Saturday, February 26, 2011

Canadian Culture: Lesson 1

The purpose of this post is to help non-Canadians have a better grasp of what life is like North of 49. Our culture is much richer and deeper than the stereotypical images of hockey players and Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) officers dressed in red serge. Today I would like to broaden your view of Canadians. I would like for you to think past maple syrup and beavers. Forget about visions of snow and ice.

Today I would like to draw your attention to an important area of Canadian life that has often been overlooked in the foreign press. This is an area in which we excel. In fact, we are number one in the world. If I am not talking about hockey you are no doubt wondering what I could possibly be referring to. Drumroll please........


Yes, Canadians consume more donuts than anyone else in the world. Not surprisingly, given our penchant for eating these harbingers of disease and premature death, we also have more donut stores per capita than any other country on the planet.

The number one supplier of our donut habit happens to be Tim Hortons. This popular chain extends from one end of the country to the other. There is not a segment of our society that hasn't been touched by their influence. They have set up shop at the Canadian Forces base in Afghanistan to serve our troops. And a few years ago when some terrorists in Ontario were practicing their maneuvers in the middle of the winter and got cold it was a local Tim Hortons they ducked into to warm up.

In this country that is one donut hole away from a major cardiac event, there is a time we as a people look forward to with great anticipation. As the last blasts of winter blow their way through our communities the anticipation builds. It is late February and that can mean only one thing. Roll Up The Rim To Win is back!

Every medium or large coffee or tea purchased at Tim Hortons during the Roll Up The Rim To Win event has something printed just under the rim. Prizes include cars, TVs, bikes, gift cards, drinks, and - no surprise here - donuts. If you are having your drink in one of their mugs no worries. They still give you an empty paper cup so you can play.

I always look forward to Roll The Rim time. This defies all logic. The biggest thing I have ever won is a drink or a donut. And in case any Canadians are reading I have to say this next part very quietly lest I be considered blasphemous....I don't really like their tea or coffee. However, there is always the hope, faint though it might be, that this time I will actually be a winner.

 So it is with great anticipation that I start to unroll that rim.

 Only to discover that, once again, I am a loser.

Wait. Let me check what it says in French. Bonne chance to me!

How depressing. Apparently I am a loser in both of Canada's official languages.

I am pleased to say that at least there was one winner from my visit to Tim Hortons. My husband. He got to eat the donuts because I don't really like them either.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Hope Springs Eternal

One of the blogs in my "top 5" list is Jean's Knitting. Even if you aren't a knitter I can almost guarantee that you will enjoy reading her posts. Jean lives in Scotland and writes about her daily life, which is divided between her urban residence in Edinburgh and rural residence in Strathardle. Jean's command of the English language is something to be admired, and her day-to-day descriptions make me want to drop by her home for a spot of tea. In fact, her influence has been so great that if this fall's trip to Europe works out as planned, a detour to explore and hike around Strathardle is definitely going to be on the itinerary.

Jean's blog post today was about her recent time in Strathardle and her foray into what is largely still a frozen garden space. As soon as I saw the picture of her February harvest of Jerusalem artichokes I was hooked. As Jean said:

"Nothing, and I mean nothing, makes one feel so much like a Real Gardener as bringing something in to the kitchen in February, from the snow."

I agree. Which is why several hours were spent this morning combing through seed catalogs and researching on the internet. A year from now I, too, want to be heading out to my garden to harvest these gems. I want to be a Real Gardener. Plus I am convinced the cold, dark days of January would pass by much more quickly if only I knew I had my garden to look forward to in February!

The expression that "hope springs eternal" is especially true for a gardener impatiently waiting for the final days of winter to pass by. The hope that February offers a gardener has not yet been dashed by the reality of mid-summer. The shock of pulling back the leaves of what was supposed to be a Brussels sprouts plant and finding myself staring at a huge head of cauliflower has now become a fond memory. And I have forgiven the birds that ate my fall planting of kale. As a gardener one is always sure that next year's garden will surpass all those that have come before. Never mind that this is how things looked this morning.

My gardener's optimistic soul knows that warmer days and better gardens are just around the corner.

"O, wind, if winter comes can spring be far behind?"  Percy Bysshe Shelley

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Culturally Clueless

I enjoy stepping out of my cultural comfort zone. It deepens my understanding of people and helps me put their stories into context. It might involve flying halfway around the world and being immersed in a different country, surrounded by a language and customs I am not familiar with. Or it can be something that happens within my own community such as going to a synagogue for the first time to attend a friend's bar mitzvah.

I make every effort to be sensitive to the accepted norms of the culture I find myself in. For example, I might show up at someone's home in China with some pork dumplings I picked up at a local food stall, but when asked to bring something for the social gathering after the bar mitzvah I am clearly going to make a different choice in terms of appetizers. The times I find myself floundering are when I am clueless as to what the cultural norms are.

Soon after Jay and I were married we backpacked through Europe for several months. Towards the end of that trip we spent some time in England, where Jay has many relatives. One afternoon we were visiting some elderly cousins in Sheffield and these kind ladies asked us if we would like some tea. Thinking we were doing the polite thing we both smiled and said that we would love some.

This did not elicit the expected response. Instead of smiling back at us and going to put the kettle on these poor women looked panic-stricken. They both rushed out to the kitchen and we were left looking at each other in confusion. It took us a few minutes to realize that "tea" meant a meal, not just a cup of something hot to drink. They clearly had not expected to feed us and had been thrown off by our enthusiastic acceptance of their offer. This happened thirty years ago and I can still vividly remember the feeling of mortification I had sitting in their living room while they were bustling about in their kitchen. It was a definite case of cultural disconnect.

My introduction to Jay's family provided another culturally clueless moment - one I can now laugh over, but it definitely did not seem funny at the time. There I was, an American farm girl sitting down to a "Canadian, but heavily laced with British tradition" roast beef dinner. I had previously only encountered rural American roast beef dinner, well-cooked throughout and served up in large chunks. (Now that I think about it though the large chunk part probably had a lot more to do with the fact my mom didn't have a knife in the house that could cut anything other than butter than it did with cultural differences.)

Jay's dad sat at one end of the dining room table carving the beef. (Carving the roast at my house was a tad less formal, consisting of my mom standing at the stove in her apron hacking away at the mass of meat while muttering under her breath about the dull knife.) As he held up pieces to slide onto the plates being passed to him I marvelled at the fact the beef was sliced so thin you could actually see through it, something I had not previously realized was possible. More shocking however was the colour of the meat, which ranged from pink on the outside edges to bright red in the middle.

If it had just stopped there everything would have been fine. Cultural crisis could have been avoided. But then I asked a question. It was a simple question really. One that was perfectly acceptable in my own culture.

"Could I have some ketchup please?"

Dead. Silence. Shocked looks all around. I was so clueless I didn't even know what I had done wrong. Jay had to explain it to me after the meal.

My last example is more recent. When I was in China two years ago we were at Diana's grandfather's home. I remember feeling a little nervous before we arrived, not sure what to expect and also not wanting to embarrass my daughter-in-law in front of her family. Diana had been great about letting us know what was expected of us in different circumstances, so I felt fairly confident I could manage not to humiliate either her or myself when we arrived.

We were warmly greeted at the door by the grandfather and various aunts, uncles and cousins. Then we were ushered into the living room, where plates piled high with pieces of juicy watermelon were placed for us to eat. But nobody made a move to sit down. Smiling, shaking of hands, head nodding, more smiles, and a mix of languages filled the room. My North American trained brain took a look around and figured everyone was waiting for the guests to be seated, so I plopped myself down on the couch, thinking I was breaking the ice. Cultural fail.

What it turns out I really was breaking was hundreds thousands of years of tradition. In Chinese culture the oldest person is always seated first. It was one of the few occasions in my life I was actually glad I couldn't speak the native language. At least I didn't have to hear what was being said about me, although the looks on their faces bore a striking resemblance to the "ketchup looks" I had been on the receiving end of all those years ago. Everyone quickly recovered. Well, everyone except me. We went on to have a wonderful evening. This is Diana's grandfather, the person who rightfully should have been seated first, with Karsten and Diana. He gets my vote for best smile ever.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

I Do NOT Have A Problem

A dinner guest hinted last night that I might have a chocolate problem. At least I took it as a subtle hint when she said she could picture me sitting at a bar where, instead of ordering drink after drink, I would be demanding more and more chocolate. I feel this was an unfair and undeserved observation.

It is true that I had just finished telling my dinner guest that I might possibly have over-indulged on my birthday Friday, evidenced by the fact that I was so wired I couldn't fall asleep until well past midnight (I'm usually sound asleep by 10:00, and my brain has generally shut down a full hour ahead of that time). But it was, after all, my birthday and I figured I had a right to celebrate.

I know my limits and I eat within them. I have a tremendous amount of self-discipline. I believe in moderation. I do not have a problem.

Lana Langevin organic fair-trade birthday chocolates
Status update: extinct
Nelson's Chocofellar birthday chocolate
Status update: endangered
Lindt Lindor Valentine's chocolates
Status update: also on the endangered list
"Excuse me Mr. Bartender, I would like a salted caramel chocolate. And could you make that a double please?"

Monday, February 14, 2011

In Good Taste

I want to start out by saying that I promise this post will be in better taste than the last one. And I mean that quite literally. But first of all I want to announce the winner of the book giveaway. It is taleah! Congrats, and I will be getting ahold of you regarding mailing the book out. I want to say thank you to everyone who reads this blog, and to the followers in the sidebar, both old and new. And thank you to those of you who leave comments from time to time. I read and appreciate each one. I am still trying to find a better way to respond to individual comments, but for now am having to settle for replying within the comments themselves.

As a way of saying thanks I thought I would share my Linzer cookie recipe with you, along with some step by step photos taken with the new camera I got for my birthday. I make these every year for my family for Valentine's Day. I personally guarantee they are worth the effort!

Linzer Cookies

1 1/2 cups softened butter
1 cup icing sugar North of 49, 1 cup powdered sugar South of 49
1 tsp. vanilla
2 eggs
1 1/2 cups finely ground almonds
4 cups flour  (I use half spelt and half unbleached white)

raspberry jam
extra icing/powdered sugar for dusting the tops of the cookies

Cream butter and sugar.

Beat in vanilla and eggs. 

Add almonds and flour.

Chill dough for 1 hour. Roll out and cut into heart shapes.

In one half of the hearts cut out a small heart or use a thimble to cut a circle. 

Bake @ 375F for 6 minutes. Watch closely or they will burn!

Cool, then spread jam on a cut-out cookie (I soften the jam in the microwave so it is easier to work with).

Place a cookie with a cut-out on top.

After all the cookies are assembled dust lightly with icing/powdered sugar.

Carefully package.

I would invite you over for some tea and cookies but I fear after my last post I wouldn't have any takers.


Friday, February 11, 2011

Come Dine With Us- If You Dare!

I am issuing an open dinner invitation to all readers of this blog. The atmosphere is casual and the food is usually decent. However, before you call for reservations and in the spirit of full disclosure I think it only fair that I give you a glimpse into what an evening at the Hammond house can be like. WARNING: please skip this blog post if you have a weak stomach, are easily offended, and/or don't have a quirky sense of humour.

Monday night we had three extras at our house for dinner. Daughter-in-law Anita, recently moved out son David, and family friend Aliah. I am calling Aliah a family friend, but in reality she has been hanging around with us for so many years she is really more like family, which is probably a good thing given all that transpired.

Our pre-dinner appetizer came courtesy of Alexandra. For some time I have been trying to convince her to start taking fish oil supplements.  Last week she finally got as far as opening the bottle of the brand I use, took one look, and said there was no way she could swallow something that big. Fair enough. Her GI disease causes swallowing issues so it is not simply a case of "mind over matter." I went to the local health food store and bought smaller pills.

About an hour before dinner I pointed out the new pills to Alexandra. She begrudgingly removed one from the bottle and went to the fridge to get some water. She popped the pill in her mouth and within seconds was retching and running towards the kitchen sink. As I ran towards her I happened to glance over at Aliah and Anita. There are no words to describe the looks of horror on their faces so I won't even try.

Having something stuck in the esophagus can quickly morph into a medical emergency (ask me how I know) and to be honest I was scared. I hadn't seen this happen for a long time and had hoped to never see it again. Alexandra was retching into the sink which had dirty dishes from dinner prep sitting in it that were about to become a whole lot less clean than they had been just moments before. I was very close to calling 911 but when I asked her if she needed help she indicated she was going to be okay. What that really meant was she could still breathe even though the pill was stuck. Whew. That meant this mom could start breathing again too. I'm not sure about Aliah and Anita though. They looked like they might pass out. I would say this was not the appetizer they were expecting from my "in training to be a chef" daughter.

Dinner itself was uneventful. In our house uneventful is always good news. Unfortunately this status was short-lived. David had brought clean clothes with him so he could shower between work and the poker tournament he was playing in later that evening. As he lifted the clothes out of his gym bag there was that horrible, instantly recognizable sound of shattering glass. I ran over to where he was standing and saw glass shards scattered across the tile floor, along with a liquid that was running down the wall and puddled on the floor at my son's feet foot.

My first thought was that he had a bottle of liquor stashed in his bag. Oh that we could have been so lucky. It only took a couple of seconds for the truth to be made clear. It was his after shave. I might not have had words to describe the looks on Anita and Aliah's faces during the before dinner incident, but I have no shortage of words to describe this stuff. Stinky, vile, noxious, repulsive are the first that come to mind. After David cleaned up the mess and headed to the shower we opened the sliding door to the deck to try and get rid of the stench. Forty five frozen minutes later we shut the door, realizing that our core body temperature was the only thing being reduced.

After David got out of the shower we sat around in a scent-induced haze and visited for awhile longer. Somehow the topic of David's hepatitis B came up. (He was infected in Thailand before we adopted him. The short story is do not get dental work done in Thailand.) He was asking me some medical questions about being a hep B carrier that I couldn't answer. Just so you know, they weren't extremely personal questions. They were of a more general nature. I finally suggested he phone the sexually transmitted disease hotline and ask them. Here is the part that still leaves me shaking my head. His response was to ask me if I could do it for him. Seriously. My 22 year old son was asking me, his mom, to phone the sexually transmitted disease hotline for him.

Then as Aliah and David got up to leave I asked David if he was 100% sure he had picked up all the glass shards. He looked me in the eye and said, "Yes mom. I even swept over the area with my real foot just to be sure." (For those of you who don't know David personally, he is an amputee and wears a prosthetic leg.) This was the saturation point for poor Aliah. She totally lost it. In fact, I don't think I have ever seen her laugh so hard! As she was walking out the door she was still laughing, saying what a great evening it had been and how much she loves spending time with our family. Go figure.

And just in case you think we Hammonds confine our unique experiences to within the four walls of this house, I encourage you to go read Rebekah's blog post from February 10.

Monday, February 7, 2011

It's An Ill Wind That Blows No Good

I had a less than stellar day last week, one that included bad surprises both North and South of 49. I consoled myself with the fact that if I could just hang in there until after dinner things would improve. After all, it isn't often that I get to hear an author speak whose book was nominated for the Man Booker Prize.

Somehow our local library had managed to get Emma Donoghue to come give a talk about her latest book Room, which was shortlisted for the Booker Prize. I had listened to an interview with this author on CBC radio some months earlier and here's the thing. She might live in Canada, but she is originally from Ireland. This means she comes complete with an Irish accent, and to tell you the truth she could have been giving a talk about how to program a DVR and I would have signed up just so I could listen to her.

Her book is extremely popular and has a huge hold line ahead of me for library copies. I knew there was no possible way a copy would become available before the scheduled talk, but I also knew I would get more out of her talk if I had actually read the book. Still, for several reasons, I was hesitant to buy a copy. This book is just not the kind of thing I normally read. Plus it is only out in hardcover so is pricey. And if you remember from an earlier blog post I am on a minimalizing program. This meant that if I bought the book I had to get rid of three other books in my collection.

Of course, I caved and ordered the book online. In the end what tipped the scales in favour of buying it was the fact that I could get it signed by Emma Donoghue. What bibliophile doesn't love a signed copy of a book? However, in order to meet the minimum amount required to get free shipping I had to also order another book, which meant I was now out six books under my minimalizing plan and $45 (okay, I didn't need to spend that much to get free shipping, but the other book I had in my wish list was also pricey). By the way, this process of spending money in order to save money actually has a name. It is called spaving. Really. If you don't believe me check out the Urban Dictionary.

The book came just a few days before the scheduled talk, so I put aside all my other reading material, left my knitting needles untouched, and spent the weekend reading. Honestly, I have to say that if I wasn't going to hear the author, and if I hadn't by now invested quite heavily in this book I probably would not have finished it. The subject matter was darker than I usually delve into, but I persevered. Sunday afternoon I breathed a sigh of relief when I turned to the final page. Now I was prepared for the talk.

So while I was in the midst of one of the unpleasant events of that day the phone rang. It was the library. They wanted to let me know that due to the winter storms in Ontario Emma Donoghue's plane had not been able to take off and the talk was canceled. And I had thought the day couldn't get any worse. All I could think of as I hung up the phone was, "But I bought the book..."

Since "it's an ill wind that blows no good" I have decided to give the book away to a lucky reader of this blog. Please don't be frightened off by my comments about the book. It is not a bad book. In fact, it is very well-written. The problem is I am the wrong reader for the book. It needs a new home.

If you would like a chance at winning what is quite possibly the most expensive unautographed copy of Emma Donoghue's book Room in existence all you have to do is leave a comment on this post. If you link to this post on your blog I will enter your name an extra time. If you become a follower of this blog that will earn you an extra entry as well. Just be sure to leave your email address within your comment so I have a way of getting in touch with you should you end up being the winner. Also, if you put a link in your blog or you become a follower please indicate that in your comment as well. I am willing to send this book anywhere in the world that Canada Post delivers. After all, as long as I'm spaving, I might as well spave big. The contest ends at midnight February 13th, and the winner will be announced February 14th. Bonne chance!

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Spelling Hell

I used to be a good speller. Please note the tense of that sentence. Sadly, I now find myself constantly second guessing how words should be spelled. Your first instinct might be to attribute this to the aging process. But that would only be if you are an American or Canadian. If you are British you will be attributing it to the ageing process. Therein lies the problem.

Canadian, American and British spellings are not uniform even though we all speak the same language. At least we are supposed to be speaking the same language. However, that lorry driver from Glasgow that Jay and I hitched a ride with when we were in Britain back in 1980 didn't seem to be aware of this fact. Nor did whoever was doing the announcements at Victoria Train Station in London. I digress.

When I blogged about my friend and I going on a yarn crawl in Vancouver should I have referred to it as our fibre day or our fiber day? If I use fiber as the spelling readers from around the globe will assume I am an American. If I spell the word as fibre Americans will assume I don't know how to spell. Litre/liter and theatre/theater would be examples of other words that fall into this category.

For many years after moving North of 49 I resisted using Canadian spellings. In what I considered to be a compromise I did teach my kids both versions and let them use whichever one they wanted. My line in the sand was the word for mother. I had grown up with a mom, and there was no way I could become a mum. On the other hand my husband grew up with a mum and to this day I think he struggles when saying the "o" word.

Please humour me by allowing me to illustrate another difference. And if you can't do that could you at least humor me by allowing another illustration? The our/or word ending difference is perhaps the biggest category and includes words like colour/color, honour/honor, neighbour/neighbor and rumour/rumor.

If the differences stopped there I would have been okay. Unfortunately they don't and I'm not. For instance, a month ago I got a renewal notice in the mail for my driver's licence. This being a word I don't often use my brain is still imprinted with the word license. At this point I'm so confused I can almost feel my grey matter shrinking. Ditto for my gray matter. And because I will be travelling across the border frequently I decided to get my enhanced driver's licence, which is supposed to be good for traveling to and from the US and Canada.

Perhaps most confusing of all is the fact that the presence of a monarch on our coins is no guarantee of strict allegiance to British spellings. If your child gets sick it doesn't matter if you are north or south of 49. You will seek out a pediatrician. Cross the Atlantic however and you will find yourself in search of a paediatrician.

I hope my Canadian and American readers will realize the difficulties that face a "made in the USA" brain that has been "outsourced to Canada." I hope my British readers will realise the same thing. If you see the occasional glaring spelling error please refrain from judgment. I already get enough judgement from my spell checker.