Thursday, December 24, 2009

What Makes Christmas?

When you're away from home and away from family you tend to think about what makes Christmas special? Is it the tree, the lights, or Christmas carols? Is it stockings and presents under the tree? Is it a feeling, a taste or a smell?

I think I started to panic (a little) in November when it seemed too warm to be almost Christmas. Then there was the tree situation and so few decorations. No homes lit up with lights and Christmas displays.  No stockings, no turkey, get the point!

On December 1st I brought out a few Christmas things I'd packed from home: our special advent calendar, Christmas piano music and three Christmas books (Rudolph, The Christmas Story, Twas the Night Before Christmas). The kids were ecstatic. Soon the advent calendar was up and the first little box opened. The sound of Christmas carols and singing - tradition.

I bought the Christmas tree and put the lights on. Some Danish friends showed Alanna how to make some pretty decorations. She set to work and filled the tree. Still a bit too much space between the branches so we bought white feather boas to wrap around it to look like snow. It's reminds me of a "Grinch" Christmas tree - full of fun and color!

Stockings are a must and so we set out to make some. We bought material, cut it, and pinned it together. Our driver's sister is a tailor so we asked her to sew them up. The kids decorated them and we hung them on the "mantle" with, what else...bangles.

One thing is missing and we aren't minding it much - commercialism and the hectic shopping rush. There will be a few gifts under the tree but there is a feeling of calm, not stress.

I thought it was the turkey that made Christmas and I've done my research. We went out for American Thanksgiving to the Taj Vivante - it was horrible. Then I went out for the OWC Christmas lunch at the Taj Residency - it was disappointing. Next Michael and I went to a wine dinner at the Ista. The company is always good at these events but the turkey - two thumbs down - no stuffing, no gravy!

So I've given up on the turkey...almost. Tonight, one more shot at Toscano's for their Christmas Eve dinner. But expectations have been lowered. On Christmas day I won't fight it, I'll try not to crave it - we will have steak!

So what is it really? There are things that we miss but we'll have them again soon enough. I think it is pretty obvious - we can't replace family, we'll miss them alot. But, we have the four of us and our own traditions. We'll go to mass tonight and try to remember the true meaning of Christmas. And we will enjoy the excitement waking up in the morning and hoping that Santa remembers us on the other side of the world.

We will enjoy our coffee in the warmth on the patio and be thankful for what we have.

Merry Christmas to All and to All a Good Night!

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Global Christmas Baking

The kids and I always spend a day making gingerbread cookies before Christmas. Shortbread and a white chocolate, candy cane treat are also favorites. Shortbread is easy, no problem finding the ingredients. But nowhere have I seen candy canes or smarties in Bangalore. White chocolate can be found but is very expensive. I haven't seen brown sugar but others have found it. Mollases? Not sure about that one. In other words I would have to hunt all over town for these things.

So when Michael went to Boston one week and Singapore the next, there was one strange list of items to get. But success! He found the candy canes in Boston and smarties at the airport in London. In Singapore he picked up the white chocolate, brown sugar and mollases.

The kids finished school on Thursday and we started baking on Friday. I don't have my usual gingerbread recipe so I chose one off the internet. The dough turned out bland and crumbly so then I went to another recipe and added eggs, more butter and spices. Left it in the fridge to harden overnight.

I also didn't bring my cookie cutters so Craig made some paper cutouts of gingerbread men, a candy cane and a christmas tree. I roled out half the dough and tried cutting out some festive shapes. Far too time comsuming so switched to simple round cookie cutters.

The cookies came out of my "easy bake oven" looking sad and bland. Added more spices to the rest of the dough and continued on, rather frustrated. Meanwhile Alanna made the shortbread which turned out pretty good. Then we made the candy which you can't really go wrong with unless you burn the chocolate while trying to melt it, "Mom is it supposed to turn brown?"  Luckily we had enough chocolate to make a second batch.

We figured we could salvage the gingerbread cookies by decorating them with lots of icing and smarties. The icing was pretty liquidy even after all the icing sugar was used up. So I just kind of drizzled it over the cookies and Alanna applied the smarties. It looked like a couple of three years olds had made the cookies.

I got the kitchen cleaned up just in time as we were having two couples and their children over for dinner. Even though I wasn't thrilled with how the baking turned out I served them anyway. The candy was a hit - neither the Danes, nor the Americans had tried that before. And to my surprise none of them new what smarties were. Apparently in the States, smarties are sour candies. Everyone liked the shortbread (Mom's recipe) and in fact, everything was eaten.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Charity Gift Drive

Each year the OWC raises money to give gifts to some of the charities at Christmastime. Today three of us went to two charities to deliver gifts: Shiela Kothavala Institute for the Deaf (SKID)and Asha Niketan.

The first, SKID, is a school for hearing impaired children, mainly from financially disadvantaged families. There are 160 kids from kindergarten up to 10th level. They are able to lip read, sign language, read and write. The school is a three story building with a large area to run around and lots of trees. It is quiet, close to the city, but sheltered from all the noise.

Now that I think about it, these children are always sheltered from the noise of the city. Wow, I wonder what Bangalore would be like without noise?

We had a nice chat with the principal while we waited for the children to finish their lunch. Some of them travel two and a half hours by public bus to get to school. Many of the kids families do not sign. The school offers to teach the parents to sign but most do not as they are poor. To take time away from work would mean no food on the table. So they are unable to communicate properly with their own children.

The children wear uniforms (including shoes). They lined up after lunch and we gave each of them wrapped gifts: a chocolate bar, a lunch bag and a water bottle. The children were very appreciative and tried their best to say "thank you" and gave us a big smile. I had to remember to make eye contact and say "your welcome" to each one since they can lip read.

We saw the library after that and it was stalked with quite a few books. We were really impressed by some of the artwork the kids had put together - 3D roadways and parks with cars and people and rickshaws.

The second charity, Asha Niketan, is a home and vocational center for mentally challenged men and women. They are taught to take care of themselves and learn skills. The OWC provides wax for candlemaking which they are able to sell. As well, we pay for dance lessons and while we were there they did some dancing for us. It is very therapeutic and enjoyable for them - they were having a good time. We gave out gifts to about 25 people while we were there.

It was nice to see two more of the OWC charities. These two are both well established and well run. Some of the charities can be quite depressing but both of these left me with a feeling that a lot of good is being done and progress is being made.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Oh Christmas Tree!

The Christmas tree has arrived! I really didn't know what kind of tree we would have this year - a fake tree, a palm tree, a Charlie Brown tree? Had to do some hard bargaining but in the end I'm happy with what I got.
Last week I went to a nursery and looked at trees. Found one I liked but the woman had the nerve to tell me it was 3000 Rp ($70 Can.). I was not impressed at all. I told her that was ridiculous and that I would pay 600 Rp ($13) which I think is quite reasonable. She came down to 2000Rp and then I just walked away.

So today a friend and I went to two other places. The first wouldn't go lower than 1500 Rp but the second came down from 1200 Rp to 800 Rp pretty quick. Add another 180 Rp for a pot and 150 Rp each for delivery and it came to a grand total of $25 Can. I was happy with that, considering I'll have it for two Christmas's.

The best part about the day was walking around the nursery - it's huge - with all sorts of flowering plants, bushes and trees. I even bought two massive poinsettias to put outside the front door ($5 each). Having flowers all year round is definitely one of the best things about living in this climate.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Bananas! Bananas!

Here's an article that I wrote for the Rangoli magazine titled: Bananas!!! Bananas!!! And this photo, courtesy of my brother-in-law, Taras, appears on the front cover!

Bananas!!! Bananas!!!
The Many Uses and Curiosities of the Banana... Herb

To have a banana tree outside ones bedroom window is an extraordinary thing...for a Canadian. Each time I walk by the window or sit on the patio I admire the banana tree with its tall stalk and long, bright green leaves.

I often think about the many uses for the banana leaves. The small ones make great placemats or even plates. The large ones can take the place of a tablecloth. During monsoon a giant leaf can substitute for an umbrella in a pinch. The leaves are abundant and the Indian people customarily use banana leaves to decorate their homes, temples and vehicles during festivals and ceremonies.

One day, as I marvelled at my tree, I noticed a strange thing. A large alien mass drooped down from one of the leaves. I jumped out of my chair and ran over to see what it was. A purple pod had appeared and behind it – several miniature bananas.

I took pictures every few days as if it some miracle had happened. A banana tree that actually produces bananas! But then I got to thinking about the tree and after a bit of research discovered some curious information. The most curious of all is that the banana tree is not a tree at all. It is a perennial herb! A tree has woody tissue, whereas the banana stalk is made up of tightly wrapped leaves.

The banana stem itself, grows underground, horizontally providing many shoots. The true stem shoots up through the wrapped leaves. The pod appears with tiny flowers behind it, and they quickly open into rows and rows of bananas.

No wonder the Indian people wrap food in a banana leaf. The aromatic leaves of the herb add to the flavour of many dishes. Fish, chicken, vegetables and even curries can be steamed, baked or grilled in a leaf. Food cooked and served in a banana leaf is not only convenient (less dishes to wash), but smells and looks exotic.

In the Hindu culture the banana plant (banana herb just doesn’t sound right) is a symbol of fertility and prosperity, due to its continuous reproduction. The leaves and bananas are left on doorsteps of houses where marriages are taking place.

Of course, bananas are full of nutritional value, being high in potassium, iron, carbohydrates and vitamins. They give us energy, great for eating right before exercising or playing a sport. They make us more alert for school or work, and fill us up, so we are less likely to crave unhealthy snacks.

As well, the high potassium, low sodium combination of the banana helps reduce blood pressure and cut the risk of strokes. It has an antacid effect and is beneficial in reducing heartburn and protecting against and treating stomach ulcers.

Nowadays, when I pass by my banana plant, I see the fruit ripening before my eyes. I think about all the ways to eat those tasty bananas. Simply peel and eat, as the monkeys do; that’s the healthy and easy way. I am looking forward to banana smoothies, banana pancakes, and banana bread. But, top of my list is banana flambĂ© with coconut ice cream - chocolate sauce optional, of course!