You are currently browsing the monthly archive for December 2010.

Today, according to my Yahoo home page, is National Eat Fruitcake day, which will be followed shortly by National Toss the Fruitcake day. There was a picture of a woman, her face wrinkled alarmingly, deigning to sort of sniff at a bit of cake.

Why do people hate fruitcake so? My theory is that they’ve never had the good stuff. I was talking to a friend about this the other day. “It’s the fruit—it’s weird, un-natural colours,” she explained. So, I said, you never ever eat processed cheese product? No day-glo orange Kraft macaroni dinners?

She did not exactly have the grace to blush.

Why this irrational fear of green food colouring? I don’t know. I don’t think it’s any more scary than hot dogs, or Cheez Whiz, or frosting that comes ready made, or m’n’m’s.

As  the daughter of a Welsh mother who was an accomplished baker, I have never understood this mockery of fruitcakes. British fruitcake is dark and moist, packed with fruit and eggs and usually some brandy or whiskey, made a month in advance and left to develop and intermingle the rich flavors and heady scents.

When Donn and I married, we had two cakes—one an American one, poppyseed with raspberry filling, not too sweet, stacked layers with stargazer lilies cascading down. The other was made by a Welsh friend, a poet with both words and ingredients. It had a dozen eggs and an entire bottle of brandy in it, and was topped with marzipan and royal icing, and then a spray of flowers from my Welsh cousin’s wedding cake a few years earlier.

People LOVED it. Literally years after my wedding, friends would spontaneously say, “That cake you had at your wedding was so good. I’d never had anything like it.” They didn’t mean the poppyseed either.

I also make something called Welsh cakes, which are a sort of griddle scone made with dried fruit.  I have served these to people from all over the world and everyone likes them. More people like them than like chocolate chip cookies, in my experience. They contain the same “weird” (to quote my friend) colours of fruit as a fruitcake, but they don’t carry the baggage.

Every year my mother made a Christmas cake, along with mince pies and coconut pies and other traditional British goods. (She didn’t make shortbread, being Welsh not Scottish, but we had a Scottish friend who would bring us a pan for Hogmanay every New Year’s. I miss those days.)  I make mince pies that are as good as hers, if I say so myself, but I never got her recipe for fruitcake, and now it’s gone.

This year, however, a friend brought round a plate of homemade goodies for us (I wrote “for me” at first, but I did share them) that included something she called a “white fruitcake.” I was skeptical at first, because I like the dark kind, but it turned out to be lemon; moist and tart and rich and sooo good. She had the traditional dark fruitcake too, PLUS some homemade figgy pudding. We intended to pour brandy over it and light it and eat it with custard, but we accidentally sort of nibbled it away. Her dark fruitcake was as good as Mum’s, so I’m getting her recipe for next year.

Where do you fall in the fruitcake wars? ( I warn you that I will only take you seriously if you have tried British fruitcake. )

Earlier this week, I took some Iraqi friends to a public health clinic. This is the family I mentioned in an earlier post, the ones who don’t speak English.

Only the parents had appointments, but they brought the 2 year old as a matter of course. The 6 year old sat in the apartment and cried big silent tears because her mother was leaving. “She can come,” I told them, “but she’ll have to sit with me in the waiting room.”

And so, as I sat flipping through an old New Yorker (but new to me! And who knew that public health had better reading material than most doctor’s offices?) while the adults were in the back with a translator, I kept an eye on the two girls. They were playing with those toys they have at doctor’s offices, the kind where you push the wooden beads on wires shaped into corkscrews and loops and squirls. I don’t know what they’re called but I’m sure you’ll enlighten me.

I realized that the 6 year old was teaching her sister English. “Ready set go!” she said. Actually, it was more “rad, sit, goo” and it took me a moment to recognize what she was saying. “Ready, set, go!” I repeated for her, reinforcing her pronunciation because of the whole once-a-teacher-always-a-teacher thing, and she rewarded me with a brilliant smile. Later, she ran in a circle around the small table and hit her sister on the head. “Duck, duck, goose!” she shouted. I attempted to stop her hitting her sister on the head—what must they think of these violent American games?—but I soon relaxed, as the toddler laughed and laughed and obviously wasn’t hurt.

This, too, is how my kids learned language—first on the playground, then in the classroom.  There was probably some head-bashing involved too, considering that I have 2 boys close in age. When we first lived in Mauritania, they’d come home and play cache-cache loup (hide ‘n seek) or sing silly little songs. It took them a while to catch up in the classroom, in spite of what everyone said about how quickly kids learn new languages. My experience is: they do, yes, but at the same time, it takes them a while to get thoroughly comfortable and truly fluent. They lag behind their peers, because they are double-learning in the classroom—learning French vocab AND science or math or whatever the subject is.  Even now, I would say my kids have gaps in their French, caused simply because they don’t hear the adult version, since Donn and I speak English in the house.

Language is a funny thing. All the nuances of communication can be lost even between two native speakers—how much more where one or more is communicating as one swims for the first time in deep water, floundering, getting much but missing more, unable to relax. Small words change meaning completely.  When I speak with this family, we communicate (I should put this in quotes) in a funny mish-mash of Arabic, English, and gesture. Mostly gesture.

For example, arranging this appointment. I spoke with the receptionist at the clinic on the phone, and she told me how happy she was that I was there for her to talk with. We arranged a time, and then I was able to tell them, in Arabic, “Tuesday at 4:30.” I repeated this about 14 times, because such is the level of our communication.

“Mauritanians don’t speak Arabic,” the father tells us as we stumble around with our limited Hassiniya, which is the Arabic dialect spoken in Mauritania. We try out a proverb that we know in both Hassiniya and Dareja, the Moroccan dialect, but they don’t understand either, so we give up and go back to discussing days of the week and numbers, which are the same in all 3 dialects.

Christmas Break. At noon the French toast and bacon are ready. I send Abel upstairs to get his brother and sister out of bed. Just because we can.

Life goes on and is busy, and I forget about my blog. I have all these half-written posts, so I hope to finish them and  post more often this week and next—you know, when you have all this extra time to read blogs, In the meantime, here is a picture of Ilsa that goes with this old post. The picture was taken at the same place but on another day, and I came across it the other day when looking for something quite different.

I have been missing Morocco fiercely lately, yet I also realize that if I was there, I’d be longing for an American Christmas. Obviously I am a mess. I’ve heard the only place expatriates are happy is on the airplane–looking forward to finally getting back to their “real lives” no matter if they’re heading “home” or heading back overseas.

The only thing to do is enjoy our fat, full Christmas tree and the wonderful food that people keep giving me.  And I have been.I have won a free week at a gym–I’m saving it for January.

Christmas shopping is going well. It’s nice to be in a place with so many options for everyone, not to mention all the fun small things that can be found to brighten the day. I’d tell you some of my treasures but my family might read this blog. Suffice it to say they will be pleased.

Today, Ilsa and I went to Powells. I said to Donn later, “The two of us going in there on our own…did you think you’d ever see us again?” Ilsa won a drawing contest at her school and the prize was a gift card. She used part of it to buy my Christmas present, so I had to make her a list and avert my eyes at key moments. On the way there, we plugged her ipod into the casette drive * and we listened to the Old 97s as we navigated the busy city streets, slick and shining with rain and lights. The last time I listened to those songs, I was driving in Rabat, speeding and slowing and blending and passing, dancing like an acrobat in and out of traffic. The sky was deep blue; the sun was shining on the ancient walls and orange groves of the city. I listened to the song and added a new layer of memory. Now when I hear it, which street will come to my mind?

*did I tell you about our free car? It’s a black Volvo sedan and it is awesome. Remember when cars didn’t have cup holders? Or FM radio? This car is an ’86 and it was a sweet car back in the day. It’s turbo and punchy, and a lot of fun to drive. Except when the sunroof leaks, but that’s another story.

It’s that time of year again. On Saturday morning, I found a note on the stairs. “Working on lego crèche. DO NOT DISTURB” it said. This is the 3rd year that Abel has graced our house with his own version of a nativity scene, made out of legos.

Our lego crèches always include Roman patrols, which I feel is at least as realistic as one camel, one donkey and one sheep looking at a manger without having to be held back from the straw. An overcrowded Bethlehem packed with census takers would certainly have had some soldiers passing through, armed to the teeth and looking for trouble makers.

This year, Mary is reprising her outfit from last year, with just a few new touches. Makes sense in these economically troubled times. Joseph, as a typical male, has not changed.

Baby Jesus continues to be legless, but this year, he’s smiling and content and possibly even cooing. A far cry (HA!) from last year’s scowl.

(Aside: look at how dust-begrimed the green base is. You can tell it spent time in Mauritania. That’s what happens to all your things in that desert nation. I wonder if I could run it through the dishwasher? I wonder if I will bother?)

Bethleham’s main inn has really expanded this year, adding an extra story and an extra two rooms out back, complete with staircase.

The inn really is full though, as you can see…

Out front, the innkeeper is keeping the grounds as free from dust as possible…

He’s got his work cut out for him.

The inn also has a new sign. Given that much of its clientale isn’t literate, it’s just a picture.

It’s a lovely creche. This year we have 3 nativities–an origami one, made by a friend in Mauritania, a Peanuts one (already much beloved), which was a lovely surprise sent by Tonggu Mom, and this year’s lego version. I think last year’s version, with wise men AND the wicked King Herod, might have been my favorite, but I’ll never forget the original Mary (not to mention Ilsa’s attempt to match with her toffee infant) from 2008–she’ll always have a special place in my heart.

December 2010

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