Monday, April 16, 2018

DJIBOUTI





READ



Quick – tell me everything you know about Djibouti! You may be better informed than I am, but about the only thing I knew for sure before this week’s reading was that Djibouti is in Africa. One thing I love about this project, though, is that it’s filling in so many holes in my knowledge base. Reading Abdourahman A. Waberi’s Passage of Tears taught me about this tiny country’s history and culture, as well as its strategic importance to countries in Africa, Europe, the Middle East, and even to the United States, which set up a military base in Djibouti in 2001.

Djibouti, a country about the size of Vermont, is on the east coast of the African continent, bordered by Eritrea, Ethiopia, and Somalia. What surprised me, however, when looking at the map, was Djibouti’s close proximity to the Middle Eastern country of Yemen, which is a scant eighteen miles away. The two countries are separated by a strait called the Bab-el-Mandeb (“Gate of Tears”). The distance is so small that plans have been discussed to build a bridge connecting Djibouti and Yemen.

The protagonist in Passage of Tears, Djib (short for Djibril), was born and raised in Djibouti, but left behind his parents and twin brother Djamal fifteen years ago to move to Montreal, Canada. He works for an economic intelligence firm and is back in Djibouti to analyze the country for a company interested in its uranium potential. According to Djib, “My mission consists in feeling out the temperature on the ground, making sure the country is secure, the situation stable and the terrorists under control.” He feels confident in his ability to put together the necessary reports, but the longer he’s in Djibouti, the more the country seems to resurrect old memories and fears.

Woven in between the chapters narrated by Djib are the writings of a condemned inmate in a nearby prison. This inmate is the scribe for a man he refers to as his venerable Master, and they are both facing execution because of their involvement with an Islamic terrorist organization called the New Way. The inmate knows everything about Djib’s movements from the moment he arrives in Djibouti, and he is extremely critical of Djib’s life in the Western world. His writings become increasingly ominous the longer Djib remains in Djibouti.

In addition to the book’s obvious themes, such as the clashes between cultures and the difficulty in going home after a long absence, Passage of Tears invokes the work of German Jewish philosopher Walter Benjamin throughout. Djib appreciates the work of Benjamin because of “his encyclopedic mind, his intuitive method and, above all, by his conception of history, which was not theoretical or arid in the least.” The condemned inmate discovers the story of Benjamin, who spent years on the run from the Nazis before finally committing suicide, in an old account left behind by a previous inmate. It takes on a special meaning for him: “What is this book if not a homage to the human spirit and its immense aura?”

Passage of Tears held my interest and taught me things I never knew. What more can one ask of a book?

COOK


There wasn’t much mention of food in Passage of Tears. In one recollection from his childhood, Djib talks of eating “a paper cone full of peanuts or hot spicy fritters.” I did an Internet search for recipes from Djibouti and found one for fritters, although not the hot spicy variety. The recipe, from InternationalCuisine.com, was for banana fritters. It seemed like they would be simple enough to make, with only a few ingredients and a minimum of preparation and cooking time required. The picture that accompanied the recipe showed something that looked like a stack of pancakes, but that’s not how my fritters turned out. Mine were kind of gooey on the inside, and if I were to make this recipe again, I’d try putting all the ingredients in the blender to make a smoother fritter. You win some, you lose some.





GIVE


GlobalGiving.com doesn’t have any projects in Djibouti, so I had to search the Internet for another option. It wasn’t easy because, even though many organizations have projects in Djibouti, they are generally operating throughout Africa and it’s not possible to designate my donation specifically for Djibouti. I finally found a GoFundMe project to raise funds for a school serving 150 homeless children in Djibouti. More information about this project can be found at https://www.gofundme.com/supporteducationforall.



NEXT STOP: DOMINICA

Friday, April 6, 2018

DENMARK





READ




I love thrillers and suspense novels, but somehow, I managed to miss Peter Høeg’s Smilla’s Sense of Snow when it was an international bestseller back in the 1990s. When I was looking for a book to read from Denmark for this project, it seemed like the perfect choice.

Smilla Jasperson is a scientist who is originally from Greenland, but is living in Copenhagen. In the same apartment building lives a young boy, Isaiah, who is also from Greenland, and his alcoholic mother. Smilla’s not really into children, but since Isaiah’s mother is rarely in any condition to care for him, Smilla ends up spending more and more time with him. When she comes home one day and discovers that he has fallen off the roof and is lying dead in the snow, she doesn’t believe it was an accident. Feeling that she owes it to Isaiah, she undertakes her own investigation to figure out why he was on the roof and what caused him to fall off.

Ice and snow play a major role in the plot, and these are elements Smilla has a sixth sense about, not merely because of her scientific studies about glaciers and seawater ice, but because of her childhood experiences in Greenland with her mother, an Inuit. She also has an uncanny gift for navigation. Smilla will have to call upon all of her knowledge and skills as she seeks the truth about Isaiah’s death. At times, I found the scientific discussions to be tedious, but the plot and the characters kept me interested in spite of those technical interludes.

I was especially interested to learn about the relationship between Denmark and its former colony, Greenland. Greenlanders who live in Denmark are mostly Inuit people, and they are very different in both appearance and culture, from the Danes. Friction resulting from these differences figures into the plot of Smilla’s Sense of Snow, in large part because Smilla herself is both Inuit and Danish.

This was a very satisfying book, with both a gripping plot and a wealth of information about things I hadn’t known before, and I’d be interested in reading more works by this author.

COOK

I had hoped to make a type of Danish cookie called spekulaas for this blog post, since a woman that Smilla interviews about Isaiah’s disappearance is baking them during Smilla’s visit. I found a recipe for a vegan version, but the recipe’s creator seemed to have left out some information I needed. Instead, I found a recipe for vegan Danish butter cookies on a blog called Wallflower Kitchen, and boy, are they good! A few notes about the recipe:

1.       The measurements are in grams, so I converted them to cups: 7/8 cup vegan butter; 1 cup   
        powdered sugar plus a little bit; and 2-1/2 cups flour.

2.       The temperature in the recipe is given in degrees centigrade. For Fahrenheit, the correct  
        temperature is 350 degrees.

3.       Corn flour, in this recipe, refers to cornstarch.

4.       I didn’t have a cookie press, so I just rolled out the dough and used cookie cutters.

I am never making these cookies again because they are so good that I can’t seem to stop stuffing them in my mouth. If you decide to make them, consider yourself warned!




GIVE


GlobalGiving had only one project listed for Denmark, but it turned out to be the perfect one to go with the book I read for this post. Blue Cross Denmark offers a program that provides support to the children of alcoholics, such as little Isaiah in Smilla’s Sense of Snow. According to the project description, “[o]ne in ten Danish children is negatively affected by parental alcohol consumption, and at least 122,000 Danish children grow up in families with outright abuse.” Two community centers operated by Blue Cross Denmark provide children with the opportunity to spend their free time in a safe environment, where they can receive counseling or talk with other children who are experiencing similar situations. More information about this project is available at https://www.globalgiving.org/projects/support-for-children-of-alcoholics-in-denmark/.



NEXT STOP: DJIBOUTI

Thursday, March 22, 2018

CZECH REPUBLIC






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Many years ago, I read Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being and loved it. The characters, the plot, and Kundera’s beautiful writing made a lasting impression on me. That made it easy to decide which Czech Republic author I’d read for this week’s blog post. Kundera has written a few more books since The Unbearable Lightness of Being, and the one I chose is Ignorance.

The book tells the story of people who fled the country then known as Czechoslovakia after the communists took over during a Soviet-led invasion. First there is Irena who, along with her husband Martin, settles in Paris. They build a life for themselves and their two daughters. But Martin develops a terminal illness and dies, leaving Irena to navigate life in Paris and care for their daughters on her own. Then there is Josef, who moves to Denmark after he leaves Czechoslovakia. He marries and has a good life as a veterinarian, but his spouse also dies.

Irena and Josef cross paths when they each decide to visit their homeland after the fall of communism. Irena sees Josef at the airport and remembers having met him at a bar in Prague many years ago, a meeting that was very memorable to her. She approaches Josef and reminds him of their previous encounter, and although he plays along, he has no recollection of ever having met her. Nevertheless, they agree to meet up at some point while they’re both in Prague.

As they visit with their respective friends and relatives over the next few days, they experience the discomfort one feels upon returning to a place that used to be familiar and finding that it’s changed, or maybe it’s just that they themselves have changed. Irena’s old friends show no interest in what she’s been doing while she’s been away. They have no frame of reference for the life she’s lived in Paris, so they’re only interested in the person she was before she left. Josef visits his mother’s grave and is surprised to see graves for many relatives he didn’t know had died. He realizes it’s because he had ceased to exist to those he left behind, so they felt no obligation to stay in touch with him.

Irena and Josef finally arrange their rendezvous, and they share the feelings of alienation they’ve had since their return to Prague. They each have their own expectations about what they want from this meeting, but having had similar experiences may not be enough to overcome their lack of a shared history.

Kundera interweaves mentions of The Odyssey into the plot, which serve to amplify the book’s themes of exile and alienation. After such a long time away, maybe one really can’t go home again.

COOK

I don’t recall seeing any Czech food mentions or descriptions while reading Ignorance, so I took to the Internet to find some vegan Czech recipes. I found one on the Czech Vegan (in America) blog that sounded perfect : vegan Czech goulash with bread dumplings. The goulash is made using Gardein Beefless Tips and a variety of spices (which gave me an opportunity to visit one of my favorite Sacramento shops – the Allspicery). I really liked the goulash and might actually make it again in the future.

The bread dumplings were another story. For starters, the recipe made way more dough than I needed, so if you decide to try it, I would recommend cutting the recipe in half. Also, I didn’t like boiling the dough in loaves, as opposed to dropping spoonfuls into the boiling water, which would have taken less time to cook and ensured that the dumplings were done all the way through. They turned out okay, but I probably won’t make them again.




GIVE

There was only one project listed on GlobalGiving for the Czech Republic, but it was a good one. If you’ve ever spent time as a patient in a hospital, you know how boring it can be and how slowly the time passes. An organization called Lekorice combats that problem by sending volunteers into Thomayers Hospital in Prague with games, projects, and even therapy animals to help keep the patients happy and not fretting about their illnesses. They visit approximately 3,000 patients a year, mostly children or the elderly, and they also offer art programs, lectures, and performances. More information about this project, “In hospital with Licorice,” is available at https://www.globalgiving.org/projects/in-hospital-with-licorice/.



NEXT STOP: DENMARK

Thursday, March 15, 2018

CYPRUS





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As Census, by Panos Ioannides, opens, a married couple picks up a hitchhiker while on their way to visit a friend in the small Cypriot village of Spilia. The husband is a 35-year-old war correspondent, who has been deeply affected by his experiences during his most recent assignment abroad, but he refuses to tell anyone what’s troubling him. His 25-year-old wife is hiding a dark secret of her own. The young man they pick up, a musician from the Greek island of Patmos, is traveling to visit artist friends in Spilia. The lives of all of these characters will become intertwined in numerous ways.

The names of the characters alert the reader to the fact that the book’s plot will involve biblical themes. The husband’s name is Joseph, the wife is Maria, the guitarist from Patmos is Michael, and the couple he is going to visit are the Archangielsks. There will be a pregnancy, a birth, a death, a disappearance and a return. I have to say, though, that it wasn’t entirely clear to me what message the author was trying to convey.

Having said that, I enjoyed reading about life in this little Cypriot village. Descriptions of the art the Archangielsks are restoring in a local chapel, long conversations over a bounty of food and drink, and long walks in the snow paint a pretty picture of an idyllic way of life. Underneath the beauty, though, is a cauldron of swirling unrest: a meddling priest, a distrust of strangers, unease over a missing friend, and the crumbling relationship between Joseph and Maria. Now that I think of it, that could describe small towns anywhere.

Census begins in the realm of the ordinary, but turns to the metaphysical as the story progresses. I tend to be more down-to-earth and pragmatic myself, but for those who enjoy more transcendental themes, this book may be for you.

READ


There were many dishes in Census that were vegan or could have been made vegan. Trahana soup made with bulgur, flaounas (pastries traditionally made for Easter), and an assortment of small dishes called a meze were all eaten by characters in the book. Even before I started reading, though, I had looked for Cypriot recipes on the International Vegetarian Union website and found one that I really wanted to try, an olive rosemary flatbread. I couldn’t find green Kalamata olives, so I used black Kalamatas instead, and since I really don’t like onions, I substituted the less offensive leek for the onion. The bread turned out tasty, but pretty dry. I don’t think the recipe called for enough liquid, so if I were to make it again, I’d probably add another one-fourth to one-half cup of water or olive oil.




GIVE


GlobalGiving doesn’t have any projects in Cyprus, so I searched the Internet to see what I could find on other websites. Since cancer plays a big role in the plot of Census, it seemed fitting to donate to TULIPS TRNC and the Help Those with Cancer Association. TULIPS offers a wide variety of services to those suffering from cancer, and was instrumental in setting up the oncology ward at Lefkoşa State Hospital. More information about TULIPS TRNC is available at http://www.tulips-trnc.com/.



NEXT STOP: CZECH REPUBLIC

Sunday, February 25, 2018

CUBA




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The setting for the book I chose for Cuba, Dancing to “Almendra,” by Mayra Montero, is the Cuba I recall from watching the movie The Godfather: Part II.  Casinos, extravagant entertainment, mafiosi, and corruption took center stage, while Castro’s revolution percolated in the background.
The book’s protagonist is a 22-year-old reporter named Joaquin Porrata, who is frustrated at being assigned to the entertainment beat when what he really wants to do is cover the mob bosses who have converged on Havana. He thinks he has found his chance when an employee at the Havana Zoo tells him that the escape and subsequent death of the zoo’s hippopotamus had been a warning to mobster Umberto Anastasia. Unfortunately, the message arrived too late, as Anastasia had been killed in a New York barbershop that same day.
Joaquin changes newspapers in order to be allowed to write about the mob, and his life becomes both more exciting and more dangerous. He develops an infatuation for a one-armed woman who may or may not have been the mistress of Mafia boss Santo Trafficante, gets beaten up by mob enforcers twice, and crosses paths with the American actor George Raft, part owner of the Capri hotel and casino.
The title of the book refers to a popular Cuban song called “Almendra.” It takes on significance for Joaquin when, as a teenager, he sees the mother of his best friend, a woman he’s had a crush on since childhood, dancing to “Almendra” with a man who figures prominently in the book.
I enjoyed learning more about the years and events leading up to the Cuban revolution. Now, though, I’d be interested in reading a novel by a Cuban author about life in Cuba since the revolution. Any suggestions?

COOK

When one of the early chapters in “Dancing to Almendra described the meal of pink flamingos, turtles, crabs, and oysters that was being prepared for a group of mob bosses, I assumed I wouldn’t find any inspiration for a vegan dish in the book. Turns out I was wrong. On New Year’s Eve, Joaquin has dinner at the home of one-armed Yolanda, and she gives him white rice and black beans. I found a Vegetarian Times recipe for Cuban-style black beans with rice and plantains that looked pretty good, so I gave it a try. The recipe called for instant brown rice instead of white rice, and I added a little dollop of vegan sour cream for garnish. It was a very satisfying meal, and the sautéed plantains served on top of the beans were a nice touch.

GIVE

GlobalGiving’s website listed two projects for Cuba, both offering relief to Cubans affected by last year’s Hurricane Irma. I chose the project administered by Global Links, which is working to “deliver medical equipment and supplies that will support health services and hospitals damaged by Hurricane Irma.” These resources will help, not only in the short-term, but will “work to the strengthen the public health system to improve long term sustainability.” More information about Global Links’ Hurricane Irma relief work in Cuba is available at https://www.globalgiving.org/projects/hurricane-irma-recovery-in-cuba/.

NEXT STOP: CYPRUS





Tuesday, February 20, 2018

COLOMBIA REVISITED



I just returned from a trip to Medellin, Colombia, where my husband Phil and I went to visit our son and his family and celebrate the first birthday of our little grandson.


When I wrote my original blog post about Colombia, I donated to the E2E Foundation for the “Give” portion of the article. The E2E Foundation has a few different projects in Medellin, but the one that I chose was the Huertas Urbanas, which helps to create urban gardens in the impoverished Comuna 8 neighborhood. When I was planning my trip to Medellin, I asked Miranda at GlobalGiving whether it might be possible for me to visit the garden project. She kindly connected me with the good people at the E2E Foundation and I arranged to see some of the Comuna 8 gardens.

An enthusiastic volunteer named Stephanie met Phil and I at the San Antonio metro station and we took a light-rail train to Comuna 8. Our first stop was a garden called “Cerro de los Valores,” or “Hill of Values.” Stephanie called this a training garden that was started by members of the community and is now receiving assistance from the E2E Foundation. It was a gorgeous garden, full of colorful sculptures and both ornamental and edible plants. I would have loved to have wandered through the entire plot, but we had another stop to make.


The second stop was so much fun! We went to a local school, Vida para Todos, to do some gardening with a group of 11th grade students. Stephanie had a lively discussion with them and their wonderful teacher Jose about the hows and whys of planting vegetables, and then they got started on the school’s garden plot. After a little time spent preparing the soil and pulling weeds, Stephanie handed out zucchini seeds for the students to sow. I’m hoping to see pictures of thriving zucchini plants in the not-too-distant future!


The students could not have been any more delightful, even though Phil and I couldn’t speak much Spanish and the students didn’t know much English. The girls wanted before and after pictures of the group, one while they were still clean and one showing their dirty hands after working in the garden.


By encouraging the planting of vegetable gardens at schools and in the community, the E2E Foundation is hopeful that the people of Comuna 8 will be able to not only feed their families, but sell the excess to a local chef who has offered to serve the gardens’ bounty in his restaurant.

Donations to the Huertas Urbanas project help to pay for seeds, tools, and gardening classes, among other things. These gardens are bright spots in this low-income neighborhood, providing hope and a sense of community pride, in addition to healthy food and a source of income.

More information about the Huertas Urbanas project is available at https://www.globalgiving.org/projects/huertas-urbanas-medellin/

Regular blogging will resume soon with a post about Cuba.

Wednesday, January 31, 2018

CROATIA




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The hardest thing for me in writing this post about Croatia is figuring out how to describe the book I read, Dubravka Ugrešić’s The Museum of Unconditional Surrender. There’s no plot, and the writing doesn’t follow a linear, chronological path. Instead, the book consists of a series of recollections. The shorter ones are numbered, and the longer ones have their own chapter or subchapter names.

The Museum of Unconditional Surrender opens with an item about Roland the walrus, an inhabitant of the Berlin zoo, whose stomach contents were inventoried after he died. The list is too lengthy to go into here, but Roland had ingested a surprising variety of non-food items, including a cigarette lighter, a child’s water pistol, a bunch of keys, and a pair of sunglasses, just to name a few. The narrator is inclined to look for some kind of subtle, secret connections among the objects, and suggests the reader do the same with this book: “The chapters and fragments which follow should be read in a similar way. If the reader feels that there are no meaningful or firm connections between them, let him be patient: the connections will establish themselves of their own accord.”

As I read the book, it became clear that the narrator’s theme is exile and the sense of not belonging. Raised in Yugoslavia when it was still a federation of countries, including Croatia, the narrator has become a writer unable to return to her country because she wrote “something I shouldn’t have” when the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s led to the break-up of the country. She writes of travelling to Lisbon, Portugal, “with a huge amount of luggage, or entirely without luggage, depending on how you looked at it. I had lost my homeland. I had not yet got used to the loss, nor to the fact that my homeland was the same, but different. In just one year I had lost my home, my friends, my job, the possibility of returning soon, but also the desire to return.”

The narrator shares vignettes of many of the places she has visited, both before and during her exile. The book also includes musings by or about her mother, who moved as a young woman from Bulgaria to Yugoslavia. The mother has grown fearful of leaving her house, so her world has shrunk at the same time her daughter’s world has expanded as a result of her exile. In both cases, there is a strong feeling of alienation.

In the end, just as the narrator had promised, the connections among the book’s fragments did indeed “establish themselves of their own accord.”

COOK

The text of the book actually includes a recipe, so how could I not prepare it? When the narrator’s mother talks of the poverty of her early married life, she says, “Those were lean years. People shopped with coupons. The only material you could buy was homespun. There was nothing. No-thing! They were hungry … They cooked paupers’ food …”. When the narrator asks what paupers’ food is, her mother replies, “Caraway soup.” And that’s literally what it is: soup made from oil, flour, water, and spices, including caraway seeds, then topped with homemade croutons. I didn’t use the recipe in the book, since I wouldn’t be able to reprint it here without running afoul of copyright laws. Instead, I found a recipe for Croatian flour soup, which is similar, on the Genius Kitchen website. I left out the optional egg white, and made the appropriate conversions from grams to teaspoons or tablespoons (1 tablespoon of oil, ¾ teaspoon of paprika, 1 teaspoon of caraway seeds). I liked the soup more than I expected to, but probably not enough to make it again.



GIVE

No projects were listed for Croatia on the GlobalGiving website, so I looked to see what I could find on the Internet. I discovered an organization right here in Northern California with the stated purpose of developing “leaders for Croatia’s future by providing financial assistance to highly qualified students of Croatian origin, living in Croatia or Bosnia and Herzegovina, so that they may attend a university in Croatia or in Bosnia and Herzegovina.” More information about this organization, the Croatian Scholarship Fund, is available at http://www.croatianscholarship.org/.



NEXT STOP: CUBA