30 January 2008

Catalan word of the day: teixó

I came back from Barcelona a little sunburned, and with a nasty feverish cough sickness thing. Probably unrelated.

The sunburn bridging my nose and cheeks was the result of a Sunday afternoon in the park, basking in the golden January sun. We had a picnic with the Mister's family in the hills of the Collserolla, the ones that embrace Barcelona like a bosomy grandma.

While traipsing through the woods, the little girls gathering all manner of sticks and leaves and rocks, we came across animal-track and leaf-print sculptures. I could translate the names of most of the animals, except for one: teixó. They described it to me as an animal that digs in the ground. But it doesn't live underground. It's not really small. But it's not really big. I was stumped. At last, when we got to the nature center, there was a picture of a teixó, and I'm proud to say I was at least able to identify the creature from the picture: a badger!

One new vocabulary word richer, I joined the others in a sunny spot and noshed on sandwiches. There is something terribly satisfying about eating outdoors, especially in the middle of winter and after days of Brussels gray. Also, being a European picnic, it involved having coffee in tiny espresso cups at the nearby bar. We lounged at the bar for hours, reading the papers and chatting and soaking up sun.

Later that night, the cough I had had for a few days seemed to develop a fever and I went straight to bed at like 6 pm. Getting up at 4:30 the next morning for my flight (the Mister had to stay in town for meetings until today, but I had my French oral exam on Tuesday) was miserable.

By 11 am I was back in bed, in a different city, still coughing and still feverish. Fortunately, I felt better by Tuesday morning and was able to take a stab at the oral exam. I have no idea if I did well: when nervous, I tend to speak foreign languages too rapidly, stumbling over my own words, and after the fact I am unable to recall what I said, let alone whether I said it well. I do remember that I used a direct object pronoun (which I remember because I noticed that my teacher took a note after that: score!) but also that I couldn't think of the word for "knife." Awkward sawing motions were involved.

So I guess the French word of the day is: couteau.

25 January 2008

Adventures of red bag

A quick update on where Red Bag has taken me so far.

The French final exam yesterday went surprisingly well (for the second half, we could use a dictionary! my thumb got as much of a workout as my brain, because I had to obsessively check the spelling of all the words that I could). The test consisted entirely of making up a news article to match a headline (mine was about a poor old lady who got beat up by a guy in the metro; I almost cringed as I wrote it) and writing a letter from one of our video characters to his Parisian pals. The letter was a multi-step thing, where we had to explain his daughter's trip to the doctor (surprise! she had the same thing as the Mister! come to think of it, why didn't I give her ear problems?), the rumors flying in his village, an amusing anecdote about some Dutch tourists (do you know hard it is to MAKE UP an amusing anecdote about Dutch tourists in an exam situation??? Mine was along the lines of: they ordered pizza! but there wasn't any pizza on the menu! ha ha!), and then convince the friends to come for a visit, making enticing suggestions about what activities they could do. I suggested mushroom hunting and swimming in a lake.

Red bag got complemented at choir, by the girl with whom I have an ongoing weekly conversation (mostly one sided) about how fat she is and how she has to lose weight and how the chips we noshed on at the break were her only "indulgence" for the week and how she has to look good in a bikini for her vacation in two weeks and blahblahblah. The girl is BEAUTIFUL and skinny, at LEAST two sizes smaller than me. How to respond in these situations? I just tell her over and over again that she's not fat, that she looks great, that her vacation will be awesome no matter what she looks like, and so on.

Today Red Bag will be accompanying me to Barcelona, where it is WARM and sunny. Here, it's actually sunny today, but it's due to a cold front that came in after yesterday's pouring rain, leaving the sky blue and the air frigid. I'm actually happy with that, but I'll even be happier when I get to Barcelona and can pretend it's spring.

I won't have a computer with me (although I checked, and YES, my laptop fits in Red Bag!) so I'll be out of touch if anyone's trying to get a hold of me by e-mail. I even considered taking ONLY Red Bag and no suitcase. I've always wanted to fly without luggage! I would feel as light as air! I would prance through the airport! I would feel like a true jetsetter, with her chic sac rouge! I would do it except that I will probably need to bring dirty laundry back to Brussels with me (still leftover from Christmas break; we don't have a washer/dryer there yet and we can't treat M's grandmother like a private laundry lady). It's a kind of weird situation of modern life: carting dirty laundry between two European cities. How NOT jetsettery and cosmopolitan is that?

Still, I vow that someday I'll fly without luggage. You'll see. Just me and Red Bag.

23 January 2008

Red and roomy

For the last several years I've been carrying my books to class in one of the following bags (when I am not forced to resort to the "I'm in high school" backpack look, definitely not an option for the city, when all I usually have are three slim French books anyway):

-a navy blue cloth Aspen Institute freebie that the Mister picked up at a conference years ago
-a cute but cheaply made pink/purple floral bag that came FREE with a British airport magazine purchase (the straps have already broken twice and the Mister's mom sewed them back together)
-a plasticky black handbag that I bought on sale for 3$ at Bath & Body Works four years ago

Needless to say, it was time for a grown-up European girl bag, and the Mister concurred. But I wasn't quite ready to pay a gazillion bucks for a fancy leather item (I'm a cheapskate; witness: list above), OR to pay ten euros for one of the plasticky suitcase-sized "hand"bags to be found in H&M or Mango.

I found the middle ground when I visited one of my favorite little boutique stores yesterday (the kind of place where I adore everything in it but never buy anything because it's too expensive, and I feel slightly uncomfortable because it's tiny and as the saleslady watches me, the only customer, browse the too-expensive items, I'm positive she can tell I'm a cheapskate and won't buy anything).

BUT! Yesterday, everything was half-off, and the 60-euro handbag was only 30 euros, and even though it's not real leather, I'm kind of glad (no need to wear an animal on my shoulder) and it still looks classy. And it's really roomy, but not the size of a suitcase! It'll fit folders sideways or upways, and maybe even my laptop. For travel, it'll be perfect to carry all the cables and crap I have to cart around. And it has cute buckles but not thousands of unnecessary ones (a pet peeve of mine).

And it's red! Who isn't cheered up by red?

Cute red bag in nighttime light:

Cute red bag in daytime light:

Close-up of cute red bag because the new camera has a pretty sweet macro setting:

I stayed in last night, skipping a dinner that the Mister had organized for a friend who's leaving his job. I didn't feel super great and didn't feel like going out, but the one thing that made me want to get dressed up and ignore my complaining ovaries? The cute red bag!

But I knew that soon enough I'll take it everywhere, my new companion on the gray streets of Brussels. Tomorrow, it'll accompany me to my French exam, and the red will cheer me up so much that I'll channel my inner French girl and ace the exam!

Or, erm, at least it'll reassure me when I can't remember the subjunctive or how to spell that tricky string of vowels.

21 January 2008

Hospital jaunt

I spent much of my morning today at the local hospital. For the past week, I've had a blocked up left ear, which never was painful, but was a tad annoying: I either couldn't hear well enough (conversation, music), or could hear all too well (anything going on in my own head, such as cereal-crunching or my own voice). So I showed up for my ear-cleaning appointment, nervous as all get-out because I was alone and would have to negotiate in French.

Unless, of course, I broke down and begged my doctor, or the receptionist, to speak to me in English.

Fortunately, the begging did not happen, as I managed to understand what was required of me at check-in, as well as the rather complicated instructions for how to negotiate the labyrinthine hallways up to the otorhinolaryngo area. Hooray for that day in French where we practiced giving each other directions to different floors in imaginary buildings!

After a long sojourn in the waiting room, during which I furtively flipped through my dictionary to find the words I would need to explain what was wrong with my ear, I met the nice doctor. She nodded sagely as I spoke and I had barely gone through two of my carefully mentally-prepared sentences before she had me on the examining chair and was shooting a jet of water into my ear while I held a basin below it. It was over in a flash, and it was pretty gross to see the quantity of, um, particulate matter that came out of my ear canal. Even she sounded impressed.

They did a test of my hearing, during which I sat in a little (totally NOT soundproof) cabin wearing ill-fitting earphones, and had to click on a little trigger whenever I heard a faint beeeep. I passed with flying colors.

On my way home I stopped at an unfamiliar grocery store (I don't know about you, but I love wandering around strange grocery stores, especially in foreign countries) and bought some ice cream. I rarely buy ice cream, especially in the winter, but it somehow seemed that, after a trip to the doctor's office, ice cream was the appropriate response. Not that I had my tonsils out today or anything, but still: ice cream!

19 January 2008

Green bananas

I mentioned in my last post that I bought some lovely free-trade bananas a while back. Problem is, "a while back" is over two weeks ago, and the bananas were still as bright green and rock hard as the day I picked them up.

A little research on the web revealed that sometimes, bananas just don't ripen, and will go bad without going through the stage where they get yellow and nice to eat with breakfast.

So suddenly, my Saturday afternoon project became "make something edible out of green bananas." I had no idea if this was even possible, but again, the internet to the rescue. (It's gotten to the point where, last night, my husband, who is skeptical of my reliance on google to answer any unanswered question, suggested that I would someday be driven to google "What to do when your husband thinks you google too much.")

I discovered that green bananas (distinct from plantains, although some recipes use them interchangeably) are, indeed, a legitimate substance for cooking, especially in southeast asian cuisines. You can make soups, salads, curries, and fries out of them, or just cook them up with some coconut milk and enjoy.

I opted for this recipe, which calls them "green banana kebab" but are basically little fritters. It suggests boiling the bananas in their skins, but suggests an alternative, microwaving them for 6-7 minutes. This I did. They came out steaming hot, and fell out of their skins like sweet potatoes, but less sweet. They were starchy and bland-tasting. Boy, handling a familiar food in a way that feels and smells and tastes completely different from how you usually prepare it creates a considerable cognitive disjunct!

Once I started mashing them, though, I realized they were still way too hard, so I popped the peeled bananas into a pot of boiling water for about ten minutes. (Again with the disjunct: BOILING bananas just felt so WRONG.) They still came out dry and starchy when I mashed them, but at least they weren't hard. I added some soy milk because the bananas seemed way to unlikely to merge together to form little cakes.

At this point, I was still pretty sure my experiment was going to be a disaster, but I have to say, quite proudly, that the finished product was tasty, spicy, and delicious with a little ketchup. If I hadn't been wrangling bananas for the previous hour, I would have guessed they were made from potato. I'm not sure that I would make them again unless I had the green banana problem, but to aid anyone out there who is looking for a green banana recipe, here's what I did. Oh, and I'm calling them beignets, because the Belgians seem to call any fried frittery thing a "beignet." And I am a fan of alliteration.

Green Banana Beignets

(adapted from Mamta's Kitchen)
makes about 16 fritters


6 very green bananas (not plantains)
1/4 cup (or more) unsweetened soy milk
1 red onion, finely chopped
1-inch piece of ginger, peeled and grated
2 cloves garlic, minced or pressed
1 green onion, green portion finely chopped
2 teaspoons coriander
1/2 teaspoon spicy chili powder (or more to taste)
salt to taste
vegetable oil for frying
one egg, beaten
bread crumbs (I made mine out of a dried baguette, grated in a box grater)


1. Boil bananas in their skin until tender. Or, prick with a fork and cook in a microwave on high for 7-9 minutes.
2. Cool, peel and mash bananas by hand or with a masher. Do not use a food processor.
3. Add milk until bananas will hold together when pressed.
3. Add onions, ginger, garlic, all the spices, salt and mix well.
4. Form into small round patties.
5. Heat a couple of tablespoons oil in a frying pan.
6. Dip each piece in the egg, one at a time, roll in bread crumbs on both sides, and fry in a non-stick pan. Cook four at a time in a medium pan, and add more oil between batches.
7. Fry all beignets, until golden brown and crisp on both sides.
8. Serve hot, with chutney, salsa, or ketchup, plain or on a bun.

Can be kept in the fridge or frozen. Reheat in a medium-hot oven.

18 January 2008

Dilemmas and quandaries

Having just finished Michael Pollan's book The Omnivore's Dilemma, I'm hyper-aware of the hidden costs of the things I buy and eat. But the book, while it was illuminating in many respects, and well-written, leaves me with just as much of a dilemma as ever when I shop. Perhaps MORE of a dilemma, because it has made me question what I too often before took for granted: organic? great! Plop it in the basket!

Pollan's useful distinction between "industrial organic" (the kind of organic that relies on the traditional industrial market processes and [inter]national supply chains) and local organic (grass-fed cows, multi-species farms, local supply chains) has made me question some of the claims of organic foods. Is that chicken really free-range or does it just live in a giant, smelly, chicken shed with a tiny door where it can spend five minutes on a little patch of green grass?

Throughout the book there are tantalizing hints that the situation is better in Europe: stricter regulation of the term "organic" (here it's "bio"), closer ideological ties among farmers, fresh-food markets, and consumers, and greater pride in traditional foods and cuisines. At several points in the book, Pollan mentions some absurdly poisonous or otherwise detrimental product or method that is allowed in American processed food, and then, to underscore its toxicity, points out that it is outlawed in Europe.

This cheers me up. For a long time after I moved here, I missed places like Trader Joe's and even the variety of organic food and vegetarian products that one can find in any regular supermarket in the US. But on my own at first, and then after reading Pollan's book, I started to realize that I was lucky to find fewer processed corn-based items (do I really need a cereal aisle that stretches as far as the eye can see?) or even industrial-organic processed foods and to find more local produce and artisanal breads, cheeses, etc. Here, the markets happen every day of the week and the local supply chain has never really been interrupted.

That said, I still find it a confusing juggling act to go shopping. I find myself balancing the relative importance of health (eat lots of fresh fruit, even if it's not in season?), organic, and local claims. Is it better to eat the non-organic local tomato? Or the organic tomato that's been shipped farther? Is it better to eat the local tomato that's packaged on a foam tray and wrapped in plastic, or the tomato flown in from Spain that is unpackaged? Oh, and not to mention habits: I like to eat a banana every morning. But the bananas have to fly across an ocean to get here! Is it better if they are free-trade organic bananas? They still have to gobble up a whole lot of fossil fuels to get to my fruit bowl.

Earlier this week, I stopped at a grocery to quickly grab some things for dinner. While I noticed that the lettuce I put in my basket was Belgian, my thought process for the grapes that I picked up was: Ooh! grapes! I haven't had those forever! And these look so good and tasty! We can have fruit for dessert tonight! When I got home, I noticed that the (admittedly delicious and sweet) grapes were from South Africa. Again, aaargh...the fossil fuels.

Another example. I sent away for a free guide to local and organic merchants and markets, which promptly landed in my mailbox. I read that the Monday market just up the street hosts one of the farmers known for his great organic produce. So I went there, and the man was charming, and I felt so great buying from him! The zucchini was beautiful, the potatoes wholesome and friendly.

Then I spotted some kumquats and asked for a couple hundred grams. The guy was surprised that I asked for such an unusual fruit and said so, asking if I was familiar with them. I said I was, and that I liked them very much. I was so wrapped up in the little charming conversation and the effort involved in speaking French, that I didn't stop to consider: kumquats--an Asian citrus fruit--in January? Who knows, maybe they are in season and were grown locally, but I didn't ask. My French limits my endeavors in this respect, sometimes. I barely was able to express the elementary assertion that yes, "I like kumquats."

And the dilemmas extend from food into the realm of other products and purchases. Pollan's principles could probably apply to organic clothes just as well. I look at purchases in terms of the packaging I'll have to end up throwing away.

I bought organic clothes (50-70% off!) for the first time in my life the other day. I'm betting that organic cotton is better for the environment than regular cotton, having avoided that much more chemical fertilizers and waste runoff with crops that are grown organically. But as Pollan's book convincingly shows, the organic industry is still just that--industrial--and as such includes hidden costs of transporting goods far and wide, and isn't necessarily better for the soil (due to aggressive plowing and the dominance of monoculture). But for clothes, what other options are there?

I also wondered why organic clothes are A) always yoga-style tees and comfy pants and sweats and B) in light "earthy" colors? It's not that I don't like these options--au contraire, my favorite clothes ever are comfy swingy yoga pants, and my favorite colors are peaceful blues. BUT, why should the organic clothes option be limited to these kind of clothes? Shouldn't we be able to buy, say, organic dress pants and structured jackets? Organic dresses?

Anyway, you're probably tired of reading by now. My own head hurts. It's frustrating that it's such a struggle to live in this world in a way that does the least harm to the good resources we've been given.

15 January 2008

The system, it is me

Life is proceeding in a very January fashion. Save excursions to the market, the video store, the swimming pool, and the pharmacy (to purchase various ointments and pills for the various afflictions the Mister and I seem to have acquired: he bronchitis, me swimmer's ear), oh and church and French class, we have been more or less housebound.

Fortunately for us, today we gussied up the house part of housebound, cleaning and organizing and picking up and throwing away. It felt really fantastic to throw away papers that have been crowding my desk for a while. I did find some disconcerting items, however. Among them: a paper I was supposed to have read and edited for a friend (but then completely forgot about), and a receipt for a bedspread that I bought using wedding gift cards IN 2006 OVER A YEAR AGO and NEVER received. Yet, I didn't realize that I never received it until now. Which, on one hand, means that it didn't affect our quality of life overmuch not to have had that particular item. But, on the other hand, it was a wedding gift! AND we asked for bedding for Christmas, so maybe we DID need that bedspread after all.

And tonight, over a yummy lentil-spinach-tomato soup that I threw together, we had our first 2008 official pow-wow, during which we went over all of the pressing issues that should be dealt with in the near future and/or over the year to come. There were some bits of drudgery in there (what to do with that humongous pile of receipts?) but also some things to look forward to (Italy this winter, Paris and maybe Amsterdam in the spring, South Dakota in the summer [one can't very well spend ALL of one's vacation time in chic European cities, can one?]). We have vowed to make this a weekly pow-wow, which I think is a fantastic idea, and one that I hope we can stick with. It's a new year's resolution, if you will.

I haven't made any official resolutions this year, but I'm sort of keeping ideas for them in the back of my head. Meanwhile the days of January drift by, and I am so far doing well fulfilling some of the not-officially-resolutions resolutions, and feel incredibly victorious for doing so, i.e., for keeping resolutions THAT I HAVE NOT MADE. I feel like I'm beating the system. Even if the "system" is made by me. It's like adding something to my to-do list that I have already done, just so I can feel the satisfaction of crossing that item off of the list.

I'm crazy, I tell you.

(But I'm beating the system.)

11 January 2008

Rays of sunshine

I have to admit that I contained, for the sake of poetic cohesiveness, the depressing complaining stuff in the last entry. There are bits of niceness, too:

We continue to celebrate the Mister's promotion. Although it's now not likely to take place until late March/early April, he's already having strategic meetings and listening to those who are clamoring to be his future assistant.

One must not forget the aforementioned baked goods. A little bit of chocolate, coconut, or almond can go a long way as a balm to one's spirits.

And good books! Among the Christmas goodies this year were two new cookbooks, 1008 Recipes, the Spanish classic with fabulous hand drawings, and The Moosewood Cookbook, which I have never owned yet used over the years with friends. It was high time to have my own copy. Over break I read Haruki Murakami's Kafka on the Shore and am tempted to read it again right away, it was so good. And now I'm reading another Christmas present, Michael Pollan's The Omnivore's Dilemma. It's an eye-opener regarding food and agriculture policy in our country, and quite depressing even when it comes to eating organic. But so well-written that I look forward to reading it almost as much as a novel. Which is saying a lot.

Oh, and one must not forget post-Christmas sales as another holiday-withdrawal boon. Even though I usually end up buying little things, socks and hairclips and picture frames and whatnot, the sales satisfy both my cheapo and trinkety tendencies.

Another thing that combats the blues is getting off my rear end and going swimming at our neighborhood art-deco public pool. The pool is lined with galleries of individual cubbies, which at first is weird (you can look through the slats right into the pool as you change) but I've come to love them for their warm womb-like feel. Unlit from within, and each with its own heater, the air is so warm and moist, filtered with slatted light, that I sometimes think I could just curl up and fall asleep right there in my own cubby.

There. Now I feel better.

Warm welcome

I realize I have been avoiding writing in my blog, partly because to do so would somehow be to admit that I am no longer living the internet-free, sleeping-late, holiday-meals life of the previous three weeks. Instead, I am back in Brussels, where the golden Christmas sun of Barcelona is but a chimerical dream.

We've been here for a week, but the Mister was home sick for a few days (like everybody else in the world, it seems) and so the normal schedule wasn't quite normal yet. I have been baking up a storm, but avoiding washing dishes in protest against having had to leave my dishwasher in Barcelona behind. The chocolate-encrusted bowls sitting in the sink mock me.

Also mocking me: the unlit Christmas tree and the dust bunnies under the dining room table. Coming back to a not-quite-sparkling-clean house is never fun, and in this case, when combined with sleety rain and buffeting winds...

An incident occurred on Monday night that is utterly representative of the way I feel about returning to Brussels. As I rounded the corner to our street, carrying a couple of bags of groceries, I heard a terrible coughing sound. The crazy old man who always totters up and down our street smoking a cigar was in the process of hocking up a lung.

As if in slow motion, I realized he was about to spit, and his position, leaning against the wall of the corner building, meant that I was directly in his line of fire. I dodged, but I wasn't quick enough, and a large clod of spittle and mucus OH HOW GROSS I AM GROSSED OUT EVEN THINKING ABOUT IT AGAIN landed on my jacket sleeve and glove. I sort of screamed and looked at him, but what does one say to someone who has just SPIT ON YOU?

Plus as I mentioned he might be crazy, and I don't speak the kind of French that allows me to quickly formulate a response to invasion of personal space and cleanliness by spit. So I rushed on, my arm awkwardly outstretched in front of me, all the way up to our apartment where I ran to the sink and washed it off as best I could, holding back a gagging reflex. I still have yet to use the gloves again.

With that as an emblematic welcome back to our neighborhood, you can see why I just want to run back to Barcelona. Actually, running there is a good idea because I might work off a few of the million Christmas calories I ingested over the break.

I suppose I can pretend I'm still there by downloading the pictures we took. One of the presents that came out of the sturdy Christmas box from Vermont was a FANTASTIC camera, so pictures will indeed be forthcoming, I promise.

Meanwhile, it's still January, and all I can think about are the weeks and weeks of cold and gray that we still have ahead of us. They should make Christmas later in the year. Are you listening, "they"?

01 January 2008

Bon any

Happy New Year!

We've just popped the twelve grapes into our mouths as the twelve tolls of the bell rang in the new year. We're at M's grandmother's apartment in Barcelona, not exactly a venue known for its wild nightlife, but one that suits us perfectly. Rather than shoving through the hordes flocking the Ramblas and Plaça Catalunya, we're calmly nibbling our desserts and drinking our cava, and calling friends and family to wish them a happy 2008.

This year promises to be an exciting one, as the Mister just received news of a major promotion: within a month or two he'll have a new, extremely prestigious job in European politics. In fact, it's one of those pieces of news that hasn't quite sunk in yet. It may mean major decisions about our living situation (Brussels? Barcelona?) but whatever happens, I'm looking forward to it, and I'm definitely proud of my husband.

Now it's past my bedtime, and I'm rubbing my sleepy eyes like a child who has mustered all her strength to stay up for the grownups' party, and is now ready to crawl into her pajamas.

Tomorrow the three of us (the Mister, his grandmother, and I) are putting on a big dinner for the family here at her place, yet another in a long string of overly abundant holiday meals over this Christmas vacation. Still to come: El Dia de Reis, the celebration of the arrival of the three Kings, whose camels come loaded with presents. Which means more presents! (And, ahem, more shopping for those of us who seem to wind up doing everything at the last minute...)

Wishing you a 2008 that is full of warmth, happiness, and joy!