Thanksgiving – Maltese Style

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This is Thanksgiving week, so I wanted to write a little something about some of my experiences of Thanksgiving that I have had in my life abroad.

Growing up in the US, I have been a part of normal Thanksgiving practices for most of my life.  You the ones – the turkey, the trimmings, the occasional drunk relative that you end up having to listen to for hours as they regale you with stories about their teenage years, which, in case you weren’t around for them, were the best years in the history of the world, and gee, don’t the kids these days miss out on all of the fun that could be had “back in the day”?  Yeah, those.  Oh, and the memories of my father putting so much sage into the stuffing that only he liked the end-result.  My brother, mother and I would endure a few mouthfuls, to be polite, and then relinquish the rest to my father.  Thankfully, I have always been a fan of Stovetop stuffing anyway, so I wasn’t really expecting much from that stuffing in the first place.

Back to the point:  A Maltese Thanksgiving.  Well, the one that I experienced, anyway.  Which wasn’t exactly Maltese, but really more of a dinner that we American students in the international student’s flat complex decided to throw for anyone and everyone that wanted to participate.  It started out as a somewhat small affair, from what I can remember.  All of the international students, everyone from Nigerian nursing students to Indian engineering students to myself and another American there for the archaeology courses, lived in a large complex surrounding a rather dodgy pool that ended up giving a couple of the Canadians eye infections at one point.  I myself only dangled my legs in that water, and never swam in it, much to my relief when they each came back from the local doctor with nasty infections and hefty prescriptions.  Instead, I swam in the open water, on the rare occasions that I got a chance to swim, that is.

Anyway, a few weeks before Thanksgiving, a few of us American students were talking late one night and decided that it would be fun to do something for it.  You know, it would be cultural.  Something to demonstrate to the other students as an American tradition, and one that didn’t discriminate against race, religion, political inclination or anything else.  It was just all about the food.  We each agreed that we would bring something distinctly American, or at least something that we thought would represent something that we grew up eating.  So, mashed potatoes, corn, lefse from one girl (who managed, by the way, to make a really good mock-lefse, giving that she was using potato flakes, a dodgy stove and warped cooking pans – I am still impressed to this day).  I don’t actually even remember what I brought, to be honest.  Something silly, I am sure, like corn or something.  I was enough of a foodie at that point that by not remembering it, I know that it must have been something lame and uncreative.

Before the night of the dinner, though, which was to be held in the *enormous* dining room of one of the larger flats, we started hearing from other people in the complex that wanted to join in, and on top of that, they wanted to bring their own cultural foods to include in the repast.  Well, if you know anything about the first Thanksgiving, then you know that Pilgrims also accepted foods that were native to the tribes that joined them in the feast.  So, who were we to turn that addition?  We gladly welcomed it.

On the night of the dinner, then, to the sounds of CD’s playing everything from Italian rap music, so the popular techno tunes of the day (late 1990’s), literally dozens of us gathered in that dining room to join together in what turned out to be one of the best, and more memorable meals that I would have in Malta.  Copious amounts of cheap Maltese wine was drunk, Indian and Bangladeshi curries mingled with the lefse, mashed potatoes, turkey breasts (that someone managed to locate somewhere, although I can’t imagine how much they ended up paying for it, since turkey in Malta is rare indeed), not to mention the cookies that someone brought, fresh from the local Balzan bakery (remember them, from an earlier post?), the Russian dumplings, the Nigerian breads, and so many other things.  So much that no one was able to really eat everything, but we – every one of us – tried very hard!

After the food, and when the wine started to really take its effect, we moved the table back, and cranked up the music and began to dance.  People showed off their cultural dances and mainstream dances alike.  I did a rather serviceable Irish ceili dance, if I do say so myself.  Someone started to do a little Bollywood style dance and everyone enjoyed the night, well into the wee hours of the morning.  Somewhere along the line, I am sure that the flatware from several flats disappeared into the one hosting the dinner, never to resurface again.  Several chairs were broken, and at one point a few nights later, someone got the bright idea to take one of the broken chairs, dismantle it and use it as a bonfire.  Actually, it made a great bonfire that we used for cooking the Iranian chicken skewers that a friend made.  I can still taste them – a little funny-tasting, since the varnish from the wood on the chairs must have permeated the chicken a little bit, but they were still good.

All in all, that Thanksgiving was one of the best that I have ever had.  No one fought.  There weren’t any people there fighting over who would get the last crescent roll, or how best to make stuffing (do you put it in the bird or not?) and in the end, everyone went back to their respective flats, full, drunk, happy and dead tired.  I can still hear the music, see the dancing and taste the wine.  And I hope that I never forget it.  I have lot contact with nearly everyone that took part in that dinner, but as I eat my Thanksgiving dinner this year, like I have done every year since that night, I will raise my glass just once in their honor and say that wherever they are, and whatever they are doing, I am forever thankful that they were once a part of my life, and will forever be a part of my memories – some of the best of my life.

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Being Sneaky in Paris

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You know, when I was little, I used to stay at my grandmother’s home when my family would go “up north” to visit our relatives every winter and summer.  The rest of my family got to stay at my uncle’s house, but I stayed with my grandmother.  I credit that with a lot of things in my life, from my love of cooking and more especially baking, to my fear of ever having my home be so warm that it melts candles (another story for another time).

One thing that I really remember, more than a lot of others, is the fact that I was raised as a Lutheran, much to my grandmother’s chagrin.  You see, my mother’s side was Lutheran and therefore so was I.  However, my father’s side was Catholic (mostly lapsed, now), and my grandmother; well, she was Mother Superior, in every sense of the word.  While the rest of my family was in my uncle’s house watching movies on Saturday evenings before we would meet for dinner, my grandmother would take me to Saturday night Mass at her church.  Even though I wasn’t Catholic, and really, even though I was too young, she would always tell me that I could go up to the altar when it came time for the sacrament and tell me that I could take it, because really, they didn’t know that I wasn’t Catholic, and honestly, God probably wouldn’t mind.  Secretly, I always thought that she just really wanted me to be Catholic and would try anything in her power to make me one.

Flash forward to my holiday in Paris a couple of years ago.  On one of my last days there I decided that it was time to go to the Basilica of Sacre Coeur in the Montmarte area of the north of the city.  I walked all the way there; all the way up the stairs, in the beautiful light of an early spring evening in Paris, with the birds singing and the other tourists flashing their cameras as they took photos of each other in front of the church and on the surrounding lawns that yawned out from all sides.

I hadn’t realized that I actually arrived right at the start of the nightly Mass there, but following in my grandmother’s footsteps and feeling that a) she would love to have been able to be in such a place at some point in her life and b) God wouldn’t really mind, I walked up front, in front of the tourists and those that were illegally trying to take photos with their cameras (it was forbidden to photograph inside the church itself, unlike Notre Dame).  I walked all the way to one of the first rows and sat next to a beautiful woman of some African decent.  She was deep in thought and prayer, on her knees while the priest spoke.  I tried not to disturb her, but she noticed me sitting down, flashed me a huge smile and gestured for me to join her on the wooden pew, third row center.  Although I had no idea what was being said (not only do I not know the traditional Catholic Mass, but I know it even less when it’s in French, since I don’t speak the language at all), I tried to imitate her as much as possible.  I knelt when she did, I crossed myself when she did, and when it came time for the sacrament, she gestured enthusiastically that I should join her when she went up for it.

Now this was a little forbidding – this was not just a small Catholic church in some small city in the Midwest in the US.  No indeed.  This was La Basilique du Sacre Coeur!  In Paris!  Now, those not familiar with Christian sacraments or denominations might not really understand, but the sacrament at Mass (the wafer and wine) are sacred.  Lutherans might allow others of the Christian faith to partake, but the Catholics don’t play that game.  if you aren’t Catholic, you can’t partake.  You can walk up and get a blessing from the priest, but not the actual wafer or wine.  At least in theory.  And I felt uncomfortable going up there, but this time, with this lovely French / African woman gesturing for me to follow her, and me not knowing nearly enough French to tell the priest that I shouldn’t be receiving the Mass, I walked up in the shadow of the grand, awe-inspiring dome of the Basilica, covered in a beautiful mural, with angels and saints watching me, and I stood before the priest, hands in a prayer (which is typically used to indicate that one is not taking the sacrament) and watched as the priest handed me a wafer.  And then the golden goblet in which was the sacred red wine.

There are times in life when one should follow the rules.  Certainly, when you are in Tunisia, you shouldn’t take photos of the police.  That’s not only frowned upon, but generally, well, it’s illegal.  However, it’s not like me taking the wafer and wine was technically illegal.  And the brief thought in my head said to me “I am sure that God won’t mind and has much more important things to think about than whether or not a Lutheran partook in the sacrament.”  So in a moment, I opened my palm to take the wafer and then found myself taking a sip of the wine, and suddenly turning back around and walking, solemnly, back to my seat, next to the smiling, now praying woman.

The Mass lasted only a few more minutes, and in that time, I felt flush.  Flush with a slight feeling of deviancy, but also of, well, I don’t know.  Not holiness, but something more akin to companionship.  In the community of the church, of the French, of belonging to a group, if only for an hour.

And as I walked around the inside of the church following the service and then out into the slowly waning light and rising moon, I felt somehow whole.  Somehow reminded of the love of my grandmother when she and I would go to Mass.  Reminded of a greater love that so rarely manifests itself, deep in one’s heart.  And for however brief a time, I couldn’t stop smiling.  And the evening air, the walk back to my hotel for dinner, the lights of the city turning on for the night – it was all beautiful in a way that I had only barely noticed before.

I love Paris.

Things That I Don’t Understand – Round One

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1.  Mayonnaise on Pizza (see:  Budapest teenagers on their way to the subway trains snacking on slices of mayo-covered pizza slices while trying to simultaneously walk down steep staircases to the platform).

2.  Remote Controls for Toilets (see:  Tokyo hotel toilets that I never did figure out.  At one point, I pushed a button and it started to play music, and another button apparently engages that uber-flush, but I never did figure out the other, oh, thousandish buttons that apparently all controlled that one single device that in China wasn’t even available, as they basically still used the good old-fashioned hole in the ground with a couple of small footholds on either side.)

3.  Kinnie (See:  Malta – Wow.  Who thought that the idea of a “soft drink” with the advertised flavor of “bitter oranges and aromatic herbs” was a good idea was obviously smoking something and whatever that something was, I certainly never want it).

4.  Umbrellas in Ireland – Honestly, the winds are so strong (gale-force, really) that umbrellas are no match for them.  You could always tell those people that used them from those that didn’t; not because you saw some people actually using them, but rather because when you got into the classroom at the university, there were those people that were soaked head to toe (those without) and those that were soaked only from the waist down, since they tried to put the umbrella facing the wind, so that it wouldn’t get pushed inside out.  Really.  At some point, whether all of you is wet or only part of you, just acknowledge that you are still wet, still cold, and that the umbrella was a waste of money.  You would be better served just downing copious amounts of tea to compensate for the chill that inevitably consumed you for a good ten months of every year.

5.  Cars / Taxis in London – I once spent about a week in London with a relative on vacation (I had been living there for some time already and really knew the ins and outs of London by that point) who always thought that everything was so far away from everything else and for the first few days wanted to take the atrociously expensive black cabs everywhere.  I tried to remind her that there is literally *no* place in London that is more than a couple of blocks from a tube station.  Literally.  You just needed to turn a corner, any corner – just pick a corner – and you would find one right there.  Why do people bother sitting in endless traffic, and potentially spending enormous amounts of money just to travel a few blocks, when the tube can get you there for pennies and in minutes?  I will never understand that.

6.  Cars in Malta – You can *walk* from one side of the country to the other.  Seriously.  Just give yourself a couple of hours and you have done it.  You could probably even do it in heels.  Try it, it’s fun!

And that’s just a start….

Coke v Pepsi

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I was reminded of this because I recently had a conversation with a colleague of mine in Canada who mentioned that she would never, even under the pain of death, deign to drink Pepsi.  She was a Coke (specifically Diet Coke) fan for life.

This reminded me of my most recent journey – to Finland and Denmark  – and the stark differences between the two in terms of their soda consumption.

Normally, most countries are like the US; there might be a general preference for either one or the other, or, like in the case of Malta, a third option altogether (in their case, Kinnie, whose appeal I never understood).  You might have a somewhat hard time finding one or the other, but it’s possible and even easy in a lot of places, like the US and Australia.

Not in Finland or Denmark, though.  In Finland, although I generally prefer Diet Coke, I was forced to basically drink “Pepsi Max” (otherwise known as diet Pepsi) whenever I wanted a soda.  First, they don’t, like more European countries, offer any non-caffeinated versions of soda, at least that I have ever really found.  But beyond that, there was no such thing as Coca-Cola anywhere outside of a small display in one of the local grocers.  And even that wasn’t stocked every day, so there were a few times in which I went there, only to find that there weren’t any Cokes in sight.  I couldn’t believe it.  Never before in my life have I ever been in a place so thoroughly sold to Pepsi and their other products.  I mean, Coca-Cola is the largest, most widespread brand in the world, and yet, here is a country entirely committed to Pepsi.  Amazing!

Then, I went to Denmark for a couple of days as a side trip.  It was the exact opposite.  It was as though someone from Coca-Cola came and said the the entire country “Hey, you want to be cool like the rest of the world and not backward, like Finland?  Come over here, and let me show you something really great.”  And at that point, the salesman opens his jacket and displays all of the varied (except for the aforementioned non-caffeinated) versions of Coke products.  Every vending machine, from the ones in my hotel to the ones in the train station, offered only Coke products.  It was as if Pepsi never existed.  Simply amazing.  And not a bad thing, if you ask me, since I generally like it more than Pepsi (Pepsi is usually to sweet and not bubbly enough for me).  But still, coming from a country so single-mindedly devoted to Pepsi, it struck me right away.

Nothing else seemed to be like that.  They both carried chocolate products from all over, from Mars and Cadbury to their own local varieties.  They both carried other consumer products from a wide range of companies.  But when it came to their soda preferences, it was just unique and utterly fascinating to see two countries, so close to one another, so at odds over a simple thing like soda.

Interesting.  Very interesting <insert character from Laugh-In here>