Long time, no blog. Since my last post in March 2013, lots of stuff has happened.
We went on R&R to France and Germany (August/September 2013), visited a monkey sanctuary in Ghana (January 2014), finished our first tour in Togo (August 2014) and returned back to the US for our first home leave. During home leave we visited friends and family in Kentucky, Virginia, and West Virginia. We celebrated our 3rd wedding anniversary with a fancy schmancy dinner at 610 Magnolia. A gustatory delight, for sure.
September 2014 marked the beginning of our training for our second post in Guangzhou, China. D and I both completed language training at FSI (I availed myself of the 8 week FAST course. I am, alas, not a keen linguist). D is now making his way through ConGen and I am running around like a headless chicken trying to prepare ALL THE THINGS for our move in roughly TWO WEEKS.
For many who grew up in the Appalachian mountains or the southern parts of the United States, they would be well acquainted with a dessert that decorated every Thanksgiving, Christmas and Baptist congregation luncheon table: Banana pudding.
Often consisting of familiar ingredients:
Vanilla wafers (in their familiar bright yellow box, often nestled suggestively beside the bananas in the fruit section of the grocery store. No other cookie dared enter that sacred domain. No, not even the venerated Oreo could impede on this holy, matrimonial union of banana and wafer.)
Vanilla or Banana flavored JELL-O Instant pudding and sliced bananas.
Some might include whipped cream, cool whip or even a toasted meringue topping, some going so far as to make their pudding or custard from scratch but it is the simple combination of instant vanilla pudding, vanilla wafers and bananas that my family combined to make what I knew as banana pudding. It was my grandfather’s favorite dessert and I was seen as rather odd that I considered it often too sweet and rather mundane. It didn’t help that in my younger years I had no real appreciation for desserts that lacked chocolate.
As with many foods that remind me of my childhood, I began to crave these culinary relics with a growing intensity the farther I wandered from my childhood hills and valleys. After missing going home for one Fourth of July holiday during my undergraduate years, my appetite for chili dogs grew to a ridiculous proportion considering my relative indifference to the hot dog and hamburger cookouts that would accompany our Independence day celebrations. I far preferred my grandmother’s potato salad and deviled eggs.
During my graduate school year in NYC, biscuits and gravy was a staple comfort food (although I had always loved biscuits and gravy. Food of the gods, no?)
Now that my husband and I are in the unfamiliar territory of West Africa, it seems another culinary relic has reared its head: I found myself craving banana pudding. I haven’t had banana pudding since going home over college break and sharing a container of Magnolia Bakery’s famous Banana pudding with friends during Christmas 2010 in our apartment in Queens.
Togo has a wonderful supply of freshly picked bananas that taste so much better than any banana I have ever laid hands on in the states and so I knew I could not turn down this opportunity and challenge.
Since we are in Togo, finding vanilla wafers here would be quite difficult and instant vanilla pudding, moderately so; this recipe has a few changes from the Banana pudding I knew as a child but still is (and in my opinion, more so) as delicious.
Banana Pudding a la Togo
-2 tbsp Vanilla Custard Powder
-1 pkg Vanilla cream Prince brand cookies
-2 cups UHT semi-skimmed milk
-2 cups UHT Whipping Cream
-3 tbsp sugar
-1tsp Vanilla extract
-4 sliced Fresh ripe bananas
Mix 2 tablespoons of custard powder with 2 tablespoons of cold milk (from the 2 cups on the ingredient list) and stir until combined. It gets a super weird texture but don’t worry!
Next, bring the remaining milk to a boil and then pour over custard mixture and whisk vigorously to combine. Now the custard can be placed in the fridge to cool.
Next for de-creaming the cookies! The Prince cookies are sandwich cookies with a vanilla cream in the middle. Take them apart (like you would an Oreo) and scrape off the cream. Put the scraped cookies in a bowl and set aside. If you have a use for the left over cookie cream, I would love to know. I hate waste!
Next, chill your mixing bowl and whisk attachment. UHT whipping cream is often not as easy to whip, so it helps to have everything as cold as possible. It has to have at least 35% fat content to be whippable. Add the 3 tablespoons sugar and whip the cream until it is nice and fluffy. Gradually fold in the chilled vanilla custard and add vanilla extract.
Layer the custard/whipped cream mixture in a large bowl with the cookies and bananas. Alternate custard, cookie, banana etc etc.
Roughly two weeks ago D and I were eating at San Marco (a local pizza place near our home) with one of D’s co-workers after attending a farewell party for one of our awesome marines (who we already miss so much!) and another wonderful embassy co-worker. I was starving and really excited to get my usual mushroom pizza and Sport Actif (a local grapefruit and lemon soda, kind of like Squirt). I had been sick earlier that day, so I was tired and looking to eat my first real meal of the day.
Suddenly this tiny little ball of orange and white fur caught my eye. It was an itty-bitty, skinny kitten and he was wandering from table to table looking for food scraps. He was so tiny, grimy and obviously hungry and I was in love. At first sight, he was mine. I knew this kitty was going home with us. He had to, he needed us! I already knew his name and everything! He was Seneca and he belonged with us.
My husband was not so convinced, he reminded me that we planned to get a puppy when we returned to the states after finishing our post in Togo. Having a ratio of more animals than adults can be really difficult in the Foreign Service. As much as I would love a puppy, this kitten needed us now and Togo doesn’t have any sort of shelter system. The hypothetical puppy that we would have adopted from the ASPCA still has a better chance at a good life than this vulnerable little tabby.
There was still one problem to consider, however. Winston.
We already have one adult cat who is very skittish and we were worried that the kitten might expose him to some disease or another. D and I decided to take the kitten home (after bribing him with some ham), quarantine, and take him to a vet as soon as possible. This was a Thursday. We got him to a vet by Saturday morning. Thankfully the vet pronounced him healthy. He gave him worm medicine, de-flea’d and vaccinated him.
That Saturday he was officially pronounced a permanent part of our family :D
We expected Seneca to be a bit feral but he has adjusted to being a loved on house cat quite quickly. He is lovable and constantly purring. He loves to cuddle and sleep on our chests.
Winston is starting to come around, at first there was much hissing but now Winston will just walk away when Seneca tries to play or love on him.
We love our Togolese kitty and I knew my New Yorker cat would come around eventually. Probably.
We are more a week past the two month anniversary of our arrival in Togo! The past weeks have absolutely flown by! I started teaching at the American International School about a week or so after we arrived and we haven’t stopped moving since. School is keeping me very busy, some days are hard and some days are wonderful. Today was a wonderful day.
I was able to write a positive letter informing a parent that his/her child worked very hard in my class and was a very good student today (this was a student who had trouble getting motivated before and finishing assignments, which is always frustrating to both teachers and parents). Today (Oct 5th) was also International Teacher Appreciation day and our director surprised the teachers with cake and soft drinks. It was a nice surprise but the best surprise of all was the thank you card that my students made telling me that they loved having me as a teacher (and that they appreciated that I didn’t give too much homework, which isn’t entirely true so I think they were trying to pull a fast one on me. HA!) It was all so very sweet and I really loved and appreciated every moment of it.
Since this is such a small Foreign Service post, everyone really works hard to bring everybody together for social gatherings, cookouts etc. I have made so many good friends in the past few weeks, including school colleagues, embassy staff, adjacent organizations such as Peace Corps and other random expatriates. Last night D and I took part in a Pub Quiz to raise money for various charities and it was a lot of fun with great company, food and drinks.
We finally received our HHE and consumables! We have everything mostly put away, but there are still lingering piles of clothes, random papers etc. It feels amazing to have our photos on the walls. The house definitely feels like a home now.
We’re here! The flight was long and tiring but thankfully uneventful. About sixteen hours in total. Dulles gave us a bit of grief about Winston’s weight but after some passionate discussions with managers and powers that be, we were allowed on the plane with our beloved furbaby. I was pretty upset and quite sick from the idea that he might not be able to get on the plane with us and cargo wasn’t an option since we did not have a hard carrier with us. I think half of what changed their minds was the fact that I looked as if I was going to retch on their luggage scale. The seats were tight and leg room was scarce but the flight attendants were kind and attentive, they fed us what seemed like a billion times and the food was quite good for the most part.
By the time we boarded the flight to Lome, I was so exhausted I actually managed to sleep most of the flight. I am usually much too keyed up to sleep but I was glad for the three to four hours I caught. Once we arrived in Lome at the Gnassingbe International airport of Lome, we were met by a co-worker who came to pick us up and the handler who took care of getting our visas processed and grabbed our baggage. D and I were so thankful for the help of our co-worker and the handler. Entering the country was definitely a completely different process than any other time I had traveled abroad. There was no waiting in line as passports were stamped and paperwork perused. Instead we were put in a room with others entering the country and waited as the handler did all the talking and passport showing.
Once we were done with the airport, we were loaded into the waiting vehicle and taken to our new home (which is beautiful) and then out to dinner at a local Indian restaurant with some of D’s other co-workers. Although we were exhausted from the travel, it was great to meet people we will be working and living closely with for the next two years. It was important to push ourselves to stay up as long as possible and help our adjustment to Togo time.
Saturday we were invited to a co-worker’s home for a cookout and good company. He also showed us around the neighborhood a bit and gave us tips on great places to shop and dine out. Later that night we had (surprisingly delicious) pizza at a local restaurant with other co-workers. By the time we headed home that night we slept soundly but also very happy with how welcoming our new home was proving itself to be. We were able to walk home through our neighborhood for the first time that day and it really helped to make the move seem real.
Sunday morning we roused ourselves and managed our first trip to the grocery store. We were both very surprised at how many familiar items and brands were available and all the new items that we wanted to try. That afternoon we had another get together with co-workers and it was lovely to spend time with co-worker’s children and animals. The weather here is beyond lovely, especially in the afternoon. This is considered the cold season in Lome, so it is possible to sit outside without sweating miserably as we had in DC. It will definitely get hotter later in the year but I have been assured it never goes above 98°. Considering DC has lingered between 95 and up for most of the Spring and Summer, I think we can handle that.
It is here! We will board the plane tonight (August 9th) and land in Togo tomorrow! Oh my goodness! So excited!!!!!!
“Either the well was very deep, or she fell very slowly, for she had plenty of time as she went down to look about her and to wonder what was going to happen next.” Lewis Carroll
Lately I have felt very much like Alice as she tumbled down the rabbit hole. D and I have prepared this whole year for moving to Togo and now when it is finally within reach and becoming very very real, I find myself on very unstable ground. The Oakwood apartment that has been our homestead for this past year is no longer ‘our home’. I am anxious to move into our new home in Togo but there is also a supremely large part of me that is scared straight with all the changes that are coming to us. New continent, new job (hopefully), new friends and all on unfamiliar terrain.
I dread those first few days where I will be without internet or phone, in an unfamiliar land, without connection to the world that has always been known to me. I try to reason with myself: it shouldn’t be that scary. After all, I lived a life of disconnection and seclusion for nearly the first twenty years of my life. I’ve lived in tiny hollows on the side of a mountain and deep in a valley where the mountains towered above, blocking out cell phone reception and rogue wireless internet signals. Laughing in the face of modern technologies. It wasn’t until college that I had regular access to the internet and I’ve only had a cell phone since senior year of undergrad. But I have also never faced a gulf between friends and loved ones like this before either. It is a daunting proposition.
I will have to put far more effort into making phone calls at odd hours of the night. For those who know me well, they know just how much I loath talking on the phone. But it will be a necessary inconvenience as many of my close family members are not internet savvy and thus unable to email, Facebook or read this blog. Also, it is just nice to hear loved one’s voices. There is also the knowledge that losing family members while I am away is a very real possibility and so each goodbye is is filled with uncertainty as to if or when I will get another hello. The possibility that I will be unable to pay my final respects. These are all realities of this chosen lifestyle.
I am certainly not a stranger to new beginnings but this one is going to be a doozy.
OMG!!!!! BUY ALL THE THINGS AT COSTCO!!!!!!!!!!!!
So, if I can give you one bit of advice from personal experience. Do not, please, DO NOT schedule your DMV driving test the same day that you plan on shopping for bras (super stressful, amiright, ladies?!) and doing your entire consumables shopping at COSTCO. It is not a good idea, it will not end well. I definitely failed my test that morning, the testing lady was SUPER mean and unprofessional and made me cry in the DMV parking lot. She definitely made me feel like the worst person in the world. Then we went bra shopping (UGH) and COSTO TRIP OF DOOM!!!!
By the time we got to Costco, I was so drained and zombie-fied and of course it was a Saturday, so the store was packed to the max! There is nothing more frustrating than trying to figure out how much shampoo you will need for two years while pushing a huge cart already filled to the max as others milled about me. D, my husband, tends to err on the side of conservative estimates and I tend to worry about not getting enough so we had to talk out most items and I had to fight my inner worry wort/anxiety demon that kept assuring me we were not going to buy enough of X amount of item and THE WHOLE WORLD WOULD END AND HAPPINESS WOULD DISAPPEAR AS WE KNOW IT! So yeah, stressful.
So, of course, once we finished shopping and paid at the register, everything was super simple. The Costco manager was expecting us, so he was able to have all of our stuff boxed up, crated and prepared for the shippers to pick it up the next business day. No fuss, no muss. The world did not end. Yet.
Then we went home and ate Chinese food (Happy Family!) and licked my wounds/vegged on the couch while watching crap tv.
I reupholstered a chair!
So, we bought this barrel chair at JUNK in Brooklyn, NYC and I finally got around to reupholstering it! I think it came out pretty well for my first try!
This is what it looked like before the big transformation:
I managed to finish the night before the movers came! Huzzah!
Ahhh! The movers are here and they are taking all of our stuff! Bless my heart! I never realized how attached I was to THINGS until the packers came and carefully boxed everything up. I had to physically make myself sit on the couch and not get in their way and hover as they packed my spices and Kermit, my beloved Kitchen Aid mixer.
However, after the movers left, ZEN descended upon my being. It was out of my hands. And then an hour later I felt agitated again because I kept thinking of awesome things to cook and bake that involved all of my wonderful and beloved kitchen supplies. Yeah, I know, I’m crazy. Don’t judge! (Okay, you can judge, whatevs).
Also, I definitely have to call myself out for all my angst about the movers. They were totally awesome and efficient and I was totally WhiteWhining in my seperation anxiety/crazy/moving angst. Totally lame.
3-5 days til flight!
I go from being agitated and wanting to be in Togo already to being quite calm about the whole situation. Lots of calls to family members and friends to say goodbyes. D and I both have a bit of a head cold/sinus thing, so lots of vegging. I am getting so excited about the teaching I will be doing and wondering what kind of classrooms I will get to teach in and what the kids will be like! Also, nervous! I am finally getting to teach!
August 6th- OUR ONE YEAR WEDDING ANNIVERSARY!!!! HOORAY!!!!!!!
August 7th- We had a lovely steak dinner and milkshakes at Ray’s to the Third to celebrate. Absolutely delicious! I highly recommend!
August 8th/9th- scurry to clean the apartment, repack the suitcases (since we have been living out of them), stress about flying with Sir Winston. We are taking him on the plane as carry on so I’ve been worried about having issues with that. Otherwise I am feeling really calm and excited about the journey to come! We are moving to Togo! Holy moly!