Monday, September 01, 2014

Living Small

When Chuck and I lived in Eugene, Oregon, I was a member of a simple living book club. We worked our way through a book that challenged us each week to consider a new topic and live with intention. It was a challenging exercise, but also helped me focus on how I really wanted to live my life.

Around the same time, we considered building or buying a house and we fell in love with the aesthetic of Dwell magazine and Sarah Susanka's book The Not So Big House. I still dream of designing a small house based on our needs and wants and not the expectations of society at large.

This came to mind again recently when I read the New York Times article Freedom in 704 Square Feet about a Portland couple who designed and built their house so they would have more time and money to devote to what they chose to do rather then keeping up payments and maintenance on a larger house.

Freedom in 704 Square Feet

Then I watched the documentary "Tiny" on Netflix. The filmmaker decided to build a "tiny house" and interviewed others who have adopted the lifestyle. They live in not just small, but literally tiny houses that are typically 100 to 400 square feet vs. the 2600 square feet of the average American Home (according to the website The Tiny Life).

People build small or tiny houses for a variety of reasons. Some want to have a lighter impact on the earth. Others want to spend less money and time on their housing so they can do the work they love or spend more time with their family.

Rocky Mountain Tiny Houses' "The Boulder"

Whenever I've had the chance to spend time in a small, tidy place it's been a positive experience. I stayed in a lovely Paris apartment a few years ago, first with Chuck and later with Mindy and our friend, Lynn. It has a loft bed, small rooms, and pretty old beams. Last weekend, I stayed with my friend Sarah in her little cottage and loved the coziness of it.

While living small or tiny is not for everyone, the idea is so appealing to me. We may just need to test it out temporarily one of these days and see how we do....

Paleographers at Play

A page from Leo Baekeland's Diary

Thanks to my friend Sarah Z., I recently learned about a new Smithsonian project in which they are crowdsourcing transcription. At the Smithsonian Digital Volunteers Transcription Center they've posted digitized images of various manuscripts. You can browse through materials from different collections, jump into any one of the incomplete projects, and either start a new transcription or review that of someone else. It's all page by page, so you don't have to have a lot of time.

I've worked on pages in five manuscripts so far.
  • Journal of Facts in Natural History, from the 1860s
  • Joseph Francis Rock's Field Book, from the late 1920s
  • Joseph Henry's Record of Experiments, from the late 1830s
  • Notes on Forest Growth in Washington Territory, circa 1860
  • Leo Baekeland Diary Volume 10, 1911-1912
Leo is particularly endearing in his curmugeonliness. In one passage, in reference to helping a colleague work on an article, he wrote, "then too[,] had to correct many heresies and clumsy writing". About some other colleagues, he said, "Both are very slow....No wonder so few chemists accomplish anything." Hah!

It takes me back to my archives and paleography days in grad school. I love working out someone's handwriting quirks and the satisfaction you get with each little discovery. 'Aha! That's how he makes his 'd's'. Or, 'Oh! That's an ampersand. Now I can go back and figure out what that other sentence really said....' It's the same sense of accomplishment you get when working a puzzle and the pieces gradually fall into place or after staring at a picture mosaic, you finally see the bigger image. And it's even better when glimpses of personality come through. I love it! 

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Further Experimentation in Fruit Tarts

The peaches are still in their full glory and blackberries have ripened, so we went a little crazy at the Farmers' Market. Yesterday I made a similar tart to the one I make a couple of weekends ago. This time, I cut the peaches up into chunks and then soaked them in the juice of half a lemon and several ounces of amaretto and ginger liqueur. Once I spooned the peaches into the crust, I scattered a pint of blackberries over the top and then sprinkled the flour, sugar, butter sand over that.

Later, Chuck mixed up some cocktails blending a peach and some passionfruit pulp with the leftover lemon-amaretto-ginger-and-peach liquid, adding more amaretto, fresh mint, and seltzer water. Delicious and refreshing!

Sunday, August 03, 2014

Los Restaurantes en Habana

Another highlight of my trip to Cuba was, naturally for me, the food. Again, my colleagues took me under their wing and introduced me to the concept of the paladar.
Paladar (plural: paladares) is a term used in Cuba to refer to restaurants run by self-employers.[1] Mostly family-run businesses, paladares are fundamentally directed to serve as a counterpart to state-run restaurants for tourists seeking a more vivid interaction with Cuban reality, and looking for homemade Cuban food. (Wikipedia)
My first introduction was via the Restaurant El Partenon. A group of folks were going and invited me along. Aside from meeting new people, and running into and acquaintance from DC in this instance (!), one of the benefits of dining in a group is getting to sample a greater variety of dishes.

We ordered a selection of starters including two kinds of ceviche, grilled octopus, tostones, etc. and main dishes, as well. I had been warned that our hosts would be generous, and they were. In addition to the items we ordered they probably brought half again as many dishes on the house.

We had blended mojitos, along with lots of water, and were naturally offered rum (and cigars) after the meal. I have to admit that by the time I got to the fish I'd ordered, I had to have it boxed up to send home with a colleague. I could not fit in another bite, but boy, was it good!

One day, we had a work lunch at Cafe Laurent. Sadly, it was a little too breezy to sit out on their balcony with its view of the picturesque Hotel Nacional and the bay beyond it, but the room where we sat had its windows flung open to the fresh air. I had a large salad with sautéed shrimp and a gorgeously presented and delicious ceviche.

A couple of the other restaurants I tried were a fantastic and generous chicken place whose name I didn't get and the charming La Imprenta in Old Havana. The food was good and prettily plated and I loved the setting. It is located in a building that used to be a printing house and the furnishings are designed around the theme--my chair was in the shape of a lower case k and the barstools were large number 7s.

On my final evening in town, I was introduced to Atelier. A colleague and I dined on the rooftop terrace. Our table was set with a lace cloth, a lovely jumble of mixed glassware and bright orange fiesta plates. I was particularly enamored of the architectural piece of wrought iron and old typewriters. We shared some appetizers and I ordered the traditional ropa vieja. I loved it!

I wondered whether paladares cater mostly to expats and tourists and the most wealthy Cubans or if there might be different pricing for locals. They seem to do enough business to keep going....

My only disappointment in general was the state of the mojitos. I don't know if it's a matter of being used to an Americanized version, but most of them tasted like someone had put sugar, mint, rum, and soda in a glass. Where was the muddling?!

That didn't detract too much from my trip. ;) I can't complain about the fantastic restaurants, the warm weather, or spending an early evening sitting on the grounds of the Hotel Nacional, sipping a refreshing drink and gazing in the direction of home...

Sunday, July 27, 2014

La Habana Vieja

Over the course of a couple of evenings during my visit to Cuba, a colleague showed me around la Habana vieja. The colonial part of the city that was founded by the Spanish in 1519, Old Havana has a series of public squares surrounded by beautiful old buildings that have been restored with the help of UNESCO. It was designated as a World Heritage Site in 1982.

My colleague and I strolled from square to square and it was as lovely and charming as you could wish. (At the same time that I was in Cuba, another friend was in Spain. Looking at her photos, the similarity in architecture is striking, though not surprising, I suppose.)

Among the old fountains and colonnades there were statues of important figures in Cuban history and some incongruous pieces of more modern public art, as well. (See: the giant tulip here or the woman riding a rooster in the same square).

We also happened upon an art installation being assembled one evening and came to visit it the next. I was struck by what seemed to me to be a greater integration of the arts in daily life.

Along with appreciating unobtainable artworks, I was naturally interested in seeing more accessible handicrafts, as well. In visiting the market by the port, I found some photographs and a necklace which was made of a silver-plated fork folded to frame a turquoise-colored stone that I just had to have.

Aside from the market, I imagine that the privilege of living and working in that part of the city is comparable to that of Place des Vosges in Paris or other rarified locales. But I got the impression, that I hope is true, that anyone was welcome to stroll through.

Una visita a la Habana

Just before Memorial Day this year I had the privilege of getting to visit Cuba. It was a short trip focused on work, but after work each day, I had the chance do some exploring.

I stayed in a hotel that looked out on the Malecón, the feature I came to know as "the corniche" in Beirut and Abu Dhabi. Also known as Havana's "living room," the Malecón is the walkway along the seawall where people come to fish, hang out, or take a weekend stroll with other habañeros, I'm told.
In my limited exposure to the city, I saw well-kept, freshly painted buildings standing next to crumbling ones of the same vintage. There are some gorgeous art deco structures and colonial ones, too. The state of repair all depends on whether the owners have connections inside or outside the country that can provide the funding and supplies to maintain them.

The same goes for the faithfully restored, or resourcefully cobbled together, old cars. Some people are able to acquire original parts for their pre-1959 vehicles and others make do. I saw many voluptuous, classic American cars and lots of lean Ladas, but there were also more late model cars than I expected, too.

With travel restrictions in and out of the country easing up, I understand there is a lot more interchange between Cuba and its neighbor to the north. I hope for the sake of Havana that it is able to welcome tourists on a larger scale once again and, at the same time, that it somehow maintains its charm.

Saturday, July 26, 2014

A day in the life of an aspiring bon vivant*

It's satisfying to realize that sometimes you are the kind of person who goes to the farmers' market and spends less than $5 on reject peaches, brings them home and soaks them in amaretto and lemon juice in order to make a peach and blueberry tart. Did I mention that we mixed the leftover fruit with bubbly and had some Bellinis? Life is good.

And now so I won't forget, here's how I did it:

  • 8 peaches washed and sliced them (left the skin on) and put in a pan
  • 3 ounces of Amaretto poured over the top
  • Squeezed in the juice of one lemon
  • Sprinkled some pumpkin pie spice over the top
  • Stirred occasionally while they soaked awhile

In a separate bowl
  • 3 Tbsp flour
  • 1/2 cup sugar (might use less next time)
  • 2 Tbsp cold salted butter
  • Mixed together with my hands until it had the consistency of wet sand with a few extra blobs

  • Sprayed the tart pan with cooking spray
  • Pressed a thawed Trader Joe's pie crust into a tart pan
  • Laid out the peach slices as neatly as possible from the outside in
  • Tossed in several handfuls of fresh blueberries
  • Sprinkled the sugar and flour sand over the top
  • Preheated the oven to 425F
  • Baked for 35 mins
  • Turned off the oven and let the tart boil off a bit more juice inside the oven
  • Greedily ate a piece as soon as possible

But while it was still baking...
  • Chuck blended up the spare peaches with a handiblender (sp?)
  • I spooned some into champagne flutes and topped with bubbly
  • Wasn't as pretty as I would have liked, but it sure tasted good!
I love summer produce!

*Last summer a colleague said, "you strike me as a bon vivant." What a lovely thing to hear! Just trying to live up to it...

Saturday, July 12, 2014

Android en español

La semana pasada descubrí cómo escribir con "gesture typing" en mi android. Hoy descubrí que no sólo puedo escribir con el mismo método en español, sino también puedo escribir con mi voz en algunos idiomas. Dios mío, eso es cool!

(Forgive my Spanish, I'm just learning.)

Tandem bidding

Chuck and I have made our lives somewhat complicated by both being employed by the State Department--what is referred to you as a "tandem couple". We have been in Washington for a year and now. With one more year in DC, we have to start considering our next post.

This being the third post for both of us, we have to start lobbying various offices and bureaus for our jobs instead of being "directed". We have to look at projected vacancies and start negotiating before the final bid list is revealed. It's like a big puzzle in which the pieces are changing shape all the time. We have been lucky so far and have been able to find positions at the same post, but there is no guarantee that we will continue to do so, although it is our top priority.

Adding to the complexity, I am a Foreign Service Specialist. And in my specialty, in any given year, there are only so many jobs. In a way, it might make things easier to limit ourselves to the places that are available for me. On the other hand, we might consider lobbying for an "excursion" tour, something outside my specialty. This could open up the world to us, but we would have to make an especially convincing pitch and there is always the risk of not getting permission or, potentially, burning bridges with my home office.

Another consideration is do we know the language needed for the post? Do they require a certain level of proficiency? Have they built in time to learn it? Is it required for both of our positions so we can stay in sync? (Again, no guarantee.) Does the timing work with our present job? Do we want to use our Arabic language before our proficiency scores expire?

Then we get into personal considerations. How far away do we went to be from our families? We'd love to pick somewhere they can visit, but we get more credit for serving in "hardship" locations. Can we bring the cat? Do we leave her with a trusted foster family if we go somewhere particularly dangerous or that doesn't allow cats or that has a long quarantine period? You get the idea.

It is an uncertain time. It is an exciting time. And we get to do all of this while carrying out the duties of our current positions, naturally. We try to tap in to a sense of Foreign Service Zen and never pin our hopes on any given post until we are on the ground in country... and, even then, maybe we shouldn't....

Monday, June 23, 2014

April Reading 2014

Here are my April reads. Better late than never!

16 April 2014
The Perils of Morning Coffee (Isabel Dalhousie, #8.5)The Perils of Morning Coffee by Alexander McCall Smith

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I continue to love Isabel Dalhousie and know I can always call upon her when I need a lift or want to restore my faith in humanity. Alexander McCall Smith brings his gentle Scottish philosopher to life in a story of how an innocent meeting over morning coffee can lead to misunderstanding and, eventually, empathy and a better understanding of others.

12 April 2014
Bring Up the Bodies (Thomas Cromwell, #2)Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Hilary Mantel does it again! Thomas Cromwell is such a compelling character. Here we read about the intrigues and alliances formed around the downfall of Anne Boleyn. Reality is so dramatic, there is no need to dramatize it further, but to see it from the Cromwell's intelligent, methodical, yet not disinterested perspective is new. In the meantime, life goes on in his household and in the country. Mantel brilliantly captures Tudor England and what it might have been like personally for the people around Henry VIII. I couldn't put it down.

(Oh, and she heard her readers and made it clear who "he" was--still usually Cromwell, but it helped in following the story.)

View all my reviews