Thursday, September 05, 2013

Italian Food Rules

This is the only acceptable way to eat long pasta

 It’s no secret that Italians are passionate about food.  And it’s no secret that Italian food is, for the most part, delicious.  Living so close to Italy, I get to experience a lot of it.  And while I love Italy, I wouldn’t consider Italy to be a front runner for strict rules.   I mean, all you have to do is experience driving in Italy to know that rules of the road are a mere suggestion rather than a die hard law. 

But then again, maybe it’s because Italy isn’t so hard and fast when it comes to every day rules that they do have pretty strict rules when it comes to food.  Some of the best arguments I’ve witnessed are when my Italian colleagues talk about how different dishes should be made.  If you want to witness a war of words, I suggest you ask a Northern Italian and a Southern Italian how lasagna should be made:  it’s almost as much drama as witnessing an episode of Jerry Springer.

In the past year and a half, I’ve learned a lot about Italian food rules.  Note that I say learned and not followed.  For even though it’s a “rule”, where I come from, rules are meant to be broken.  So what are these rules you ask?  Here’s a sampling of what I’ve gathered:

-       Pasta should ALWAYS be cooked al dente.  There’s nothing worse than overcooked pasta.  Also, whatever you do, don’t cut your pasta.  A colleague of mine said she nearly felt physical pain when she saw me cut my pasta.  Also, don’t use a spoon to roll it either.  Learn how to roll it on your fork.

-       Cheese is good. Fish is good.  But for godsake, whatever you do, don’t put them together.

-       Coffee.  Coffee comes as espresso in child size cups.  Capuccinos come in slightly larger cups and never too hot.  Both should be drunk in a relaxing way, or, if you’re in a rush, standing at the bar.  Coffee to go is sacrilege.  Having cappuccinos after 10 is also not ok.  I risk judgement everytime I order a cappuccino past noon.  I just smile.  I’m ok with their judgement.

-       Bread- In north America, at an Italian restaurant, you often get a swirl of olive oil and balsamic vinegar to dip your bread into.  That would never happen in Italy, you’re meant to put things ON your bread and not dip your bread INTO something.  I have no idea why.

-       Fettucine Alfredo isn’t Italian.  Neither is spaghetti & meatballs.  So don’t even think of trying to order it. 

-       As amazing as Italian food is, Italian breakfasts are almost as appealing as a prison breakfast (not that I would know!)  Italian breakfasts usually consist of coffee (or cappuccino- it’s allowed at that time) some dry toast, cookies and if you’re lucky some jam and yogurt.  Bacon and eggs? Don’t even think about it.

-       There’s a “right” pasta shape to go with a “right” sauce.  There isn’t a spreadsheet of what the “right” combinations are, but if you’re at a restaurant and you order the “wrong” combo, they’ll let you know. And make you choose an alternative.
Like anything, some people are more tolerant of you breaking certain “rules” over others.  So what has learning these rules taught me?  Food in Italy is almost on the level of religion (maybe even higher) and Italians are extremely passionate about their food.  If you want to get into a heated debate with an Italian, discuss food.  Or politics.  

Monday, August 19, 2013

Swiss Cheese

A typical example of a Self Service Cheese "shop"
It’s no secret that Switzerland, among other things, is famous for cheese. What is a secret though, is the variety of cheeses that there are.  Usually when you think “Swiss Cheese” you think the kind with the holes in it.  That would more likely be considered Emmenthaler cheese.   In fact, Switzerland has about 450 different varieties of cheese. 

To say there is cheese everywhere is also not an understatement.  Once you leave the city, you practically run into cheese places.  Switzerland very much embraces the whole “eat local” movement, though here it’s not so much a movement but rather something they’ve always done.

Though I’m sure there are a few large scale cheese operations, the majority of cheese seems to be made by small independent farmers.  The cheese that I most often run into (quite literally) is alp cheese.   Alp cheese is a loose term to define a cheese that comes from the mountain.  In order for it to be called alp cheese, the milk has to come from cows grazing in the mountains and the cheese itself has to be made in the mountain.  As a result, the only “wildlife” you spot hiking is generally cows (or goats)

Of the cheese places I’ve run into, they also generally have a point of sale on the spot.  It’s usually a friendly sign on the side of the road and a fridge or cooler with the offerings.  Oh, and it’s unmanned.  I’ve mentioned before how trusting Switzerland is, but it’s still amazing to me, that in the year 2013, there are still people trusting enough to leave a box of cash along with the cheese.  Of the times I’ve bought cheese at the “self service” cheese shops (for lack of a better name) it’s not uncommon for there to be close to 100CHF in the cash box. The concept is simple: buy your cheese, pay for your cheese, make your own change.  So simple and trusting, yet it just wouldn’t fly in about 90% of the countries in this world!

The very trusting system of paying for your cheese

Happy cows grazing in the mountains make for delicious cheese

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Debunking the Chinese fortune teller (kind of)

Part of my job requires overseas travel a few times a year. Every once in a while, that includes somewhere exotic like Thailand, Vietnam, India or even Israel. More often than not, it's been Hong Kong. In the past 7 years, I've been there close to a dozen times.

There's nothing wrong with Hong Kong if you like shopping and eating, because that's about what the city is about. However, there's a finite amount of shopping and eating one can do! So over the years, I've tried to "branch out" and find something different to do. I've taken a ferry to one of the islands and walked around during one visit when it wasn't too hot. That's another thing, most of the time Hong Kong is sweltering hot with a relative humidity that feels like 150%. 

So, a few trips ago, while wandering randomly, I found the Chinese fortune tellers on temple street. Tucked away behind a touristy nightmarket selling cheap sunglasses, is a strip of Chinese fortune tellers willing to read your palm or tarot cards. I strolled the row, and looked for one that had a good look. Whatever that is for a fortune teller. I settled on a cute little old lady.

She started with my birthdate then looked at my palms. She told me I had good hands. The first thing she said was I was very much a lady but sometimes I think like a man. The next thing she said was that if I married before 35, it wouldn't last. She went on to say that before my 40's, love would be pretty much shit. She went on to say that I should be careful around water and I would most definately live past 75. She went on to tell me that jade was my lucky stone and pearls were bad for me. I took it all with a grain of salt, after all, this was just a way to entertain myself. The most devastating things about the reading was that pearls were bad luck! I love pearls!

The next time I was in Hong Kong, I was bound to find the lady again. Not because I was set on knowing my future, but mostly, I wanted to see if she'd tell me the same thing. I found temple street, strolled the fortune tellers and couldn't find her. Since I was there, I settled on an older man. Let's see if this Chinese fortune telling had any consistency.

I sat down on his little plastic chair and there really wasn't anything similar to what the lady had told me. He told me if be at my current job for at least 5 years and I'd have 3 kids. Well, even if I started yesterday, there's no way 3 kids are going to be coming out of me in this lifetime! Chinese fortune telling- debunked!

Three strikes you're out or three times the charm. This week I find myself in Hong Kong for work. As a way to spend some non eating and shopping time, I set out again to find my little old lady. I found her!

I negotiate my price and sit on her plastic bench. If she recognizes me, she doesn't register. It's been more than a year and I'm sure she sees lots of people. I give her my birthdate and she takes my palms. First thing she says to me is that I'm very much a lady but sometimes think like a man (gulp!) second thing she says to me, no way should I get married before 35. Ok. So that's not 100% accurate, I got married at 35, but it didnt last a year. Still, I'd say that was awfully close!

She went on to say that I'd have to watch my health in my 50's and I would have a long and happy life. If I waited til after 40 to get married it'd be long lasting. This time she didn't warn me about water but she told me to watch my ankles and especially walking in high heels (oddly enough, I'm exceptionally clumsy) but this time she told me that any stone would be good for me.

So what do I believe? Chinese fortune tellers, like horoscopes have an element of interpretation to them. Yes, it was eerie that she said a marriage before 35 would be short lived, but a lot of he rest can pertain to pretty much anyone. Still, it was a humorous way to spend half an hour. 

Sunday, June 30, 2013

Happy birthday Canada or why you should love Canadians (even more)

Before I moved away from Canada, I hadn't given much thought about what it means to be Canadian nor was I particularly patriotic. When I travelled and responded that I was from Canada when people would ask me where I was from, I got the standard responses "oh, you must like the cold" "do you live in igloos up there?" (from an American)
One thing is clear, people don't know much about Canada, but they seem to like us. The reaction I get when I say that I'm from Canada is always different than when others say they're from the US, Germany, England wherever and they always want to engage me in conversation to hear about what Canada is like, from a Canadian.  People are fascinated with Canada and moreover people seem fascinated that a Canadian would want to leave Canada because anything people have heard about It is good, so why would anyone want to leave that frozen enigma?

Most Europeans love Canada because they think it's this great big wilderness (which 80% of it is) in a continent where everyone is packed in pretty tight, they relish the notion that you can drive 8 hours and not see another soul.  And though our natural beauty is second to none, there's a lot more to like about Canada and Canadians. 
So, if you're going to like us, you may as well have (more)  reasons to and learn a little bit more about us. Herewith, some inspiration:

- we don't like Justin Bieber or Avril Lavigne either.

-no, we don't know your friend Tom from Toronto.

- Canada is not a great white tundra. Well, technically it is, but there's a reason 80% of us live within a 2 hour drive of the American border, we don't like the cold either.

- don't worry, we make fun of Americans too.

-it's taken me two years to accept we say "out" and "about" differently. It's not weird, just different.

- the last letter of the alphabet is "zed" we add the "u" to colour, but it's an elevator, not a lift and a truck not a lorry.

- Not all of us speak French. Only about 10% of us do. Yes, they make us all learn it, but how much Spanish or German or whatever language do you remember from school?

- if there's one complaint I've heard about is that when we ask "how are you?" We don't stick around long enough for an answer. So to clarify, "How are you" is a greeting like "hello". When we say it, we don't want to actually engage you in a conversation of what's wrong in your life, we just want to hear "great, how are you?"

- the biggest insult for most Canadians is calling us Americans. Yes, we have a lot of similarities, watch the same tv shows, go shopping there a lot, but don't confuse us for Americans: our political views are extremely different and we don't shoot people nearly as often. But we do lock our doors contrary to what Michael Moore thinks.

-We're an extremely tolerant nation. It could be because we're so young or because we were built on immigration, but one of the things I'm most proud of is how we embrace multi-culturalism. Whether its Chinese writing on signs in Chinatown, or the fact that no matter what language you speak, the government will provide you with an interpreter, we're accommodating. We accept that multi culturalism is a part of our heritage and how we'll grow in the future. I can't can't say the same about Europe.

-Yes, we say "eh" a lot. But each language has its own version of "eh". Just like Americans have their "uh huh", Germans have their "oder" and Italians have their "Ecco" or "Che". 

-We're funny. I don't know if anyone has been able to confirm we have the most comedians per capita, but most of the comedians you know and love are from Canada: Jim Carey, Dan ackroyd,  Will arnett, John candy, Leslie Nielsen,  mike Meyers and Seth Rogen are just some of our funny Canadians.

- we don't vacation in tepees or igloos. Fun fact, I never saw one tepee or igloo in 37 years of living in Canada. I move to Europe and I've seen and heard of many igloos and tepees that you can stay in.

- our policemen don't really dress like the guy on due south. Well, they do, but that's only for special occasions.

-If it wasn't for Canadians, the White House would have been pink (you're welcome America)

- we have the queen of England on our currency but we don't know really know or care why.

- our national animal is the beaver (proof we have a sense of humor)

- we have the biggest coastline  in the world, but disney world has more submarines than us. But that's ok, because our neighbours to the south like us and will protect us if we ever need it.

- a knit hat is a touque. Not a beanie. 

-The snowmobile, snowblower, trivial pursuit, wonder bra, insulin and basketball were invented by Canadians.

So, happy birthday Canada.  It may have taken me half a lifetime and moving away to fully appreciate you, but I'm damn proud to say that I'm from Canada.

Monday, June 24, 2013

The trusting Swiss

I’ve written before about how much more trusting Europe generally is.  In Germany, my neighbors would leave their expensive winter tires and/or cases of beer in front of their cars in the garage.  If that were Canada (or the US, UK….) the beer would be gone and so would the tires.  If you had a package that was to be delivered to your house, it would often get left with a neighbor (which always proved fun trying to find WHICH neighbor signed for it)

Whereas I found Germany extremely trusting, Switzerland is, unbelievably, more so.

I should start by saying, that one of the things I love about Europe is the ease of financial transactions.  If you owe someone money, it’s a snap to arrange a transfer.  You get a form with a few digits, enter it into your online banking and voila.  North American banking seems like it’s from the dark ages with its use of paper cheques!

Anyways, Switzerland, trusting.  So, here are some of my favorite examples of HOW trusting Switzerland is:

1-    Driver’s license.  It’s a snap to change your drivers license.  All you do is go to the motor vehicle office, show your old license, show some documents and the NEXT day I had my Swiss drivers license in the mailbox.  And a request to pay.  My license showed up in 24 hours, but I had 30 days to pay for it.

2-    Car insurance-  I was dreading signing up for car insurance.  All those options to chose from baffle me.  And my view on insurance is that if you’re offered it and you don’t take it, you need it.  So I got the insurance that covers parking damage and damage against some random animals that can potentially eat my car wires.  Not squirrels, we don’t really have those in Europe.  Once my car passed the Swiss inspection, my insurance was effective.  About two weeks after it passed inspection, I got my policy. And the bill.  30 days to pay.  I could get used to this.

3-    Is by far my favorite example and happened to me yesterday after I went for a hike.  I had no cash on me (I hardly ever do) and went for a longer than planned hike.  There was a quaint mountain hut right near where I parked the car.  I went in and asked if I could pay by card.  I couldn’t.  They asked me where I lived and once they knew it was still in Switzerland, they offered me to pay with a bank transfer.  So I ordered and ate my lunch and my bill came with a bank slip so I could arrange to transfer them the money.  When I got home.  Eat now, pay later. 

I don’t know if it’s because Switzerland is so small or that they operate on a higher moral code than I’m used to or if it’s because money isn’t as valued here.  Maybe because the country has so much money, it’s just not valued as much.  Could it be??? I doubt it.  Whatever it is, I like it.