Monthly Archives: June 2014

Multi-Task Meals

Doesn't your sandwich deserve some one-on-one attention?

Doesn’t your sandwich deserve some attention?

One thing I’ve noticed since returning to the US is American people’s irreverence to food. And by this I mean a lack of respect for, or attention to, the act of eating, especially the consumption of meals.

It may surprise you to read this, because of course Americans are know for being big eaters, and indeed a significant portion of my posts on this blog are about various Americana food items (such as peanut butter) and how much Americans love them. Americans love to eat. I’m not saying they don’t love their food. They do. But they don’t treat it well or give it the time of day.

I’ve repeatedly noticed Americans doing other things while eating their meals, especially lunch – eating while typing on your computer, eating while making a phone call, eating while messaging on your smart phone, eating while walking, eating while standing up, eating while watching television, eating while reading a book, etc. At the office, it is very common to see people eating at their desks, but not only using their desk as a table – rather, they are facing their computer, with their food placed to the side, and are working at their computer while making sideways pecks on their food.

It’s is a though eating in and of itself isn’t a sufficiently important or worthwhile activity to be done solo. Why do you have to be doing something else while eating? Why don’t you just eat? Why don’t you sit down,  away from your computer / phone / TV / book, and just enjoy your meal?  I don’t enjoy my food unless I focus on it fully. I find it so unsatisfying to eat a meal while doing something else; at the end of it, I feel as though I haven’t eaten. I’m convinced this is part of the reason why many Americans are overweight – they don’t give their food, or the act of eating, the time of day.

I compare this to other countries I’ve lived in, where the thing that people do while eating is… eat. And, maybe, talk. In many European countries, the meal is a ritual. Many French people will sit down three times a day (at a table, whilst doing nothing else) to eat a meal; both lunch and dinner are hot meals that have been cooked and prepared. When I worked in an office in southern France, I remember my coworkers would take 1 to 1.5 hour lunch breaks to go to the restaurant next door and eat a full hot meal. I never saw anyone eating a sandwich at their computer.

When I worked in the Netherlands, the entire office would sit down at the kitchen table and eat lunch together as a team every day. The Dutch love sandwiches, so we we were eating a cold lunch, but the point is, time and importance were assigned to the meal. We would often spend a full 30 minutes sitting, eating together, and talking. In some of the African countries where I lived, I noticed that often people don’t even talk during a meal – people are so focused on the food, and the act of eating, that they go silent. In the beginning, I would try to make conversations during a meal. I quickly realized that people were often annoyed that I was talking; I was distracting them from their enjoyment of the food by making them respond. Just shut up and eat.

So, next time you American reader eat a meal, please try just eating a meal. And I really hope you haven’t been eating a sandwich while reading this.

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21:33

No risk of being 12 hours late for your train in Europe, where train times are shown on the 24-hour clock.

No risk of being 12 hours late for your train in Europe: train times are shown on the 24-hour clock.

One little thing that has been getting on my nerves since I returned to the US is the American way of telling time. Meaning this whole AM/PM business.

In most European countries (indeed, in most countries in the world), the 24-hour clock is used. This shockingly logical system divides the day into, uh, 24 hours and runs from midnight to midnight, indicating how many hours have passed since midnight. So, 8:30 “AM” is 08:30, 12 “PM” (noon) is 12:00, 2:15 “PM” is 14:15, 8 “PM” is 20:00, and at 12 “AM” (midnight) the clock goes back to 00:00.

This is what Americans would refer to as “military time.” Well, maybe the military wisely uses it because it makes sense and avoids confusion? The 12-hour clock, on the other hand, is ambiguous, cumbersome, and downright annoying. My biggest pet peeve is trying to check train times online and getting the wrong results because I have failed to select “PM” from the drop-down menu.

It seems the US likes to stubbornly persist in using systems that are out of sync with the rest of the world, like the imperial system. Great if those systems are vastly superior. But they’re not. They’re just a pain in the butt.

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Filed under Practicalities

SAVE NOW! Or not

Somehow I've managed to save more than I spent.

Somehow I’ve managed to save more than I spent.

I feel like every time I go into any store (and, actually, even when I don’t go into a store) I am bombarded with promotions about saving money. Macy’s Coupons, Deals, and Promos – SAVE NOW! Safeway: More Savings to Love. Washington Sports Club: Join Now and SAVE BIG! etc.

American retailers and consumers seem obsessed with saving. Oftentimes when you make a purchase, the receipt will even detail the discounts you received and contain a message saying “You saved $5.73!” or “TOTAL SAVED: $248.96.”

Except, the thing is, you didn’t save $248.96.

Rather, you actually just spent $154.96. Recall that saving is, after all, the exact opposite of spending. By going out and shopping, you are precisely not saving. If you had wanted to save your money, you shouldn’t have gone to Kohl’s and spent it.

Does nobody else realize this? Does this not bother anyone except me?

So, it seems what Americans love is not saving, but spending.  And rather than just admitting it, they like to fool themselves (or let themselves be fooled) that they are doing otherwise. You might as well offer someone two donuts for the price of one, tell them that they saved a dollar, and then when they eat both donuts, tell them they have lost weight.

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Walking on four wheels

Strip Mall

It’s a long walk to the cleaner’s.

I went home over the weekend to visit family and friends. We drove to the strip mall near the house. Actually, we could have walked, given that it is just less than one mile from the house. But, that was clearly out of the question. We were, after all, not carless.

We ate lunch in a sandwich place at one end of the strip mall and, after lunch, I fancied having an ice cream. The ice cream parlor is located at the other end of the strip mall. You can clearly see the ice cream place from the sandwich place. The strip mall is, after all, not much more than one tenth of a mile long (say, 500 feet).

So, we walked to the ice cream place. And by “walked,” I mean went went back to the car (which was parked right next to the sandwich shop), got in the car, drove to the other end of the strip mall, and re-parked the  car in front of the ice cream parlor. Because this is America, and that’s what you do. Why walk when you can drive? If you want exercise, just go to the gym, stupid.

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Filed under Shopping, Transport

Invented needs

I can't live without this.

I can’t live without this.

I get confused and overwhelmed every time I go to the drug store to buy bath and body care products. There seems to be something for  every beauty need, including needs that I didn’t even know I had, less existed in the first place. A friend of mine mentioned that she once bought a special conditioner designed for cleaning her special makeup brush. Think about that for a moment.

When I lived in Somaliland, I remember there was one ubiquitous soap. It was THE soap available for sale in every market or street stall. It was called Top Soap and it was a powdered soap that came in a box; you just added water and it became sudsy. There was also bar soap called Warda.

We used Top Soap to wash our dishes and also to wash our clothing (both of which we did by hand, of course). We also used it for household cleaning. The guys I lived with even used it in the shower for washing their hair and body. That was taking it a bit far for me (I had brought shampoo and conditioner from abroad).

But, my point is, Top Soap worked for everything. Because soap is, after all, SOAP. But that doesn’t seem to be the case in the US. Not only is there one type of soap for washing your clothes (“detergent”) and another type of soap for washing your dishes (“dish washing liquid”), but there are even multiple types of personal soap: hand soap, body soap, face soap, and hair soap (“shampoo”).

There also appear to be multiple ways of applying the personal soaps to your body, from a sponge to a loofah to a scrubber to a body brush. When I was living in Liberia, a friend of mine gave me a loose length of plastic mesh.  He used it for washing himself, and had cut off a piece of it and given it to me so I could do the same. It is nothing more than a long rectangle of polyester mesh, the same material that is used to make the mesh pouf sponges that hang in showers across America. It works as well as a shower loofah, or any other over-engineered self-cleansing shower accessory – all you do is rub a bit of soap on it (bar or powder, take your pick) and it quickly lathers up into a ball of soapy suds that you can use to wash your whole body (and hair, if you like).

In certain African countries, like Ghana and Ivory Coast, you’ll see vendors carrying strips of this polyester mesh on the street, and for a few cents they will cut off a stretch for you. Pair that with a bar of soap and, voilà, all of your personal hygiene needs are met.

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Filed under Consumerism

Basket of fried fun

Fried = fun.

Fried = fun.

One evening I went with a group of friends to a local dive bar, the sort of place where pitchers of beer are cheap and college students are abundant. We were all a bit hungry, so we had a look at the “menu,” which consisted of about five items: fried chicken, fried fish, french fries, onion rings, and mozzarella sticks. (Notice the common theme: FRIED.)

And there was one mysterious item on the menu: “Basket of Fried Fun.” Of course I had to order this. It turns out all of their menu items are served in a plastic basket lined with grease-blotting paper and no utensils (your hands are your utensils). The “Basket of Fried Fun” is simply such a basket containing a (delightful) combination of all of their fried food offerings, piled into heart-attack inducing bundle of joy. Yes, it was fried, and yes, it was fun. Only in America.

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My name is Kim, I’ll be your server and your BFF!

Flair

Serving you with 37 pieces of flair.

The US is known for its good standard of customer service, and famously so in restaurants. The good reputation is that in an American restaurant, you will get better service, get served more quickly, get the bill more quickly  (whether you like it or not), and, for the privilege of all this excellent service, you will have to pay a tip of 15 to 20% above and beyond the cost of the meal.

Compare this to my experience when I lived in France, where table “service” fully lived up to its negative Gallic reputation. The waiters, who were supposedly professional career waiters, often seemed annoyed by my very existence and begrudgingly served me. I have a distinct memory of being in the south of France with  my ex-boyfriend on a particularly wet and windswept day. Despite the inclement weather, we had gone for a stroll along the waterfront (he was English and stubborn like that) and, to dry off  a bit, we decided to stop into a beachfront restaurant for a glass of wine.

We walked in, folded our umbrellas, and the waiter seated us at a table. But when he came to take our order and realized we only wanted to have a couple glasses of wine and not eat a meal (mind you, it was the middle of the afternoon and not even mealtime), he promptly told us we would need to move to another table. The restaurant was not in the least bit busy and there were plenty of tables free. But, when we went to move to another table, he said we could not sit there either; those tables were also reserved for people ordering a full meal. Where, then, could we sit to drink our glass of wine? He explained to us that we were welcome to sit at any one of the tables… outside. Needless to say, we promptly left.

American wait service is a breath of fresh air in comparison. But sometimes it is too much. Waiters and waitresses can be over-attentive to the point of suffocation. Saturday night I went to a café with my friend; we wanted to order a tea and dessert. I think the waitress must have come to our table at least 4 or 5 times. At one point, she even pulled up a stool and sat down while she took our order. She told us about her boyfriend and joked about where I’d disappeared off to when I went to the bathroom. She asked us several times if we wanted anything else. YES, I would like for you to GO AWAY and leave us in peace to enjoy our tea.

In Europe, I think this level of “service” would be considered invasive. The waiter or waitress is there to serve you, while causing as little disruption as possible to your personal meal and conversation. But here in the US, not only do the wait staff personally introduce themselves (“Hi, my name is Kim, and I’ll be your server today!”), but they have to be absurdly enthusiastic about it, and repeatedly visit your table every 5 to 10 minutes to inquire (again) “Is everything okay here?”

I guess you just can’t win.

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Filed under Food, Service