A vegetarian Spanish Thanksgiving, and other oddities

The first Thanksgiving I ever had in Spain, when I was studying abroad at 16, we had trouble identifying the mashed potatoes as such, because they were the consistency of gravy – almost, but not quite, entirely unlike mashed potatoes, to use Douglas Adams’ words. Our cranberry sauce was canned, smuggled over in the suitcase of one of my classmates’ mothers. There was no pumpkin pie, but rather a sort of folded dough with pumpkin slices. Voilà, a sort of Henri Rousseau interpretation of Thanksgiving dinner by the local Spanish chefs.

Maybe that’s an unfair assessment – in a tradition of its own, my Thanksgivings were always a little odd. At home, my immigrant parents would make turkey, but surround it with Russian sides – cold cuts, pickled vegetables, mayonnaise-y salad Olivier, or some dish involving beets. At college in Boston, I was always the adopted stranger at other families’ meals, among them a Hungarian-Chinese extravaganza with an ex’s multicultural family, or the dinner that consisted exclusively of beige and orange food, an alarming portion of which was mashed. I’ve tried cranberry bread from grandmothers’ recipes and overstuffed myself on pie buffets and eaten an extraordinary vegan rice stuffing (that was much superior to the Tofurkey served with it). I even love the kitsch of the classic mushroom soup and green bean casserole (though I will never accept marshmallows anywhere near my sweet potatoes). Despite the difficulty of defining “traditional Thanksgiving,” I love the idea of cooking with friends or family – biological or chosen – and eating dishes that have some meaning for the cooks. thanksgiving prep So naturally, being in Spain again this year for Thanksgiving, I couldn’t let the tradition slide. I planned an ambitious menu and brought home a bulging grocery bag of apples, leeks, squash, and a celery bunch the size of a small tree that turned the heads of my genteel old-lady neighbors.  In my hunt for cranberries, my lifelong belief that I knew the word for “cranberry” in Spanish was shattered when, at the Boquería market, I was handed a teeny box of some 6 shriveled blueberries. For 6 euros. A Russian store off the Rambla serendipitously provided me with frozen cranberries and the rye bread for my stuffing. Ravioli with squash and hazelnuts took the place of turkey, and apple crisp the place of pie.

I started cooking the day before, alternating kitchen shifts and English-lesson planning. I burned myself on browned butter, I stabbed myself cutting squash; at one point I seasoned the cranberry sauce with liberal amounts of salt instead of sugar, and had to put all my kitchen wiles into play to rescue it. Despite these minor setbacks, I served bread stuffing and cranberry sauce and not one bite of meat to a group of Catalans, Spaniards, an Englishman and a token American; my guests even humored me by going around and sharing what they were grateful for. We ended with a culturally-appropriate toast of local cava. Here’s to weird Thanksgivings, wherever we may be.

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Place is not time

I can’t decide whether it is more jarring to come back to a place that has changed radically in your absence, or to a place that has changed little while you yourself have. This year seems to be an alternating series of changes and returns. Most recently, I took a weekend trip to Zaragoza, 11 years after I spent my junior year abroad there, and spent my two days trying to line up my memories of the place with the city as it is now.

It started with seeing my host family again, a couple who had made me a part of their lives for 9 months when they were only a few years older than I am now. To my eyes, they have changed little, but two new members have sprouted up in the family photo – their two daughter, 9 and 5, adorable troublemakers. This year, a new American host student lives in my old room. We have little in common, and yet there was a Back to the Future feeling of meeting my old self – or perhaps it was just nostalgia getting the best of me.

As we looked through the older daughter’s communion photos, catching up on years of milestones, my Spanish “dad” pointed out one the guests: his mother’s exchange student. I had a sudden flashback of Christmas dinner with my Spanish family, 11 years ago, in their pueblo – seafood stew, festive clothing, a room filled with extended family, and me, the sole American. Perhaps the nostalgia was for this feeling of being “adopted,” a fairy-godmother-like magic of being granted membership rights in a new family. I kept having to remind myself that I hadn’t lost that – here I was, still able to reconnect after so many years. I even had time for Sunday morning churros con chocolate with my Spanish grandmother, at her initiative. We chatted over our decadent breakfast, churrería windows steamed up against the cold, and I felt a bottomless gratitude for not being forgotten.

zaragoza muralsIn other ways, I fought the feeling all weekend of trying to squeeze into a much loved dress that no longer fit. Little has changed in this town – still the beautiful old center, extending out from the festively-tiled Basilica of Pilar, still the arches of the Paseo de Independencia and the looming Corte Inglés on my old route to school, the pastry shop I used to frequent still on its corner. I walked the streets as if in a Sunday paper spot-the-difference puzzle: a new tram, a few bright new murals, and, jarringly, a brand new Taste of America market (though surely I missed Russian food more, when I was here). How is it possible for a place to change so little and feel so foreign?

Time has a habit of erasing jagged edges, and I remember my year in Spain as a colorful montage: me in Aragonés dress at the Fiestas del Pilar, me in Romanesque churches and Gothic cathedrals, me hiking in the Pyrenees from fall foliage to snow, me digging into paella at elaborate weekend lunches with extended family. But it’s easy to forget all the time that linked the highlights. Many days, I was homesick, I felt like an alien, I couldn’t talk or explain myself, I was bored and lost. I idealize this year, I know, though I am not entirely wrong to. I was 16, and I had left my home and friends to live with a different family in a different language. The experience changed me. What is wrong is imagining that the feeling from my highlight-reel memory would flood back as soon as I stepped off the bus and into those familiar houses and streets. Place is not time, and I am 27, not 16, though I admit with some embarrassment that a part of me hoped that immersion in the place could recapture the time as well. The reality is banal: things change. For my next visit, it’s time to pick a new favorite bakery.

Close encounters with absurdity in Eastern Turkey

Living in Kars is, in many ways, not so different from living in small towns anywhere. The language barrier exotifies things, sure, but in general, no truly radical culture clash happens. We even have a Burger King. Sure, it’s flanked by döner and baklava shops, but there it is, just like home! Sometimes, though, things happen that make you shake your head and go, “only in Kars”. Things in this category include: laundry hung out to dry on picturesque ruins, or the nearest mosque gate; the nearest mosque actually being an old Russian Orthodox church with minarets sticking out of it; or the occasional sheep or goose ambling through town, with or without its owner.

For example, today our yard was infested with cows. To clarify, errant farm animals have long stopped being newsworthy in Kars, but, aside from a few scrappy chickens, our yard is empty of wildlife. This morning, however, I glanced out the window over my morning coffee, and saw the two muddy behemoths strolling through the yard, methodically eating every green scrap in their path, and heading straight for our garden – and worse yet, for our cat, which was out on a leash on the clothesline (that may require a separate story; in short, the cat likes to escape and measures must be taken…).  I bolted out of the house in my plaid pajama pants to shoo the cows away from our glorious zucchini bushes, and to rescue the cat, which has no sense, and continued lounging about in the grass, ignoring animals that could crush it with one hoof. Luckily, the cows were pliable and complacent and slowly, slowly, allowed themselves to be steered beyond the gate.

If the cowherds had known my feelings about cows, they would not have threatened with shooting us for allegedly plotting to steal them.  We just wanted to see the Perseid meteor shower… ah, lying out on a blanket under the stars in the mild summer evening, with the smell of drying thistles and drying cow pats, while a searchlight waves over the hill, getting closer… wait, what? The two Turkish men found us, alright, and were not amused – I can see how we can be easily mistaken for cow-stealing masterminds, with our fleece blankets and tea thermos and our roomy 4×4. Thankfully, there were two ladies present, so they refrained from pulling their trigger on sight (as they told us in heated tones), and our suspicious “picnic” was broken up peacefully.

So, how to assuage the double disappointment of clouded-over skies and trigger-happy herders?  Imagine you are sick of Turkish beer, and you are out of smuggled Georgian wine. Imagine you have gin, but the store-bought tonic is questionable, to put it mildly. What do you do? Luckily, if you are my resourceful coworker L., the answer isn’t “cry into your Efes” – the answer is, you buy a bag of bark and cook your own tonic water from scratch! And this is how, on a Saturday night, we came to be stirring a pot full of cinchona bark, allspice berries and citric acid crystals, brewing up a red-brown potion that puckers your face in on itself – until it is diluted with sufficient sugar and gin, giving a delicious and surprisingly close approximation of a gin&tonic. Heady on our success, our next project is planting coconut palms – coconut milk is impossible to find in Kars.

20 years in, and still not taking America for granted

20 years ago today, my parents and I moved to San Francisco from Moldova, a decision that has had more impact on my life than anything else thus far. It’s strange to be celebrating this milestone from Turkey, but also fitting. When I get lost in the supermarket, when I miss familiar foods, when I cannot explain basic requests, such as haircuts, I am comforted by the thought that this struggle is temporary. I will go back home, when I choose, and pick up my life again in a familiar language, on familiar streets. My parents, as immigrants, had no such comfort. They knew they were staying for good, no matter what.

I remember the first time my mother asked me if I would want to go to the United States. I was six years old. My uncle and his family had already moved a few years ahead of us, and based on the packages of candy and toys and photos they sent us, life there seemed glamorous and exotic. “Sure,” I said, “I’d love to visit!” My mother paused. “No, not to visit… to live there, forever.”

I don’t remember my response. With a child’s equanimity, I accepted the change easily. Even the trips to Moscow for our immigration interviews, my parents and paternal grandparents squeezed into one hotel room on cots, and, later, our tiny crowded apartment, as furniture moved out and was replaced by bags and suitcases – it all felt like an adventure, something out of books.

The stress of closing up shop on our old life remains in my memory as hazily frantic but without details, but I remember the tension of those first months and years in the US. My parents had studied English in university, years ago, and now they had to live the language daily, oversaturated with it. They had to find work, which took months, and included menial interludes such as stringing beads for a jewelry company. We ate a lot of Wonderbread, even as we passed Russian grocery stores daily in our neighborhood. The stress of the move reverberated and echoed in our roomy American apartment, which felt too small for 4 exhausted adults trying to readjust their entire lives, which they had comfortably settled already, elsewhere.

As a kid, I was content with the superficial upgrades post-immigration: the ability to eat fruit any day of the year, or getting a new toy. I was excited by school and the beach and by friendly American strangers, who said hi and smiled for no reason at all. It dawned on me only later, slowly, that it took my family serious guts to move to a new country, sight unseen, simply on the promise that it would be better. It’s been 20 years, and I still think about it almost daily. I take nothing for granted. So this post is dedicated to my parents, real Thanksgiving-celebrating, American-flag flying, borsch-with-soybeans-making, gutsy Americans with Russian accents.

Connection vs. mere communication, and the relief of common language during travel

I’ve been miming and two-word-sentence-ing my way through Turkey for the past three months, but never realized just how draining it was until I traveled through Georgia, and was suddenly, miraculously, able to talk to almost anyone. Suddenly, speaking Russian felt as extraordinary as having a Babelfish in my ear.

Our travels are made up of these small interactions with people that add up to the full picture of a place as much as, if not more than, the sights we see or museums we visit. It can be as simple as asking directions or joking about the weather, or asking about the culinary secrets of a babushka selling homemade cheese and mchadi at the market, or getting into philosophical debates with your homestay host about Georgian politics. I had heard some warnings about speaking Russian in Georgia, since the relationship between the two countries is tense, but I couldn’t learn more than “gamarjoba” and “madloba” on short notice, nor memorize the cursive Georgian script. As it turned out, almost everyone I spoke to was simply happy to talk, no matter what the language.

Among other interactions, a portly grey-haired woman sold me the most enormous green figs and the most delicious churchkhela I’d ever tasted. In conversation, she told me about her garden, her technique for making the grape syrup for the churchkhela, her pride in these sweets that she gouged me for, but that were worth it. Another time, asking for directions, an old man launched into a tirade about gas prices these days, and how could anyone claim that life was bad under Stalin, when you look at the inflation rates? Being able to stand up for myself with a sketchy marshrutka driver. Hapless attempts by a potbellied 50-ish Georgian man to hit on me. Hitchhiking with students and soldiers as we listened to Georgian folk, Russian rap and Lana del Rey. All of these portraits of Georgians would be lost to me without Russian.

I speak 3 languages; of these, English opens the most doors and smoothes over basic interactions almost everywhere I’ve traveled.  I could never advocate traveling only in countries whose languages you speak fluently  – you would never leave the house. Sometimes the language barrier is a challenge worth facing, where every real connection feels like a minor blessing, where you gain a newfound appreciation for the simplest tasks you accomplish. Other times, you cannot shake the feeling that you’re just skating on top of the iceberg, and missing some fundamental understanding. Coming back to Turkey from Georgia, I was plunged back into muteness. Aside from destinations and food orders, I can’t carry on a conversation, don’t understand jokes, often cannot distinguish between helpfulness and flirtation. And my travels in Turkey are tinged by that feeling of being on my guard, afraid of being lost, or being misunderstood. There are many places I want to go, still, whose languages I do not speak and am unlikely to ever learn. But, as I plan future solo trips, I feel I will lean heavily in favor of places where I can continue the conversation past the “what” questions and into “why.”

Kars, to a different soundtrack

Another evening, another walk. My talisman against homesickness: listening to familiar music as I walk through unfamiliar places. No indie rock for me – I crave the musical equivalent of bubblegum and Doritos, Rihanna and Lady Gaga in my ears as a protective bubble from Turkishness when I am feeling particularly far from home.

The rain-washed Kars streets take on a surreal tinge to an American pop soundtrack. A playground is empty of children; instead, a man with a generous potbelly sits on the swing, surrounded by his flock of geese. Unminded geese and goslings wander the streets; in the winter, they will become Kars’ signature dish.

A boy rides uphill over cobblestones, trying to balance lumpy bags of apricots on his handlebars. A Turkish man with white hair and a sun-weathered face passing a blue gate, carrying bulging bags of bread. A group of construction workers are firing up a metal teapot on the street corner. Music echoes between houses, strings and flutes and twanging. I pass a party: a line of women, pinkies linked, dancers at the ends of the line waving handkerchiefs. The men stand to the side, drinking tea.

Yards are ubiquitously furnished with outdoor couches and armchairs. Patterned carpets are hung to air out on stone walls. Dominoes of cow dung patties for stove fuel are laid out to dry in neat rows, stacked into pyramids. Each dumpster is topped with a stray cat.

After following a trash-filled, weedy ditch, I turn at the river, flanked by miniature forests of thistles. When I can go no further on the soggy path, and not wanting to double back, I take a shortcut uphill through someone’s backyard, where I am accosted by 3 curious boys. I’m a tourist, I tell them, which doesn’t assuage their curiosity in the least; instead, as I let myself out of the yard, they follow, stage-whispering to friends and family members about this lost foreigner. Soon I have an entourage of children that follow me to the edge of the neighborhood. They pick roadside flowers, dragging them out by the roots, collecting a prickly bouquet for me.

The sun drops below the rainclouds, saturating the houses and lighting up the rain puddles. The white minarets are black against the sunset as I turn back home.

Solo travel tips for cowards

Levo League published my article with ideas for travelling alone, just as I came back from from 10 days in Georgia, my second solo trip of the summer. It just gets easier.

The next time you go on vacation, consider challenging yourself to a solo adventure —it may help you learn a thing or two about yourself and what you are capable of. You’ll come away with the ability to be comfortable with uncertainty, and with a stronger belief in your own self-reliance. You may also realize that you are better company than you think.

Read the whole piece here.