Visiting Italy: A Dream Come True- Part I: Milan

Eight years ago when Darryl and I married, we said we’d go to Italy for our 5 year anniversary, well it was that year when I left the United States of America to follow my dreams of teaching overseas. Needless to say, we did not make it to Italy that year. But this summer we finally did.

After Amsterdam, we caught a Vueling Airlines flight to Milan. The flight from Amsterdam to Milan was 150 Euros for 2 people including baggage. It was a short and reasonably priced flight. We stayed in an Airbnb between the design district and historical center in Lombardy. I highly recommend the accommodation so here is the link and a few pictures of the outside and courtyard.

We didn’t have any tours scheduled in Milan so we spent the first day exploring on our own. We walked the Navigli area of Milan and ate at Fud restaurant which is on a pedestrian street just off of the canal. After eating we walked along the canal. We found the local supermarket, Pam, and went food shopping.

Beef burger
Veggie Burger
A walk through the neighborhood
A bridge in Navigli

The next day Darryl and I took a local train to Garibaldi stop to see the Naviglio de Martesana. I read some blogs that recommended riding a bike the entirety of the canal to Gorgonzola, so I expected to get there and find a place to rent a bike to do just that. Unfortunately, I didn’t. First we had to find the canal. Thanks to google maps, after about a 15 minute walk through dirt roads, over a bridge and through grasslands, we found the canal but there was nothing there, just a canal. There was no where to rent bikes and barely any people around. The few people we did encounter spoke Italian and we don’t. Instead of simply turning around and going home defeated, we decided to walk the length of the canal and enjoy the scenery. I mean we were in Italy so how could we feel defeated. We did find the sign for Gorgonzola and a duck family.

Eerie dirt road
Over bridges and through grasslands
Graffiti bridge
Naviglio de Martesano
Duck family

On our way back we found the Piazza Del Duomo and the Galleria Vittoria Emanuele- Golden Triangle of shopping.

The Beautiful Duomo Cathedral
A close up of the door
The details are amazing
Galleria Vittoria Emanuele- designer window shopping

The one tour that was planned from Milan was a self-guided day trip and it was to one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever visited in my life: LAKE COMO! Check back for that post, you don’t want to miss the pictures.

Amsterdam-The Beginning of an Amazing Summer Vacation

Amsterdam is the capital city of the Netherlands, known for its coffee shops, canals, bikes, tulip blooms and red light district. It was the first stop of our summer vacation. Growing up in a pretty liberating country, the United States of America and then to move to a very modest country, Qatar, can start to weigh on you after awhile.  So I decided that a visit to Amsterdam for some fun was long overdue.  Darryl and I flew into AMS on Friday, June 7, for the weekend, and my sista Michele and her husband Charles met us there.  We were first timers to this city that everyone talks about and we couldn’t wait to explore. 

Unfortunately, the weather wasn’t very welcoming.  It was cold and rainy and our hotel was located outside of the city center.   We stayed at the Residence Inn in Houthavens.  It is a nice hotel overlooking the docks, with a mini kitchen, bed and sitting area.  There is a bar, restaurant, pool, gym and spa. We cooked most of our own food in the room and breakfast was included with our stay. The hotel staff were very friendly.  In fact, everyone we encountered in Amsterdam was friendly.  It’s a very chill country.  

We really only had 2 days to explore and one day was a complete wash but we made the best of our visit.  On the rainy day, we visited a few coffee shops and supermarkets.  In the evening, the weather let up some and we went out into the Red Light District.  We weren’t aware that this was a holiday weekend in Amsterdam and it was quite crowded.  Everywhere people were smiling, laughing, smoking or drinking, gawking at half naked women in front of red curtains or going in to establishments in search of something more.  We decided to take in a show, it was rather boring until I coerced my husband into becoming part of the show. That made the 50 Euro price tag worth it in the end. Sorry, no photos allowed.

On our second day, it warmed up some and the rain held off.  We were able to enjoy our booked small group canal cruise and tour. There were only two other couples besides us. I highly recommend this tour which came with drinks and snacks. Besides James, our guide, was very nice and knowledgable. You can book this tour by clicking the blue link above. It was an Airbnb experience. This was a much easier way to see some sights around Amsterdam.

We also took in some sights by foot and shopped on 9 streets. We tried Stroopwafel; they’re truly delicious when you get them fresh.

At night, we went to the Ice bar. It’s very touristy but it was a fun experience. You can purchase your tickets online using the link above and you get 3 free drinks. You will need them to warm you up.

overlooking the canals from a bridge
They provide the jackets and gloves
shots, shots, shots
Him keeping me warm. My cheeks are so red.

We never got around to riding a bike or visiting Anne Frank house. Does that warrant another trip to Amsterdam, probably along with a few other reasons. We had a good time visiting this city but it was only the beginning of our month long trip to Europe.

Suggestions, Tips, Recommendations:

Where to stay: This depends on what you want. I do recommend the Residence Inn if you don’t want to be in the city center. However, when I return, I will stay somewhere in the city because uber trips add up. By the way the Ubers are super fancy, Audis and Mercedes.

Fancy uber

Vegan Eats: Vegan Junk Food was the only vegan restaurant I tried since it came highly recommended by a friend. I had a burger and loaded fries which were delicious. The supermarkets have a lot of vegan food as well. This was my first time trying Beyond Meat. My husband cooked it up for me and it taste like a grilled burger. I think it was meat.

Sights: If you want to visit Anne Frank house, buy your tickets online 60 days in advance when they are first released. You can also get them online on the day of your visit if your lucky and are amongst the first 100 online to purchase them. Some tickets are sold on the same day on the website at 9am, they say, but I went online both days around 8:50 and there was already a queue of 100+ people. Needless to say I wasn’t lucky but good luck to you if you choose this route. I do not recommend it.

The IAmsterdam sign moves around, however, we spotted one near the Sky Lounge but we never made it there. If you want that picture go there. You can also ride the swing and get a great view of the city from up there. The weather prevented us from doing this.

Definitely check the weather when visiting Amsterdam and pack a jacket. Be prepared to walk or bike around to take in the sights.

The canals at night

3 Years Later, An Expat in Qatar

Monday, marked the conclusion of year 3 for me.  Three years teaching in a foreign country.  Three years living in a foreign country.  What happens is, your foreign country doesn’t feel so foreign anymore.  It begins to feel more like home than your native country.  But one of the biggest differences is that you often find yourself saying goodbye more.  

The double edge sword to being an expat is the wonderful relationships you build with new people but having to also say goodbye when those new family members decide it’s time to move on.  This has happened every year so far and each year the group I began working with dwindles.  There are only a few of us left from the original crew.  One of my favorite couples, The Marshalls, have left.  It’s difficult to find good couple friends; they are one of the good ones and we will miss them dearly.  We made sure we spent a lot of time together before we all went our separate ways for the summer and vowed to keep in touch and meet up in another country.  I believe I have truly made some lifelong friends here.  It’s easier to build genuine relationships with other expats because usually you have commonalities and all you have is each other.

This is the first year I truly felt comfortable in Qatar.  I pretty much know how things go and how to find things.  So if people are wondering how long it takes for your host country to feel like home, I’d have to say about 3 years. 

Work had its share of ups and downs.  Although it doesn’t always feel like it, there were definitely more ups than downs.  I was offered a new position for next year which I am very excited about.  I will be the early, elementary Reading Specialist.   I will provide reading intervention for 1-3rd grades.  I will not have a class, instead I will work with small groups of students.  I moved out of my classroom and into a smaller room.  I’m sure the first grade team will really miss me lol. 

This year was filled with fun times in Qatar.  ATV riding over sand dunes in the desert at sunrise, clay shooting, Virtual Reality Gaming, paint ball, visits to the beach, small parties with friends and more. 

This year was also filled with fun times outside of Qatar.  My friend Jennifer and I went on our first girls trip together and our first wellness retreat.  It was also my first time in Thailand.  That trip sparked a year of self-care, desire to detox at least once a year and a fondness for Thailand.  I’m already planning my next retreat.  My husband and I spent 9 days trekking all over Sri Lanka, enjoying beautiful beaches and green scenery.  We ran from elephants and monkeys and saw enough temples for a whole lifetime.  We hiked mountains and chased whales. 

In April, I returned to the U.S. for two weeks.  My mother was having surgery and I needed to be there.  During that visit, old qualms were forgotten and many hugs were passed.  That visit home was very timely, as several other family members were having health issues and I was able to visit them and be a source of comfort for some.  I was able to handle some personal business with my home and spend some quality time with my sons.  And since I hadn’t planned on returning to Philadelphia during the summer break, I am glad I got the opportunity to go in April.  I also appreciate my job for allowing me to go.

After summer vacation, Darryl and I will be moving, again.  I have moved each year that I’ve been in Qatar.  But before that I have an amazing summer planned for us, including planes, trains, boats and top bucket fillers.  First stop Amsterdam!

Fun and Active Things to do in Qatar

Get out there and find some fun

When you’ve been an expat for a while in the same country, the glamour and newness begins to wear off. I’ll admit, I’ve gotten quite comfortable in my routine just sitting at home, cuddled up, watching Kodi or Netflix. Once my personal training sessions ended I GOT LAZY! So I began looking for some fun and active things to do here, at least until I re-open my gym membership. You may be quite surprised by what this little country has to offer.

It started out with Paintball. It only lasted an hour as I purchased the voucher from Qgrabs for a one hour session but we had a good time. Our party of 6 got a little beat up and for 3 of them it was their first time. Jennifer was not ready for the pain that comes with getting hit with a paintball. The course is in Sealine and if you’ve ever been to paintball before, you will automatically think as I did, “Is this really the course?”. They should get a little more creative with the course. Nevertheless we made the most of it.

The Paintball course

A couple of weekends later, we rode out to Sealine again, but this time to ride ATV’s over and through the sand dunes. It’s different than riding through the mountains and mud in the Pocono’s like Darryl and I are used to. Instead of getting dirty in mud, you get covered in sand. I recommend riding the bikes with 4W drive (350+ riyals) because they can handle the dunes. The smaller bikes will get you stuck in the sand (250- riyals).

If you want to save the world by killing off Zombies or Robots, head over to Zero Latency. It is a multiplayer virtual reality game. It’s located in the Tawar Mall, inside Bounce. For 35 minutes, minus the 15 minute introduction, and 70 riyals = $20 you can do just that. For more money you can play more games for longer periods of time.

You and a few friends will battle together. You step into this empty, dark room, that is until you gear up with your heavy artillery back pack, gun, ear phones and virtual glasses. Then the room is transformed into a virtual world that looks real. My back was hurting afterwards because well I’m old and I have a bad back and that backpack is heavy, but it was loads of fun. I killed 71 zombies, all in a days work but they also killed me and I came in last for kills. I’ve never been that good at video games anyway.

Something I am good at is real shooting. You can even do this in Qatar. Well you can’t actually buy a gun and go bust some rounds off, like in America, at least I don’t think you can. But you can do some clay pigeon shooting at the Lusail shooting range. It’s located very close to the Lusail Circuit, along Al Khor road and about 10-15 minutes pass Festival City and Ikea. It’s open Sat-Wed, 4-8pm. You get 25 shots for 100 riyals almost $1 per shot. (You can shoot shot guns if you are a member)

My accuracy was 20%. That’s pretty good for someone who has only done clay shooting one other time. I’m so much better with a real gun.

Almost!

The point is, your host country is what you make of it. So get out there and find some fun. What are you waiting for?

If you are an expat, I’d love to hear of some fun you’ve found in your host country. Be sure to leave a comment.

National Museum of Qatar

I enjoyed the museum more than any others in Qatar

When I first moved to Qatar, I used to marvel at the architecture. No two buildings looked the same, which was very different than the ones in Philadelphia. But there was one building in particular that I thought was so ugly. It was being designed in the likeness of a desert rose on the Corniche.

Rose-like formations of crystal clusters including sand grains are called desert roses. Desert roses only grow in arid temperatures and are native to East Africa and Arabia.

Well several years later the building is complete and its’ official name is the National Museum of Qatar. Now that I’ve had the opportunity to visit it, I have to eat my words. (What do I know about architecture anyway) The place is beautiful, inside and out and it was built around the restored Palace of Sheikh Abdullah bin Jassim Al Thani!

If you are a resident of Qatar, the admission is free. For everyone else, admission is quite reasonable at 50 Riyals= $13.00. Parking is also free of charge and you can get a ride on a golf cart from the parking lot to the main entrance and back. You can wear what you want (but please have some respect for the culture, take a scarf along with you). You can take pictures too without flash.

Before or after going into the Museum, I suggest walking around and checking out the grounds. Along the exterior, are 114 individual sculptures of black, Arabic Calligraphy that make up a fountain set within the museums lagoon. In the Museums courtyard is a sculpture of hands holding up the Qatari flag.

The Museum tells the story of Qatar, its’ people and its’ history. The museum tour begins with this…

A silver burka structure

I am curious to find out why this was the first of the exhibits to see but as it was pretty crowded when we went, I didn’t get a chance to read the signage. (If anyone can provide some insight, I would greatly appreciate it)

Once inside, you walk in a circle through three chapters: Chapter One-geology, archaeology and natural environment of Qatar, Chapter Two-history of life, Chapter 3-how Qatar became the nation it is today. There are many artifacts, videos and photos. It is also interactive and would be a great place to take WELL-BEHAVED CHILDREN! Children and students can learn about habitats, inventions and tradition here. I was amazed at the amount of history I learned there and the jewelry.

At several points through out the walk through, I got a little dizzy. There are points where the floor dips and the entire museum uses the structure of disc to showcase history. At several points I also got a little upset at the blatant disregard for museum etiquette, examples: children climbing on displays and picking up things while parents pretended not to see them, or allowing it to happen repeatedly, people touching things that clearly have pictures of hands with an x through it. However, there are workers in the museum to keep order and alarms that go off if you get to close to certain displays.

There are small eateries in and around the museum and two gift shops. One of the gift shops is just for kids, which brought a smile to the face of this teacher on spring break. I did not go near that one. But in the other gift shop I was able to purchase this…

My very own desert rose replica, made in Qatar!

Once your tour concludes, you will be in the courtyard where the restored Palace is located and where you can take great pictures like these..

To sum it up, I enjoyed the museum more than any others in Qatar. Visiting the Zubarah fort is a good complement to this museum as well. You will learn a lot here. Take some time to read some of the signs. I used to think the structure was awful, but now I think it’s absolutely beautiful. Well Done!

Attending a Desi Wedding

Love brings us all together!

I was invited to an Indian Henna party by a friend. Her brother was getting married so Jennifer and I attended the brides party. I felt much more comfortable attending this wedding-one because I had recently attended a Qatari Henna party, two I had the inside scoop being a friend of the grooms sister.

I regretted not purchasing the Saree, I’d tried on in Sri Lanka, because it would have been perfect to wear to this wedding. At the time, I didn’t think I’d ever have anywhere to wear it, but this is one of the unexpected things that happen when living abroad, you get opportunities to experience other cultures.

Here I am in Sri Lanka wearing a traditional Saree

Since I didn’t have anything Indian to wear, I got something made. This is a Lehenga Choli and Dupatta. Although blue is my favorite color, I fell in love with this hot pink and gold material. Jennifer wore blue. How do we look?

Only women were allowed at this party as this is the Muslim way. Jennifer and I was pulled up to the dance floor as soon as we entered. I couldn’t do the traditional dances but they didn’t care; they told me it was all in the feet. I noticed it was also in the hands. We thought it a little strange that several women also asked to take our pictures. I’m used to being stared at when I wear my baldness, but taking pictures not so much. Jennifer and I both decided that this is what it is probably like in China, when you are the only tall blonde, white women at a party, and the only black bald woman at a party. We weren’t offended; we just smiled and kept dancing. I actually felt quite comfortable. Being asked to be photographed amongst a room full of hair and beautiful women, made me feel special. I’m glad I decided to go as my beautiful, fun, bald self. The strangest part was phones were supposed to be collected at the door, but no-one seemed to mind the many phones and pictures being taken, so I whipped mine out too.

These women had dance routines and everything

I thought I was in a Bollywood film. That’s the bride by the way in the green and pink.

Watching these women dance was the highlight of the night. These women sure know how to cut a rug. I tried to be respectful of the ‘no phones’ policy and only film in short clips but I wish I could have captured more. The bride’s family even battled the groom’s family in a dance off. Everyone was so nice and friendly.

We ate and even got henna tattoos.

The groom and company arrived later and did some dancing too.

Thank you friend for the invitation. I had a fun and lovely time. All the best to the bride and groom!

The major differences, I’ve noticed in American weddings and Desi and Qatari weddings are these: the exchanging of gifts, separation of sexes and the separation of the ceremonies and receptions. In both the Desi and Qatari wedding, the guest received gifts, male and female celebrated separately and the actual wedding did not occur on the same day as the party. The major similarity is this: Life is about being happy and love brings us all together!

Attending a Qatari Wedding

On this night, they were just women having a good time and it was a reminder that we are all human regardless of race, religion, culture or socio-economical status.

For many expats in Qatar, the Qataris are a mystery. They tend to stay to themselves, identities covered and hidden and with that comes perceptions of who they are and what they are like. Most relationships with them are business, so of course I said “YES” when I was invited to a Henna Party/wedding event by a Qatari business associate. I was super excited to receive my invitation to get a glimpse into their world. One of the reasons I left the U.S. was to engross myself in other cultures and this presented a great opportunity.

The person that invited me also invited me to her parents house to pick out a Jalabiya, after I asked for suggestions about where to purchase one. A Jalabiya is an Arab garment, sometimes worn under an abaya and the fancy ones are worn to celebratory occasions like a wedding. Her mother was very welcoming and brought out many Jalabiyas for me and my friend to try on and choose from. She even gave us jewelry to wear with the outfits. Before we left the house, we enjoyed sweets, tea and coffee. They were very hospitable to us.

There were a few things I understood about a Qatari wedding prior to attending. It is different than a traditional American wedding as the bride and groom have two separate events. The groom usually celebrates in a tent in the sand (traditional) and the women celebrate in a hall. Also guest do not bring gifts to the wedding. It is similar to an American wedding as there is lots of music and food.

This wedding was at the Ritz Carlton and our phones (cameras) were confiscated before we went in. Taking pictures is not allowed at these ceremonies and we planned to respect the culture to the fullest as guest. Of course, there were several people who chose to ignore this rule. The ceremonies were to start at 7:30, Britney and I arrived around 8:00. Most people did not start showing up until around 8:30. We chose a table not in the front but not in the back either. Seats were not assigned. At every seating there was a gift of oud and a Arabian Mubakhar to burn it on. Oud comes from the wood of the tropical agar tree and the wood chips are burned as an incense. Oud can also be used as an oil and a perfume.

The women were dressed to the nines. Most women attendees wore some form of Arabic traditional garments, some Indian, some Moroccan, all beautiful. (I really wished I had purchased that Indian Saree from Sri Lanka. I would have fitted right in) The rainbow was definitely represented this night, because there were many colors worn. Makeup was flawless and Britney and I felt a little out of place because we didn’t have a professional makeup artist beat our faces before coming. For once there were no shaylas and I was able to see the faces that are usually covered and hidden. I was able to watch them let their hair down. On this night, they were just women having a good time and it was a reminder that we are all human regardless of race, religion, culture or socio-economical status.

There was a live female singer, whose voice sang Arabic songs the whole night. Arabic music never sounded so good to me. The music was loud but I enjoyed it. Women took the stage in the middle of the hall and danced to the music, while others went up to them and threw money at them and over them. They was making it rain up in there. The money was collected and I was told the money goes to charity. I’ve never seen that at an American wedding. Since I’m never getting married again, because that would mean a divorce from Darryl, then the next wedding I help plan will include this Arabic tradition. They dance different than Americans. It was just like subtle limb swinging and hips swaying, very sexy. I also heard that it is at these weddings that mothers and grandmothers look for potential wives for their single sons. I would assume that several of the women that chose to dance are looking to be seen as well. There was no tossing of a bouquet, there was this instead.

Food kept appearing at our table, most of it Britney (vegetarian) and I (vegan) could not enjoy but we did have some tabouleh, hummus, olives, vegetable rice and some sweets. Gifts also kept arriving at our tables. Makeup mirrors and chapstick rolled in tulle, mascara and nail polish on a silver tray. We went empty handed but left with a bag of feminine goodies.

Leaving the wedding with my bag of goodies
Gifts for the Guest

When the bride arrived, she didn’t wear a white gown, she wore an Arabic garment and a long veil. She was beautiful. She walked to the stage, then back to front and stood for a long time as the photographer and videographer took many shots. I don’t know if I could have stood still for that long time in those heals. Family members eventually made their way to the stage to congratulate her.

Britney and I left around 11:30 and the party was still going strong. I don’t know if the groom arrived to the ceremonies later as we had left but I had read online that this is what happens. The groom and his party arrive towards the end of the wedding, women cover back up as the men arrive and then the men leave again and the groom retrieves his wife.

Britney and I didn’t talk to anyone besides the family that we knew, probably because we don’t understand the language and probably because we are outsiders but we never felt uncomfortable. We thought we were going to get henna tattoos because it was a henna party but I guess it wasn’t that type of henna party. Nevertheless we really enjoyed this experience and can’t wait to get another invite.

Update: I got invited to another wedding, but this one is an Indian Arabic wedding and from what I’ve been told they sure know how to turn it up and at this henna party, you get your tatts.

Until next time…