Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Thanksgiving. It’s All in the Food.

If I hear one more preachy conversation on the radio or open one more magazine or newspaper and read about how we all should watch what we eat for Thanksgiving and we need to all dig into the all vegan recipes, that are oh, so yummy, I think I am going to have a conniption fit!

Seriously, folks?! What has America become? The rest of the year, we don’t seem to worry about how fat we get, all of a sudden, we want to be more Catholic than the Pope and pretend we’re on a diet on Thanksgiving?! Isn’t this just anti-American, or something?!

On my first Thanksgiving here, I didn’t know what to expect. I was honestly looking forward to some (odd) family time, to the much anticipated “you never want to talk politics and religion at the Thanksgiving table and you never want to ask anyone what they’ve accomplished this year. Families talk about everything else but the important stuff. Not on Thanksgiving, anyway!” that you hear about from folklore.

I ended up with good memories, with good family conversation, albeit polite and guarded, but I ended up also with great food memories. A foodie by upbringing, I cannot have a good time unless the food is plenty and enjoyed by all.

On that first Thanksgiving, I kept wondering why do Americans think they eat so much for this holiday?! I was raised at my dad’s school of “Let’s be gluttons!”, and if his weekly parties have less than 15 courses he considers them failures. So, a five dish dinner to me was lame. But I loved the food itself – just the traditionalism of it. The “must haves” to celebrate this particular holiday. It was a celebration and a bonding experience. One thing everyone could not only relate to but also talk about, freely. The only non-taboo topic at the dinner table.

Over the years, I have enjoyed many a yummy Thanksgiving dinners and I have learned that the celebration is centered around food! Whether you think it’s a lot or a little food, there is going to be enjoyment and love in making it. After all, the holiday comes after the Harvest season. Many a peoples have celebrated the fruits of a new bountiful year through a feast. It’s one primordial tradition that traveled across all generations and virtually all cultures all over the world!

And bounty means eating lots of foods that give you pleasure. Sure, if you are a vegetarian the rest of the year, eat what gives you pleasure! But if you eat a steak every week, you really want to dig into that tofurky just ‘cause the Food Channel, and the city magazine and the local radio station have jumped on the wagon of “let’s be healthy”? And it’s not even healthy, unless it’s a lifestyle – so one meal of oh “being different for the sake of being different” won’t make your hips notice. Trust you me!

I am not quite sure whether America is bored with tradition, themselves, or just bored period. I am all for healthy eating, don’t get me wrong, but Thanksgiving is not a time to start, I don’t think, or – worse - a time to pretend you’re doing your body a favor because for one night you’re going to eat carrot sticks! It’s a bit too much pretentiousness for my taste.

I am taking a leave of absence from the roasting of the turkey this year, as we are headed to Seattle for the weekend. But as excited as I am about the trip, I am also sad because my house won’t be filled with the smells of the season this November! I miss the foods, already, and I miss the whole spirit of the Holiday. The pause, at the end of the day, for being thankful to another year gone well. The Macy’s parade. The Food TV with Paula Deen buried in butter, “o’l” and molasses. The fireplace - turned on for the first time for the season.

But mostly I will miss my food. The fresh one and the leftovers! So, dear friends, have some crispy turkey skin for me, some mashed potatoes, some gravy and warm rolls! I will be drowning in fresh seafood and good North Western beers this weekend, and dreaming of my perfect Thanksgiving, which, this year, will only be a memory.

May this Thanksgiving find you with a full fridge and a heart filled with gratitude! And whatever you cook, make sure it’s the true you. Make it a good one, everyone!

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Disrespectful Thoughts on Flying Respectfully

I still remember one of the teachings in one of my first yoga classes, from this instructor that I absolutely loved, back in Greensboro. Because he was so amazing, he used to pack a crowd in his classes, and there was never a comfortable space between two students’ mats. We were crammed in there, like sardines, mat near mat, or sometimes mat on top of mat.

When we stretched, or when we were doing the reclining big toe pose, we would accidentally touch our neighbor, with our hands or, oh, joy, our feet! And you would hear people shriek and cringe. He always reminded us that that is OK! It’s just our bodies.

He reminded us how enclosed within ourselves we have become to repudiate everything that’s not our own bodies and to consider it strange and even gross, when, in fact, we should welcome closeness, as an ultimate sign of humanity, and be respectful of one another, mind, soul and body, as we are all sacred entities.

I always think of this closeness and try really hard to make peace with it and not cringe when I am on a plane. Never, in our daily journeys, are we ever so close to another strange human (and so helplessly so) than when we are forced to spend hours strapped next to a couple of people on a plane. And as wonderful as the teachings of my yoga teacher sound, even today, after many years of trying to come to terms with my neighbor human being, I still wince and notice, in pain, all the unpleasantness that we are capable of! All the inconsiderate things we do! All the self-entitled-ness and complete ignorance for our own physical and emotional space and how that affects others.

So, on my last flying trip, I came up with a list of things that absolutely drive me up a wall (or out on a wing!) when I notice them in the 100 square feet of space I am forced to share with the human specimen while flying between Minneapolis and Salt Lake City, let’s say.

I gladly (and unasked) share, in no particular order:

1.0 I figured that babies are not the worst travelers on the plane! The worst travelers, I think, are impatient, really old people! Apart from the distinct odor of “depends”, they are restless, they chew constantly, and crackle numerous wrappers of their candies, they spit their ice back in the cups, out of sheer boredom, they move, they sigh, they snore, when they do sleep, they talk too loud on the phone, when they are allowed, and they don’t seem to give a rip, because they have lived long enough to earn their right to be oblivious!

2.0 Does the flight attendant really have to say “cookies, pretzels or peanuts?!” for every single passenger on the flight? Seriously? By row 20, have you not gotten a GOOD picture of what the options are?! Everyone kind of waits their turn, and they they wait for the options, and then they act surprise, as "wow! didn't know about these three options! How generous!"; and then they take a couple of seconds to "decide". What is there to decide?! Does it make them feel more special that these are their own, specific choices they are being offered, or what?! Just get with it, people! Don’t wait for the menu. It's not going to be steak! Not now, not ever!

3.0 If they say on the little speaker that the phones “must be turned off” or “must be in the off position”, it means that no, you cannot read the book you downloaded on your Iphone, idiot! The phone “off” means the screen is black and you can only look and admire its sexy Apple design - and that's about all you can do with it! No data is being presented on the screen! There is no such thing as “a little off” or “somewhat off”. Off is OFF!

4.0 A bag that won’t fit through the aisle, most likely won’t fit in the overhead bin, nor under the seat in front of you. Figure that out before you reach your assigned seat, at the very back of the plane!

5.0 When they are “ready for boarding”, they mean pick up your 3 carryons and move it, pal! Line up, and be a sheep! Follow the line! They don’t mean, pull up your phone and dial your spouse to tell them that oopsy-doopsy-doop, you’re getting ready to jump in the biggest adventure of your boring life, and you’re boarding your plane! Don’t stop in the tracks to text your boyfriend, telling him the same thing. Boarding means there is a line, people are waiting behind you, it’s not a phone booth. Put that sucker away, and move along! No phone checking, texting, answering in the aisle, on the breezeways, anywhere where people are waiting for just your feet to move!

6.0 And speaking of “respect”: everyone in the airline business seems to be disrespecting the simplest notion of everyone's time. I figured out a while back that schedules are just suggestions, far from strict timetables anyone is sticking to: when you’re there, there is no regard, from anyone in the business, to your personal time, to when you actually need to make it to the destination and how long they can trap you in there for: when the pilot says “we’ll leave the gate in 2 minutes, as we still have a final check of luggage (or equipment) to perform”, read ’20 minutes’ at least in this spiel. It will save you a lot of heartache! Just let it go! You won’t be able to control it!

7.0 I heard on the radio the other month that Delta is “bringing back the red jackets” as part of their reinventing themselves as the “best and most admired airline in the world”. I somewhat like the formality of the staff’s clothes on a plane – makes it all official and like I can really listen to them, and entrust my life in their hands, of sorts. The last flight with Delta had the stewardesses dressed up in jeans, long sleeve white undershirts with pink t-shirts over them, in support of breast cancer awareness month. I felt like getting food from a soccer mom. I guess a discreet pink pin in the shape of a ribbon would have been “too” formal for Delta and not enough to support the cause?! I sure as heck am not “admiring” the white undershirts!

8.0 This is not flight related, but it did happen in an airport: when the car rental agent tells me I am getting the best deal, and the one car on the lot with “all the bells and whistles” and then she offers to “sell” me the rental of a GPS on top of my rental price … it makes me wonder what other bells and whistles I will be missing. Makes me doubt her truthfulness, just a tad!

9.0 and 10.0 – add your own here. I am sure you have some of your own…

Does this make us bad humans? Super sensitive? Spoiled? Self-absorbed? Or just super observant? I am not sure. But I am sure that I, for one, am more mindful about my own space and bearings when I am around that many strangers, that close. And that all comes from simply respecting my own self.

Thursday, November 03, 2011

The Good and the Bad on a Not so Bad Trip

As most of you know, my only sister lives in Montreal. Most of my family and her in-laws usually travel to Niagara Falls every time they visit her. It’s sort of a ritual, sort of a “must see”. Although I have visited her plenty of times, in the past seven years since she’s lived there, I have never had the privilege to see The Falls. In a way, from all the pictures I have of my family under the falling water, I have always felt I have been there before. But nothing is quite the same as when you see it for yourself.

My husband and I decided to take my mother-in-law to Niagara Falls for her 70th birthday. She lives in Michigan, so we were to fly into the Mitten State, and then drive to Niagara Falls, ON, “the Canadian side”. We knew, from family and friends stories, from The Wiki and google images, that the Canadian side is more majestic than the US side. Sorry, US, ya have to let them have that!

And so we did: flew into Michigan and drove Northward the day after getting there. This was maybe not the ideal time of the year to visit The Great North, I’d have to say. The weather was cold (low 40’s and high 30’s for the most part), rainy, and foggy. We had a room with a view of the Niagara river, but we could only see the mist from the falls from our window. It was, however, beautiful!

The first day we went sightseeing was so foggy we could not see even the river from our window. We could not see the river, even from the park right above it! It was pure milk! And rain, and wetness. And cold. A lot of cold. We had breakfast at Coco’s and then we started the walk towards the Niagara Falls park. We could very much hear the falls, loud and roaring, angry, and we were almost drenched in a mist, we could feel the wind pulling us in, but we could not see it very much.

The first day: fog and water. Mostly fog. Looked like Ireland (I think)

Another reason why this was not an ideal time to visit was that a lot of things were closed for the season. Some restaurants were closed, and even the boat that takes you to the bottom of the falls was retired for this year.

I guess this is what Jim Cantore must feel like!

We visited the Visitors’ Center and the shops (just to shelter ourselves from the big wet nature out there), and then we did the “Journey Behind the Falls”. They take you down on this elevator to the bottom of the Canadian Falls and you get windows into the waterfalls, and you get to see the outpouring of water from behind the rocks. The noise it makes is unreal! It feels a bit claustrophobic, dark and menacing down there, but it is a unique experience. How much can you really let go in order to observe a miracle of nature?! Test yourself! Your stomach might be in knots, but at the end it’s so worth it!

The elevator assistant was very dry (pun not intended). She looked serious and bored. One tourist asked her “how many times do you go up and down in this elevator, a day?”. She answered promptly with a shrug and a half look: “I don’t know, Sir. I never counted. I have more important things to worry about. The only one worrying about such things is you”. No one laughed.

After seeing the falls, or, again, hearing them from underneath and behind, we came up for air again, and started driving along the Niagara river, North bound, towards the Botanical Gardens. They were, once again, closed for the season. But the jewel of the gardens, the butterfly conservatory, was open. So, we strolled in.

60 species of butterflies, from all over the world, and 30,000 individual insects greeted us, literally. Some of them as large as a humming bird, and all of them dressed up in their Sunday best! They would fly everywhere, land on your hair or clothes, and just offer the most beautiful spectacle for the eye that I have ever seen. The conservatory is landscaped beautifully, as a tropical paradise, with palm trees, coconut trees, a waterfall in the middle and various exotic plants. It’s like a giant green house, full of life and freshness. This stood in stark contrast to the dreary world of the outside. It was alive and warm.

After this, we continued to drive North, along the river. What I always adore about any town in Canada is their parks! Even in the most humble neighborhoods, the parks have wide and clean alleys, with lawns that are impeccable and always lush! We drove through parks and high end neighborhoods, through vineyards and along stone walls, protecting the pedestrians from falling into the rapid river below. Oh, the view one would have from their sunroom along this path!

The glitz and glamor of Niagara Falls, Ontario

After a short drive, we reached the small town of Niagara-on-the-Lake. If Niagara Falls struck us as touristy and extra loaded with unnecessary cheese (like Ripley’s Believe it or Not, and The Frankenstein House), Niagara-on-the-Lake is a quiet, beautifully architected old town! Reminded me in parts of Quebec City, and in some others of England. It is quaint and classy, with lots of brick and stone houses, large trees and quiet roadways. Although it rained the entire time we were there, we walked the streets for a couple of hours, in ponchos and umbrellas, visited boutiques we never get a chance to visit anywhere else, bought local foods, jewelry, presents for friends, and compared wine prices with the rest of the world.

The quaint charm of Niagara-on-the-Lake

I almost forgot how important the wine industry is for the Niagara region, so we enjoyed visiting the various wine shops. We never bought even one bottle though, and I am not quite sure why! The rain got us in a damp mood, I guess. I did have Canada ice wine before, and it’s delicious, and it appeared, from it being showcased everywhere, that it’s one of their specialties, here, as well. I do, wholeheartedly, recommend it to anyone who likes wine. It’s delicious, and worth the $30 price tag for even a small, skinny bottle!

The second day we were there, we took the elevator up The Skylon Tower, as the fog had lifted and we could now see the falls. I always love views from up high, and this one was as impressive as any I have seen. You can clearly see both the American and the Canadian Falls, in all their splendor and they are correct – the Canadian ones, with their horseshoe shape, look much more interesting. Although, if you only had the American ones to look at you’d be as impressed, too, I am sure. The quantity of water they put out and the speed with which they flow are breathtaking – overwhelming and humbling all at the same time.

Looking across the border into the US was an opportunity for me to stop and think about the relativity of life, in general and of people-made things, in particular. What’s a border, after all? Just a very relative, and almost imaginary line separating two worlds. And people often forget that “relative” is the key word here. No one is more special than the other person, intrinsically, just because they happen to have been born on either side. But, oh, how people forget that!

Apart from the weather not giving us our best shot at seeing the sights and the rainbows, we have enjoyed just being away, and seeing a piece of the planet that was new to us. If I were to go back, I would probably try to sleep and eat in Niagara-on-the-Lake.

The touristy violence of Niagara Falls was sort of disappointing. That, and the very high prices, for not so much of quality as you might think. In one of the restaurants, I ordered poutine, a very Canadian dish, but it was nothing like the Quebecois poutine I fell in love with in Montreal! No curd fresh cheese, and thick gravy, no sautéed potatoes! Just gravy from a pack, plain tasting, and shredded cheese from a bag. And probably bagged fries, too … The prices are huge everywhere, for frozen meals reheated sometimes – or maybe we didn’t pick the places right! I did enjoy the tomato bisque at Kelsey’s, the first night we were there. And be prepared to pay for parking anything from $2 and hour to $10 a day! And we needed to move the car a lot, since it was raining the whole time and we could not walk anywhere, really.

The American Falls, with Niagara Falls, NY in the background

The Canadian Falls, ON

But the beauty of nature, and even of man, when he’s thinking before building, was refreshing and warm. And now I, too, can say, like the rest of my family, that I have been to The Falls. The Canadian ones, you know – the only ones that matter!

This was one of the plainest butterflies, but one of my favorites! Click on it to see all the pictures from this very beautiful trip.