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.

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.

Saying goodbye to Lucy

Nick and I had to make a terrible, awful decision in August last year to put our little kitten, Lucy, to sleep. I wrote here about her getting sick, but just couldn’t bring myself to write anything else as she fairly quickly got much, much sicker.

As Nick and I were coming to terms with the decision we knew we were going to have to make – it was only a matter of time – I wrote down a list of things that I would miss about Lucy, just to make sure I remembered all the little things we loved about her. In many ways, we have come to terms with losing her. In spite of everything, we know we gave our little rescue kitten the absolute best life she could have had for her short six months on earth. She was kissed, cuddled, fed (a lot), and generally spoiled. But most of all, loved. I thought, as a means of closure, I would share that list here along with a few more pics to remember her by.

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Things I’m going to miss about Lucy…
written 8/19/2010

  • Office time – since I work from home, I spend most of my time in our home office that Nick and I share. She has to be on our laps or computers most of the time (typical cat). Her computer skills are impressive – at one point she managed to shift ALL of the text and program windows on my computer screen sideways by sitting on my keyboard. She also sits in the window of the office and watches the world go by – the neighbor’s cats, the people on their way to the train – cowering any time there was the least bit of a loud noise (the kids scare her especially). She only fell out the window once.
  • Roadtripping – we bring her with us to Nick’s parent’s place so she doesn’t have to stay home alone, and that means frequent road trips. As soon as we’re in the car and on the road we let her out of her carrier so she doesn’t yowl. She crawls all over the car, exploring, and ends up in the back window where we’d get such great looks from the people in car behind, perches on my shoulder or sits on Nick’s lap and try to help him drive.
  • Monkey-mode – she gets all riled up, running up and down the house, chasing her favorite toys (cable ties), racing up and down the cushions on the back of the couch, and when she gets particularly hyper she would ‘monkey’ – spreads her toes, poof her tail, hop at you kind of sideways in an attempt to intimidate you, breathing heavily, sometimes giving a little spit – so funny!
  • Blankie – her grey blankie is her favorite thing in the world,  her security blanket. She adopted it from the first day we got her, crawling onto it to suckle and ‘make pudding’. We think she must have been the runt of the litter, the bottom-feeder of the bunch, because she always kneaded blankie way above her head. She’d get so purry and happy, zoning into Stevie Wonder mode where she’d kind of sway her head back and forth in a figure eight. We joke it is the only way to slow her down when she gets into ‘hyper-mode’ is to put blankie into her path, since she couldn’t run over the blanket without stopping to ‘make-pudding’ on it.
  • Her big, Puss-in-Boots eyes that could make me do anything – she just gives me this look and I somehow want to give her food, pick her up and pet her, you name it.
  • When she was a tiny kitten she was absolutely MAD about her food. She would run in circles meowing frantically, climbing Nick’s leg to get to the countertops, a total nut. I’ll miss the way she never quite eats neatly, and has food stuck to her little beard she couldn’t quite get off (she didn’t have a mom to teach her those things, you know). Later she wouldn’t eat unless she was sitting on the scratching post (it is too cold on the concrete floor to sit on for too long), and you HAVE to pet her while she eats or she’ll keep looking around for you. You can’t be too far away! She also LOVES her Greenies, the little treats we give her.
  • I’ll miss her cute markings – her one white foot, one black, the orange leopard spots on her white belly, her little white eyelashes, the whiskers that never quite grew back fully after she singed them, the little crooked-looking smile – she has a half pink mouth which you can especially see when she’s meowing…just so cute.
  • That darn tail – she just can’t get away from it, it keeps following her around! It would come out of nowhere and hit her in the face when she was trying to sleep.  She only recently learned that she has to tuck it under her paw to keep it under control. It also was in a near-permanent bottle-brush state (all poofed up – it would get that way whenever she freaks herself out (a regular occurrance).
  • Sleeping with us – she was so little when we got her, we let her sleep on her grey blankie between our heads every night. She purrs so loud most nights that she wakes me up at some point. Also, if you get to close to her face at night, she will lick and lick and lick your face – especially your nose. You can’t get her to stop until she falls back asleep! When she gets really cold she burrows under the covers and sleeps in the crook of Nick’s knees – ‘prickly side in’ Nick says
  • She couldn’t get enough of people – part of having been bottle-fed from a tiny kitten, I guess. She would perch on Nick’s shoulder as long as he would let her, curl up on my lap for hours on end. The thing I will miss probably the most is the ‘I love you’ look she gives you, looking up at you while sitting on the desk, purring, wanting kisses on her head. Her little head bumps to get you to pay attention to her. Just pure love.
  • I will desperately miss coming home and saying ‘where’s my Lucy?’, only to have her run out of wherever she was sleeping (usually the blankie on the bed) and greeting me with the happiest meows. Sigh.
As I write this it is comforting to have the two newest additions to our household, Mia and Ollie, curled up beside me. But it doesn’t make it any less painful to write these words – after losing our first kitten, Squeekers, just the August before, we had only just opened up our hearts again, and it still hurts. It’s never easy to lose friends, whether furry or otherwise!

So long 2010…

2010 was a good year.

As cheesy as it sounds, I’ve always liked that New Years gives me a chance to reflect on the year that is coming to a close. In the rush of daily life it’s easy to get caught up in the problems, the little irritations. But looking at the year as a whole, 2010 has really  been a banner year for Nick and I (I’m taking liberties here, but I’m sure he’d agree). A friend asked how I would describe my year in 5 words: I’d say change, transition, fear, contentment, and rooted. Yeah, a little contradictory, but I guess that’s my world!

In 2010 we made South Africa home – Nick for the first time in many years and me for the first time ever. We found our feet in the city, exploring new neighborhoods, meeting new friends and reconnecting with old ones. We enjoyed being close to one part of our family, while finding ways to stay close to the other. I started a new chapter in my professional life, rediscovering some passion in my job hidden under layers of exhaustion and frustration, and learned that I love working for myself. Nick also made strides professionally with his new job. I read some great books, travelled to exciting places, spent relaxing evenings at home doing nothing. We were loved and entertained by our little Lucy, for however short a time. We bought a house – by far our biggest accomplishment of the year, and one that we’ll be able to enjoy for years to come.

For 2011? Sure, I’d like to make some new, healthy habits both for my body and mind. I’d like to create explore even more career opportunities. But mostly I want to continue to enjoy the little things, the small happinesses that fill up the days. It isn’t always easy,  but if we lose track of those little things we miss out on what it’s all about, right? It’s not an earth-shattering resolution, but in the end it’s everything.

Happy New Year!

Tying to DIY (in South Africa)

I never thought I’d say this, but I miss Home Depot.

I am my mother’s daughter – hardware stores are fun, and bohemoths like Home Depot are just aisles and aisles of possible new projects. Not that I’ve really ever been much of a DIY-er, a combination of not having a home to fix up and a innate klutziness have kept me from following that path. Of course, I have grand aspirations – I constantly read blogs and watch shows about DIY home improvement projects, own drills and tools (granted they’re now ancient and in a storage unit in MN somewhere), and avoid buying things because ‘I could make that!’.

However, fate is conspiring against me ever becoming a DIY-goddess. Aside from the fact that I can’t draw a straight line much less cut one, being in South Africa has rendered the few DIY skills I have learned useless. Even simple things like hanging pictures? Nope, no luck here. The walls here are all brick or concrete, so you need a fancy mason drill which makes a hell of a noise that scares the crap out of me and puts giant holes in the walls, which makes my trial-and-error approach to drilling far from ideal. It also makes  my stud-finding skills are unmarketable. Things like putting in shelving (which shouldn’t be rocket science right?) is made SO much more difficult by the fact that I simply can’t find the materials I need. SA’s version of Home Depot, Builder’s Warehouse, leaves MUCH to be desired. They carry a little bit of everything, but it’s all such low quality and there is no variety at all. We tried to find some simple shelves we could install in our bedroom, but in the massive store there was only one teeny-tiny aisle with about four options to choose from – small, big, bigger. It seems like for anything more sophisticated you have to find a specialty shop which usually involves costly fitting of said shelf. Sigh.

Lighting is another example – not exactly DIY but home-decor rant in general. I must have visited a million lighting shops to find replacements for the hideous wall lights in our living room. They all seem to have the exact same, nondescript stock. Unless I want to spend a million bucks for something fancy, it seems like the ‘umbrellas’ (as Nick calls them) will stay for lack of a better option. I’m probably being a bit harsh, but it feels like I can’t ever find what I’m looking for here. I guess it comes from having grown up in a place with such an amazing variety of everything, and also the fact that it takes time to get to know what brand reputations are, what shops carry which products, etc. Things I’ve spent a lifetime learning in the US.

If I can just find the right materials, I have hope that Nick and I can be a great DIY team. Nick has proven to be darn handy around the house, and also a possible DIY-guru in the making. Seeing as I have no skills myself, I was hesitant to mention projects, not wanting to seem like I was just coming up with a list of things for him to do. But I’ve heard him mutter more than once on a visit to another over-priced furniture shop, ‘I could totally make that!’. Promising. Plus, he’s king of teaching himself how to do things online. I can see this working out well – I do the searching for style ideas, and Nick executes the plans…I’m not sure how he’ll feel about this!

For now, I’ve decided to start with painting. Painting is something I consider myself pretty expert at, having painted more than my fair share of apartments. (Note: I never said color selection was my forte- I now concede that the traffic cone shade of orange I chose for the bedroom of my first apartment may have been a mistake). I might break down and hire someone to paint the walls, but I’ve got all sorts of plans for painting and staining old furniture in creative ways. Now, all I have to do is find out where I can buy the old junk…