From Tuscany to Cinque Terre, Sampling the Lavish and Relishing the Simple

Monday, August 7, 2017 | Parco Nazionale delle Cinque Terre, Italy (map)

Vernazza, a picturesque paradise in Cinque Terre.
Still buzzing from the excitement of the sumptuous Roman wedding, Nina and I wrestled our bags into a rented Fiat and headed for Tuscany. It was still early May, so the days were long, the air was sun-baked and warm, and the Italian countryside was in bloom.

We drove to Orvieto, a medieval town whose defensive walls melded seamlessly into the rocky outcropping on which it sat, dominating the fields of grapes and orchards all around. In Orvieto we climbed the ancient bell tower, savored prosciutto and mozzarella sandwiches in a tiny shaded piazza, and strolled along stone streets flanked by gelaterias and artisan shops selling everything imaginable in gnarly hand-carved olive wood.

By the end of the day we had traversed Lazio, skirted Umbria, and entered Tuscany, where we settled for the night in a b&b outside Siena. It was a 15-minute walk to the central Piazza del Campo, the vast, seashell-shaped central plaza dominated by the city's famed tower. For two days each summer since the 1500s,

La Dolce Vita: A Roman Wedding with an Indian Twist

Monday, July 31, 2017 | Rome, Italy (map)

The man of the hour can enjoy two drinks at once if he damn well pleases.
I would go anywhere for Joe, and he knows it. That was surely all the more true when he told me he was getting married.

Hailing from the US east coast and living in North Africa—with friends scattered across the globe—I have certainly made some long journeys to celebrate nuptials in recent years. But this time around the trip was an easy local jaunt, since Joe and his wonderful bride Christianne decided to get hitched just across the way in Rome—an easy 2-hour flight from Algiers. Joe is a former roommate and among my closest friends from my Georgetown days, and he and Christianne had even made the effort two years earlier to come visit us in Algeria—getting themselves added to several Homeland Security watchlists in the process (sorry again, guys!)—so there was no way Nina and I were missing this one.

We organized with friends to rent an apartment along Via Giulia, a block from the Tiber, and spent a few days before and after the wedding festivities exploring the city. If we failed to eat every last bowl of pasta in Rome or make the bartenders weary of mixing Aperol Spritzes, it was surely not for lack of effort.

Then vs. Now, Here vs. There: Making Sense of the Beirut Blur

Thursday, July 6, 2017 | Beirut, Lebanon (map)

This Beirut trip was a chance to see how the city had evolved since my last visit a dozen years earlier.
Khalil and I never really met back in college, but we recognized each other's faces well enough to make the connection one summer evening at a mutual friend's party here in Algiers. "Hey, didn't you go to Georgetown?" Like me, Khalil had moved to Algeria in recent years for work. We've stayed in loose touch since that evening two years ago, catching up occasionally at functions around town. Then back in March, an invitation hit my inbox: for no particular reason whatsoever, Khalil and his wife Julia were inviting us and a few dozen other friends from around the world to a party at his family home in Beirut.

On the face of it, Lebanon seemed a bit far to travel to just for a party. But Nina and I both had a few friends there we wanted to see, and we were keen to escape Algiers for a long weekend somewhere different. Besides, Nina had always wanted to visit Beirut, and I was eager to see how it had changed since I was last there 12 years ago. "When in doubt, go out"—right? In the end, it was an easy choice.

When we checked in at the Algiers airport, we discovered that a large group would be making the trip with us, including several close friends. Team Algeria was going to Beirut.

The Road to El Oued, City of a Thousand Domes and More

Monday, May 29, 2017 | El Oued, Algeria (map)

Bachir, Baha', and Khaled, my hosts in El Oued, took me to visit the dunes that rise at the city's edge.
From Biskra, my route took me further south into the Sahara.

After leaving the palm groves ringing Biskra, my taxi turned onto a two-lane desert highway that stretched, straight as an arrow, as far as the eye could see into a desolate, sandy void. This, he told me, was the route to El Oued.

The choice of El Oued's name—meaning "the river" in Arabic—must surely have been aspirational, I mused, as we raced past scrub and dunes and not much else. But while the terrain looked to be about as dry as any other in the Sahara, that soon changed. To the left and right of the highway, vast brown expanses appeared through the rippling heat. (It was still late January, but already quite warm at midday.) Further on, the road arced toward one of the mud lakes, and I got a closer look: this was a chott, a muddy depression where the region's brackish groundwater seeps to the surface, turning hundreds of square kilometers into untraversable muck.

Biskra: You Can't Beat the Real Thing

Wednesday, May 3, 2017 | Biskra, Algeria (map)

The textured streets of Biskra's old town
"Lazem trouh l'Biskra! Wallah lazem!" You have to visit Biskra! You just have to!

Since I first came to Algeria five years ago, I seemed to hear those words all the time. But the desert oasis in question was 400km (250 miles) southeast of Algiers—not exactly a short trip.

So when the exhibition "Biskra: Visions of an Oasis" opened at the Institut du Monde Arabe in Paris last September, it piqued my interest, and I began searching for a moment to break away for a Parisian vacation. But busy month after busy month kept slipping by, and soon it was January and I still hadn't budged. With the exhibition set to end in just days, I toyed with the idea of a quick weekend escape to Paris. That's when I found out I would need to take a work trip... to Biskra. I was thrilled—as if I'd just found out I would need to miss a visit to the Louvre to go meet the real-life Mona Lisa. You can't beat the real thing!

WikiStage Algiers: Young Algerians Tell Their Stories

Monday, April 17, 2017 | Algiers, Algeria (map)

Ibn Ibn Battuta takes the stage (Photo courtesy of Abderrahmane Yaniss Otmani / CAP)
Everyone has a story to tell. Especially in Algeria—the outside world doesn't know your stories. Let's fix that, and let's start today.

That, in essence, was the message of the talk I delivered at WikiStage Algiers, a TEDx-style event held back in December in the capital's brand new, Chinese-built opera house. (The video, I'm told, will be available soon.) In the audience were something close to a thousand young people, many of them from ENP, Algeria's national polytechnical university, whose principal student club organizes the event each year. This year, to cap off my high-profile 2016, they had invited me to speak on a topic of my choice. With guidance from some wise friends, I settled on a topic that is obviously close to my heart—storytelling.

Encouraging young people to tell their stories in the age of Facebook, Instagram, and SnapChat might seem unnecessary back in the US, but here in Algeria, young people lead very different lives. Facebook is just as ubiquitous as back home (if not more so) precisely because of how little opportunity young people here have for self-expression in the real world. Algerian society tends to place high value on respect for elders—who, in turn, tend to abuse this fact by endlessly telling young people how to live their lives. Most youth also feel pressure to conform to very narrow definitions of success. (For some of the elite students I was addressing, for example, family expectations might boil down to "Doctor, pilot, move to France, or you're a letdown... and no complaining about it.")

But regardless of social norms, family expectations, or cultural circumstances, we're all human. We all have talents, we all spill out of the molds and color outside

I Took A Chill Pill in Mallorca

Wednesday, March 22, 2017 | Mallorca, Illes Balears, Spain (map)

Upward: Scaling limestone cliffs high above Mallorca's Bay of Pollença
Spain's Balearic Islands sit in the western Mediterranean, roughly midway between Barcelona and Algiers, making it a short flight for Nina and me when we visited last September. Our destination was Mallorca, the largest of the chain's four islands—the others being Minorca, Ibiza, and Formentera (known, respectively, for stone monoliths, stoned club-goers, and stone-faced German nudists). By contrast, Mallorca is a more middle-of-the-road vacation spot, with something for everyone, from outlet shopping and lazy beaches to brutal cycling routes and harrowing rock climbing. Whatever your pleasure, wine and fresh fish dinners bring everyone together at the end of every day.

This was my second year accompanying Nina and her family to Mallorca, who find the place pleasant but oddly familiar, since a significant portion of the island's residents and visitors are Germans like them. There are even German street signs, German doctors, German menus in restaurants, and German radio stations. (Suffice it to say I learned much more Deutsch than Español in the course of this trip.)

Surf's Up Portugal

Wednesday, March 8, 2017 | Odeceixe, Portugal (map)

Above the beach at Odeceixe, Maggie performs her favorite vacation pastime: coming right after me to stand in the same spot and take the same picture. (Lucky for me she doesn't have the same camera.)
It wouldn't be fair to Algeria to say that one of the prime advantages of living here is the proximity to Europe, but as an American in Algiers it's hard not to enjoy being a two-hour flight away from every major destination on the continent.

One weekend last summer, Nina and I took advantage of that fact by hopping up to Portugal to rendez-vous with my sister Maggie, who was passing through on a work trip.

After connecting in Lisbon, we drove south to the tiny beach town of Odeceixe, which was little more than a dozen homes and a restaurant clustered on a steep bluff over the Atlantic. Steady rollers drove endlessly toward the beach, and we spent most of our days there flailing in the froth, trying to catch waves amid encouragement from some local surf instructors. That and eating amazing fish dinners at the town's restaurant. (Sorry, I was too busy to get pictures of either!)

Odeceixe was a beautiful little corner of a country I have grown to love over the years, but we never would have found it without help from our Portuguese friends. Nina and I have met quite a few generous Portuguese expats here in Algiers these past years, and they gladly put their heads together and proposed a detailed menu of recommendations to help us plan our trip. (A huge "thank you" and "muitos obrigados" to Diogo, Tânia, Filipe, João, and all the others!)