Monthly Archives: April 2014

The glass is always full

Stuck in the refill loop.

Stuck in the refill loop.

I got a coffee at the café the other day (yes, my life is full of excitement). It was your no-nonsense American black filtered coffee, served in a utilitarian white mug. I washed it down in no time. And then I asked for another. What I got was not another cup of coffee, but a REFILL.

The “refill” is a quintessentially American practice. It applies not only to coffee, but also to soft drinks (sadly, not alcoholic drinks… that would be a delightful but disastrous business model). You buy the drink once, then refill it to your heart’s desire without ever being charged for a second, third, fourth, or fifth cup.

If you’re at a diner, the coffee refill is likely to be repeatedly offered to you by a smiling, middle-aged, rotund waitress who perpetually circulates around the tables with a coffee pot in hand. If you’re at a fast food restaurant, you’ll probably have to get up to refill your own soda (yes, Americans drink several sodas in a row). But either way, you ain’t paying for it. Just like drinking water, it comes free and plenty.

Now some Europeans would say that the reason you get so many coffees is because you might as well be drinking water. For sure the coffee your’e getting free refills of isn’t an espresso or a cappuccino. It’s probably a pretty weak brew. Which is why you’ll likely agree to another. And you’ll never see the bottom of your cup for long.

3 Comments

Filed under Food, Service

Second floor, please

But the second floor is so far away!

But the second floor is so far away!

I often prefer to take the stairs, rather than the elevator or escalator, especially if I am only going up a couple of floors. I find that it is usually faster to walk up a few flights of stairs from the first floor to the second floor, rather than press the elevator button, stand there and watch the numbers change as the elevator slowly works its way down from the 7th floor, wait for all the people to file out, get in the elevator, press another button, watch the doors close, watch the doors open again as someone manages to slip in at the last minute, and then stop at every single floor on the way up to your destination.

So that’s why when I was running late the other day for a doctor’s appointment located on the second floor, rather than wait around for the elevator to take me up, I decided to just dash up the stairs. Quick! Except… I couldn’t find the stairs. They were nowhere to be seen. Surely there must be a stairwell; it is impossible for there to be a building without stairs. I opened several doors located near the elevators, but none of them led to stairs. I had no choice but to take the elevator up. As I waited for it to arrive (7… 6… 5…), I thought to myself, what do people in this building do in case of a fire?

Obviously there must have been stairs in that building, but the point is, they were well out of sight and clearly nobody was taking them. It was then that I realized the “hidden stair phenomenon” is a distinctly American thing. It is something I only noticed since I returned to the US and repeatedly found myself in buildings where I wanted to take the stairs but couldn’t because… I couldn’t find them. The elevator is presented as the only option.

In most European buildings, the stairs are clearly marked and are located immediately next to the elevators; people are given a choice between the two, and often choose the stairs, especially if they are only going up one or two floors. (Indeed, in some older buildings, the stairs are the only option.)  Not so in America, where physical activity has been removed from daily life, and people don’t even think about taking the elevator from the first floor to the second floor; it is just the default method of moving your mass up.

Which is why it is necessary to pay $70 per month for a gym membership… so you can use the  StairMaster machine to simulate the feeling and fitness of stairs on occasion.

3 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized

Not So Good Friday

When I lived in the UK, I always looked forward to the double bank holiday weekend around Easter Sunday. In case you are wondering what a “bank holiday” is, it is a public holiday in the UK, so called because the banks close, as do most offices. Some bank holidays occur on religious or national holidays, such as Christmas or New Year’s Day, whereas other bank holidays don’t seem to represent any “holiday” at all – the first Monday in May, for example, is always the “early May bank holiday” and the last Monday in May is the “spring bank holiday.” Nobody can explain what the “holiday” actually is, but nobody cares, because it’s a day off.

But of course it’s clear what Easter Sunday celebrates (the arrival of the Easter bunny, right?), and in the UK, Easter is always a four day weekend, because Good Friday (the Friday preceding Easter Sunday) and East Monday (the Monday after Easter Sunday) are both bank holidays. So, nearly everyone takes time off work and many people go away for the weekend or visit their families. Likewise in Canada, Good Friday is a federal statutory holiday.

NOT SO IN THE U.S. of A., where neither Good Friday nor Easter Monday are federal holidays. Office workers continue to type away in their cubicles, postal workers continue to deliver mail, bank clerks continue to process checks, and federal and state government workers continue to do whatever it is federal and state government workers do (although I read online that apparently some states do celebrate it as a state holiday). And of course every supermarket and retail establishments remains open, lest observant Americans be prevented from engaging in the holiest of activities, shopping for Easter candy and baskets.

Easter Sunday is on a Sunday, and Sunday is already your day off, so what more do you want? Now get back to work.

 

1 Comment

Filed under Holiday

Identiticapples

I love you exactly as you are.

I love you exactly as you are.

At the supermarket last night I went to the produce section to get some apples. I was standing next to the tower of apples, I had torn off one of those plastic produce bags from the roll, and I was about to pick out which apples I wanted to put in my bag, like any good woman around the world shopping for fresh produce.

But, as my hand reached toward the stack of apples, and I looked more closely at the gleaming row of fruit, I suddenly realized that I did not need to pick out the apples; indeed, I could not pick out the apples – because all of the apples were exactly the same. It didn’t matter which ones I selected from the pyramid of perfect produce; all of them were shiny, round, and free of any dent, bruise, or blemish. There was simply no need to pick them up, hold them, feel them, smell them, check them, or select your favorites.

But in many other places in the world, that is exactly what you do when you shop for fruits and vegetables! In France, you can’t shop at the local market for fresh fruit and veg without making a big scene out of examining and selecting the right ones. It is a whole activity unto itself that usually involves lengthy banter with the grocer about what is in season, what is best, and what discount he will give you on that punnet of overripe raspberries which you plan to make into a tart.

In many African markets, the produce for sale is also grown locally, but usually without fertilizers or pesticides, so no two avocados or carrots look alike; indeed, they are likely to vary vastly in shape, size, color, and ripeness. You might see a gnarly carrot with two or three points; a cucumber twisted into a U-shape; or a lumpy contortionist potato.

It is absolutely necessary to examine each and every fruit or vegetable you plan to buy to determine which one is the least bruised, wilted, or deformed. And, while conducting this careful cross-examination, the good African market shopper maintains an air of total disinterest in the produce – indeed probably actively insults the quality of the goods – as a negotiating strategy for when it comes time to talk price with the market woman who is hawking the goods.

Well, not so in the United States of AMERICA. I suppose a combination of genetic modification, highly commodified farming practices, stringent selection standards by large supermarket chains, and consumer demands for perfection mean that fruit and vegetables have lost their individuality (and probably also their flavor).

The end result? I just shoved the first four apples in reach into my bag.

 

2 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized

Chicken fried steak

Vegetables to be used sparingly.

Vegetables to be used sparingly.

Texas used to be an independent republic before joining the United States in 1845. Among other things Texas does differently from the rest of the country, I wonder if it should also have its own food pyramid. Rather than using the standard USDA food pyramid, with grains and vegetables at the base, the foundation of the Texan food pyramid would be MEAT.

Meat is so important in Texas cuisine that it’s not enough to just eat fried chicken. People here also eat fried steak.  (Not to mention fried pickles, fried okra, fried Twinkies, and a whole slew of other things you never thought could be fried.)

How, do you ask, does one fry steak? A thin cut of beefsteak (usually a less expensive cut) is tenderized, breaded in a seasoned flour, and then deep fried. Apparently it is called “chicken fried” steak because it is cooked in oil that has already been used to fry chicken.

It is really not too dissimilar from Austrian wiener schnitzel (which is made from veal), and indeed the speculated origins of Texan chicken fried steak are 19th century Austrian and German immigrants to Texas.

Chicken fried steak (aka “CFS”) is typically served with pepper cream gravy (because, clearly, there weren’t enough calories in there already) and – in accordance with the Texas food pyramid – a token side serving of vegetables.

1 Comment

Filed under Food

Frito pie

I'm speechless.

I’m speechless.

I’m glad I’m writing this post on April 11th and not April 1st, because otherwise I fear my readers might think it’s a joke. I assure you it is not. Last night I saw and ate – with my own eyes and mouth – a Frito pie. When in Texas, do as the Texans do.

When my Texan companions learned that I had never heard of “Frito pie,” less tasted it, they were shocked. It became obligatory for me to taste it that night. I did not know what to expect. Soon after we placed the order at the bar, a bowl appeared on the table, containing a bag of Frito-Lay brand chips that had been cut open.

Inside the bag was… a heart attack. The Frito corn chips had been topped with chili, cheese, sour cream, onion, and jalapeño peppers. Other possible toppings include refried beans, salsa, or pulled pork. Some of the corn chips get a bit soggy, but others stay crunchy.

I didn’t even know how to begin eating this thing. I stared at it, confused. Should I be picking up a fork? Am I meant to go at it with my hands? Maybe you just pick up the bag and shove your face directly into it? What was the appropriate dinner table etiquette in this situation? It was like being at a fancy dinner party and not knowing which fork to use for the oysters. Except we were sitting at a picnic table in a dive bar in Austin and the fork was plastic.

Sensing my hesitation, my friend jumped in and emptied the contents of the bag into the bowl and then handed me the fork. Had we been on the move and eating the Frito pie to go, then I could have eaten it directly out of the bag (still with a fork), in which case it is called a “walking taco” or “taco in a bag.”

It is also called a “stomach grenade.” For good reason. That pie is heavy. And salty. I think I might eat it again. Just not when sober.

4 Comments

Filed under Food

Carless

A carless person on the fringes of society.

A carless person on the fringes of society.

For the first time in my life, I’m in Texas. Growing up in Connecticut, my family never really had the means to take many family vacations, at least not far within the US (and certainly not abroad); we would usually just drive to the Pocono Mountains in Pennsylvania and stay in a rustic cabin by the lake for a week. Occasionally I would make trips to Missouri or Ohio to visit my grandparents. But, other than that, I saw very little of the US. Then I left the US when I was 18 and proceeded to travel to some 65+ countries across 5 continents over the next 15 years.

Now my very well traveled self has come back to the one region that I’ve barely seen at all: the United States. I’ve certainly visited far more countries in either Africa or Europe than states in the US. As I start to explore my own country, I see that each state is almost like its own country. OK, maybe not Connecticut and Rhode Island. But TEXAS is certainly a world onto its own. Texas deserves its own blog.

One thing I noticed immediately about the state “where everything is bigger” is the ultimate manifestation of American car-culture. More so than anywhere else I’ve been, the land is big, the roads are wide, everything is far apart, and you are hopeless without a car.

I learned a new vocabulary word shortly after getting off the plane. A middle aged couple were talking about making plans to meet some younger relative of theirs. The woman said in a hushed and concerned tone, “But she is carless.” She might as well have said that the girl had polio or had dropped out of school, because the man’s response was “Oh no, that is a problem.”

It’s not even a case of it being pedestrian unfriendly; it’s something much more fundamental than that. It’s as though without a car, you aren’t a person. The cars ARE the people. When you drive around (because you sure as hell aren’t walking around), you don’t see any people; you see cars.

I became so used to it that when I did spot a lone man walking along the side of the road in a suburban area, I was surprised and confused and asked my friend, “What is that man doing? Is he homeless?” And she responded, “No, he’s just carless.”

5 Comments

Filed under Transport