Americana supreme and international phenom – the World of Coca-Cola

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I had only heard about this dream world, this Neverland, where I could partake in all-you-can-drink Coke products from around the world.  We don’t usually keep soda/pop/soft drinks in the house.  Nothing good comes from guzzling that carbonated booze. . . except evoking fond memories.  This wonderland of flavored corn syrup took me back to my first visit to Mozambique Island, the Ilha (to see photos of the Island, read this previous post).  This was in the days before the World Heritage Site boasted any restaurants or quaint lodgings or luxury hotels.  It was just us in the 1990′s: dusty, Teva-footed white teenagers and some Mozambican kids running up and down the dusty alleys, wearing only shredded shorts.  It was hot.  It was humid.  We sat on the stoop of a little shop that carried few items on its shelves.  The outer edge of the small veranda on which we were sitting was missing large chunks of concrete.  With few flies and not even a bird in sight, it was surprisingly quiet.  Then I heard it.  A low hum.   Whrrrrrr.  My ears were well tuned to the vibrations created by a refrigeration unit.  I turned around and there it was.  That it existed was not nearly as surprising as the fact that it worked.  It was on.  In pristine condition, it must have been recently delivered.  Through the unsmudged glass of the shiny new Coca-Cola refrigerator, I saw several bottles of Fanta and Coke.  Were they actually cold?  Or had the purveyor only turned on the unit when he saw a perspective customer?  These are the kinds of things a cynical teenager thinks.  No matter.  The price was right and, like always, we could count on the contents being sterile and safe to drink, unlike any other beverage within a hundred miles.  We took and drank.  It was cold.  It was perfect.

That’s my Coke story.  I have more, like the time we ordered our food and drink at a restaurant somewhere in Africa.  The drinks came and we finished them off two hours before the food came.  Or the warm bottle of Coke pulled from a dusty crate sitting by the side of the road at a border crossing.  These are the kinds of memories those marketing gurus at the Coca-Cola factory in Atlanta, Georgia conjure up for every one of the thousands of visitors that walk through its doors.  The “factory” is as much museum and entertainment center as an homage to Americana gone international.  In a small theater visitors can view a continual film of multilingual television advertisements for Coke products from around the world.  We sat mesmerized for nearly thirty minutes and almost – almost – got teary-eyed during one of those dumb commercials.  And then there’s the 4-D theater (add real snow, moving seats and strong wind to a viewing with 3-D glasses).   The short film follows the trail of Coke being delivered by bicycle in the slums, by canoe in the Amazon and by various other means of transport utilized around the world, with the intent of getting a bottle of Coke within 10 minutes of every person on the planet.   I don’t recommend the film if you are trying to find a dark, secluded place to nurse a hungry baby whilst keeping the older children entertained.  While the back seats of the theater are stationary and therefore seem ideal for nursing, the occasional spurts of water and blasts of air really distracted my little man from dealing with his hunger pangs.  An acceptable alternative location for nursing is the aforementioned theater where the Coke commercials are viewed.  There, red benches are wide and padded, so you might as well change the baby’s diaper while you’re at it.

And then enter soft drink utopia.  Each of the five illuminated pillars, one for each region of the world, dispenses up to ten varieties of Coke products.  Hey kids, all-you-can-drink soda!  Yes, I let my four-year-old and two-year-old try as many drinks as they wanted, even allowing seconds on favorites.  I recommend filling your cup no more than in inch full of drink each time.  An overdose of sugar happens quicker than you think.  Eventually they all start to taste the same anyway.  As you exit the area, each visitor is offered their own glass bottle of Coke as a souvenir.  Yes, a souvenir.  But don’t just let it sit on a shelf at home, warm and collecting dust.  Keep it in the fridge and pop open that fizzy nectar when you need to escape to memories of Cokes gone by.

What’s your Coke story?

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To plan your visit and to learn more than necessary about everything Coca-Cola, visit http://www.worldofcoca-cola.com .

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Red bottles indicate bottling plants. The photos are Coca-Cola employees around the world.

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A large display case contains numerous pop art items (pardon the pun). Here are few.

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The all-you-can-drink cathedral.

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My favorite, Stoney Tangawiza from East Africa! Where else can you get this in the U.S.? Nowhere.

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The Biltmore Estate – stoking my Downton Abbey flame

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The popularity of Downton Abbey has surely increased the number of wanna-be upstairs dwellers (or wanna be downstairs dwellers) who visit the aristocratic mansions of wealthy Americans who lived during the same time period.  My appreciation for the Biltmore historic château, home of the famed Vanderbilt dynasty, would not be nearly as great if I had not been tutored by BBC/PBS in the lifestyles of the rich and famous in the early 1900s.  “This is where the valet assisted in the dressing. . .” whispered the audio tour in my ear.  The valet (the ‘t’ must be pronounced).  I know all about the valet and his duties.  By the way Mr. Bates, how did you manage to have that monster killed?  I was so excited, as if I had done my homework and had insider information going through the tour.  My mind would wander to grand dinner parties, high fashion, culinary masterpieces created with rudimentary tools and. . .  my two-year-old began to climb the bannister and my audio tour was abruptly over.

The mansion can be toured at your own pace (or the pace of your toddler) with the assistance of an extensive audio tour.  I caught snippets here and there.  Little P enjoyed her personal listening device and quickly learned how to guide herself by pushing the correct numbers, as annotated on the placards in each room.  Occasionally she would tell me what she was learning.  “There was a big dog,” or, “the mommy died” – random facts a four-year-old would pick up on.

Aside from recalling Downton Abbey drama, we came away with numerous decorating ideas for our new home.  Dark wood panelling in the library.  Proliferous glamorous, collectible art.  Terracotta planters the size of a shower stall.  It was truly inspiring, though we don’t quite have the house staff or the income to keep up appearances.  A tour of the home and the grounds, an all day event, satiated any desire we had to taste luxury.  There was enough here to keep us and the kids busy all day, making our own memories.  In the end, those memories will be more luxurious than faux memories of picnics on the lawn of Downton Abbey.P1040738

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************************************************************************************************************************************************ Even non-Downton Abbey viewers can appreciate the Biltmore Estate and grounds.  The Biltmore website contains exhaustive information about planning your visit and also includes photos of the mansion’s interior (visitors are prohibited from taking photos inside).  Interested in more Downton Abbey musings?  You can find out how Matthew Crawley eats (or should I say ate) an egg here or find out more about one of Martha Levinson’s favorite vacation spots here.

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Death in Spring

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Reflecting on new life brought on by spring, it is a challenge to meditate on death.  But this is also a season of death.

Why would we ever talk about death?  Death is separation.  Death is the avoided inevitable.  Why do we visit places marked by death – cemeteries, concentrations camps, Golgotha?

We visited Dachau concentration camp in Germany one February day.  We knew how the story ended.   Marks of unspeakable suffering were still clearly visible – suffering the likes of which most of us will never experience.  Though it may bring us to tears at the thought of it, we still cannot grasp the depths of the depravity in the human heart.  But in World War II there was ultimately liberation, justice and even forgiveness.  (Research the heroic story of Corrie Ten Boom).

In April, the Resurrection of Christ will be celebrated around the world; but there would be no resurrection without death.  Without the Resurrection there is also no hope.  We visited Dachau on a fittingly chilling, lonesome day.  Dachau is empty.  There are no more prisoners, only intentional, deliberate marks and reminders of death.  The suffering here was not unique in human history.  Every human heart is marked by death and is without hope, unless that heart considers the Resurrection.

Dachau is distressing because I know this could happen again.  Never again?  It happens again and again.  It is a profitable spiritual exercise to visit these places of death and allow them to point you to the Cross, the only place of Hope on earth.

“. . .  He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in everything he might be preeminent.

For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, 

and through him to reconcile to himself all things,

whether on earth or in heaven

making peace by the blood of his cross.” Colossians 1:18b-20

These photos, though not graphic, may be deeply disturbing.

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The snow highlights the rectangular outlines of the dormitories.

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Motherhood, Oatmeal and Delaying Gratification

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I’m convinced the essence of motherhood is delayed gratification.  Or, more realistically, the hope that our hard work and dying to self will yield positive results in our children.  This dying-to-self business is a challenge.  In my dream world, my children sleep until 9am (and go to bed at 7pm).  I wake up, run, shower, read and prepare a healthy breakfast before they cheerily wake up, go potty (wiping themselves) and come to the table dressed, ready to eat without whining and without spills.  My current reality is that the children often wake me up and it’s a race against the clock to prepare breakfast before they melt with hunger.  And when I say melt, that’s what I mean.  My two-year-old falls into a puddle of self-pity on the floor because it’s too difficult to obey – be kind, stop fighting over the purple spoon, etc – and follow simple instructions – sit in your chair for the fifteenth time – when she’s hungry.  Then I’m reminded it’s worth getting up before my children arise in order to have their breakfast prepared in advance.

It’s oh, so easy, to wake up and prioritize “me time,” to include turning on my electronic device of choice and checking for messages or texts that I’m sure couldn’t wait until after breakfast.  Or reading the headlines or wall posts that, again, I’m positive are important to read at the top of the morning, not after my children are fed.  However, I know that if I prioritize my children’s needs (food, water, shelter/clothing, wiped bottoms/changed diapers), we will all be happier.  And healthier.  If I don’t prioritize making breakfast, my two-year-old inevitably will grab her favorite cold cereal box and wail until it’s in a bowl in front of her.  Cold cereal is my favorite too.  But it’s not cheap and it’s not filling. I like pancakes, but they’re way too much trouble to make frequently.  Eggs are always a good option, but aren’t part of a complete breakfast on their own.  Enter oatmeal.

No, not instant oatmeal packets chocked full of enough sugar to qualify as dessert.  I’m talking old fashioned rolled oats.  I was never a fan of oatmeal growing up because I would eat until stuffed to the wind pipe and then feel famished two hours later.  I needed something that would last through the morning.  When I realized I couldn’t serve my family cold cereal for breakfast every morning, I needed a economical, healthy alternative. This is oatmeal with a few twists.  I started making it when we lived in California and variety of grains and fillers were readily available.  Everyone in the family, from the 6-month-old to the daddy, eats this around the table for breakfast.  It is filling and the kids love it.  Make extra one morning and reheat it in the microwave the next day for a very easy second day breakfast.  When this hot meal is waiting in the children’s bowl when they come to the table in the morning, we are all happy campers.  I may not be up on what’s trending, but I am completely gratified that I was able to give my children my undivided attention (for at least five minutes) and I am nourishing them appropriately.

Here’s the secret to satisfying oatmeal – coconut oil.  A little healthy fat goes a long way convincing your body it’s full (unlike fat-free products).  If you don’t have coconut oil in your cupboard, don’t fret.  Substitute canola oil.  It’s tasteless and, of all oils, highest in unsaturated fat.  We’re only talking a tablespoon of oil here, so don’t freak out when you see that I recommend adding fat to oatmeal meant to serve four people.

First, put water in a pot based on the amount of oatmeal you want to make (reference the oat container).  Bring to a boil and add one finely chopped piece of fruit.  In today’s recipe I use an apple.  Add a tablespoon of oil.  Allow it to simmer several minutes, cooking the fruit.  Add oats and one teaspoon of your spice of choice.  With apples, I add cinnamon.  Other combinations include peaches and ginger or pear and cardamom.  Add several tablespoons of any of the following: almond meal, flax meal, oat bran, wheat germ, or dried milk powder (adds protein).  Stir occasionally, scraping the bottom of pan.  And now would be a good time to toss in small amounts of any leftover cooked grains you have in your fridge, provided they aren’t seasoned – rice, couscous, barley, etc.  If the fruit does not make the oatmeal sweet enough for your taste, add small amounts of honey, brown sugar or molasses to individual bowls.  Another sweetener option is to substitute apple juice for half the water.  There are an endless number of toppings you could add, but I usually stick to the basics, otherwise it takes too long to prepare and my kids aren’t inclined to wait patiently for their first meal of the morning.  If they did, that would be truly gratifying.

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Prepare the ingredients while bringing the water to a boil.  I find it’s more efficient if I run around the kitchen and grab all the items at once before I begin to cook.  Do I always collect them before I cook?  Hardly.  It’s a challenge remembering to be efficient first thing in the morning.

P1040659Toss in the fruit and oil.

P1040662Toss in oats and spice of choice.  Stir.  Cook per instructions on the oats box.

P1040663Instead of adding milk, I add unsweetened plain yogurt.  It helps the cereal stick to the spoon (very important factor when toddlers feed themselves) and adds other important nutrients.  In this version, we also had a special treat of mini-chocolate chips and honey.

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Disclaimer: I am NOT a food photographer.  My kitchen has horrible lighting and I take quick pictures while I’m cooking.  The purpose of my cooking is to feed my family, not take stage food (though I wish I could).  If you make this oatmeal and take a picture that actually looks appetizing, feel free to send it to me and I’ll post it, giving you full credit!

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You’ve been invited to a Chinese New Year celebration. Now what?

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Just a few days ago if you told me Chinese New Year was quickly approaching, I wouldn’t have given it a second thought.  We haven’t been to China or been exposed to Chinese culture in great depth (though not for lack of desire).  I particularly didn’t understand the significance of this holiday in Chinese culture; that was, until we were invited to a Chinese New Year celebration.  I quickly skimmed through my mental knowledge of Chinese customs, which took about five seconds.  Then I decided to write my friend Joy Felix.  Joy has spent a decade in Asia and just recently moved back to the United States.  I shot her an email and asked her advice.  Most importantly, I wanted to know what food we should take to the potluck.  Her expert answer I thought deserved a wider audience.  Today she shares the essentials on the Chinese New Year for cultural beginners. 

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Chinese New Year – also called “Spring Festival” – is the most important holiday in China. It starts off with parades and fireworks, continues with various foods and parties, and ends with the mysterious and beautiful red lantern festival at the end of the week. It is the first week on the Chinese calendar.

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This year is the year of the horse. The years are determined from a Chinese legend about a race between twelve animals. The twelve animals race each other across a river and their order of finishing is the order of the years. Certain years are considered especially good to get married or have kids in. Each year is said to have “personality” based on Chinese mythology. If you go to a Spring Festival party, you will likely be given memorabilia commemorating that year. The napkins, table cloths, etc. will have that year’s animal on them. Papercut artwork of Chinese characters and the animal of the year is often on the walls.

The decor is usually red. Red is the color of happiness in China and is used for weddings and special occasions. If you a invited to a Spring Festival party, the customary color (but not a requirement) is red. People give children a “Hong Bao”- a red envelope with that years’ animal on it – that has money inside. The children are always excited to get their red envelopes!

Chinese hospitality is world renown. They love to give and receive gifts, and Spring Festival is a very special time of year. So what is an appropriate gift for a westerner to bring to the party?

Usually for a non-Chinese, sticking to fruit, dessert and drink is the safest way to go.

In China, presentation is part of the gift, so whatever it is, make it look nice  there are classes on fruit arrangement and presentation – tropical fruit especially – citrusy with bananas oranges and mangos is a favorite. A fruit basket that is well organized and wrapped in red paper is a good gift.

A well chosen wine that would go well with dessert or fruit is much appreciated. While tea is a favorite, as a westerner, I always opted for coffee, knowing that I could not match my host’s exquisite taste in tea. Often, I tried to get a local specialty blend from my hometown in Texas. When Chinese students went home and then returned to school, they often brought the local specialties of teas and sweets for the whole class to enjoy.

Desserts - in China, the taste and presentation is more important than sugar. I usually cut the sugar down by about a third from American standard. If its overly sugary, they say the taste gets ruined. It was good to opt for a dessert with flavor – chocolate, vanilla, fruit, nuts, and spices are all good options. Be sure it is arranged beautifully and packaged in something red. Creativity is greatly appreciated! But don’t worry too much either, they don’t expect you to be Chinese, and are good at overlooking a multitude of American faux pas. The efforts that you make will be greatly appreciated.

One last piece of advice – pace yourself – Chinese dinners are marathons – they will put food on your plate and tell you to keep eating all night long (unless they have been warned that this is impolite in America). In China, part of being a gracious hostess is to have the guests stuffed by the time they leave, so if you can, try and graze slowly.

Cleaning up the morning after.

Cleaning up the morning after.

All photos courtesy of Joy Felix.

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Joy has taught TESL for ten years, in China, Cambodia, Thailand, Alaska, Mongolia and Japan. She wrote a College level Sophomore curriculum for Chinese English majors, and a grad level curriculum for Mongolian English teachers. Joy is a second generation TCK who speaks Spanish and Mandarin.   She loves biking and trying new foods. She is happily married to Anthony and has a delightful little boy she loves traveling with.  Joy blogs regularly at Between Worlds.

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Top 5 Motivators to start running, again and again and again. . .

I was a non-sportive 8th grader living in a Dallas suburb that fateful summer morning I decided to try running.  As all runners know, “running” is a very loose term for putting one foot in front of the other.  I remember that run vividly – my sweaty palms grasping my walkman as the sun rose above the gravel shingled rooftops.  I think I ran three blocks, gasping for thick humid air, my baggy shorts crawling up between my legs.

This scenario has repeated itself again and again as I pick up running postpartum, post-moving or simply post not-running.  Two weeks ago I dug through my drawer of workout clothes and pulled on the same trusty running capris that have served me well training and running races after the birth of my first two children.  It’s time to begin again.  I am a beginner. . . again.

Do you need some motivation to just start running?  Here are five things that motivate me to take that first step after a long hiatus.  This list was originally posted after the birth of my second child, but now, after the birth of my third, I need to be reminded of it.

1.  You don’t have to commit.  We’ve all met that person who is a “real runner.”  For 30 years they have run five times a week.  They ran cross country in high school.  They have 47 T-shirts from a handfull of major city marathons, half-marathons, the local Thanksgiving turkey trot, the cancer fundraiser 5-k.  That’s not me and it’s probably not you.  But I am committed to running.  Whether it’s once this week or tentatively planning to train for a half-marathon later this year or hoping to just work in six runs to prepare for a 5-k this fall.  That’s the beauty of running – run when you want to and when you are able.  Your run is yours.  To be a runner does not mean you have to be a crazy person with a 100-day running streak.  I’m a runner, but I’ve certainly had my share of 100-day non-running streaks.

2.  Cheer someone on.  When I was in college a friend ran a marathon.  She was the first person I knew who ran one.  That was back in the day when I thought a marathon was just a really long run.  I mean, it had to be at least 10 miles, right?  Ha!  26.2 to be exact.  Pressing through the throngs of people and stretching my neck to catch a glimpse of my friend running the Chicago Marathon, I realized she was a part of something big.  There were people of all shapes, ages and sizes running at various paces along the course.  Some even walked.  If they could do it, maybe this is something I could do someday!  Find a friend who’s running a race and go cheer them on.  You’ll be surprised.  All those smiling people at the end of the race surely must be happy.  They couldn’t all be fakers.  It looks like fun.  Fun?  Yes, true.  Sometimes fun does involve effort and pain, but it’s still amazing.  Your friend’s elation will motivate you.  My friend’s joy at completing her marathon was an inspiration to me.  It was then that I put “run a marathon” on my bucket list.

3.  Volunteer at a race.   There’s more to volunteering at a race than handing out water along the route and then raking up hundreds of squashed paper cups at the end.  My dad, my brother and I volunteered for the Pike’s Peak Ascent one year. We met the driver of a van early in the morning, coffee and donuts in hand.  He drove us up Pike’s Peak along the treacherous dirt road as the sun rose.  We warmed ourselves in a hut, then ventured out and prepared the “bag pick-up” area to receive finishers.  For a couple hours, we watched, cheered, and returned runners’ belongings as they completed the extreme ascent. It was very motivating indeed.  That’s not to say I was motivated to run that particular race.  Run is actually a misnomer for the Ascent.  It’s more like a power hike for most of the participants;  but what a glorious setting to volunteer our time and receive a little inspiration from some hardcore ascenters.

4.  Map a run.  The first time I ran – walked with some jogging and with lots of sweating – I had no idea how far I went.  At some point, we drove the car around to gauge the distance, however accurate that was.  This was back before the internet, as we like to say.  Wow, times have changed.  Websites like mapmyrun.com allow you to draw your route on google maps and then tells you all kinds of information like distance and elevation changes.  When I’m looking for motivation to run, I map out a route online.  I may not run it now, or ever.  But it’s there, waiting for me to try it out when I wake up in time to lace up my shoes and step out the door before my husband goes to work.

5.  Train the kids to cheer.  Our girls love to go to a race and watch the runners.  Once you’ve bitten the bullet and paid the fee for that first race, have your spouse or a friend bring the kids along to cheer.  And if you walk the entire race because you’re too pooped (because you have kids and didn’t have time to train), at least run when you pass the children.  It’s for the kids.  They need to see your shining example of fitness.  After you’ve turned the bend and they are out of sight, you can walk again.  Hopefully they will pick up some of your motivation and, when they are teenagers, they will drag you out of the house and leave you in the dust on a family run. That’s what I hope for in our family.  That’s my true motivation.

Top 10 Favorite Things About Living in Romania (Part II)

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blogphoto3Today we have the privilege of hearing Jake Stimpson’s perspective on Romania.  If you missed yesterday’s post where Jake’s wife Jessie shared her top five favorite things about Romania, you can read it here.  The Stimpsons blog about their life and work in Romania at It Doesn’t Matter Where.

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Since Jessie already mentioned some of the more obvious things to love about Romania, I want to give you five less-conventional personal favorites about life here:

6. I’ll probably get in trouble for saying this, but I love the lack of seatbelt laws. Well, that’s not entirely true – there are laws but no one seems to care. I know the statistics about seatbelts saving lives, and I totally believe them, but I also know I grew up riding in the back of pickup trucks, playing with Legos in the trunk of a station wagon, and climbing all over the seats on long trips, and I never got hurt by it. I think Americans (and Western Europeans) are way too uptight about safety. In Romania, you just pay attention and watch out for other people.

7. Another one you won’t find in the guidebooks: I really like walking on the road. In Bucharest, a bustling city of nearly 3 million, there’s not enough parking spaces, so people park (and sometimes drive) on the sidewalks. And – here’s where we get a little graphic – wherever sidewalks aren’t overrun by cars, usually there’s enough dog poop to make walking on the sidewalks a bit treacherous. So except for the main streets, people walk on the road, sometimes right down the middle. Maybe I’m just a simple guy who’s easily amused, but there’s something liberating about walking in the middle of the road, expecting cars to just move around you.

8. I love how Romanians talk to strangers. I didn’t realize until moving away from the US, but in America, we’re really weird about talking to people we don’t know. In Romania, you can approach any stranger, ask him the time, ask directions, talk about life under communism, discuss politics and religion, check your Facebook status on his phone, find out you share a common relative in some small town 150 km away… and it’s just normal, because you’re a person, and people talk to people.

9. Romanians touch each other (and you). Us Americans have this obsession with personal space. Romanians (at least in Bucharest) are way less concerned about it. Whether it’s being squished between five strangers on the bus, so close that you have to pull an old woman’s curls out of your nostrils, or you have a random stranger push you aside because you’re about to step in dog poop, Romanians aren’t so up-tight about touching or being touched. People I just met tucked in my shirt without asking permission, straightened my collar, pulled hairs off my jacket, and took my glasses off to wipe away smudges. When someone steps on your toes by accident or bumps into you, no one gets mad and no one apologizes. It’s just a part of life and you assume it was an accident. I love it. Being in Romania is teaching me to be less concerned about my own space.

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Local Gypsy friends

10. To close with something a little more conventional, I love Romanian fruits and vegetables. Let’s be honest – the beef in Romania tastes like sponges, the overpriced Doritos seem stale, and the cheese leaves much to be desired, but nothing on earth can match the taste of Romanian fruits and vegetables. When I had my first Romanian tomato, it felt like the first tomato I’d ever eaten, like all previous tomatoes were poor substitutes for this, the real Tomato with a capital “T.” While we dined on our first Romanian strawberries, our oldest daughter Naomi, 7 at the time, sighed in divine ecstasy, “It tastes so good that I feel like I’m having a baby!” I don’t know what that means, but the strawberries were indeed amazing. Cucumbers full of sweetness and the crisp taste of summer, apricots that taunt you with their tangy tenderness, carrots that taste like all the good parts of carrots with none of the bad… I could write love poems about Romanian produce. American produce tastes like cardboard in comparison. Romanian fruits and veggies look terrible, have worm holes and bumps sometimes, but the taste is incredible. And they’re usually natural, organic, and pesticide-free, if that matters to you, and inexpensive.

A man purchases vegetables at a market in Bucharest, Romania. (Photographer: Davin Ellicson/Bloomberg)

A man purchases vegetables at a market in Bucharest, Romania. (Photographer: Davin Ellicson/Bloomberg)

If there was enough space for it, I’d go on and on about everything I love about Romania, the castles, mountains, hills, monasteries… but you’ll just have to come visit and experience it for yourself.

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Top 10 Favorite Things About Living in Romania (Part I)

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blogphoto3Nearly two years ago Jake and Jessie Stimpson moved to Bucharest, Romania with their four children.  A year ago they talked about their joys and fears moving to a new culture and a location thousands of miles away from family and friends.  You can read that interview here.  Now, after many more months of living in Romania, they have composed a Top Ten Favorites list.  Today Jessie, due to deliver their fifth child any day, discusses her five favorite things about living in Romania.  In Part II Jake shares his unconventional list of Top 5 favorite things about Romania.

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Romanian culture mystifies me at times. At one moment, I feel not much different than when in the States, but in the very next I can be either completely amazed or totally frustrated. But to focus on the good…Here are my five favorite things about Romania (so far).

1. It is an absolutely beautiful country. On one side you can find Black Sea beaches (some more clean and remote and some more crowded and dirty), but travel a few hours to the center of the country and you’ll find yourself in the middle of a place that looks straight out of The Sound of Music with jagged, snow-capped mountains and valleys filled with wildflowers. We still haven’t made it to see the Danube Delta region, where birds come from all over the world to rest and mate during their long migrations. Nor have I seen the picturesque rolling hills of Maramures with its famous painted wooden churches. There are castles, fields of sunflowers, and forests that I’ve yet to explore. If you look past the ugly apartment blocks in the cities, you find the beauty of Romania.

Pietrosu Mare (photo credit: wikimedia)

Pietrosu Mare (photo credit: wikimedia)

Sibiu, Romania (photo credit: wikimedia)

Sibiu, Romania (photo credit: wikimedia)

2. This one is a bit superficial, but I love many of the new foods I’ve discovered here. There are gogosi (Romania’s version of the doughnut) and covrigi (the soft pretzel that can be stuffed with fruit, olives, cheese, chocolate, etc.). And, though it’s technically not Romanian food, I discovered a deep love for saorma (shawarma in English), which is flat bread filled with French fries, specially cooked chicken, cabbage, spicy ketchup, garlic sauce, and pickles. I also love ciorba cu perisoara (meatball soup), mici (Romanian grilled sausages), cremsnit (a creamy dessert in flaky pastry), and all the various street foods you can find everywhere. Maybe it’s because I’m nearly nine months pregnant while writing this, but I really love the food here.

3. Passionate people. Whether it’s about football (the real football—soccer), the public transportation police trying to ticket someone on the bus for not paying correctly, the corrupt politics, or being proud of their Romanian Orthodoxy, people here are passionate. You will hear two guys having a conversation and think they’re arguing, or someone getting really vehement sounding on their cell phone and feel a little nervous, but people just get passionate in the midst of conversation. I like it.

4. The laid-back approach to schedules. Okay, this is one that is equally frustrating and likeable to me. On the one hand, I like people sticking to their word, being punctual, and keeping appointments. On the other hand, I like the freedom of being able to be late (being pregnant and having four other children, this is bound to happen) and know that I won’t offend anyone. I like not stressing about returning phone calls immediately. I like taking my time and not feeling rushed, because everyone else is having the same attitude.

5. I really admire the loyalty of friends here. Many have told us that it is difficult to make friends with someone; you have to earn their trust and overcome suspicions, etc. But once you are good friends with someone, they will stick with you through thick and thin, and will likely be a lifelong friend. In America, people seem to quickly make and drop “friends” like it was nothing, but friendship is a serious business here. Even though we’re still outsiders, being American, we have friends that showed up at our apartment within a couple of hours to help us move at a last minute’s notice. We had one friend leave his meal with friends to travel all the way across town to help translate for us and our landlord. I could go on and on. Definitely good to have friends like this when so far from home.

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Jessie and the kids at a park in Bucharest

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Brussels Sprouts? Who serves THOSE to guests?

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A newly married couple in Germany, recently arrived from California, invited us over for dinner.  I knew these people, our new friends, appreciated quality food.  I was really looking forward to sharing their table.  Then she announced she would be serving Brussels sprouts.  Brussels sprouts?  Really?  Who eats Brussels sprouts, much less serves them to guests?  I couldn’t remember the last time I had eaten them, but they just sounded bad.  Bitter.  Maybe a bit mushy.  They were definitely somewhere on the list of yucky vegetables.  But I kept my mouth shut.  Don’t knock it ’til you try it, I told myself.  Be a gracious guest.

She said something about a balsamic reduction.  Sounded fancy.  A little more Williams Sonoma gourmet than I was used to.  I took the first bite out of culturally obligatory politeness.  The rest of the bites were taken out of shear surprise and delight.  They were amazing.  A tad of sweet.  No mush.  The distinct flavor of the Brussels sprouts was actually a good flavor.  These weren’t your grandma’s prefrozen, boiled-to-death sprouts (no offense to grandmas).  This new-to-me vegetable was quickly added to my list of “definitely must eat more often” vegetables.

Brussels sprouts are slightly bitter, though not to a fault.  For this reason, however, they are often prepared with some sort of sugar.  This sugar can be a simple sugar, such as the maple sugar in the recipe below, or can be manufactured during the cooking process, such as caramelizing onions and then adding the sprouts.  When it comes to dinner, I usually prefer a quick and easy method, which is what I have shared below.  The best way to prepare them, however, is the way that will make you want to eat them.  My daughters call brussels sprouts little cabbages and devour them when prepared as below.  Don’t knock it ’til you’ve tried it.

When did someone serve you something you thought you wouldn’t like, but it actually tasted great?

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Simple Brussels Sprouts

2 cups Brussels sprouts - cut off any remnant of the stems and then cut in half

2 Tablespoons oil - I recommend olive oil, Canola oil (lowest in saturated fats of all the oils) or coconut oil

2 Tablespoons maple syrup - Of course, my inner chef would recommend using 100% pure maple syrup.   However, any maple syrup will do, just be aware that Aunt Jemima and the like are thicker because of additives like high fructose corn syrup, which makes them more difficult to “drizzle” over the sprouts.

2 teaspoons garlic salt - OR finely dice two garlic cloves.  Combine with 1/2 teaspoon salt.

Mix last two ingredients in a small bowl.  Drizzle over Brussels sprouts and toss gently.  Sauté sprouts in oil on skillet over medium heat until barely tender – about 8 minutes.  Stir occasionally to prevent sticking, but allow them to brown a little.  Eat them.

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Served on a bed of bulgar and chicken.

Once you have tried this recipe and have realized you do indeed enjoy this highly nutritious vegetable, scour the internet for more recipes.  Try them roasted with small bits of bacon and walnuts.   Or simply roast them with other roastable vegetables and your favorite herbs.  Do you have a favorite Brussels sprout recipe?  You are welcome to share the link in the comments section!

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On Food

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God could have created iceberg lettuce and called it good.  Instead he created romaine lettuce, kale, collard greens, swiss chard, field greens, mustard greens and spinach – and called it all good.  God is the creative mastermind behind all culinary masterpieces.  He created the ingredients – the oils, spices, nuts, meats, fruits and vegetables – for His good pleasure.  Then He gave man the need to consume this food to survive.  In His wisdom He also gave us opposable thumbs, tastebuds and intelligence so we could prepare, partake and enjoy this food in a thousand different ways.  And He designed us to partake of this abundance in fellowship with others, giving Him glory and thanks.  I’m no theologian, but I’m fairly certain Adam and Eve ate together in the garden before the curse.  Sharing meals was part of God’s plan.  Jesus came and shared his most profound words over broken bread (and Thomas didn’t say, “No thanks.  I’ll pass.  I’m strict paleo.”)  And when He reigns again in full glory His followers will share in the marriage supper of the lamb.

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Starvation, obesity, allergies, intolerances, eating disorders and degenerate tastebuds are a consequence of The Fall and taint all humanity’s relationship with the food God called good.  Yes.  Man’s relationship with food has been complicated ever since.

God could have created people to receive nutrients like plants.  Just soak up some sunlight, put your feet in mud, the nutrients will be absorbed and you’ll be good to go.  But no.  We have to work a little harder for it.  As a mom and a wife, I have the privilege and joy (okay, sometimes drudgery) of preparing meals for my family.  Fortunately, because what we need for nutrients can be presented on a plate, stick, bowl or cup in any number of ways, I can use artistic license and creativity in preparing meals.  Cooking is a creative outlet.  Our travels have exposed us to spices, herbs, fruits and vegetables we would not have had the inclination to try at home.  Now I cook and experiment on my very willing guinea pigs – a husband and our children.

Dining with people of other cultures and eating the food they have prepared shows respect and brings honor to Jesus, who we represent.  It has opened our eyes to aspects of His character we did not appreciate before.  As I prepare meals in my kitchen, I recall with thanks those experiences, praise God for His abundance and toss in a dash of garam masala.

This year I will be featuring several recipes inspired by our travels.  These recipes are generally quick, cheap and easy, and can be tailored to fit your family’s tastebuds, degenerate or otherwise.

Stay tuned!

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For readers interested in a Christian perspective on meals, I recommend reading Tim Chester’s article Meals Matter to the Mission.  “Meals are full of significance. . .  Meals are more than food.  They represent friendship, community and welcome.”

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