Moving on from WEBMU

The Whiny Expat Bloggers Meet-Up has been an annual treat for us, through which we’ve met fantastic people and explored areas (sometimes new, sometimes familiar) through a local’s eyes. In the last few years, we’ve taken on an organizational role, helping the hosts execute the event, lending guidance and fomenting discussion. However, this feels like the right time for us to step back.

We’re open to attending future meetups, but WEBMU needs a new driver if it is to continue. We’d be happy to hand over the existing resources (blog, FB and forums) to anyone who wants to carry on. Or maybe WEBMU will continue under someone else’s auspices, but in a different form. If you’d like to try giving WEBMU a facelift, go for it. Contact either of us via any of the methods listed here. And if there’s no interest, we’ll eventually shut down the meetup’s online presence.

It’s been a good run, and lots of fun, and we still have and value friends we made through WEBMU. Thanks to everyone who has participated and made it so special!

Indian Meatballs (Kofta)

We learned three things from this recipe:

  1. You CAN get a restaurant-like texture to your sauces at home if you’re patient enough to let them simmer the full time and are willing to get a few more pieces of equipment dirty
  2. Metzgerei Salzberger is our new hookup for ground lamb in Regensburg
  3. A rice cooker is certainly a convenience a lot of the time, but we can do great pilau rice on the stovetop, too.

More on those three points:
Continue reading Indian Meatballs (Kofta)

Hong Kong Trip, Part 4: Shopping

In February 2012, we flew to Hong Kong for about a week. This was our first (non-business) trip to Asia. You can read Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3 to catch up.

 

Hong Kong is a shopper’s paradise. Produce, seafood, meat (including meat that is still clucking and quacking), electronics, knock-offs, fancy boutique stuff, touristy trinkets, you name it, and someone will be willing to haggle with you for it.

Wan Chai Wet Markets

Wikipedia informs us that a wet market is a traditional market for produce, meat and fish in which the emphasis is on freshness. Therefore, a lot of water is used to keep products fresh, and ostensibly clean. Despite having a guidebook and the quite substantial size of the market area in Wan Chai, we had a hard time finding this place, and were about to give up and head back to our hotel when we stumbled upon it. Lots of meats and produce to peruse here.

Shopping in Causeway Bay

We started out looking for “Island Beverly”, but gave up (even though it’s supposed to be easy to find). Instead we found “Windsor House.” This was a different take on a shopping mall — it was 16 stories high, but maybe a sixteenth of the horizontal surface we’d normally associate with a mall. This seems fairly representative of Hong Kong, given that they’ve essentially crammed the Boston metro area’s population into an area with a tenth of the surface area. In Windsor House there are two floors (currently one of them is under construction and off-limits) dedicated to electronics. There were some big brand names and/or product lines well-represented there:

  • Lenovo
  • Leica
  • Apple resellers
  • Gaming
  • Photography gear bags & tripods

… and lots more. There are plenty of shops outside of Windsor House as well. I was on a mission to buy a new portable external hard drive, and I had certain specs in mind: 1TB capacity, USB 3.0, 2.5″ form factor. Prices didn’t vary wildly, but they did some, so I gave the friendliest shopkeeper the chance to undercut the cheapest shop — which he gladly took. I found the pricing to be cheaper than at amazon.de, but not drastically so, and that makes me wonder if I should have haggled more, or come prepared for buying more stuff to leverage my total price down. I used the same approach with some photo gear in a couple of camera shops just outside the Causeway Bay MTR stop: give them a chance to compete against each other and then go with the best combination of cheap and friendly.

Temple Street Night Market



We had fun perusing here, but were very, very careful not to show any interest whatsoever in the obvious knock-off clothing and accessories, knowing that those would quite well get us into trouble upon return to the E.U. The browsing itself was the best part. This night market must be well-known among tourists (indeed, our Frommer’s guide pointed us there) because there were quite a lot of our lot out for a stroll among the hawkers. A small stand offering laser pointers attracted me, and I was ready to plunk down for a green one (c’mon, everyone and their cousin has a red one already) when my expert haggler wife stepped and dropped the price by 30% just by asking for it. And man, that thing is powerful. Can’t wait to show it off in my next meeting.

There was also plenty of street food available, and locals enjoying it. That might have been a bit beyond our adventurous eating threshold, but we enjoyed observing it nonetheless.

Department Stores

The vast majority of what was available in most department stores were high-end international brands, i.e. Burberry, Gucci, Prada, et cetera. But we did find a couple of special and unusual places. Chinese Arts & Crafts is chiefly art, traditional garments (padded jackets, cheongsams and the like) and collectibles, but with the guarantee that they are made in China with traditional methods. A nice place for careful souvenir shopping. Unfortunately, we were exhausted and carrying our Favorite bags, killing time until we could go to the airport, so upscale shopping wasn’t a good fit.

Shanghai Tang is a small department store selling men’s, women’s and children’s clothes, jewelry, handbags, accessories, fabric and home decor. Also somewhat upscale, the offerings in this store were entirely unique and the staff very friendly and helpful. It’s a decidedly chic, boutique type of department store and you stand a good chance of coming away with something modern yet deeply Chinese in style.

SoHo

Maybe every trendy English-language destination needs to have a district called “Soho” or some variation thereof. Hong Kong’s SoHo seems to be the yuppy hang-out, with much more diversity of bars and restaurants than elsewhere. We found little boutiquey shops, vegan(-friendly) lunch counters, and coffee bars as we rode the escalators from Central up the side of the mountain.

The higher up you go, the less Chinese you’ll find, until the last escalator, at which point you’re in luxury apartment land. About half way up, there’s a mosque and some enthusiastic greeters outside it, really trying hard to entice the tourists to come in for a look around. And just past the mosque greeters, a guy representing a Christian church (honestly I’ve forgotten which variety) was also handing out leaflets and trying his luck.

The walk down wasn’t as easy as we’d thought, despite being fully paved and populated — it’s quite steep, and I would not have liked to do that in the rain. We broke up the knee-flexing stomp down the hill with shopping intervals and lunch at Café O and enjoyed their free WiFi.

Flower Market

This was a fun diversion. The Mong Kok Flower Market is a district of 3-4 blocks of nothing but flower shops. The incredible abundance of flowers and diversity of arrangements led to some sensory overload. Of course, we were there the day before Valentine’s Day, so the stock and displays might have been kicked into high gear.

ifc Mall

The ifc (I hate that it appears to have branded itself with lower-case letters) is a huge part of Hong Kong’s Central district. It’s got pedestrian bridges to the Central Piers. It’s got direct access to the Central MTR station (and the Airport Express stop). Not to mention its skyscrapers and Four Seasons hotel. And then there’s the Mall. I didn’t recognize most of the nameplates we saw there, but Sarah did: very upscale international brands. My favorite aspect: the bathrooms were nice (and convenient). If you’re into the high-class browsing scene, this is your place.

Dried Seafood Street

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I much prefer the street-level shopping to the fancy mall boutiquey stuff. Every day on our way into the city, we rode along some portion of Des Voeux Rd, proudly and officially nicknamed “Dried Seafood St.” Shop upon shop with large, transparent, cylindrical storage containers filled to the top with…you guessed it: dried seafood products. Sarah even spotted a sign for Fish Lip Jerky.

Personalized Chopsticks Guy in the mall at the Peak

On Victoria Peak, while killing some time, waiting for the sun to come and give us a brilliant view of the harbor area between Hong Kong and Kowloon, we ducked into a mall. We found a little shop with a wide selection of chopsticks, and smiling older gentlemen who personalizes them for you in Western and Chinese characters. It was a great souvenir idea — inexpensive but very personalized.

Balham B&B

The Joint

28 Old Devonshire Road
Balham
London
SW12 9RB

http://www.balhambandb.co.uk
Tel.: +44 20 8673 7179
Mobile: +44 7941 960 199
Fax: +44 20 8675 8058
Email: georgina@balhambandb.co.uk

Cliff

Loved it! We visited at a rather dreary time of year, but it was easy to see how lovely it would be to stay there in the late Spring. Georgina, your hostess, is the traveling gardner’s dream B&B proprietor, with her own garden at the house and a wealth of information to share about garden tours and events in and around London.

Each morning we had a scrumptious breakfast while chatting with Georgina about our options for the day. The breakfast highlight for me was the crumpet — perfectly done with homemade fruit preserves as a special treat after the eggs and bran flakes. What a great way to fuel up for tromping around London!

I was a bit dismayed at first at the distance from Balham to the city centre, but we quickly realized there are lots of options. Balham station is a tube stop as well as a national rail stop and if you’re flying in from Gatwick for a stay at the Balham B&B don’t take the Gatwick Express: you’ll overshoot the stop and have to backtrack quite a bit.

The Balham and Tooting area lends itself to walking around at night. I enjoyed the halal markets and cafés and restaurants in the area very much. It was a side of London I had not seen before, having only stayed in closer to the big city, and I’m glad I got to see it.

Sarah

We planned this trip with somewhat less lead time than is usual for us. Because places we’ve stayed in London have varied wildly with regard to quality, and because staying in London is usually an expensive proposition, I was looking all over the place for accommodation possibilites. Enter guardian.co.uk, the website for UK newspaper the Guardian. I don’t use this as a resource very often, but when looking for England-specific information, their travel information is pretty good. As luck would have it, there was an article touting London’s best B&Bs right there on their travel page. After sifting through all of the options and whittling them down according to pricing and vacancies, we ended up with the Balham B&B and our hostess, Georgina.

This is easily the best place we’ve ever stayed in London. Balham is a southern neighborhood of London, between the larger neighborhoods of Clapham and Tooting. The B&B is about equidistant between the Balham and Clapham South stations on the Northern line and is in a lovely row house, right off of the main drag. Georgina was a wealth of information about Balham and various cultural offerings throughout the city (museum and gallery exhibitions, music performances, botanical gardens, etc.). And she serves an absolutely wonderful breakfast with eggs, streaky bacon, yogurt, cereal, fruit – you name it, she’s got it. The guest room is large and comfortable, with a dresser and two closets and plenty of room to stash your suitcases. The guest bathroom was also roomy, stocked with fluffy towels, robes and slippers, plus an assortment of organic soaps, shampoos and lotions for our use.

One special note about the guest bed: this has got to be one of the most comfortable beds we’ve ever experienced in a hotel, vacation apartment or B&B. I am looking forward to going back to London at our earliest convenience just to sleep in that bed again. Some more.

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The Light

The Joint

20 Church Street
Manchester
M4 1PN

Phone: +44 (0)161 839 4848
Fax: +44 (0)161 833 4898
Web: http://www.thelight.co.uk

Cliff

We arrived in Manchester for a long weekend a few Thursday nights ago to attend the Travel Bloggers Unite conference there. We followed the organizer’s recommendation to stay at The Light, since it’s located so centrally and within easy walking distance to all the conference venues and meeting points.

Walking in off the street, it was hard at first to match the images from their website to reality. But just past the reception desk, snapshots from different phases of the building’s obviously recent renovation project helped us understand the depth of transformation.

We split a two-bedroom suite with our travel buddies the Zurikas and discovered ours was a one-bathroom suite (we thought we’d reserved a two-bath unit). No matter though, we checked the pricing and found we were paying the appropriate amount, and we were pretty sure we could make the one-bath thing work between the four of us — even six had worked previously, but that was pushing it.

Our balcony afforded us a view of Manchester’s skyline — at least as much as you can make out through the haze.

Our suite was tastefully furnished and clean. I had high hopes for the kitchen, with its sleek black stone slab countertops, microwave, dishwasher, and generous refrigerator/freezer combo, and a Tesco Express market just one door down from The Light (Cheddar! Crumpets! Clotted cream! Full English! You get the idea.) There was a water boiler, French press coffee maker, toaster, and a few dishes, but absolutely no condiments (not even salt and pepper), dangerously dull knives (which mashed fruit rather than slicing it), and a ragged frying pan, threatening to donate its non-stick properties to my digestive tract. Quickly we realized that the all-metal utensils were to blame for the condition of the frying pan. I asked for a replacement and got another cleaner, but equally shreddy one a short time later. The photo is of the replacement. Jul gave them another chance to replace the frying pan after this failure to solve the problem and another one never arrived. So we left a comment with the front desk upon check-out that we’d really have loved to make more use of the kitchen, but couldn’t for lack of appropriate cookware.

I’d stay again at The Light for a long weekend or even for a long-term stay. I imagine it’s perfect for someone staying in Manchester on a business trip for several months. I’ll just make sure to inspect the cookware the night before I plan a fry-up next time. I would love to hear how anyone has solved the dilemma of having decent knives around to cook when you’re at a rental kitchen!

Sarah

Cliff covered the major issue with the kitchen. I think we were all pretty disappointed in the non-handling of that, but the griping ends there. The apartment itself was very clean, comfortable and attractively designed. The bedrooms were small, but the bed was generous and comfortable. The bathroom was actually pretty roomy and had some shelf space (a counter would have been best, but you don’t often find that). Here’s something important to a bunch of bloggers: there were enough outlets to plug in computers, devices and hair-styling tools. And the desk staff was unfailingly pleasant and friendly.

Provided you’re not going to need to use the stove, the Light is a great place to stay – centrally located, well-staffed and competitively priced. If they get the kitchen situation sorted out and equip a minimal pantry (salt, pepper, olive oil), I would unreservedly recommend staying here if you’re spending time in Manchester.

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First my zodiac sign, now this?!

Sarah: O HAI
me: I am not the man you married anymore…wait, let me amend that.
Sarah: Um. Please.
me: I am not the man you chatted up on ISCA. That was an ENTP. I am now an ENTJ.
Sarah: Oooooh, who are YOU, then, Stranger? What’s the J?
me: “Judging.” As opposed to perceiving.
Sarah: I coulda told you that and saved 60 pieces of paper.
me: thanks dear.
Sarah: You a judgy %$&#.
me: I’m still an extroverted intuitive thinker…Who judges now, instead of perceiving.
Sarah: That’s ok, then. I keep you.
me: thanks. can I put this into a blog post?
Sarah: Sure, that sounds like a good one.

Hotel Löwen

The Joint

Klosterhof 41, Ulm-Söflingen, Germany, 89077
+49 (0) 731 388 588 0

Heading further South and East from Burg Hohenzollern towards, we stopped in Ulm for the night at Hotel Restaurant Löwen. Sarah found it through booking.com. Our expectations were rather low, since we just wanted a place to sleep, and initially didn’t plan on eating there or exploring Ulm (native Franks and Bavarians had warned us that Ulm is not worth exploring), but I guess we were just lucky because this place was super. The price, at 112€ a night for a double with breakfast the next morning, was a little more than we like to spend, but just having cheaped out at Hôtel Aux Trois Roses, we could afford it. And it seemed like it was worth more than 112€ anyway.

Our room was very modern in design — lots of ultra-euro shapes and angles and surfaces, including a solid glass sliding door for entry into the bathroom, a fixed glass sprayguard half enclosing the shower cabin. When we asked about the WiFi network, the reception clerk apologetically handed us an ethernet cable (haven’t seen one of those in awhile!), because the signal wasn’t strong enough in our room. I thought that was a nice touch; usually you just get “well, it works in our Lobby…”

We ended up eating there that night and were very impressed with the atmosphere and attitude of the staff and quality and value of the food. This was my favorite breakfast spread of the road trip; a waitress came around to ask if we were sure we wouldn’t like some individually prepared eggs. And when I said “yes, thanks, one over-medium for me please,” she whispered in a mock-conspiratorial tone “Two is customary…are you sure you wouldn’t you like two?”

I like that. I’d stay there again for sure.

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Hôtel Aux Trois Roses

The Joint

7 Rue De Zurich
67000 Strasbourg
France

http://www.hotel3roses-strasbourg.com/

The location of this hotel is pretty great – right across one of the myriad bridges leading into the heart of the old town. The gentleman at reception was very patient with our questions and even let us check in early, as our rooms were already prepared. I find in French city hotels, the rooms tend to be very small, and Trois Roses lived up to my expectation. Our double room was dominated by the double bed. Affixed the wall at the foot of the bed was a set of two large shelves – one high for the TV and one low for a small suitcase. Given the tightness of the room, the suitcase shelf was an absolute necessity. My brother’s single room down the hall was similarly cramped. When I walked in, he said “It feels like an airplane.” He wasn’t wrong. Here’s the kicker – the bathrooms were of normal size!

The stay was comfortable enough and the breakfast and parking were NOT included in the room rate (69€ for the double, 51€ for the single). Which was fine – what fun is it to stay in France and not go croissant hunting? I would consider staying there again if we go back to Strasbourg due to the price – but a little more elbow room might be worth a little more cash.

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Wannaburger

The Joint

Wannaburger
217 High Street, Royal Mile
Edinburgh, EH1 1PE
Tel: 0131 2258770
Email: info@wannaburger.com

Cliff

We’d been craving some burgers (ideally not from beef which had also had beef for dinner, but who knows?). We tromped up and down the Royal Mile a couple times over the course of our stay in Edinburgh and the Wannaburger seemed outwardly exactly the kind of place at which I’d be ashamed to tell anyone we dined (sorry, Mom). “Chainy” in appearance (you’d think there’d be many other franchises elsewhere, but according to Wikipedia, there aren’t), cheaply decorated, with glossy, infomercially menus.

But my stomach was growling louder and louder and a few of the other places we’d been wanting to try (among them Chocolate Soup) were jam-packed or pretty pricey, and when Sarah said she thought she’d heard they actually served a pretty good burger. Whomever she heard it from was right. That was the best hamburger I’ve had since making Germany my home.

I had the “Cheese” and an Irn Bru (that’s pronounced “iron brew,” I learned as I asked the waitress what an “urn brew” was). Turns out, Irn Bru is essentially a slightly less sweet version of Faygo brand Rock’n’Rye — kind of cream soda flavored, with a color similar to Orange Crush. The burger itself was quite large. Not the biggest I’ve ever had, but it sure tasted like the best. Thoroughly cooked but not overdone, still juicy and dressed in tomato relish (I saw “relish” in the description on the menu and assumed cucumber pickle relish). It was great, and reasonably priced. Swallow your pride the next time you want a burger and happen to be near Edinburgh’s Royal Mile. Wannaburger didn’t disappoint.

Sarah

So we were at Edinburgh Castle, debating whether or not to pay the exorbitant (14GBP per person) entrance fee. We came down on the side of ‘cheapskate’ (mostly me) and, tired of nearly getting blown off of the hilltop, took off down the Royal Mile to find some lunch. After bypassing a couple of grody looking chip shops and not wanting to wait for a free seat at a friend’s recommended spot, we cried uncle and decided to get a cheeseburger. And I am so glad we did!

The initial appearance is pretty “chainy,” but the location we were at has a full bar and surprisingly nice seating in the back. We were in the front which is more fast-foody in appearance. I had the bacon bbq burger and fries. The burger was pretty much ideal – juicy, but not bloody, substantial (1/4 lb or more), but not obnoxious. And the fries were a guiltly pleasure: deep fried thick crinkle cuts! After the fact, we found out that that Wannaburger is a local chain and that they use Scottish beef in the burgers. Tourist-sellout guilt thus alleviated, I heartily recommend Wannaburger!

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Henderson’s Bistro

The Joint

Henderson’s Bistro
94 Hanover Street
Edinburgh
EH2 1DR

Cliff

We kind of stumbled onto this place as it was not far from the apartment we rented in the New Town and the only restaurant we managed to try for dinner in that part of town. Obviously, there’s still lots to explore. And that’s a good thing. There were a few things we liked about the place, not the least of which was the friendly service, but on the whole, I am sure I’d avoid it in the future, knowing what I know now. First and foremost, we didn’t realize until we’d sat down that the whole place was vegetarian. Maybe we should have; I don’t know — I’m a sucker for falafel and my eyes are always drawn to that word and I tend to ignore everything else.

First, the positives: We each tried a Westons Premium Organic Cider and were quite happy with it. It washed the “Spicy Nachos” we ordered as an appetizer to share down very nicely. And the nachos really were quite tasty. It was great to have the right kind of jalapeños again for once (they always seem wrong somehow in Germany). And our waitress had some good ideas on how to spend our last full day in Edinburgh, which proved relaxing and interesting.

“Opportunities for improvement” (as we like to say in the corporate world): it seemed, for my Spinach & Lentil Falafel main course at least, that all of the flavor had been used up on the spicy nachos appetizer. It was beyond bland and a pretty severe let-down. It didn’t even seem to be fried (kind of my minimum requirement for falafel) — if I had to guess, I’d say they’d been baked or maybe even frozen and then thawed.

Sarah

It looked like this place is kind of a complex. There seems to be a lunch counter/deli/bakery/market in the front and then this sit-down restaurant iteration in the back. If we hadn’t had our minds boggled by the public transit system in Edinburgh, we might have tried one of the other sections, but alas. I also didn’t notice the vegetarianness of the place as we looked on the menu outside – Cliff saw falafel and it was all over.

The service was great! Our waitress was really nice and took the time to help out a couple of hapless tourists. Cliff didn’t want to get drawn into the banter, but I still remember how to do that, so I went ahead and accepted the chat-up. We came out of it with a neat field trip, so yay me. Anyhoodle, the pear cider was a lovely experience and the nachos were very nice – the flavors were pretty accurate and in the right proportions. Any chance for fairly correct Tex-Mex that I don’t have to make myself is welcome.

My main course was the curry of the day, eggplant and tomato on basmati rice. It was pretty good, but it lacked a certain depth. I have the same problem when I make all-vegetable curries myself, but I expect a little more from a restaurant. The pricing at Henderson’s was actually pretty affordable – one of the more economical meals (outside of Marks & Spencer) we had in Edinburgh.

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