Stories over French brunch

Food is key to the French culture. This may sound cliché, and it is, but it is also the truth. Some of my most memorable moments in France are related to food. Even if you’re not big on trying out new things or don’t pay much attention to your diet, France can change that easily. Food connects people here. Literally.

Here’s how.

Learning a language can get dull sometimes, especially if that’s your only activity in a foreign land. I am one of those people who desperately needs a change of scenery. New people, new stories, new experiences. It gets dull to connect with the same students all the time, too, so I seek out strangers from the outside. And I found some.

I decided to crush an event that seemed really cool in the local youth center, a very beautiful culture house where there are books, comfy chairs, and lots of company. The event was on Europe, European solidarity, and youth involvement. Hence, the audience was young, active, and French.

The event was open to the public, but it seemed like everyone knew everyone. Well, except for me. People were chatting over wine which I don’t drink, and having a good time, and I, on the other hand, had a hard time to strike a conversation with anyone. So instead, I grabbed a book that was nearby and tried to read it in the middle of the networking/party thing.

Now, a kind soul, a nice local French man, started talking to me. He and his friend were kind enough to ask me about the book, and when they heard my accent, they even tried to switch to English – a nice effort which I immediately rejected. So we chatted in French. Soon, their friends joined us, and we were having a nice conversation in French of how good/bad Macron is, and whether fascists will gain even more momentum in Europe (scary reality we’re seeing across many places).

As we were chatting, I complained a bit that I don’t know a lot of French people, and I would love to experience France in a way that’s different from the classroom.

Delicious French bread by Alan Rodriguez.

Maybe it was my voice, or just the sad look on my face, but I got an invite to a brunch that was happening the same week, on Saturday. And obviously, I went.

Now, when I was coming to brunch, I didn’t expect that there’d be so many bread-things. I am from Ukraine, and we are quite famous for our grains (bread is great), but we would not offer so many different types of bread and cookies in one event. There would normally be a variety of foods, so you’d choose some veggies, fruit, cheese, or else.

But the French brunch to which I went definitely had bread as its main course. There were obviously croissants and baguettes, but then, there was a gigantic variety of majestic breads with different colors, structure, and shapes. They tasted differently, too. Then, there were cookies and non-sweet pastries that were something in between a piece of bread and a biscuit.

Now, turns out that my host’s father is a baker. They have a farm with lots of grain fields, so they grow and produce everything altogether. This is a family business, which is quite profitable and joyful – or so it seemed.

I was fascinated. In my home in Ukraine, we used to bake bread for some years (I also grew up on a farm), but then, we stopped as the bread production got more expensive – so it was cheaper to buy mass produced bread than to make your own.

This is the same in France, so many smaller producers are forced out of business because of the trend. Nils’ father, however, still gets by and even makes profits.

“We know that the agricultural business in Ukraine is very competitive, and we are ready to welcome you in Europe,” Paul (the father) told me during the brunch, “French farmers have accepted that Ukrainian farmers may crush us, but that’s because you’re very good at what you do.”

I was flattered to hear that, but even more, I was happy to hear that the guy knew and welcomed Ukrainian businesses coming to France even if it meant more challenges for him. To this man – as well as many people I have meet here – Europe was about being open and welcoming.

Nils’ parents, Paul and Lillie, got married thanks to their love for bread, by the way. So the food literally connected this fun family.

I had a wonderful time there, and I realized that during brunch, I communicated in French completely at ease. Proud moment.

La Cocina y Más Viajes (Segovia y Valencia)

The theme of this post is the mixture of gastronomy and culture and its origins in my trips.

Following the week when I traveled to Toledo, I decided to take a day trip to Segovia after my classes finished on Friday. As my bus was taking me into town, I will be honest when I say that I was underwhelmed by the incredibly normal city surrounding me. It was not until the bus drove through multiple streets and eventually took a turn that I found myself looking over the railings of the road, down a steep hill, at a beautiful countryside. Immediately, I was left speechless at the sight of the massive Roman aqueduct and the medieval city looming on top of the hill. At the suggestion of my Spanish language professor, I tried the famous Segovian cochinillo, roast suckling pig. I ordered the full menú, so I received multiple courses of traditional Segovian dishes for my meal. I asked the waiter about how they prepare the suckling pig, and he explained that they divide a suckling pig in half and roast it in their large wood fire oven for around two hours where it develops a crispy skin and extremely tender meat. With my full menú, I also got a dish made with judiones, a large bean grown in Segovia, that seemed to me something like a Spanish jambalaya or gumbo, as well as a sopa castellana, a traditional soup from the region. It was truly a great experience with the combination of the sights from my table, the taste of the meal, and the tradition of it all. After my lunch, I was able to visit the Cathedral of Segovia and a few smaller churches, walk around the aqueduct, and my favorite part, I was able to tour the Alcazar of Segovia. The alcazar is a beautiful castle that sits atop steep slopes and overlooks the countryside. In the centuries after it was built, it was used as an artillery school with much of the memorabilia from that time being on display today.

The following day, two of my friends and I decided to take the train to Valencia. I had planned a large itinerary of things to do, but due to it taking longer than expected to get to the city center and shopping for a bit, we ended up ditching the whole plan and decided to spend the whole day on the beach. As a student from Indiana where our only beaches are on the shores of lakes, the Valencian beach remains the best beach I have visited in my life. Of course, I ordered the traditional paella valenciana, made with rice, rabbit, chicken, vegetables, and most notably saffron. As paella is a dish from Valencia, I thought it was necessary that I try it while I was there. The dinner during sunset on the beach was a perfect capstone for the day.

Lastly, just two days ago, I attended a cooking class with some friends in the same program as me where we learned how to make four different dishes. The first was Andalusian gazpacho, a cold soup that is drank like a beverage made with many vegetables and tomatoes. This was my third time having gazpacho, and while I did not exactly enjoy it the first two times, I was surprised by how well our gazpacho turned out. It was the simplest of the four dishes as it essentially just requires throwing chopped vegetables into a blender until completely pureed, adding a bit of salt, and leaving in the refrigerator until cold. Gazpacho has its origins as a cold and fresh dish that is intended to refresh the drinker in the hot Andalusian sun. The second dish was the tortilla española. At the time of writing this, I am sure that I have had tortilla española at least 10 to 15 times, and I think its a classic staple that never disappoints. Again, I appreciated learning how to make such a simple and delicious dish. It involved chopping potatoes, cooking the potatoes in olive oil until soft and golden, scrambling eggs, combing the potatoes and eggs, and putting it all in a deep pan with olive oil to get its recognizable dome shape. The most exciting part was flipping it in the pan to cook both sides. I received applause from my entire group and the head chef for successfully flipping it without messing up (which I was not sure I could do). For the main course, we made paella de mariscos, another form of paella from Valencia but made with seafood instead of rabbit. For us to make the paella, we needed the help of nearly everyone in our group to work on different parts, chopping vegetables, chicken, and squid, cleaning shrimp, and preparing the other ingredients. The dessert we made was called the tarta de Santiago, a Spanish almond cake with origins in the Middle Ages. The hardest part of the cooking class was trying to focus on chopping ingredients for everything else while we could smell this cooking in the oven. It is relatively simple to make as well as it is almond flour, cinnamon, eggs, and sugar. It tasted as amazing as it smelled, and to top it off, we decorated it in the traditional style with a cross of St. James on the top made out of confectionary sugar. It was a great experience, but I just hope that I will remember how to make everything when I return home.

I am very glad that I have the experience to not only see culture but taste the tradition of the places that I get to visit. To top it off, it was even more fascinating to be able to go to a cooking class where I was learned what goes into making multiple dishes that I had already tried before.

First week in Antigua

Hello from Antigua!

So much has happened since I arrived last Friday to Guatemala! I don’t know how I am possibly going to fit it all into one blog post. I’ll try to give you the highlights, but don’t be upset if this post is a long one!

I arrived at my host family’s house late Friday night and was greeted warmly by my host family and the other exchange students. The students living with me are from the States and Canada, and they range from 19 to 50 years old. We had 8 students this past week, though people are always coming and going. I think that the group I will be staying with will be slightly different every week. Most of the students I have met here have graduated from their university, though there are a few of us who are still in school. I have met people from the States, Canada, England, the Netherlands, Belgium, and Brazil. I have loved getting to know every single person here. One friend I made is from Quebec, and she has shown me around Antigua and was my partner in crime when we played with our host brother, Carlo. We went to coffee shops and a macadamia nut farm together, she took me on hikes and to different mercados, and we did cooking and salsa dancing classes together with some of our other friends. Sadly, she left yesterday, but she is going to return next weekend so that we can do the overnight hike up the volcano Acatenango together.

This is my Canadian friend Manu chilling in a hammock at the macadamia nut farm we went to last Sunday.

This is Agua, an extinct volcano south of Antigua. I took this picture atop the lookout Cerro de la Cruz, which is right next to my house. I like to hike this short bluff every morning and watch Antigua wake up.

Speaking of hikes, this morning I hiked up Pacaya, one of the 38 volcanoes in Guatemala. Pacaya is currently dormant but erupted in 2010 and still had lava issuing down its side last year. At least, this is what I picked up from the tour guide today, though these facts really might be wrong since the tour was in Spanish. The hike was beautiful and relatively short. Best of all, we were able to roast marshmallows over the hot spots near the top of the volcano. 

Here we are in front of the summit of Pacaya!

Short video of me roasting my marshmallow:)

View from the top!

There are three active volcanoes in Guatemala, and I am hoping to climb, or at least see up close, one of them. Fun fact about Fuego (the active volcano I want to climb): Fuego erupts three times every hour, and we can hear it all the way in Antigua. What’s more, the ash from the volcano reaches Antigua, so that you can run your hands along a surface outside and collect the ash on your fingers.  

Continuing on the theme of fun facts about Antigua, I’ve learned that you are not allowed to honk your horns in this city because the powers that be want Antigua to maintain a calm atmosphere. To me, Antigua does feel calm; I’ve found it to be very safe and friendly to tourists. Though I and the rest of the young women in the city receive occasional catcalls from random men (due to the machisimo culture here), I never feel uncomfortable when I am walking by myself, especially since there are many gringos just like me out and about. I thought I would stand out more, but no one has noticed me in particular. The only comments I’ve received are that I am tall (most Guatemalan men are shorter than me), and that I have beautiful eyes (probably because they are blue). 

I have also learned that there is a huge procession every Easter that imitates the Via Dolorosa, the path Jesus took on his way to his crucifixion. Thousands of people line the streets to watch actors and several statues make their way from church to church. How do I know this, you may ask? Carlo, who is 7 years old, does his own version of this procession every. Single. Night. He has one video of the procession that he watches constantly, and we will go to bed and sometimes wake up to the somber music that plays in the video. Carlo will march to the music through hiis house, over to his grandparents’ house (the two families’ houses are connected), and back to his living room. 

Carlo is definitely one of my favorite parts of this trip so far. I of course also love his older brother Adriano and his parents, but Carlo is something else. He is super loud and energetic and talkative, and he loves to play with me, sing, or show his Youtube blog to anyone who cares to watch. He is constantly asking to ride on my back or play with me, which looks like him taking a ball and running away screaming as I chase him and try to get the ball back. He talks incredibly fast and doesn’t know much English, so playing with him is honestly a great way for me to practice my Spanish.

My host mom, Wendy, is funny and very kind. Lucky for me, Wendy is also a chef, which means that I get to eat a lot of authentic and delicious dishes for dinner. This blog could easily become solely about the food I have eaten here, so I will try to restrain myself. I’ll give you a few of the best dishes:

Pepian: this is the traditional lunch of Guatemala, and it happened to be the first lunch I ate. It is chicken, potatoes, carrots, and rice in a savory sauce made of tomatoes, several types of chiles, onions, and many other ingredients that I don’t remember. 

Fried Plantains: these are commonly served as a side for breakfast and lunch.

Elotes: this is the first street food that I’ve eaten. It is grilled corn served with either lime and salt or a combination of mayonnaise, chili powder, ketchup, cheese, and mustard. It could be served with other things as well, but these are the options that I’ve seen so far.

Molletes Rellenos: this is a dessert that is similar to a cream puff, but it’s covered in whipped egg whites mixed with their yokes and fried, and is served in a soup of water, cinnamon, sugar, and raisins. I attended a cooking class in which we made molletes rellenos–and when I say “we made,” I mean the teacher made with two other students while the rest of us talked and then ate the fruits of their labor.

Manu and Lindsay with our molletes rellenos!

Some more fun facts about Guatemalan cuisine: typically, tortillas are served for lunch while bread (pan) is served for dinner. The food here is not spicy at all, and eggs, beans, and rice are also very common. 

As you all probably remember, I have four hours of group class in the morning and one hour of private class in the afternoon. My two other classmates are in their mid to late twenties and are both from the United States. My teacher is a lively Guatemalan who has a great laugh and likes to make fun of us. Her joke for me is that I need to find a Guatemalan novio (boyfriend) so that I can have someone with whom to practice my Spanish and have many kids. I think I had mentioned that I want a family when I am older at some point earlier this week,  and I guess in her mind that translated to, “I want to have a huge Latino family with muchos muchos hijos.” Now, she is constantly reminding me to be on the hunt. I’ll keep you updated on that front, though so far I have yet to meet a potential Guatemalan novio. I also cannot tell you how many people ask me about my Romeo. I’ve gotten this question all my life, but for some reason everyone down here wants to know all about my love life, and specifically if there are any boys named Romeo that I know. (In case you’re wondering, I have only met one Romeo in my life, and it was in fifth grade. We were not friends.) 

I am wondering if I receive this question so often down here simply because of my name, or if it is actually part of the culture to inquire into people’s relationship status. It’s true that my teacher has told us multiple times about the great importance marriage and family have in Guatemala. She says that there can often be a lot of pressure from both parents and society to get married. Besides this, she has told us about how it is expected that the eldest daughter will take on some of the mother’s responsibility and do many of the chores, whereas the sons are never forced to do chores and are instead told to go rest and relax. This household dynamic is partly why the machisimo culture exists.  

I mentioned that I was going to pick up slang while in Guatemala. One word I have learned is va (pronounced “ba”), which I believe is the shortened version of the Spanish (from Spain) word vale. Vale is never used here, but va is used constantly and means “okay.” For example, whenever I thank Wendy for breakfast or dinner, she will invariably respond, “va.” Or again, the tour guide for my Pacaya hike generously sprinkled his sentences with “va” as he told us about the volcano. I have started to incorporate this word in my speech, though I also like to use bueno (another form of “okay”) and claro (which means “of course”). Even though my lack of knowledge of Spanish is sorely exposed here, by using words like va, I am slowly learning to talk more naturally. I have already noticed an improvement in my ear and speech. 

Here are a few more pictures that I wanted to share with you. Wish me luck as I start my second week of classes and hike Acatenango next weekend! I’ll try to post something next weekend, but if I don’t have time, you’ll hear from me again in two weeks!

This is the famous arch in Antigua.

Woman wearing traditional clothing and selling her wares on the street

This church was built by the Spaniards in the 1540s!

Hasta luego,