Saturday, February 14, 2015

Bruges and beyond

WP_20150214_007I hadn’t planned to spend Valentines on the highway.  But pitch schedules, ferry prices, Carnival friends all boxed in the travel dates.

And then there was the moment that the ape and the banana climbed on board….

I’m not sure that they ever got to Prague: this was one of 30 student teams racing from Edinburgh to the Continent for charity at half-term.  The egg that they were protecting had long since broken and they weren’t sure how to get across the Channel, but they tucked in back between suitcases and grocery boxes and slept most of the way to Dover.

WP_20150214_015The crossing was easy beyond the usual winter cold, and we made mid-afternoon arrival in Dunkirk.  Rather than rush straight through to Maastricht, it made more sense to drop off the E40 into Bruges for a dip into moules and chocolate.

I’ve always liked Bruges.  Although the best bits aren’t accessible in winter, the Grote Markt square, surrounded by ornate gothic towers and travĂ©e brugeoise shorefronts, is a delight at sunset, when the contrasts and colours are at their best.

WP_20150214_022WP_20150214_046WP_20150214_077 StitchWP_20150214_063WP_20150214_088

With the Valentine’s Day holiday in full swing at evening,the chocolatiers were staying open late and doing their best to attract the forgetful and desperate.

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The 13th century Golden Age . core is surrounded by 15th century canals, built to re-establish the city’s authority and connection to the sea.  Trade never developed to the level expected, but the waterways set off the city walls and buildings and helped to establish it as a UNESCO World Heritage site.

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Tuesday, February 10, 2015

What makes us happy

WP_20150212_001 (1300x806)To cope with cold winter’s mornings, the FT tells of a couple who erected a Wow Board in their bedroom.  This is a pinboard covered with photos, mementos, aphorisms, anything in life that makes you say ‘Wow!’

Gazing at this collage of wonder would help you count your blessings, alleviate anxiety and replace discontent with joy and gratitude. You’ll focus on what you have, not what you lack, bombarding yourself with good messages before the bad ones have a chance to take hold.

Perhaps. I know that I tend to look outward rather than inward in the mornings, embracing news and essays and reflecting on recent experiences, avoiding email and to-do lists before 8:30.  Somehow, it usually gets the day off well.

So, a few things that have recently made me happy in the early mornings:

DSC01168 (1300x943)Most notably a colleague, one who wrote to say that his young son, diagnosed with a rare variety of cancer, was doing better.  His story is really inspiring, his family coming through some very hard times together, and hopefully successfully.  We talked about it all for a good while yesterday, it really does put a lot of my own problems into proper perspective.

The argument between the Greeks and Germans over debt forgiveness vs. further austerity plays out daily.  The NYTimes characterized it as

Germany to Greece: Nice banking system you got there. Be a shame if something were to happen to it.

Greece to Germany: Oh, yeah? Well, we’d hate to see your nice, shiny European Union get all banged up.

The columnist concluded that, beyond Green irresponsibility, German stubbornness is at fault for the impasse.  It is a resonant theme with me. 

We are deep into an engineering transfer to a German firm, and their attitudes are best described as “inflexible”.  On pretty much every issue, all the time, there is one way to do things, and no deviation is possible.  When it’s all done I’m sure manufacture will run like a clock.  WP_20150212_002 (1300x905)But it made me smile to see the same traits play out on such an elevated level of diplomacy.

The plumber came last week and replaced a stuck valve in the bathroom’s hot water pipe. A hot shower has been impossible for months, only a trickle of warmth each frigid morning.  But now I have a lovely cascade, an indulgence that makes me look forward to getting up. 

hroughout my time in Europe, hot showers with pressure have been a luxury: one element or the other is always missing. Others notice as well.  But, for now, it’s lovely to have a little decadence at the Lilac Room.

A friend texted that they weren’t responsible for a picture posted on their Facebook timeline.  ‘Nothing more, so I looked, and found nothing..  So now I know that 1) there is a mystery picture I’d be concerned about, and 2) its been hidden from me.  I feel hurt and irritated.  beliefAnother friend related how she leaves a message, sees the recipient come and go without answering, maybe post something publicly of their own.  The sender starts wondering what they did wrong, feeling hurt and irritated.

This is how life goes on Facebook.  It crystalized for me when a commentator simply observed that Facebook made him sad.

So true.  I’ve removed FB and Messenger apps from my tablet and phone, started limiting Skype connections, and looked for a new community.

I really recommend thumbing through Behance, a site for showcasing and discovering creative work.  Portfolios of work are curated by photographers, artists, designers, and architects.  The variety and passion are just wonderful.

WP_20150212_003 (1300x681)I decorate my rooms with memories of the people and places that are meaningful to me, with eclectic bits of flotsam and gifts that remind me of good friends and events, and with thoughtful books and knick-knacks that give my spirit a stir when I need it.

I could say that I craft my Wow Board from the living stuff of experiences, mine and others.

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Puttering with poaching

DSC01210 (1300x975)Eggs are probably the most ubiquitous and consistent food that I encounter as an expat.   But they are also the most regionally versatile and culturally idiosyncratic  food when served.

There is little agreement on the proper way to serve an egg from one country to another: a Spanish Tortilla differs from a Tunisian Brik or a French Eggs en Cocotte.  The national varieties are enumerated in Wikipedia and celebrated by Smithsonian.  The permutations through history are just as interesting.

Closer to my experience, the Dutch like Uitsmijter, the Americans prefer Fried, and the British take theirs Scrambled.  Each basic preference is modulated with local rules for how long to cook, what to serve alongside, and how to arrange the presentation.

It all gets problematic when offering to make breakfast.

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I’ve developed skill in making appropriately runny scrambled eggs, surreptitiously tossing mine around a bit longer to get them ‘fluffy’ (desiccated).  Similarly, I can deliver a fried egg to the table with  buttery flavour and minus the crunchy brown bottom for those who tolerate the style.

But it’s apparent that there is only one universal compromise: To Poach.

Unfortunately I have never been DSC01206 (1300x942)able to pull off the perfect poach, so I settled in this weekend to master it.  I studied Jamie Oliver’s How to poach the perfect egg three ways, and his earnest energy makes it all look easy.  

I boiled up the water, added a tbsp rice vinegar, got the egg in the cup, spun the water briskly, and…  it fell apart into a murky white soup.

* Fresh eggs *  Hot water, no bubbles * don’t poke at it *

Second try, I used the cling-film approach he suggested.

This one didn’t even make it to the pan before leaking.

DSC01203 (1300x975)Third:  Good spin, deft toss of the egg, and Rouxbe’s advice on cooking times: a spatula at 2 minutes and lift on 4.  However, when I thoughtlessly grabbed a pasta spoon to lift it out…

The egg did not survive the lift...

DSC01211 (1300x974)Fourth: A new spoon, more eggs, and a good success for timing and lift from the pot.  However, I let it sit and it began to cling to the metal.  Consequently, the presentation was a bit …  lopsided.

DSC01215 (1300x970)Fifth try: perfection!  I reeled off a few more to show it wasn’t a fluke, and got everything served warm.  ‘Notch another skill (and I never had to resort to the plastic poaching sleeves that I had as a backup in case I couldn’t get this to work).

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Finally, two further notes on shopping British eggs:

  • DSC01222 (1300x975)Americans eggs come medium, large, and extra large.  My Waitrose stocks Braddock White, Burford Brown, Bluebell Aurancana, Blacktail, Legbar, Duck, Quail

While partial to the blue ones, I’m working my way through them all.  It’s just like learning potatoes ….

  • DSC01219 (938x1300)And no, Europeans do not refrigerate their eggs: they are out on the supermarket shelf alongside bread and spices.  It turns out that refrigeration is an American thing.

‘no worries…