Back in the US – Crazy Food. Part Two: the “Healthy” Kind, or Not.

Part One was about fast-food.

Novelties for foreigners and Americans who have lived overseas for a while.

We were posted overseas for eight years back-to-back (Africa, Mexico, Asia, Europe – I know Mexico is not a continent), never having participated in language training. We took home leave three years ago, but lived like tourists so did not fully appreciate all the novelties. Perhaps these novelties did not even exist three years ago during our last home leave. Here is a small sample of the foods that have been marketed recently to make people buy more of what they don’t need, often disguised as healthy – and most often not.

We finally resettled in the United States, and as for each move, I dedicated myself to exploring the neighborhood and its resources. I do not like wasting my time shopping, but wish to make sure I discover the best quality and deals of my neighborhood. In a new country I always visit the surrounding supermarkets so that I can narrow down where to shop for what, and the same applies to the U.S. For example, good beef cuts are hard to find in supermarkets in Budapest or very expensive at the butcher, but Metro (a Costco-style place) offers good quality beef at reasonable prices.

While searching for the best fish, meat, vegetables, and fruits, I discovered many new food offerings that flabbergasted me. It is possible that long time American residents will have not noticed either because when you shop, you usually know what you want and look just for that so you might have not noticed the weird new offerings. They exist in every single aisle. You can eat them or drink them. They pretend to be healthy or not, and are, or not. From milk to chips, trail mix snacks to vegetarian burgers, welcome to new foods. Including pork rinds and pork crackling …

Milk
We knew that besides cow milk, you could have goat milk – so last century. To care for the lactose intolerant and vegan crowds, marketers packaged soy milk and rice milk. Even almond milk and coconut milk existed three years ago. You can now add cashew milk, almond-cashew milk, hazelnut milk, and my discovery of the day: quinoa milk and hemp milk. Hemp is a seed. It is not the marijuana drug. It does come from the plant species Cannabis sativa hence some confusion.

Asian food
Sea vegetable flakes ‘agar agar’ – Kombu the vegetable of the sea” features a happy fish dubbed “Sea Snax”. Its expiration date is in 15 months from now. How many preservatives and chemicals do you need to add to this ‘snax’ to achieve such a longevity.

Remember when Ramen noodles were the cheap meal for students – at $0.99 a pack? Now you can go organic on your Ramen with the Koyo brand, or fancy with the Lotus Foods brand which proposes Forbidden rice ramen noodles, Jade pearl ramen noodles, millet and brown rice ramen noodles. Not the same price at all.

I love ‘pho’ (pronounce ‘fuh’), the legendary Vietnamese light soup. I discovered kits to prepare it yourself. But did they need to come flavored? “Zesty ginger,” “garlic goodness” or “shiitake mushroom?” I can add the ginger, garlic and mushroom myself! I just needed the right blend of spices. The Happy Pho brand which offers the kit also makes the noodles out of brown rice.

Seaweed has become a fashionable snack these days. They used to be a favorite of Japanese people and it seemed that it would be hard to penetrate the American market. Ah – but someone had the idea to make seaweed “American” by injecting them with a good dose of “Texas BBQ flavor!” And why not propose a sea salt flavor as well since sea salt is so popular these days that you can even find it in chocolate. To remain in Asia, seaweed is also proposed with a sriracha flavor – just in case seaweed alone had an unpleasant taste …

At the Good Fortune Asian store in Little Vietnam/Eden Center, I found a drink called Essence of Chicken with Cordyceps extract near black-skinned chickens. As adventurous as I am, I didn’t dare try. The names for herbal teas made me laugh. Besides the common Relax, Cholesterol, or Immune, there were the less romantic Menopause and PMS! The produce section was very colorful with cucumbers that look like crocodiles, round white or purple eggplants smaller than a tennis ball, taro, and the unusual yampi and ratalu, both deformed roots.

Chips and Crunchy Snacks
With The Better Chip brand, we can indulge in chips (typically unhealthy) that are supposedly healthy because they are made with beets or spinach & kale, radish & chia, chipotle or jalapeño – whatever is in fashion. Not only the photo makes you believe you will eat pure beet, there is even a magnifier to show you the rings inside of a fresh purple beet. Its number one ingredient is whole grain masa flour – not beet – are you disappointed? Before you switch from crackers (‘bad-unhealthy’) to veggie chips (must be good since it’s veggie), check the facts. For the recommended serving size of one ounce (28 grams) these veggie chips bring 140 calories and 8g of fat when evil crackers bring 120 calories and only 3.5g of fat (Triscuit for example). Which one is evil?

Chips can also be made out of beans instead of potatoes, and the first ingredient is beans (yeah!), then rice and oil. Alas it does contain 7 grams of fat per serving and still 140 calories.

On this ever expanding healthy snacking (oxymoron intended) market the brand Hi I’m Skinny is a “new healthy alternative to snack food.” Instead of chips they propose sticks in healthy options: quinoa, sweet potato, and ‘superfood’ described as ‘mean & green’ in case you have no clue what a superfood might be (I remain clueless). Unfortunately, per serving size of one ounce (28g), you will get 140 calories, 8 grams of fat, 2g of protein and a tiny gram of fibers (Quinoa Sea Salt version). I’m staying with my evil regular cracker!

All is good in pork. Indeed, this ‘snout to tail’ commitment to use the entire animal is a great incentive for ranchers to raise their animals in a better environment. Delicacies such as pig ears, easy to find in Asia or on the markets of central Europe, is now modernly packaged in several flavors: the ubiquitous sea salt & pepper, maple bacon, or BBQ (no jalapeño yet). If I say pork rinds (skins) or pork cracking (fried-out pork fat with attached skin), it sounds very unhealthy and fattening. Yet, for the same amount of our earlier veggie chips you ‘only’ get 160 calories – not that big of a difference.

I knew of brownies and chocolate chip cookies that we don’t bake anymore, we purchase them in a box. I did not know the same could be possible with pies. A pie seems like a messy snack to give a child. Not with Nature’s Path proposing toaster pastries (filling is inside the dough) in many different flavors from Granny apple pie to wildberry acai and chocolate for example.

Mac & Cheese

A Kraft packet costs less than $1 (even in DC), supermarket brands cost half. But if you cannot boil water and add pasta, milk, and orange powder like it says on the package, Whole Foods has prepackaged the easy already-cooked version for $6.49 per serving!!! At this price you cannot even use a microwave since it is presented in an aluminum dish.

Yogurts

The brand Dreaming Cow proposes yogurts made with milk from barn-free, grass-fed cows and these yogurts only have natural ingredients (whole milk, agave nectar, pure vanilla extract and live active cultures for the vanilla-agave flavor) and 92 calories/4oz, 2 more than a low-fat Dannon Activia fruit yogurt. The non-fat Activia Light yogurt boasting only 60 calories needs to incorporate many ‘horrors’ to give it some taste: non-fat milk, blueberry puree, water, modified food starch, inulin, acacia gum, modified corn starch, kosher gelatin, carmine, pectin, sucralose, calcium lactate, malic acid, milk calcium, acesulfame potassium, and xanthan gum.

Vegan friendly

September 2017, I discover “pluots”. As the name indicates clearly, it is the contraction – and combination – of plums and apricots. Not called “aprum” because it tastes more like a plum than an apricot!

For vegans and vegetarians who need their “meat fix,” marketers do wonders. Vegan burgers made of beans or soy are well-known. Now they manage to imitate to perfection the look and texture of meat balls, sausages, or breast of chicken. The brand Gardein proposes “chick’n scallopini.” The photo is great, the ingredients much less apetizing: water, soy, protein isolate, expeller pressed canola oil, methylcellulose, organic vinegar, tapioca starch, yeast, cane sugar, potato starch, … color added, …

Unfortunately, when you want to drink something as natural as raw cow’s milk, the producer needs to label it for cats and dogs because State authorities have decided that humans can’t have it! Can you smell the power of lobbies behind all this?

The list goes on and on, with marketers always eager to sell more processed food, when at the end of the day, if you wish to stay healthy, you just need to go “around” the supermarket, it is where the fresh food is, counter-clockwise in many supermarkets: produce, cheese, meat, and fish.

PS – I discovered all these new offerings while shopping for ideas to match with my new habits to successfully control my weight; read more in my post about Weight Loss. This post will have many sequels to help people lose weight, even after 50, and for free.

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The Foreign Service Institute, a big part of our lives

FSI is 70*

When my spouse joined the Foreign Service (FS) in 2006 as a second career, the Foreign Service Institute (FSI) became my new home.  I do not say this lightly; I used to spend more awake time at FSI than in my real home, haunting the campus for training or just for lunch to meet future colleagues.  I learned and benefited from FSI for 10 years as a spouse (technically an Eligible Family Member – EFM in our jargon) and now I have returned to FSI as a Civil Service employee.  Most EFMs only know the Transition Center (TC) at FSI; it actually regroups four other schools providing training in different aspects of a profession and in foreign languages.  I have been an eager learner of all five, and this is my tribute to FSI, turning 70 this year.

FSI70

As most EFMs, my first steps in this new life led me to the Overseas Briefing Center (OBC, a division of TC), where I was able to browse through numerous documentation on all potential posts, watch videos, and register for many interesting classes: Realities of Foreign Service Life, Protocol, Explaining America, EFM Employment, Security Overseas, Logistics, etc. Even our children participated in a Security Overseas seminar where they were encouraged to kick and scream on top of their lungs if they were tentatively kidnapped – imagine us, the parents, in the adjacent room hearing the screams!  We paid it back when our kids produced a quality video on Dakar which won first prize. I am also grateful for TC to invite me regularly as a panel member to help other EFMs, sharing with them my candid experience on FS topics.

During one of the TC workshop, I learned that EFMs could join the Direct Hires (the spouse who has a permanent contract in the Foreign Service) in the professional studies curricula.  To increase my chances to get an EFM position in an embassy overseas, I immediately enrolled in the General Services Officer (GSO) class in the School of Professional and Area Studies (SPAS).  Once completed, I began the Consular training.  As a result of being so well informed and trained, I started at my first embassy in Dakar with a job waiting for me, well-armed to understand my surroundings and act appropriately. Actually, colleagues thought I was a Direct Hire!  Many years later, I attended the CLO training in Frankfurt where I met many neighboring colleagues. This allowed me to build inter-mission partnerships beneficial to our Commissary and share cultural and entertainment information.

The SPAS Pakistan Familiarization course became the key to our fantastic tour in a country reputed to be difficult.  I understood the generic “Islam” label covered many different faiths, learned about tribes and ethnicities, the political landscape shaped by a tumultuous history, and why it took ten months for my husband to get his visa … This allowed us to better understand and communicate with people of Pakistan, friendly strangers in stores, streets, and even children in the mountains.

In the Margalla Hills

Young Villagers in the Margalla Hills

After Dakar, we were assigned to Mexico City and the School of Language Studies (SLS) helped me brush up on my Spanish with distance learning classes followed by a mentor. This allowed me to fill a vacant position where a cleared American with a 3-3 level was sought – I was the only one qualified in the pool of 100+ EFMs! Before going to Pakistan, I took Urdu classes, which facilitated my integration with local colleagues at USAID and with our local implementers. I realized that learning to write the beautiful alphabet helped me learn faster because I could read signs around me and practice outside the classroom.

Between earthquakes in Mexico and a rather unstable situation in Pakistan, I became a natural student of the Leadership and Management School (LMS), learning about Crisis Management Overseas and the No FEAR Act.  While never subject to a real crisis – besides regular earthquakes in Mexico City, coups in all countries surrounding Senegal during our tour, and lock-down in Islamabad, I always felt more secure and less prone to panic knowing that I knew how to act during a dire situation.

In my previous career I have designed many websites but a technical person would eventually code and create them.  With the School of Applied Information Technology (SAIT), I learned SharePoint and was able to create a SharePoint site to advocate for environmental matters at Embassy Budapest.

After eight years overseas we are now back in the United States, and I became a Civil Service employee, starting my learning “series” again.  First, I learned to defend myself in perilous situations during a Basic Defense course (TC); then I participated in the Civil Service Orientation course (SPAS); and later in the Knowledge Management Foundations course (SAIT).

FSI just opened this year a new division: the Center of Excellence in Foreign Affairs Resilience (CEFAR), and with the general context, domestically and overseas, we sure do need a lot of resilience in the Foreign Service!  FSI also provides Distance Learning classes and SkillSoft classes that anyone from the foreign affairs agencies can follow from the comfort of their home, one hour at a time. I cannot encourage enough EFMs to look at the impressive catalog and take a class or two from home or join a class on campus.  FSI has made a permanent positive mark on the lives our entire family, preparing us well for this strange new adventure in the Foreign Service.

*The complete FSI history is available on Amazon: FSI at 70: Future Forward: A History of the Foreign Service Institute.

Weight Loss in the Foreign Service

Gallery

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How to turn a negative feeling into a positive result Joining the Foreign Service is similar to joining the army: you go where you are told to go.  Refusing a mission is resigning.  We have always been lucky to get … Continue reading

What I Like About China: More Pros than Cons

  1. PROs
    1. Great metro
      Lines are well described, color-coded. Tiny lights show you your location on the journey, a voice tells you in Chinese and English where you are, where you will be, whether you can change to another line or not. In addition, there is an animated screen, with pictures and the written text of what is spoken.
    In the metro

    Handle to steady yourself in the metro, while learning Shakespeare.

    1. Descriptive signs
      Chinese people use cardinal directions – the four points of the compass – in the metro and in everyday life. Metro exits are always well described with cardinal signs; a simple stop with four exits (People Square has 22!) will be signed A for northwest, B northeast, C southeast, and D southwest. Major landmarks are associated with a particular exit.  In Paris, metro signs give you the name of an adjacent street, depending on the chosen exit, but if you don’t know the area, the name of this unknown side street doesn’t help at all.
    1. Inspiring names
      In the Forbidden City, the Summer Palace, and other monuments, the places are not only beautiful, they have very Zen and inspiring names: Hall of Supreme Harmony, Hall of Preserving Harmony, Hall of Heavenly Purity, Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests, Hall of Abstinence, Hall of Eternal Protection, Hall of Ten Thousand Happinesses, Hall of Eternal Harmony, Hall of Heavenly Kings, Longevity Hill, Garden of Virtue and Harmony, Temple of the Sea of Wisdom, Hall of Happiness and Longevity, Temple of Heavenly Tranquility, etc. It brings internal peace just to read these names.

     

    1. Helpful people
      Structurally, the tactile paving on the sidewalks or in the metro is very common to help visually impaired people follow a street or be warned of an intersection. They are more prevalent than in most large cities in the world. Even when the sidewalk is in marble, there are tiles with long lines to follow and dots at intersections and before crossing a street.  Culturally, people are kind and helpful.  Even with complete ignorance of the Chinese language and no English language on their side, we managed to communicate with signs or pictures.  On several occasions, a person even accompanied me half way to make sure I would not get lost again.
    1. Extreme multi-tasking
      Dexterity in millennials is known. In China, I have noticed it also in older generations. Chinese people read on their tablet, play games on their phones, or watch TV while walking extremely quickly in the packed corridors of the metro. In Hong Kong (the New York of China for speed) I even witnessed people eating with chopsticks while walking – a far more difficult feat than eating a sandwich in the street! I admire the agility, while not necessarily condoning the simultaneous practice of these, especially eating mindlessly.

     

    1. High-speed train
      I knew the high-speed train in France, so I did not expect to be wowed. Beyond the high speed, China has excellent customer service. High-speed stations are designed like airports with enhanced security, modern well-lit facilities, and uniformed hostesses.  Train tickets bear your name and a passport check is performed many times before you are allowed to board the train.  Luggage is x-rayed.  Once on the train, there is much more leg room even in economy class than in any plane, even domestic business class.  Hot water is everywhere to be found at the station, not only for tea but also the ubiquitous Ramen noodles.  On the train, there is also a hot water faucet but why would you only eat noodles?  Every ten minutes a hostess passes with a little cart loaded with different choices:  cooked chicken, cut fruits, cut vegetables, drinks, cookies, etc.

     

    1. Consular team spirit
      Now for U.S. diplomats only. Consular sections usually have the best team spirit – I had noticed it in Mexico. In Beijing, and even more so in Shanghai, the team spirit was at its best. Consular management welcomed us, temporary employees, upon arrival with a private meeting, and thanked us at the end with personalized certificates and a party.  A teacher advised us to ensure our accent was understandable.  Managers assigned us special projects to make us shine beyond the tiring biometrics. We felt truly appreciated.  I would love the opportunity to serve again because, whether they say thank you or not, we are absolutely needed in large missions at peak season.

     

    CONs

    1. Air quality
      On the majority of days, the air quality is very unhealthy in Beijing or Shanghai. Beijing’s air is worse than Shanghai’s on average. Immediately upon arrival at the embassy, besides giving you a badge, managers brief you on what website you should consult to check the air quality, and advise you to stick it in your favorites.  I was shocked to see American families with young kids in these cities.  I believe it should be an ‘unaccompanied under 16’ post.
    1. Cuisine
      Are you surprised it’s a con? I was. When I told people I was going to China, the very first thing they exclaimed was “oh, you will eat so well there.” Exactly what I thought.  I love Chinese cuisine so I was thrilled to discover the real thing.  What I really discovered is the outrageous amount of oil they use to cook.  I tried the cart-street food, the small-no English-sign restaurant, the fancy restaurant, and each time I had to fish my food delicately with my chopsticks out of an ocean of oil. After a few times, I stuck to the Marriott or Ritz food – with international clientele they had learned to temper their natural oily inclination.  Or I simply went to the Korean or Vietnamese restaurants.  In Hong Kong, I had a delicious fondue, with food cooked by myself in lean broth.

     

    BOTTOM LINE
    I also loved the variety of landscapes, the amazing Great Wall, the bargain shopping, the great museums, the customized clothing, and so much more.  I would love to go back but not for more than six months – out of consideration for my lungs.

P1110104

A rugged part of the Great Wall

The New Diplomat’s Wife has More Pros and Cons posts.

Raising Bilingual Kids

While growing up in France, I developed a surprising love for the English language. I don’t know when it began. I officially started to learn it in 6th grade at age 10. To compensate for the only three hours per week of English I received at school, and for the abominable accent most French people – yes even graduated English teachers – have in English, I started to go to the movies a lot, two to three times per week, to see American movies in their original English version. I learned at least as much from the cinema subtitles and accents than formally. Before my twenties, I had determined to raise my future kids in English. The father would probably understand. And then by a twist of fate, I ended up marrying an American.

When I met hubby, he did not speak French. Therefore English was the home language, which was perfect. Once pregnant, we researched best practices to raise bilingual kids. Linguists and psychologists had a clear theory. I was supposed to speak French, and hubby was supposed to speak English. Yet, I wanted more than theory. I wrote to the two most prominent French baby magazines and asked real parents for their advice. They advised to take into consideration the ‘weight’ of the country in which you live. If you live in a third country, you may follow the rule of one parent-one language, and the kid will also speak the country language, becoming trilingual. There is some balance in this solution. On the other hand, if you live in a country where one of the languages is spoken, you create a large unbalance. To remedy, we were advised to both speak English since we lived in France.

Along came guinea pig number one.  English was the home language; French was the outside language (nanny, grandma). I had to warn French family and friends not to give our daughter any Disney movies or books, since home was English-only territory. At age one, our daughter started to speak well in both languages. When she was three, two events occurred at the same time. Guinea pig number two arrived, and our daughter began school.

Instead of having two parents who spoke English and one nanny and one grandma who spoke French, which seems fairly balanced, she found that the entire school population spoke French – we were greatly outnumbered. And she spoke more. Learned more. In French. Meanwhile hubby’s French was getting very good, to the point where it was natural for him to respond in French when first addressed in French. Back from school, our daughter started to tell about her day, in French. Little brother heard a lot more French than she did during his first three years. This muted him for almost three years. At age two, he was not speaking and we were worried. We tried rationalizing, putting this lack of language on account of being bilingual and a boy. When he finally spoke, instead of a few words, he pronounced entire grammatically correct sentences! In French only of course.

When we visited the American grandparents, our kids clearly understood them but did not speak English to them. We redoubled our efforts. We could not go back to the U.S. as often as needed for language immersion, so we went to England where we would fill our children’s brain with television. Imagine! Parents insisting that their kids ‘gobble’ television programs all day. [This obviously dates us because today one can get English-language programs without actually going to an English-speaking country.] We continued our life speaking English (parents) and French (kids), occasionally mixing some sentences (the four of us).

After few years, we joined the Foreign Service, and all of a sudden they arrived in their new house in Virginia in May. They were enrolled at school immediately in 5th and 7th grade. We were a bit worried that they would understand but not be able to express themselves. Once they realized that the new normal was to speak English, they simply spoke English. It just flowed naturally. Their accent was light and gradually disappeared. Our efforts were rewarded! Yet, since we were now in English-speaking country, we had to reverse our approach and make home a French speaking territory.

We later moved to a Spanish speaking country. By this time, our children mastered equally well both English and French languages. They joked, mixing them all the time, mid-sentence, or just inserting one French word in an English sentence or vice-versa. They even started a game to conjugate English verbs in French!!! We had just developed our own family dialect.

In summary, raising bilingual kids is possible – and of great benefit to them, but it is a hard job that requires dedication, consistency, and perseverance even when you don’t see immediate results. The rewards in time are well worth the sacrifice.

A Sunday Afternoon in Hong Kong

A good friend of mine works for the Hong Kong and Shanghai Banking Corporation, better known as HSBC. I thought it could be interesting to go see the original HSBC building in Honk Kong and I discovered more than I was expected. This visit allowed me to discover an original facet of Hong Kong, a facet tourists going to the Peak, Madame Tussaud, or even one of the temples, will never experience. When you say bank you think serious, or work, or money? Well, my association of ideas will be from now on quite different.

I decided to go take a picture of Sir Thomas Sutherland, the founder of HSBC in 1865. I started to walk towards the HSBC tower, which is known for its distinct architecture. In 1986 a new building designed by British architect Norman Foster was erected to replace the 1935 building. The address is Queen’s Road Central #1. Little did I know that the statue of the man was not in front of ‘his’ building but in a nearby park. What I did find at the building was much more interesting than a statue actually. I had read that many Filipino maids gathered on Sundays in Statue Park, a park between Chater and Connaught roads, south of the bank. The HSBC building being on pylons, anyone can walk under it and discover an exhibition which explains the growth of the bank together with the economic growth of the island. It also shows the original shoreline of the island being at Queen’s road which explains its curvy shape when all other streets are cut straight west to east and north to south. Then it depicts how, in 1863, the shoreline had moved to DesVoeux road, then to Connaught road in 1904, and much further in 1964 after the construction of more land to create the piers. Brass lions, symbols of the bank, stand proudly in front of the building. They have been named Stephen and Stitt. Stephen was the Bank Chief Manager from 1920 to 1924 in Hong Kong while Stitt was the manager of the Shanghai branch.

hsbc

Building and lions are interesting any day of the week, but on Sunday the show is right there on the floor, occupied by hundreds of Filipino women clattering under the shade of the building. They are very organized. They have placed cardboard under themselves to avoid sitting on the floor and many groups have ‘sewn’ cardboard together and have erected them vertically to protect themselves from any draft. It sounded like an aviary. Being under the building amplified the echo. The buzz almost felt like a mantra.

Emerging from this peculiar atmosphere, I realized that I had admired the lions Stephen and Stitt, discovered the history, the expanding shoreline, the women, but Sir Thomas was missing. I had to cross DesVoeux road to find his statue in a park in front of the Legislative Council Building which is a very nice colonnaded and domed neoclassical building. Going north I crossed Chater road without having to look neither left nor right since the street had been closed to traffic. Is it like this every Sunday or because there was a gathering to promote gender equality that day?  In Statue Park, Filipino women could be counted by the thousands. Chirping among them or on the phone, sleeping, eating, just being together. The community gathering has now expanded all the way to Connaught road and the IFC Mall Plaza. The IFC mall is where the high speed train departs for the airport.  It was time to go back to Shanghai!

To conclude, here is a nicer view of Hong Kong!

p1130922

Interesting Gift: a Soldier’s Ration

At Christmas time, a thought about gifts, and an anecdote about a certain gift.

There are gifts that are like perfume samples, we do not use them either because we love them too much to consume them and see them disappear or we do not like them at all. Sometimes we want to keep the gift intact. With our Foreign Service nomadic life it is impossible to keep consumables without consuming them. Otherwise the result would be too many boxes on our next move. That day hubby reminded me that it was necessary to consume a Christmas gift that our son had received from his cousin now in the French army: a single day’s ration!  I found this an excellent idea, wishing to know what they feed soldiers.

The ration is packaged in a cardboard box half the size of a shoe box. The inscriptions are in French and English, but clearly it must be provided by a French supplier since there is a spelling mistake in the English, ‘NATO APPROUVED’. Packaged on 1 July 2014, the box promises that the included food can be consumed until 11 January 2018. Imagine the number of chemicals necessary to ensure such a long shelf life! Despite the menu description outside the box, it is not easy to picture what I will truly find inside.

There are many small boxes and cans inside but the entire amount seems to be more appropriate for a woman on a diet than for a young soldier who needs more than 5,000 calories a day – probably doubled during combat. Alas, none of the meal boxes mention any calories nor carbohydrates, fiber, fat, etc. We will have to speculate and guess. The heating device fits in a tiny box, the size of two decks of cards. It includes a disposable container, grasping pliers, matches, six fuel pellets, six water purification tablets and a garbage bag.

The menu is fittingly French! For the two main courses, we may feast on Marengo veal with potatoes and pork with mushroom risotto. As the veal is cooked in white wine, a Muslim soldier would go hungry. And, were our son a soldier, he would only have one main meal since he hates mushrooms.

The veal can comes from a ‘Daniel and Denise’ brand (absolutely unknown) and mentions that it is Joseph Viola, best cook in France, who created the recipe. Whoa! Will soldiers really care? Since we never buy canned meals I do not know if it is normal to find carrageenan in it. Never heard of it? Me neither. What I read on Wikipedia is instructive: “Carrageenan is a polysaccharide (galactane) extracted from red seaweeds and used as a thickening and stabilizing agent in the food industry.” It is notorious for causing diarrhea – not really the most comfortable condition on a combat zone – and it is also used in shampoos, fire extinguishers, toothpaste, etc. This meal also includes xanthan gum (a more familiar name) which comes from polysaccharides excreted by various soil microorganisms (including bacteria). Our appetite is now completely whetted!

The mushroom risotto includes pork cheeks and smoked bacon and its can mentions an even later potential expiration date – until March 2018. Its maker, House Larzul (unknown brand again), does not mention any dye, thickener, gelling agent nor preservative (is that legal?), yet the ingredients include butter and sour cream.

For appetizers, there is a small can of roasted chicken rillettes, branded Hénaff (a known brand), and a small can of melted goat cheese, also branded Hénaff. When I say small, I mean small. They are only 78 grams each (2.75 oz). Where am I to spread the cheese? On so-called ‘campaign cookies ’in French, translated in English by a plain ‘army biscuits’ – this does not sound as appetizing. They are packaged in a box, four sachets of two salted crackers and four sachets of two sweet biscuits. All of these contain 11 grams of fat per 100 grams which is bad from a nutritional point of view. There is also a sachet of instant dehydrated potato-leek soup.

A French soldier has many choices for breakfast. He can choose between ‘cocoa aroma’ powder or two instant coffee doses packaged in 70s style which looks very cheap or two tea bags almost luxuriously packaged, Royal Ceylon and China tea with mint from Max Havelaar, all of them accompanied by two white sugar packets. For solid food the soldier can count on strawberry muesli manufactured in Germany, and Andros strawberry jam.

For snacks between meals the soldier gets a 70% dark chocolate bar, a coffee flavored rice bar, a fruit pulp bar, a bar of nougat with fruits, and four vanilla caramel candies. Finally, to complete this varied meal box, there is a powder to make an isotonic drink, a packet of tissues and two packets of salt and pepper from Alicante in Spain and written exclusively in Spanish.

Then our son returned and, as I was just finishing examining the contents of the box, declared that he refused to share his daily ration with us as an experiment. He stated that he had planned to eat it all when he goes camping with his friends. I already regret the sweet taste the carrageenan must have…

Samaria Gorge in Crete

During our three-year tour in Budapest we visited Greece three times, our last trip was in Crete, its biggest island. The major natural beauty of Crete is the Samaria gorge, one of the longest gorges of Europe (the longest is the gorge du Verdon in France). It is a mostly easy hike, especially going down, and can be achieved by anyone who can walk from 5 to 95 years old! Let me walk you through it.

On a week day early in June we enjoyed Samaria almost alone. It was definitely not one of these days of the summer which will see up to 2,000 visitors trampling through. We arrived just after 8 a.m. in a bus of about 20 passengers from Paleochora.

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Taking her goat to be milked, on the road to Xyloskalo

There were four options. Rush to the entrance of the park and get started immediately or before that take a photo on the rim, have a coffee or even breakfast, and/or go to the bathroom. The Swiss group rushed. We took our time. Officially it takes less than five hours to walk the gorge going down and we could not leave before 5:30 p.m., the departure time of the ferry back to Paleochora from the village at the end of the gorge, Agia Roumeli. We didn’t want to be stranded on the beach for four hours with 32-36 degrees Celsius (90F+).

The beginning of the hike features stairs of stone and wood for about five minutes, then it descends sharply with switchbacks among pine trees. We passed a few slow people and were alone on the trail. Then, an hour later, we rejoined the Swiss group and had to be careful avoiding their ski poles when passing them.

Ski poles, in my books, are meant for skiing or any winter sport involving snow. They have been designed to be planted in the snow. They cannot be planted in stones or hard rocks. Somebody must have missed playing the game stone-scissor-paper when they were young! Ski poles really don’t help when they slip on the hard surface of the rock. Quite the contrary, especially when suddenly they slip over a foot or two from the person they are supposed to help and are becoming a dangerous obstacle for other walkers. Some clever folks have equipped the end of their metallic ski poles with rubber. Some. Not the majority.

After a crowded 20 minutes of descent, as by enchantment, there was again not a soul in sight. The enchantment being partly explained by the fact that this park is very well maintained with many rest areas proposing natural fountains.

The entrance at Xyloskalo is marked number one and the exit is marked number 10. In between, the rest areas are almost every kilometer (900 to 1200 meters to be exact) except from one to two (1700m), eight to nine (3100m) and nine to 10 (1800m). This means that you may take two bottles of 500ml to start and refill every half hour or so. No need to load your backpack too much. Rest area number four is Agios Nikolai’s, Saint Nicolas, and this tiny church is actually open and not completely empty. It possesses a few religious images.

Rest area number seven is the most interesting since it is the old village of Samaria. The stone fountain has two spouts and there are many picnic tables in the shade of large trees. It is also slightly over the halfway point of the gorge, 7km out of 13. Most rest areas have toilets or WC. I don’t know if it is the same in summertime but they all had plenty of quality toilet paper inside. They are “Turk” toilets so be prepared to squat. In areas of intense passage I find this kind much more hygienic – the only problem here is that you need to throw your soiled paper in a bin (there is no flushing mechanism) and the rim of this bin is just about at nose level when you squat! Men will never realize this.

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Stone bridge leading to Samaria

Rest area number eight, Perdika, was soon passed and then started my favorite part. The 3,100 meters between Perdika and Christos are magical. You start walking in the gorge, there is water finally in the river bed, dirt changes to sand, high cliffs are getting narrower, and pink oleanders, already ubiquitous during this hike, become even more numerous. Feet never get wet thanks to many cleverly arranged flat rocks, a few rickety wooden planks and real wooden bridges at the end. 500 meters past Christos you reach the “iron gates” which is where the cliffs are only three meters apart.

After exiting from the national park there are three more kilometers to reach the village on the beach and the ferry. There are many restaurants in the village serving real food like rabbit stew, as opposed to “non-real” food like nuggets – they are also on the menu. On the beach between Gigilos, Kyma, and the Agia Roumeli restaurant, there are plenty of long chairs to help wait for the ferry.

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Choose it, weight it, eat it.

Back in Paleochora there are three good restaurants: Caravella, all about fish – you get to visit the kitchen to choose your own, Cape Crocodile, next to Caravella, looks fancier but not more expensive and very good, and finally for vegetarians, a restaurant which does not feel vegetarian, The Third Eye. It serves Greek, Indian, Asian, Mexican, and Arabic cuisine.

Enjoy!

Back in the U.S. – Crazy Fast Food!

We are still on home leave, I have not settled yet in our permanent quarters (note the use of the word quarters because I don’t know if it is going to be a house or an apartment and the term residence seems a bit posh for what we will actually be able to afford back in DC), but I am already re-americanizing myself at full speed.

Ah – a little context for newbies. Home leave is a period of vacation mandated by Congress for diplomats after a certain time spend abroad. Every three years maximum. You gain three weeks every year and however well it may be described in the official text [Codified in Sections 901 and 903 of the Foreign Service Act of 1980] its purpose is to make sure that even if you have “gone local” (not loco although it could apply sometimes), you have not forgotten to be an American and you keep up with American values. In summary, it is to re-americanize oneself or to have a ‘re-learning Americana holiday’.

When we are posted to a new country, since our residence is usually within U.S. standards and offices at the Embassy could also be in the U.S. look-wise, what usually strikes us most, besides weather or smells, are different foods. We are foodies. Back in the U.S., for the first time after three years overseas, everything looks the same as in my memories except the food offering at fast food restaurants. Let’s cover a few novelties.

  • On the Dunkin Donuts cup, among the many choices to tick, the weirdest ones are for sweeteners. They don’t name them by their brands or by their poisonous ingredients (saccharin, aspartame, sucralose, maltodextrin…) but by their colors: the pink sweetener, the blue sweetener, the yellow sweetener – how sweet – no pun intended.
  • Jalapeño poppers. CheddaPeño. Different names depending on the restaurants. From a healthy jalapeno the Mexicans have made it less healthy (but sooo good) by stuffing it full of cheese. Then, the Americans have covered it in batter. Calories times ten at least!
  • MacNCheetos. Take about three or four Mac&Cheese macaronis and hold them together with a giant Cheetos all around. Your kids dreamt it, they made it!
  • Crunchy wrap. Double or triple at Taco Bell. Wrap a hard tostada in a flour tortilla – hello carbs! Some tacos even have a shell that tastes like Dorito chips.
  • If you are from the East Coast, you may have not heard of the In-N-Out fast food place which is mostly implanted in the West. For a non-connoisseur it could be weird when you first walk in such a fast food restaurant to discover that they only sell a simple burger, a simple cheese burger, and fries. No fancy names, no colorful Photoshop’ed photos. In fact they have a ‘not-so-secret menu’ which tells you (online) that you can have many variations of the above. You may double the meat & cheese, triple it or even quadruple it (they call it the 4×4). For a really good sauce – they say mustard but it does not taste like mustard, more like the secret sauce of the Big Mac – ask ‘Animal Style’ with a choice of tomatoes, pickles, grilled onions, special sauce, or all of the above. Like many of their competitors now, they are also proposing a healthy* choice by replacing the bun by lettuce leaves; it is called the ‘Protein Style’. Animal & Protein Styles are compatible!
  • Recently, Burger King has invented the whopperito – whooper + burrito. Replace the bun by a tortilla, the ketchup by some melted cheese, and wrap the ingredients of a whopper in a tortilla.
  • The burrito is the new fad here. In August Taco Bell released the cheesy core burrito, either crunchy or spicy. Take a perfectly healthy burrito and add, in its center, artery-clogging orange-plastic-like-cheese. They call it three-cheese blend but it is the sort that movies theaters smother your nachos with – sorry as a French native I cannot call it cheese.
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OK – Not that crazy – this was in China!

I’d better post this before they invent any more of these weird combination foods. I am sorry that I will not be your guinea pig anymore; I have shipped my teenage boy off to college (yeah- there was a reason I was haunting the fast food joints this summer, his giant bucket list) and now I have a waist line to watch!

*healthy = messy. I love burgers in lettuce wrap but there is no bun to absorb the sauce so it is extremely slippery. Extra napkins required.

Welcome Kit

When a regular person moves, it usually takes place in one day. You may pack for several days but eventually in one day you are across town or state. Upon arrival you unpack the basics and voilà!

With the Foreign Service when you pack, you move across countries, continents, oceans. You never – never – get your stuff the same day. Heck, you usually don’t even land in your new country the same day. How do you manage in your previous house, after packing for two to four days, and supervising packers and movers for two to four days? Your house is bare except for the timeless Drexel furniture we all cherish.

Our General Services Office (GSO) puts together a Welcome Kit which may slightly vary from post to post. In some places the welcome kit is given for good. Stuff in it is so cheap, it cost less to give it to the families for a one-time use than to have people collect it back, inspect it, inventory it, store it, and lend again. Actually a two-time use: once you arrive and your own belongings are not there yet, and later when you depart. Then you have a happy housekeeper inheriting all!

In general the Welcome Kit is well thought with the basics: sheets and blankets (don’t ask me about quality or allergy to acrylic!), pillows, towels, plates, glasses, silverware, pots and pans, coffee machine. The devil is in the details. In Budapest we have only ‘whisky’ type glasses, no wine glass – then again better than to only have long cocktail glasses I suppose. This is minor. But no kettle! An appliance I use (need) ten times a day. Yet we have a mixer, so it was not a question of space in the Welcome Kit. I have never used a mixer in my life – I am not a baker. No place mat or table cloth! No bath mat! Two slotted serving spoons but no ladle? Worse: no broom, no mop, no bucket – yet the place needs to be spotless clean when we depart – at 3 a.m. Pans are tiny, good for a single person, not a family of four. And we definitely need to travel with our own knives.

As I go through the Welcome Kit I re-create my own because for the first time in this second career we are not going to a welcoming overseas Post with free rent, free maintenance, and nice GSO to welcome us. Did you guess yet? We are going back to the mother ship. Washington, DC. The first few days we will be in a hotel room but when we move to our permanent residence, there will be no Welcome Kit. Only that box that I am putting together, aptly marked “Welcome Kit – UAB DC – Open first”!

Another major thing that will be missing in our future residence is furniture. In our first overseas house we had our UAB (airfreight of about 600 lbs) upon landing and then I had ample time to play around the given furniture, change it to my liking before being invaded by 300+ boxes of HHE (slow freight three months later). I am dreading the day when we ask to receive our HHE the day we move in – otherwise we’ll sleep on the floor!