Have Books, Will Travel

bookshelvesSome people flip through photo albums to fondly remember past vacations. Others, in today’s social media-crazed society, may look back over their Instagram posts to see snaps of time spent away with family or friends, in some exotic location, or just for a short getaway. Me? I just pull up my Goodreads list of books read, and I can happily remember great trips or time spent with family by seeing a book title and the date I completed it. I’ve been an avid reader my whole life, and my bookshelves can vouch for that. Here are some of my favorites.

  • Metamorphosis of Me into a Literary Reader: A 1987 Thanksgiving break visit to my future husband while he was in grad school in Charlottesville, Virginia, opened my eyes to Franz Kafka’s classic The Metamorphosis. Just barely surpassing a frat house for cleanliness and style, I enjoyed the quiet of his apartment and his English major roommate’s bookshelf.
  • Hunting for Something to Read: Over Christmas break in 1999 in Louisiana, awake in the middle of the night with nothing to read, I borrowed Hunt for Red October from my brother-in-law’s bookshelf, my first and last Tom Clancy.
  • Tea Time Will Make You Fat: Living overseas for two years allowed us the ability to travel around Europe inexpensively. In the fall of 2002, just after unpacking and getting ourselves settled, we traveled to Glasgow, Scotland, to see my mother’s cousins and extended family. cooks bookshopWe spent a lovely day at Edinburgh Castle and shopped on the Royal Mile that afternoon, where I stumbled upon the Cooks Bookshop, owned by Clarissa Dickson Wright, one of the pair of British cooking celebs I knew from a PBS cooking show. We went in and naturally I had to buy the first of their cookbooks that accompanied the PBS series, Two Fat Ladies.
  • James Bond a la Provence: In the summer of 2003, while living for two years in Belgium, my family spent a week in Cavalaire-sur-Mer, Provence, France. In advance of the trip, I visited the high school library of the international school my daughters attended to check out some books to bring along. One book was an omnibus edition of five Ian Fleming novels. I have such fond memories sitting on the balcony of the rental apartment, reading this hardback while sipping a cool drink and listening to the waves.
  • pittsburghNo Hunger, Too Busy Reading to Eat: Easter break of 2012, I read an entire book in the bathtub of a Pittsburgh Marriott Courtyard hotel room. I was just going to relax in the tub and read a few pages of The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins, but I ended up adding hot water repeatedly until I finished the whole book.
  • lewes24 Hour Getaway: In October of 2012, my hubby and I drove to Lewes, Delaware, for my birthday weekend. While there, I managed to squeeze in enough reading to nearly get through Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan. Part mystery, part puzzle, part homage to bookstores, this is still a favorite of mine.
  • Rocky Read of Rowling: In the summer of 2014, my husband and I celebrated our 25th wedding anniversary with a trip to Kennebunkport, Maine. maineWith high winds and rough seas, our water activities were canceled several times, but I happily sat on the sunny porch of the inn where we stayed, reading (J. K. Rowling’s alter ego) Robert Galbraith’s second detective mystery novel in the Cormoran Strike series, The Silkworm. Note: book 2 is decidedly creepier and more graphic than book 1 but not nearly as creepy and graphic as book 3. I’ll need a brightly lit room and a stiff drink to make it through book 4.
  • los angelosFirst Anniversary of Baby Bird being Gone: My younger daughter moved to Los Angelos over Easter break of 2016 to pursue her dream of being a screenwriter. While on this life-changing trip to drop her off, I read Liane Moriarty’s The Last Anniversary, my first of her novels. The tone and mood perfectly matched my own bittersweet feelings of the time.
  • All the Time in the World to Read: July of 2016 found me in Fort Myers, Florida, visiting a dear friend in her beautiful home. After she left for work each morning, I would have coffee and read on her “lanai”. fort myersAs the mid-day sun became a bit too much, I’d dive into her pool and swim lazy laps. In stark contrast to this paradise of a setting, I read a friend’s debut novel, All the Time in the World by Caroline Angell, which takes place in the ultra-glamorous Upper East Side of Manhattan.
  • Puerto RicoYes, Chef, More Mofongo: Over Thanksgiving break of 2016, my husband took me to Puerto Rico for my 60th birthday. Amidst all the great food we ate there, including mofongo, I devoured Marcus Samuelsson’s memoir Yes, Chef.
  • Water, Water, Everywhere: Summer of 2017 found me on my first ever mother-daughter road trip, traveling to Niagara Falls. niagara fallsWhile my daughter was off at her conference, I sat in an outdoor cafe with a big cup of coffee and Red Kayak by Priscilla Cummings. No waterfalls featured in the story, but all the action takes place on the Chesapeake Bay.

One thing is clear after gathering my photos of the places I have written about in this essay: it seems like I like places near the water as much as I like books!

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Just Say Cheese!

cheese signFor two years I lived in Belgium, where supposedly there is a different cheese for every day of the year. Just a few blocks from my house on Avenue de Versailles was my favorite store, Fromagerie Saint-Michel, and during those two years, I was a frequent customer. The ladies behind the counter were so helpful and allowed me to taste many different kinds of cheese on each visit. They would offer me suggestions as to which cheeses to serve together and what other foods should be served with them. I just loved shopping there.

Cheese has always been my favorite food. I’m pretty sure I could live off of cheese alone, although a crusty piece of baguette, with a thin spread of salty French butter, really makes a nice piece of cheese a whole meal. I love grainy, white cheddar cheese from Ireland as much as I love creamy, runny Brie from France. I like Swiss cheese with its big holes that look as though a mouse has been nibbling his way through the center. I like manchego cheese that comes from Spain, which tastes great with salty, green olives and honey-glazed Spanish almonds.

racletteOf course, cooking with cheese is even better than eating it plain. Who doesn’t love rich and creamy mac ‘n cheese, which my mom baked in the oven until the macaroni pieces sticking up around the edges were crispy and golden brown. A grilled cheese sandwich on toasted rye bread, cooked on low heat in a skillet coated with butter, is a great Sunday night dinner while I grade papers and get ready for another week of school. All over Europe people gather together for dinner parties, happily dipping chunks of bread, slices of apples, and tiny roasted potatoes into a cheesy dip called fondue. A slight variation of this is raclette, which is a nutty, mild and creamy cheese that is melted in front of a fireplace, and then the oozing melted part is scraped onto plates and passed around. This is also served with really good bread and roasted potatoes.

raclette grillCheese isn’t just for lunch and dinner, though. In the Scandinavian countries, people eat sliced cheese and cold cuts for breakfast. All along the East Coast of the United States, people smear cream cheese on bagels, sometimes with crazy flavors and sometimes just plain. In Italy, people spread fresh ricotta cheese on slices of toast and drizzle them with honey for breakfast or as an after-school snfondueack for their kids. And of course, there is no pizza without mozzarella!

Hands down, cheese is my favorite dairy product. Even though cheese is a close relative of yogurt, I could never love yogurt the way I love cheese. Cheese simply is the perfect food, eaten alone or on a sandwich, manchegosliced or cut into chunks, made into a dip or melted and scraped onto bread, for me there is nothing like it.  In fact, when someone is ready to take a picture of me, and they tell me “say cheese”, I am not smiling for the camera. I am smiling for the cheese!

A New Year, A New Me

 

plannerA new school year has begun, and week two is in the books, or grade books as it were. However, my school year began a day late, due to a back injury that sidelined me for the first day of school. Calling in sick has never been easy for me; I was even more devastated to miss the excitement of the first day back, and particularly this year. In early June, I accepted a teaching position at a new school and spent all summer working on new curriculum and moving into a new classroom. I was ready for the first day at least a month ago, but God sure does have a sense of humor. You think you are ready, LOL, I’ll show you.

First Day

My “1st” day of school this year, back pain and all!

This is my eleventh year as a teacher. Starting at a new school this year, however, really meant coming home for me, as I am teaching in my home parish school, where both my daughters were educated and where my husband and I have been parishioners for over twenty years. While I was excited and thrilled with the opportunity to make this change, leaving my former school after ten years meant leaving colleagues who have become dear friends and saying goodbye to a truly wonderful school community filled with supportive and generous families.

classroom

Control Central (LOL)

Starting over, being the new person, adapting to new policies, and making new friends can be difficult, and sometimes, we hold ourselves back from new opportunities because of being too comfortable, and perhaps because we are afraid of change. But, change can be good. Change is an opportunity to push that reset button, to abandon bad habits, to refresh and renew one’s enthusiasm for work.

class photo

My daughter’s 5th grade class photo from Belgium, Johanna far right middle row

Over the summer, as I worked my way through three new literature textbooks and a bag full of new YA novels, I learned of the untimely passing of one of the greatest educators I’ve had the pleasure of knowing. Johanna Bambridge was my younger daughter’s fifth grade teacher. Within minutes of meeting her in the late summer of 2002, I knew I had encountered someone very special. Her warm smile and obvious enthusiasm for teaching was so reassuring as we began a school year in a foreign country. She knew that, even though we were moving to Belgium from Maryland, my husband and I were both Louisiana natives. She had already chosen a mentor family for us, also from Louisiana, with a daughter the same age as our 5th grader.

Early in that school year, my daughter came home and told me she had volunteered me for something at school, and that I needed to call Mrs. Bambridge, which I did. Mrs. Bambridge told me that she had asked if anyone’s mother could come in to do a cooking demonstration on the foods of ancient cuisines, and that my daughter had assured her I was the perfect person for this.

Now, let me tell you that I knew almost nothing about foods of ancient civilizations, but I do love to cook, so I sat down at my computer and began to research the foods of ancient Rome, Greece, and Egypt. And, so began my adventure in the classroom. My first cooking demonstration was karkadé (iced hibiscus tea) and kosheri (lentils and rice) with sausages. For dessert, I served the 5th graders seed cake sweetened with honey and dates. It was a smashing success. As I was cleaning up, Mrs. Bambridge said to me with her usual 1,000-watt smile, “You should be a teacher!” At first, I was startled at this (what, me?), but I admit I was also intrigued, and for the rest of our time in Belgium, I volunteered extensively at the school, including substitute teaching in the middle school and working in the high school library. Five years later, after completing grad courses and the Praxis, armed with state certification in English for grades 7-12 and with Johanna Bambridge’s endorsement ringing in my ears, I began my second career as a middle school language arts teacher.

CCD Dinner

Religious Ed Dinner (2002 or 2003), Johanna Bambridge far left, me far right

I not only knew Johanna Bambridge as my daughter’s teacher, but also as a fellow parishioner and parish council member at our Catholic church parish in Belgium, Our Lady of Mercy. Meetings were on Sunday nights, which all teachers know is the time when we wind down from the weekend and prep for the school week: lesson planning, grading papers, posting grades, emailing parents. But, Johanna was there for each and every meeting, prepared and ready to discuss parish business, plan events, and prepare for liturgical feasts. She was also there to represent the religious education program for the English-speaking families of the parish. Even though she was a wife and mother of two with a very full day-job, she was the Director of Religious Education and taught one of the classes herself every Sunday. It was hard to say no to her when she asked me to teach a class myself. After all, I was technically a stay-at-home mom for our two years in Belgium. Like the platoon leader who vows not to ask his soldiers to do anything he wouldn’t do himself, Johanna not only talked the talk, she walked the walk.

When I casually mentioned to her that I wished we would have shipped our piano to Belgium when we moved, she offered me her piano, free, “just pay to have it moved,” she said. It was an old upright with many years behind it, but after having it moved to our house and getting it tuned, it added much to making our assigned housing a real home during our time in Waterloo.

SJIS

St. John’s International School, Waterloo, Belgium (Source: Wikipedia)

Shortly after her death on July 6th, a colleague from St. John’s International School created a tribute page on Facebook for Johanna. Each day I logged on to Facebook to read the condolences and remembrances left there by friends and former students from all over the world: Japan, Belgium (when we knew her), France (where she moved after Belgium). All, without exception, carried the same themes: selfless, caring, faith-filled, devoted to education, energetic. Many, many people said that their most vivid memory of Johanna was of her with her arms wrapped around children. She embraced everyone in her path.  She enveloped them with her warm smile and blazing, bright eyes. How many lives did she touch? How many children did she inspire? How many teachers, including myself, did she mentor and motivate? How many hearts did she open to her love of the Catholic church?

book-nook-e1505611853705.jpg

Book Nook, my classroom

And, so, now at the beginning of this, my eleventh year in education, I re-dedicate myself to the values that Johanna so effortlessly lived and shared. I will greet each child with a warm smile. I will make learning fun. I will be compassionate and caring, even when I need to be firm. I will bring my faith and love of the Catholic church to every school day, to every lesson, to every encounter. I will do more, I will pray more, I will be more.

 

Johanna Bambridge will be greatly missed by all whose lives she affected, but she will not be forgotten. I know in my heart that she was welcomed with open arms to her final reward, where she heard, “Well done, good and faithful servant.” Rest in peace, Johanna. This year is for you.

Drowning, But Don’t Save Me — Yet

back to schoolAt the annual Back to School Night last week I introduced myself to the parents of my 7th graders with my usual background information: “This is my 9th year teaching and my 9th year at this school. I came to education as a second career after twenty years in the legal field. After leaving my corporate job to move overseas with my family in 2002, I spent two years volunteering and substitute teaching in the international school my daughters attended. I loved working with students and the energy and atmosphere of a middle school so much I decided when we returned home I would become a teacher. I love teaching, and I love teaching here at this school.”

All of this is true. The two years I spent as a parent, volunteer, teacher’s aide, library assistant, and substitute teacher at the St. John’s International School in Waterloo, Belgium, were wonderful. I made so many good friends during those two years abroad, and I did rediscover within myself my creative side, a part of me that I had tamped down with business dealnever-ending conference calls, acrid negotiations, brain-numbing legal writing, terse interoffice relationships, and high-pressure business deals.

A good friend and co-worker said to me many, many times while we were working together in a large shopping center development company, “You should get out of this job. You should find something else to do. You are too creative for this work.” I didn’t really understand what she meant because I was very caught up in my work identity. I had worked extremely hard, without a law degree, to climb up the legal ladder and become successful at drafting and negotiating legal documents. It was a tough job but I loved it. I enjoyed some flexibility with my work hours and had quite a bit of autonomy within the workplace. I had five weeks of vacation leave a year, was bonus-eligible, had received stock options, and earned a very healthy salary. I loved my job and I was confident in my abilities to do it well. So, when the opportunity presented itself for us to move overseasinternational school for two years and give our daughters the experience of living, traveling, and going to school in Europe, I went to my boss and asked for a leave of absence. She said no, that it was too long a period of time, but they would welcome me back if a position were open upon my return. I was crushed.

Those last few months of work (I had given ample notice) were tough. The winding down of my responsibilities, closing out my files of signed deals, transferring my pending deals to co-workers, goodbye lunches and happy hours, packing up my personal belongings from my office, it was all very difficult. For the first few months in Belgium, I had a lot to do. First, get the girls settled in their new school, reach out and make new friends with some of their classmates, buy school uniforms and school supplies, and find our way around our new town. Then, when our sea shipment arrived, unpacking and getting our house in order filled my days. Eventually though, reality kicked in. I had nowhere to go every day. i'm boredFor the first time since a few months after my college graduation, I had nowhere to go every day. My husband would leave for work, my daughters would board the school bus, and then it was just me and the cat. Except for two C-sections and a back surgery, I had never been away from work for more than a two-week vacation. As many times as I had wished I didn’t have to get up and go to work, I didn’t like it at all.

A notice in the school newsletter saved me: “Help neededhelp wanted in high school library. Volunteers welcome!” That was the open door, or the slippery slope if I’m really honest, that started it all. Shelving and cataloging books led to helping students with research, which led to becoming a teacher’s aide, which led to substitute teaching. And, upon our return to the States, that led me to my current job as a middle school language arts teacher of nine years.

And, yes, I do still love teaching. I have totally reconnected with my creative side, through my work as drama club moderator for my school, directing two school plays a year. And, for seven hours a day, I am on stage, live live performance artperformance art, acting out and reading aloud from the literature, leading lively discussions about the literature, helping students understand the literature and improve their writing. But, still, there is irony, or as we say in this Catholic school where I teach, “God sure has a sense of humor.”

What’s so ironic or funny? Well, tomorrow begins the fourth week of school and I am literally and figuratively drowning in school papersdrowning in a sea of papers. I had not even stopped long enough to realize I was drowning until a teacher friend of mine posted this picture on Facebook, but it perfectly describes my current state of affairs. I am still grading summer reading projects for my eighty students, collected on the first day of school, all the while giving out new essay assignments, covering new material, and giving tests and quizzes. I stay at school three or four hours after the final bell and still bring work home with me each night. I work on the weekends, often spending three or four hours at school on Sunday. I am exhausted, and we have only just finished our third week of school.

So, the irony is that I left the legal field to explore my own creativity, yet I am so drained each day from teaching, grading, lesson planning, and guiding students in their own creativity, I hardly have any time or energy left for my own. This “Essay a Week for One Year” project was a line drawn in the sand, so to speak, an effort to reclaim for myself some outlet for my own creative writing, some tangible sign that I could practice what I preach—read and write more.

Other than a small part in a summer stock production at my daughters’ high school several years ago, I haven’t been on stage since 1987. I miss it. I miss the theatre life, comedy and tragedy masksthe dark and perpetually chilly rooms, the instant family created by a cast in rehearsal for a play, the feel of the lights on my face, and the sound of applause when a scene is exactly as it should be. I miss memorizing lines, working on accents, hunting for props, trying on costumes. A local community theatre group is holding auditions in mid-October for a play that I am very interested in, but if I am entirely honest with myself, I simply don’t have the time to be in it while teaching full-time, especially when the rehearsal schedule overlaps with that of the play I am directing at my school. So, I will pass.

Even though this is only my 9th year of teaching, the reality is that a lot of my college friends are retired or are in the processing of retiring, especially those who have been teaching since graduation. On August 24th this year, the first day of in-service week for the faculty of my school, it's mondaymy college roommate posted this picture on her Facebook page. Hilarious, right? Sure, if you are the little guy in the striped shirt, which she is. She retired last summer so she has already had a year without dragging home the school bag full of papers to grade every night. I’m jealous.

So naturally, I think about it. I think about what it would be like to “retire”, to not teach next year or the year after that. Mostly, though, I think about what it would be like to come home from work, cook dinner, clean the kitchen, and then RELAX until time to go to bed. I think about calling in sick without first calling five different people looking for a substitute teacher and then rushing to email more detailed lesson plans to the school office. I think about what it would be like to read whatever I want whenever I want, and not just read books for school or about school. I think about what it would be like to write every day, just for myself, and not just once a week to have my essay ready to post on this website. But that is when I think about those early months in Belgium in 2002, when I had nowhere to go and nothing to do with my day, and how lost I felt. That is almost always followed by remembering a funny story about a student or a teacher at my school, or about a class period where we discussed the most amazing things from a piece of literature that everyone enjoyed, or about a note a parent sent me thanking me for teaching their son or daughter to be a better writer or a better reader. That’s when I recall telling an adult about a piece of literature that I am teaching and they say, “I wish I was in your class.” That’s when I run into a former student who is in high school, proudly telling me about HONORS ENGLISH, “Can you believe that, Mrs. Ardillo?” Yes, I can believe it. life guardYes, I am happy to have played even a small part in making that happen. Yes, I am making a difference each and every day in the lives of these students. Yes, I am drowning, but I’m not ready to be saved—yet.

Shepherd’s Pie – ¡Olé!

My family lived in Belgium from 2002 to 2004. Before moving, I had researched Catholic churches in the area and found Our Lady of Mercy, a parish consisting of English-speaking expats, operating out of St Anne’s Catholic Church in Uccle. I emailed the parish and was connected to a Swedish woman married to a British man whose daughter was the same age as my older daughter. Upon arrival in Waterloo, Ylva graciously took my daughters and me to lunch to get acquainted. the-snug-waterloo-613554_ptShe took us to The Snug, Waterloo’s very own Irish pub, a casual lunch place where we could eat typical Irish fare or experiment with some of the local Belgian specialties. Trying to help my daughters navigate the menu in French, a language only slightly less foreign to me than to them, I stumbled upon shepherd’s pie: a bed of ground meat in gravy, covered with carrots and peas, and topped with mashed potatoes. Perfect! The girls loved it and this became a staple of our weeknight dinners.

One night I set out to make shepherd’s pie and realized I had no potatoes. I also had no instant mashed potatoes, something I kept in the pantry for just such occasions. So, I scoured the shelves of my cupboards looking for a substitute item to blanket the ground meat and vegetable dish. jiffy cornbread mixI found a box of Jiffy cornbread mix and thought to myself, well, let’s take shepherd’s pie south of the border. My girls love Jiffy cornbread mix and they loved tacos so it seemed to be a match made in heaven.

I sautéed the ground meat in a skillet with a packet of taco seasoning. I added to that canned diced tomatoes and a can of corn, poured it into a casserole dish and topped it with the Jiffy cornbread batter. I baked it according to the directions for the cornbread, and served it with a salad. My husband and I topped ours with grated cheddar cheese and my younger daughter added sliced black olives to hers. It was a smashing hit. Thus, the birth of Mexican Shepherd’s Pie.

mexican shepherd's pie on allrecipesIn 2007 I uploaded the recipe to the popular cooking website, www.allrecipes.com, and soon after, I discovered that my Mexican Shepherd’s Pie was a hit with other families as well. A quick peek today at my posting revealed that I’ve had 402 ratings, with the majority being five stars, and 300 reviews. Yes, many of the reviews include changes to my original recipe, tweakings here and there to make it spicier, or to add more veggies like black beans, but that is a solid representation of a well-liked dish.

oleWith cooler temperatures and the hint of fall in the air, it might be a good time to bake up a dish of Mexican Shepherd’s Pie. You can head on over to http://allrecipes.com/recipe/68806/mexican-shepherds-pie/ and look at all the ways my simple peasant dish has been improved upon, or you can try my original recipe! ¡Buen provecho!

Michelle’s Mexican Shepherd’s Pie

Ingredients

  • 1 1/2 pounds ground beef or ground turkey
  • 1 onion, finely chopped
  • garlic powder to taste
  • salt and pepper to taste
  • 1 (14.5 ounce) can diced tomatoes
  • 1 (1.25 ounce) package taco seasoning mix
  • 3/4 cup hot water
  • 1 (11 ounce) can whole kernel corn, drained
  • 2 (8.5 ounce) packages Jiffy corn muffin mix, prepared per box directions (each box needs one egg and 1/3 cup milk)
  • 1 cup shredded Cheddar cheese (optional)
  • 1 (2.25 ounce) can sliced black olives (optional)

Directions

Preheat oven to 400 degrees F (200 degrees C).

Spray a 9×13 inch baking dish with cooking spray. Saute the ground meat and onion in a skillet over medium heat. Season with garlic powder, salt, and pepper. Cook until meat is evenly brown and onion is tender.

While ground meat is cooking, prepare the corn muffin mix according to package directions. Set aside.

When ground meat is evenly brown and the onion is tender, drain any grease in the skillet, add the tomatoes and cook 5 minutes. Stir in the taco seasoning and hot water. Bring to a boil, reduce heat to low, and continue cooking 5 minutes, until thickened. Add corn and stir well.

Transfer meat and corn mixture to the prepared baking dish. Spread the corn muffin batter evenly over top. Bake 20 minutes in the preheated oven, or until puffed and golden. Garnish with olives and cheese. Serve with a green salad for a quick weeknight meal!

Dates or a “Date”?

My daughter once told me about a friend of hers, “He’s not a very adventurous eater like we are, Mom.” To say I am an adventurous eater is an understatement. I will taste just about anything. I only have a few things on my “don’t eat” list: eggs (unless they are well-incorporated into a recipe, like, shall we say, a cake) and lychees. I’m not a big fan of Earl Grey tea because it tastes like perfume to me (I can smell lavender from a mile away). I don’t like raw oysters but I will eat them any other way you can dream up. I have a few other food quirks, like the fact that I love cherries but I hate anything that is cherry-flavored (think cough syrup here). Lemon grass and cilantro are things I’m not really fond of but I do enjoy dishes that contain a modest amount of those herbs.

In an never-ending quest to expand my food knowledge, I have been to many ethnic restaurants. I love Indian food, Thai food, Japanese food, Greek food, Italian food, Chinese food, and Mexican food and its cousin Tex-Mex food. Living in the DC metropolitan area, I am fortunate to have many choices of ethnic cuisine. For example, not only can I find several excellent Spanish food restaurants, but I can also find one that only serves tapas, as well as one that specializes in Andalusian cuisine. Cuban food? Why, yes, not even five miles from my house. Salvadoran food? Again, many choices within a short drive.

When my husband and I were first married, he was not a very adventurous eater. For starters, he didn’t eat anything white. Cauliflower, no way. Cream sauce or cream of anything soup, yuck. In fact, soup in general was restricted to Campbell’s. Vegetables were also a challenge. He ate lettuce (well, iceberg at least), corn (well, it is technically a vegetable, right?) and canned green beans. Being from the south, he ate red beans and rice, as well as black-eyed peas. But that was really the end of the list. Today, 25 years later, his “don’t eat” list is much smaller. He eats broccoli, asparagus, zucchini, butternut squash, fresh green beans, petit pois peas, and, for the big win, cauliflower! He’s still not a big fan of beets and eggplant, but considering the progress we’ve made, I’m okay with that. As for soups, it was slow and steady but we’ve made great headway there as well: homemade chicken noodle soup is his favorite, closely followed by turkey and sausage gumbo, beef vegetable, white chicken chili, and homemade French onion soup. Are you noticing the “white” elements here? Yes, big progress.

When we moved to Belgium in 2002, we immediately started trying out the local restaurants in our small town of Waterloo. Naturally, we started with the Belgian cuisine and French restaurants. He wasn’t really into mussels but once he tried mine several times, he started to enjoy them and the customary accoutrements, frites (French fries) and thin slices of baguette toasted and buttered. Eventually we branched out and tried the Japanese restaurant (which had a great bento box), the take-out Chinese place (famous for giving out a can of lychees in syrup after they recognized you as a “regular”), and what I think was called “Melissa’s snak pita”, which was sort of like a gyro but with French fries inside the pita along with the meat and dressings.

Our favorite of the ethnic choices quickly became La Baraka, a Moroccan restaurant. I had only had Moroccan food once before and it was not nearly as good as La Baraka. I loved the chicken tagine, served in its traditional clay pot, accompanied by stewed onions and raisins. After our second or third time of eating there, one of the waitresses, in traditional Moroccan garb, came to our table with a wooden crate. She lifted the top and there, on a bed of straw, were dates. We weren’t quite sure what to do because we had not ordered dates or at least we didn’t think we had. She spoke softly to us in French and gestured for us to select one so we did. It was plump and juicy and sweet, unlike any date I had tasted before. We didn’t see her offering the dates to anyone else that night. The next time we ate there, along with the proffering of the special dates nestled in their straw bed, we were served hot mint tea in exquisite glasses encased in what appeared to be pierced sterling silver cups. We searched the check each time but none of this was ever listed on our bill.

Over the course of the two years we lived in Waterloo we ate at La Baraka many times, sometimes alone on “date night” and other times with our two teen-aged daughters. If it was crowded and the foyer filled with people waiting for a table, we were whisked away and shown to a prominent table in the front window. Once, on Valentine’s Day, without a reservation and in the middle of the prime evening hours, we arrived and put our name in with the maître d’. In a short period of time, we were taken upstairs by the owner himself, in his traditional Moroccan costume and velvet “slippers”, to an unfurnished room with only one table, elaborately set with a crimson tablecloth. We began to joke about why we were such special customers, along with feeling uneasy about being moved to the front of the line on numerous occasions.

Moroccan necklaceEventually, towards the end of our stay in Waterloo, we had an experience that shed a bit of light on the situation. The four of us were dining at La Baraka, seated at the big round table in the front window as usual. I had my back to the window facing the hallway leading to the bar and the doors to the kitchen. I saw the owner come out and speak to the woman behind the bar, and then he disappeared back into the kitchen. She caught my eye and gestured for me to come to her. I pointed to myself and mouthed to her, “me?”, and she nodded yes. So, I walked over and she reached under the bar and took out a small tray. She placed it on the bar in front of me. On the tray were two necklaces, which appeared to be hand-beaded with assorted wood and glass beads and silver pieces. She gestured for me to select one. I laughed nervously and said no thank you, as I wasn’t sure if I was being offered to purchase one or what. She then said to me in part-English and part-French that the owner wished me to have one. So, after looking back at our table where my husband and two daughters were watching me, I pointed to the one with the large turquoise bead in the center. She then came around the bar with it in her hands and put it around my neck. She bowed and returned to the bar. I returned to our table.

My daughters were very excited by this, hoping they would be called up to receive a necklace as well. My husband remarked that perhaps it was some sort of marriage ceremony. Whatever it was, I finished my delicious meal wearing my new Moroccan necklace and very pink cheeks.