Monday, August 31, 2009

Bracing myself

I've signed the contract. The spacers are in. There's no turning back now. In three days I'll be decked out in adult braces. I'll endure a mouth full of metal and all the discomfort that comes with it for the next five months. I've emptied my savings account to do this to myself, convinced that I'm investing in a procedure that will save me a lifetime of painful and expensive dental work and an eventually snaggle-toothed smile.

As the assistant attempted to force in the spacers with pliers, she consoled me, insisting this would be the worst of the braces ordeal. I found the process only mildly uncomfortable. "I can so handle this," I thought. Then she started struggling with next two teeth. She was working up a sweat, grunting with frustration as she tried to squeeze in the rubber bands. She left me with two strings hanging out of my mouth to call in for reinforcement. This next assistant wasn't so gentle. She got a good yelp out of me. After bloodying several strings of floss, she conceded that she'd have to resort to the metal spacers.

Counterintuitively, metal spacers induce far less pain. They also function far less effectively. The women shook their heads at my overcrowded mouth and advised me to pop several Advil before coming in Thursday.

During this process a tanned blonde wearing a ponytail and scrubs entered the room. I assumed her to be another assistant until I read the "Dr." prefix on her name tag. She didn't look that much older than me. I realized she was the woman I'd seen in the pictures around the office, the one I'd actually suspected might be the age 40-ish main doctor's high school daughter. No. She's an orthodontist, raking in the cash and designing healthy, beautiful smiles. I better start doing something with my life or all my bosses will be younger than me.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Compliments of British Munchkins

I spent a summer working as an au pair in England for a family of vegetarian academics. They invited me on weekend excursions to castles in the countryside and to a pub lunch in their college town, but we subsisted on a diet of iceberg salads with boiled egg and salad cream (tastes like sweetened mayonnaise), sausages (veggie dogs) and houmus and tom-aw-to sandwiches.

One day while seven-year-old Michael was at school and two-year-old Anna in nursery, I felt inspired to make cookies. I scoured the Internet in search of the simplest recipe I could find and settled on an oatmeal cookie that called for about four ingredients.

After searching every nook and cranny in the kitchen, I conceeded that my employers owned no measuring utensils. Not one teaspoon or a single measuring cup. I used a mug to measure out the cup of butter (which wasn’t actually butter but some sort of healthy vegetable spread -- I should have trusted my instincts) and other ingredients such as sugar (which the package touted as a healthy version) and oats (which were quick cooking rather than the old fashioned type the recipe called for). I used actual tea spoons (not the measuring kind, but the kind English people use for all the tea they drink) to measure the salt.

That night over dinner my host family informed me that Brits don’t use measuring utensils. They think that Americans with their drawers full of cups and spoons in varying sizes are quite primitive. Instead of these crude calculating devices, they use a scale to measure out ingredients in grams, which their recipes use rather than two-thirds of a cup or one-eighth of a tablespoon.

The dough I mixed tasted quite delicious despite my difficulties, but then again I'd been deprived of the sweet and salty in this healthy household. However, the final product didn’t look or taste much like a cookie. They didn't exactly taste unpleasant (I ate about six), but they had a chewy consistency and an aftertaste reminiscent of burnt buttered popcorn.

I might not be much of a chef when it comes to entrees, but I can bake. I wanted to share some yummy, American cookies with my host family, not these hard-to-chew burnt buttery lumps. I debated whether I should even tell them about this disaster. Then I had the brilliant idea of testing them out on Michael first.

After I walked Michael home from school he had his tea time, cute British lingo for his after-school snack of hot chocolate and an apple, while he watched his 20-minute daily allowance of television. His show of choice was “Chuckle Vision,” a BBC Kids production about a pair of goofy middle-aged brothers that’s a notch below low-budget children’s program airing on PBS. During this afternoon’s episode I served Michael the surprise that I’d hinted at on our way home.

“These biscuits are absolutely lovely!” Michael exclaimed after he took a bite. What a darling he was, I could have hugged him at that moment. After dinner that evening, despite my adamant protests, the entire family sampled my culinary endeavor. They all agreed that the biscuits tasted “quite nice.”

The true sign that my botched biscuits were somehow oddly satisfying? Finicky little Anna asked for thirds.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

The race is on

I just signed up for a 15-mile race. I'm terrified, firstly, because I've never ran 15 miles, and secondly, because the course includes five uphill miles, including a GINORMOUS one-mile hill. I'm also excited, and I better be because I'm paying $35 for the privilege of running these 15 miles.

I feel like I've been running these past two years (not including a nearly 7-month break in Barcelona) with no goal or destination of sorts. I registered for the challenge because I want an accomplishment. I want to be able to say, even if it's just to myself, that I've done it -- that I am capable, despite a lifetime of bemoaning my unathletic-ness and the nights of sleep I lost worrying about running a mile in gym class. (But if successful, I will be announcing my achievement on my Facebook status.)

I don't know anything about running. I'm unaware of any training and pacing techniques or proper form and postures. I just know that I'm going to lace up my Nikes, slip my nano up my shoulder and start pounding the pavement, one mile after the other. I'm trying not to think about this Charleston Distance Run as a 15-mile competition but rather as a nice, two-hour-or-so run. That, I can handle.

Food, passion and fashion

I've balanced all the nature immersion of last weekend with a week of getting in touch with pop culture. I finally saw Julie and Julia -- and it exceeded all my expectations. It's the kind of film that leaves you smiling the whole evening, the kind that becomes the focus of your dinner conversation and leaves you inspired. Coming out of the theater I had the urge to strap on an apron and whip up some French recipes. Or at least eat lots of French recipes.

Meryl Streep is flawless. I'm not old enough to appreciate how impressive her portrayal of Julia Child is, but I can say that she, along with Amy Adams and pretty much the entire cast, is totally believable and delightful. The scenes highlighting how loud and goofy (yet friendly) we Americans come across in Europe were dead on. The transitions between Julia Child's life and Amy's succeed in being butter smooth. The lifelike chemistry between Julia and her sister made me want a sister, and all the Parisian scenes made me want to fly back to Paris.

I'd begun to think that maybe I was becoming too pretentious for my own good because my list of favorite movies seems to only include foreign films or socially conscious dramas. But this movie validates my preferences. I can appreciate a lighthearted, feel-good comedy if it has some quality and substance about it.

I also saw The Time Traveler's Wife, the kind of film that makes millions exploiting legions of romantically frustrated women. It has the same feel of The Notebook, and coincidentally also features Rachel McAdams. Something about watching her in the role of lead female in a mad love affair makes me want to be in a mad love affair. Generally the precocious children with witty lines in movies annoy me, but I found the little girl in this movie endearing rather than obnoxious. Holes plague the film's illogical plot, but that didn't stop me from shedding a few tears and imagining it was me instead of McAdams in the arms of the very attractive Eric Bana.

Not only did I spend hours in a dark theatre, but I also actually turned on a TV set to watch the premier of Project Runway. I absolutely could not miss it as my friend and roommate of last year, Carol Hannah, made it as a contestant. We don't have cable, so my parents and I crashed their friends' house. That required plodding through the living room where the senior group from the local Baptist church held their weekly round of card games to turn on Lifetime at 10 p.m. It felt a bit surreal seeing CH on TV with Heidi Klum and Lindsay Lohan. I remembered watching the show every week with her and my roommate Katie last year on the old futon in the living room of our apartment on Rutledge Avenue, rating our favorite looks onscreen and trying to quiet the cats Jack and Evita as they intermittently blasted across the room.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Warning: May cause chills and compulsive door-locking

“The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” (2008) is the English translation of the bestselling European thriller “Men Who Hated Women” (2005) by Swedish journalist Stieg Larsson. In Barcelona, I saw the book “Los hombres que no amaban a las mujeres” displayed in bookstore windows, sitting on the laps of metro passengers and even strewn on my couch. But it was intimidatingly thick, and I figured I should be using my free time in Spain to read actual Hispanic literature rather than Spanish translations of Scandinavian authors.

When I spotted the book (the first of a trilogy) in West Virginia, I bought a copy under the influence of a mild bout of nostalgia for cosmopolitan Europe. I also found the Nordic setting of the mystery novel intriguing because of my Swedish friend Stina, a nineteen-year-old au pair with a blonde bob that framed a face perfectly in line with the Hollywood image of a sweet Alpine shepherdess or a sexy foreign exchange student. We spent many rainy afternoons sipping café con leche and chatting about Swedish versus American culture in the bookstore café by our language school.

The book’s main character, Mikael Blomkvist, is the publisher of muckraking Millennium magazine and an investigative reporter critical of his country’s incompetent financial journalists for their failure to expose rampant corporate corruption. Ironically, he’s just been convicted of libel at the expense of the gangster industrialist Wennerstrom. When Blomkvist is in the pit of his disgrace, Henrik Vanger, the aging heir to an industrial dynasty, hires him to investigate his beloved great-niece Harriet’s disappearance 40 years before. Blomkvist accepts the assignment under the guise of writing the memoirs of the Vanger family -- a vast clan spiked with spiteful relations and Nazi sympathies.

Blomkvist ends up seeking the assistance of Lisbeth Salander, a young and sickeningly petite woman peppered with tattoos and piercings. She's socially inept to the point of violent but turns out to be a mathematical genius and computer hacker extraordinaire. Her character is a sort of disturbed femme fatale action hero. She's got a motorbike, a junk food addiction and a gruesome history of abuse. While trying to uncover what happened to Harriet, the unlikely pair unexpectedly discovers a series of long forgotten murders more sordid than anything anyone imagined and find themselves hunted by the killer.

Most of the book takes place on the cold, gloomy island of Hedeby outside Stockholm, as Vagner’s offer stipulates that Blomkvist relocate to the Vagner family estate in the secluded village of Hedested for the year. The dark atmosphere lends an element of modern, Swedish noir to the novel. Larsson writes in a concise and candid journalistic tone. He devotes many lines of text to the intricacies of international financial fraud but (with the exception of one unrelated, gratuitous and grisly assault scene) provides only brief yet haunting descriptions of the sadistic crimes. Admittedly this is not highbrow literature that we're critiquing, but neither are the sales-chart-toppers by Dan Brown or Stephanie Meyer.

Larsson, who spent much of his journalistic career exposing right wing extremist and racist organizations, wrote the “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” and its sequels for fun in the evenings after work. He died in 2004 shortly after completing the manuscripts and before their publication. He never knew the sensational international success of his gripping story of misogynic violence and corporate crime.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Into the Wild (of Fayette County)

I not only survived a weekend alone with my parents in the woods, but also a minor yet aggressive skunk invasion. My mom and I were cleaning up under our new circus-tent-of-a-canopy after a fajita dinner when I saw the critter, mostly white with a fluffy tail that made it look like an over-sized Persian cat, creeping next to the picnic table. I dragged my mom out without a word, unzipping the flap as fast and calmly as I could manage so that we wouldn't panic and cause the skunk to panic and trigger a spray attack.

At 9 p.m. a family of three skunks took over our campsite in Babcock State Park. Although they appeared friendly -- almost cute really -- we didn't want to risk getting sprayed. They effectively banned us from approaching our own campfire or tents until they finished snorting every graham cracker crumb under our camp chairs.

In the middle of the night an urgent need to hike to the bathhouse woke me, but as I scrounged around for my flashlight I heard a large animal poking around our tent. I froze, crouched on all fours, too afraid to switch on the lantern or even exhale as I listened to the panting and snorting. I imagined a wolf sniffing out our site. "Something is outside!" I finally found the breath to hiss to my dad. He responded with a hostile grunt and rolled over.

After a minute or two of silent fear, I mustered up the nerve to lift my head to peek through the mesh tent window. I only saw a flashlight beaming in our direction from the campsite across from us.

The next morning I woke up feeling like I'd slept on a rock for a pillow and finished off a bottle of wine before crawling into my sleeping bag the night before. I wondered if this camping business was really worth it. A cup of the closest reproduction I've had of a Starbucks Americano that I made with my dad's (never used) Aeropress improved things. The gadget efficiently presses out espresso shots to which you add water (and in my case a bit of vanilla soy), with little cleanup required. That smooth cup of coffee combined with showering and flossing in the bathhouse almost made me feel like I was hosteling in Italy again.

We spent our days on the trails, pushing through Rhododendron thickets, brushing by mountain laurel and hiking under sun-speckled canopies of umbrella magnolias. We crossed wooden bridges over rocky creeks to take in canyon vistas from cliff-top overlooks and squeezed between Hummer-sized boulders to snap photos of waterfalls, all while trying not to sink our hiking boots into mud puddles. All of this outdoorsiness made me contemplate getting in touch with my inner Lara Croft and taking up mountain climbing.

When we visited the rustic, wooden Glade Creek Grist Mill that grinds out buckwheat and cornmeal powered by a rushing stream, a flood of deja vu washed over me as I envisioned the clock that hung on my godparents' wall as a child -- a painting of that same scene.

After my weekend in the wilds, I'm now determined that I can't leave West Virginia in good conscience without going Tomb Raider and rafting its world-famous Gauley River Rapids...

Thursday, August 13, 2009

So last year

A year ago I was in a manic rush to get my visa in time to move to Barcelona. (Might I add that after investing two months of free time and hundreds of dollars in the process, not one immigration officer flipped through my passport to view the document.) I predicted that I didn’t know what I was getting myself into as I prepared to move to Spain. I was right.

I would trade in this

for this.

Last September my overnight flight landed in a chilly, rainy Barcelona. I rolled my suitcases to the arrivals gate and met a tall, aristocratic Spaniard dressed for the pages of a country club catalogue who didn’t remove the mobile phone from his ear to greet me. I smiled and awkwardly greeted a tubby three-year-old in a ruffled dress and tights on the verge of a tantrum and her brother, a sandy haired, five-year-old version of his father.

I bumbled something about being grateful that his wife had told me he'd be wearing red pants so that I'd spot them. He gave me a horrified look. I wouldn't understand my mistake until getting the children ready for bed that evening, when they referred to their underwear as pants in proper British English.

That night I would remember how I woke up to sunlight filtering through the trees into the bay windows of my apartment on Rutledge Avenue. My white-and-gray kitty slept curled against my knee on my queen bed. In my new room in the uptown Barcelona neighborhood of Sarria, I switched the light on in the mornings to see walls papered with teddy bear cherubs and a closet with choo choo train door knobs. I woke (and often slept) to the wails of a cranky Casilda coming through the paper-thin wall between our rooms.

I don’t regret taking that job in Barcelona. Admittedly the transition was hell, but I’m wiser, more independent and (hopefully) more cosmopolitan for it.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

These boots are made for walkin'...

And my unsolicited West Virginia cultural immersion continues. This weekend I entered Gander Mountain, an outdoor superstore where the employees wear hunter orange vests and Thomas Kinkade paintings hang outside the restrooms. At the front of the women’s department stands a rack of apparel labeled “Trendy camouflage sportswear for women and girls – Look good killin’ it!” I wondered how a selection of Meat Treats brand dog chews, nuggets and sticks fit in until I realized the merchandise was actually intended for human consumption.

But thanks to my Gander experience I now own a new pair of Gore-Tex-fortified Vasque hiking boots (retail $130 but marked down to $60). Although one day I hope to upgrade to high end Italian footwear of another style (heels, maybe?), I’m pretty pumped about my camping and hiking excursion this weekend and am already daydreaming about exploring Patagonian landscapes next year now that I’ve got the gear. Now excuse me because I'm off to trek around my New London Commons subdivision in an effort to break them in by Friday.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Journey through the wilderness

This weekend we chugged along at 11 mph on the Cheat Mountain Salamander Train through perhaps the vastest expanse of wilderness remaining on the East Coast. For six hours, we were confined to the Victorian-era train as it snaked through spruce forests too harsh for permanent civilization and a 19th-century tunnel hand-carved into a quarter mile of solid rock in an s-shape.

I didn't spot any of the advertised black bears on our journey from Elkins, W.Va. to the Cheat Bridge, but I learned that Cheat Mountain either earned its name because the land cheated so many early loggers of their lives or because cheat sounds like the Native American word for rocks. We stopped to explore the High Falls of the Cheat and again to let a AAA tour group catch their bus by the Cheat Mountain Club, where turn-of-the-century aristocrats like Henry Ford and Thomas Edison got their fishing and hunting fixes.

Cheat Mountain interests my family because during the Civil War one of my great grandfathers named George Ward managed to sneak over the mountain away from his Confederate infantry every weekend to visit his wife in Mill Creek. One day the Union Army captured him and held him in a prisoner of war camp. When he caught tuberculosis, they allowed him to return to his family on the condition that he swore an oath of allegiance to the Union saying that he would never again take up arms against his country. Back home he shared his illness with his wife and children. They all died, except for one child.

.... and that's why we're Wards today.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Blind Walmart runs and coconut cake

I’ve been in West Virginia less than 48 hours, and I’ve already made a Walmart run. But I didn’t actually go to buy stuff -- my optometrist’s office just happens to be located inside a Walmart (even worse, I know).

I dread getting new contacts because the doctor insists on dilating my eyes, which leaves me blind and utterly useless for the next three hours. As a glasses-wearing child I couldn’t even see clearly enough after my exam to pick out my new frames. I cringe remembering how I was left to the mercy of the fashion sense of my parents and a well-meaning office assistant.

Yesterday my mom had to pick up some things inside Walmart after my exam, meaning that she had to lead me through the store like a helpless blind puppy dog, terrified that I might unknowingly pass someone I knew without so much as a nod or a wave while she was reading me the descriptions on the shaving cream bottles or pulling me through the produce aisle.

When I regained my sight that afternoon, I had the brilliant idea to cook dinner for my parents. I thought I could give them a reason to believe I do possess some domestic skills.

In Barcelona, I watched friends make salads with romaine or a darker, leafier green that they doused heavily with vinegar and olive oil (gourmet versions, naturally, as we were in the Mediterranean). They tossed in nuts and possibly some dried raisins or sultans, maybe a few halved cherry tomatoes and some sort of cheese (exotic by U.S. terms -- a mild blue-bell variety or something from a goat or sheep). They finished by generously sprinkling in sea salt and grinding on pepper.

I made my best imitation, tossing together organic mixed baby greens, walnuts, goat cheese, dried cranberries and avocado. I served it with my attempt to recreate fresh-from-the-corner-bakery Spanish bread rubbed with tomato innards, olive oil and sea salt.

Judging by the quiet chewing, my parents weren’t too impressed. I think my dad only finished his portion because I threw in an unhealthy amount of Craisins in an underhanded effort to appeal to his insatiable sweet tooth. Neither he nor my mom appreciated the (entire) avocado I added. At least they appeared to enjoy the bread, although they mentioned it would have been tastier toasted.

My dad and I also baked a coconut cake. I found it funny that he was so proud of our creation despite the fact that it came from a Duncan Hines box. I suppose choosing to build a layered version and adding homemade frosting upped the difficulty level. We were so clueless that we accidentally made a German chocolate cake icing recipe from our thick, ancient copy of
The Joy of Cooking (which I find impossibly intimidating), imagining that it would be a fluffy, white frosting of flaked coconut.

Now I simply must see the new Julia Child movie (with Meryl Streep!) to inspire further culinary endeavors ...

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Back Home

I am back in West Virginia. If you told me five years ago or five weeks ago that I’d be living in Hurricane, W.Va., I’d have shuddered in disbelief. It’s not that there’s anything inherently wrong with my home state or hometown, but I just thought I’d moved on. I never thought that as a 23-year-old college grad I’d move back in with my parents.

But honestly I’m okay with it. Since leaving home five years ago at 18 years-old, I’ve lived in 12 different apartments with 14 different roommates. I’ve grown accustomed to periodically stuffing most of what I own into my car or a pair of suitcases. I’ve visited eight new countries and lived in three of them. I've moved in with proper, fashion oblivious British vegetarians and polo-playing, tweed-wearing Spanish aristocrats.

I’ve suffered an Argentine winter in heatless apartments so cold that I slept in three layers and woke up to find my hamster frozen to death. I’ve spent weeks checking in and out of Italian dormitory hostels, taking chilly showers and living out of a locked suitcase. I’ve come home to a closet-sized bedroom wallpapered with teddy bear cherubs in uptown Barcelona. I’ve covered my head with a pillow when my Peruvian roommates brought home a couple of French guys they met at a bar for Quilmes beer and joints at 4 a.m. I’ve stepped over homeless men to enter my home near the Argentine capitol building, a circus of an apartmento where I shared a bed with my friend.

In coastal Charleston I’ve had a racist southern belle for a roommate who threatened me with lawsuits and once almost threw a punch at me wearing only her pink, monogrammed bath towel. (I asked her to move her Mercedes Benz that blocked the driveway when she was late for a sorority mixer.) And just this summer the thermometer in my bedroom at times read 90+ degrees. My subleased apartment housed five sweet yet flea-ridden feral cats and a malfunctioning gas stove that once burst into flames.

Now living back home for awhile before I move to Chile in January will be a sort of luxury. It wasn’t my first choice -- but a reasonable decision in a poor economy when no publishing company (or Burger King, for that matter) wants to hire someone who’ll be off to South America in five months. No, Teays Valley is no Barcelona, Buenos Aires, Oxford or even Charleston, S.C., but I predict I’ll have plenty to write about. For the next few months I’ll be recording my experiences trying to find some humor, beauty and even a pocket of culture or two back in suburban West Virginia, a place where in 2009 no one seems to care that the local high school’s mascot is still the redskins, the nearest Starbucks is a 20-minute drive away and the Olive Garden is considered fine Italian dining.