"I came to Bucharest two years ago with a legion of conquering heroes. I leave with a troupe of gigolos and racketeers!"
-- German Field Marshal August von Mackensen, on the moral effects of the German occupation of Bucharest
Chili is one of those crazy American foods that have a thousand different recipes, all of which are right (except for the ones that aren't).
The first chili was likely Native American: game stewed with hot peppers. In a Balkan context, a venison or boar paprikash wouldn't be too far off. The great civilizations of Mexico gave chili the tomato, the Spanish brought cattle to the American plains for the beef, the Texans turned chili into a cult, and the Depression spread it across the United States. With that in mind, here's a recipe for a basic chili that shouldn't be too alien to Balkan tastes:
Cut 500 g of good stew beef into 1 cm cubes. Brown the meat. Add 250 g of tomato sauce, enough beef broth to cover the meat, salt, pepper, and as much paprika as you dare. Let it simmer as the meat becomes tender, and let the broth reduce. If you want, you can add cooked kidney beans, up to 500 g, and let it simmer fifteen minutes more.
You can serve this by itself, with sour cream or grated cheese or yogurt, with a pilaf or over egg noodles. But it goes really well with the taste of maize, and I usually make corn bread to go with it.
Americans don't use paprika all that much in their chili. It's a little too mild. We use chili powder, which is a little like an Indian masala spice mixture, except we usually don't grind our own, but get it pre-packaged. Most commercial mixtures are mainly ground dried chile peppers, cumin, Mexican oregano, and garlic powder, in roughly that order. It's rather an exotic flavor combination, especially for American comfort food cooking. What can I say. If you use hot paprika and Italian oregano in place of the ground chile peppers and the Mexican oregano, you won't be too far off.
There are many, many, many ways one can tweak chili recipes. There is the traditional 'beans/no beans' divide. There is the more recent vegetarian/meat chili split; since I am firmly on the carnivore side of the debate, I have to recuse myself from that discussion. Mushrooms will add richness of flavor, and a little bittersweet chocolate will add depth, but take away some heat.
Since I am a pepperhead, I might throw in some chipotle -- smoked jalapeno -- peppers to heat my chili up, or sometimes a few habanero peppers. Most people find habaneros too hot. I use habanero sauce like ketchup. But I grew up with one of the mildest chilis out there, Green Bay Chili. This recipe is my mom's, so it's authentic, although I have converted everything to metric units.
Brown 500 g of ground beef in a skillet. Drain the fat and put the ground beef in a soup kettle. Add two to three liters of tomato juice, enough to cook 500 g of spaghetti. Bring to a boil, and add those 500 g of spaghetti. When the spaghetti is cooked, it's done. Salt and pepper to taste. Ladle into bowls; some people like the meat, some people like the noodles. Serve with slices of Colby cheese, and make sure the can of chili powder is on the table.
The amount of tomato juice might seem extravagant, but we canned our own from the garden. (The secret ingredient is dill.) You can use other sorts of yellow cheese -- Cheddar works just fine -- but Colby is mellow and creamy and melts perfectly over the hot spaghetti. Lately my dad has been adding chopped onions to the broth right before serving. He's such a wild man.
We haven't had much snow this winter - so far. Friday night, it started snowing seriously and it hasn't stopped since. Snow in Bucharest is almost always yucky - wet slush on the streets, turning brownish-black, mixed with dog poop...
But after two days of snowing, the snow is up to half a meter at some points and covers everything. No snow ploughs ever venture into our little side street and few cars have dared the elements, so the snow on the street is untouched. Since we were too cheap to buy those expensive winter tires, it also means that we're stuck for the time being. Shopping will be by foot at the expensive 24-hour supermarket. Good thing we live in a neighborhood that has shopping and restaurants in easy walking distance. (How easy that walking will be with toddlers who will be up to their hips in snow, we shall see.)
Mind you, I'm not complaining. The kids love it. It looks beautiful. It's a nice cozy feeling of "nature prevails" without actually being in any danger.
Spring sometime next week would be nice, though. (Yeah, I'm a wuss. But you knew that, right?)
A picture of our winter street and one of our landlord digging out his car are under the fold.
Alan really doesn't like clowns. In fact, he's a little bit scared of them. Quiet a bit.
On the other hand, he loves Spiderman. He's got a little Spiderman action figure he plays with even though it has long lost its little head. He has the Spiderman pajamas which he wears every single night (yes, they do get washed sometimes). When we were in New York last summer, and he saw this giant movie poster that was easily as big as a house, he snuggled up to his Dad and sighed happily "I love Spiderman, Daddy". You get the idea.
On Saturday, we were on the birthday party of Alan's special friend Ilinca. There was a clown. A clown who did face painting. She painted Spiderman masks on little boys' faces.
It took Alan three hours to nerve himself up to it. He watched from a safe distance, then a little closer. He confessed his wish to me but wouldn't go near the clown. Then he edged a little closer. And a bit closer. It was a fierce battle of desire against fear.
Raising kids abroad.
Personally, I think that we're doing our kids a great service by raising them abroad. Huh, you say. Of course you would think that, having been raised abroad yourself. Yeah, I say, you're right. However, others agree with me.
In general, third culture kids (TCK) tend to be more flexible and tolerant than their peers and often exhibit strong observation skills. Having lived in foreign cultures, they have a multi-dimensional world view and feel a stronger connection to other people on this planet. Often, this kind of tolerance and openness comes along with a greater spiritual perspective, as well as a higher maturity level. Finally, add in the fact that most expat kids are raised bi- or multilingually, which makes for great linguistic abilities for the rest of their lives.
It does sound a little like they're only lacking the ability to fly, then they'd be superheroes.
Alas, not all is so rosy in the lives of expat kids.
Carlos pointed me to this. If you have kids, and if they are still in diapers, or very recently out of diapers, you may enjoy this blog. Be warned, you'll snort your coffee through your nose. It's hilarious and scary at the same time. Who would spend so much time on this? I especially love the metrics. Oh, boy.
Home visits. Almost every expat looks forward to home visits, and almost every expat fears them, even more so when they have kids. Travelling with jetlagged children and living out of suitcases for weeks do not generally rate high anybody's list of favorite things to do. Home visits add an extra twist, though.
I asked my expat friends what they hate most about home visits. Everyone of them answered that they found most annoying how all the relatives and friends claim a piece of you. Since you're the one "on vacation", everyone expects you to visit them, spend time with them, and pay attention to them. You end up with an agenda that would make the busiest executive faint.
And who has all their relatives conveniently in one place? Ours are scattered among two continents, and in the US in five or so states. So we're spending a lot of time in transit, on trains going to New York and Connecticut, or on planes going to Florida. Hauling your tired, jet-lagged, cranky kids from a train onto a platform where you're waiting until a redcap shows up to help you with your mountain of luggage drains a lot of energy. I'm snapping at my kids and husband a lot more during these trips -- which adds an additional layer of guilt, and more stress.
Yesterday, my "Mommy group" had a good-bye dinner for one of our friends -- she is moving to South Africa with her family next week. We had excellent Indian food, quietly brushed some tears away, and gossiped about our kids. We all promised to visit M. in Johannesburg one day -- and I think we all were aware that it was unlikely anyone of us would actually live up to that promise, as honestly meant as it was. Expats say good-bye all the time, and we know that friendships often taper off with a move, despite best intentions.
Being an expat is mostly a chosen way of life. The people who live abroad are as diverse as any random group of people -- they are missionaries, high ranking CEO's, diplomats, impoverished language teachers, engineers, aid workers, military personnel. Some have a vision, some don't. Most are curious about the country they live in but many live in bubbles, barely touching the outside world. A large percentage is moving from country to country, while others just venture outside their homeland for a year or two as some sort of family sabbatical.
However, expats also have a lot in common. One of the elements less talked about is the loneliness.
Serbia's coalition government is in trouble again.
You can find the details over at Professor Eric Gordy's East Ethnia blog (which I recommend, BTW). Short version: the US has suspended some foreign aid to Serbia, because the Kostunica government still is not cooperating with the Hague Tribunal. This has caused two parties in the coalition (G17, and Vuk Draskovic's two-headed SPO) to threaten to bolt the government. Which would probably bring the government down and trigger new elections.
(Will it? I'm skeptical. See my comment over at Prof. Gordy's blog. Once again, it may all come down to Vuk...)
We took the boys to Herestrau today.
Romanian readers will know that Herestrau is the huge park nin the north of Bucharest. It goes on for kilometers, with ponds, playgrounds, football fields, restaurants... you name it. Parts of it are very run down, still recovering from Communism (and post-Communism); parts of it are lovely. The kids see no difference, and love it all.
Like Diogenes looking for an honest man, Mark Kleiman has been looking for a modern non-genre pro-war novel of high literary merit. He has had a surprisinglydifficulttime.
Because I am nuts, I suggested Ernst Jünger's Storm of Steel. Most people don't think of World War One as a positive transformative experience. Jünger had no such doubts:
"Hardened as scarcely another generation ever was in fire and flame, we could go into life as though from the anvil; into friendship, love, politics, professions, into all that destiny had in store. It is not every generation that is so favored."
Jünger was born in 1895, and lived nearly to his one hundred and third birthday. He had, um, an interesting life.
Recently the New York City Math Teacher (Now Past the Cusp of Matrimony) and I went to Zum Stammtisch Restaurant, somewhere off the Long Island Expressway. Even though my German ancestors left around 1848, and NYCMT's some ninety years later, the food still calls to us at a primeval, almost genetic level. And so over sauerbraten and smoked trout and rye bread and dark beer (all delicious) we fell to talking about the vagaries of German history; and for some reason, I brought up Jünger.
"Ah, Jünger," said NYCMT. "The lich."
'Lich' is rather an uncommon word in English. I'd only ever heard the word spoken before in two contexts: among people familiar with the Dungeons and Dragons role-playing game, as a kind of dead man walking; and to refer to then living nonagenarian senator Strom Thurmond. It derives from an Old English word meaning 'corpse'. Cognates are wonderful things.
So Jünger has been a little difficult to rehabilitate. In any case, he's not very well known in English (as Kleiman notes), although he's been championed by figures as diverse as the British aesthete and travel writer Bruce Chatwin and the Texan cyber-guru Bruce Sterling. For the Jünger neophyte, here's a short piece taken from the 1937 edition of his Adventurous Heart, called "Violet Endives".
It's not only the name of a political party here in Romania, it's also the newest gizmo from the Procter & Gamble toolbox. Read more about how purifying water in poor areas of the world -- or disaster zones -- just got a lot easier. (Free registration required. Or just use bug me not).
It's one of those books that you don't really need. It contains nothing but obscure facts. Thus, it's sheer delight.
Schott's Original Miscellany is a unique collection of essential trivia, uncommon knowledge and vital irreverence.
Where else can you find, packed on to one page, some famous lefthanders, the structure of military hierarchy, all of the clothing care symbols, a list of the countries that drive on the left, and a nursery rhyme about sneezing?
Where else but Schott's Original Miscellany will you stumble across John Lennon's cat, the supplier of bagpipes to the Queen, the twelve labours of Hercules, and the brutal methods of murder encountered by Mrs Marple?
Under the fold, some pictures of the Trans-Fagaras Highway. No pix of our trip through the clouds, though -- that was just plain white boring stuff. But you can see bits and pieces of the road through the clouds from the top. With a good connection, click on the pictures to see them slightly bigger.
In which we finally ascend the Trans-Fagaras Highway.
As I blogged a while back, the TFH is this completely insane road that goes up and over a fairly sheer mountain range in the middle of the country for, really, no reason whatsoever. Ceausescu built it back in the 1970s. Officially it was to improve the defense of the country in case someone -- coughHungarianscough -- invaded from the west. But this was obvious nonsense. The highway is ridiculously vulnerable; it could be completely destroyed by a single bomb or shell. More to the point, it's closed eight months of the year anyhow. No, Old Nick built it because he wanted to, and because he could, and that's really all there is to it.
But anyway. If you approach the Trans-Fagaras from the north, you come at it along a little two-lane road that crosses a dusty plain at the foot of the mountains. Village, slow down, open plain, speed up, repeat every few kilometers.
Then you come to the foot of the mountains -- which is, like, abrupt; the mountains pretty much jump right out of the plains -- and you start doing switchbacks. Hairpin left, up up up up, hairpin right. Repeat. After a while you're in pine forest.
Romania sure gets a bad press in American popular fiction. Vampires, orphans, war crimes, vampires. The horror writer Dan Simmons once managed to work all three together in one of his books, with added vampire content (this is not a recommendation).
But Romania might now be best known among American readers as the home of the Antichrist.
Yes, that's right. Just when you thought Romania's PR couldn't get any better.
The Left Behind series of books is immensely popular in the US. Tens of millions of copies have been sold here. Basically, it's a series of disaster thrillers where the disaster is a fringe Protestant interpretation of prophecies regarding the Christian Apocalypse. The story begins with all the good Christians vanishing -- the Rapture -- and the people left behind (get it?) scrambling in their wake.
It's religious fiction with a viewpoint from deep within the paranoid tradition of the American psyche. About the only concession these books make to modern ecumenical sensibilities is including Old Red Socks the Pope in the general disappearances. (This is a big step forward, believe it or not. Remember where Ian Paisley got his doctorate.) I'm not sure if there's a parallel European genre to this type of fiction. Holy Blood, Holy Grail? The Protocols of the Elders of Zion? Kind of sort of? Gentle European readers, you tell me.
The authors, Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins, aren't exactly subtle. I'm an extremely lapsed Methodist myself, but I am familiar with Protestant traditions even more paranoid and esoteric than theirs, so when I skimmed these books I kept on expecting the obvious Jesus guy also to be a minion of the Devil -- those false prophets, don't you know -- and his followers cast into the Lake of Fire to burn forever and ever, mwahahahaha! No such luck.
Anyway, the real Antichrist in the series is a fellow named Nicolae Carpathia. See what I mean about subtle? At the beginning of the first book, he's an obscure politician from the lower house of the Romanian parliament, I dunno, maybe from Brasov, but due to his extraordinary, nay, vampiric charm... well, you know.
Fred Clark at Slacktivist is doing a page by page commentary of the Left Behind series, all of which is worth reading, and the rest of his blog is pretty good too. But this comment in particular caught my eye:
German ambassador to the US Wolfgang Ischinger is generally viewed as one of the more brilliant heads in German foreign policy. I read his article on US-European relations in last week's Zeit magazine and had two immediate thoughts:
1. Oh, I'd love to share this article on the blog, if only it were in English.
2. Hm, the sentence structure somehow feels English.
Well, not for nothing am I a trained translator. It turns out that the original English article appeared in newly launched German paper called "The Atlantic Times" back in December and can be read on the website of the German Embassy in Washington.
Interesting read, that.
Lessons I learned in 2004:
1. Just because you can outdrink Russians doesn't mean you should outdrink Russians.
2. Only see women who are happy to see you. Even. Especially.
3. Dissection tweezers are for dissecting.
Details would be superfluous.
Probable causes of my death in 2005:
1. Crossing the street while distracted by beauty. Hell, this nearly happened today.
2. The Green Bay Packers. I love them, but they will kill me. Since my Reggie White jersey is now a holy relic, at least I'll have something to be buried in.
3. Something the administration forgot. Whoops!
And an aphorism for the ages:
1. More yoga is better than no yoga.