Tag Archives: family

My dad’s lentil soup

Since Lucia’s birth, I’ve been lucky enough to host all three sets of her grandparents in succession: first my parents, then Al’s mom and stepdad, and then Al’s dad and stepmom (and youngest brother). Al and I have really enjoyed kicking back (ha!!) these past few weeks and letting our loved ones cook for us and do our laundry (and of course we’ve enjoyed their company and emotional support). Turns out that infant care does not leave much room for domestic chores, including cooking, which is something I used to do every day. So I’ve let others make me food, and it’s been pretty great.

Snow day

Snow day

Today is a cold, snowy day and Al’s stepmom is cooking us dinner tonight. I suggested lentil soup, which is hearty and warming. I’ve always enjoyed my dad’s lentil soup, which he makes from scratch. Years ago, when I was fresh out of college and first learning to cook, I asked my dad to send me his recipe for lentil soup. He didn’t have it written down (I’ve never seen the man cook from a written recipe in my life), so he typed the whole thing out in prose form for me. It was like my dad was talking me through the recipe, step by step. Having a recipe in that format was really helpful at the time, when I didn’t know my butt from my elbow in the kitchen, but now I’m used to reading recipes written out in the traditional form. Today, I decided to transcribe my dad’s recipe so that I (and others) can more easily use it. So here is my dad’s delicious, foolproof lentil soup recipe: perfect for a cold winter day! Bon apetit.

Ingredients:

1 c. lentils (any kind will do, but my dad favors the brown kind)

14 oz. can of tomatoes, diced

1 medium carrot

1 medium onion (yellow or white)

1 stalk celery

2 cloves garlic (or more to taste)

4 c. chicken and/or beef stock

1 tsp. salt

1/2 tsp. pepper

1 tsp. dried oregano

1 tsp. dried parsley

1/4 tsp. ground cumin (optional)

1 tsp. lemon juice (optional)

1 c. chopped spinach, fresh or frozen

Bread or crackers (optional)

Method:

Rinse lentils and place in a soup pot. Add chicken or beef stock. Heat on medium-high. While mixture is coming to a boil, peel and cut up the carrot, onion, garlic, and celery. When the lentils are rapidly boiling, add in all the veggies, including the canned tomatoes. Stir well. Bring to a boil and then lower heat to medium. Mixture should be at a high simmer/”medium boil.” Add in all spices. Cook soup uncovered for about 45 minutes or so, stirring occasionally. If the mixture thickens too much add broth or water to regain the correct consistency.

After 45 minutes, add in spinach and lemon juice, if desired. Bring to high simmer/medium boil for another 20 minutes or so, stirring to make sure it doesn’t burn or stick on the bottom of the pan, adding stock or water to keep it soup-like. Cook until lentils are soft and seasoning is just right. Serve with crackers and /or bread (pita is great!) for dipping.

Moosehead Lake

Last week, Al and I went on a week-long vacation to Maine to hang out with Al’s dad, step-mom, and youngest brother (plus two of his brother’s friends, plus two border collies). Al’s dad and step-mom live in Bangor, so we flew into Bangor and then drove with them up to Moosehead Lake, Maine’s largest lake.

View from the dock, Moosehead Lake

View from the dock, Moosehead Lake

We stayed in Greenville, on the southern side of the lake, in a beautiful cabin that Al’s parents rented. Even with seven people and two dogs in residence, it didn’t feel crowded, because the cabin was so spacious and comfortable. It also had a private dock and wonderful views of the lake.

Moosehead Lake, on a cloudy day

Moosehead Lake, on a cloudy day

Although the only things I wanted to accomplish during my vacation were reading, sleeping, and eating, we ended up doing a lot of other cool stuff during our week at the lake. I went running every day and spotted some cool wildlife (a woodchuck, two snakes, assorted bunnies); I accompanied Al and his dad to a local golf course one day to watch them play nine holes; we went moose spotting (and saw two moose/meese — more on that in a second); I bought a floaty lounge chair, made Al blow it up for me, and then spent an entire afternoon reading while floating on the lake; I played many exciting rounds of contract whist with the family; and I even allowed Al to convince me to go out on the lake in a kayak.

IMG_7786One of the highlights of the trip was seeing my first moose! One evening, Al’s dad took us to an area about 20 miles from our cabin known for moose spotting, and we camped out there for several hours, straining our eyes for any signs of moose. Moose like swampy, wet areas, and they generally come out between five and seven PM, according to local wisdom. Thus, we got to the suitably swampy moose-sighting area at five and stayed until 6:30, but spotted nary a moose. Disappointed, we all packed back into the mini-van and headed for home. Then, on the way home, we spotted a moose crossing the road in front of us, which was exciting enough on its own, and then, a few minutes later, we came upon a young moose grazing just feet from the road. Other people had stopped their cars to take photos, so we followed suit and got out to ogle the moose. My father-in-law (who’s a registered Maine Guide, so I trust his judgment) estimates that this moose is about a year old. I got a couple of short (but pretty good) videos. Here’s a 15-second one:

So that was pretty awesome! It’s hard to get more quintessentially Maine than seeing a moose on the side of the road. Apart from the moose, this vacation was great because it was so relaxing. I spent a lot of time knitting, hanging out with family, playing cards, reading (I polished off Lev Grossman’s The Magician’s Land and most of M.E. Thomas’s Confessions of a Sociopath), playing with the dogs, and admiring the scenery.

Ruby the Border Collie

My morning coffee and book on the deck

Now that’s what I call a sunset, Volume XI

Enjoying the fabulous sunset

When the week was over, I was sad to leave. It’s always hard to go back to real life after stepping away from your obligations almost entirely for a week. But it sure was great to recharge with family in an idyllic setting like Moosehead Lake. There’s something good for the soul about floating on one’s back on a lake with a book. I should really do it more often.

Recent DC visitors

Al and I have been lucky this summer to have lots of loved ones visit us here in DC. As a result, I’ve gotten REALLY good at giving tours of the National Mall, even if I don’t know the history of any of the monuments, buildings, or memorials and am completely ignorant about most important things about this city, other than where you can get good fro-yo. Hey, historical details are what iPhones are for.

First, my mom visited for one night at the end of May and we got some good museum visiting and pool lounging in! We made sure to hit the National Gallery and checked out the Andrew Wyeth windows exhibition, as well as the Cassatt/Degas exhibition. Very cool.

National Gallery tunnel

National Gallery tunnel

Me and my mom

Me and my mom

Then, for Fourth of July weekend, my cousin-friend Catie visited. It was her first trip to DC, so I felt it necessary to pull out all the ‘Murrica stops. First, we went to the National Mall and gazed at the monuments (at least, the ones that weren’t closed in advance of the fireworks) and watched various military service-members in their dress uniforms doing drills.

Catie and me at the Washington Monument

Catie and me at the Washington Monument

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Next, we checked out Georgetown and stuffed our faces at the excellent Good Stuff Eatery. I highly recommend the turkey burger and onion petals (drool). Catie and I decided that we are definitely going to buy a house in Georgetown, just as soon as we become multi-millionaires (any day now).

Cute houses in Georgetown

Cute houses in Georgetown

Patriotism, Georgetown

Patriotism, Georgetown (this guy was blasting Whitney Houston’s version of ‘America the Beautiful’)

That night, we went to the roof of our building and watched the fireworks over the Mall.

Fireworks

Fireworks

The next night, we went to see Counting Crows (a long-time Steph-Catie favorite band) at Wolf Trap, an amazing outdoor concert venue (and national park!) in Virginia where you’re allowed to bring in your own food and drink, including booze. We brought a picnic, sat on the grass, and aurally revisited the mid-1990s as we listened to Toad the Wet Sprocket warm up the crowd. Counting Crows, by the way, were awesome. This is the second time I’ve seen them this summer (I’m a super-fan) and they never fail to disappoint. Catie and I sang along to every single song (except for the stuff off their new album) and even Al got into it. SO FUN.

Picnicking at Wolf Trap

Picnicking at Wolf Trap

Counting Crows!

Counting Crows!

Adam Duritz!

Adam Duritz!

Mid-concert

Mid-concert

Overall, it was a fantastic weekend and I’m glad Catie finally got to see DC.

The next weekend, Al’s mom and step-dad, Carol and Gerald, visited. Neither of them had spent much time in DC, so we took them to the Mall and did a long walking tour of many of the monuments. It was approximately one billion degrees outside (Celcius) but we persevered and saw a lot of stuff, including the Washington Monument, Lincoln Memorial, reflecting pool, World War II Memorial, a bit of the National Gallery, and the Natural History Museum. We ate lunch at the cafe within the National Gallery sculpture garden and admired the outdoor art.

Lincoln Memorial

Lincoln Memorial

WWII Memorial

WWII Memorial

Sculpture garden

National Gallery sculpture garden

Gem display at the Natural History Museum

Gem display at the Natural History Museum

Carol, Al, and me at the Natural History Museum

Carol, Al, and me at the Natural History Museum

We also did some wine-tasting in Virginia (Loudoun County), which is always lovely. It’s so peaceful and beautiful there.

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All in all, it was another great DC visit with family.

THEN, the following week, my parents came back into town to look at houses in Virginia, since they’re moving back East next year. We checked out Winchester (which was just okay) and then made our way up to Leesburg (which was charming and adorable). We had a nice time walking around the historic district of Leesburg and eating lunch at the Wine Kitchen. The weather was hot but beautiful.

Leesburg

Leesburg

Parents in Leesburg

Parents in Leesburg

So, the last month has been a whirlwind of visitors, and it’s been great. But for the rest of the summer, we aren’t expecting any more guests. Therefore, I feel confident saying that Al and I won’t be stepping foot in a museum until the next round of visitors shows up, whenever that may be. Hey, we never claimed to be cultured.

 

 

My ancestry

For Christmas a few years ago, Al got me a 23andMe genetic testing kit. I let it languish on the shelf until this past Christmas when I was back in San Francisco, when I finally got up the nerve to spit into a container and send it in to their lab. I had been avoiding it because I had convinced myself that the results would state clearly that I was a genetic ticking timebomb and then I’d never be able to unsee all the weird diseases I was no doubt carrying. (Some say that I have a bit of a tendency toward hypochondria, but let me go check WebMD). Several months later, I finally got the results of my genetic testing, which have been absolutely fascinating.

In case you’re not familiar, 23andMe is a company that does personal DNA mapping. For about $100, you can have all 23 of your chromosomes mapped and receive a wealth of information about your ancestry and your health (traits, risks, and so on). However, recently the FDA passed a totally BS ruling that prevents 23andMe from distributing health reports to its customers, so if you buy a kit now, you won’t receive detailed health reports, only ancestry information. The FDA decision didn’t apply to me since Al had gotten me the kit before the decision came down, so I got both detailed health reports and information about my ancestry.

While the health stuff was interesting for me (and a big relief, since I’m not a carrier for any of the horrifying genetic disorders they test for, despite my fatalistic attitude), the ancestry information was much more surprising. Here are some of the most jaw-dropping things I’ve learned about my genes.

ancestry

1. I’m 5.8% East Asian/Native American. Within that breakdown, 4.1% is Native American, and 1.7% is “nonspecific East Asian and Native American.” The Native American bit is actually Native Mexican, since my grandfather was Mexican-American. However, while I knew intellectually that Pop had Aztec blood, I didn’t realize how much; according to these numbers, a quarter of his genes must have been ethnically indigenous. Wow!

My great-aunt, Mary Rivero, 1915. This photo probably should have been my first clue that I had some Native American ancestry.

My great-aunt, Mary Rivero, 1915. This photo probably should have been my first clue that I had some Native American ancestry.

It’s funny; I feel like every American wants to be part Native American (there was a great Happy Endings episode about this where Dave discovers he’s 1/16 Navajo and starts wearing a fringed jacket out of respect). But personally, I think it’s pretty badass to be part Aztec. My people were ripping still-beating hearts out of chests before it was cool. Also, they built huge temples and invented face knives, so, you know, that’s pretty sweet.

2. I’m .3% Sub-Saharan African, .2% of which is specifically West-African. This is a real head-scratcher. My dad, my husband, and I all came up with theories about where this Sub-Saharan ancestry is coming from, but we actually have NO idea, given what we know about my family history. To my knowledge, there weren’t a lot of Sub-Saharan Africans hanging around in Ireland, Mexico, or Italy, the places where my genes most recently hail from. For a second, we thought maybe it had to do with the Moors conquering Spain and then the Spanish going on to Mexico, but the genetic report is pretty clear that I have no North African or Middle Eastern ancestry, so that doesn’t make a lot of sense. Now, obviously, I want both of my parents to map their genes so we can see whether the African blood is coming from my dad or my mom’s side. Given my parents’ respective melanin content, I’m gonna take a wild stab and guess it’s coming from my mom’s side, but one never knows.

My mom IS super tan.

My mom IS super tan.

3. I’m 87.6% European, 40.7% of which is Northern European, 12.1% is Southern European, and 34.9% of which is “nonspecific European.” The European piece of my ancestry isn’t that surprising (especially considering that I have two European-born grandparents) but the more specific breakdown of the ancestry is kind of interesting, because even though my dad’s mom is from Abruzzo, Italy, only 2.5% of my genes are Italian. I guess this means that my Italian grandmother wasn’t purely ethnically Italian, which makes sense given Italy’s history and demographics. Guess I can stop taking credit for all of those Roman aqueducts now.

4. I’m 2.9% Neanderthal. And yes, that’s on the high end (80th percentile, to be exact). My husband is gleeful about the fact that I am, as he puts it, “2.9% beast,” but I find it a bit unsettling. According to 23andMe, “traces of [Neanderthal] DNA — between 1 percent and 4 percent — are found in all modern humans outside of Africa.” At least I’m not 4% Neanderthal. I told my husband that, given my ethnic background and now this Neanderthal business, I could have fared MUCH worse in the body hair department. And I have no noticeable brow ridge!

So, this has all been very interesting for me. Have you done DNA testing or genetic mapping? Did you find out anything cool?

 

Dashing through the snow

I know I said in my last post that I’d write from California, but I just didn’t get around to it. Sorry. The truth is, I spent ten days in San Francisco relaxing and didn’t do one ounce of writing the entire time I was there. Sometimes you need a break, and I figure Christmas vacation is the perfect time to embrace laziness. And embrace it I did!

Hanging with Dougal on the back porch

My mom hanging with Dougal on the back porch, San Francisco

Now I’m in Bangor, Maine, with Al’s dad, step-mom, two brothers, and his family’s two dogs and three cats. It’s a full house but it doesn’t feel crowded. It just feels cozy. I love coming to Maine around Christmastime because it really feels like Christmas here. It’s cold (and getting colder). There’s snow (and there’s a lot more on the way). We all sit inside near a blazing pellet stove and eat unhealthy food. Like I said: cozy.

Hanging out in Bangor

Hanging out in Bangor

 

It’s quite a contrast from San Francisco, where the weather during our visit was stunningly gorgeous: warm and bright, with clear, blue skies. We took walks to the beach in short-sleeves, I went on a bunch of perfectly temperate outdoor runs, we had drinks on the back porch, and we saw some beautiful sunsets. I love a good California Christmas, and always will. But Maine in late December provides that classic, wintry feel that reminds me of growing up in Michigan, where Christmas was always white.

California Christmas weather

California Christmas weather

Yesterday morning, I went for a five mile run around Bangor and enjoyed the snow. (Ginger, Al’s step-mom, let me borrow her snow cleats, so I didn’t fall on the ice — always a risk with me). I paused to take some photos of the streets as I ran, and tried to remember the last time I saw snow. It must have been Christmas two years ago, when I went to Ottawa to visit Al’s mom and step-dad. Crazy!

Snowy Bangor

Snowy Bangor

Since Al and I have lived abroad for the past year, we’ve totally missed out on seeing any snow (not that I’m complaining, mind you), so it’s quite a shock to be surrounded by it now. And Maine’s just getting started: the weather report says that there’s a big blizzard on the way, and the high temperature in Bangor on Thursday will be negative 4 degrees Fahrenheit. I repeat: NEGATIVE FOUR IS THE HIGH.

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Those kinds of frigid temperatures are mind-boggling to me. I guess I’ve been away from the North for too long to be able to even process what negative temperatures mean anymore. Not that I’ll be venturing outside to experience them for myself. No, no: you can find me by the pellet stove.

Edinburgh

We spent this weekend in Edinburgh, one of my favorite places in Scotland, visiting family and attending some shows at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. I hadn’t been to Edinburgh (or the Festival) since 2008, so it was fun to be back in such a beautiful, charming city and to hang out with Al’s family, some of whom I hadn’t met yet.

Edinburgh sunset

Edinburgh sunset

Al and I took the train from London on Thursday evening, got in quite late, and then spent Friday working; playing with Sweeney, the dog owned by our hosts, Steve and Alan; walking around Leith, their neighborhood; and attending a show at the Festival.

 

IMG_3979I managed to snag us two tickets to see David Sedaris speak on Friday evening. Sedaris is one of my favorite authors and I love his speaking voice. I had actually seen him speak years ago in San Francisco, back when I was in college, but it was at a big venue (The Warfield, I think) and I was in the nosebleed seats. This time, the venue was much more intimate and, to my delight, Sedaris did a book signing after and Al and I got to meet him! This was terribly exciting for me. I was a bit nervous when I approached, clutching my new copy of Me Talk Pretty One Day, but Sedaris is utterly charming and immediately put me at ease. We talked about TV and he recommended that I check out two shows (Inside Amy Schumer and Please Like Me). He also expressed his fondness for Tim Gunn, RuPaul’s Drag Race, and Tabitha’s Salon Takeover. All the more reason to adore this man. And, of course, he signed my book (and drew a little owl). I was on a high for the rest of the weekend, post-Sedaris encounter. 

Recommendations on TV shows

Recommendations on TV shows

I would like to note that David Sedaris' handwriting looks a LOT like mine. Just saying.

I would like to note that David Sedaris’ handwriting looks a LOT like mine. Just saying.

On Saturday, while Al was working, I went for a run along the Water of Leith. Everything was going great: the sun was shining (through sprinkles of rain), birds were chirping, the world was in harmony — and then I fell. Hard. I fell so hard that I managed to scrape both knees, both hands, and my left thigh. I also seemed to have sprained the little finger on my right hand (did I do a full-body roll? I can’t remember! It’s all a blur). But the worst part, beside the fact that my tumble was witnessed by several kindly (read: pitying) Scottish people, was that I shattered my iPhone screen. Here’s the thing: skin will heal. Bones will knit. But a shattered iPhone screen is forever. The last time I shattered my iPhone screen, four years ago, I was in Boston and took it to the Apple store. They glanced at it and told me that my phone had clearly suffered from “customer abuse” and was therefore not under warranty, and I was forced to pay $180 for a new screen. The outrage! But in the UK, if your iPhone screen breaks, you just bring it to a phone repair store — not an official Apple store — and they’ll fix it for you in an hour, charge you 50 GBP, and be done with it. So I got my screen fixed at a kiosk in the mall, and all is right in the world again. Except for that sprained finger. But whatever.

Edinburgh

After recovering from the excitement of my fall, I headed into town with Al, his cousin Kathryn, and her boyfriend James, to attend our next show at the Festival, The Ginge, The Geordie, and The Geek, a three-man sketch comedy team. I enjoyed it, especially the last sketch, which was a reenactment of the final dance scene from Dirty Dancing featuring a man on a diet and a giant slice of pizza. After that, we met up with Steve and Alan and went to see Tig Notaro, an American comedian who I love. I had never heard or seen her standup before, but I listen to her podcast, Professor Blastoff, and I’ve heard her perform on This American Life, so I was expecting good things, and she did not disappoint. I was laughing my face off — almost crying, I was laughing so hard — so when it was over, I was pretty shocked that Steve and Alan didn’t like it. They thought her style was “awkward.” Um, yeah, I thought. That’s the point. It got me thinking about the differences between American comedy and UK comedy, and the fact that some American comedians play on timing (especially long pauses) to make their jokes funnier. I think awkwardness, done well, can be hilarious — and I wonder if I think that way because I’m American and we’re more used to that style of comedy. Steve and Alan told me that in Britain, comedy is more straightforward and fast-paced, which is fine, I guess, but it surprised me that they didn’t appreciate Tig’s style, which was unscripted and involved a lot of audience interaction and improvisation. Then again, I’m sort of a comedy nerd, so maybe I’m just accustomed to the weirdness. But to be fair, reviewers seemed to love the show, so it’s not just me (see, for example, this review from The Telegraph). In any case, I had a blast and came away from the Festival feeling satisfied with everything I saw (although, to be honest, I could have just gone home after meeting David Sedaris and called it a day).

We spent the rest of our time in Edinburgh visiting with Al’s family, playing with dogs, eating good food, and hanging out. It was a great weekend.

Breakfast at the beach, Portobello

Breakfast at the beach in Portobello with Steve, Alan, and Sweeney

Kathryn, James, and me at the Festival

Kathryn, James, and me at the Festival

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Gratuitous selfie

See you soon, Edinburgh!

Corsica

We were lucky enough to spend our vacation in Corsica this past week, staying at the lovely villa owned by the family of Al’s cousin’s wife, Camille. She’s French and her grandfather bought the property decades ago (before it was cool, in other words). Not a bad investment!

View from villa of town

View of town, from villa

View from balcony, villa

Another view from balcony of villa

The villa is located in Morsiglia, in Cap Corse, the northern tip of Corsica. This part of the island is known for being rugged, with sweeping views, winding roads, steep hills, and rocky beaches.

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Cows on the beach, Barcaggio

Cows on the beach, Barcaggio

Wind farm

Wind farm

Corsica is an interesting place. It’s a territory of France, even though geographically, it’s closer to the Italian mainland. France has been in charge since 1769 (before that, Corsica was briefly independent, and before that, it was ruled by the Genoese). Although everyone speaks French (seeing as Corsica is, technically, part of France), the island also retains Corsu as its native language, although not many people (i.e., perhaps only 10% of Corsicans) speak Corsu natively anymore, and it is a “potentially endangered language,” according to UNESCO. Corsu, as far as we could tell, is basically Italian with lots of u’s and j’s and h’s. According to our Lonely Planet guide, though, you should never even hint that Corsu sounds pretty much exactly like Italian, because the Corsican people will become deeply offended. The Corsican people, according to our Lonely Planet guide, get deeply offended by many things, including foreigners attempting to speak Corsu to them. (By the way, I’d be willing to hazard a guess that the author of the Lonely Planet guide might have tried to speak Corsu to people and received a blank stare back either because he was butchering the language or because not a lot of people actually speak it.) Anyway, almost everyone we encountered on the island seemed quite friendly and not prickly (although we didn’t attempt any Corsu, just to be safe). Most road signs are in French and Corsu, although we did see a few signs with the French spray-painted over and/or crossed out, which I suppose is some sort of Corsu nationalist statement, although I’m not sure.

Signs in Corsu

Signs in Corsu, with smaller French sign

We spent most of our time in Corsica eating, hiking, sleeping, and lazing on the beach. Pretty great. I especially enjoyed local Corsican cured meat (they’re known for their charcuterie, especially coppa) and sheep’s milk cheese. We also sampled some Corsican wine, some of which is quite good, especially the Muscat. I realized later that drinking three glasses of Muscat a night is probably the equivalent of injecting sugar crystals directly into my blood, which explains why my jeans were tight when I got back to London, but dang, it was tasty.

Domaine Pietri vineyards

Domaine Pietri vineyards

As with any vacation, there were a couple of wrinkles in the trip, including the fact that we were redirected to Milan on the way there because our plane had a crack in its windshield (good job, EasyJet) and the fact that I suffered from a mysterious stomach ailment for half of the trip (but once I recovered, things were great). Overall, though, we had a great time and I’m happy we got to see this beautiful little corner of the world. À vedeci, Corsica!

More ridiculous questions about race and ethnicity

Hearkening back to last week’s post about the dreaded “Where are you from originally?” question, thought I’d share an interesting — and somewhat horrifying — article I came across this morning. NPR’s new race, culture, and ethnicity blog, Code Switch, just did a feature about the ridiculous questions people have been asked about their race or ethnicity. The slideshow alone is well worth your time.

Apparently the “where are you from originally?” question is alive and well, but on the milder end of the spectrum of ignorant questions people get asked about their race. Asians get asked if they “see in wide-screen.” Black people get asked if they shampoo their hair. Black people also get asked if their blood is red (as opposed to, what color, exactly?). Non-Mexican Latinos get asked to bring tacos to potlucks. SIGH.

One person quoted in the article makes the point that, as mind-blowingly stupid as some of these questions are, he feels bad for criticizing any attempts at cultural dialogue, “even if clumsy.” He is a more charitable person than I, apparently! The article notes:

Eric Deggans, a friend of Code Switch, has a good point. It’s easy to punish well-intentioned folks who really just are curious about different cultures. But part of our aim was to create some dialogue about how we deal with questions that could quickly go awry.

Hm. I’m not sure about the best way to deal with some of these questions, other than to remain calm and politely set the person straight. Another commenter suggested that a person asked a bizarre question regarding race should ask the questioner, politely, why they’re asking, to try to get at what the questioner is actually curious about. In other words, the person could be asking a legitimate question in an ignorant way. Could be. Or people could just be stupid.

What’s the most ridiculous question you’ve ever been asked about your race or ethnicity? I’ve heard a lot of weird stuff, but one of the weirdest was when the daughter of my CCD (Catholic religious education) teacher asked me if I was Jewish (despite the fact that I was in her mother’s CCD class), and when I said no, she looked me up and down and sniffed, “Well, you look it.” Well, shoot, let me abandon my Catholic education since you’ve decided that I don’t look the part! Point me to the local synagogue, kind madam! Granted, she was a child, and so was I, but even then, I knew she was suffering from a severe case of the stupids.

Also, I looked like this:

A31S (11)

What’s that little Jewish girl doing, receiving her first Communion??

Okay, okay, I wasn’t wearing my Communion dress when she asked me if I was Jewish, but come on.

Similarly, when I was touring a Catholic girls’ school when I was in eighth grade (I was considering going there for high school), one of the students asked me if I was an Arab. So… there seems to be some confusion here. Anyone else have any good stories about crazy questions you’ve been asked about your race or ethnicity? Do share!

On ethnicity, curiosity, and idiocy

I’m a member of the website Quora, which I’ve been told is now used primarily by stoner college students who want to get “deep” and ponder life, man, but is actually sometimes also used by lame, non-stoner, old people like me. The premise of the site is that people ask questions and other people answer them, and then the best/most popular answers get voted up the chain. So it’s like a smarter version of Ask.com and a less weird version of Ask Metafilter.

I don’t go on Quora often — I have asked a total of one question, and it was about whether earthquakes can cause headaches, and only one person answered it, and the answer was no — but sometimes I see a question that strikes my fancy and I decide to answer it.

The other day, I saw this question: “Is it racist for someone to ask ‘where are you from originally?'”

My original answer was the following:

Not racist, necessarily, but perhaps (probably) ignorant. I’m a vaguely ethnic looking lady from Michigan. I’ve been asked COUNTLESS times where I’m from “originally.” Um. Michigan. (Well, I was born in Baltimore…) Another one I get asked is, “Where are your parents from?” California and Pennsylvania. Is that what you really want to know? No. What people who ask these questions really want to know is, “What ethnicity are you?” And these people don’t tend to take my honest answers to their questions — Michigan, California, Pennsylvania — at face value. They don’t believe that someone with my looks could NOT have immigrant parents. It’s bizarre. Like, hi, welcome to America: lots of us have brown hair and brown eyes, turns out.

Anyway, if you’re so curious about my ethnicity, go ahead and ask about it: that doesn’t bother me. (For the record: Irish-Mexican-Italian). But asking where I’m from “originally,” as if that’s a more subtle or polite way to get at my race or ethnicity, is just stupid. So stop doing it and just ask the question you want to ask.

This face confuses people.

This face confuses people.

My answer sparked a bit of a debate on Facebook, with some of my friends arguing that it is, in fact, inherently racist to ask where someone’s from originally, because it implies that an Asian American person, for instance, is not actually American, and with other friends arguing that it’s a harmless, if stupid, question, and just shows curiosity and an intent to strike up a conversation about the wonderful melting pot that is these United States.

I’ve thought about it a bit more and I’m sticking with my original answer, which is that the question itself is not racist, necessarily, but it is tremendously stupid and should go the way of the dodo. Here’s the thing: in today’s America, do people really not recognize that someone belonging to a minority racial or ethnic group can actually be FROM America? How is that news? Take my dearly departed grandfather, Mark Rivero, as an example. He was born in San Francisco in 1920. He was Mexican-American (and his father was born in Mexico), but Pop, my grandfather, was originally from San Francisco, which is located in America, contrary to what some might think.

This man is from San Francisco, originally. But is that what you wanted to know?

This man was from San Francisco, originally, despite being ethnic.

So if a person were to ask Pop, “Where are you from originally?”, he would say, “San Francisco, California.” And then if this person kept questioning him, like, “No, but originally, where are you from?”, Pop might smack him upside the head. And he’d deserve it, because that’s a stupid way to get at someone’s ethnicity.

Unbelievably, people still try to tiptoe around the question of race and ethnicity by asking this stupid question. I, myself, have been asked many times where I’m from “originally,” and even when I know what the question-asker is driving at, I won’t volunteer my ethnicity, because it’s annoying. Just ask what my ethnic background is if you really want to know.

To be fair, the “where are you from” conversation has happened to me more in Latin America than it has in the United States. Whenever I’m in Argentina, or Brazil, or anywhere else south of Tallahassee, people are always asking me where I’m from originally. If I say the United States, they ask where my parents are from. If I answer that both my parents are from the United States, they ask where my grandparents are from. Finally, when I say that my grandfather was Mexican-American, they go, “Aaaah, I knew you had some Latin blood in you.” A trip to Latin America never feels complete until my “sangre Latina” is brought up at least once by a cab driver.

Now, normally, I am not offended by someone asking me about my ethnic background, because most of the time, people are just curious. Most people, especially Americans, myself included, find ethnicity and racial background interesting. It’s fun to find out where people’s grandparents were from, and how people of different backgrounds found each other to produce the DNA cocktails we’re walking around with. Like, how many other Mexican-Irish-Italian-Americans do you know, besides me? Don’t you kind of want to know how that mess happened? (Answer: long story, but mostly, strict Catholicism brings people together in surprising ways). I find these types of conversations fun and innocent, for the most part. Once in a while, though, you do get the creepster who is interested in fetishizing a certain race or ethnicity (“I like Spanish girls”), and that is no good. No good, at all. [Note: I am only speaking for myself, here, by the way, when I say “once in a while.” I’m sure that ladies (and gents) of other, more immediately recognizable ethnic groups may get the creepsters on a much more regular basis (looking at you, Asian ladies).]

And sometimes, you get people who are just plain ignorant. I was at a party in Boston once where this girl was going on and on about, among other things, how Mexicans typically have “heavy brows” and “slicked back, greasy hair.” I was with Al, and we looked at each other in horror/delight, because this woman was so terrible/ridiculous, but I didn’t feel like jumping into the spray of her ignorance fire-hose to let her know that she was being offensive. This same woman, shockingly, was interested in my ethnic background, and so, being the evil person I am, when she asked me about it, I told her to guess. She guessed Persian because, apparently, I have “Persian eyebrows.” Believe it or not, this is not the only time someone has guessed I was Persian. Years ago, a hot-dog seller in Paris asked Al, right in front of me, “Where’s she from?” Al said I was American, and then the hot-dog lady insisted that I looked like a Persian Jew, which is both very wrong and very specific.

The point of all of this is that people can be dumb. But the secondary point is that it’s just easier to ask someone in a straightforward way what his or her ethnic or racial background is, if you’re dying to know, rather than trying to get at it in some roundabout, stupid way, such as asking where he or she is from “originally.” I mean, originally, we’re all from Africa, right? Maybe I should just start saying that.

Idiot: “Where are you from, like, originally?”

Me: “Oh, originally? East Africa. Near modern-day Ethiopia.”

That might just create more problems. But it would be fun to see the looks of bafflement (“But — but, you’re white! White people can’t be from AFRICA!”).

Anyway. Can we put the “where are you from originally” question to bed, once and for all? Please? I’m tired of people guessing where my eyebrows are from.

 

Stellenbosch

I’ve been lucky enough to spend the past three days in beautiful Stellenbosch in the Western Cape. Stellenbosch has something for everyone: amazing food, outstanding wine, and stunning scenery.

Stellenbosch

Stellenbosch

Stellenbosch is the second oldest European settlement in South Africa (after Cape Town). It was founded in 1639 (!) by a man named Simon van der Stel, who was governor of the Cape Colony (incidentally, Stellenbosch means Stel’s Bush, so the ever-humble van der Stel named the town after himself). It’s sometimes easy to forget how long the Dutch have been kicking around South Africa, but in places like Stellenbosch, you realize that they’ve been here a super long time, making wine and playing sports and generally being rugged.

Anyway, Stellenbosch has come a long way over the last 374 years and is now a beautiful, touristy university town situated among various mountain ranges.

IMG_4253

Art at Tokara winery

Art at Tokara winery

IMG_4261It’s the ideal spot to launch a wine tasting weekend, since many of the country’s best wineries are right here. We did just that, arriving on Thursday night and setting out bright and early on Friday morning to begin quite the decadent weekend of all-out wine and food gluttony.

Stellenbosch

Stellenbosch

Al’s mom is a sommelier in Canada, so she had a professional interest in going to some of the best wineries to try their wares. I won’t try to summarize all of the wineries we visited (I’ll leave that to the expert, my mother-in-law), but we went to a lot of beautiful wineries and had some excellent wines.

Tokara winery

Tokara winery

 

Some of my favorites, both for scenery and wine, were Thelema, Tokara, Boschendal, and Winery of Good Hope, where we had a private tasting of FOURTEEN WINES with the winemaker. We fairly stumbled out of that one and had to spend the rest of the day recuperating.

The remains of the day

The remains of the day (Boschendal winery)

The highlight of the weekend was probably our dinner at Rust en Vrede (“Rest and Peace” in Afrikaans), one of the top restaurants in South Africa. We opted for the six-course tasting menu with wine pairings and holy crap, it was awesome. It actually ended up being more like nine courses, what with all of the amuse-bouches and pre-desserts and post-desserts and mid-desserts, and every course was spectacular (with the notable exception of the meat course that included beef tongue and sweetbreads, blech).

Cheese course, Rust en Vrede

Cheese course, Rust en Vrede

Everything about this dinner was impeccable: the food, the wine, the service, the atmosphere. Afterwards, we spoke to the chef, John Shuttleworth, who looked to be approximately 15 years old, and congratulated him on a job well done.

Rust en Vrede

Rust en Vrede

Rust en Vrede

Rust en Vrede

Today, we’re off to another top South African restaurant, Jordan, and I can hardly wait. Then Al has to go back to Joburg (noo!) while I stay in Cape Town to meet up with two of my friends, Elise and Allison, who are visiting from DC (yaay!). Should be a good time! I will try my darndest to write another post or two during my vacay. In the meantime, hope everyone’s having a fabulous weekend, and happy Sunday.