Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Grub at Home: Lasagna

Alright, so I mentioned last week that as an expat you have to get used to making do with what you've got, and there's nothing better to make that way than lasagna.  Living in Asia, especially Korea and China, apartments rarely come furnished with ovens.  Most of the time that doesn't bother me, because I don't really bake, and GDA had a kitchen for doing cooking class with the kids, that we could use after school if we wanted to bake cookies or cakes or whatever.  But what are you going to do if you actually find cottage cheese, and you want to make yourself lasagna in the comfort of your own home?  You're going to improvise.  Lasagna was the first of several recipes I "baked" in my rice cooker, and it turned out delicious.
Well, times have changed.  Here in Mongolia I actually have an oven.  However, I have never seen cottage cheese.  Normally for lasagna you would use ricotta, but I'm a big fan of what the Evil One calls "Poor Man's Lasagna," and it substitutes cottage cheese for the snootier ricotta.  But here I am, short on cash, and I have to eat something, so I started digging through my freezer, and found that when people left somehow a pound of Italian sausage from the Meat Man, Joel, ended up in there.  I also had lasagna noodles in my cabinets.  But what to do about the lack of cheese filling?  Actually, I had a block of some kind of cheese in my freezer as well.  I'm not sure what it actually was.  I bought it last fall thinking it was feta and used it for Greek night, but it wasn't quite right, and I never used it again.
You may be thinking that after nine months that cheese was probably freezer burned.  It may have been, but the end product didn't taste like it, and one of the tricks I learned from improvising in Korea is that freezing cheese makes it crumbly (which on an unrelated note means you can get away with not grating it), so it turned out to be a perfect substitute.  I assembled the whole thing into my baking dish and popped it into the oven.  With the end result:
If you'd like to make it and you don't know how (not all of my six readers are middle-class Americans!) this is how you go about it: Brown a pound of ground meat (I like Italian sausage for this one, but beef or even pork would be fine).  Add some pasta sauce to your meat - enough to make it moist but not to the consistency you would actually use for pasta.  Get yourself a pan, not too big, and a couple of inches deep.  Put a layer of noodles (I use the no-boil kind, but if you really want to torture yourself, go old school with those puppies), cover it with your meat mix, cover the meat mix with ricotta/cottage cheese/some kind of crumbled feta thing, and then add another layer of noodles.  Repeat.  Pour a whole lot of pasta sauce over the top, and then cover the sauce with shredded mozzarella (pizza cheese - pijah cheejuh - in Korean).  Stick that bad boy in the oven at 350F/177C and let it bake until the cheese on top is all melty and preferably just the slightest bit golden (you can see that I got impatient and didn't quite let the golden thing happen).  Serve it with a nice salad and bread.

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Rain on My Parade

Generally, each year at Naadam there is a festival of traditional dress, or deel, in Sukhbaatar Square.  Except apparently we're not calling it that anymore.  Apparently we've changed it to Chinggis Square.  Heaven only knows why we can't just keep it Sukhbaatar Square...I mean, I get that he was a communist hero and in the last year there's been a push to get away from their communist past, but come on.  The Big C was not on the only noteworthy Mongolian to ever walk the steppes.  And at this point, I realize I'm just shooting my mouth off about things I haven't really researched, so, you know, back to the Deel Festival.
One of the things that often drives me bat-shit crazy about Mongolia - as I've mentioned at least a couple of times before - is the inaccessibility of information.  I knew the festival was happening - hell, it was postponed, and for once I actually knew about both days - but I had no idea what time the bigger part of the festivities were happening, only that it was scheduled from 10-3.  So around 11 o'clock I arrived on Sukhbaa....Chinggis Square, and what should I find, even before getting to Mongolians in their national dress?  A ger made of potted flowers.  I love the randomness of living abroad, and this is one of those random moments.  I'm sure we do random things back home, too, but I can't see them because they seem normal to me.  A ger made out of flowers?  Not normal.  According to infoMongolia, this was part of a city-wide tarting up where 315 MILLION tugrugs were spent on floral decorations.  In case you don't know the conversion, that works out to $225,000 US.  On flowers.  Hell, we'd just like some smooth roads up here in Zaisan!

After checking out the flower ger, I started wandering around the square.  There were different stands set up with bits and pieces of deel.  I think you probably could have put them on to take pictures; I have a very limited amount of money to work with over the next two weeks, so I wasn't interested.  Instead I wandered around taking photos of people getting ready.  I actually found the article from English News about the postponement very informative.  Rather than just being an excuse to play dress up (because, really, who needs an excuse to play dress up?  I do it whenever I damn well feel like it!) it aims to make the deel more popular with younger Mongolians, for whom it is no longer an everyday fashion choice.  I wish I could give these kids an American perspective on it.  Them there young whipper-snappers ought to be grateful they HAVE a national dress...back in 'Merca we ain't got no such thing, a fact that perenially makes national dress day at whatever international school I am holed up at an awkward moment for my fellow Americans, who typically end up simply wearing the national dress of our host country (a look Fire Marshall and - to a lesser extent - Domestic Goddess owned last February).
There was a stage and a runway set up, but I didn't stay for the show.  I had no idea how long it was going to be til they got started, and Ceylonta was calling my name (yes, call me on it, Domestic Goddess, but I really DO have limited funds; I was just hungry!)  I hung around a little while and then wandered up the west side of the square, where I hit the jackpot.  I don't know if the Mongolians would have called it a parade, but it involved a band and a bunch of people marching around the parliament building to get to the square, and therefore, it looks and quacks like a parade of ducks.
I am not good at asking profound questions when people leave me.  Mostly at going away parties I sit there with tears welled up in my eyes looking extremely pathetic while I get what passes for drunk (for good little Mormon girls, at any rate) on Coke (Condoler of heartsick Mormon girls).  Five doesn't have that problem, and when we were at California's for one last round with Domestic Goddess, she asked what she was going to miss the most about Mongolia.  Her answer: little old Mongolian ladies and men in their deel.  Domestic Goddess would have loved this festival.  The place was absolutely crawling with them!

Anyways, I wandered off and had my lunch, and went off looking for Dashchoilon Monastery, which is supposed to have Tsam Dancing one of these days, although I am still tracking down the exact time.  As I was wandering, it started raining.  Hard.  Fortunately the spiffy backpack I bought for my camera came with a rain fly, so even though I got soaking wet, the Big Guns did not.  I assumed that everyone would be gone from the square by the time I got there, and figured I was right when I saw lots of people in their beautiful clothes leaving the square, but actually the fashion show (for lack of a better term) was still going on.  Or it was, until the rain started up again.  At that point, everyone with an umbrella got under it, while those that didn't huddled under the umbrellas of drink carts or any other shelter they could find.  One lady covered me with her umbrella and asked where I was going.  I thought this was one of the simplest and yet kindest things that's ever happened to me, but I was actually quite happy to get drenched.
Anyways, just a couple more photos for you - I've gone on just about long enough, but the Mongolian people in their national dress are just beautiful.  I wasn't joking around before; I really am jealous of this country's rich cultural heritage. 
Not to mention, you've got to love the bling.

Monday, July 22, 2013

Museumitis (April 2007)

 I know better than to go to four museums in one day.  I learned that lesson in Venice.  But the fact is that tomorrow I go back to a country that is something of a cultural black hole.  So with the minutes ticking down to zero, I decided the sore feet, legs, and often headaches that go with a sensory and information overload I like to call 'museumitis' would be worth it, if I could just cram in memories of a few more sculptures, paintings, and pots.

First I trekked over to the National Archaeological Museum.  The place was crammed with more pottery and sculpture fragments than I thought possible.  It was like everything anyone had ever found that could be identified as ancient Greek was brought in and put on display.  There were also a LOT of pieces I studied about in art history classes...my favorite being the 'Dipylon vase,' one of the most famous examples of the shift between geometric and figurative vase painting.  A lot of the pieces on display had been recovered from shipwrecks, and it was really sad for me to see what the ocean had done to these masterpieces (but I guess better than what early Christians did to some of the pieces that WEREN'T safely at the bottom of the sea, and vandals in general...most of the male statues were missing a rather important member of their anatomy).  Still, lots of cool stuff.

I took a lunch break and then hit the National Art Gallery.  I wasn't that impressed by it - maybe because I'd already hit my ability to take stuff in for the day, maybe just because it wasn't all that great.  Usually, in every art museum I'm in, I find something that stops me dead in my tracks and makes me laugh, or cry, or both.  Not the case here, so I didn't spend too much time before going to the Goulandris Museum of Cycladic...etc...art.  (I've been on a time-restrained schedule all day - the Archaelogical museum closed at 2:45, the art museum at 3, and the Gouldandris at 4....the Benaki is open til midnight and had free admission, so I took lots of sitting breaks when I got there).  The Goulandris had more ancient artwork, specifically anthropomorphic stone figures from the Cyclades, which were really cool.  I would have liked it a lot better if I'd seen it fresh.

Finally, the Benaki museum, which had more ancient stuff, some Greek Orthodox religious icons and accompanying stuff, and a really cool collection of Greek traditional costume.  That was really neat - they even had a couple of rooms set up with the furniture and decorations and everything.  I enjoyed that, but my feet were REALLY killing me (didn't make the best choice of footwear this morning, but I figured my feet were going to kill me anyway, so why not???) so I left there at about 5 past 4. 
Ancient sculptures of the Cyclades meets children's art
So the tally for the day:  Four museums.  Thousands and thousands of artworks.  About six hours of slow walking on my feet.  And zero cokes - aish!  No wonder I feel rough.  Time to go eat one more delectable Greek meal, maybe a bit more shopping, and an early night back at the hotel (maybe).

Visiting the Oracle (April 2007)

I think I must have pissed off Apollo by calling his twin sister butch, because he did not put in an appearance at his temple today.  Instead it was freaking cold and rainy, but I had to be undeterred by the weather, because how many times am I going to have the chance to visit Greece?
Today I went to Delphi.  This is the oracle where the prophecy that Oedipus was going to kill his father and marry his mother was made (twice).  It's also, according to Greek mythology, the center of the world - Zeus released two eagles from the ends of the earth, and this is where they met.  You can't even believe the geography - the slopes of Mount Parnassos fall away one after the next and nestled between them is the complex of treasuries, temples, and even a theater (oh, those wacky ancient Greeks and their love of a good play!).  It's all ruins now, but I think that makes it even better.  Maybe it's my twentieth century mind, but a temple just isn't a temple unless it's crumbling to bits.
Note: Definitely not a skinny, docile blonde

There's no longer an oracle at Delphi.  I thought I might apply for the job, since I'm not really happy in Bahrain, but according to Lonely Planet, her visions were induced by inhaling vapors, and drugs don't really coexist with a Mormon lifestyle.  Also, I can't really see myself being Apollo's type - I imagine he's more into skinny, docile blondes (since most of the men in my life are).
The gymnasium of Ancient Delphi
I also spent two hours talking to a 'good boy' (or so a random old Greek man told me when he staggered up and engaged us in conversation...he had a badge on his shirt that said he was with New York City School District Security Services, but I have my doubts) from Canada named Kevin.  He'd spent a year teaching ESL in Korea - Pusan to be exact - and it was really good to talk to a person who didn't roll their eyes every time I said, 'When I was in Korea.'  He admitted to having really bad travel karma, though, so maybe the rain was his fault.

Patron Goddess (April 2007)

Today was the day (well, one of the days) I've been waiting for my whole life - the day I climbed the Acropolis and paid homage to my patron goddess, Athena.  It wasn't until I was on the Acropolis, taking it all in, that I realized that in some way, shape, or form, Athena IS my patron goddess (or would be, if I actually believed in the Greek pantheon).  Remember me mentioning that game I played at Bright Ideas?  Well, I learned about all the Greek gods and goddesses, but it was Athena that I really admired, because she was the goddess of wisdom and the arts.  Aphrodite had love, of course, but even at an early age I looked down on doe-eyed twit girls who used love to manipulate men.  So I thought Athena was cool - she was who I wanted to be like.

If I'd realized that she was a virgin goddess...if I'd known what that meant...I might not have thought she was so cool.  On the other hand, at least I didn't pick a butch goddess like Artemis....
These were the sorts of thoughts stewing in my brain as I explored the Acropolis, admiring the temples and being astounded by how much history this place had seen.  Then I descended to the Areopagus, and wandered over to the Pnyx, and the hills of the nymphs and the muses...and I wondered if I could change it.  I may or may not have taken a rock from the Acropolis (a regular rock, nothing significant, to give to my brother Jeremy....it won't be the first rock I've illegally exported from somewhere to give him), which is Athena's sanctuary.  What if I took it to a temple of Aphrodite and left it as a symbolic offering?  Would I suddenly become lucky in love?  And would I piss of Athena so royally that she would take back every artistic or smart thing about me?

I decided even if that sort of thing worked, if it was real, I wouldn't do it.  It turns out that as an adult, I still look down on women who would trade their self-respect and talents for the feeling of being loved.  I'm sure they have their reasons, but I can't live my life like that.  I won't settle for a mediocre life with a measure of comfort and security, just to feel loved.  I would rather be single than live my life with a man that isn't in every way my equal.

The Problem with Lonely Planet (April 2007)

Tonight I took the funicular to the top of Lykavittos Hill and took in Athens at sunset from a wind-blown peak, complete with church bells ringing.  It was the most sublime experience.  I could see all the way to the coast, and the mountains all around, as they disappeared one by one into the fading light.
I'm really glad Mrs. Julia (one of the embassy wives who works for Al Hekma), suggested I go.  She lent me her tour book, Athens Top 10, but I'm a loyal Lonely Planet Girl, so I set out from my hotel (the Evripides Hotel, in a kinda sketchy looking neighborhood that actually appears to be Chinatown, so I'm pretty much at home there) with my camera and wallet in my fake Coach bag and my Lonely Planet in my hand.  That's because the Lonely Planet guide to Greece is too big to fit in my fake Coach bag.  The two previous fake Coach bags I bought fit bigger books in them than that, but after both of them broke, I bought a more expensive, nicer, but smaller fake Coach bag based on my Dark Lord's continually invaluable advice, and it has worked quite well.

I left the Evangelismos subway station and headed up the hill, following LP's flawless map, and after a hike up the hill, arrived at the funicular station.  No snags.  But as I was standing beside the bell tower having my picture taken by a Korean (I didn't single him out to take my picture because he was Korean, but it DID give me a thrill to say, 'Shillye hamnida,' to him), I realized I was missing something.  A chunky $30 something.  I raced down the stairs and around the church and found my book lying where I'd left it when I took a picture a few minutes earlier.  I knew it was mine because I'd written the address of my new hotel there a few nights before.

Well, I had dinner and watched darkness fall over the surrounding countryside, then decided it was time to head out.  Took the car down, and talked to some delightful little old ladies, realizing that my breath had some horrible funk from the garlic in the tzatziki I've been eating at every meal (oops).  So I stopped in the gift shop and bought a pack of gum, then set out down the hill again (and, by the way, by 'hill' I mean I was walking up about a 60 degree slope...I was also slightly freezing, because it's much chillier in Greece than it is in Bahrain, and I didn't pack exactly appropriately, and I forewent my sweatshirt in the interests of photography).  When I got halfway down the hill (approximately twelve flights of steps, and, oh yeah, I was wearing platform sandals because I like the way they look with the skirt I was wearing), I wanted to double check how to get to the PCbang where I am writing this, and it was at that point that I realized I was, once again, without a Lonely Planet.  I set it down when I bought the gum.  For at least a moment, I debated walking away from it...the book may have cost $30, but don't underestimate how lazy I can be, and how I was dressed...but in the end, I knew I needed that book for the remainder of my stay.  I have Kit's guide, as well as Julia's, but, you see, neither of them is a Lonely Planet.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Living Like A Nymph (April 2007)

No, not that kind of nymph.  Don't you know me at all?  Okay, actually, never mind.  In fact, it's really hard to keep your mind out of the gutter here.  I was fully aware of how lewd the ancient Greeks could be, but after living in the Middle East for the last seven months, I forgot that some people could be proud of their horny past.  When I first saw 'Ancient Greek Lovers' Playing cards (with illustrations taken from authentic red and black figure pottery) in the hotel gift shop, I was shocked.  I'm not anymore, but I can't say that my twisted little mind doesn't get a kick out of seeing a jewelry stand shaped like a satyr with a huge phallus.

Anyways, I was going to say that that isn't the kind of nymph I was talking about, and you had to go and get me off track.  No, today, after the conference, when Mariette said she needed to take a bath before we went to the music taverna (which was great - good food, good music, good atmosphere, good company), I decided to go ahead of her and meet up a little later, and explored the National Gardens, which are conveniently located across the street from Syntagma Square, where we've been taking the trolley for our Plaka excursions.

It was so lush.  Green trees, green grass, and, oh yes, an abundance of flowers.  There were hills, and paths, pools with goldfish or turtles.  It was right before dusk, and there weren't too many people around.  I wanted to kick off my shoes and frolic in the grass, dancing among the trees like a Greek nymph would have.  As I wandered through the forest, I could believe I'd somehow stepped back in time, and that any minute a satyr might step around the side of a hill, and knowing satyrs, ravish me, but hell, with the state of mind I'm in, that might not be all that bad.  I mean, I've seen how those guys are hung.

Running Amok in Athena's City (April 2007)

These are a few more posts from my old blog, from back in the day when people actually used mySpace.  Most of those posts I simply deleted, as my early attempts at blogging weren't much to be proud of - immature and mostly centered around my neuroses during my last stint in Korea.  These aren't much better, but on the other hand, they do involve some worthwhile travel experiences, like the posts I moved over here last September.  Anyways, this group all comes from my first trip to Greece, which was funded by my first international school, Al Hekma.  Enjoy!  
It is actually April 2 as I sit in the bits&bytes internet cafe writing this blog, but to give you a sense of time, the posted date will be the date I'm writing about.

I can't believe I'm in Athens.  I have literally been learning about this place my whole life.  When I was a nerdy little second grader, I used to play this computer game (on the OLD Apple computers, before those bastards at IBM took over the world) at my Bright Ideas class, based on Greek mythology.  I remembered that little fact when I saw an owl pendant and remembered it was Athena's symbol.  In high school, we read the Odyssey.  In college, I took my mandatory 'cluster course' in Athenian culture.  It is surreal and satisfying to be here (and even more satisfying to be here on the school's dollar).

I was sent here with another teacher, Mariette, a South African who teaches second-year kindergarten.  She's kind of a nervous traveler, so even though we haven't had the chance to get to know each other very well, I found myself in the slightly unusual position of holding her hand during take-off and landing, and talking to her much of the four and a half hours of the flight (with the result that we now know each other pretty well).

It took us about an hour to get from the airport to the hotel, because of the traffic.  On the way we had our first glimpse of the Acropolis hovering over the city.  It was unbelievable, and I still couldn't believe I was in freaking Athens.
I started to believe, finally, when we went out for dinner that night.  We didn't do anything adventurous the first night - we were staying in a hotel a bit away from the one where the conference took place - but we took a stroll around the neighborhood and found a little taverna to eat at.  I ordered tzatziki and my first real Greek salad, and they were delicious.  Well, actually, the Greek salad had more olive oil on it than I would have preferred, and I still hate eating unpitted olives, but there we were, eating real Greek food, being served by cute little old Greek people, who talked us into eating the baklava (and it was FANTASTIC), and gave Mariette a Greek name - Antigone (which, when it's pronounced by Greek people sounds like Auntie Go-Knee).  And apparently my Greek drama is a little rusty, because it took me a while to remember that Antigone was Oedipus' daughter, not Orestes' sister (that would be Elektra).  Still, not bad for a girl who's been living where I have.