Ten Things I Didn’t Get for Christmas: A Star Trek Wish List

All the hubbub this month has been about Star Wars, and with good reason. The world has been waiting for a great sequel to the original Star Wars films, and the new movie delivers. It has great pacing, impressive skyfights, a dazzling light saber duel, and a female star who gets to do a lot more than wear a gold bikini.  But amid all the excitement over Star Wars these days, I can’t forget my first geeky sci-fi love, one that takes place not in a galaxy far, far away, but in our very own solar system a few hundred years into the future. From the very first time I was allowed to stay up late and watch an episode of the original Star Trek with my dad in syndication on a small TV with a floppy antenna, I was hooked. In the episode, a tall, sinister alien roams underground caves on a faraway planet and kills its victims by sucking all the salt out of their bodies. What nine-year-old kid wouldn’t love that?!  As it happens, my first introduction to Star Trek took place at the same time I was being introduced to expat living. In 1984 we were enjoying an “exchange summer” in England made possible by my father’s job as a minister with the United Methodist Church. In a transatlantic switcheroo, my dad exchanged jobs with a minister in England, along with our houses, cars, and even pets. For one summer we were able to live as the locals did, in a small town in southeast England called Chandler’s Ford, while an English minister and his family enjoyed the Arizona desert town […] Read More

How to be an Expat: Ten Lessons from “The Americans”

I’m usually a few years late to the party when it comes to pop culture. I’d like to blame this on living overseas, but the truth is I didn’t start watching “Lost” until Season 4, and I still haven’t seen Avatar, Crash, or Million Dollar Baby, even though I was living stateside when they all hit it big. So it is no surprise I hopped on “The Americans” bandwagon just a few weeks ago. But as soon as I did, I rode it hard. I was hooked from the pilot and binge-watched my way straight through dozens of episodes, enjoying the finale of Season Three when it aired a few days ago. I love the premise: an average American husband and wife with two kids and a home in the burbs are actually badass Russian spies gathering intel on the U.S. and trying to weaken capitalism from within. I also love the 1980s, so the kitsch from the era strewn through every scene is a happy bonus. (My family had that exact same yellow smiley face cookie jar.) And sure, they’re communist spies: but first and foremost, Elizabeth and Philip are expats.

Cooking from the Couch–Southern Africa Style

A few days ago ran an article explaining why Guy Fieri has ruined the Food Network. It is true that Guy’s most famous show, “Diners, Drive-ins, and Dives,” isn’t exactly an icon of culinary artistry. This is the show where the loud blond guy with spiky hair drives around the country in a red convertible visiting local restaurants and heading back into stainless steel kitchens to watch the cook make vats of chili or mounds of carne asada or enough pulled pork to feed the invading hordes of Rome. The Salon article complains about how Guy yells at the viewers, “ranting like an imbecile on fire,” while stuffing food into his face. I can’t argue with any of that. But I actually like watching recipes come together with things like 1/2 cup of garlic powder, five pounds of beef, a dozen onions and an entire bottle of ketchup stirred in a pot the size of a hot tub with a paddle you could use to spank sumo wrestlers. The whole concoction usually gets slid into the oven for two hours, no matter what is being made: this seems to be the magical time frame. Whatever comes out usually looks pretty tasty, and Guy always takes a big drippy, greasy bite, smacks his lips and says something like “That’s killer!”

The Art of the Chick Flick

I’m afflicted with what may be strep throat, tonsillitis, or just punishment for something horrible I did somewhere, at some time in my past. It feels like gravel or tiny shards of glass are going down every time I swallow, so I try to do it as little as possible. However, I have discovered that telling yourself “not to swallow” is like trying not to think about a pink elephant. It makes it irresistible to do so. Tylenol, ginger tea, and gargling with salt water have only gotten me so far. During this bleak time, especially in the middle of the night when I can’t sleep, I have found my greatest comfort in an unlikely place: the Romantic Comedy. Being out of the U.S. for two years and not a huge movie watcher even before then, it turns out I have missed hundreds of them! Hundreds of movies with cheerful upbeat music, situations that always resolve themselves positively, and lots of cute handbags and shoes. After 20+ hours of exposure to the genre, I can state with confidence the few basic requirements of the formula in case anyone is interested in writing their own to great profit and acclaim. I’ll make it easy for you. Based on my research, a successful romantic comedy should: Be set in New York City. There’s not a lot of room to maneuver on this one. The glittery high-rises for the opening sequence, the bustling, the taxicabs, and the impossibly huge stylish apartments with views of the Park prove too much for the genre to resist. The only acceptable alternative is a quaint and rustic small town setting into which […] Read More

The Town

On this lazy, rainy Sunday afternoon in Islamabad, I got around to watching the movie “The Town.” You know, the one where Ben Affleck finally decides to do a movie in/about Boston just to shake things up a bit? (Sorry: too easy a target, Ben.) Once you’ve lived in a place, it is imprinted on you. I know a real Boston street in my bones: I know the specific blue and white striping on the police cars, the sound of Joe Castiglione calling Red Sox games, the smell of roasting sausages at Fenway. I know the brick-paved sidewalks downtown, the exact look of a T stop sign, a Southie accent, and the newsstand in Harvard Square. I lived in Boston for ten years before moving to Pakistan, and watching the movie was like having a two-hour visit with an old friend, because “The Town” got all the details right. Most movies manage to flatten out the quirks of a city into an easy blandness that could be Anytown, USA. But no one can fake the details of a place you know well. Say what you will about good ‘ol Ben (who also directed the film), but he has Boston down: the security guard sitting in the armored van reading the Herald, how beautiful the Zakim Bridge is at night, the hoop earrings on the trash-talking townie girlfriend, and of course, a scene in a scruffy Dunkin’ Donuts. Of course it makes me wonder what details will stick out most vividly about Islamabad when I eventually leave here. I have a few guesses: the guy who bikes around the neighborhoods all day yodeling for everyone’s old […] Read More

Ten Days of Movies

It turns out you CAN go to the movies in Islamabad. There are still no movie theaters here, but for ten days a “film gala” is running at the Pakistan National Council for the Arts. The PNCA is housed at a beautiful building right by the Parliament in downtown Islamabad, the film nights are free and include an extensive buffet of tea and fried things (samosas, egg rolls, fish fingers) before the show. I couldn’t pass it up.I went to the opening night of the festival with a group of friends. The movie was “Tin Cup,” telling you right away what kind of film festival this wasn’t (artsy, independent, serious) and what it was (sponsored in part by Pakistan’s new movie cable channel, “Filmax”). Even still, I thought “Tin Cup” was a strange choice. I happen to like the movie, and I know at least one person who considers it his absolute favorite, but a golf movie starring Kevin Costner from 1996 is not the first thing that comes to mind when you think “film festival in Pakistan.” Looking at the brochure, I realized the movie choices only got weirder. Girly teen flicks seemed to predominate, with “What A Girl Wants” and “A Walk to Remember,” but the festival redeemed itself by ending on a high note with “The Wedding Singer.” On Night One, the crowd seemed excited about doing something a little different on a Thursday night in Islamabad (Hong Kong or New York, this isn’t), pleasantly stuffed with fried food, and ready to settle into the adventures of Roy McElroy and his leggy love interest. Things hit a small snag when the disc […] Read More


Most things are cheaper in Pakistan. Fresh-squeezed sweet melon juice (.80 cents), getting a couch delivered to your house ($2.40), a housekeeper to come in and clean once a day ($50/month), pedicures ($6.50). Nowhere, however, is this more true than in the realm of home entertainment. Every expat in Islamabad knows about Illusions. It’s an unassuming 2-story storefront in Jinnah Market crammed with a wealth of the latest in movies and TV shows, always guaranteed to be busy on a Saturday night. It’s where you can pick up the entire “Six Feet Under” series for $10, or “Vicky Cristina Barcelona” for 100 rupees (barely more than a buck). The only catch is a certain lack of, how shall we say…legitimacy. The covers do an adequate job of keeping up appearances, but once you pop them open, the plain DVDs numbered in black magic marker inside do little to pretend that the bootlegs you are buying are the real deal. And yet the lack of formality doesn’t affect the viewing experience one bit. This state of affairs utterly changes your relationship to American entertainment. On one hand, I couldn’t tell you on pain on death any movies coming to the screen anytime soon. (I haven’t seen a preview for 4 months.) On the other hand, I’m more caught up on Californication and Weeds than anyone I know because there is only a week lagtime between when episodes air brand new on Showtime and appear in their shiny ghetto packages on the other side of the world at Illusions. I’m both saturated by media and totally out of the loop. Occasionally the gamble does not pay off. […] Read More


Yes, I’m a sci-fi geek. I’ve been looking forward to the new Star Trek movie since I heard internet whisperings about it early last year. I got all hopped up after I saw the special trailer that has Leonard Nimoy at the end. I love the director, J.J. Abrams (Lost!), I love the original series, hokey uniforms and all, and I’ve loved watching Star Trek movies in the theater ever since I snuck out of “An American Tail” to go watch Star Trek IV back in 1986. (Trek. Time Travel. Whales. That movie will be hard to top.) So in putting together my mental list of “Pros and Cons of Moving to Pakistan,” I have to admit that “missing the release of the new Star Trek movie” was sort of on it. But like so many things I thought I would have to sacrifice when I became a resident of Islamabad (Italian food, driving, jeans) it turns out I can get Star Trek too. However, there are a few issues. Issue #1: Film Quality. If I wanted to, I could be watching all the geeked out action this very second. This is because Pakistan has a healthy and flourishing trade in bootlegged DVDs, and all the big movies basically become available immediately upon release for like 50 rupees (about .60 cents) at Jinnah Market. However, quality varies widely, from a shaky recording of someone who snuck their camera into the theater to a movie you can actually watch. And I don’t want to risk it where Star Trek is concerned. Issue #2: Safety. So this brings us to watching the movie on the big screen, […] Read More

Unaccompanied Lady

First communication breakdown: hot milk with my breakfast cornflakes. But if that’s the most I have to complain about on my first day in Islamabad, I have to say things are looking pretty good. My 27 hours of travel time took me from Boston to Washington DC to Doha, Qatar and finally to Pakistan, arriving in the middle of the night. I have only good things to say about Qatar Air, which has nice wide seats, Jet Blue-like entertainment options, and sweet little candies and warm hand towels passed around at every possible opportunity. During my trip I watched 3 sitcoms, one episode of “House,” the pilot of “Life on Mars,” an entire movie (Marley & Me), and read an entire book (Eat Pray Love). (Hey, it’s about an American woman in her 30s who travels abroad alone for a year and learns all sorts of important lessons. Seemed too obvious to pass up.) A quick note about this glut of entertainment. I figured it would be my last American TV for awhile, so I really ate it up. The episode of “House” was fantastic–it guest-starred Mira Sorvino as a scientist with a mysterious illness trapped at the South Pole–and I enjoyed the pilot of “Life on Mars” way more than I thought I would. It’s about a cop who gets into a car accident in 2008 and wakes up in 1973, only no one is surprised to see him there. He finds himself in utterly unfamiliar surroundings, and yet he is immediately presented with a complete set of useful things: an apartment, keys, a car, and a job, and everyone seems to know his […] Read More