Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Available Now: A Cup of Culture and a Pinch of Crisis

I'm so proud to be a part of this book, which features essays from Americans living abroad (many of them fellow EFMs), specifically involving food. My essay, Maslenitsa, Or How I Found Warmth in a Russian Winter, is about the pancake festival we attended in Yekaterinburg to welcome "spring." In March. It's a humorous essay that also touches on some of the challenges of living in Russia. Plus it features a blini recipe that I tested myself.

Here's the link to the book on Amazon:

And the beautiful cover:

I hope you'll check it out!

Sunday, March 13, 2016

Restaurant Review: Central AKA The Emperor's New Food

For my birthday a couple of weeks ago, John made a reservation at what is considered by many to be the top restaurant in Latin America, Central. It's #4 on The World's 50 Best website and was voted #1 in Latin America by San Pellegrino. I hadn't researched the restaurant much, but I knew it was going to be a 12-course tasting menu. Disclaimer: I am not adventurous when it comes to food. As it is, I only started eating fish because I needed more to eat in Russia. Before that, I'd been a vegetarian for 15 years. But after a very positive experience with a set menu at a restaurant in Toronto a couple of years ago, and knowing Central's reputation, I tried to go into this meal with an open mind. Unfortunately, sometimes that's just not enough.

I'll start off with what I did like about Central, because it certainly had some good points. The restaurant is located in an unassuming building with no sign, and we managed to get there in about 35 minutes on a Saturday night, which is a small miracle coming from where we live in Sol de la Molina. We met a really sweet American couple outside while we waited for it to open. It was their first day in Lima, and I thought it was adorable that they were staying in a hostel but were coming to Central for dinner. They'd made reservations months in advance (I sure hope their experience was better than ours!). We chatted for a few minutes before going in, where we were escorted to our table in the center of the dining room.

Enjoying my champagne and trying not to freak out about the menu.

I really liked that we could see into the kitchen, and the head chef, Virgilio Martinez, was there the whole time, when he wasn't presenting dishes to the guests himself (to be honest I had no idea who he was until John told me - he looks like a 35-year-old hipster and was completely unpretentious, which was odd because his restaurant kind of is). I actually hate to give a negative review because I watched these people cooking and could see the pride and passion that went into their work. Everything was presented in a very unusual and creative manner, and each course was brought out by a chef or waiter and explained to us (in English, which was also nice).

The open kitchen. Martinez is hidden by the woman in the checkered shirt.
The wine list was excellent. John was thrilled to find some of his favorite wines on there, and while it was as overpriced as one would expect, he was genuinely happy with his drinks. Alas, a quick glance at the menu told me I was in trouble - I don't eat things like snails by choice, and while the dishes aren't exactly explained, the ingredient list was scaring me. Be warned: on Saturday nights there is no option to order a la carte, which I think may have been part of the problem with this meal for me. If I could have chosen foods that were recognizable and appetizing (to me), I would probably have had a much better experience.

The menu

From the first course on I had a hard time eating the food. In addition to the strange ingredients (and I don't just mean exotic, but strange, ranging from "bark" to "clay" to "bacteria"), the food didn't taste good. And at the end of the day, that's what matters to me. Unique presentation and "experience" be damned, it's food, and I want it to be delicious! Most of the dishes were too salty, so I didn't get any nuance of flavor. The bread that Martinez presented to us smelled and tasted like marijuana. I think it was cooked with smoked coca leaves, which may explain it, but again, it just wasn't good to eat. Even Martinez admitted that the flour they used wasn't the best, but that it was native, which I think is what really matters to him as a chef. The butters that came with it were probably the highlight of the meal for me. John really liked the octopus course, and one of the meat courses. I had two potato dishes to replace the meats, but both were so salty I couldn't taste the potato (the little bacteria balls on one of the dishes were also rather unappetizing).

The leaf covered with snail paste was probably the low point, or maybe it was the smoked tuber that tasted like what I imagine licking a hearth would be like. John had a gluten free menu, and I didn't have meat, so a few of our dishes varied. But John's dessert was inedible (some kind of cocoa ice cream topped with a crispy herb cracker - and whatever the herb was, it was extremely bitter). When the waiter could see he didn't enjoy it, he brought us both another course, and by that point I was just ready for the meal to be over. We did appreciate the gesture, however.

Leaf, fish (I think), and snails. Nope.

The tuber was another major miss for me.

Somewhere around the fifth or sixth course, I started to pay attention to the diners around us. They all seemed awed and impressed by the food. I could tell they considered Martinez a celebrity, asking him to take a photo with them and gushing over their meals. And I couldn't help but feel a little like this was the emperor's new food, that everyone believed they were *supposed* to love the food, so they did. While I can't deny that it was an impressive meal in many ways, I left wishing I'd gone out for pizza instead. I wasn't full, but I could barely stomach the "solar mucilage" - a drink that tastes pretty much exactly how it sounds - and chamomile gelatin that came with the last course. I understand that this kind of cuisine isn't for everyone, but John is a foodie, and even he was incredibly disappointed. Part of me wishes we'd gone with friends. We probably would have laughed about it and enjoyed the experience more. But I couldn't keep a straight face while eating some of the food, which made John feel guilty about choosing the restaurant, which made the entire experience an unpleasant one for both of us.

If you go to Central, I suggest you go with more than an open mind; a sense of humor (and a large snack beforehand) might serve you better in the end.

Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Getting to Know More of Peru: Arequipa and Colca

Hello all! Now that I've finished drafting my new novel, I'm taking a couple of weeks off to wait for feedback from critique partners and hoping that means I can catch up a bit on blogging! It's been a hell of a couple of months. In January and February, we had family visiting for four weeks total. It was awesome and kind of exhausting, especially because the plague descended on our house in the form of a stomach...thing. I can't say exactly what happened, because I'm pretty sure the local lab screwed up my results, but John had both a bacterial infection AND a parasite at the same time. I think I had the bacteria. My poor parents were both sick for a couple of days while they were here. My sister, Amy, and her husband both had mild stomach issues (and so did I, even after I thought the plague had left). John and I both lost a significant amount of weight (which was NOT the plan) while we were ill, and now I'm once again struggling to get healthy. It was a very effective reminder that this is still a developing country in many ways, and even though we think we're careful about what we eat, our systems still haven't adjusted to being here. All I can say is I'm going to Vegas for a writers conference in April and I plan on making the most of the all-you-can-eat buffets!

But despite all that, we've done some great traveling this year, and I wanted to share some photos and travel tips for other families who might be looking to explore areas outside of Lima.

I knew my sister and her husband wanted to go to Cuzco and Machu Picchu when they came, so I researched other trips for my parents' visit. I had heard that Arequipa is a beautiful city with great food, and that Colca Canyon was a side trip not to be missed. One challenging thing about traveling within Peru is that many places are at a high altitude. Arequipa is only around 8,000 feet, but Colca Canyon is at 12,000, and the road there goes over 16,000 feet. Let me tell you, when you live at sea level, that's a BIG change. Huaraz was also tough, going straight to 12,000 feet, and we all felt the altitude there, even though I was on Diamox (a medication that helps prevent altitude sickness). After taking the kids to Cuzco last year and then Huaraz, I was well aware that Will does not like high altitudes, so we decided to leave him in Lima with our nanny. Jack has done great on all our trips within Peru, fortunately.

Arequipa has a lovely city center, but I'll say up front it's not as beautiful as Cuzco. The terrain is much drier than in the Sacred Valley, but we were lucky to have great weather while we were there, with only the occasional passing rainstorm. We had a few things working against us on this trip. First, John and I were both still quite sick at that point, and it made it very difficult to appreciate the food and the sightseeing. And then John had to return to Lima for one night and ended up having his return flight canceled, so he missed all of Colca Canyon, which was the real highlight of the trip. I'll tell you one thing, we have NOT been impressed with the Peruvian airlines. Almost all of our flights have been delayed or canceled. Ugh.

On a bus tour of Arequipa (John and Jack recommend the "queso helado")

Colca Canyon is beautiful. We stayed at Colca Lodge, which has wonderful grounds, thermal springs, and the cutest alpaca farm in the world. Jack and I had a blast there, and the trip out to see the Andean condors flying in the canyons was truly special (we were lucky to see any condors, because we went during the rainy season - I'd say to avoid traveling to Arequipa/Colca from January to March because of this, although as I said, we got lucky).

Colca Canyon - it's like a golf course in Jurassic Park, or something.

A random woman's finger helpfully pointing to the condor.

On the way back to Arequipa, I did come close to passing out going over the pass. The Med Unit here gives out enough Diamox for four days, the logic being that you should be acclimated at that point, so I hadn't taken it for a day when we hit 16,000 feet. If you go and have any sensitivity to altitude, I'd suggest staying on the meds. But that's just my two cents.


Escaped baby alpaca!

A village in Colca - I love the colors!
Due to illness/general tiredness, we missed seeing the Inca Ice Maiden (who, by the way, is not on display from January to April, although a different mummy is apparently displayed). We did go to the Santa Catalina Monastery (what we would call a convent), which was very beautiful and interesting. Definitely a highlight of the trip.

Santa Catalina Monastery

Overall, this was a fun trip, though a challenging one. I wouldn't recommend more than two nights in Arequipa, and I wish we'd had three nights in Colca instead of two, just because it was so beautiful and peaceful there. It would be the perfect spot for a writers retreat. Next time, I'll write about my second trip to the Sacred Valley and Cuzco, and my first time to Machu Picchu!

Thursday, January 7, 2016

The Start of a New Year in Lima

I swear that some day I'll get back to a regular blogging schedule. Maybe. I constantly have things I want to say about my experiences here in Lima, but I never seem to have time to write them down. This week has been one of "those weeks" as an expat (you know, where I can't seem to find anything at the grocery store, including milk in two stores on two different days, bananas, carrots, and a host of other rather common items; where I get a haircut that doesn't turn out quite as expected thanks to my nonexistent "salon Spanish"; and where I nearly die a dozen different times while driving Jack to and from his swim lessons this week). But I try to remind myself that I had plenty of "those weeks" in America too - life can just be challenging sometimes, wherever you are.

At any rate, I've just published my second freelance article for Spanish At Home, a website that helps people learn Spanish! Here are the links to the articles, one about taking taxis in Latin America, and the second about regional variations in Spanish words.

I have some expat goals for this year, including taking Spanish classes at the embassy and riding lessons at the barn nearby, as well as all kinds of travel. We took a recent trip to Huaraz, a city in the mountains, while John's family was visiting, and we've got a trip to Arequipa and Colca Canyon coming up in just a few weeks with my parents! Then my sister Amy and her husband are coming for a visit and I'm heading to Cuzco with them, and finally making it to Machu Picchu.

As for general life goals, I'm working on a new novel that I really love and trying to get a little healthier this year. As I mentioned in my last post, it's been a little rough on the immune system since moving here, but I'm hoping more exercise, meditation, and a healthier diet will help. I've got a week-long writer's conference coming up in April that I'm super excited for, and beyond that, we'll see! I have high hopes for 2016. Happy New Year!

Sunday, December 13, 2015

The Physical Side of Culture Shock

It's funny, this moving abroad thing. It comes with all the things you'd expect, like culture shock and learning a foreign language and just finding your way around a new city, but one of the things I think some people tend to forget about is the physical adaptations you go through in a new place.

For example, when you move to a foreign country, your body is introduced to a whole new world of germs. We were fairly illness-free for our first few months here, probably because Jack wasn't in school, but now I can't seem to get healthy. I've had cold after cold. Even John, who's usually very healthy, caught the recent cold that wiped out our whole family. Jack got scarlet fever, which I didn't know still existed (one tends to think of Little Women and The Velveteen Rabbit, back when scarlet fever was a life-threatening illness), and Will and I have both been sick for a month straight. The same thing happened in Russia, so I know this isn't just Lima. But man am I ready to get healthy again!

My skin also had to adapt to a completely different climate here, which meant changing around all the skin products I usually rely on. Even my hair had to get used to new weather, and new water, and of course a new hair stylist.

And then there's the food. I remember my first week here, three different people all told me to prepare myself for the weight gain. The Lima Fifteen, or something. Now don't get me wrong - Peruvian food is great. But in both Russia and Peru, I've lost weight upon arrival. I'm a creature of habit, and finding replacements for the products I eat almost daily (yogurt, bread, the frozen meals at Trader Joe's I sorely miss) takes time. It's been six months and I still haven't found a bread I like. That's not Peru's fault - the selection here is pretty amazing, especially compared to Russia. But most days when I open the fridge, I take a look at the food we have and end up closing it again. I've never been one to skip meals, but here I probably eat two meals a day on average. It's a terrible habit I'm vowing to break in the new year.

A rare workout - carrying Will up a massive hill in Cuzco.

My exercise routine has changed, too. When we moved to Russia in 2012, I worked out five days a week. Most days it was just running on the treadmill and the occasional weight lifting session, but something happened when I got pregnant with Will. I can't exercise while I'm pregnant because of all the contractions I have, and even though I got back into running and trained for a 10-miler after he was born, I fell right back into my lazy ways when we got here. Once I got over my fear of running alone here, I started running a few days a week in the nearby park. But the lack of energy caused by not eating, and all that sickness, has completely derailed me. I'm a sloth. Again, I'm hoping to change all that in the new year. I know John will hold me to it, at least.

So there you have it. A new country, a whole new set of physical changes that I for one never anticipated. If we move anywhere with excellent pastries next, I could be in a lot of trouble.

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Almost TOO Easy

Wow, I can't believe how long it's been since my last post. I'd like to say that life has been crazy busy with all the adventures we've been having, but the truth is, living in Lima is so easy that I sometimes don't feel like I'm in a foreign country. And that makes me feel like I don't have much worth blogging about.

Saturday routine: T-ball and octopus (okay, not exactly American).

Yekaterinburg and Lima couldn't be more different. Every day in Russia I was acutely aware of my foreign-ness. Even at the Consulate, I was surrounded by Russians speaking a language I barely understood (at best). The walk to and from work, the guard in our building, the nanny, the restaurants...everything felt foreign. Even after a year there, I didn't feel like I belonged.

Afternoons at the park, something we never had in Russia.

But Lima is the opposite. My Spanish isn't great, but I can understand most of what I hear, and generally people will make an effort to dumb things down for me. That never happened in Yekat. Here, I can drive to the grocery store and browse aisles of many of the same products we have in the U.S. Our nanny doesn't speak English but we communicate just fine. We live in the suburbs, so when I run to the park or walk down the street to the little corner store, I feel like I could be anywhere. Maybe it's the fact that I grew up in Southern California, and Latin culture just feels far more familiar to me than Russian culture, but honestly, I feel very at home here. It's a relief, but it can get a little boring sometimes!

My painting classes are challenging, at least. My teacher is very picky and doesn't speak English.

When we first got to Lima I was out exploring more, but lately I've had more writing to do so I've gone out less. Our trip to Cuzco was amazing, but we haven't had a chance for more travel. Hopefully we'll remedy that soon, and we have a trip to Cozumel coming up that I'm really looking forward to. John's mom and brother are visiting for Christmas, followed by my parents in late January, and my sister Amy in February! Visitors are a great excuse to get out and explore, so I'm excited we'll be so busy.

Family Fun Night at school. How very normal!

Of course, there are definitely plenty of dumb foreigner moments. Today I took Jack to the doctor. Easy peasy, right? After all, I went to the dermatologist last week and it couldn't have been simpler. The doctor was married to an American and spoke fluent English. Most doctor's appointments are paid for in cash here, and we submit the receipts to the insurance later, so aside from having to look a couple of things up on my phone while I filled out a form, I had no issues. But today, I arrived at a massive clinic with no clue of where to go or what to do. No one spoke English (I never have that expectation, but man does it help when they do), and there was a lot of going from one desk to another, checking in, paying up front, giving the receipt to someone else, waiting outside a bunch of offices to be called, and finally going in to see the doctor (who hardly spoke any English; my medical Spanish is not great, let me tell you). The fact that we have to return in a week doesn't thrill me.

Too many good restaurants to choose from. Definitely NOT a problem we had in Yekaterinburg.

But. Afterwards, we walked to Starbucks and had hot chocolate before cabbing home. I simply couldn't do something like that in Russia, and I am so grateful for the normalcy sometimes. My social circle is much bigger here. Jack goes to an English-language school! I haven't needed anything heavier than a light jacket all "winter." Basically, the livin' is easy in Lima. Sometimes I wonder if it isn't a little too easy...but I'll take it.

Saturday, August 15, 2015

The Day Lima Broke Me

There comes a point in every expat's life where surviving in a foreign country becomes momentarily overwhelming (at least, I like to think this happens to other people). Yesterday was that day for me. It had a lot to do with other stuff that's going on in my life, I admit, but when I found myself stranded at a gas station, unable to find the restaurant I was supposed to be meeting friends at, I lost it. Like, standing-on-the-corner-crying lost it. It was not the proudest moment of my life.

Cabbing in a foreign country can be particularly stressful. Generally I can tell my driver the destination without a problem, and they always act like they know exactly where they're going. But despite the fact that almost all of them have GPS on their phones, I find they like to rely on me to give them directions when we get closer to the destination. This was particularly fun when we first moved here and I had no idea how to get to my house. I've got that down by now, at least. But sometimes, like yesterday, I want to go somewhere I've never been before, and considering this is a massive city with some 10 million inhabitants, it seems a little unfair for the cab driver to expect ME to know how to get there. Isn't that your job, dude?

So yesterday. I gave the driver the name and address of the restaurant. He nodded like he knew it. We drove to where I thought it was, but as we got closer, the address was nowhere to be found. So I looked it up on Google Maps, which told me it was nowhere near where we were. I searched multiple times and the little knife and fork icon came up with the name of the restaurant on the map, so I showed it to the driver and we spent 15 minutes heading back that way (traffic is horrible here, if I haven't driven that point home enough by now). At this point I was about five minutes late, but then we realized that no, in fact, the restaurant was not where the map said it was. So the driver pulled over and waited for me to get out. Ugh.

I asked in a store. I checked my phone. I texted my friends. I knew I was in the wrong place, so I hailed another cab and told the guy where I wanted to go. No, he said. He couldn't go there (I think he didn't want to turn around? I'm not sure). That's about when I lost it. I stood behind a building crying, knowing I looked like the perfect mugging victim but unable to pull it together. I thought about giving up and going home. I just didn't want to deal with it anymore.

But there also comes a point in every expat's life where they have to decide to buck up and get over it. I had people waiting for me. I had a doctor's appointment scheduled for after lunch. I knew I was only a half a mile from my destination. A kind woman saw me crying and offered help. "Are you okay?" she asked. "I can't find my friends!" I sobbed. (Mind you, this was all in Spanish.) And then she told me to cross the street and hail a cab, which was all I needed, really. Someone to calm me down and help me get my act together. I can't tell you how much the kindness of strangers means to a lost foreigner. It reminded me of the times in my life when I've seen random people crying and I've wanted to help them, but didn't want to interfere. From now on, I'm going to interfere. The worst they can do is tell me to get out of their face. But if that nice woman hadn't helped me, I may still be standing on that corner weeping.

Ten minutes later my friend found me and led me to lunch. I was thirty minutes late, my appetite and mood completely ruined, but I had a nice lunch with my friends, which was all I'd wanted in the first place. That's the thing about life in a foreign country: the things that seem so simple at home - grocery shopping, ordering take-out, installing a baby gate - are infinitely more challenging abroad. Sometimes it's the language, sometimes it's navigating a new city, and sometimes it's the fact that you're living in someone else's home and everything has to go through an embassy work order. It can get exhausting and hit you at moments you might never expect it. The ride home was almost as difficult. I collapsed on the couch like I was returning from battle instead of lunch with friends.

But there's the flip side: the awesome friends you never would have made back home; the new restaurants to try and the fact that you get to live in a way nicer house than you could afford in the U.S.; the locals, who really do want to help you, even if they can't speak your language. Lima broke me yesterday, but then it helped put me back together. And it only took five different cabs to do it.