Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Foreign Language Compartment (of my brain)

My brain seems to have a compartment entitled “Not English”. Each new word acquisition, no matter the foreign language, gets filed in the same area. When it comes time to respond to someone on the spot, this filing system fails horribly. Imagine a disorganized, lower-level secretary under fire from the CEO to hand over the correct file immediately. Sometimes the frantically grabbed file is the correct one, and sometimes it’s a random assortment of mixed up language. This has given rise to several interesting, awkward, and entertaining moments.  One such moment is recounted below.


On the plane from Moscow to Amsterdam and then from Amsterdam to Barcelona, I silently practiced the little Spanish I knew … “Hola”, “Me llamo Kimberly”, “Donde esta el baño?”, “Mi Casa es su casa”,  “Si … you know, all the basics and essentials. So when I stepped into the airport in Barcelona, of course I forgot everything. Thanks to picture signs that pointed me in the right direction, I easily found my luggage and made my way to the taxi station. As I walked toward the front of the taxi line, I remembered that I had smartly written down the address of the hostel where I would be staying. I rummaged in my bag for the scrap of paper. Suddenly, my turn to jump in the next taxi had come. Fumbling with the scrap, I handed over my luggage and the address to the taxi driver without a word. My brain remained frozen. The taxi driver asked me a question in Spanish that I understood. Under immediate pressure to surge into action, the frozen and unorganized foreign language filing system of my brain lurched. The first words out of my mouth were, “Dah” followed 10 seconds later by a shaking of the head (signifying a quick thaw) and a lot less confident, “… uh, Si.” I had just come from Russia, so I tried to give myself a break. The taxi driver looked at me a bit strangely (perhaps with recognition of a failing foreign language filing system?), and we both silently got in the taxi. After a few strained minutes of silence, and after I had repeated the bit of Spanish I knew over and over in my head, I summoned up the courage to ask, “Habla ingles?” He responded with a great deal of relief, “Yes!” He explained that he did speak a bit of Spanish but not as comfortably as he spoke English. He was from Pakistan - I had not even considered that he wasn't from Spain. He then asked if I was Russian (because I had first spoken Russian to him). He apologized that he didn't speak Russian. I explained that I had spent a couple years in Moscow, but no I’m American. I speak English. As he drove me to the hostel, we chatted a bit more. I laughed to myself about my many false assumptions and the foreign language compartment of my brain. 

Friday, September 21, 2012

Is this apartment up to code?

I used to assume that living in the North End of Boise, a 10 minute walk from downtown in the largest city in Idaho, in the United States of America would preclude experiences like tripping a breaker due to shotty wiring. I have since learned that Russian electrical shottiness may not be half as bad as a job by a lazy or underpaid electrician. The difference between the two countries may be that I could report this apartment in Boise to the fire marshal and something might be done, while in Russia I would just live with it. Now, the assumption that the fire marshal would take action … well, that may be proven false. In fact as I have started to learn, dishonesty, bribery, and corruption are alive and well in Idaho as well as Russia … but that’s a story for another day …

Back to the event(s) that caused my disillusionment with American safety standards and fire codes. When I first moved into the second smallest place I have ever lived in (128 square feet / 12 square meters), I anticipated that life would be a little different. I would have less counter space, sleep on a pseudo-Korean style mat on the floor, live without an oven barring my trusty old toaster oven, experiment with an interesting contraption that combines sink, range, and fridge, not to mention live on a modified/enclosed porch. Yet, I never dreamed of the electrical issues that would pile up, one on top of the other until the breaking point (tripping point?) when my new neighbors bought microwave popcorn.

To the right is the wonder that combines range, sink, and refrigerator
The first night in my new apartment, I blew my surge protector by trying to run the range, fridge, and toaster oven through the same extension cord. And in the first couple weeks, I tripped the breaker and learned my lesson about not running the fan, the toaster oven, the stove, and my hair dryer at the same time. When that occurred I was running late for work, so I got in the car and called the landlord asking them to flip the breaker.

Several months went by. I effectively avoided running too many things at once and relied on the ability to use both burners and the toaster oven at the same time while making dinner. I succeeded in cooking breakfast and dinner for different people on three or four separate occasions. All was fine and dandy until the “new” neighbors and their microwave popcorn moved in. Of course, I only discovered this when making dinner for someone I hoped to impress.

I began steaming broccoli, frying potatoes, and baking fish gradually pushing the circuitry to its extremes. The overhead fan cooled the apartment on this balmy Wednesday evening. Everything functioned perfectly. Timing couldn’t have been better with the preparedness of each dish. As we drank rosé and noshed on toasted bread with olive tapenade, I relished my accomplishment … a little too soon. In the middle of preparation, the cooking lights went dark. The fan slowed. I rolled my eyes.

Something tripped the breaker.

As I stepped out the front door trying to laugh off the faultiness of this electrical system, I ran into my “new” neighbor. He sauntered out of his apartment. He jabbered a bit about popcorn. I asked him if he knew where the breaker was. No idea.

During the previous electrical incident, the landlord had informed me that the breaker was at the back of the house … my guest, new neighbor, and I all tried to sort the situation. Tens of breakers existed on the side of the house. And at the back of the house, another neighbor emerged complaining that her TV had gone off. How many people were on this one elusive breaker?

After much searching, consternation, and the determination of my neighbors to use the microwave, which I’m blaming (they always seem to be the issue … the microwave served as the tripping point in Moscow as well.), the breaker was located and flipped back on. It immediately tripped several times successively until we switched everything off. Unfortunately, this was not a singular dinner experience but was repeated the next week, when, luckily, I was not trying to impress anyone.

Lessons learned? A) My neighbors should chuck their microwave. B) It’s important to locate the breaker switch for your “new” apartment and try to determine how many other places are hooked up to the same. C) The wonders of "Soviet" electric wiring are not far from the wonders of "American" electric wiring.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Bits of reverse culture shock: The price of cheese and bread

Long story short, I recently returned from a little over a month in the South of France.  After a bit more than three years away, I am now back in Boise, Idaho, and the reverse culture shock is hitting home.

While I spent the last three years adjusting to Russian cuisine and groceries, then to Korean cuisine and groceries, and briefly to French cuisine and groceries, my decision to return to Boise has lead to a lot of balking by my taste buds.  And their complaints don’t have much to do with the things I left behind in Korea or Russia.

Would you like some cheese with that whine?

A bit of kimchi or a pirozhki every once in a while never hurt anyone, and I’m sure, eventually, I will have the desire to make something Russian again. But the main problem I have with the groceries in Boise is the simple cost of bread and cheese. I am no longer in Korea where it was expected to pay an arm, a leg, and half your first born child for a bit of decent cheese. Rather, I’m in a country that has plenty of space to grow the wheat needed to make baguette, and a plethora of dairy cows that can make perfectly decent cheese. I half expected French cheeses – made in France, mind you – to be more expensive than domestic cheeses. Yet, what I have found is there are plenty of imported French cheeses that cost the same amount as domestic cheeses. Why, I ask myself, does that make any sense?

Of course, even though, I half expected it, most shocking of all is the price of well-known, imported, French cheeses.  For example, in Marseille St. Albray, a fairly mild, creamy, delicious cheese made from cow’s milk, costs a total of 2 Euros (approximately $2.60) for 200 grams (close to half a pound). While in the States, this same cheese costs $20 per pound, nearly four times as much! Now, tell me how that makes sense? Are people seriously willing to pay this? Apparently they are, but because of the price difference, I cannot bring myself to pay $20 per pound for St. Albray. It simply isn’t that rare or exotic! I’m sure many people feel this way about paying $5 for 200 grams of any cheese (domestic or foreign), but there’s something to be said about the pleasure of sitting down and eating some good cheese.

Now, if you think I’m overreacting when it comes to cheese and should just settle for the typical 2 pound baby loaf of Tillamook cheddar, perhaps you are right. Or perhaps you are missing out on one of the great joys of life. My challenge to you: break down and spend $5 on some good, creamy, aged goat cheese, and enjoy it with a bit of bread and some of your favorite wine after your next home-cooked meal of steak, potatoes, and fresh green beans. Precede the meal with an aperitif (this could also be your favorite wine) and follow the cheese portion with a bit of chocolate and a nice cup of good espresso. Then tell me the French are wrong, and I should quit complaining.

Let them eat McDo

My first stop in Boise once I returned? The Boise Coop. This haven of all things delicious promised to provide me with the cheese I desired, the wine I craved, and the baguette that rounded everything out. I quickly accepted the price of the wine, which stood around the same price as others ($10). I balked a bit at the price of cheese, but when it came to the price of baguette, I stood stunned, interrupting the flow of foot traffic from the cheese/bread section to the produce. I stopped, physically shook my head, and started muttering to myself. I could not believe it. Who, in their right mind, would pay $3-4 dollars on up for a baguette?! It wasn’t even warm! As I have searched around, I've realized that the problem is not isolated to the "pricey" Boise Coop, rather all around town baguette stands at around $3 for a fresh (that day, not that hour) loaf.

Now, I’m no baker, but I know flour, water, and yeast for a loaf the size of a normal baguette is nowhere near $3. Baguette is something bought daily and fresh and is a requirement for every meal in France, so I would image if the price of baguette rose to $3 a loaf (most families take 2 for dinner), it would be the beginning of the next French Revolution. Women would once again march down the street demanding a lower price for this daily staple. Bricks would be thrown into the windows of bakeries and bread would be stolen and horded (though it would only last a day without getting too stale or chewy). So, what does it mean for America, when a hamburger at McDonald’s is cheaper than bread? Why are we not up in arms?

For those that are scratching their heads about my obsession with baguette. First, I’m surprised to see you have read this far. Second, the French baguette has a very unique characteristic, and if these $3 loaves in the States even compared to the quality and freshness of a true baguette, I might consider paying $3 for an occasional indulgence. But! The problem I’ve found is that not only are these baguettes $3 a piece, they are not nearly as delicious.

So, what does it mean for me and adjusting?

Constant cravings.