Sunday, January 30, 2011

Bread

It's been a busy few weeks for me - a lot of stress at work and at home.  The countdown is definitely on for my March R&R, which will be the first significant vacation (>3 days) I've taken since I arrived in Turkey.  In my mind, going home for a memorial service doesn't count as vacation.

That's been part of my stress recently, thinking about my aunt.  I have my mom's home and cell numbers at the top of my Skype phone list, so I rarely need to search through the list to find anyone else.  With Eric back in the States for a month, I added another number to my Skype list, and then when I went to find it the first time, the number right below it was "Gail home."  It was a hard blow, and I stared at it in shock for a few seconds before I could do anything else.  I can't delete it - it's also my uncle's home, after all, and for the first time in my life I've called that line to talk to him.  Before I've always talked to him in the process of calling my aunt.  Still, I can't bring myself to change the name under which the number is saved.  The same goes for her numbers saved in my Turkish and US cell phones - I'm not to the point where I can remove them.  

Last week I baked cupcakes for my coworkers, a first for me.  (Both baking cupcakes and making something for my office - I'm more the type to buy something pre-made rather than risk a mass poisoning incident.)  I ran out of cupcake tins, so I decided to put the rest of the batter into one of the pans I use to bake bread.  I haven't used the pans since 2008, when I moved to Riyadh and had to leave my sourdough bread colony behind, although I've dutifully packed and unpacked them in every place I've lived since.  When I pulled out the pan to use it, I stared at it for a few moments before collapsing, boo-hooing in the floor.  

I had gotten my bread colony from my aunt, who baked two loaves every week for as long as I can remember.  When I was in high school and college, living away from my family during my parents' divorce, she would mail me freshly baked loaves so I would have something comforting to munch on while I was crashing on whatever assignment was keeping me up late.  Towards the end of college, as things got better, she'd call my roommates and give them a head's up the day that bread was going to arrive, so they could open the box and eat half of it before I got home, knowing that I would never share.  (Actually, my mother always did the same thing with her famous oatmeal raisin cookies.  I need to reexamine their loyalties.)  When I graduated and moved to Washington, my mother spent about $100 to send me a starter jar of my aunt's sourdough bread colony, overnighting it so that it would stay cold and wouldn't go dead in the time it took to arrive.  That entire year I was there, I baked my aunt's bread - not every week, but often enough that I had more than enough to share with coworkers, friends, and neighbors.  Favorite moment - sharing with Mohammad, the man who takes parking fees at FSI, on a cold December morning.

It never really occurred to me, reaching past my bread pans in my cabinet every day to get a soup pot or my food processor or a skillet, that the pans mean only one thing to me, my aunt Gail.  Sitting there in the floor, holding them, brought back all of the memories of opening up a box and finding two oversized loaves of bread and a dirty card - my aunt always had an appropriate (rather, inappropriate) card for every situation.  I am so glad I saved all those cards, going back years, through nearly a dozen moves.  

We've never been a particularly domestic family - my mother hates cooking, and my aunt wasn't a fan of it either, although both are quite good cooks.  We don't have any "family" dishes that we always eat at holidays together, largely because we hate family get togethers.  (If it could just be the three of us, it'd be perfect - but there's those pesky others to consider!)  My aunt's bread is the only taste I can think of that reminds me of my family.  I fixate on the tupperware container in the back of her refrigerator - has anyone thought to feed it since she fell ill?  Did it get thrown away?  I have her instructions, carefully tucked into my cookbook between my mother's beef stew and mushroom soup recipes, on how to maintain the colony once you have it.  I don't know how to start the colony, though.  What if I can't find those instructions in her cookbooks when I go home in six weeks?  Worse, what if they never existed, if she got a colony from a friend years ago, and I can't recreate it?  

Over the past few years I've become a bit more inventive in the kitchen, willing to try new things without a recipe, or to alter a recipe radically to match what I have in the pantry or what strange foreign substitutes I'm able to find.  Until now, I've stuck to soups and rice dishes, things that are forgiving with changes in ingredients, spices, ratios.  I think that I'm going to start baking, which seems to require a higher level of precision than I'm accustomed to maintaining.  It will be hard - both leveling off the measuring cup each time and keeping my tears in check while I think about all the love my aunt sent me with every loaf of bread.  In time, though, I hope I'll be able to pull it off with minimal emotional turmoil.  Gail would be amused at grief driving me to cook, and tonight, when I was cooking homemade pancakes, I could hear her laughing - good grief, pancakes for dinner?  Still, I think she'd approve.

Friday, January 21, 2011

The Joys and Perils of International Birthdays

Every now and then I'm reminded of just how surreal and wonderful my overseas life is.  Eric is currently in the States, so he tried to send flowers to my home for my birthday yesterday.  For some reason, no flower site here would take his credit card, so he called his roommate Serder here to place the order himself.  No luck - his card wouldn't work, either; apparently the Turkey network was down temporarily.  Luckily, Serder has a friend who works somewhere near my apartment building, so the friend was dispatched to find flowers somewhere and deliver them to my building.  Did I mention that street addresses aren't really used so much as "big apartment building next to Landmark X," which meant that the friend, apparently, could find neither flowers nor my building yesterday.  So as I was getting ready for bed, Eric called to apologize for the fact that, despite a collective effort on three continents, no flowers could be obtained.  As far as I was concerned, the story's awesomeness made the day - who cares if they actually arrived after such an amazing endeavor?

The flowers arrived this evening and are currently gracing my dining room table, hiding the ever-present Istanbul winter smell of coal.  I am a happy hannah.

(I also brought home several boxes of birthday presents that arrived in today's mail, and almost every box contained salsa, among other delightful things.  I am loved!)

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Updated Reading List

I've just added several new sites to my FS blogs bundle for Google Reader.  With these additions, that should bring us up to 372 blogs, not all of which are active.

Monday, January 03, 2011

Sad Things That Expats Will Do Overseas

I don't live a life as "difficult" as most expats in Istanbul.  I get my boxes from Amazon in 6-10 days without having to deal with Turkish customs, someone else handles my visa processing for me, and my car was shipped to me with what I suppose is a relatively minor amount of hassle.  I live in an awesome country, where fresh fruit and vegetables are cheap and something is always in season.  This city is beautiful, and I find something new to love about it every day, it seems.  So why in the hell is it so tragic that I can't find any salsa or tortilla chips in this country??

Theoretically I can get chips and regular salsa through the commissary shipment we get every two weeks from Ankara, but the Tostitos supply get bought up within hours, and this girl rolls at a slightly higher class than Pace picante sauce.  I've resorted to importing massive quantities of Trader Joe's double-roasted salsa (lovingly shipped one or two bottles a month by my mother, who knows I'd eat them all up in a day if I had them all available - donations accepted!) by APO, and while I've tried the various forms of potato chips on the market here, none of them really make the cut.  (Seriously, the flavors are weird.  There are entire rows of Ruffles that I don't want to identify.)

I've tried making my own salsa, with tomatoes and peppers and onions and garlic and a few spices.  While the result is tasty, it's more like a Lebanese take on pico de gallo than the salsa we all know and love.  I've also tried making my own tortilla chips by broiling lavash that I've brushed with olive oil and salt, with mixed results.  1/3 of the time I use too much oil, 1/3 of the time too much salt.  Sometimes I use too much of both, and one time in five I forgot the bread's in the oven until it sets off a smoke alarm.  When it works, though, it's magical - almost like a taste of home to scoop up my delicious, contraband salsa.

It's a hard life I lead, you know.

Sunday, January 02, 2011

Adventures To Be Had If You Visit

My dear friend and adopted sibling Jon came to Turkey for ten days, spending Christmas and New Year's with me.  Jon lives in Finland working on a PhD in physical anthropology, and since direct flights from Helsinki to Istanbul are a hell of a lot cheaper than the circuitous route needed to get back to Arkansas, we decided that we could have more fun here than stranded in the airports of Europe and the Northeast.  (Fun fact: Jon flew out on the worst day of travel paralysis in Europe.  Two meters of snow in Helsinki, however, is just a brisk breeze, so there were no delays at all.  Go Finns!)

We spent Christmas weekend in Antakya and Gaziantep, assisted by Eric's able planning and guidance.  We flew in to Antep early on the morning of the 24th and drove a rental car to Antakya, following the backroads that hug the Syrian border.  Once we got to Antakya, we explored the Arab-style old city, found its hidden churches, and marvelled at the French colonial buildings.  Due to a particularly late night before we flew, we didn't make it to Christmas Eve mass at St. Peter's church, instead sleeping for about 13 hours.  Whoops!  When we woke up well-rested on Christmas Day, we moved on to the Mediterranean coast about 40 kilometers away, where we visited the only remaining Armenian village in Turkey and hiked through a Roman tunnel at sunset by iPhone light - perhaps not the smartest thing we've ever done, but hey, we're resourceful!

I won't lie, one of the primary reasons we went to Antep was to visit Imam Cagdas, a famous restaurant that may be Eric's favorite place in Turkey.  I can't say that I blame him, either; we picked our hotel based on its proximity to the restaurant, and we ate every meal there.  Many of the city's attractions were closed on our Sunday in town, but we did get to visit the castle in the center of town, which houses a museum of the city's resistance to British and French forces during Turkey's war of independence.  We happened to be in town over the anniversary of the city's liberation in 1922, which meant the museum had an extra-special dose of local hagiography, we'll call it.  Still, it was a lot of fun - and Eric and I enjoyed using the museum's exhibits and panels as a lens for explaining modern Turkish history to Jon.  (Yes, we're nerds.  Leave us alone.)

There are too many stories from Jon's visit and our trip to list here, but let me give you a few ideas.
  • A tasting menu at one of the city's top restaurants, when we were the only ones there
  • Wine tastings in the cellar of a Greek restaurant
  • Initiating hostilities against Syria
  • Getting thrown out of an Orthodox church - twice
  • Discussing the geology of terrorism
  • Explaining the finer points of Turkish fashion
  • Discussing ruminant molar morphology while other tourists looked on in horror
  • Dipping our toes in the Mediterranean
  • Hatay's Anal Market
  • Getting powerfully confused (not getting lost)
  • Ridiculous photos (selection here)
  • Squat toilets
  • Confusing the hell out of small-town shopkeepers when three obvious foreigners walk in speaking Turkish (Jon faked it well)
  • The food.  Oh my God, the food in this country is inescapably delicious.
Do you need more reasons to visit me?  I've updated my reservations calendar to account for known visitors - but 2011 is looking mighty empty.  Come to Chez Nous for a sojourn in the world's most dynamic city, the city that people want to visit most!