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So yes, this is still happening. This is the last day of that trip we took to Thailand, oh, 7 months ago or so. I have a bad habit of never finishing my little travelogues. The sad fact is, the only way for me to finish this is to allow myself 7 months. But you don’t care, right? My one day in Korea was in November and I’m writing it up in June, yes, but what difference does it make on the internet whether it’s October or January or November or June?  none. None at all. 

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Warning: I have way too many pictures! 

We left Chiang Mai, Thailand, at midnight at Saturday and arrived in Seoul for a long layover at about 7-something Sunday morning, Korean time.We flew out at about 5:45 or so Sunday night, had an 8 hour flight, landed in Vancouver BC, had a 2 hour layover, flew down to Portland, and got in about 4 on Sunday afternoon.

It messed with my mind. And that’s the joy of crossing the International Date Line.

With a 10 hour layover, we knew we had to go into the city, although I do want to take a moment to rave about their airport. They have free showers and nap options, a museum of Korean history, a place to do Korean-themed crafts for free, plus live music to entertain you. When we were on our way to Thailand, it was a string quartet playing Bach. On our way home, it was a boy band in white suits, crooning away. I tried to get pictures but Donn was in Capt Stress mode and wouldn’t let me even pause, so the pictures are too blurry to post. More on Capt Stress’ appearance later. But that airport is fantastic! OH and free 5G wifi.

Donn googled “what to do with a long layover in Seoul” while we were still in Thailand so we were prepared. Then we found that the airport offers a free bus (I know! Amazing! WHY must American airports suck so?) that went to all the sites we were planning to see. However, being us, we opted instead to buy two $10 tickets for the hour-long bus ride downtown and just be on our own. We don’t like tours. We like to explore on our own, although this inevitably means we miss some things and are usually in a rush at the end.

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It had been hot and humid in Thailand, but Korea felt like Oregon on a mild November day. Of course we hadn’t brought warm clothes. I was wearing sandals and 3/4 length leggings under a cotton dress, and Donn was wearing jeans and a cotton shirt. I did have a scarf. It was spitting rain and freezing as we wandered through downtown Seoul, stopping at a cafe for a hot drink in a desperate attempt to warm up.

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Although admittedly I have a very limited acquaintance with it, I have to say I loved South Korea and hope someday to go back for longer.

Our first stop was the Gyeongbokgung Palace (linked to wiki and including lots of information which I won’t go into here except to mention it was originally built in 1394 and it is right smack in the middle of a very modern city, which makes it even cooler). First we admired the funny hats of the people outside the gate.

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Then we watched the changing of the guard. More really great outfits!

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We walked into the first courtyard. The palace is built with 3 very grand entrances. One thing I learned on this trip was how very little I actually know about Asian art, architecture, religion, and culture in general. But I guess the Korean palace was purposely designed to be simpler than others throughout the region. There was still a lot going on though. We passed through three very impressive gates into enormous stone courtyards, ending up at the third peering into the throne room.

Then we sort of turned to the left and went through a little wooden doorway and found ourselves in a magic kingdom. Ok not exactly. For one, there were still lots of tourists, and we were still walking on pavement, but the farther we went, the more beautiful the views.

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The detailing was fantastic!

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There were lots of beautiful wooden buildings, set over water that reflected the autumnal trees, leaves drifting down to add to the palette of various tones on the still grey water.

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Eventually, regretfully, we reached the end of the palace, and came out the opposite end.

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We asked the guards for directions to our next destination–a neighborhood of art galleries and trendy boutiques tucked amongst ancient alleyways. They gave us directions to a certain point and said, “And then one more ask,” which I found an adorable way of telling me I’d have to find someone else to question at that point.

We wandered past entrancing shops, stopping for the best Bulgogi (a sweet pork dish. I’ve always had it with beef in the US. Seriously amazing) I’ve ever had in the tiny, hole-in-the-wall down-that-ally round-a-corner restaurant, a place with quilts on the back of the chairs and only room for about 20.

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Entrance to restaurant. I don’t know if we could even find it again, but it was great! I recommend it, if you’re ever in Seoul. And this is one reason why we don’t like tours; we like to at least have the opportunity to find places like this on our own. Sure you don’t always, but it’s worth a shot. 

We came down into an area that reminded me of Chinatown in San Francisco–lots of outside shops selling cheap knick-knacks. I bought socks with the Gangham-style guy for the twins, and a fancy bookmark for a friend of mine who loves Korean culture.

We still had HOURS to get back to the airport, but Donn, rather like Bruce Banner under stress, began to transform before my eyes into his super alter-ego, Captain Stress. Captain Stress looks like Donn, but he possesses incredible powers of Worry and Fuss. He appears at times involving airports, the birth of our firstborn, and car breakdowns in the desert. The problem was, we had to find a bus going to the airport and buy tickets to get on it, and we didn’t have much Korean money and didn’t really want to change as who knows if we’ll ever even go there again? We walked fast, and he refused to let me stop and photograph anything. We still had hours to get back, I pointed out reasonably. We walked through a gorgeous hotel lobby, decorated for Christmas, in hopes of changing money. I used the fanciest toilet in the world. It had push buttons for everything imaginable that you might want from a toilet.

Meanwhile, Capt. Stress was continuing to manifest. We talked to a bus driver but…I forget why, but his bus wasn’t an option. We found our way to a subway station, where there were trains going to the airport, but we were short the equivalent of 25 cents in Korean money. Remember that it was Sunday, and everything was closed. A very kind young man with a black umbrella tried to help us, and practice his English at the same time. I will skip how very complicated everything was, and how we ended up taking a taxi to another subway station where there were actual people working, and how we bought tickets and ran to catch the fast train and made it back to the airport just barely in time, sigh, so he was right, sigh, which was just so lame.

We rushed past the boy band and made it to our gate with enough time to wander round the folk museum. Our flight to Vancouver was not full and we EACH got an entire row in which to stretch out and sleep, which made me wonder if in addition to crossing the International Date Line, we might have crossed the Planetary Time Travel Line and were actually enjoying a bit of 1985. Seriously, planes are always full nowadays. Can you remember the last time you got extra room?

We had two hours in Vancouver, enough time for coffee, and got home at 4 p.m. the same day we left. It took me two full weeks to get over jet lag. And with this very long post, I have finished a travelogue.

Sigh. See post title for where I’m at with this.

Last time we saw our intrepid heroine, she was celebrating her 25th wedding anniversary a mere 2 1/2 months after the fact in Thailand (!!!). In fact, she was in a lovely boutique hotel, with the Queen of Concierges bringing her dry toast and jasmine tea, lying in a very comfortable bed having a very uncomfortable time. Was it food poisoning? A virus? No one knows. There was a fever involved, and if someone is going to get gastrointestinal distress it’s usually Donn, but still. The fact remains that out of 8 precious days, she lost an entire 2…and then spent the 3rd wanting things like crackers and yogurt instead of super-cheap-and-delicious Thai food. Sigh. Obviously she needs to go back.

We had scheduled me to take a Thai Cookery class on the Monday, but when I got sick on Sunday (the day we rode elephants; I was running a slight fever and actually slept in the van both ways), Donn spent ages moving my appointment to Tuesday. Then on Tuesday he had to move it to Wednesday. By Wednesday I was determined to go. They picked me up from the hotel in a little pick-up with benches down the back, and I climbed in and met my fellow students–one from Brazil and a couple from New Zealand.

IMG_6317The school slogan was “Our food is guaranteed to make you look pregnant,” which I found of dubious desirability.

The cooking school was great. I learned to make 6 items, many of which I have actually made here in Oregon. First they took us to the school where they served us tea and pastries, then they took us to the market where they showed us what to shop for. I took a million photos, roughly, but I’ll only make you look at a few close ups of dragon fruit, bananas, and mushrooms.

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Then back to the school. I made (you know you care!) chicken coconut soup, green curry paste (which I will never make here. Let’s be serious. It has about 20 obscure ingredients and you pound it in an enormous mortar and pestle), green curry itself, Pad Thai because Abel loves it so, green papaya salad, and mango with sticky rice.

IMG_6328I made this Pad Thai and green curry. You could choose from a variety of dishes, but I picked these because my family loves them. I have made Pad Thai in America now but it wasn’t as good. I was missing an ingredient or two though; I need to try again.

I ate everything I made! Actually, I took a lot of it back to the hotel with me, because my stomach wasn’t up to 5 meals in the space of a few hours, but really I did great. It was so much fun. I loved the people who ran the school, and my fellow learners. We all promised to keep in touch and send each other photos and everyone else did but me because I have good intentions but lousy follow-through.

IMG_6397I didn’t make this particular sticky rice with mango, but I ate it! I did learn to make it and mine tasted great but wasn’t as aesthetically pleasing as this dish from a restaurant. I felt you needed more beauty in your lives so went with this photo. And yes, I have successfully made this in Oregon. The mango was the least successful part. 

Chiang Mai really was fantastic. The old city has an ancient, 700-year-old wall and moat around it, which is now filled with fountains and lined with flowers and crossed by charming bridges. There are masses of temples and many many markets filled with fun, cheap things to cram into your luggage. Our time was far, far too short and we hope to go back some day.


ancient wall chiang mai

 

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As I was saying when I was so rudely interrupted by my own stupidity, I adore the Rabat medina. Each of the ancient Moroccan cities has its own medina–the old part of the city, usually a warren of winding tiny alleyways punctuated by closed doors and cats that weave their way in and out, along with a colourful marketplace selling traditional hand-crafted items to tourists. And if some of these items have been added to the repertoire more recently than others, who really cares? It’s cool stuff.

IMG_0996This isn’t exactly what I’m talking about, but I was amused to see they’re now making beautiful lanterns out of old olive and tomato paste tins, and managing to make treasure out of trash.

There are medinas–old cities, marketplaces–in all of Morocco’s major cities. Many are bigger, better-known than Rabat’s, which is relatively small and straight-forward. Fez’s medina, for example, is the largest pedestrian-only city in the world and a guide is requisite to get through it. It’s fascinating, but enormous. Meknes is built over a huge prison that housed European slaves, and people told us you used to be able to explore it but too many tourists got lost and died so they closed it. Marrakesh is world-famous and has huge variety. But Rabat is nice. It’s big enough to have plenty of variety, but small enough that you don’t get overwhelmed.

We went to the shop where we bought our leather pouffs, over 3 years ago now. This guy has beautiful leather-work. Donn asked him the price of one of the pouffs, and he said, “Same as last time.” We did a bit of a double-take. “It’s been, what, about two years?” he asked us. “Three,” we said.

We couldn’t believe it. This guy’s shop is popular; he has a workshop in the back and uses really high quality leather, and his shop is constantly busy. How could he remember us from 3 years ago? But he had. This cemented the beginnings of a real friendship. We ended up sitting and chatting; we drank tea with him, and discussed our pasts and futures, and told him to come stay with us sometime if he ever comes to the US.

(I had a photo for you of him sitting in his shop, but when I uploaded it off my phone the quality was so bad I can’t share it with you. Unless you like feeling slightly queasy and motion sick from blurriness.)

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Random shot of fountain and one of the doors into the medina, or ancient walled city.

The medina is more than the marketplace. It is also home to a lot of people. Medinas are where you find the old riads, those houses built round courtyards that are so often turned into stunning hotels by foreigners these days. But more often, normal Moroccans live there, climbing uneven tiled staircases daily where grandmas and toddlers come to grief,

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walking past shops,

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doing their laundry,

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and going about their daily lives.

IMG_0986(and yes, that is a total hip shot, because I knew he wouldn’t want me taking his photo!)

 Donn and I spent a fair amount of time just wandering the back streets, getting away from the touristy end of things and more into just the regular part. He got great photos. Me, not so much.

IMG_0974This is near the wool market, and also near, or possibly a part of, the old slave market, where the Barbary pirates used to sell European slaves captured on raids.

IMG_0988Motorcycles are great for these tiny alleyways, especially if you are comfortable swerving around small children, cats, elderly people with canes, and the occasional somewhat clueless tourist.

IMG_0976I couldn’t figure out what was going on until we walked by, and I saw that everyone was gathered round a giant plate of couscous.

IMG_0992I never get bored of these alleys. At least I haven’t yet.

The markets we came across in the residential area (for lack of a better term) sold fruit and olives, or pots and pans, or soap.

IMG_0946Soap with ground olive pits in it

When you go to a Moroccan hammam (the local kind, not the tourist kind. I went to a tourist kind on this trip and it was fantastic! We’ll get to it at some point, possibly in February at the rate I’m going), you take this dark soap that has ground olive pits in it. You smear it on your body and let it sit a bit, presumably loosening up all that dead skin. Here’s my description of going to a local hammam.

Donn and I wandered through the alleys, turning at random, hoping not to get lost. Eventually we always found our way out, although I was sometimes surprised at where. IMG_0968

A shrine near the wool market

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also near wool market

IMG_0944 where we came out

…because seriously, who has time to write or read an entire year in review? Let’s just do a month, shall we? That’ll be plenty.

This month I:

* Got a Christmas tree, along with most Americans and a surprising number of Iraqis. They tend to decorate rooms with coloured lights year-round, so it makes sense they’d enjoy hanging even more lights, not to mention stockings. I got given a music box Santa that plays “Silent Night” at a demonic speed–seriously, faster even than the Chipmunks. But I digress.

We live in Oregon, near to the edge of the Urban Growth Boundary (which I adore. Cuts down on sprawl). I’ve mentioned how I’m 10 minutes away from fresh berries in the summer; that also equals 10 minutes away from a plethora of Christmas tree farms. We were on our way to one, where a friend’s son was working, when we saw the sign for $10 Nobles. “Let’s check it out,” we said, so we drove over hill and dale to a very large farm where they apparently haven’t quite worked out the whole economy thing yet, although they’ve  been open since the 50s at least. A very charming 8-year-old explained it all to us. “Welcome folks!” he started out, and Ilsa and I exchanged glances of pure joy. He was so cute!

Our choice was simple. We could select our own Noble, cut it down ourselves, and let them shake it and bind it. This would cost, for an 8-10 foot tree, about $100. Or, we could go over to where some trees they’d cut themselves just an hour ago were lying on the ground, and pay $10. But, they cautioned, they wouldn’t shake it for us. We were on our own.

The choice seemed simple to me. So we got ourselves a large, 10 foot or so, Noble tree for $10. I love Oregon.

e and tree

Here it is on the car. I haven’t mentioned that a friend backed into my car recently. It’ll be fixed soon.

tree on car

In addition to very reasonably-priced trees, this farm also had free hot chocolate, some very fat goats and donkeys in a petting zoo (Abel at the top of his lungs: “I wish Mauritanians could see how fat these animals are!”), and Santa. I forced my children to sit with Santa for a picture. Forced is the word, yes. But I will be kind to them and not post the picture I took. Instead, here is one of Abel decorating:

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And one of the angel on the top.

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* Hosted a party for over 250 Iraqi refugees and yes, it was totally crazy. This is what happened. Donn and I said, “Let’s have a Christmas party for our friends.” Then one of his friends said, “Can we invite the whole community? We’ll help do the food.” And we said yes, and asked our church to loan us a room, since our house is ample for a family of 5 but not really for 50 times that.

Planning this party took some time. I enlisted a lot of people to help. A friend went shopping with me, others helped me put goody bags for the kids together. Others donated funds, and one lady offered a ham, which we turned down since most Iraqis are Muslim. A group of high-schoolers volunteered to do crafts with the kids, and another group volunteered to help with clean up afterwards. It was still totally crazy.

Donn and a friend read the Christmas story while in the back, people discoursed happily at full volume and the kids ran in circles around the tables for sheer joy. It was chaotic, but I pictured a time when Jesus walked the earth, and I imagine that the crowds who listened to him weren’t all in rows like Sunday morning. Instead, I picture kids running wild, shouting and chasing each other, and the mothers in the back leaning in to each other for a comfortable gossip, while only those close to him could actually hear what he said. And everyone had a fantastic time, and there was food for all, and presents for most. I was most impressed with the high-schoolers who gave up their Friday evening to help, just to be kind–especially the ones who vacuumed. I was really happy I didn’t have to vacuum. It was a huge success. Not only was it the largest gathering of Iraqis in Portland, several told me,  but we also set the record for most cigarettes smoked at our church!

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* The day after the party, I woke up feeling rather as if a cement truck had run over me. But it wasn’t to be a day of rest–the inlaws were  coming for Christmas, and arriving that evening, and thanks to the party I’d had no time for prep. So instead it was a day of shopping and cooking and cleaning. They were supposed to arrive at 11:30 but instead their flight came in at 2 a.m. They showed up at my house around 3:30 and it was after 4 before we were in bed. Next day was busy though, as was the next and the next. They were here a week and left on Saturday, and I’m still tired. My goal for 2013 is more sleep.

We had a lovely Christmas though. The day itself was mellow. We ate breakfast around noon and supper around 7, and in between we opened presents and listened to music and relaxed.

One day we took them down the Columbia River Gorge. It’s ages since I’ve gone there in winter, and I’d forgotten how much I love it when the trees are bare and the air is frigid, and the pastel light speaks of sunset throughout the day.

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The inlaws enjoyed it, although they didn’t neglect to let me know how cold they were. They were always cold, poor things, their blood thinned from years of living in Southern California. In vain did I point out that the temperature was actually lower in their desert town than in our damp and windy city.

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I apologize for the poor quality of these pictures and remind you that I took them with my phone.

How was your month? Year? And what are you most looking forward to in 2013? Me, I’m hoping to figure out this whole life/work/family/rest balance thing, and get more sleep. Wish me luck!

HAPPY 2013!!

I cooked all day and at the end, realized that I’d really only produced what would be an average amount of food for an Arab household, inviting us over on any given Saturday. In fact, less. That’s a discouraging thought.

We invited an Iraqi family over. I’ve mentioned them before–Harold and Maude, the people we went camping with, the people who showed us home movies both of their child’s circumcision and their time at an Egyptian resort, Maude pretty much fully covered head to toe, Harold in Speedos. They arrived pretty much exactly on time. Usually, they’re an hour or more late when they come to us, but if we’re more than 15 minutes late going to them, they call to see where we are. Today, we said come at 3 and they came at 3:15.

Things were going swimmingly in the kitchen. An hour earlier, we’d gotten a phone call that another friend was stopping by. I took it in stride. There was a time this would have thrown me for a loop, but I’ve been in strict training for a couple of years now. Someone stopping by, who will expect to be served something to eat and drink, an hour before another family is coming for Thanksgiving when things are at their height in the kitchen? No problem! I ran upstairs to apply my make-up, talking to my brother on the phone, and then pulled appetizers from Trader Joe’s from the freezer and popped them into the oven, underneath the turkey. These frozen appetizers are a lifesaver. I recommend the Mushroom Turnovers and whatever else you can find that looks good that doesn’t have pork or alcohol in it. Keep in your freezer, practice continually saying “No you can’t have those” to your kids (they love those mushroom things, and they won’t even eat mushrooms) and you, too, can react calmly to unexpected guests. The house was even already clean! We were way ahead of the game.

I served out cranberry-pomegranate juice and the mushroom things and these sort of Indian things that came with coconut chutney, frozen in a little packet. Our friend ate and drank a little, and gave us gifts. That’s why he’d come. His wife recently traveled, and she brought us dates, and large  jewelry for Ilsa and I, but she was too tired to come in person. He didn’t stay long, which was good as I wanted to set the table before they arrived. He left a small mound of salt on the couch, from all the nuts he ate.

I had a fresh turkey that dry-brined for 3 days in the fridge (well, 2 1/2) with fresh herbs. I had massive amounts of mashed potatoes since I usually don’t have enough, given that the twins adore mashed potatoes and I hardly ever make them. I had 3 veg and gravy and home-made cranberry and dressing and all that good stuff, just like you. I made fancy-schmancy individual salads with fresh mozzarella and home-made smoky tomato vinaigrette, and turkey bacon, just because.  We got out the china that Donn’s great-aunt bought in Japan during WW2, when she was there with General MacArthur. We were ready.

Maude walked in carrying an enormous dish of food for me. “You don’t need to bring food on Thanksgiving!” I told her, but she said, “No, no! Just a little something, because you invite me to your house.” Sigh. I squeezed things aside in the fridge to make room. Later I check, and she’s brought me turkey and rice! A LOT of turkey and rice! She’s an excellent cook, so I know it will be delicious. But in addition to my own Thanksgiving leftovers and Maude’s offerings, I also have leftovers from last night, when another Iraqi friend sent us an enormous amount of food, just because. My fridge is so full right now, you guys. Please come over and want leftovers instead of Trader Joe’s appetizers.

I really wondered if people would like the food. On the one hand, I didn’t care. We’d invited them for an American Thanksgiving, and that’s what they were going to experience, like it or not! But I also didn’t want to waste food, especially when everything turned out so well. I needn’t have worried. The kids didn’t really like much, but Harold and Maude managed to find plenty of things they liked, from the brussel sprouts cooked with turkey bacon and onion, to the butternut squash roasted with butter and brown sugar. They were very unsure about cranberry sauce–sweet sauce with meat? Was I sure?–but ended up liking it, or at least liking it okay. But it was a very strange moment when I looked at my table, groaning with food, and realized I had probably made less food than Maude had made last time we were over there.

We had dessert. Their daughter felt comfortable eating the whipped cream straight from the bowl with her finger, but that’s the beautiful thing about being 5. Most people liked the pumpkin pie, and the American coffee (decaf) served in china cups. We had coconut pies too (really tarts), and chocolate-filled pralines.  There was a lot of food. At one point, Harold said, “I feel I gained 5 pounds!” We assured him that was the proper American thing to do.

Happy New Year!

This year, I have resolved not to make any resolutions. So far I am doing well. I have been to the gym, once, and I have not said no to another mince pie, since they need eating up.

We welcomed in the New Year with a party. It’s sort of a tradition–more years than not, we have a party. We had parties in Mauritania, where guests came from Abu Dhabi, Sudan, Morocco and Switzerland. We had parties in Morocco where everyone was from America. This year, the bulk of the celebrants came from Iraq.

For some reason, I got a wee bit irrational about the food. I cooked for 2 days. I made 5 dozen coconut pies (tarts, really), and 3 dozen mini-quiches, 6 dozen chewy ginger cookies, and guacamole and chips. I made thousands, it felt like, of small pizzas, topped with mozzerella and hamburger cooked with onion and garlic and home-made sauce and crust. I gave myself a massive headache. At the last minute I made a batch of espresso/chocolate chip “muffins,” just in case. I made Donn and the kids do all the cleaning, including the last-minute frantic “Quick! Take that stack of books and stick them on the floor next to my bed! Close the door!” Luckily, none of the guests went anywhere near my room.

Everyone brought food. We had masses of food. Entire villages could have eaten their fill off that table. 5 days later, we are still eating food from the party, and everyone left with some to take home too.

This is only half the table…

The bright orange thing that looks like a dead muppet is called “kanarfa” or something like that. It is shredded pastry with food colouring, filled with cream cheese and pistachios, and it is delicious. Plus, you feel subversive, like you’re eating Snuffleupagus or Animal or…who’s bright orange?

Leslie made marionberry-filled mini chocolate cupcakes with marionberry-cream cheese frosting.

We had, in deference to the fact that my friends are Muslim, only sparkling cider. But it was very tasty!

We had some fun introducing these young arrivals, soon to be Americans, to an indispensable part of American life…Looney Tunes. First they watched some cartoons, then Looney Tunes – Back in Action, which has some very clever and funny parts but really, in my opinion, you only need to watch it once. My kids disagree.

It was a fun party that went until about 1:30. I think a good time was had by all. I know my headache lasted well into the new year, but it’s gone now, and so is the baklava, and the goulash (which isn’t soup–it’s this meat pastry thing that is delicious) and the qu’ba (deep fried meat and potato pastries…a big favorite round here). There are still a few coconut pies left though. Who wants to come over and help eat them up?

Happy 2012 to all! What did you do to celebrate?

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