Hiatus

takingabreak3

Well hello there.

You’ve probably noticed that I haven’t been actively writing here for some time. I’m taking a bit of a break from updating this site at the moment. I’m keeping busy with a number of other projects, both personal and professional, but I do hope to start blogging here again in the near future. Watch this space – I still have a lot to say about travel, life, and making a home wherever you are!

- Jenny

US101: Halloween Pumpkin Carving

Pumpkin carving is a lot more work than I remembered.

I haven’t done a real Halloween pumpkin carving in the US for a long time. I have memories of late autumn afternoons at my Grandpa’s house, carving my masterpiece on the face of the (slightly lopsided) orange monster that I picked out of hundreds at the pumpkin patch. Drinking hot cider, jumping in recently raked leaf piles, plotting the perfect costume. When it got dark, seeing your pumpkin all lit up was magical. I’m sure the memories are heavily filtered – late October in MN is cold at best, and I do remember breaking out in an allergic rash from the leaf pile one year. But it is still a tradition from my childhood that I miss.

Nick spotted the “party pumpkins” (as they were labeled) at the supermarket last week. I’ve never seen them here before (granted, I’ve never looked) – usually the pumpkins are solid all the way through (really squash, perhaps?) But there they were, lining the shelves! It wasn’t quite the same as picking one out from the pumpkin patch, but nevermind. We invited Nick’s sister and her kids over mid-week to join in the fun, since it wouldn’t be the same without little ones around. The day we picked happened to be the first real summer’s day we’ve had here in Cape Town yet – 80s, no wind, pretty much perfect weather, but it seemed odd to be carving pumpkins in Summer. I got over it – it is much nicer to stick your hands in pumpkin goo when you aren’t freezing.

I seem to have conveniently forgotten all the difficult and gross parts about the pumpkin carving process (ah, selective memory). Even though they’re hollow, there is a lot of “meat” in there that you have to clean out, and no easy way to do it. And pumpkins are thick. Which makes them VERY hard to cut, and we had absolutely the wrong tools for the carving job. It’s definitely not something little kiddos (or I) can do on their own – I think Nick had to cut the lids off all our pumpkins, and the adults did all the actual cutting. The part that I was most excited about (roasting pumpkin seeds, mmm) turned out to be a complete schlep – separating the seeds from the stringy goo is tough. We both collapsed at the end of the evening feeling exhausted. Despite all that, I think we had a blast. And seeing them all lit up was just as magical as I remembered it.

Jack-o-Lantern Masterpieces

So, for anyone lucky enough to find a “party pumpkin” who wants to carve it for Halloween, here’s a little how-to:

  1. Find a pumpkin. A critical first step. Pumpkins must be the hollow kind – beware pumpkin-shaped squash that are solid all the way through. If you get one of those, the best you can do is draw a face on them (trust me, I’ve tried to hollow them out and cut them, it 100% does not work).
  2. Prepare your workspace. Lay out some old newspapers on a table or the lawn – it isn’t so much about keeping the area you’re covering neat and tidy as it is about easy clean-up. You’re going to need someplace to dump all that pumpkin-goo you pull out in step 4.
  3. Cut the lid off your pumpkin. This is the step that every Dad out there dreads. Pumpkins are tough little buggers, and it takes some serious power to get the top off. You should make sure to cut the lid at an angle so that it doesn’t fall through when you put it back on later.
  4. Clean out the pumpkin. This is the gross part. If you’re like me and hate getting your hands dirty, use a metal spoon or ice cream scooper to get the stringy, goopy mess out. I wish I had this pumpkin gutter tool. Scrape the sides that you’re going to carve as much as you can – the more you can scoop out the thinner the walls will be.
  5. Decide on your design. This is the fun part (or the stressful part if you’re a competitive perfectionist, ahem, you know who I’m talking to!) Yes, we’ve all seen the insane designs on Pinterest created by people with too much time on their hands. Relax. You don’t need to go quite as nuts as all that, and besides, those people use special tools (dremels? really??) Keep it simple, especially for your first pumpkin. Curved lines are harder to cut, which is why standard jack-o-lanterns have triangle eyes, square teeth, etc. You can spend time drawing it out on paper, or just jump straight to the next step.
  6. Transfer your design on to your pumpkin. A pumpkin may be round-ish, but there is definitely a better side to carve on – find it. Draw out your design, keeping in mind which pieces you want to cut out and which you will leave intact. If you have a complex design, you can use what you drew on your paper and transfer it to your pumpkin using a push-pin.
  7. Carve! I lied – step 3 isn’t the hard part, this is. But it’s also fun.  Make sure you have the right tools for the job. In the US they sell all sorts of kits with little safety knives for kids and fancy tools for intricate designs. In our (limited) experience where those don’t exist, we found that a short-handled, swiss army-type knife works best. Serrated edges are a must to saw through the thick pumpkin. You can cut roughly and go back and clean up edges later. If you make a mistake and cut off a part you meant to leave on, you can re-attach (kind of) with toothpicks. Just be careful – fake blood and gore is part of Halloween, but real severed limbs shouldn’t be.

  8. Light and enjoy. Fairly self-explanatory – stick a tea light in, light it up, turn off the lights, step back and watch your creation glow. Magical.

OPTIONAL EXTRA: Roast the pumpkin seeds (yum!) The easiest way to get the seeds off the stringy pumpkin guts is to do it right away as you’re pulling them out. Put them into a bowl, and when you’ve collected all you want, give them a thorough rinse in a colander and pick out any big pumpkin bits. Soak them in salt water overnight, and when drained coat them in a little butter or oil. Add any spices, sweet or salty, that you’d like. Lay them out in a single layer on a baking sheet and pop them in the oven at 120° C/250° F for about an hour, shaking/stirring every 10-15 minutes to make sure they’re evenly cooked. Eat. Yum.

WARM WEATHER MUST: Preserve your pumpkin. Something I’ve never had to deal with in MN is how best to preserve a pumpkin once it’s carved. In fact, I’d never thought about it until Nick asked how to keep them from rotting before Halloween. From researching various sources, the consensus seems to be that bleach is the way to go.
Who knew.

SA101: Heritage Day

Today South Africans get the day off to celebrate Heritage Day. But what exactly are we celebrating?

When I first got here, I asked people that question on nearly every public holiday. The meaning behind Heritage Day elicited more blank stares than most, so I looked it up. Turns out it’s not just a long weekend to celebrate the coming Summer weather, and there’s a good reason people aren’t sure why they get the 24th of September off – it’s a relatively new holiday. According to good ‘ole Wiki, Heritage Day celebrates “…the diverse cultural heritage that makes up a “rainbow nation“. It is the day to celebrate the contribution of all South Africans to the building of South Africa.” It was added to SA’s list of public holidays only in 1995.

In 2005 there was a movement to change the name of the holiday to National Braai Day, and although it didn’t officially take hold it is still they name by which what many people know this long weekend. Rather than celebrating all the different cultures that make up the country, Braai4Heritage proposes that South Africans celebrate a tradition that brings South Africans from all walks of life together – braai-ing meat (and maybe other things) over an open flame. Archbishop Desmond Tutu is the official patron of the day: he talks below about why he thinks Braai day a positive, “unifying” holiday (and apparently can cook up a mean chop himself.)

On a lighter note, I’ve also dug up some important braai etiquette that you should know, just in case you find yourself in the vicinity of a Weber today.

Happy braai-ing!

You’re going the wrong way.

arrow signJust back from a great (if hectic) visit back to the States for a fabulous conference and some quality time with the fam in MN. Wonderful trip, but I am very happy to be home.

I don’t know about you, but jet lag is the least of my issues when doing the continental shuffle. You think I’d be used to it by now, but a zillion little things always trip me up when I get to one side or the other. I get in the wrong side of the car. I have to remember to say “zed” and not “zee” or vice versa and tweak other word choices so that people understand me. I spend an inordinately long time studying the pizza delivery menu, trying to remember which toppings they use where (oddly, SAfrican and American pizza toppings arepretty different). I lean in for a hug or a kiss on the cheek at inappropriate moments. But the thing that takes me probably the most time to reprogram are my default settings: do you default left or right? 

Don’t worry, this doesn’t seem to be a problem when driving – the steering wheel on the other side is a pretty good reminder. But it causes me problems for weeks on end when walking down the street,standing on a busy escalator, or most frustratingly, in the grocery store. My sister and I noticed the phenomenon of pedestrian rules of the road when we visited Ireland a million years ago. We kept dancing with people on narrow sidewalks, running into old grannies, having to dodge runners at the last minute. I guess I’d never realized how ingrained your left/right default settings are, even when on foot. And for some reason it’s harder to reset and pisses people off more than many things – I’ve definitely had obscenities shouted at me by little old ladies in walkers more than once in the UK, or had someone simply refuse to cede their side of the sidewalk and push me into the street here in SA. The trickiest bit is that the strength of the right/left default seems to be directly correlated to the propensity to queue. In otherwords, if you’re in a society that dutifully lines up behind that person who really isn’t in the checkout line, than odds are that you’ll experience more forceful opposition to giving in to right of way. What makes this tricky in SA is that some people are queuers, and some most decidedly aren’t. So some people stick rigidly to their side of the grocery store aisle, and others are weaving all over the place. As you can imagine, this makes it tough to navigate and pretty darn frustrating, especially behind an oversized shopping cart.

Rough life, huh? Oh the trials and tribulations of an international life ;)

SA 101: Braai

DEFINITION:

braai [braɪ]
V: to grill or roast over an open fire
N: an event where something is cooked (usually meat) over an open fire, or physically what you cook on

USAGE:

“Come on over to my place on Sunday for a bring and braai” – come to my place with something to grill (preferably meat, see below…)

“We got together and braaied last weekend” – could also say we had a braai.

“Apologies, my braai is a bit dirty” – he hasn’t cleaned his grill…and will be judged by his fellow (backseat) braaiers.

NOTES:

The Afrikaans word braai (from braaivleis, or grilled meat) is one of the most commonly used words I’ve come across since I started hanging out with the SA crowd. The word has been verbed and its meaning widened substantially. Braaing is quite literally a national pastime: Heritage Day on Sept 24 has also been dubbed “National Braai Day”, as it seems that throwing some vleis on the braai is a form of entertainment that transcends nearly all ethnicities and social backgrounds. I had my first braai with an odd group of South Africans living in South Sudan – never mind there wasn’t meat to braai, they made a plan and imported some, and with plenty of beer it almost felt like home.

Similarly to the American barbeque, there are a lot of social norms surrounding the braai. Traditionally the braai is the doamin of men. That is to say, the men put the meat on the braai and stand around watching it cook, while the women make the salads and sides. Usually one of the guys is nominated as the braaier (either the person whose house the braai is at or the most experienced braair). While there is a lot of discussion over cooking the meat, it seems the rule is to defer to the designated braaier in decision-making (e.g. when the meat is ready to come off). The designated braaier may hand over the braai tongs to another guy if he needs another drink (heaven forbid no one has brought him one) or has to go to the bathroom, but unauthorized braaiers are not allowed to meddle in the cooking.  I can only report on these norms and customs as a third party observer, having never had the opportunity to crack the inner braai circle. Being a woman with fairly progressive male friends I have been allowed to hang around the braai and chat (as long as I have a beer in my hand), but not being much of a cook myself I have not stuck around to press my luck getting involved in the actual cooking ritual. I just chalk it up to a little male bonding.

There’s also the question of what you put on the braai. Boerwors and chops are standard, as are steaks and other red meat. I’ve been looked at like a crazy woman for suggesting we braai hamburgers, though – not done. Chicken is frowned upon (allegedly because of it’s different cooking time requirements) but according to the host of a braai I attended recently, “there’s always one in every group” who insists on  bringing it. Chicken kebabs are better than chicken breasts if you have to have poultry. Veggies generally cause all sorts of confusion. Many braai masters don’t have a clue about how to cook them and would rather send them into the kitchen to be cooked with the other sides. However, I know from experience that veggies CAN be braaied successfully, so I continue to push the boundaries here in SA on that one :) Yes, I am that girl who brings the chicken, too.

Honestly, there’s not many better ways to spend a summer Sunday afternoon than braaiing with friends, drinking some beer and enjoying the weather.

2011: Transition

Reflecting back on the year, the word that sums up 2011 for me is “transition”.

Some of my personal and professional transitions are a direct result of intense self-evaluation, and some has come simply from changes in circumstance. But as the year comes to a close I am realizing that no matter how it has come about, I will start 2012 in a very different place than I was at in the beginning of 2011. It may not have been the most outwardly transformational year, but the changes I’ve made are significant in many ways and will profoundly impact where I go next.

2011 has seen my life transition in so many ways:

from expat –> to local: For the better part of the past decade, I have defined myself as an “expat” – a foreigner living abroad. While that label technically still applies, since moving to South Africa I’ve realized a real shift in the way that I see myself (if not yet in the way that others see me). Living the expat lifestyle has its challenges and benefits, but by-in-large you interact with other expats and often have a special set of privileges (salary, housing, leave) that sets you apart from the locals. You can never really feel permanent anywhere, even if you are there for years, as your friendships are largely transient and your work situation temporary. Here in Cape Town we have put down roots: bought a house and car, have pets and live near family. We really only have friends who are from SA and have no intention of moving on any time soon, and we sometimes talk about things like where we would send our hypothetical kids to school…in short, we LIVE here, we aren’t just BASED here for the next year or two. Granted, my American accent will always set me apart when I meet new people, but I am (slowly) being seen as “one of them”.  More importantly, I don’t always feel foreign. It’s nice to be home.

from aid worker –> to NGO consultant –> to writer & designer: To be honest, my professional transition has been closer to two+ years in the making, but I consciously made the effort to head in a particular direction in 2011. When I left my post in Liberia in 2010 I wasn’t exactly sure what I was going to do, or even what I wanted to do. I more or less fell into NGO consulting – it was mostly a continuation of the work that I did long-term in the field, although it was definitely rewarding and new territory to conquer. In 2011 I took a long, hard look at what I was doing and where I wanted to head, and took some major leaps towards my goals. I decided to refocus my work on what I liked most about my job – writing. I also actively pursued what had, until this year, been merely a hobby. I enrolled in a graphic design course, honed my technical skills and got my print design portfolio together. I spent the last few months of this year working full steam ahead to set a solid foundation for my new career path; thinking thorough what transferable skills I have and what unique expertise I bring to the table. Though I’m by no means there yet, and I’m not planning to make a completely clean break from my past work, I’m excited to continue my professional transition in 2012.

from girlfriend –> to fiancée (soon to be wife!): This one is still in the works, but we’ve come a long way! We’ve been together for years, so you wouldn’t necessarily think that this would be much of a transition, but I think this is perhaps the most daunting change for me. It is something that I cannot do on my own and that I can’t fully control – scary stuff. We’ve worked hard to lay the groundwork for a happy life together, but you never know the challenges we have to face in the future. I’m so lucky to have an amazing partner going through this transition with me.

from renter –> to homeowner: This is the most wholly satisfying transition I’ve made this year. Despite the enormous amount of work (and money) we’ve realized homeownership to be, it is so worth it to me to come home to a place that is ours, and to make long-term plans on how we can alter and improve our space. I’m really loving it.

from nomad –> to homebody: Again, this transition has been awhile in the making, but now the difference is that I actually have a home! It amazed me how little wanderlust I actually had this year. Every once and awhile I’d get the bug and pour over travel blogs and envy friends who had taken exotic trips, but for the most part I have had NO desire at all to travel just for travel’s sake. No need for endless “adventures” that can turn out to be major headaches. No need to go somewhere just because it is new and novel. Rather I’ve loved being in my house, my office, my town, having less-than-thrilling nights with friends, making plans, just being home. I’m sure I’ll get the bug again, but at the moment I’m just enjoying my new-found love of domestic pleasures.

What do I hope for 2012? I plan to continue on the paths that I’ve started myself on in 2011, and to successfully navigate the many transitions I know will lie ahead. I’m aiming to have the words fulfillment, contentment and achievement summarize my 2012.