Saturday, October 30, 2010

Insider Sources

As I have mentioned before, I make it a bit of my own personal mission to keep up to date with events happening around the City all year round. This has not gone unnoticed by my friends of course, who seem to view me as a bit of a resource when it comes to finding things to see and do.

This would not be the case if I was not an avid reader of various websites, blogs and newsletters dedicated to New York and I thought it might be useful to share some of the ones I check out most often.

I have been a subscriber of the New York Magazine even since I moved here and find both the paper and online version to be very useful on a weekly basis. I also trust their restaurant reviews more than any other publication and when I am about to try a new restaurant, I always check if it’s a critic’s pick as I know I will not be disappointed. What I love is that they don’t just rate fancy restaurants. My local jewish deli and much beloved institution, Barney Greengrass, is also a pick.

I also love the nycgo website, which while being a great resource for tourists, also contains interesting content about little known spots and events.

In terms of newsletters, I read Daily Candy, Thrillist (although it is geared more towards a male audience), Blackboard Eats (for restaurant deals), Citysearch as well as all the NY Mag's newsletters (Vulture, Fashion, Grub Street).

Some of my favourite New York blogs are Scouting NY (written by a professional film location scout), New York Portraits (daily photos of the City), NewYorkology (packed with events listings) and My Upper West (for obvious reasons). Some expat blogs are also great - My New York Dish for example being one of them.

For more general news, I have already documented my frustration with US TV news channels and gave up watching them a long time ago, when I realized that I didn’t really care about how your shower curtain might be giving you cancer and couldn’t take one more ad for personal injury lawyers.

I’ve also come across a few cool iPhone apps that make navigating your way in the City a little easier. Sit or Squat is a brilliant one overlaying public toilets on Google maps. The Starbucks app is a lifesaver for the caffeine addicted. The new Central Park app pinpoints areas of interest you may have otherwise missed, along with their history. And CityMint uses GPS location services to deliver food to you, wherever you are - say in the middle of the park for example!

Lastly, while it offers little value in terms of things happening in the City, I adore Overheard in New York because it gives an hilarious and sometimes concerning glimpse into the crazy, lusty and manic urban jungle that is New York City.

Thursday, October 28, 2010


I surprised myself in the past month or so by feeling what I can only guess is the tiniest (but disturbing for me) tinge of national identity.

I first noticed it when I read about the US government blanket advisory against traveling to Europe a couple of weeks ago and was outraged by what I considered to be a fear mongering exercise and overly simplistic view of an entire continent.

But I felt it even more sharply last night, during the weekly Evolutionary Psychology class that I am taking at NYU this fall (my idea of intellectual distraction - I know I’m weird!). Our lecturer, a deeply academic Harvard professor, was explaining how the advent of agriculture and the manipulation of nature as a consequence will probably be seen in years to come as the biggest mistake we ever made as a species. The point (which I agree with) is that we learned to manufacture food that is lower in nutrients but more calorific which drove higher birth rates but disrupted our original metabolism for the worst, creating a more sedentary lifestyle where fast food is king and exercise is shunned - in stark comparison to our athletic, lean and healthy hunter/gatherer ancestors (but who couldn’t reproduce as fast we could and therefore in a true manifest of Darwin’s theory lost the survival reproductive battle). But she used as an illustration a Mac Donald’s ad that apparently ran in “Europe” depicting a baby seemingly suckling on a bun. She made much fuss of the fact that this ad would have never run in the US but that European audiences are different and would not only see the humor in it but also be somehow more enticed to buy MC burgers because of it.

I shifted uncomfortably in my seat and felt miffed that she would not only come to such a sweeping conclusion, but also that Europe (a continent comprising 50 countries and speaking no less than 230 different languages) was in her eyes, and many other Americans, seen as just one undifferentiated and dumb unit.

I have never felt particularly strongly one way or the other about the fact that I am French - although I readily admit to being appalled about the current government in power and the particularly argumentative yet pointless (i.e strikes) nature of my native country. It just happens to be the place where I was born and spent the first 19 years of my life. I consider some of my most formative years to have been spent abroad and therefore always thought of myself as a bit of a citizen of the world - happily and openly taking bits and pieces of cultural traits and behaviours from wherever I live. When I introduce myself I rarely mention that I am French (or at least not at first), particularly in the US where most people don’t detect the French intonations in my otherwise quite British sounding accent.

But I object to that fact that Europe can be seen and characterized as a seamless entity because in my experience it is anything but. We have hundreds of years of history and countless bloody wars that shaped very distinctive countries, with different languages, cultures and ideologies. I don’t think that any of them are right or wrong - they are just wonderfully different and diverse and that’s what makes the world a more interesting place.

But hearing such generalizations about an entire continent awakens in me a sense of national identity I never really felt before. It makes me want to proclaim that I am French, not in the sense that I am proud of it, but in the sense that we are all different and that the sooner we accept and embrace our differences - while finding common ground (there is plenty!) - the sooner we will all learn to live in this world together happily.

Because what I felt is so uncharacteristic for me (a serial expat and the least French person one might meet) it also made me wonder if “national identity” as a wider, almost philosophical, matter is perhaps also an integral part of the psychological toolkit we unconsciously evolved over millions of years - a sense of belonging that transcends ages/places and somehow grounds us to a certain place, even though we don’t live (and have no intention to ever live) in that place again.

As an expat, no matter how open and embracing you are of your adopted country, can you or should you ever forget where you come from? And what is the right balance between embracing your new country but drawing on your cultural heritage, however patchy it may be?

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Ecuador Memories

Before our trip to Ecuador, in a rather idle yet morbid moment, I actually made a list of all the things that could kill or harm us there based on the reading I had done.  A bad case of altitude sickness, an earth quake, a volcanic eruption, yellow fever, malaria, piranhas, caymans, tarantulas, anacondas, poisonous frogs, pirates, sinking, political unrest ... The list seemed a lot more exhaustive and all together more concerning than my previous adventures.

I’m glad to report that we are home safe and sound but after a trip as unbelievable as we had, an exhausting total of 9 flights within 10 days and more up close and personal wildlife encounters I had ever imagined, I’m not sure we will ever be the same again.

Our journey started in Quito, the capital of Ecuador, nestled in the impressive Andes Cordillera. At an altitude of 2,800m (which we never quite got used to) the dull headache and shortness of breath we constantly felt there made it a more tiring experience than we had anticipated. But Quito’s dramatic mountain landscape, along with its amazing old colonial style Spanish architecture made it all worthwhile. From the myriad of intricately ornamented churches dotted everywhere to the majestic plazas, it’s easy to see why the Old Town is a UNESCO protected site.

While exploring Quito (and going to a windy view point 4,100m high) was great, we couldn’t wait to get to our first adventure in the jungle of the Oriente region of Ecuador. A short plane ride took us to the edge of the rain forest in the bustling market town of Coca. We felt the change in climate immediately, the heat and humidity hitting us as soon as we stepped off the aircraft.

We were met by our guide Luis and embarked on a 2.5 hours motorized canoe ride, dropping off local Amazon community members who hitched a ride with us at seemingly random spots along the wide Napo river. To realize the remoteness of where they live was frightening but little did we know at the time that we were heading to an even more secluded place ourselves.

Upon disembarking at a make shift jetty and after I was literally devoured by bugs the second I  set foot on land (I felt the painful stings before even noticing the countless insects that were nibbling on my shoulder/arms and only then proceeded to douse myself in DEET), we had to take a 30 minute trek through the jungle to get to the edge of a lake. A couple of men then rowed us in a traditional (and very unstable) hollowed tree trunk pirogue to La Selva Lodge, on the far side of said lake.

There started probably the most intense day and a half of my life. Within that time, we woke up each day at 5am. Took 2 long treks through the jungle and encountered countless spiders, lizards, monkeys and brightly coloured poisonous frogs. Went up 40 meters to the top of the Canopy tower to catch the sunrise over the immense expanse of the forest and watch the feeding rituals of numerous birds, including the gorgeous toucans. Faced our deepest fears by swimming in the lake inhabited by piranhas, anacondas and caymans (our guide challenged us to do it while assuring us it was “safe”). Enjoyed the most stunning sunset I have ever witnessed (so unbelievable in fact that it brought tears to my eyes) reflecting on the perfectly still mirror-like surface of the lake while taking an early evening canoe ride. And later that night, took another canoe ride in completely darkness, armed only with a powerful torch to catch a glimpse of the nocturnal animals and the cutest baby cayman.

I have been to a rain forest before (in Costa Rica) but not nothing as dense, wild and remote as the Amazon jungle. Nothing beats walking a trail cut with a machete, your hands firmly clasped to your chest (you should never touch anything for fear it might bite you!), religiously following the naturalist as his trained eyes spot the tiniest creatures otherwise so well camouflaged.

I don’t consider myself to be a spiritual person but I never felt more in tune and in awe of nature than on this part of the trip. I surprisingly loved the remoteness of it all - no cell phone or internet reception, with only the incessant (and sometimes alarming - howler monkeys sound like horror movies monsters!) sounds of the jungle surrounding us day and night.

All too soon, we had to leave our little jungle paradise and head back to Quito to continue on to the Galapagos islands. I must admit that while going back to a city with lots of people and honking cars was a shock, I relished being able to sleep without being concerned about critters getting in my bed at night. The cabin next to us found a tarantula on their porch on the second night and that was pretty much the end of my “Jane of the Jungle” fantasy!

We made it to San Cristobal island in the Galapagos after a couple of delayed flights and met our guide, Tatiana, and the rest of the group on The Odyssey, a gorgeous ship and our home for the next 4 days. There were 14 of us in total, 6 of them being backpackers traveling through South America, which kept our group young and lively.

Within an hour of landing, we had been given a short briefing, chosen our wetsuits and snorkeling gear and been taken to shore to snorkel off a local beach. As we approached, we spotted the first of many sea lions basking in the sun. We had been warned that the sea was cold (no more than 18C) but with the excitement of it all, I hardly felt it and dove in only to find myself swimming with a sea lion and a giant turtle almost immediately. I was so shocked and exhilarated by the surprise encounter that I stopped breathing for a few moments.

The Galapagos archipelago consists of a dozen or so of barren volcanic islands with little vegetation and dramatic rocky cliffs that huge waves crash into noisily.
The wildlife is so abundant and you have to watch your step for fear of hurting anything! Animals are mostly unconcerned by us, barely acknowledging our presence. As relatively new visitors to their territory, they do not see us as predators. It is really one of the only places on earth where one can stand so close to them and observe them in their natural habitat from the endemic blue footed boobies birds, majestic albatross, sally lightfoot crabs in their dazzling red coats, to iguanas and of course sea lions. It was like being inside a National Geographic documentary.

The days were roughly divided into 3 parts. Early morning land based hiking on one of the islands from 8am to 11am. Lunch at 12pm followed by a couple of hours of relaxation (i.e drinking tons of the very strong but deliciously smooth Ecuadorian coffee). From 2pm onwards, we’d start the sea based activities with deep sea or beach snorkeling to partake in our daily swimming with the sea lions, turtles, myriads of fish and the occasional sting rays.

We didn’t realize quite how much snorkeling would be involved. Especially “extreme snorkeling” as we all came to call it. On the 3rd day, we dove 3 times and each time came out of the sea having lost all sensations in our fingers and toes, our lips blue and teeth shattering. I must admit that we questioned our sanity for doing this (and paying for it) more than once! The ship’s crew certainly seemed to find it a highly amusing spectacle. But there was no way that any of us were going to miss any snorkeling opportunities and what was essentially like swimming in a huge aquarium - despite one of them involving being dropped at a 30 meters deep point at 8am and snorkel in strong currents along the cliffs to get an unparalleled glimpse of maritime feeding time and playing hide and seek with 4 young sea lions.

Most of the sailing was done at night, which considering how rough the sea got was a blessing as we could take sea-sickness medication and more or less sleep through it. The second night in particular was very, very choppy and the slightly over-friendly Captain (4 weeks into an 8 weeks stint at sea made his zeal a little more understandable!) took us to the Bridge although getting there via the narrow passageway, with only a handrail between us and the huge waves was terrifying! Sailing in such conditions requires a lot of concentration and the First Mate and him alternated 2 hour shifts each throughout the night.

We also made a stop at Post Office Bay on Floreana island. We expected something resembling a post office but were surprised to find instead an old barrel amongst piles of driftwood. Legend has it that sailors back in the 1700s left letters to their loved ones in the barrel for other passing sailors to post/hand deliver when returning home. The tradition continues and we all left postcards for our respective families around the world and in turn took postcards from other travellers to post on our return. I can’t wait to see how long it will take for my parents to receive theirs!

Our trip ended back in Quito where we made an obligatory stop at the Equator line. It was fun taking pictures of ourselves straddling both hemispheres and the small Inti-Nan museum was particularly interesting as we took part in various experiments showing the effect of zero gravity on the line. From watching water go down a drain without spinning, to quite easily balancing an egg on top of a nail and walking with our eyes closed and arms outstretched on the line, feeling ourselves very destabilized by the opposite pull of the Northern and Southern hemispheres.

Coming back from such a diverse, intense, adrenaline-filled adventure is always hard and I returned to New York with a serious case of holiday blues and a bad cold. But all the pictures and memories will hopefully keep me going through the inevitably cold New York winter.

Thursday, October 21, 2010


I have come to realise that there are a few little details that betray someone as an out-of-towner or as a recent implant to the City. Some of these traits are cute and some of them are damn right annoying - but of course I myself exhibited most of them in my first few months in New York too. 

It is therefore without prejudice or snobbery that I can say you are not a New Yorker yet when:

Upon exiting a subway station, you stop and stand at the top of the stairs and look confused. The chances are that a New Yorker might be confused too as it is almost impossible (despite the signage, which I believe to be a fallacy) to know which way is north or south unless you've been there before. .. but New Yorkers don't block the exit for everyone else in the process. They just start walking in a random direction and work it out from there.

You insist in paying cash in restaurants. I can't think of a single good reason why this makes sense and I also find it a little annoying as it means having to work out the tip in advance for the person(s) paying in cash, rather than just conveniently calculating it from the tax on the credit card receipt.

When asked for an address, you say "2350 Broadway" or "1330 6th Avenue", which means absolutely nothing to anyone. New Yorkers never, ever, use street addresses and always reference the cross streets and avenues to direct people.

You walk at a normal pace, or even worse, stroll along the streets instead of the competitive speed walking that New Yorkers practice on a daily basis. I have to admit that it is a particular pet peeve of mine as, despite my rather short stature, I can walk faster than most grown men I know.

You don't let women go before you through open doors and in elevators. This rather old-fashioned form of chivalry seems to have been imprinted for life in the psyche of New York men and while I am all for equal rights, it is rather endearing.

You suffer a mild panic attack when your New Yorker friend crosses the street just as the red hand flashes and sometimes even forcibly try to stop them. The flashing hand means you get at least another 30 seconds to cross the street before getting run over. If it takes you anything over that time to cross the street, then it is the City's own natural selection of the fittest process as far as I'm concerned!

You think that brunch is a meal that takes places sometime after breakfast and before lunch, around 11.30am. Which couldn't be more wrong - New Yorkers will never be caught dead having brunch earlier than 1.30pm or 2pm.

You genuinely hold hope that you are going to find a public toilet anytime now when roaming around town. As far as I'm aware, they are simply nonexistent in the City apart from the extremely clean and pleasant one at Bryant Park. But then that's what Starbucks is for.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Ecuador Scare

I have been cursing my previously documented love of adventure a little more than usual in the past few days ...

Together with my lovely friends GP and CS, I have been planning a 10 day trip to Ecuador for the past couple of months. We were set on going somewhere in South America and had originally envisioned going to Peru and climbing Machu Picchu. But upon reading that it had become a bit of a tourist circus, we started reading up about other surrounding countries. Ecuador stood out pretty much immediately - it's the smallest country in SA, which makes it easier to travel around, and yet one of the most diverse in terms of landscape, culture and wild life. It's also meant to be one of the safest and when you are traveling with two other girls, that makes a big difference.

Our itinerary was soon decided. We will fly into the capital - Quito - this Saturday and spend a couple of days there exploring the old town (a UNESCO protected site) as well as go to the Equator line of course. From there, we will board a small plane taking us to the edge of the Amazonian rain forest, followed by a 2 hour canoe ride to our lodge, deep in the jungle. After about 3 days of facing all imaginable killer insects, arachnids and reptiles known to man (and perhaps doing a spot of Piranha fishing), we will make our way back to Quito to catch another flight to the Galapagos Islands where we will embark on a 4 day boat trip with 13 other passengers and a naturalist guiding us through their incredible wild life. Bearing in mind my keen interest in Evolutionary Biology (I have, over the years, read as much Darwin, Dawkings and Pinker as possible for one who actually works in an unrelated field), the Galapagos have been what I thought was an unattainable fantasy for me for many years. Needless to say that because of all the above and the eye-watering cost of it all, I anticipated this to be a trip of a lifetime.

But the dream was almost shattered last Thursday. I got an email from both GP (Italian but based in London) and CS (British who still reads the BBC website religiously) about some trouble happening in Ecuador. It turns out that there was a military coup of some sort and the President was taken hostage. Fights ensued that lead to 5 people being killed and hundreds injured. The airport was closed, many European governments issued a "no travel warning" and the country declared a state of emergency for 7 days.

What troubles me the most about it all is that I would have never heard about it had it not been for them. In fact, when I came in to work the next day and mentioned it to my colleagues and then to my friends later that night, not one of them had heard the news either. It is simply because it was not covered (and still isn't) in the US media.

I realized a while ago but US news outlets are rather selective about what International events they cover. If it is anything controversial/salacious or could directly affect the safety of Americans (on their own soil or in war areas), it will be covered at length (understandably). But everything else seems to be simply ignored. For example, I remember vividly the lack of coverage of the sweeping forest fires that devastated huge parts of Australia last year (a country nearly the size of the USA).

I have been checking the US government travel advisory website for days now and found no mention of any unrest in Ecuador. Instead, I was surprised to read a post advising American citizens not to travel to Europe. They seem to forget that Europe is a continent made up of 50 official countries (or 27 if you chose to count only the ones in the European Union). It is in a way as ludicrous as advising against travel to North America because there's a potential threat in New York, which must sadly happen more times than we'd like to think.

I know this will sound like I am bashing America and that's not really my intention. There are many, many things I love about this wonderful country or I would not live there. But the fact that I have only been able to get updates on the Ecuador situation from British, French and Australian news sites, has been rather frustrating for me and, I have to admit, kind of embarrassing.

Thankfully, things seem to have quieten down there and the President is back in power and looks to have the support of his people - whether that's right or wrong is another issue. Our travel agents and airline's advice today is to go ahead with our trip. Traveling to South America always means a certain amount of political volatility, which I guess we should have anticipated.

We have all managed to alleviate our respective parents fears and now all the travel shots and our preparations do not seem in vain anymore. But it is of course with some remaining nervousness, and clearly a bit of pent-up frustration, that I look forward to finally going on this rather incredible trip!

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Lost In Translation

I went to Japan exactly a year ago but forgot to post about some of my experiences there.

Japan has long been on my travel wish-list and I was starting to wonder when I was going to make it there until my friend GP told me that she was stopping there for a week on her way back from London to Melbourne and asked if I wanted to come. We met in Tokyo and stayed there for a day before moving on to Kyoto for 2 days and then back to Tokyo for the remainder of the time.

I was fully expecting to suffer from horrendous jet lag and was unfortunately right. After a 14 hour flight and a 9 hour time difference, I got to our first hotel, the B Akasaka in the district of the same name, early in the evening and barely able to remember my own name. G and I managed to squeeze in a quick sushi dinner locally before collapsing into bed at around 9pm. I woke up at 4am the next day and was unable to get back to sleep. So it is in a rather time-zone confused daze but with barely contained excitement that we ventured into the heart of the city the next morning ... except there is no heart to it. Tokyo doesn't really have a center as such - it is instead a fascinating patchwork of neighbourhoods, each with their own distinctive personality.

I have to admit that I was a little underwhelmed in our first few hours. We walked from Akasaka to the Imperial Palace only to realise that it couldn't be seen as it is a closely guarded fortress and only the surrounding gardens can be glimpsed at. From there, we walked to Ginza, the high end shopping district (although we had no intention of shopping) and we were surprised by the nearly deserted long avenues. With the tall buildings and Western designer stores, we could have been in any other large urban cities in the world and I started to fear that perhaps the Tokyo of my fantasies did not exist.

Thankfully we started to walk away from Ginza and into some of the small adjacent streets and the feeling subsided as we were surrounded by signs in Japanese characters, older low-rise buildings and houses. I started to really fall in love with Tokyo at lunch time as we followed a group of locals ducking under a piece of fabric hung over a door that lead to a steep and narrow staircase, with only a heady smell betraying the fact that it was a restaurant. We gestured to the host that we wanted to have lunch and were lead to a communal rectangular table in the tiny but beautifully decorated dining room. From the pictures on the menu, we worked out that the restaurant's speciality was Ramen (we soon realized that restaurants in Japan tend to specialize in just one type of food, mastering it perfectly as a result) and ordered the pork version. It was honestly the best ramen I ever had in my entire life and I knew then that this country was going to be heaven for a foodie like me.

G and I had both been warned against taking the subway but adventurous as we are, we decided to try it in order to get to Akusaka. While it is a first glance a complete maze of lines, colours and japanese characters, once you spend some time trying to work it out, it is actually quite straight forward, extremely reliable, clean and punctual and frankly the best way to get around Tokyo, which is a deceptively large city.

Despite having been almost entirely destroyed during WWII (as was much of Tokyo actually), Akusaka is considered to be one of the last few areas of the city that is representative of a more modest, old-style Tokyo and used to be the red light district for a long time.  And this is where my love of Tokyo was cemented as we weaved through crowds of people shopping at small market stalls on the way to the Senso-Ji shrine, overwhelmed by the bright colors of the multitude of trinkets they sold (from sushi candy to plastic cats) and the weird and wonderful food items we had never seen before. We meandered through all the tiny side streets, engulfed by the smoke and delicious smell that came from make-shift restaurants crammed next to one another, usually consisting of nothing more than a hob, a busy cook and a small table on the pavement packed with locals eating and drinking in between puffing on their cigarette.

The next day, we made our way to Kyoto on the bullet train despite our confusion over the difference between express, rapid and super express trains (as it turns out rapid is faster than express!). We had opted to stay in a Ryokan there, which is a traditional Japanese guest house. Ours, the Motonago, was located in the picturesque, cobbled and narrow streets of the historical Gion district, steps away from the Maryana gardens and its multitude myriad of temples and shrines.

Ryokans are like doll houses in the sense that everything is small and close to the ground. At 5ft3, I am not exactly tall but even I felt like a big, clumsy thing is such tiny quarters. Our room consisted of a corridor with hidden wardrobes and a central open space covered in tatami mats with a low table in the centre, a mirror (mysteriously covered at all times with an ornate cloth) and a small raised area decorated with a minimalist flower arrangement (which we were told was a sacred shrine, prompting me to quickly remove the handbag I had conveniently put there!).

While we had already guessed at the importance of etiquette in Japan, it truly came to life there in a ritual and almost spiritual way. Shoes had to be removed at the entrance of the Ryokan and slippers were provided to us, as well as a light cotton kimono to relax in when we were in the house. A chambermaid served us elaborate, multi-course breakfasts and dinners in our room with a sense of decorum and precision in the placement of the various dishes on the table that made us feel … unsophisticated. In fact, the feeling of us unwittingly being rude and unrefined foreigners is one that persisted throughout our trip – in a country so steeped in tradition and ritual, it is impossible to know which unwritten rule one might be breaking at any given time. Although none of our Japanese hosts made us feel that way, I am sure it is due to their extreme politeness and that they would never have wanted to make us feel awkward by pointing out our mistakes.

One of the best things about staying in a Ryokan for me was most definitely having a Japanese bath. I've never been a bath person (I get bored far too quickly to stay in one for more than a few minutes) so entered the bathroom with some skepticism at first. I was faced with a row of low stools each facing a mirror and equipped with a shower hose and a deep bath on the other. Having thankfully read up about it before, I knew that I had to shower before dipping myself in the bath as everyone shares the same. Showering sitting down while avoiding looking at with my naked-self was not particularly relaxing and afterwards I forced myself into what I knew would be a very hot bath … and into pure 43C heaven. Instantly, my sore muscles melted and all the tension disappeared. I never managed to stay in the bath for more than 10 minutes as the intense heat made my heart race a little too scarily but it was the most unbelievable experience.

We had such an amazing trip in a country that is incredibly different to any other in the world that it is very hard to summarize or describe all of it in an accurate manner.

There are so many more things I could write about without doing them any justice. Visiting the Tsukiji fish market at 5am when trading is at its peak and trying to avoid being run over by the myriad of motorised vehicles that erratically transport the merchandise. Noticing Japanese men's fondness for Louis Vuitton "man bags". Arriving at restaurants at 8pm to find rows of business men drunkenly slumped on their yakitori, only waking up to do another shot of Sake. Finding vending machines at every street corner, selling everything from water, to coffee, candy and cigarettes. The toilets of course - a mind-boggling experience at first but it's funny how easy it is to get used to heated toilet seats. And the always funny and sometimes puzzling deformation of the English language we encountered everywhere - "well come", "there is a difference, please note one's feet" ...

Wonderfully lost in translation indeed ...