, we sat on the sofas drinking hot sugared tea served in small glasses. I admired the twinkling tree in the corner and said “It’s not often that you see a Christmas tree in a Muslim home. It’s nice.” Kaïss and his brother looked at one another and said, “Growing up in a tightknit mixed community in central Baghdad, we always shared some of the customs of the Christian Iraqis. They put up a tree, so we put up a tree.”

(Kaïss, Majid and Rana are Kurdish Iraqis.)

As I sat there sipping my tea I thought to myself, These brave resistant people – who have been through so much danger, heartache and horror – and it’s been relentless, just one conflict following the other – I wish for them, and all those like them, nothing but peace, a new life, a new hope and prosperity for the New Year (and all the future years to come) and a healing of their shattered, broken country.

P.S. Majid still hopes to one day return to his country and the family he left behind.

Astier restaurant

Restaurant? Bistro? Brasserie? I’d call it an expensive neighborhood eatery that serves up traditional French food from a limited menu. All Parisian restaurants are expensive, which explains why I don’t eat out much. (To be truthful, I love cooking. I really enjoy buying good wine and produce and making nice meals at home.) But we were celebrating our upcoming shared birthday, Andreas and I, and had decided on this restaurant in the 11th arrondissement near Place de la République.


Last night was cold and clear, a perfect winter’s night for walking outdoors. I took the metro to Parmentier then strode along the avenue de la République to this place.


The interior was warm and welcoming … with a décor that hasn’t changed since the 1970s (or earlier.) It’s small inside with tables placed in a somewhat higgledy-piggledy fashion.


I have a sixth sense about restaurants. I can walk in and pretty much know (more or less) what’s in store. This was my appetizer of snails. (Correction: I thought I was eating a modernized version of the traditional snail dish, because I had ordered snails. But I’ve just looked at the bill again and it’s marked “tartelette champignons” which means I was eating a mushroom tart!) In any case, it was delicious.


Delicious lamb to follow. Do you see that tiny tureen of gnocchi on the left? That was for us to share. And the wine was disappointing, I’m afraid. I called it “flabby.” “Flabby?” said Andreas. “Unstructured,” I replied. In other words, limp. At 33 euros for the bottle, I had expected something better.


The cheese tray was a hit.



After dinner we walked to the Place de la République for a nightcap in the lobby bar of a hotel. I had Drambuie on the rocks. A mouse was scampering around the lobby. The staff saw it and did nothing (actually, they laughed.) We said something, but they still did nothing, other than offer us a drink “on the house”.

Two of my favorite Parisian restaurants – reasonably-priced, delicious food, fun places with lots of ambience – remain the Bistro Paul Bert and Le 6 Paul Bert, both on the same street. I drank a memorable Saint-Joseph Côte du Rhône at the 6 Paul Bert exactly three years ago. Here’s the link to that fun evening and restaurant review –


Yule log / bûche de Noël

buche one.jpg

Yule logs, called bûches de Noël here, are big in France over the Christmas holidays. Light and creamy, they concorde beautifully with a glass or two of sparkling wine or champagne. Prepared in every pâtisserie around the country, they come in different sizes and flavors. I like chestnut flavor. I was watching my favorite New York Times cook and food writer, Melissa Clark, make her yule log (with the help of a pastry chef) and thought it would be fun to compare her log with the log of a French chef.

What Melissa didn’t do, but the French chef did, once the cake was rolled up, but also before it was rolled up, was to brush it generously with a syrup made of sugared water and Cointreau. This moistens the cake and gives it added flavor. If children are eating the log, substitute the Cointreau with a mixture of sugared water, orange zest and vanilla. The French chef rolled his cake a lot tighter than Melissa did hers (I thought her roll-up was too loose.) He also used a silicone cake pan. But what’s really interesting is the icing (or frosting, as Americans call it.) The French chef used a pastry piping bag and piped lines of icing onto the cake. This is niftier than using a spatula. He made the whole operation look, well, effortless. Either way, the end result of both logs is a decorative and delicious work of art.  

a staggeringly huge book list for holiday gifts


I have never seen such a huge reading list as this one. Just reading the different categories and looking at the titles takes an hour! If you fail to find a single book of interest in this vast, varied and vibrant compilation, I’d be very surprised.

A few of my favorite categories are: