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Friday, August 3, 2012

Impressions of Home: Paris, Rome and Cairo

In my travels, what always fascinated me the most was where and how people lived. Yes, visiting national monuments, heritage sites, ancient ruins, beautiful cathedrals, weekend markets, pulsating arts districts, and Grimm fairy tales villages are de riguer for when I'm visitng a new destination, but I'm also that type of tourist who like shlepping through residential neighbourhoods, checking out the architecture details (more of than not, they don't have the expensive, high-profile stamp of rah-rah celebrity architects on them,) getting glimpses of regular, day-to-day life (generally by eye-balling people's homes from the street, car, train or bus,) pondering real estate ads in storefront windows and trying to visualize the living spaces, and play-pretend that I'm a local, even for a few minutes or hours.

To that end, I suppose it's inevitable I've put together a series of images comprising of my own personal, extremely subjective, impressions of "home" in some of the cities I've visited (and those that I've actually lived in) from the past.

Here are Paris, Rome, and Cairo.
It was a rainy evening when I made my way to one of the two Chinatowns in Paris. 
This one is in the 13th arrondissement (the other is in Belleville at the northeastern part of the city) and is arguably one of the biggest in Europe in terms of sprawl.  It may also be more correct to call it Little Saigon than Chinatown but that's an academic point since most Vietnamese can claim ethnic Chinese ancestry anyway. 
Like a lot of Chinatowns worldwide, the look and feel here is on the grimy side, with less consideration to architectural aesthetics as ekeing out a living was more of a priority for the immigrant residents than gentrification. There's not many tourists in this neighbourhood but any local can tell you that the best Vietnamese restaurants - some with lines 20 to 30 pho-lovers deep - may be found here.  And they were right.  Specifically,head to Pho Banh Cuon 14 and 
Hawai d-Ivry for your fix.
(Photo taken at the corner of Avenue de Choisy and Rue de la Pointe d'Ivry. )
I was so, so, so incredibly fortunate to stay at my friends' apartment during my first ever, long-awaited and highly anticipated visit to Rome.  They occupy part of the top floor of a lovely eight-storey building - with the most confusing door locking system ever - within walking distance of Vatican City, complete with a sun room that doubles as the dining area (photo, above,) a wrap-around terrace where they grow lemons and assorted herbs, and a view of Viale Angelico below.
Before I'd even stepped foot on the soil of one of the most venerated ancient civilizations in the world, a dear friend of mine warned me to dispel all romantic notions derived from the 1950's Hollywood-era movies and British childhood storybooks of my youth.  Cairo, she said, will shock you with its poverty, slums and its sheer urban sprawl.  More succintly, she went on to describe the buildings of Cairo as "dry biscuits."  When I first laid eyes on where Cairenes lived and worked, I realized then how apt her metaphor was.  Not only were the living conditions for most of the capital city's population cramped, the facades of many homes and offices were literally crumbling.  More eye-opening was the fact that quite a number of the poorer residents were living in obviously unfinished buildings as a form of tax evasion. Apparently land taxes were lower on incomplete structures which can be easily identified by the steel rods, exposed pillars and, well, the lack of walls and a ceiling on the topmost floors. 
(All photographs by Weng Ho.)

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