Expatriate Life

This category contains 29 posts

Distant Land of Famine

I sit down at my favorite Ristorante Il Panino (FYI – you order panini only if you want 2 or more), which has undergone an impressive renovation since my last spaghetti alle cozze e vongole (spaghetti with clams and mussels), and say, “Hit me.”

When the waiter asked why he hadn’t seen me “in awhile” (note, not even in a long while), I explained I was living in Jordan (leaving out the countries in between). He waited to hear no more and brought me un quarto del vino rosso and asked me what he could get me – although he already knew what I would say – from the seafood menu.

(When I told him it was Ramadan, during which I thought I might have to write posts entitled “Cool Clear Water” and “Killing Me Softly” until friends in Rome rescued me with a house-sitting offer, he brought me an unnecessary basket of bread.)

Even the 20-minute drive from the Trieste airport is calming: surrounded by lush fields of green, along the marshes of the bird sanctuary, where le zanzare (the mosquitos) welcome me like I’ve never been away.

Much of what I’ve written about Italy is about this far NE region, Friuli Venezia-Giulia (F.V. Giulia to friends), where I’ve spent many happy summer days along the Adriatic Sea during, after, and long after Le Cordon Bleu in Paris.

Proof positive: my 2-part series Prosecco Paradiso.

Prosecco notwithstanding, I would travel all this way just to see all 3 generations of the Tomaselli/dall’Oglio hotel family holding court on via Giuseppe Verdi.

Nonna doesn’t recognize me anymore; she’s getting up in her years now. But she hasn’t lost a bit of her charm, saying that even though she doesn’t remember my face, she knows I’m as beautiful as ever, to which I reply (truthfully in her case), “As are you.”

The family knows all about my humanitarian work over the years and would like me to consider, they said humorously, coming back for 2 months – basically the remainder of the tourist season – as they’re in need of some “humanitarian assistance” themselves. The European recession has hit them hard, although having been through the wars, literally, they’ve weathered the economic storm a bit better than their island peers.

Grado is far from its heyday in 2004, my first summer here. The good ol’ days when the Saturday night dinner rush began like clockwork, church bells + 15 minutes, and continued long into the night.

Ilene e Giorgio, nota bene: THE pre-dinner gelato place (for heathens) is BACK. Different owners, same great pesca e basilico!

Historically, the vast majority of the island’s clientele has been German and Austrian, exactly who’s been cutting back on beach holidays in recent years. But I see a new marketing strategy paying off: selling Friuli and its neighboring Slovenian province as one contiguous tourist destination, to – judging from languages heard on the street – French, British, Russian, even Arab travelers.

But the Tomasellis/dall’Oglios have been in the hotel business since the 1920s and despite its founder’s passing have, on balance, flourished through the generations, the 4th of which are are entertaining themselves in the children’s playroom: French-speaking preschoolers who call Bruxelles home.

This morning, Signore, after making sure I’d already had breakfast (proving that Italian fathers can be as bad as Italian mothers), suggests taking the early ferry to Isola di Barbana. (My café owner friends, subject of Our Lady dei Bambini, sadly were victims of the economic downturn.) He further suggests saying a “substantial” prayer to the Madonna before heading straight to the beach.

Which is exactly my plan. Except for the prayer part.

It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia

I’ve moved to Philadelphia. Or at least that’s what the Ancient Greeks used to call it.

Today it’s called Amman, Jordan.

Yes, that Jordan: where John the Baptist baptized Jesus of Nazareth, where the Israelites crossed into the Promised Land, where Lot’s wife turned into a pillar of salt.

Where there’s some of the most scenic hiking, biking, and diving in the world, not to mention archeological exploring. If you secretly wanted to be Indiana Jones or Lawrence of Arabia, Jordan is the country for you.

Although border configurations in this part of the Middle East have changed several times in the past several decades, the Land of Milk & Honey (or Canaan) was originally Jordanian territory. Nowadays, the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan exists east of the Jordan River, in one of the world’s toughest neighborhoods, bordering Israel/West Bank, Iraq, Syria, and Saudi Arabia.

That means I’m stuck out in part of the desert where God’s Chosen People wandered for 40 years.

Believe me, you have to put a LOT of effort into wandering for 40 years in deserts this small, even with a million or two travelers on foot. It’s like saying it took you 40 years to get from Rome to Florence.

Or Seattle to Portland.

So, you have to wonder why the Israelites wanted so badly not to arrive in the Promised Land in a timely fashion that they did pretty much everything possible to avoid it!

Even after 4 decades of meandering and backtracking and stalling, they finally arrived on Mount Nebo, where God had told Moses he could view the Promised Land from afar, but would not be allowed to enter. (Read why in the Old Testament of the Holy Bible, Book of Numbers, Chapter 20.)

I’ll write a post from Mount Nebo later. And from the Dead Sea. And from Petra, the ancient pink city in the south of Jordan, which isn’t lost at all, contrary to what Indiana Jones keeps telling people.

The Middle East is the happening region on the planet right now and the Arab Spring is changing the political, social, and economic landscape of the 21st century.

Jordan, a constitutional monarchy, is calm and it’s no mistake that’s where people in the region run to when there’s trouble. Consequently, of Jordan’s 6 million population, 2 million are Palestinians, who can have Jordanian citizenship if they choose. In fact, Jordan’s Queen Rania comes from a Palestinian family.

There are also 500,000 Iraqi refugees, self-professed short-timers awaiting stability back home, whose arrival jacked up all the real estate prices in Amman, as I discovered when I started looking for an apartment.

Then, King Abdullah recently stated in the press that Jordan is hosting 80,000 Syrian refugees so far.

Do the math and imagine for a moment what it would be like if your country, percentage-wise, hosted that many guests at once, predominantly at your expense.

Yes, you: the unemployed or underemployed taxpayer.

(Read one of the few books about the Middle East peace process that you don’t have to be a foreign policy expert to relate to, an autobiography of sorts written by a reigning monarch who’s only 50 years old (unlike many of those ancient guys in the region we have no clue about, and vice-versa): King Abdullah II of Jordan’s Our Last Best Chance: The Pursuit of Peace in a Time of Peril.)

Moammar Orders FouFou and ZoomKoom

You know what they say about crap flowing downstream.

They must be talking about Moammar Qaddafi and his “invitation” to “relocate” to “Three Rivers”: Burkina Faso, where the Black Volta (Mouhoun), White Volta (Nakambé), and Red Volta (Nazinon) literally meet.

Honestly, I prefer the Lower Volta, on the Ghanaian coast toward Togo. Where farmers raise shrimp and shallots. Where learning the language, Ewe, is easy and fun, and comes with this finger-snapping handshake that’s like dancing: you can do it only if the other person does it at the same time. Where the same people invite you to (Christian) churches for weddings and (animist) shrines for funerals.

But enough about Ghana for today. We’re headed to the Upper Volta, getting the 411 on a country that not many people outside of the African Union have opinions about, or could even find on a map.

Now, if it were me, I’d fly to Accra and travel 250 kilometers/155 miles ‒ a mere 7 hours by bus ‒ north to Kumasi. Spend the night at a guest house on a dirt road, run by 2 widows who cook suspicious fish, questionable porridge, and untouchable tomatoes. The next morning, I’d take another bus north…until people started speaking French.

(But, Moammar, since you’re you and you’re driving, point your Mercedes caravan south-west through Niger for 4,800 kilometers/3,000 miles to Burkina Faso’s capitol city, Ouagadougou. I hope you have AC; it’ll be 35C/95F and 90% humidity. At least.)

I can tell you right now, learning French will be a major challenge. I’ve been to French school and French teachers don’t mess around. I doubt you have much of a gift for languages because when you speak on Arab TV, you’re subtitled in Arabic. (Qaddafi speaks a Libyan dialect, so even Arabs from other countries can’t really understand him.)

First up, new lodgings for you. Remember that seaside villa previously owned by your son Saif al-Islam, with the infinity pool like you see in Architectural Digest? Nothing like that.

Something modest, overlooking the savannah.

Take heart. Eventually, you’ll be looking out at the Mediterranean Sea again…through prison bars. Better yet, looking out at the North Sea from the Cour Pénale Internationale in The Hague.

Meanwhile, lose the brocade robes and get some chickens, for brochettes de poulet later. Nobody in Burkina Faso will look at you twice. If you’re living large in Ouagadougou with all that gold and cash you smuggled out of Libya over the decades, especially in a 4-star hotel that until recently had a portrait of you hanging in the lobby, you might as well wear an “Escaped Dictator” sign on your back because some average guy earning $1 a day is going to take the Libyan opposition up on its generous finder’s fee.

Since the Burkina Faso government recognized Libya’s National Transitional Council last month and Interpol has a Red Notice out on you, staying inconspicuous might mean doing some of your own cooking. I know you’ll be homesick for Sharba Libiya (because I am, too): a spicy lamb soup so easy I recommend it to helpless dictators.

Start with vegetable ghee, “samn” in Arabic. You could use oil, so why ghee? Simple food chemistry. You can fry at a much higher temperature without setting off all your smoke alarms.

Sear pieces of lamb ‒ good color outside, still raw inside. (Properly cooked lamb is PINK, people, not brown). Add parsley, onion, and tomatoes. Just enough water to cover ‒ no need for veal stock ‒ and bring to a boil. When you add the orzo, ajoute aussi un peu de persil et des feuilles de coriandre.

Season generously with cayenne pepper, salt, and cinnamon. Or hararat, this great Libyan spice mix you can make yourself, or buy at an ethnic grocery store….by the kilo.

Literally as the soup bowls leave the kitchen, and not a moment sooner, add mint ‒ crushed dry is fine, shredded fresh is best ‒ and a splash of fresh-squeezed lemon juice.

For anybody but you, Moammar, I’d make mhalbiya (rice pudding) for dessert. Libyans flavor it with ‘atr (geranium extract), but orange blossom water will do.

Then I’d make some ka’k hilu (Libyan pretzels with sesame and fennel seeds) for myself.

At Le Cordon Bleu, we learned to drink while we cooked and, compared to the fundamentals of Islam and humanity you’ve already obliterated, this sin hardly even registers. Try the Burkinabè specialty banji, palm wine (fermented palm sap), partaken liberally by the 40% non-Muslims in this secular country. Or, if you’re still on the wagon, there’s always zoomkoom, a non-alcoholic “soft drink” made with millet flour.

Think really watery pancake batter flavored with lemon, ginger, and sometimes tamarind.

You might be in Burkina Faso for awhile and, for all the wrong reasons, you’ll give thanks for every meal. Just imagine if you’d sought exile in Russia!

There’s great Burkinabè cuisine in Paris, if you know where to look, and I do.

La Goutte d’Or is a gritty neighborhood in 18ème. At the famous Marché Barbès, in daylight and with local African friends, I buy more than I can realistically carry on the Métro of colorfully exotic, embarrassingly cheap ingredients you can’t find anywhere else in Paris.

Since it’s just as risky to shop when you’re hungry, we’re at the restaurant Etoile de Burkina near Place Hébert. On August 4.

Accidentally celebrating the anniversary of the Burkina Faso revolution. Learning why Burkinabè cuisine is called “l’émotion par les sens.” Sharing food with people who aren’t even at our table.

Riz gras, Burkina Faso’s national dish: rice cooked in fat with tomatoes and spices. Tô, bitter millet dough, with gombo (okra sauce) and yams on the side. Pan-fried fish, their beady eyes staring up at me from the plate.

Foufou, which in East Africa we call ugali: grits without butter or salt, formed into pasty polenta-like cakes. Brochettes upon towers of brochettes beside bowls upon bowls of delicious sauces.

Then a Burkinabè spin on a Sénégalese classic: Poulet Yassa.

Chicken stew with garlic, generous lemon, super generous onion, and any orphan vegetables you find hanging around. Mustard, if you can believe that. Red Hot Chili Peppers, which isn’t just a band.

Served with a Mòoré garnish, to celebrate: “Laafi bala!” (Peace! Health!)

Monsieur S-K Misses His Flight

Here’s what happens when you go off the grid for even 1 news day. Even if it’s the slowest news day of the week.

I was talking to a European friend in the UK who never misses a news hour. Who mentioned…casually, just in passing…what an unbelievable thing had happened to Dominique Strauss-Kahn the day before.

What unbelievable thing?

Other than he’s head of the IMF, a former French finance minister, and a front-runner in the upcoming French presidential elections? Who, according to the latest polls, is the Socialist Party Candidate With The Right Stuff: a fighting chance of ousting Nicolas Sarkozy in 2012?

Other than that and that and that, I have no idea what you’re talking about.

Where have you been, under a rock? (Under a rock, writing.)

OK, let me give you the news…lowlights: Dominique Strauss-Kahn was arrested in New York on Saturday for sexual assault and false imprisonment of a member of the Sofitel housekeeping staff.

You’ve got to be kidding me.

When Strauss-Kahn attempted to leave the country on an Air France flight just a few hours after the alleged crimes occurred, the Port Authority police removed him from the plane within minutes of takeoff.

How stupid he must feel (and how lucky for everyone else involved), to be so tantalizingly close to departure to a country with no extradition treaty with the USA, only to realize that he himself tipped off the hotel staff ‒ and thus the police ‒ that he was calling from JFK.

Because I’m the big man on campus, I absolutely demand that you drop everything and bring to me my cell phone (because when I’m freaked out, I lapse into French grammar), which I left in my hotel room after running out on 5-minutes’ notice for…oh, no particular reason.

And you’d better get here before my flight leaves at 4:40pm, or I’ll take my business elsewhere.

The NYPD probably couldn’t believe it: a felony suspect who volunteers his schedule and current whereabouts! This is just too easy.

French voters, better to find out now: this isn’t a member of the A-Team you were thinking about electing Président de la République française.

For Strauss-Kahn to say “What is this about?” to the cops who unceremoniously removed him from first class shows just how sure he was that he’d gotten away with something.

Because who does that?

Strauss-Kahn’s many fans, who claim the injured party here is France, are correct: there are probably numerous people who’d greatly benefit from unseating him at the IMF a little early.

But having worked in the hospitality industry, I ask you: what luxury hotel would risk its reputation by being an unwitting party to such a payback-turned-felony? Especially a 5-star property catering to the rich and famous?

None. This is a nightmare for Sofitel, and its parent company Accor, and the worst possible reason to be the lead story on every major news network everywhere the IMF does business.

Which is everywhere.

While hotel housekeeping staff who interact with VIPs are trained accordingly, “meet the guest’s every need” NEVER includes sexual harassment or assault. Sofitel New York did the right thing by calling 911, and quickly.

Otherwise, we’d be looking at a Roman Polanski sequel.

Also, any politician on high alert for a career-ending setup, which Strauss-Kahn claimed was imminent, calls the front desk in outrage and demands the woman, the “opposition spy,” leave immediately. Then he calls the New York Times to say, “Nice try, Sarkozy.”

He doesn’t lock the door to prevent the woman from leaving.

Because he allegedly committed these crimes in the USA, Strauss-Kahn is innocent until proven guilty in a court of law. Imagine if he’d done such a thing in Saudi Arabia or China. He’d be facing the death penalty.

Or in any number of other countries, where he’d be considered guilty until proven innocent, had a 1-day trial in a language he didn’t understand, and be “lost” in prison for decades.

Members of his own political party are telling France TV5 that Strauss-Kahn is in the safe hands of the venerated American justice system. French politician Ségolène Royal, who lost to Sarkozy in 2007, added, simply: only Monsieur Strauss-Kahn can say whether or not he did it.

He’ll have a chance to do just that before a jury of his peers in New York. Meanwhile, he’s cooling his heels at Rikers, regretting that he never watched even 1 episode of Law & Order.

Can you say, “Remand, Your Honor”?

(Let’s see: international finance guru and potential future president of France, with virtually unlimited financial resources and residences in multiple countries, who tried to flee the jurisdiction once already and is facing at least 25 years in prison on 7 different criminal counts. No bail is high enough for this guy.)

The thing about sexual predators, if he’s convicted of being one: they don’t stop unless they’re stopped. Period.

And every time they get away with something, it just makes them more confident, more brazen, more sure they’ll get away with it again.

Or get away with something more serious next time…to a stranger who unknowingly walks into a dangerous situation.

(Michel Debres of the opposition party now says Strauss-Kahn previously attempted to assault other maids on previous stays at the same hotel. “Everyone knew it in the hotel.” If you were one of those “everyones,” Monsieur Debres, did you not think it was your moral responsibility to speak up?)

We’ve seen this over and over and over again.

So, shame on people who pressure, coerce, and “strongly encourage” sexual assault victims not to file charges, especially members of the victim’s own family, like Anne Mansouret, the Socialist politician mother of French novelist Tristane Banon.

Banon claims Strauss-Kahn assaulted her in 2002 and says she’s now filing charges against him because she’ll “be taken seriously.” Her mother should be arrested alongside Strauss-Kahn for witness intimidation.

In New York, that’s a Class E felony and carries a 4-year prison sentence.

If you’ve been a victim of sexual violence, or know someone who needs help, contact RAINN, the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network.

Thierry Plays Cricket

“How could you possibly miss, with a bat that wide?”

This is me in a smack-down with an arrogant, check-me-out English cricket player who just dissed America’s national pastime (baseball, one third of the Trinity, along with Mom and apple pie), a flame-throwing rebuttal that, while true, will probably get me denied future entry into the UK for reasons of the national interest.

Even though I agree that the World Series is a silly name for a tournament with teams from only 1 country (well, nominally 2), and a baseball game really can go on for what seems like forever ‒ which is why “The Wave” was invented ‒ without getting any points on the scoreboard, nobody but NOBODY gets to tell me the San Francisco Giants aren’t rulers of the batting sports universe until next October!

I guess what I disliked most about these particular cricket players was their insufferable superiority. This is a gentlemen’s game, Miss, implying that men who don’t play it by definition cannot be gentlemen and that while we admit some women can play cricket, they shouldn’t.

Thus, you’re not particularly invited, except to watch, in high heels and posh hats.

Pardon me, but aren’t you forgetting about the UK women’s cricket EBC National Club Championship (won by South Northumberland in 2010)?

I also think the USA women’s 3-time Olympic gold medal-winning softball team could learn to play cricket in about 10 seconds and take on the best of you. I’m so confident, in fact, that I’ll see your 100£, and raise you 200£.

Actually, I had some issues with cricket before ever meeting you…gentlemen. Starting with your uniforms. What’s with the all-white? At the end of the match, does the cleanest guy win, or are you advertising Clorox?

Dressing like that, people are going to think you’re chefs. Not a compliment…to us.

Living overseas for quite a few years, I’m a soccer fan. I watch the World Cup. I know FIFA, EUFA, FWA, PFA, and all kinds of other acronyms in European football (or “il calcio,” as it’s called in Italy).

I’m also an Arsenal fan, having first followed Thierry Henri there from Juventus, back when nobody thought his career was going much of anywhere, and even after he left for Barça.

As a holder of a French carte de séjour, I was obliged to be a fan of the French national team, Les Bleus, which, let me tell you, was not a hardship during the 2000s, with Thierry at striker. I was proud to be French…er, American.

Thierry: Golden Boot, Time cover, Hall of Fame.

Chevalier of the Légion d’honneur.

However, if any loyal Manchester United fans work in Immigration at Heathrow, they aren’t very forgiving and I’m in serious trouble.

Aside: there’s pretty much nothing more exciting since time began than being in Africa when Cameroon is in the World Cup quarter-finals against Who Cares. The entire continent is on fire, watching the game en masse, with giant TVs in every town, running on giant generators.

We’ll happily trade off the chilled cherry Coke, since for the most part we’re not supposed to be drinking beer. Although, let me direct your attention to the top-secret, bright-red cooler out back.

Back to cricket, England’s #3 export, behind the Beatles and digestive biscuits.

Let me introduce you to the laws, not rules, of cricket play. The Cricket Constitution, if you will, circa London 1744, which contains a Preface, a Preamble, 42 Laws, and 4 Appendices.

If you don’t believe me, go to the Cambridge Law Library and look it up.

These provisions include a guaranteed 10-minute interval between innings, plus additional intervals for lunch, tea, and drinks, basically guaranteeing that very little play happens at all, which is why when you finally do get out onto the pitch, you have to rack up 100s of points to make up for it.

To the cricket players’ chagrin, wanting so badly to bore me with all the history and philosophy behind the game, I care about only one thing: how do you get points? Most commonly: “Runs are scored when the two batsmen run to each other’s end of the pitch.”

(You mean players run toward each other, not into each other ‒ aggressively and on purpose, as in soccer ‒ although I suppose that happens occasionally in cricket, too.)

What fascinated me the most were the “The Mechanics of Dismissal.” Shockingly civilized. “If the fielders believe a batsman is out,” the laws stipulate, “they may ask the umpire “How’s that?”, commonly shouted emphatically with arms raised, before the next ball is bowled.”

We’re more used to the shouting emphatically with arms raised, “You *&&$$)&%! Go to ()$#*!@#! ” before running out onto the field and getting ejected from the game. And that’s just the coach we’re talking about.

(If you’re a baseball fan who happens to be buying a hot dog at the concession stand and misses a blatantly bad call, never fear ‒ there will be rumble in the parking lot afterwards.)

Another way to get out in cricket is Law 36: “Leg Before Wicket” (LBW). Ouch.

Although I can’t believe I’m saying this out loud, I’d rather see Thierry playing cricket for the Marylebone Cricket Club in London than ‒ sob! ‒ soccer for the New York Red Bulls.

Thierry, s’il vous plaît, ne me quitte pas!

Tsunami 津波 Hanami 花見

Washington, DC is a distant runner-up…in the cherry blossom department.

As much as I love springtime in the nation’s Capitol…

…strolling along the Tidal Basin on crisp, sunny afternoons, the Jefferson Memorial in the background, under canopies of cherry trees in various stages of bloom (because they’re not all the same variety, on purpose)…

…it will never, ever be the same as April in Japan.

Welcome to Hanami, the Japanese Cherry Blossom Festival!

It’s the one week of the year that your otherwise inflexible Japanese boss gives you a day off ‒ with pleasure, even ‒ to picnic under the sakura (“cherry blossoms”) with your friends, family, and first-timer American expatriate colleagues for whom Hanami is a puzzling new experience. (How could a national picnic so capture a people’s imagination that it’s exponentially bigger than the Super Bowl?)

Maybe even 2 days off, so you can stake out your picnic spot well in advance. Competition is just that fierce.

I’ve been on many of these picnics in Hanamis past. At Oeno Park, central Tokyo. In the lovely garden of Kenrokuen in Kanazawa. Along Tetsugaku no Michi (“Philosopher’s Path”) in Kyoto, home of the formidably picturesque Japanese Imperial Palace.

Every year since the 7th century, the über-rich Japanese ruling class ‒ the only people who had time to care about trees that didn’t bear any actual fruit ‒ used to look out at all those beautiful blossoms and write beautiful poems about them.

Less than a month after the devastating March 11th earthquake and tsunami, with almost 250,000 Japanese citizens living in shelters, having barely escaped with their lives and still under radiation threat, nobody’s in the poem-writing mood these days.

But the sakura don’t know any different and they started blooming this week, like always.

Japan, a long and narrow country with great climatic variety, can actually celebrate Hanami for 6 months a year. In Okinawa, the far-south tropics, Hanami is in January; in Hokkaido, the oft-snowy north, Hanami is in May.

But in central Japan, Hanami in early to mid-April, Mother Nature permitting, ushers in the best of Japanese spring.

I once celebrated Hanami in the Tohoku province, at Tsurugajo Koen. In the Fukushima prefecture, where the major geologic event is usually the haru-ichiban, the south-west wind that marks the end of winter.

Here the tsunami dealt a devastating head-on blow.

Sakura viewers who’ve traveled all the way to Tohoku for Hanami continue by auto-pilot to Hirosaki Koen. A few thousand magnificent cherry trees against a dramatic castle backdrop.

I like Tsurugajo Koen better. It’s a nearby “rival” castle ‒ not as crowded, just as impressive ‒ built in the 14th century and meets all the classic castle requirements, including a moat and a “donjon” (castle keep)!

“Just” a thousand cherry trees, perfectly illuminated bright white.

If memory serves, you take the JR (Japanese railway) from the Aizu-Wakamatsu station. Get off at the Tsurugajo-Kitaguchi station and take a bus into Tsurugajo.

Follow the crowds, because in Japan even the less popular venues draw a million people.

Breathe deeply. Picnic sumptuously. Enjoy some of the best scenery Japan has to offer, absolutely free. At prime photo-taking locations, practice graciously sharing small spaces, a useful social skill throughout Japan.

(Please promise me that when and where it’s safe even before it’s over, you’ll go to Japan as a tourist or business traveler, to support recovery efforts there.)

It’s not hard to find Fukushima on a map nowadays. It’s the home of the nuclear power plant that was damaged by the earthquake and tsunami and continues, ominously, to leak high levels of radioactive iodine into the Pacific Ocean.

Also into the ground in a half-dozen places near the plant, expanding the mandatory evacuation area. Also into the air in tiny droplets that are falling far from Fukushima.

Most recently, tiny amounts of radiation have been found in milk more than 6,700 miles/10,790 kilometers away in California and Washington state, USA.

All it would take after a nuclear meltdown is just the right wind for a significant amount of radiation to find its way to other major Japanese cities, and major population centers in neighboring countries, near and far.

The “Fukushima 50,” a brave group of expert TEPCO (Tokyo Electric Power Company) employees, are risking their lives to turn the tide at the Daiichi reactor.

Some of these employee’s families, friends, houses, even entire hometowns were undoubtedly washed away by the tsunami and never seen again. Rather than focus on their own losses, these people ran toward ‒ not away from ‒ the reactor, to prevent further losses of life.

For some, at the eventual expense of their own.

Unfortunately, I’ve seen first-hand how much damage a massive earthquake followed by a massive tsunami can cause, having spent 6 months in Southeast Asia in 2005.

I learned something very important about grief when, come the Water Festival, Songkran (New Year’s), almost 4 months to the day after the tsunami, the Thai people let their departed loved ones go.

สุขสันต์วันสงกรานต์ (pronounced “suk-san wan songkran”) means “Happy Songkran Day,” emphasis on “happy.”

Every year on December 26th, Thailand welcomes from overseas thousands of tsunami survivors and families and friends of victims. Memorial events are held diligently and kindly…primarily for the benefit of foreigners.

Because the Thai people have long since folded up that time and gently put it away.

There was a calm in the face of those devastating losses that I just couldn’t comprehend…and I’m getting glimpses of it all over again from the tsunami zone in Japan.

We’re thankful that our extended family lost no loved ones in Japan. I have friends in Thailand who lost more than a dozen family members. All of their childhood friends. Their businesses, and every one of their employees.

Their babies, ripped from their arms.

Although many of the southern villages where I was happen to be majority Muslim, Thailand is over 90% Buddhist and Songkran is a national, not religious, holiday. I asked a disaster relief colleague, a Thai-French national who happens to be Buddhist, the significance of all this.

His answer, loosely translated: “The real difference between us and you is that we see death a long time coming.”

For real, not just the concept of it.

I began to understand that, in Thai culture, loss through death is only painful if we become too attached to this impermanent and not-ours-to-keep life.

Dealing with death, both your own that you know is coming or someone else’s close to you that catches you by surprise, should be the same as dealing with life: be positive. This brings calm, and ultimately happiness, to you and everyone around you.

That’s the work of a lifetime.

Even though I don’t qualify to be a citizen, Japanese border control never fails to notice “Country of Birth: Japan” on my passport. No matter where I’m living at the time, that kind gesture ‒ from the people in the place where I began ‒ always makes me smile.

Says the immigration officer, waving me through: “Welcome home.”

Il Giorno del Ringraziamento Con La Polizia

I could’ve done without the before-and-after photos of the turkey, newly dead for my benefit.

It was one of those predictable misunderstandings between the Italians and their American daughter-in-law. When she told them that American Thanksgiving dinner required a “fresh” turkey, I knew exactly what she meant: “not frozen.”

But in Europe, where your choices are fresh, fresh, or nothing, “fresh” means “fresher than you can get at your local butcher.”

In the Italian tradition of taking things a bit too far in general, this logically translated to “you need to kill the turkey yourself on the spot.” And that they did, photographing every detail with relish for the absentee chef who was on her way from London, where people, while they know theoretically where protein comes from, prefer not to dwell on those last gruesome moments.

I reminded the daughter-in-law of another unfortunate poultry incident, in Africa, where we’d spent a summer pre-Italy doing public health projects. In one village, the women announced they’d be serving us chicken for lunch.

This chicken. Right in front of you.

They slit its throat and laughed as I lost my breath and turned white. Not my finest moment in the field.

Beyond embarrassing, actually, when in a prior developing world experience I’d stitched up a few gaping wounds with an upholstery needle and thread − sterilized with an unnamed alcoholic beverage provided clandestinely by an unnamed person, since this was a Muslim country − without a thought, only to be taken out a few years later by a dead chicken, of all things.

Like many things in Italy, Thanksgiving arrived late, kind of like this post.

We’d planned the dinner for Saturday night. However, when our hosts learned that Thanksgiving is traditionally celebrated on Thursday, it seemed only natural to start eating on Thursday and continue through Saturday.

…which working backwards meant the Thanksgiving drama needed to begin well before Thursday, and that, i miei amici, meant compiling the guest list.

Being suckers for lost causes, we decided to limit the guest list to 20, plus or minus 4 percentage points. Immediate family and close friends only. No aunts, uncles, cousins − “i parenti,” who aren’t parents (“i genitori”), but rather relatives, extended family − of which in Italy there is simply no end.

How lucky, then, that we’re not on speaking terms with the families who live within shouting distance of the house!

We’d miraculously capped attendance at 23 guests, within the realistic margin of error, until midway through the salad course…

…which in Italy is called “i contorni” and comes at the end of the meal, but for which we provided a completely fictional explanation from American history placing it at the beginning of Thanksgiving dinner, mostly to buy me time for the complex hot food deployment, but also as a food-stretching measure…

…when the uninvited contingent began to arrive, under the guise of dropping off gifts for the new baby (read on). Naturally, they’d heard about the Thanksgiving “party” and assumed their invitations had been “lost in the mail.” They, of course, were welcomed to stay, as they knew they would be…so, please pass everything.

Then there’s the charming Italian…power grid. The family home is on a secluded country road outside of a secluded village outside of Rome, in which the lights dim every 5 minutes and you have a full-on power outage a dozen times a day. Save the mashed potatoes, the Thanksgiving menu is primarily an oven-roasted menu and Italy is electric oven country.

Since if the oven is on, the lights cannot also be on, you the chef have 2 choices: you can either see the food you’re cooking or you can actually cook it. Finally, the perfect excuse for burnt pecans!

Cooking a 400-year-old menu for a couple dozen people is usually not this big a deal.

Our theatrical production had a most reluctant headliner. The 11-kilo (24.2-pound) turkey, who came within millimeters of not fitting into “il piccolo forno” (the tiny oven), tried his slippery best to slip away, but we dealt with him just like a desperate criminal being arrested by the police: somebody hold his wings, somebody hold his legs, somebody put an elbow on his chest and read him his rights.

The attendees, both family and friends, are mostly policemen and every branch of law enforcement was generously represented. The state police, who are the civilian authorities. The carabinieri, a branch of the military along with the Army, Navy, and Air Force, whose motto “Nei Secoli Fedele” (faithful through the centuries) tells us really all we need to know.

Then there was a guy in the Palidoro, a mobile unit out of the UN police headquarters in Rome, one of 9 located across Europe. These officers are called up on missions to protect EU interests around the world. He told some fascinating stories (in warp-speed Italian) about their recent mission in the West Bank to monitor the political situation there, reinforcing the discouraging conclusions about prospects for Middle East peace that I’d just been reading about in the Corriere della Sera − the Italian equivalent of the New York Times − on my flight over.

Since the house was swarming with cops and I couldn’t tell who was who, I just saluted everyone and answered every question “Si, Signore, certo,” and then offered them all extra dessert, which they all gladly accepted, joking that they were used to people trying to bribe them, but not usually with baked apples stuffed with brown sugar, walnuts, currants, and fresh vanilla.

One of the carabinieri is an exceptional cook, according to his adoring wife, who freely admits she initially fell in love with him for precisely this reason. With his expert interrogation skills, he got me to confess one of my secret recipes, after first correctly guessing several of the key ingredients.

Sorry, Officer, you caught me. I did grate nutmeg into that. I just forgot. My day started before 6:00 and here it’s 23:30 (11:30pm) and the dinner is still going strong.

Please, just this once, let me off with a warning.

By this point in the evening, “il rustico,” the little cottage out back, had dinner guests hanging from the rafters. Singing, toasting, conversing, eating, drinking, kissing the baby, holding the baby, taking photos with and of the baby…

…and it was more than a little disturbing to realize that the baby’s daily take of gifts was equivalent in value to what we paid for the ingredients of Thanksgiving dinner.

The new baby’s imminent baptism has everyone in a tizzy. She’s the first grandchild and her father is one of these archetypal Italian playboys about whom his resigned family felt that settling down with an American woman was better than nothing.

Actually, just the opposite is true. The grandparents are crazy in love with their daughter-in-law, although they do hope this baptism nudges her in the direction of conversion to Catholicism.

(I could tell them right now that women will wear red robes at the Vatican before that ever happens, but hope springs eternal.)

Preceding the caffé, grappa, and 3 dessert courses, which included caffé liqueur served in edible dark chocolate cups, were the savory elements I adore. Turkey stuffing with mushrooms, apples, roasted red peppers, spiced (by me) sausage, and fresh rosemary. Potato purée, as the Italians call it, with roasted garlic and fresh parsley.

“Fresh” this time means “out of the garden.” Where our salad greens came from, too. Hand-delivered through the kitchen window. In late November!

Fresh salad greens on the Pilgrims’ Thanksgiving table in Massachusetts? Sorry, we’re fresh out.

Thankfulness Surplus, Happiness Dividends

Somebody call the CDC: it’s Thanksgiving again, highly contagious and hopelessly addicting!

It’s one of the few addictions we approve, encourage, and in fact require of every American citizen. Kids don’t get past the 3rd grade without knowing the history of this formidable holiday and common menu items thereof. (Try finding somebody who hasn’t ever made a craft paper cornucopia.)

Since the last Thursday of November 1621, Americans have ‒ in one of our very few national consistencies ‒ been wrecking havoc on the roadways the Wednesday prior, horse-drawn carriages and Nissan Pathfinders propelled in unison toward sage stuffing and cranberry sauce.

The truly dedicated have frozen turkeys in their carry-on backpacks ‒ my chef brother-in-law taking no chances on the local availability of proper poultry ‒ amazing even the United Airlines staff, who though they’d seen everything twice.

Once you’ve celebrated Thanksgiving, you just can’t give it up. We had some Polish guests a few years ago who now host an annual accurate-to-the-finest-detail re-creation of Thanksgiving in Warsaw, complete with all-authentic Herting family recipes.

I’ve hosted Thanksgiving dinner in the snow, in the tropics, for a few, for a crowd. Besides fresh roasted turkey (special ordered from the butcher 6 weeks in advance, having first looked up that never-before-used word in the dictionary), turkey soup, and turkey quiche, I’ve served everything from Bœuf Bourguignon to fried plantains to yellow curry with potatoes and fresh squid.

Christmas is Christmas and you get all kinds of encouragement to go big in Catholic countries and some former English colonies. Even in Japan, home to those just fundamentally wrong skinny Santa Clauses.

Then there’s that cardinal rule that you and your entourage don’t show up until the day after Thanksgiving, Père Noël.

But, to be fair, only we know this rule. Thanksgiving is uniquely American, religiously neutral, and gift-free…except for gifts of love, friendship, and FOOD!

(At my house, if you don’t get enough to eat, it’s your own fault…and if you’re not still eating at 21:30, following an intermission for music and chess, it’s my fault.)

Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday. It’s the only time as an American expatriate I’ve ever truly felt lonely for home and family.

Destination: Hong Kong.

Through a mutual colleague, I’d met Tracy, a Taiwanese-American who was feeling more out of place than I was because everybody took one look at her and expected her to speak Cantonese, which she didn’t. Then they’d try Mandarin. Strike out.

Didn’t your parents teach you anything? said perfect strangers, disapprovingly.

Tracy was married to a Brit who was friends with this nice South African family ‒ mom, dad, 2 school-aged kids, and a new baby ‒ who had this palatial $15,000 USD a month apartment overlooking Repulse Bay.

As is typical with executive expatriate relocations, they had not only luxurious housing, but also private schools for children, a car and driver, numerous servants, Western-style health care, and business class plane tickets for at least annual home visits.

But, as the Beatles taught us, money can’t buy you love. Can’t buy you support. Can’t buy you genuine, count-on-me friendship.

Their first year in Hong Kong had been occupied with a difficult pregnancy, a high-risk birth, and a premature baby with multiple health problems. Add to that, the wife’s widowed mother, who’d moved with them to help care for the children, started exhibiting signs of dementia.

The husband’s employer had suddenly acquired a new company, which put him in Southeast Asia 20 days a month. He wasn’t trying to get out of helping at home and was totally frustrated, but couldn’t see an immediate way out of the situation.

He’d also become worried about some language and attitudes his older kids were picking up at school among their entitled, not very well supervised peers. That sophisticated, bratty, disdainful stuff that attentive parents put an end to, in our collective experience, in 5 second or less.

The most understanding people in their lives were their 2 Filipina housekeepers. “Misyvie (their way of pronouncing Mrs. Sylvie), she always sad,” they’d say to us privately in the kitchen, where we always were but shouldn’t have been, being unfamiliar and uncomfortable with the whole servant concept.

Tracy, her husband (who’d discovered early on that Thanksgiving was one of the many unexpected perks of marrying an American), and I had already had on our radar a wing-it Thanksgiving weekend dinner for ourselves, our mutual friends, a handful of other known quantities of varying nationalities, plus whoever else happened to be in town and invite-able.

On the spur of the moment, we went in an entirely new direction.

We decided that what this South African family needed was a Thanksgiving. They needed a Thanksgiving in the worst way. And we were going to give it to them.

Schedule: we should’ve started this a month ago, but we didn’t know we were doing it back then and have just a very few days to pull it off.

Product team: for an endeavor of this complexity on such an aggressive schedule, we needed to staff up. Fast. That was dead simple. Hello? We love startups. Absolutely, we’re in. But remind us again what Thanksgiving is?

The Filipinas, who hadn’t ever heard of Thanksgiving either, were thrilled to help and immediately began to polish the silver and iron the table linens.

Mission statement: increase Mrs. Sylvie and family’s happiness margin

Target audience: host family, our friends, their friends, expat Thanksgiving orphans, random others TBD

Specifications: traditional recipes, ingredients acquisition (a high-value specialty we were prepared to pay top HKD to attract), order of service, logistics, culinary QA (the most competitive job description, not surprisingly)

Marketing plan: office gossip, blatant reply-all emails, promise of early-and-often sampling on-site

Launch date: 4th Saturday evening of November, buying us 2 precious days to get our act together

Thus, the Repulse Bay Turkey Day ‒ don’t blame me, the marketing guys came up with that ‒ version 1.0 kickoff.

As with all startups, we pulled some all-nighters, had a few shopping fiascos, had to change one of our recipes at the last minute, and added some surprise guests.

But with feature cuts and willing volunteers, come Saturday night an unexpectedly beautiful dinner was served…to an unimaginable assortment of smiling guests, who came to realize that Americans really might be onto something for a change, dedicating one day a year to thankfulness and mushroom gravy.

According to early earnings results, released over pumpkin pie à la mode: by far, far exceeding thankfulness goals, our impromptu dinner had yielded life-changing happiness dividends…for Mrs. Sylvie, for everyone.

Happy Thanksgiving. (This year, I’ll be roasting turkey in Rome…over an open fire, apparently. Details to follow.)

Noch Mehr Handy BlaBla in der U-Bahn

You don’t need to speak much German to guess what this news headline might mean to Bavarian readers (and how true it is):

“You know those people who talk really loud on their cell phones on public transportation about stuff we couldn’t care less about hearing? Guess what: we get to hear even more of that during our formerly pretty tranquil metro ride to work.

How incredibly annoying.”

It’s a genetic trait of the Herting family: you can’t walk by a newsstand without checking out the headlines. You do this even if you have no hope of understanding what the headline says, much less the cultural back story, the press shorthand, the only way in which you can possibly fit years, decades, or even – since this is Germany, after all – centuries of history into that 36-character space.

It’s how our family goes into a restaurant and then, when asked the size of our party, look around and see we’ve left somebody or three out on the sidewalk finding out what’s fit to print.

And here I am, 6,000 miles away from the rest of the clan, doing exactly the same thing.

But it was the headline underneath that headline that caught my eye: a hundred or so white supremacists marched through the center of Munich, accompanied by almost as many police officers.

…because I’d actually seen that march while walking along Elisenstrasse toward Marienplatz, on an unseasonably warm and sunny November day, to meet a friend for coffee. My first impression of the protestors’ signs actually had been that they were against Nazism, although my first clue should’ve been that they were also against capitalism.

My mistake.

They handed out flyers to the crowd. No wonder everybody around me looked at me strangely for accepting one.

Later, I typed some of the text into Google Translate and came to a frightening realization: remember those profoundly evil fascist convictions that led to the rise of the Third Reich and World War II? They’re still alive and well in Germany…less than 100 meters away from me.

I wrote a post last summer called On the Verge of a Standoff, about right-wing nationalist parties winning elections all over Europe, but most recently ‒ and alarmingly ‒ in Belgium.

One of the scariest things about the white supremacy resurgence in Europe is its strong appeal to the younger generation. To young people who see no chance for economic opportunity in their respective home countries.

Translation: fewer jobs, dwindling social safety nets, austerity measures dictated by the EU that hit the working class square in the face.

Poorly integrated immigrant populations, too, which are perceived as swallowing up an unfair proportion of social benefits, incubating crime, and dictating unwelcome religious-based social norms to the majority.

There’s some truth to a lot of things in life, and this is no exception. It’s a complex fruit basket of political issues present across Europe today.

But this was a first for me: to see genuine believing Nazis march openly down the street of a major German city, advocating white power and eradication of “all those other people we hate.”

This, not 10 miles from the concentration camp at Dachau, which was opened in March 1933, 2 short months after Hitler became Chancellor of Germany – obvious in retrospect, he was wasting no time putting the Holocaust in motion – and in which 32,000 innocents were killed.

Innocents who didn’t fit into the Nazi definition of the perfect country, the perfect race, the perfect future of the Third Reich, poised to swallow up all of Europe.

Democracy is a constant balancing act, never more so than with free speech. In that landmark free speech case of 1977, the National Socialist Party of America (a neo-Nazi organization) v. Skokie, Illinois, the United States Supreme Court found that members of the NSPA did indeed have the legal right to march right through the majority Jewish immigrant neighborhood of Skokie, home to thousands of survivors of the Holocaust and their extended families, wearing Nazi informs and swastikas.

No matter provocative, cruel, repugnant, outrageous, and 10,000 other bad adjectives those American Nazis’ actions were, ultimately they were covered by the 1st Amendment.

Free and open societies remain free and open in part because we’re strong enough to let diverse, even hateful, voices be heard…and that sends the repressive nations on earth a powerful message: we’re fearless. We’re so sure we’re in the right where free speech is concerned that we’ll gladly open ourselves up to withering criticism from within because we feel confident our democratic principles can withstand it and in fact prosper by contrast.

Another old adage that holds: “the truth never fears investigation.”

But, as a perceptive man I know once said: don’t mistake my kindness for weakness. Applying that concept to free speech, don’t perceive my openness, flexibility, and generosity about your right to your opinions ‒ with which I couldn’t agree less, just to be clear ‒ with my being a pushover, as you launch into politically actionable hatred.

The moment you cross the line into criminal activity, even ever so slightly, you’re done.

The Germans have their work cut out for them, as their economy continues to struggle and even political moderates grow tired hearing the monotonous foot-dragging and wheel-spinning at the Bundestag.

“If the kids are united…” says the neo-Nazi flyer, in its sole phrase in English. You, your white skin, your disproportionate sense of entitlement, and your fascist guiding principles are the bright future of 21st century Germany.

First: take today’s Nazis seriously. They mean every word they say, and then some.

Remember Mein Kampf? Hitler published his manifesto in 1925-26, the better part of a decade before he became the self-described Führer. He didn’t keep his opinions a secret; he put them out there for anyone to read. (In the “most bizarre wedding gift” category, newlyweds received free copies.)

Many people figured Hitler was just a low-level crackpot with overblown political ambitions who would never amount to anything…and came to regret that fatal underestimation.

Second: make sure that, for the sake of tomorrow’s world, Hitler’s murderous words never again come to power.

You Complete Me

Something’s missing, but I can’t put my finger on it.

In the food life, it’s called taste training. Sometimes you can taste what’s missing for yourself; other times you need feedback that you’re not necessarily thrilled about.

But, like most categories of bad news, it’s best to hear it from a friend.

At Le Cordon Bleu, my downfall was salt. The French have a higher salt tolerance than Americans in general, so even low salt to them tasted much too salty to me. I just could not get this right at first. Every day when I thought I’d finally achieved salty perfection, I was still just a little bit off the mark…and heard all about it.

The make-do-until-I-graduate strategy: as salty as I can stand it, plus the palm-of-the-hand equivalent of another tablespoon per 4-serving portion.

Americans are so willing to sacrifice taste for health that we self-righteously hide the salt shaker and dive forthwith into the chips and salsa, followed by peanut brittle and French vanilla ice cream.

But it’s also that restaurant food is more salty than anybody makes at home and people who eat in restaurants a lot notice this and expect it. So, if you want to keep your job, you best work on your salty delivery, with some salty back-kitchen language to go along with it.

Being a garlic fiend, that’s the first missing ingredient I notice. One clove of garlic is just barely enough to roast and spread on 1 slice of bread. Some American recipes call for this little garlic in an entire pasta dish, or in a half-gallon of soup!

Anybody from the Mediterranean will insist that you amend your menu to read HGD (Hopelessly Garlic Deficient).

It’s easy to fall into this trap when you work with ingredients you’re unfamiliar with. At Le Cordon Bleu, we sought out people from those regions to give us a reality check. Luckily, there was hardly a region on earth from which we didn’t have at least someone, if not a whole assortment of tasters to choose from.

If what you made didn’t pass muster with at least 1 local, you’d better come up some sincere apologies before going back to the drawing board.

The Japanese students, for example, had no trouble with salt. Japanese cuisine is high in sodium, largely due to everything soy. But the Japanese chefs-to-be never quite got the whole bouquet garni thing (so indispensible in French cuisine that many recipes don’t even bother to mention it), having not grown up with laurier (Bay leaf) et poireau (leek) and not sensing what French food, particularly French sauces, tasted like without them.

The more colorful the spice in the cupboard, the less likely the Japanese students had ever seen it, let alone tasted it. They also didn’t have much of a clue what to do with pork loin, or boiled potatoes, or caramelized onions, let alone caramelized carrots.

(I was born in Japan and love it there, so note that these are friendly examples.)

Once people got over the beauty of their presentation, which was really hard to get over because it was so amazing and effortless, the Japanese students took a lot of heat for this. Nothing like blah, off-topic food, whether it’s French or Japanese or something else, to acquire all kinds of unhappy former customers.

You get into Argentinean, Turkish, North African, or Southeast Asian cuisine with that attitude and you already know that undesirable acronym: NRSE (Not Remotely Spicy Enough).

…and it’s a crying shame to get all the way to the dinner table before you find this out, when the only available fixes are Tabasco and red pepper flakes.

Sooner or later, you − the flavor imposter − are found out. If you’re the proprietor, a few lukewarm reviews on yelp.com and your business is toast.

That’s why restaurants are very often partnerships. It’s not just about seed money. It’s about complimentary skill sets, to have somebody around to save you from yourself and that list of business-killing acronyms.

It’s not just about menus, either. It’s about sharing, negotiating, and learning how to leverage each other’s strong points to get the work done. If you didn’t learn this by washing dishes with your siblings when you were growing up, you get to learn it the hard way at Le Cordon Bleu.

More often than not we shared stoves and ovens with another person. If you’re familiar with French cuisine, you already know how many burners you need at once: 3 going full blast, a 4th turned off to use as a transition area. Then there’s your 1 oven trying to be 2 temperatures at once. So, if you have only half a stove and half an oven to call your own, you need to figure out a workable plan with your “blind date.”

But, for example, if you’re blanching and peeling 5 kilos of tomatoes total, you really need only 1 pot of boiling water, 1 bowl of cold water, 1 platter, and 1 skimming spoon to share. That’s 4 pieces of extra equipment not taking up your precious prep area.

At culinary school, this is all legal and encouraged. It’s the reality in the food business: working in close quarters, doing more with less, learning how to work clean and organized (which counted for 10% of our grade)…and tasting each others’ food as a hedge against disaster.

You wouldn’t want your worst enemy to hear the kind of abuse you’ll get for presenting bad food for money for real. So, be honest. Brutal if necessary. I’ll do you the same favor when it’s your turn.

I know some progressive American gourmet restaurants in which the 5pm tasting − before the dinner service − involves the entire staff. Not just culinary staff. Waiters, hostesses, porters, dishwashers, everybody.

The logic: if you work here, you need to know what we’re serving and what our business is about, because you never know when you might encounter a customer and knowing what we’re about will make you better at your job and in the long run make us more successful. (And maybe you more successful, if you’d like to learn how to cook and be promoted.)

And if we’re smart we’ll listen to all your opinions. One might save us a lot of grief someday.

I know a guy who owns a fusion restaurant that travel guides rate $$$$. Somewhere you’d go on your anniversary. He added this new item to his menu because it had a cool name, he’d eaten it before, and thought he could easily figure out how to make it and make it profitable. He was really proud of his new recipe and couldn’t wait to showcase for the upcoming season.

Until he served it to his staff as a test run.

About 1/3 of his BOH (back-of-house) staff was from the same country, the country from which this dish originated. They tasted politely, then started laughing…and couldn’t stop.

Why? Not only was this chef’s dish made completely wrong in all the wrong ways, but also the result looked and tasted a lot like another local dish a restaurant like that would never serve…and there was even a crude JOKE about it that any person who spoke the native language would know.

Good catch.

So, sometimes it’s not a missing ingredient, it’s a missing piece of information that nukes your quarterly profits.

Or, sometimes it’s the passion that’s missing.

Early days at Le Cordon Bleu, there was this Scandinavian student whose stove was one down, one over from mine.

(I should say our stove, because that term I shared mine with an Asian ex-runway model, who was finally having the career and family she’d always wanted, after 10 years of boring fashion shows.)

For Miss Scandinavia, food was VVSB: Very Very Serious Business. She never chatted, never smiled, never even complained, which is an absolute culinary school requirement (see syllabus). Her parents had sent her to Le Cordon Bleu, we’d heard, with specific instructions to be valedictorian of her class, or don’t bother coming home.

She was determined to have NFW (No Fun Whatsoever)…and that’s how her food tasted, every day.

Then she met this Latin American student who was hell on wheels.

He’d been a line cook in a busy holiday destination resort for a few seasons, so he had very good knife skills and worked very fast. But he had no discipline whatsoever. Despite coming to class after partying until 4am, he always plated first, but half hung over with half his uniform missing, hair on fire the entire morning, his workspace in utter shambles.

What saved him was that he had this incredible palate. He could taste the absence of celery. Our chefs couldn’t get over it. This guy had never worked in a French restaurant, or even a gourmet restaurant. He’d never been to Europe before, either.

So, in addition to being the class flirt, he became the class taster.

Anyway, imagine these 2 people sharing a stove. You can’t pay enough tuition to witness that quality of culinary entertainment every day. Then they fell in love and it got even better.

The relationship didn’t last, according to our chefs, who in France comment freely on their students’ love lives without threat of lawsuits. After graduation, both did stages (internships) in prestigious Paris establishments, but when his visa ran out 6 months later, he went back to Latin America. She stayed on in Europe. Somewhere.

They were both better cooks having met, our chefs editorialized further. He’d learned to appreciate the beauty of the understated French classics. She’d learned that sometimes in a kitchen situation you just have to take a breath and let it rip.

Sometimes, too, I look around the kitchen and picture him at the stove next door − one down, one over − impatiently waiting to tell me, with that white-hot, ever-infectious culinary enthusiasm: dame un beso, mi amor! (give me a kiss, my darling!) because today you got it exactly right.