Sated

Five feminists sat down for lunch, each with differing levels of proficiency in English ranging from native (me) to barely able to follow along, and differing levels of proficiency Korean ranging from native (three women) to non-existent (me). Talk shifted quickly but smoothly from “How was your flight?” to ““What do you mean the United States doesn’t provide paid maternity leave?” as we ate from a bounty of salads – octopus, cold noodle, mushroom. I counted six total – seven if I included the pork belly (which wasn’t really a salad); eight if I included the black sesame porridge that served as our opening dish.

KWDI apps

So delicious!

The owner, a man, came by frequently to make sure we were happy. We were, or at least I sure was.

As I emptied my plate, the woman next to me kept replenishing its bare spots that exposed the pale blue design of trees and river. The food, the dinnerware, my companion all so delicate. I think everyone was surprised at my enthusiasm to not only try but enjoy everything over our conversation of infant mortality rates. I ate until I was more than sated.

Then came the banchan – the small dishes that are served with the main course at most Korean meals.

KWDI snacks

OK, of the seven pictured here, from upper left going clockwise, there is some seasoned spinach, kimchi, I think seaweed, radish kimchi, watercress, a shellfish of some sort, and I have no idea.

The main course. What I had thought was the main meal, well, wasn’t. As we discussed self-care for researchers who study emotionally raw subjects (domestic violence, child abuse, and the struggles of single mothers were among the areas of expertise), a bowl of rice and a mild stew were placed in front of me.

KWDI main

I love this pot so much. So sturdy and elegant, how I imagined the women we discussed.

I ate what I could, which wasn’t much. The smaller women around me somehow managed to empty their cast-iron bowls. Then, they poured tea into the remaining rice, those burned portions that stuck to the bottom, to create a wonderful broth that tasted like popcorn. This, they said, was what women traditionally ate after serving their husbands and children. The leftovers. They told stories of women who were beaten if too much remained, of women who dared to leave enough food for themselves after cooking all day.

Black coffee was served downstairs as conversation turned to domestic violence supports and the history of comfort women. Small roasted yams were served along with the coffee, the steam and aromas from both twisting upwards into each other as they filled my nostrils. An unexpected combination blending perfectly. Our meal complete, I wasn’t sure which part of me was more satisfied – my belly or my mind.

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Statue of a comfort woman

Three Drinking Sessions

During midafternoon, the teahouse here is extremely peaceful. It’s off the beaten path, though there’s not much hustle to this small town in the first place. We sit outside, and I imagine writing here for hours on end, sipping a purple sweet potato latte, or buckwheat tea. I wonder if and when the place gets more customers in this old part of town, or if the locals prefer to frequent the more modern part of the city.

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Sweet potato latte

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The teahouse grounds

Later, the School Director takes us out to dinner on the edge of the island. We are seated outside with a view of the murky ocean, the same color as the sky so that it all blends together in an odd brownish-grey. It’s still a nice view. He shows us how we take out our shrink-wrapped place settings and rinse them with tea before using them. He says it’s the custom here, but not in other provinces; I wonder if that’s because the quality of the water used to wash the dishes here is worse than in other places, or if there is some historical tradition I fail to understand. I don’t really want to know. We open a bottle of wine and it takes a while before I learn the proper drinking custom: Wait for our host to raise his glass, clink our three vessels together, and down their contents in one shot. It’s not great wine, but it doesn’t seem that bad either – totally sip-able, but that’s not what we do. We raise our glasses again, toasting several times during the course of the meals as we drain the bottle among the three of us. We eat tiny spiced shrimp – eyeballs and all – as well as a flat fish that stares at us as we mutilate its body. All were most likely caught that day in the waters upon which we look. Two large fishing nets flank our patio. The white flesh of the fish is mild, but I can’t get myself to eat the gummy black-silver skin, so it remains at the bottom of my bowl, causing me to poke around it as I try to pick out the greens and slimy tofu with my chopsticks. I was full long ago, but the food is good, so I keep eating. Conversation is stilted and simplistic due to the language barrier, but food and wine make the evening smooth and relaxed.

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After the meal, Dave and I head into town and soon we are drinking beers like a typical expat. The many bottles that fill up the table come from China, New Zealand, USA. We are too drunk to sample the one from Japan and put it back into the cooler. It’s the last one of its kind in the whole province, and possibly in the country. It will most likely be bought by a young Chinese guy who will come here and order the most expensive thing in order to impress his girlfriend. Jeff, the owner, isn’t fond of having a lot of customers. He just wants a place to hang out, show off his latest brewing successes, and drink with a few paying friends. We are lucky enough to be among them, along with a man from Mongolia. He’s been hired by a French chemical company to study math theory. Why Tangjia, he doesn’t know. Why this company mystifies him as well. He pours himself another locally brewed beer from a tea kettle, as he tells his story of escaping his home country on horseback as a child, only to end up in the Netherlands. His Dutch accent throws me, as I’ve grown more accustomed to the Chinese accents that usually accompany the broken English I hear. I eat the sweet/salty peanuts on the table, and the pile of shells grows as we pass the time together. The evening ends when I can no longer hold my head up. As we look for a cab, we hear someone call out; an “unconventional” driver Dave has used before calls us over and we climb in. Not really an official cabbie, the young man hangs out late near the expat bars, looking to drive teachers home. We climb into his car and make our way back to the apartment. I’m grateful I’m not the one teaching tomorrow.

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Jeff, proud owner and brewer

Ten ways I embraced the holiday season (mostly in pictures)

Usually I don’t do much over the holidays. I’m not all “Bah, Humbug,” but then again I tend to feel sort of “Meh” when the jolly season comes around. This year, however, I went out of my way to savor the time since last year I pretty much missed the whole thing being in Oman (though we did celebrate a little). This is how I got into it:

  1. I got a tree. After several years of not doing so, I bought a tree. Nothing beats the smell of a fresh tree. It makes me so happy. As soon as it gets dark here, I turn on the lights and eat my dinner to the ambiance.

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    My view from the couch as I watch TV

  2. Saw lights. My friend has a house on Peacock Lane, Portand’s street of holiday cheer. I also saw the big tree downtown. Pretty. It’s hard to hold back holiday cheer when seeing so much festivity.
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    The Portland tree. The local statue is dressed for the weather.

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    Crazy lights on Peacock Lane.

  3. Spent time with friends and family. I love how the holidays is one huge focus on getting together with people who matter. I’m lucky enough that this is a relaxing time and feeling.
  4. Saw movies. I saw The Martian, Star Wars: The Force Awakens in IMAX 3D, and the Hateful Eight in 70mm. There was a long dry spell in my life where I really didn’t see many movies in the theaters (or at all, really). This is slowly changing, thanks to being overseas where seeing an American film felt like a special treat. I like going to the movies again. Yeah, the snacks are still too spendy, but I have found that belief that the ticket price is worth the fun and escapism I see on a huge screen.
  5. Experienced holiday entertainment. I went to a former student’s Christmas cabaret. I heard carolers at the hospital where I work. Played Christmas carols in my house and in the car. These musical events left me laughing, touched, and nostalgic. Magical.

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    These young carolers helped the mood at the hospital.

  6. Gave to charity. In lieu of presents, my parents and I give to charities. This year I donated enough to Heifer International to send a young woman to school for a year. I also donated to help support Syrian refugees. I’m fortunate enough to be able to do this.
  7. Drank silly holiday beverages. I drank the controversial Starbucks pumpkin latte (I liked it better with the real pumpkin, but maybe that’s just me) in a controversial Starbucks holiday cup. It was delicious. I also tried some weird chestnut latte thing. I wasn’t as excited.
  8. Made cookies and traditional foods. Friends came over and we baked sugar cookies and decorated them as if we were five. We made our own colored sugar and used it liberally, mixing all the colors together. I also made Latvian piragi like grandma used to make; I made them over Thanksgiving weekend and again for a Winter Solstice party. Yum.
  9. What are the holidays without leaving the house, at least for a little bit? Despite leaving on the afternoon of Christmas Eve, I still encountered airport woes, as my plane was a full two hours late. Thankfully, my friends had come to the airport with me to do some last-minute shopping and so to the bar we went! It was decorated in a strangely, confused festive way.  In the end, I made it to Sacramento to spend Christmas with Dave’s family. Saw movies and the sun! I need to see the sun more often.
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    Strange bar decor.

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    Sun and palm trees in Sacramento. Hooray!

  10. Went to lots of parties. How did this happen? My social calendar was full of house gatherings complete with silly gift exchanges, laughter, yummy food and drink, and connection. I have a ton of outgoing friends who are warm enough to open their doors to others. So much fun – thanks to all of you for hosting and thinking of me when creating your guest lists.
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Baking memories

I haven’t done a lot of writing this holiday weekend. Instead, my creativity came out in the form of cooking. This makes a lot of sense for Thanksgiving Day, but for some reason the cooking bug is staying strong through the weekend. On Friday, I made piragi* for the very first time. Piragi are Latvia’s pierogis (I’m Latvian on my maternal side), and couldn’t be simpler: tiny bread rolls stuffed with bacon and onion. You read that right: Bread, bacon, and onion all in one bite. You’re welcome.

I remember eating these each time I visited my grandparents in Ontario (first in Toronto, and then in Millbrook where they moved to a small farm upon retiring). Thanks to the baking talents of Nanny, the tiny rolls were always there in a basket or large bowl, covered lovingly with a tea towel. Nanny and Pappa’s house always smelled like pirags (for some reason, they constantly left off the “i”), probably because Nanny was constantly working on a new batch, the last ones being devoured as soon as they were made. I remember watching her when I was younger, making my own little rolls with leftover dough; Nanny was pretty fussy about the pirags themselves turning out just right, so she rarely let the kids chip in with filling or rolling. My mother reminded me of my high-school graduation party where Nanny made over 100 pirags – twice. The first batch wasn’t perfect enough to meet her standards, the rolls not completely closed, or the egg brush glaze not quite right. Something small set her off, and so she painstakingly rolled out another 100 for the guests. Those were perfect, but never enjoyed because our golden retriever ate all of them. And so the imperfect batch was served to the guests. No one seemed to notice.

Last night, it was time to make pirags without familial guidance, without any expectations. Yet, I found myself comparing my efforts to hers, critiquing the size and shape, the taste of the filling. In truth, I can’t remember exactly how hers tasted, except delicious. I had a few challenges as I worked with yeast and rising dough for the first time, and as I tried to figure out how large a chunk of dough I needed to stuff and fold, but overall I claim success. After all, you really can’t mess up bread, bacon, and onion that badly, despite Nanny’s insistence.

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Imperfect success! Delicious.

*Note: The link isn’t to my family’s recipe, just one I found online

Thank you

The house is still. The thick coat of morning frost is gone as the sun is bright. After snuggling in bed for a few hours, reading a mystery novel, I brave venturing out from under the covers and plod downstairs. The house is warm; one of the many things I am thankful for.

Morning is spent dusting and straightening. I turn on the television, and the house fills with the excitement of the football game – just like it does in thousands of households across the country. A weird national bond. A hometown touchdown, and the crowd roars. I check in with loved ones who won’t be joining me today, and read an online update from a friend whose struggle with cancer is going as well as we ever could have dreamed. I am thankful for the ability to do all of these things with the help of modern communication. I briefly think about the time when handwritten letters full of delayed news were the only means of reaching out and my heart aches a little trying to imagine the challenge of staying connected back then.

The house is clean enough. Now I sit, watching the game. A moment of rest before guests arrive to begin cooking. This year, we will feast on Ethiopian cuisine, forgoing the traditional turkey, stuffing, and mashed potatoes. Though we’ve never made any of these dishes before, Doro Wat, Gomen, Atakilt Wat, lentil salad, and a lamb stew will fill my table this evening. Six wonderful friends to share it with.  I am thankful for my friendships, and our willingness to break from the norm and use a major holiday to venture into the culinary unknown. I dug out an old, Latvian tablecloth for the occasion.

Books, warmth, friends, communication, food, heritage, courage, health. May you have these things, and more, this Thanksgiving.

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