Older, wiser

It was my birthday on Friday. My office brought in Krispy Kreme doughnuts, I got loads of birthday wishes, and my special friend (main squeeze? swain?) took me out to dinner at a swanky restaurant I adore and got me an awesome cookbook that I’d been lusting over but hadn’t realized I’d been so obvious about it. We sat outside, and the weather was oddly perfect. It was a wonderful day.

I am now a whole year older and a whole year wiser.

As it turns out, I am also a whole year more content. Earlier this week I was writing in my journal, and happened to flip back to what I wrote at the same time a year ago. Whereas most recently I wrote of optimism and determination, last year I wrote of a sense of unease and feeling lost. It has been a doozy of a year, but I have come out the other side and never been better. I am hurtling towards thirty years of age with joy and gratitude in my heart.

In the coming year, I aim to continue throwing myself into life and learning as I go. I’ve already got a good jump start on this resolution via my new (used) beloved sewing machine, and inaugural project, a skirt. In the time since I’ve begun my skirt, I have already learned many things, including the following:

  1. “Great for Beginners” does not mean “Great for People Who Have Only Sewed Things A few Times In Their Lives Over Ten Years Ago and Even Then Rarely Followed A Pattern”
  2. Those little markings on the patterns actually are important, don’t just tell yourself to wing it and ignore them – especially when zippers and pleats are involved.
  3. My next project will definitely not include all of the following at once, and ideally none: zippers, button holes, and pleats.

All that said, I have fallen in love with sewing, and somehow, despite the barriers, I am only one button hole away from being done with my skirt, just in time for….April. I bought the fabric a few months ago before my AC woes sapped my desire to be home over the weekends, and it’s so blatantly springy that I think I can only get away with wearing the skirt once or twice before fall really kicks in. Oh well. It’s not as if I wasn’t already itching to get a new project started!

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No Deal

Last weekend after writing my dreary post, I went straight away to True Value and bought an air conditioning unit. I had initially intended to just buy some stuff that would de-stick my bicycle lock, but the shop assistant was so nice that I also asked for help picking out an air conditioning unit. When I found out that they would lend me cart (I live less than a ten minute walk away from True Value) I decided to stop trying to find a deal and just buy the darned thing. “Can I install it by myself?” I asked. The shopkeeper looked at me slightly anxiously, “Er, it’s pretty heavy. It would be best if you had a friend help…”

Even with the cart, I was hot and sweaty by the time I had rolled it home in the awful humid heat and made it up the entryway staircase of my building. There was no time to call a friend. I wanted air conditioning, and I wanted it now. I skimmed the installation instructions, quickly determining I was too desperate to do it right. Who needs a screwdriver when you have willpower, anyway?

Still, I looked at the window doubtfully, mildly concerned that I would break the window frame somehow. I placed the piece of 2×4 I had also gotten from True Value on the brick outcropping to help support the unit’s weight. I got the unit as close the window as I could, and then I went for it, heaving the darned thing up and through the window with a prayer.

The unit was very heavy and tricky to maneuver, and I wasn’t sure exactly how it should sit in the window. As I panicked I tried starting to move it from behind, and I felt something sharp bite into my right hand. Of course it was only then that I remembered that the instructions I’d skimmed mentioning something about being careful of something…In a flash I positioned the unit so it wouldn’t come to harm, and withdrew my hand to see blood all over my fingers. The sharp wire grating in the back of the unit had gone through me like butter. My thumb in particular was gushing spectacularly. Fabulous!

I rushed to the kitchen to grab a towel and wrapped my thumb, putting pressure on it to ease the bleeding. I stood for awhile, looking at the air conditioning unit while holding my thumb. A small part of me thought I was an idiot, but now I was mostly consumed by annoyance. This was now a battle of wills, and the fight was personal. Me against the air conditioning unit. Only one of us could come out on top.

I approached the air conditioning unit again, my hand still wrapped in a towel. Somehow I pushed and maneuvered it into place, all the while smearing blood over the white surface. Then I careful closed the window. Close enough. I plugged it in, and turned it on.

Bliss.

I changed my clothes, rinsing out the blood on my romper in the kitchen sink, all the while listening to the calm hum of my beloved air conditioning unit. I went back and sat for awhile next to it, savoring victory and clutching my thumb. The cool air felt miraculous.

I was done trying to be cheap as possible. Later that day I also went online and bought a whole set of IKEA furniture with the psychological support of my mother. It arrives next week.

Srechno va Zdravo!

“Srechno va Zdravo!” Or, Happy and Healthy (new year to you)!

Funny enough, I’ve been using “zdravo” as my standard greeting for a long time now, totally ignorant that I wasn’t actually saying hi, but rather, “health.” Huh. The typical greeting I’d say is Zivjo, but you’ll hear zdravo occasionally…I had no clue there was substantive difference.

I digress. What I want to tell you about today is of my time in the Slovenian countryside, New Years, amazing hospitality, and food. Lots and lots and lots of food. Some of it good, some of it not so good, but all in tremendous quantities thus far unknown of in my direct experience.

It all started with my desire to learn how to make strudel. You see, I love strudel. It’s not too sweet, and in the interest of my own personal health (-remember this thought for later), not too rich. It also straddles the zone between desert and breakfast, both of which are my niche specialties as a chef from a houseful of great cooks. Moreover, the authentic strudel is relatively uncommon in the United States. Or at least, I’ve rarely seen the real thing sold. Thus, I desperately wished to unlock the secrets of strudel. This would not only be an excellent life skill to carry onwards, but it would also provide the fall-back career option of strudel entrepreneur, and when people ask, “So, what did you do on your Fulbright?” allow me to reply, “learned how to make strudel.”

I know that strudel is stereotypically Austrian, but Slovenia’s strudel is just as good. Remember, for a large chunk of time Slovenia was in Austria. Plus, if you want to be picky about it, strudel dough is essentially the same as the filo-like dough used to make burek, and there is nothing more Balkan or Ottoman than that. Austria gets the fame for it, but strudel dough is a creature of the south and east, not the west.

Luckily for me, one of my friends who I met on my Brussles trip is an avid cook and baker, interested both in international cuisine as well as her own traditional foods. She lives in a small village outside of Maribor, a city bordering Austria, in the north. I managed to swing an invite to her house to learn how to make strudel. Or, I think she may have suggested it in the vague sense at one time, and then I asked her directly if I could come over the Christmas break. Some things are too important to be left to chance. I really wanted to learn how to make strudel. It’s something of a fading art form, even here. Most people simply buy it at bakeries, or if they go the extra mile to make it at home, use pre-made sheets of filo dough. Forget my fall-back career choice, its for the good of the world that I preserve this knowledge.

Invite obtained, off to Maribor I went with only a change of clothes and my pajamas and a small hostess gift.

Strudel making was just as amazing and both far easier and far more difficult than I had imagined. Since the dough needs to rest, they had prepared some earlier in the day so we could jump right in. (I would make another batch of dough once these ones were done.) Stretching the dough out is a magical process. I checked online afterward, but very few sources made the dough by hand, much less, “right,” i.e. predominately without a rolling pin. The dough shouldn’t need it. Rather, it should just just expand with a light touch.

The best pictures I found of the process can be found here: http://easteuropeanfood.about.com/od/strudels/ig/Cheese-Strudel/

What we did looked much like what you can see above, only on a smaller scale. We used smaller lumps of dough, going well off the edges of the kitchen table rather than of a banquet table.

We made two types- wait, no, three types of strudel. One apple, one apple-cheese (as in, soft fresh cheese,) and one filled with savory feta-like cheese. All were fantastically delicious. I will aim to hone my craft while I’m here, so that way I can go back to my teachers and make sure I have everything down pat before I return to the States. They made it look so easy! And it was easy! But so much with the dough is knowing when it has the right feel, and I know only practice will ingrain that feeling into my brain.

Whew, its well past midnight. I shall have to wait for tomorrow to tell you about Day 2…and Day 3. And then Day 4, of what was supposed to be an overnight trip to make strudel, that turned into a Slovenian food-fest that culminated with me gaining more weight then then I knew possible in a four-day time span (remember one of my motivations in learning how to make strudel? Ha! Any healthful benefits of strudel were drastically drowned out by what was consumed later,) and sampling pig’s head.

Stay tuned.

p.s. I changed the picture in the header, as you may have noticed, to something more seasonal and wintery. This photo was taken at Lake Bled. Dear lord, I love the mountains.