Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Ex-pat reflections

"Sometimes I yearn to be in a place where I don't just know more or less what people are saying,
but know exactly what they mean." 
The other day I read a thoughtful and funny article in the International New York Times (once called, much more borderlessly, the International Herald Tribune). My copy of the paper was five days old, but hey! At least there was a copy to be had in the small Italian village. The writer was Pamela Druckerman, author of "Bringing Up Bébé: One American Mother Discovers the Wisdom of French Parenting." Her subject was ostensibly the experience of taking psychotherapy in French, but was really a few reflections on life as an ex-pat, in her case in France.

After my three-and-a-bit years in Europe, there was much that resonated. A few examples:
"I wasn't sure how long I'd live here, but I did expect my stay to follow a certain ex-pat narrative: You arrive; you struggle to understand the place; you finally crack the codes and are transformed; you triumphantly return home, with a halo of foreign wisdom and your stylish bilingual children in tow."

Bar the children, that's just about my mindset. She goes on:
"But 10 years on, I've gone way off that script...Sometimes I yearn to be in a place where I don't just know more or less what people are saying, but know exactly what they mean." Yup.
Though very funny too, Pamela can get wistful:
" ...there are people like me, who study France and then describe it to the folks back home. We're determined to have an "authentic" French experience. And yet, by mining every encounter for its anthropological significance, we keep our distance, too. No matter how familiar Paris becomes, something always reminds me that I don't belong..."
 Read the full article here.

These are appropriate reflections as I make a few changes...back to Australia for a few months, for one thing. And this blog moving over to Wordpress, for another. I hope regular readers will follow me....

...hasta la vista....a presto....

Sunday, December 29, 2013

Endless Horizons

John Brack, 'The Car', 1955. National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne.
The Royal Academy in London recently hosted a wonderful exhibition of Australian art. To wander through the galleries was to walk through a retrospective of Australian history, with illustrations. (The exhibition closed on 8th Dec 2013). I was left feeling both enlightened and homesick, and clutching a large catalogue.

Here's some extracts from the Academy's website. The curator chose the theme of 'landscape' to unify things, and a very good choice it was too. Those endless horizons...

Eugene von Guérard, 'Bush Fire Between Mt Elephant and Timboon, 1857', 1859. Art Gallery of Ballarat.
John Glover, 'A View of the Artist’s House and Garden, in Mills Plains, Van Diemen’s Land', 1835. Art Gallery of South Australia . 
Rover Thomas (Joolama) 'Cyclone Tracey' 1991. National Gallery of Australia, Canberra.
The exhibition was so rich that it's impossible, with just a few examples, to do it justice. Just about every Australian artist of any significance was represented. The early colonialists (including my favourite John Glover) were there, with their very European reactions to the landscape. The Aboriginal artists were very strongly represented, and wonderfully curated with excellent explanations of the various schools and how they arose. Off 200 works, one third were by indigenous artists. Then the nineteenth century big guns, all the names (Roberts, McCubbin, Streeton, Drysdale), and so into the twentieth century. Three of Sidney Nolan's 'Ned Kelly' series were hung (though go to the National Gallery in Canberra and see (up to) 25 of them together for the full impact).

Russell Drysdale, 'The Drover’s Wife', c.1945. National Gallery of Australia, Canberra 
Max Dupain, 'Sunbaker', 1937. National Gallery of Australia, Canberra.
Perhaps the most talked-about painting was John Brack's 'The Car' from 1955, but many other twentieth century big names were also shown: Authur Boyd, Grace Cossington-Smith, Fred Williams, John Olsen, Brett Whiteley, Max Dupain...a cornucopia. I found the exhibition a little weak as it wended its way to the very present day, but perhaps just a bit more perspective is needed on the recent works.

However, let me add some kudos for the video work that opened the exhibition as you walked in: Shaun Gladwell's 'Approach to Mundi Mundi'. He sits on a motorcycle and rides straight along a straight road in a flat landscape, the horizon stretching as far as the eye can see. When you arrive at the Sidney Nolan 'Kelly' paintings and contemplate that one where Ned is riding in a similar landscape, the links are obvious.

At this point perhaps the sentimental amongst us (including homesick Australians) should break into a rendition os Dorothea MacKellar's "I Love A Sunburnt Country"...I jest. A bit.

Still from Shaun Gladwell's 'Approach to Mundi Mundi'
A bad reproduction of Sidney Nolan's 'Ned Kelly', but you get the drift....
And the reviews? Mixed, it seems. The ones that the Academy likes to quote:
"Not just a long overdue show but a powerfully atmospheric evocation of a country seen from myriad facets" - The Times

"Australia’s most treasured art comes to London for the biggest show yet seen in UK" - The Guardian

"★★★★ Detailed, comprehensive, omniscient, in places beautiful” The Daily Telegraph

But apparently some reviewers found it necessary to dis the whole lot. While I can sympathise with comments about the limitations of such review-style exhibitions - it was often disappointing to see only one or two works by the really big names - that's inherent in the type of exhibition. Yes, it would be great to see an RA exhibition showcasing just one great Australian artist periodically - as they so often do for, shall we say, 'less-great' Europeans - but they just don't do it. Here's The Guardian's review - displaying not very much knowledge of Australian art history, and agreeing with me on the contemporary stuff.

Brett Whiteley 'Big Orange (Sunset)' 1974

Abu Dhabi Buildings...wow!

The “Circle Building” - Aldar HQ; Abu Dhabi
Have Money, Will Build: One rather glorious off-shoot of a rich Arab oil Emirate, and its need to build a modern new city fast, is that you can end up with a collection of exceptional modern architecture. You might also have a few tasteless bits in there too, but there’s the potential...

In Abu Dhabi, they’ve amassed an impressive collection. My favourites are the Sheikh Zayed Bridge by Zaha Hadid, (built 1997 - 2010) and Etihad Towers by Australian architects DBI Design.

Hadid's Sheikh Zayed Bridge, at 842 meter long, is said to be the most intricate bridge ever constructed. Its curved design arches evoke undulating sand dunes of the desert. "The bridge features - besides its striking architecture - a dynamic lighting design that is based on subtle colours that flow across the bridge's spine, symbolising the connecting nature of the bridge and the energy that the capital city Abu Dhabi radiates. The bridge is the third traffic route connecting the mainland to the island of Abu Dhabi and the new main gateway over the Maqtah channel. The bridge was designed by architect Zaha Hadid as the grandeur landmark for the UAE's capital city." (source)

Sheikh Zayed Bridge
Driving across Zaha Hadid's bridge.
Aerial view. (source)
Etihad Towers.
The Etihad Towers website waxes lyrical about these five delicate skyscrapers, clustered together, reaching 74 storeys:

With five stunning towers that sparkle iridescently in the never-ending sunshine – Etihad Towers is a reflection of  everything that Abu Dhabi is and will be… modern, sophisticated and luxurious.. 
After several years of planning and design, 2006 was a special year for His Highness Sheikh Suroor Bin Mohammed Al Nahyan and his Projects Department, for this was when construction work got underway. His Highness can be proud of succeeding in creating a very inspirational, prestigious and desirable landmark in the UAE. The scope, magnitude and uniqueness is breathtaking. 
The Australian architects DBI Design have created a sculptural feat that is a true landmark of the City. Changing the Abu Dhabi skyline forever the towers offer the most amazing vantage points – with sweeping panoramic views over the vibrant city and Arabian Sea.
Foyer of the Jumierah Hotel, Etihad Towers
One of the slim and beautiful Etihad Towers houses the Jumierah Hotel where I stayed in Abu Dhabi - great choice. The interior, slathered with the marble that the Gulf States seems to love so much (I guess it's cool and luxurious, so why not?), is actually quite impressive. The lobby soars, the exotic slabs of coloured marble entice, the glass curtain windows look out over the sea and city - and you can visit the bar on the 74 floor of Tower Three for afternoon tea.

Side view of the Circle Building, Aldar HQ. 
But let’s also mention the “Circle Building” - Aldar HQ. The 23-storey circular building at the capital’s Al Raha Beach has been named in a list of 16 eye-catching structures compiled by a jury of experts. Designed by MZ Architects, which has offices in Abu Dhabi and Lebanon, the 110-metre tall building, which opened in 2010, was the first upright circular building in the Middle East.

This is not the first time the building has won international recognition – it was named Best Futuristic Design at the 2008 Building Exchange Conference in Spain. (source)

Pineapple Building: Abu Dhabi’s Al Bahr Towers
"Abu Dhabi’s striking Al Bahr Towers, their design inspiring comparisons with exotic pineapples and honeycombs, have been named among the world’s best towers in a highly regarded award for high-rise architecture. The twin 29-storey super-green Abu Dhabi Investment Council headquarters came second in the Emporis skyscraper awards for projects completed last year.
The buildings are known for their distinctive covering of 2,000 umbrella-like elements that can be opened and closed to keep the sun off the glass building as it moves across the sky but also let in daylight. The German-based skyscraper data company Emporis praised the Aedis-designed office towers for providing “a dynamic, translucent facade that runs off power generated by photovoltaic panels and which reacts to sunlight.” The towers have already featured on the Chicago-based Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat’s “Innovative 20” list of buildings that “challenge the typology of tall buildings in the 21st century”. The latest award comes after Abu Dhabi’s Etihad Towers was awarded third place in the competition last year." (source)

Yas Viceroy Hotel over an F1 racetrack (image source)
Then there’s the Yas Viceroy Hotel with the F1 race track going right through it...

Yas Viceroy Abu Dhabi Hotel is located within the Yas Marina Circuit, Abu Dhabi. It is the first new hotel in the world to be built over an F1 race circuit. The Hotel, designed by Hani Rashid and Lise Anne Couture, principals of New York based Asymptote Architecture, consists of two twelve story hotel towers, one set within the race circuit and another placed in the Marina itself, linked together by a monocoquesteel and glass bridge and Grid Shell structure that both cross above and over the Yas Marina Circuit F1 race track.
Asymptote created and conceived of the building as an architectural landmark embodying key influences and local and global inspirations ranging from the aesthetics and forms associated with speed and spectacle to the artistry and geometries that form the basis of ancient Islamic art and craft traditions.
Of architectural and engineering significance is the main feature of the hotelʼs design: a 217-meter expanse of sweeping, curvilinear glass and steel covering known as the Grid Shell: it features an LED lighting system incorporating video feeds that are transmitted over the 5,389 pivoting diamond-shaped colour changing LED panes. This Grid-Shell component is a key aspect of the overall architectural design and significance of the project by producing an atmospheric-like veil visible from miles away. (source: Wiki) . A interesting footnote: the "Grid-Shell Building Information Modeling Consultants" were none other than Gehry Technologies.

View of the F1 racetrack on the approach to the Yas Viecroy Hotel.
Capital Gate, the ‘Leaning Building’
Wiki has the info: "Capital Gate is a skyscraper in Abu Dhabi adjacent to the Abu Dhabi National Exhibition Centre designed with a striking lean. At 160 m (520 ft) and 35 stories, it is one of the tallest buildings in the city and features an 18-degree incline to the west... The tower (also known as the Leaning Tower of Abu Dhabi) is the focal point of the Capital Center/Abu Dhabi National Exhibition Centre master development....In June 2010, the Guinness Book of World Records certified Capital Gate as the "World’s furthest leaning man-made tower."...
The building has a diagrid especially designed to absorb and channel the forces created by wind and seismic pressure, as well as the gradient of Capital Gate. Capital Gate is thought to be the Middle East's first building to use a diagrid; others around the world include London's 30 St Mary Axe (Gherkin), New York's Hearst Tower and Beijing's National Stadium.
The Capital Gate project was able to achieve its inclination through an engineering program that allows floor plates to be stacked vertically up to the 12th storey, and staggered over each other by between 300mm to 1400mm, which allows for the tower's lean.
Capital Gate was designed by architectural firm RMJM and was due for completed in 2011. Capital Gate houses the 5-star Hyatt Capital Gate hotel and office space."

Abu Dhabi
Try this blog for info on some interesting buildings of Au Dhabi.
Abu Dhabi skyline from the Etihad Towers.

Saturday, December 28, 2013

Mosque Visit

In Abu Dhabi there's one major tourist attraction - and local attraction, too. The Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque. My guide (an Indian) just knew I'd be impressed - "40,000 worshippers! Third-largest in the world! Biggest carpet in the world!" I thought I remembered being given similar statistics when I visited the Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque in Muscat, Oman. But modern mosque stats are like that - big, bigger, biggest. It turned out that, wherever it falls in the rankings, the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque of Abu Dhabi is a very beautiful thing.

The building of the mosque was initiated by the late President of the United Arab Emirates (UAE), HH Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan. His final resting place is located in the grounds of the mosque. It was constructed between 1996 and 2007, and Wiki claims that it's the largest mosque in the United Arab Emirates and the eighth largest in the world.

I looked up the design and building details. To me, there seemed a very strong Persian and even Mughal influence. The entire place is draped in spectacular marble. Here's what Wiki told me:
The Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque's design and construction 'unites the world', using artisans and materials from many countries including Italy, Germany, Morocco, Pakistan, India, Turkey, Malaysia, Iran, China, United Kingdom, New Zealand, Greece and United Arab Emirates. More than 3,000 workers and 38 renowned contracting companies took part in the construction of the mosque.  
Natural materials were chosen for much of its design and construction due to their long-lasting qualities, including marble stone, gold, semi-precious stones, crystals and ceramics. It was built by the Italian company Impregilo. 
The design of the Sheikh Zayed Mosque has been inspired by Persian, Mughal and Moorish mosque architecture, particularly the Badshahi Mosque in Lahore, Pakistan and the Hassan II Mosque in Casablanca, Morocco being direct influences. The dome layout and floorplan of the mosque was inspired by the Badshahi Mosque and the architecture was inspired by Persian, Mughal and Moorish design. Its archways are quintessentially Moorish and its minarets classically Arab. The design of the mosque can be best described as a fusion of Arab, Persian, Mughal and Moorish architecture.

The marble used includes Sivec from Prilep, Macedonia on the external cladding. 115,119 m2 (1,239,130 sq ft) of cladding has been used on the mosque, including the minarets. Lasa from Laas, South Tyrol, Italy was used in the internal elevations. Makrana from Makrana, India was used in the annexes and offices; Aquabiana and Biano from Italy in the East White and Ming Green from China.

The stats (all from Wiki): The mosque is large enough to accommodate over 40,000 worshipers. The main prayer hall can accommodate over 7,000 worshipers. There are two smaller prayer halls, with a 1,500-capacity each, one of which is the female prayer hall. There are four minarets on the four corners of the courtyard which rise about 107 m (351 ft) in height. The courtyard, with its floral design, measures about 17,000 m2(180,000 sq ft),and is considered to be the largest example of marble mosaic in the world.

The 96 columns in the main prayer hall are clad with marble and inlaid with mother of pearl, one of the few places where you will see this craftsmanship.

The carpet in the main prayer hall is considered to be the world's largest carpet made by Iran's Carpet Company and designed by Iranian artist Ali Khaliqi. This carpet measures 5,627 m2 (60,570 sq ft), and was made by around 1,200-1,300 carpet knotters. The weight of the carpet is 35 tons and is predominantly made from wool (originating from New Zealand and Iran). There are 2,268,000,000 knots within the carpet and it took approximately two years to complete.

The Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque has seven imported chandeliers from Germany that incorporate millions of Swarovski crystals. The largest chandelier is the second largest known chandelier inside a mosque, the third largest in the world and has a 10 m (33 ft) diameter and a 15 m (49 ft) height.

The 99 names (qualities or attributes) of God (Allah) are featured on the Qibla wall in traditional Kufic calligraphy, designed by the prominent UAE calligrapher, Mohammed Mandi Al Tamimi.

The Mosque's official website waxes lyrical, as well it might:
As a testament to the vision of its founder, Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque sits majestically at the entrance to Abu Dhabi City Island, distinctly visible from the three main bridges connecting the island to the main land, the Maqta, Mussafah and the Sheikh Zayed Bridge. The strategic geographical location of the Mosque is a symbolic expression of the emotional connection the Mosque has in the hearts of all UAE citizens particularly because the burial place of the late Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, first President of the UAE, is located beside the mosque.
The Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque is well recognised by its pure colour, as it is clad with SIVEC marble from Macedonia.  Every artistic design element was carefully considered and fits into the overall vision of the Mosque.
But one last thing - I expect you might be wondering how a visiting Western woman gets on in a mosque (assuming they're allowed in at all, and as you can see from my pictures, I was.) There are clothing rules: male visitors should avoid wearing shorts and singlets. Female visitors to the mosque are required to wear either a full length abaya (which can be supplied at the reception area) or a head scarf. In addition, tight and revealing clothing is not allowed. Luckily, my guide had a spare abaya for just this very circumstance, and here's me full rigged out (though not wearing it properly - oops! - that bit of neck shouldn't be showing. I spent most of the visit very hot, and constantly tugging at the headscarf to try to cover all hair and skin. I was only giving an admonitory finger-wag by a guard once.

Thursday, December 26, 2013

Going Organic This Christmas

Superfood Gingerbread Men!

We made a big effort this Christmas. Despite a Sydney Christmas occurring in mid-summer, we can't resist the old tradition of a stuffed and roasted turkey, roasted root veggies and a ham. But we can still be ethical and healthy, right? Hmmm...

Happy turkey being basted.
Happy ham.
This year we did our best to find a turkey that had lived a happy and antibiotic-free life, pecking away in a farmyard somewhere. We were helped in this quest by Sam the Butcher, and he also provided a ham from a happy pig.

The turkey's stuffing was made from a loaf of artisanal sourdough bread, from Bowen Island Bakery, where they're currently training members of the refugee community in Sydney as bakers. We went for the traditional 'Scarborough Fair' stuffing: parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme, with lots of onions.

The root veggies, the onions and the beautiful fresh herbs came from Doorstop Organics. The turkey was bated with a delicious orange glaze made with organic oranges, and - oops! - Cointreau.

The Gingerbread Men this year were of the superfood variety: almond meal & buckwheat instead of flour, coconut oil instead of butter, dates instead of sugar, goji berry eyes & almond mouths. "Ironically," said the cook, " they look drunk and overweight." But delish!

Organic parsley - super fresh.
Organic veggies.

Artisanal sourdough bread fro the stuffing.
A cup of fresh herbs: parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme.
The 'Scarborough Fair' stuffing mixture.

Magnificent orange-glazed turkey.
All that was left was to enjoy it all with family and friends around the big table.

Merry Christmas!

Carving beautifully.
Merry Family Christmas.

The turkey recipe....

Hot Orange Glazed Turkey with Scarborough Fair stuffing

a 5-6kg whole turkey
50g butter
1 large onion, peeled
3 carrots
1 cup white wine

Hot orange glaze
zest and juice from 2 whole oranges
1/4 cup honey
3 tbsp fish sauce
1 tbsp Cointreau

Scarborough Fair stuffing
1 loaf white bread
200g unsalted butter
1 tsp salt
1 bunch each of parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme
2 large onions, finely chopped
about 1 cup of water or chicken stock

1. Heat your oven to 180C.

2. Make the stuffing by removing the crusts from a loaf of bread and cutting the white bread into large cubes. Pulse in a food processor to coarse fresh bread crumbs. Fry the onions in a 50g of the butter until translucent and softened but not coloured. Remove from the heat and add the remaining butter to the hot pan, allowing it to melt. Strip the leaves of the herbs from any stems and finely shred them to produce 1 cup of shredded herbs. Into the bread crumbs mix the softened onions with melted butter, herbs, salt and a little stock or water to create a soft stuffing.

3. Rinse the turkey under running water (remove the neck if still attached) and drain well. Stuff the stuffing into both the neck and rear cavity of the bird. Truss the turkey with kitchen string; start at the neck flap, pin the wings to the body and cross the back of the bird. Loop under the parson’s nose and tie the legs together at the ankles. Rub the skin of the bird with 50g of softened butter and season well with salt.

4. Split the carrots in half lengthways (you don't need to peel them) and cut the onion into chunks. Place the carrot and onion on the base of a roasting pan and place the turkey on top of the vegetables. Cover the pan with foil and roast in the oven for 2 hours, basting every half hour with the juices collecting in the pan. After 2 hours, uncover the pan and roast for a further hour, until the skin of the bird is browned.

5. While the turkey is roasting, mix together the ingredients for the hot orange glaze in a small saucepan and simmer for 30 minutes until thick and glossy. After the turkey has been roasting for a total of 3 hours, begin to brush with the glaze every 15 minutes for an additional 45 minutes.

6. Remove the turkey from the oven and cover loosely with foil. Rest for 30 minutes in a draught-free place, continuing to brush the turkey with hot glaze every 15 minutes, even while resting.

7. Remove the turkey from the pan and drain off and reserve any pan juices. There should not be too much oil in the pan but if there is a lot then you may want to skim some of the oil. Place the pan over heat on the stove and scatter 2 tbsp of plain flour over the pan and vegetables. Scrape the bottom of the pan and add in the white wine to deglaze, roughly mashing the vegetables. Return the pan juices to the pan and stir until thickened. Strain the gravy and serve with the turkey.

Serves 10