After college, my friend and I took a backpacking trip across Europe. We visited many countries but not on that list was Germany. A decision I regret. I mean history, food, and castles, O My! After working on this post, I am hoping to get there soon.
Alexandra Paucescu is from Romania and the wife of a diplomat currently living and quarantining in Berlin, Germany. She also recently became an author with her new book "Just a Diplomatic Spouse." Alexandra was kind enough to let us know a little about the highlights of Berlin and Germany and also opens up about the culture shock she has found coming from a Romanian background.
Berlin is definitely one of the most interesting cities in the world to live in. Due to its unique and also tragic history, it has emerged as a completely original metropole. The fact that it was brutally and almost completely destroyed during World War II, and then has been artificially divided by the Berlin Wall for more than 30 years, has put its mark over the city. Berlin has two Zoos, two Opera houses, two Aquariums, tern communist buildings but also iconic ones, like the famous Brandenburg Gate or Reichstag.
Check out the architecture. The architecture is a mixture of old buildings (most of them completely restored) and bold, modern constructions, all set in the greenest cityscape I have ever seen.
See the cherry blossoms. I also have to tell you about the beautiful Japanese cherry trees, with their gorgeous pink small flowers, in full blossom every spring. The city got them as a present from the Japanese government after the fall of the wall and they were mostly planted on the former border, in the middle of town.
Head to the lakes. The capital and its surrounding state of Brandenburg are called ‘the land of 3,000 lakes’, many of them with fine sandy beaches, a pleasure to go to in summer time.
Play at Tropical Island. Tropical Island, a man-made paradise, is just an hour drive away from Berlin. It is the largest indoor water park in the world, housed in a former airship hangar, home to the biggest indoor rainforest, a beach, swimming pools, water slides, bars and restaurants. You can even fly around in a hot air balloon!
More museums than rainy days. The Museum Island in Berlin is place to some of the most visited world class museums. ‘Pergamon Museum’, hosting the impressive Ishtar Gate of Babylon and my personal favorite, ‘Neues Museum’, Berlin’s museum of ancient Egypt, home to the famous bust of Queen Nefertiti, are just few examples. They say Berlin has more museums than rainy days! If you want to visit any of these museums though, you should prepare yourself for long waiting hours, especially in summer time.
Shop at KaDeWe. For shopping addicts KaDeWE is the second largest department store in Europe (after Harrods in London) and is definitely the place to be ;)
When it comes to eating and drinking, Berlin is Heaven! You can find anything you want here, and at fair prices.
First thing BEER! Germany is home to beer, and not just at the famous Oktoberfest. There is good beer everywhere, they have even specialized supermarkets for drinks only!
Curry wurst mit pommes. Also, when you say Berlin, you think of ‘curry wurst mit pommes’, a trade-mark local food since 1949. It is basically a grilled sausage with ketchup, curry powder and French fries aside, which you can serve at any corner in the city.
Döner kebab. Berlin is also proud to have invented and make the best ‘Döner kebab’ (a Turkish dish originally made by the first Turkish migrants who came to Berlin after the WW II). A warm sandwich with bread, thin slices of meat, cabbage, onion, tomatoes, spices and a special sauce that binds all the ingredients… ‘Mustafa Kebab’ is the name that you will probably find in most tourists’ reviews about it. It is considered to be the best in the city.
Ice cream. When we talk about ice cream and chocolate… we are experts ☺ … so, if you come to Berlin, please stop by ‘Whoop Whoop’ store on Rosenthaler Street for their special and insanely creamy ice cream, made directly in front of you using liquid nitrogen technology.
Chocolate. If you are a chocolate lover, go to Rausch in Gendarmenmarkt for the best chocolate and best chocolate cakes in town.
Every time we moved away from home, we took only half of our possessions with us and then realized it was more than enough. However, I always bring...
lots of pictures of my family, two or three framed paintings done by my talented grandpa, some of our preferred books, and lots of decor stuff. I love decorating my interior, wherever I go. It helps personalize the house and make it feel like home.
There are plenty of books trying to help people moving here to understand the locals. However, after almost 5 years of living in Berlin, I can honestly say it is quite difficult☺.
Learn the language, as much as you can, and be particularly careful when talking to people. They are veeeeeery sensitive when it comes to German language and remember, ALWAYS use the polite form ‘SIE’ when talking to anybody!
Prepare for the climate. Rainy weather, short summers and long, dark winter seasons.
Careful with high heels. Don’t expect to see too many elegantly dressed people on the streets, Berliners have a truly unique sense of styling. And be careful wearing high heels, most sidewalks are paved with cubic stone, the nightmare of any stiletto…
Adjusting to different attitudes. The most difficult part about moving to Berlin was the general attitude of people here. I am from Romania, a Latin country, with friendly and hospitable people. Coming to Berlin, where people are not famous for their warmth, sometimes being even aggressive and rude, was a shock.
Winter nights. The long winter nights (roughly from 3:30 pm to 8:00 am the next morning) are quite depressing and hard to bare.
Germany is a beautiful country, with plenty of gorgeous places to discover, lakes, deep forests, few mountains, islands and also lots of historical sights. We enjoyed our weekend getaways from Berlin a lot. Never a dull moment! Berlin is also very offering. You can find everything, for any taste and preference, you can be anyone and feel free to live any kind of life you wish: hippie, bourgeois, aristocratic… you name it…
More about our life in Germany, you can find in my book, ‘Just a diplomatic spouse’, which is a collection of events that occurred over a period of more than ten years, rules of diplomatic protocol and ranking, advice for other women at the beginning of a similar journey, valuable travel and even shopping tips. It is a diary, a book on diplomatic etiquette, lifestyle and travel blog, ALL IN ONE.
I can't wait to read your book, Alexandra. And I can't wait to visit Germany! Beer, sausage and ice cream are right up my alley. Thank you for sharing your experience with us.
In Love & Tacos
Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates looks like a gorgeous place to spend a few years. Maybe not as famous as its Emirati cousin Dubai, it still comes with beautiful gulf waters and a taste of the high life. Let me introduce you to Cécile. She is the wife of a Belgian diplomat posted in Abu Dhabi along with her diplo-babies. Cécile gives us a little peek into life in this Arabic, desert nation. I was shocked to learn there is no FaceTime or any video app to keep in touch with family and friends back home (a lifeline for any diplomatic family, especially during quarantine.)
Cécile is quite the photographer so please look for her on Instagram @desperatediplowife or follow her adventures on her blog www.desperatediplowife.com.
Grand Mosque. Of course, you have to visit Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque! It’s free, it’s partially Belgian build and there is an underground parking with a tiny mall! It doesn’t get any better that this! To get the perfect Instagram picture, I would recommend going to the infinity pool at the Wahat Al Karama on the other side of the street. Sunset is the best time but if you want to avoid the crowd, go at the opening, early morning.
Take an Arabic coffee at the corniche. Drive down the corniche and go to the marina. Over there, many little coffee places will offer you the perfect Arabic coffee, or karak (Arabic tea) with Shisha if you like it. The view of the city center and the presidential palace is gorgeous. If luxury is your thing, take your platinum MasterCard to the Emirate Palace for a Gold cappuccino.
Shop in Yas mall. This mall is one of the biggest of the capital and my all-time favorite. All white marble and windows, the sun can come inside and brighten your day. You’ll find anything you need and more. A lot of nice coffee places are also in there, and you have 50% chance of meeting me there!
An apéro in the desert. Never venture alone in the desert! Find friends with a 4x4 or go on an organized desert safari. Enjoy the silence, let run your kids while you’re having a drink, spot animal tracks and marvel to the incredible sunset light. Dune bashing is a fantastic option too, but you better not be car sick!
Visit the Louvre. If architecture or culture is your thing, go to The Louvre Abu Dhabi. The French architect did it good, I have to admit this dome is one of the craziest buildings I’ve seen in my life. Take a break at the restaurant, it’s a lovely place.
Take the sun at Saadiyaat beach. This beach is the most beautiful beach I’ve ever seen. The sand is white, the water is turquoise, you really think you’re in the Maldives. You can spot dolphins, turtles and stingrays. You can either visit the public part of Saadiyat beach (there is an entry fee, anyway, don’t be surprised) or take a day pass in one of the 5 star hotels on the beach.
Dates. In the desert, if there is one thing you can’t miss, it’s dates! My favorites are Medjool, but any sort here is very good. Be careful, there is an old saying here about dates “Eat only an odd number of dates: 1, 3, 5, maximum 7 a day, never more”. You’ll be warned.
Zaatar and cheese Manakeesh with a good Shawarma sandwich. I know, it’s more Lebanese, anyway in this country “Arabic” restaurants are everywhere, and they tend to share dishes from the whole MENA region so this menu is usually our easy lunch option (with a Fattoush salad).
Karak. It’s an Emirati milk tea with spices. The recipe is secret and differs a bit from place to place but there is usually saffron, cardamom and lots of sugar in it.
A lavish brunch. In every luxurious hotel in the country, Fridays at 12:30 starts weekly over-the-top brunch-time. Live-cooking, live music, tonnes of dishes and alcohols, it’s pretty much all you can dream for in a restaurant and even more! I recommend the Nahaam Brunch at the Jumeirah Etihad towers, the seafood is amazing.
Some Luqaimat. Those Arabic sweet dumplings are worth a try!
I took all my house’s content and then realized; you can find pretty much ANYTHING in the UAE. All American and European brands are here, plus you have all these gorgeous imports from Asia. Art galleries sell some amazing pieces from all over the world. We really live at a world crosswalk; I redecorated our interior with new things from here. Same with the wardrobe! You’ll find a huge choice of summer clothes and bathing suit. And if by big surprise you can’t find something, 90% of the population is expat here, so there is a big chance your neighbors will be able to bring it back to you after their next holiday.
Of course, I took all our souvenirs and some Belgian art, a piece of décor for every room to feel familiar, and I’m sure some pieces I bought here will become very important in the future. We bought a painting of a camel that is a part of the family already.
Get a phone contract with a lot of international minutes. The video and calling apps are banned here in the UAE. Unless hiding behind a VPN (which is illegal) you won’t be able to use FaceTime, WhatsApp call, Skype, … (Admin note 😱 WHAT?!)
Get used to living outdoors all winter and inside all summer. The summer is unbearable here, temperature is around 47 Celsius in the shade but don’t worry, there are plenty of things to do inside (we even have a ski slope).
Don’t stress! People are super friendly here and even if you encounter a problem (a car accident, a maintenance problem, an administrative problem, etc.) they will do everything to solve it quickly. The pace of life is different (I had to slow down a bit my walking speed to blend in) but they are very helpful and kind. If you have kids, it’s the perfect place to be. They love kids and will do everything for them!
The air quality. Living in a desert has a cost and it’s the quality of the air. Nobody will tell this to you before you come here, but air quality is very low in Abu Dhabi and Dubai. Although you’re at the sea, sandstorms and the constant dust in the air put these cities in the top of pollution levels 75% of the year. of course, because it comes from natural dust and sand particles, it’s not as bad for your health as chemical particles, but still, many people (children first) are having respiratory issues and pneumonia quite often. We live with an air purifier in every room.
The cost of living. In fact, living in the desert has a second cost pretty obvious, the cost of living. The UAE is a gorgeous country, but it doesn’t produce that much. It imports most of the things for a market of very rich expats. Everything, except gasoline, is more expensive here than in Europe. Electricity, water, food, restaurants, clothes, … your bills will be higher than home. Last year, the UAE became the most expensive country to fly out in the world. I pay twice the price to go to Brussels than a regular ticket from Brussels to Abu Dhabi. Taxes on income don’t exist here, so people who work here and get paid here, are rich and can afford that cost of living. Diplomats are paid back home… ;)
The safety! It’s the safest place in the world. You can leave you car opened, running, with your phone and wallet inside, go to the shop to buy something and everything is still there when you come back! As a woman, it is super nice to be able to go for a walk in any neighborhood of the city at any time of the day or night and feel super safe. I can let my kids play in the street, go alone to the local supermarket, it’s safe and it gives a feeling of Europe 50 years ago.
If you are interested in knowing more about our life or the diplomatic life in general, follow my Instagram (@desperatediplowife) or my blog www.desperatediplowife.com
Thanks Cécile for showing us what expat life is like in the United Arab Emirates.
In Love & Travel
Seoul, South Korea seems so far away from here. When I think of South Korea, I think of a place that is so modern technologically and also so ancient in its traditions. Like a living juxtaposition of old and cutting edge. Growing up in the San Francisco Bay Area, I was lucky to have a few Korean friends over the years. Through them I had the pleasure of learning some aspects of the culture, attending weddings, and enjoying some great meals, yet so much of their beautiful culture still feels unknown and foreign to me.
I was so excited when our next guest poster agreed to participate in this project. Let me introduce you to Jen, a diplomatic wife living in Seoul, South Korea, with her diplo-spouse and diplo-babies. Like most places around the globe Jen explains to us the amazing and not so amazing things about living in Korea which I hope will be helpful to anyone traveling/moving there. For the rest of us a little lesson on what life is like on this asian peninsula. If you want more from Jen, you can find her on Instagram @jenficklin.
Go to a baseball game. One of my favorite things to do in Seoul is catch a baseball game at Jamsil baseball stadium. I enjoy the ball park in the US but the experience of a Korean baseball game cannot be compared to an MLB experience. Korean fans are very passionate about baseball. The fans are energetic and enthusiastic. There is constant noise and energy. There are cheerleaders, song leaders, and chant leaders. Everyone is so engaged in the game it makes it so much fun.
Rent hanbok to enjoy local sights. Hanbok is the traditional Korean clothing that has been worn for hundreds of years. There are many shops in Seoul where you can get fitted into hanbok and then pay by the hour to rent your special outfit. At most palaces, temples, and cultural sights the entrance fee is waived if you are wearing hanbok.
Shop at local markets & streets. Seoul has several different shopping areas; each unique. Namdaemun market is the largest traditional market in Korea and a great place to wander, explore, and get lost. Insadong is a great place to find traditional Korean souvenirs. If you are looking for famous Korean skin care products you want to go to Myeongdong. Toy Alley in Dongdaemun Market is a fast favorite of little ones. All the large markets have English maps at the information booth to help you find your way around the different sections.
Relax at a jimjilbang. A jimjilbang, or Korean bath house, is the ultimate way to pamper yourself. These facilitates are usually 24-hours and include a variety of baths of different temperatures and herbal infusions, several saunas, massage services, salt rooms, cold rooms, food, rest areas, sleeping rooms, just to name a few. There is so much more!
Find a café of your liking. There is a myriad of themed cafes in Korea. If you want to spend time snuggling up to cats while you enjoy your coffee, then look up the nearest cat café. Or maybe you are more of dog café type of person. But it doesn’t end with cats and dogs. There are sheep, bunny, raccoon, and even a meerkat café. There are game board cafes, comic book cafes, Kpop cafes, Harry Potter cafés, Hello Kitty cafes, a Sherlock Holmes themed café, and even a poop café where you can eat your lunch from a bowl shaped like a toilet.
Attend a festival. There is an abundance of festivals in Seoul and throughout Korea. It will be easy to find one that caters to your interest. You shouldn’t miss the lantern festival or cherry blossom festival, both held in the spring. My family had so much fun attending the Boryeong Mud Festival where you can slide, jump, run, and play in the special Boryeong mud that is known for keeping your skin young. Next on our wish list is the Taean Tulip festival and the Ulsan Whale Festival.
Korean BBQ, obviously! When people think of Korean food this is typically what comes to mind. Thinly sliced meats brought and cooked at a charcoal or gas grill located right on your table. The meat can be marinated or unmarinated, among the most popular being bulgogi (thin sliced beef or pork), galbi (marinated beef or pork ribs), and samgyeopsal (pork belly).
Kimchi. Without question, kimchi is the one dish that is synonymous with Korean cuisine and culture. A staple in Korean cuisine, kimchi is a side dish made from salted and fermented vegetables. It is most commonly made with cabbage but there are hundreds of varieties of kimchi using different vegetables as the main ingredient. They say kimchi is an acquired taste and I'm still working on attaining the love for it!
Bingsu. There is nothing better on a hot, humid summer day in Seoul than a big bowl of bingsu. It's a base of shaved milk ice (!!!!) piled high with toppings of your choice. The shaved ice so light, fluffy, and creamy. This is not the ice from the snow cone shack at your local carnival. Traditionally, bingu is served with red beans but as it has grown in popularity the toppings have changed. My favorite is topped with sliced strawberries, strawberry syrup, sweetened condensed milk, and a scoop of frozen yogurt to top it off.
Korean fried chicken a.k.a Chimaek. Chimaek is a compound word for chi-cken and maek-ju, the Korean word for “beer”, so it refers to the popular duo of Korean fried chicken and beer. I don't know all the magic that goes into frying chicken the Korean way but what results is a light, airy, crunchy, outside and a juicy delicious inside. They use a very thin batter and have a double frying technique that ends with some of the best chicken I've ever had.
All the food on Myeongdong Food Street. If you are looking for street food in Korea do not miss Myeongdong Food Street. Vendors line the street selling both traditional Korean food as well as modern twists on Korean favorites. Tteokbokki is a quintessential Korean street food. Soft rice cakes and fish cakes in a spicy gochujang sauce. My favorite street treat is hotteok. A sweet pancake filled a mixture of brown sugar, honey, and cinnamon. Other popular street foods are mung bean pancake, chicken skewers, egg bread, dumplings, and soondae (Korean blood sausage).
Rugs. Carpet is virtually unheard of in Korean homes and apartments. If you want to feel some plushness under your feet you'll have you bring your own area rugs to fill your home.
Holiday decor. If you like to decorate your home for holidays you'll have a hard time finding any available in Korea. Holidays such as Christmas and Easter are celebrated here but ornaments and other decor are not readily available.
Lightweight stroller. With little ones in tow and navigating the subway having a lightweight stroller is a must. Frequently the elevator in the subway station is not convenient to my destination so I end up carrying the stroller up flights of stairs.
My favorite kitchen tools and gadgets. My kitchen items are always the first things to be unpacked at a new house. My kitchen aid, sharp knives, and pressure cooker are always missed during a move.
Learn Hangul! Take time to learn the Korean alphabet known as Hangul. It doesn't take long to learn the letters and sounds. You can master the alphabet with the help of apps on your smartphone. Getting around Seoul with only English is mostly easy but having the ability to read hangul is very valuable. It looks intimidating but is easily learned.
You'll need to replace google maps with a Korean app. Google maps does not work in Korea. You can download English versions of Naver or Kakao Maps which will get you anywhere you need to go.
Take advantage of the expansive subway and trains system. Whether going a few stops or to the other side of Korea the subway and trains are a great way to get around Seoul and Korea. Looking at the subway map can be intimidating but you'll get the hang of it!
Poor air quality. Fortunately, air quality is typically not a year round issue in Seoul but from January to May it is up with the worst places in the world. You can see it, smell it, and taste it. We have multiple air purifiers throughout our house and are home bound for days at a time if the air is too bad.
Parking your car. I don't find driving in Seoul to be frustrating but parking your car can be a headache. If there is a parking garage available at your destination, it will likely have a system that will read your license plate when you enter and again when you pay to exit. However, diplomatic plates are different and these systems have errors when trying to read them. There is often not an actual person at the exit to help so you have to try your luck with the help button which will not be in English. Another reason to take advantage of the amazing Seoul subway.
Seoul is fabulous for families. It's hard to narrow Seoul down to one best thing but I feel like being family friendly encompasses so much of what makes Seoul so great. There is so much green space, an endless number of activities for children and families, a super safe city, an array of incredible schools to choose from, and overall a really easy and wonderful place to live.
Thank you so much for your tips Jen! I found many to be quite useful for settling into life in South Korea and any cafe where I can pet animals sounds great to me.
In Love & Travel
Here we come Japan. This next crash course on expat life is a place I have dreamed of going to for many years now. There is something about the combination of zen, minimalism, safety, great food and unique culture that beckons me. Our guest poster is not the spouse of a diplomat, but a diplomat herself. For this reason she has requested to remain anonymous and I really appreciate the time she took, in addition to her full time job, to participate. She is stationed at an Embassy in Japan with her husband and 4 year old. Pour yourself some sake and dive into her seven salient notes about living in Japan and enjoy. Kanpai!
Relaxing in hot spring waters in a traditional Ryokan may be one of the most sublime experiences that you can live in Japan, and one of the most effective ways to disconnect from busy Tokyo, relieve stress, get in contact with nature, and recharge energy. What you do basically in a Ryokan (traditional Japanese style hotel) is to immerse yourself in the spring waters (indoor or outdoor) while viewing nature; eat traditional kaiseki cuisine (which is a real feast for the eyes) based on local products and delicacies that can be served at your room or dining area; and just relax; pure bliss! There are Ryokans everywhere in Japan. Each destination has hot springs with different mineral properties. Among the most popular hot springs destinations is Hakone due to its proximity to Tokyo (90 minutes by bullet train), and for its view to Mount Fuji, Lake Ashi, and many art museums around.
Discover the old and the new in Tokyo. Many would agree that one of the exciting aspects of Tokyo, is that you can find the very old and the very new coexisting in one same city. Must visits are: Sensoji Temple in Asakusa; Old Town of Yanaka; Tokyo Edo Museum; Aoyama-Omotesando-Harajuku shopping area; Tokyo Station-Marunouchi-Ginza shopping area; the new Toyosu Fish Market; Mori Building Digital Art Museum and the Yayoi Kusama Museum. Must experience: Kabuki Theatre at Kabukiza and watch a Sumo wrestlers tournament. You can consult sites in English for current events, exhibitions and recommendations such as: https://metropolisjapan.com/ and https://www.timeout.com/tokyo.
Visit Kyoto. The ancient former capital of Kyoto is a MUST. The ideal way to get there is by bullet train (don't forget to buy a bento box in the train station). Currently the cultural capital of Japan, it concentrates the most important temples and shrines in the country. Don't miss visiting temples such as Kiyomizudera, Kinkakuji (golden temple), and Ginkakuji (silver temple); stroll along Higashiyama alley; wonder at night along Pontocho Lane; get lost along the torii gates of Fushiminari Shrine; clear your mind in the zen garden of Ryoanji Temple; wonder in the moss garden of Kokedera Temple; walk through the Philosopher´s Path; and sip green match tea with traditional sweet delicacies in the many of the tea houses in between. We recommend to enjoy the route of temples and shrines by bike; many hotels provide or rent them.
Cherry blossom picnic or “Hanami” (blossoms viewing). After a long and cold winter, the beginning of spring is announced by the cherry trees blossoming and is very heart-warming. After living some winters and years in Japan, you will understand why the cherry blossoms are so anticipated by the Japanese and why they make such a fuss. There are many great spots in Tokyo to view the blossoms which only last for two weeks at most. The most traditional way to enjoy this season is by picnicking or doing “hanami” under the cherry blossoms during the day and/or night. Be aware that to get a spot in popular areas, such as around the Imperial Gardens, it requires an early arrival to reserve a space by placing picnic mats.
Shopping in Japanese antique flea markets. One of the most exciting activities that we have adopted since living in Japan is to explore antique flea markets. Our favorite is the Oedo Antique Market, the largest outdoor flea market in the country, that takes place at the Tokyo International Forum in central Tokyo every other weekend (schedules vary due to weather and season https://www.antique-market.jp/english/). Price and quality range varies; there is something for everyone: pottery, second hand kimonos, fabrics, Kabuki theatre masks, Edo era furnitures, etc. One of our favorite finds is a big vintage maneki cat which used to be part of a sushi shop that we purchased for $10 USD that welcomes guests at the entrance of our home.
Karaoke. Though at first people can find it kind of bizarre to enter a Japanese karaoke which are basically halls of tiny rooms which you rent by the hour, order snacks and drinks, and just sing with company or with none, there is a high possibility that it may become one of your major new hobbies. Many karaoke places, especially in big cities, have a decent catalogue of songs in English, even in other languages such as Spanish, Chinese, and Korean. Tip: karaoke will help you bond with Japanese colleagues and new friends.
Sushi is excellent; always fresh no matter if it is from the convenience store, a kaiten sushi (conveyor belt restaurant) or a high end specialty restaurant.
Matcha green tea. You can enjoy it hot or iced as a beverage, enjoy it with traditional wagashi sweets which vary according to the season, and also in many other forms such as roll cake, ice-cream, candies, etc.
Sake. The variety of this Japanese rice wine is huge and comes from different regions of Japan. You can taste it little by little hot or cold, ideally accompanied with small “tapas style” Japanese dishes. Though you can find well established big brands, small artisanal young makers are offering interesting alternatives to taste it alone or mixed in cocktails like “saketinis”. There are many sake festivals taking place in many cities during the year, being great opportunities to learn more about sake culture.
Whisky. Though Japan is traditionally best known for its sake and shochu, the country has been making whisky since 1923 and has been gaining international attention in the last years, especially since the Nikka's 10 Year Yoichi whisky was considered by “Whisky Magazine” as its “Best of the Best” in 2001, and the Suntory's Yamazaki Sherry Cask 2013 was named the world's best whisky by Jim Murray's Whisky Bible in 2015. If you like whisky, it is very recommendable to visit the different whisky distilleries located mainly in Tokyo, Kyoto and Osaka. Major brands are Yamazaki, Hakushu and Hibiki. Tip: These brands are available in most of the liquor stores in Japan or in duty free stores, and have proved to be great special gifts from Japan.
Kakigori shaved ice, the best! Super fluffy, like eating a sweet cloud. A must during summer. (See photo)
Medicines. Bring your own medical cabinet, especially if you are used to certain over the counter meds because Japanese medicines tend to be too mild for foreigners. (Just make sure that the over the counter medicines are allowed in Japan, and be very careful of what prescription drugs you bring with you).
Shoes, especially if your size is 28 cm and over. My husband's shoe size is usually between 29 cm and 30 cm, and he has faced difficulty to find these sizes in Japan. Many brands (even foreign brands) and establishments usually only carry sizes up to 27-28 cms.
Mobile phone. Unless you receive a Japanese mobile phone upon your arrival from work or someone you already know in Japan, it might be more convenient to bring your unlocked foreign mobile phone because it can be a real pain to hire a mobile phone service as a foreigner with still no official Japanese ID, no official address and no bank account in Japan. Some major mobile carriers have started having English speaking personnel to help setting up contracts, but be prepared to wait a few hours to get your Japanese phone.
Deodorants and Anti-perspirants. You may be surprised that though summer in Japan tends to be very hot, humid and sticky, it is very difficult to find anti-perspirants. Those deodorants available in regular Japanese supermarkets are in roll-on presentation only, and are not necessarily available all year round. (The undershirts in Japan are light-years ahead of most countries, consider investing in some during the hot muggy months).
Avoid “key money”. Many rental contracts ask for an extra payment equivalent to one month rent fee as a symbolic “appreciation to the land owner” known as “key money”, besides the payment of regular requirements such as security deposits, some months rental fees in advance, one month rent commission for the real state agency (direct deal with landowners is almost nonexistent in Japan) and other services (such as fire insurance, guarantor services, etc.) Additionally, many contracts requires the payment of one month rent additional fee to renovate the contract every two years. Though this renovation fee is almost non negotiable, the “key money” many times is.
Simplify and embrace minimalism. Space in Japan, but especially in Tokyo, is very limited. When looking for properties, you will be surprised that a living, dinning, one bathroom, and two bedroom fits in a very tiny space. We moved to Tokyo after living in the US for 5 years, and we needed to get rid of almost 70% of our things, mostly furniture. Take in consideration that usually, homes in Japan only have one bathroom for the whole family, even if the property has two/three bedrooms. When renting, many apartments do not let you make holes in the wall to hang paintings for different reasons (high cost to repair the wall or security in case of earthquakes).
Gifts or “Omiyage”. The culture of “bringing gifs” to relatives, friends and work colleagues when returning from domestic or international personal or work trips is very entrenched in Japanese mentality. Usually these gifts are local delicacies such as sweets or snacks. Especially by travelling inside Japan, you will find them in airports, train stations, and touristic spots; boxes with local delicacies conveniently individually wrapped in a box for “omiyage” purposes. Many Japanese acquaintances or colleagues may not expect to receive “omiyages” because you are a foreigner, but if you do it, they will appreciate it very much and will give you “extra points”.
English. Not everybody speaks English as you may expect from the third largest economy in the world or a cosmopolitan city like Tokyo. This can be frustrating or isolating when living in Japan. Good news is that, though still insufficient, resources in English are growing. For example you can shop on Amazon Japan in English and some service companies offer phone customer service in English. These improvements are more evident in the tourism industry which is preparing to receive an increasing number of international visitors before, during and after the Tokyo Olympics in 2020.
Earthquakes are a constant in Japan, and the menace of major earthquakes is always high. Awareness and preparation are essential. Be sure to register yourself and family members at your Embassy in Japan for any emergency, and approach your residential municipality or district office to receive information in English regarding emergency phone numbers, evacuation maps and shelters. Always have prepared at home/office helmets, flashlights, water, long lasting food, and an emergency backpack with essential documents (such as Passports), cash, blankets, medicines, and essentials for babies.
Security, though there many great things in Japan that can make it a fascinating and interesting place to live, what we appreciate very much in our daily life is how secure Japan is, even in a crowded city like Tokyo. It is not rare to see elementary school children walking and taking public transport by themselves back and forth from school or staying alone at home after school while parents are still at work. This has been a blessing, specially when starting a family.
Thanks so much for the glimpse into Japan. If anyone decides to take a trip after reading this, be sure to send me an Omiyage! Haha
In Love & Travel
Our next crash course on expat life comes from the wife of a diplomat and fellow blogger Emily who is stationed in Morocco. Morocco has often been on our list of cool places to live and this guest post by Emily just solidifies its place on our list. Emily and her husband have actually lived other places on our dream list like Madrid and New York in addition to Yemen and Jerusalem. Soon they will be off to Algiers! O, the life of diplo-families. Currently they are soaking up life in Rabat, Morocco and here are her Salient 7 for expat life in Morocco. To live vicariously through Emily please visit her blog The Next Dinner Party or peep her pics on Instagram @Nextdinnerparty.
Sip Mint Tea with a View: Morocco's mint tea is the best. It's jam-packed with fresh mint and never bitter. Basically it tastes like a stick of Wrigley's Double Mint gum. Sip a tea - or as the locals jokingly call it "Moroccan whiskey" - whilst taking any any number of incredible views. There's a great tea place in Rabat's Kasbah de Oudayas that overlooks the Atlantic Ocean. In Tangier, I like to climb to the top of the chic Salon Bleu and sip my tea perched atop the eclectic rooftops of the old city and far above the shimmer of the Mediterranean Sea. In Marrakech, Le Petite Dejeuner has a great medina view and excellent tea. In beachy towns, like Agadir, tea vendors stroll the sand and sell you a fresh cuppa. You might think you don't want hot tea on a hot beach, but trust me, you do!
Rug Shopping: Morocco's rug game is ON POINT. From traditional kilims to boho-tastic Beni Orain and vintage boujaad rugs, there is something for everyone. For the best value, Rabat's the winner. For most selection: Marrakech (but you'll pay much more). Every town in Morocco has at least a few rug vendors. It was in the small northern town of Azrou that I scored the best deal ever on a large rug. Buying rugs in Morocco is my absolute favorite thing to do here. I love meeting the shop vendors and seeing beautiful handmade works of art unfurled before me! Haggling can be pretty fun too. For a real cultural experience, go to the every Tuesday rug market in Khemmiset, which is where vendors go to stock their shops.
Tour Magical Fez: Fez is a rabbit warren of dark stone alleyways that pass for streets and doorways that look like nothing but you peek in and - bam - there's a whole palace/gorgeous hotel/interesting shop inside. It's a magical place but it doesn't reveal it's magic right away - you have to dig a bit and walk a whole lot. It can feel inaccessible at first, so it's best to hire a guide on your first trip to Fez. Fez is an epic old city - one of the largest in all of Africa - and it contains lots of history and countless treasures.
Take Photos in the Blue City: Chefchaouen is a fairy tale-esque city nestled below Morocco's Rif mountains. It's almost entire blue and hilly which makes for photos so pretty, that this place is attracting visitors from all over the world who go pretty much just to take photos. If you're into photography, Chefchaouen is a must, from taking the panoramic city views from hilltop in front of the Spanish mosque to snapping flowerpots adorned to the bluer-than-blue wall of a perfect little side street. Just remember this is an actual city where Moroccans live and work, so be aware of blocking off peoples' doorways and routes in order to get that perfect Instagram shot. For the non photographers: There's not a lot to do in Chefchaouen, but the feel of the place is just so cool. That clean mountain air, wood burning stoves, and footsteps on the slippery cobblestones.
Master Marrakech: No city in Morocco is as overwhelming as Marrakech. It is in this city's medina where you'll face the most scams, the most haggling, the most hassle, the most exhaust fumes from incessant motorbikes, and where you'll sweat the most. But it's also where you'll experience the most excitement, the best dinnertime entertainment, the most fun shopping, the biggest selection of restaurants, the most creative inspiration, and ultimately the most satisfaction for having the fortitude to overcome all that other bullshit to see the incredible things about Morocco's most buzzy city. There is something sooo satisfying about walking through the door to your peaceful riad (old home turned hotel) at the end of a day spent soaking it all in, having a glass of wine on the rooftop, and watching the sun dip below the gorgeous pink hues of the Rose City.
Don't Skip Rabat: Rabat is Morocco's capital city, which contributes to it feeling very put-together, professional, and well-functioning. Some people find this boring, or at least compared to the craziness of Marrakech, or the Instagram perfection of the blue city, Chefchaouen. But Rabat offers a lot, including a pretty and chill medina filled with treasures that will cost you a fraction of what they would in Marrakech or Fez. I think it's a great day to walk the old city, the Kasbah, the promenade along the ocean, then take a cab across the river to Oulja Artisan Village, located in the city of Salé and shop some more. Also excellent: Rabat's modern art museum, the shi-shi El Tropic and its upstairs boutique Bee on Sixth, Le Petit Beure for Moroccan food and live oud music, Sa Caleta for excellent Spanish food in a trendy (and smokey) atmosphere, and Le Georges or Le Pietri for French food and live music.
This one is tricky because Moroccan food just is not my jam. I'm a vegetarian, and Moroccan food tends to focus on meat and/or fish. Aside from that, Moroccan food doesn't have much spice or variety. I can't in good faith recommend a tagine, a pastilla, or cous cous, which come on, is just little unflavored specks of pasta. But Morocco does have...
Top-notch Produce: From road side produce stands to fancy grocery stores like Carrefour Gourmet, Morocco does produce right. You can get everything here - luscious herbs, plump citrus, melons, and squash, firm eggplants, and more. Oddly orange sweet potatoes are only found in Tangier and Chefchaouen. When I go, I stock up. Also, produce costs next to nothing.
Mint Tea: see above
Wine: Moroccan wine has really exceeded my expectations, which were low, because this is, after all, a Muslim country. But there's a lot of good wine, and it's all reasonable priced. My favorites are Médaillon for white and Volubilia for red.
Bread: If you're into bread, you'll like it here. In addition to always being able to find a good French baguette, there is an abundance of freshly baked Moroccan breads, including a fluffy pita-like one, a flaky flatbread, and a pock-marked pancake served for breakfast with honey. (Also: local honey is great!).
Chinese food in Chefchaouen: There are a lot of Chinese tourist in Morocco's most photogenic city, and now, there are a handful of very authentic Chinese restaurants. Rabat, where I live, doesn't have many ethnic food choices, so finding delicious Chinese food in Chefchaouen felt like a revelation.
What did I bring with me that I couldn't live without? Well, everything! I am very into interior design and I like to set up an apartment that feels homey and is great for entertaining. So my husband and I bring an entire apartment of furniture, artwork, rugs, and more with us on each move. I'd say the most important four creature comforts are:
Our big beautiful blue sofa: We bought it in Tel Aviv and while it's always nail-biting to see if it'll fit in our apartments. It hasn't failed us yet. When we see this chic and comfy stunner unwrapped in our new digs, it starts to feel like "our" apartment. And then we take a nap on the sofa.
Kitchen everything: I love to cook and entertain so I feel like I can't do without our big serving platters, pitchers, a few different food processors, my pasta maker, and a nice selection of sharp knives.
Our tchotchkes: or to be classier, our objets d'art. From my husband's Newburyport, Massachusetts whale made of driftwood, a carved wooden elephant head we bought on our honeymoon in Laos, to a beautiful painting we splurged on last year in Cadaqués, Spain. Being a minimalist in this line of work might make more sense, but what can I say, I really like our stuff. I love the memories each piece holds, and I love how they make our place look lived-in, fun, and interesting.
Our cats: Gus and Boj. They are our literal creature comforts. They're enormous, fuzzy, and we're obsessed with them. We hate to load them into cages and put them on long flights but it feels like they forgive us about two seconds after we arrive to our new home. Once they're exploring the place, we know we're home.
Don't be scared to drive: The roads might seem intimidating, but I've actually found them to be somewhat orderly and very well-maintained. Having a car in Morocco gives you a whole other level of freedom to see all the corners of this stunning country.
Don't be afraid of haggling and making relationships with shop owners. Shopping can at first feel overwhelming, but I'd say approach all the vendors as people who are trying to make a living, who often have fascinating stories. A smile, eye contact, and a few questions goes a long way!
Make a plan to see all the areas of Morocco: It's a big country. For instance, driving from Rabat to the desert would take at least 8 or 9 hours.
The Drivers: People like to complain about the drivers, but this is all relative. It really depends on where you were driving before coming here! But, sure, the drivers don't stay in their lanes and while there are a million roundabouts there are only a dozen drivers who know what to do at said roundabouts.
The Lack of Bars: I like a good cocktail or glass of wine more than anybody, so it's been a little adjustment that the concept of a "bar" doesn't seem to exists. Sometimes places look like bars and they only serve tea and and juice. Other "bars" are really restaurants where it's expected you order a full meal if you want a drink. Drinking is never done out in the open here, so don't expect to enjoy a cold beer on a terrazza in the perfect Morocco weather. You can find a beer, you'll just be drinking in a dark and possibly smokey room not near an open window.
One of the best things about Morocco is how varied this country is - each city has a different feel so it lends itself to years of exploring! Sadly, we only had nine months! But I'd be a liar if I didn't just come out and say it: The best thing about Morocco is the shopping. Stunning rugs, woven baskets, colorful fabrics, funky pottery. It's all so, so good.
Emily, it was super fun to tour Morocco with you and best of luck on your next post!
In Love & Travel
I am so very excited to get this section of the blog off the ground. I hope it will be useful to anyone relocating to a foreign country, and just plain interesting to everyone else. I have entitled these mini crash courses on expat life "The Salient 7." Salient is defined as most noticeable or important so...7 salient notes on life in a given location.
My first interview is Kathryn, a diplo-spouse, who lives in Muscat, Oman, with her husband and diplo-baby. Kathryn's photos of Oman are beautiful and otherworldly. In addition, Kathryn's advice might save you from a night in jail. Please read more about her adventures at post on her blog https://accordingtoathena.wordpress.com.
Snorkeling at the Daymaniyat Islands: This is the best snorkeling in Oman. You’ll find turtles, crystal blue water, sharks, tropical fish, lovely coral, and sandy beaches!
Wadi hike: The easiest and most accessible option is Wadi Shab, but my favorite is Wadi Al Arbaeen.
Trip to the mountains: Jebel Shams and Jebel Al Akhdar both have good hiking options and stunning views.
Salalah during the khareef: During the khareef, or monsoon season, from July to August each year, Salalah transforms into a lush green paradise. The best time to beat the crowds is the beginning of September.
Dhow trip through the fjords of Musandam: Go snorkeling and swimming with the dolphins where the mountains crash into the sea, a singularly unique experience to Oman.
Desert visit: Stay at a desert camp, ride a camel, climb up the dunes to watch the sunset, and enjoy dinner under the stars!
I’m going to preface this section with this: Oman is not known for its culinary traditions. You’ll find a lot of good Indian, Lebanese and Turkish food here, but Omani food generally is not very exciting or flavorful.
Dates: Oman is known for its dates, and I never knew there were so many different and delicious kinds.
Halwa and Khawa: Halwa is Oman’s national dessert and it’s best served with khawa, the flavorful Omani coffee.
The Zed sandwich at Hawas: The best breakfast sandwich you’ll find in Oman is a croissant full of scrambled egg cooked with diced hotdog, creamy cheese and crushed spicy Oman chips.
Shuwa: Shuwa is slow-roasted goat or mutton that has been (if cooked in the traditional way) wrapped in banana leaves, placed on hot coals, buried underground, and cooked for nearly a day. These days it’s usually just roasted in the oven. It’s delicious.
Grilled shrimp at the Turkish House: The enormous grilled shrimp here are some of the best I’ve ever had anywhere.
Our own mattress: Furniture is usually provided in embassy housing, but our queen mattress always goes in our sea freight shipment.
Couch covers: As much as I love free couches and chairs, they can be pretty ugly sometimes. We have had couch and chair covers made and we’ve also purchased some on Amazon.
Refrigerator magnets: A quick and light way to immediately make the kitchen feel more homey!
VPN: We have a VPN that we hook up to our AppleTV for Hulu, HBO, etc. Without the VPN in Oman we would not be able to use Facetime or place calls back home through WhatsApp.
Watch out for traffic cameras: Speed cameras are everywhere and if you run a red light, you have to go to jail for the night!
Buy pork and alcohol in the duty free by baggage collection in the Muscat airport: There's going to be a 100% "sin" tax on pork and alcohol products starting in June, so this will be, by far, the cheapest place to buy pork and alcohol.
Buy the book: Oman Off-Road
Speed bumps: There are speed bumps everywhere. I am so tired of speed bumps.
Heat: It gets very hot and humid here during the summer, and it stays hot 24 hours a day. It’s miserable.
It’s too many to name, so I’ll just lump everything together and say “Outdoor activities!” We’ve loved scuba diving, beach camping, hiking through wadis and along mountain trails, snorkeling, exploring forts and ruins, climbing desert dunes, discovering ancient tombs, and countless other adventures. If you love being outside and exploring, Oman is the place the for you!
Thank you so much for your insights Kathryn!
In Love & Travel
Guest Posts From Diplo-families Worldwide
What is life like all over the globe? This area is a window into the lives of diplomats and their families. These interviews serve as mini crash courses in expat living worldwide. 7 salient notes about expat life in a given location. Enjoy!