Lost in Translation

I am sure I could have come up with something more clever for the title, something not already starring Bill Murray in a foreign country, but this is where I landed. So far, most of my experiences revolve around the use of very poorly spoken French, so it only seemed fitting....hopefully, I can paint the pictures more accurately in English. Enjoy!

Monday, November 28, 2011

Ricky the Thanksgiving Rooster

So, the thing about Libreville is this. When you find something at the store that you really, really need…or just really, really want, you should buy it. And not just one. You should buy every one they have on the shelves. Brand loyalty is a luxury. In the states, I was a loyal Las Palmas Enchilda Sauce buyer. I would skip the store brand potato chips for Utz even if they weren’t on sale. But here, you buy what you can. For example, the other day I bought frozen Halal (Arabic for “kosher”) meatballs. I don’t know why they were sanctioned, but they were. And they were good…which was a step up from the last frozen meatballs I bought which turned out to be chicken and potato ground together and cooked to form some strange crusty outside and soft and mushy inside. They did not improve the unknown jar of spaghetti sauce that I had purchased at the same time. I can only hope that “bolagnaise” on the label meant a meat that is, in fact, “halal”…and not, say for example, dog.

With Thanksgiving coming up, I knew I had to be on the lookout for certain things. And when I found them, I knew I had better buy them. For Thansgiving this year, a friend of mine who is half-American volunteered to host dinner for about 40 people – 12 couples and their ensuing offspring. Of the 24 adults, 5 ½ of us are American. The deal is this: we make Thanksgiving dinner to give the Frenchies (et al) a taste of America, and in a couple of weeks, they will make us a traditional French dinner. So, out of the Americans represented in this scenario, 2 are men and oddly, did not volunteer to cook. With an extra British friend thrown in for cooking purposes (and because we love her, of course!), there are 5 cooks. We all know that turkey is the centerpiece of any traditional Thanksgiving dinner. But, a whole turkey in Libreville, when you can find one, runs about $120 USD. I love my friends, but not that much. And it turns out, I’m not a $120 friend either, so we all went with Plan B. Everyone chose a few sides to make and agreed to buy a turkey breast or two and some legs. We would cook those, bring our sides and a proper Thanksgiving dinner would ensue.

Following the standards of Libreville shopping, I came across frozen turkey breasts and legs a couple of weeks ago, so I bought a breast and a couple of legs. I will devote an entire blog to this later, but we have a housekeeper named Elise. I adore her and she does amazing things like cook dinner when I am out getting the girls from school, so I come home to a surprise meal a time or two a week. And while I have adapted many of my habits to Libreville, the one place I still struggle is dinner. I am less of a weekly menu planner and more of a “what do I have in the house? Oh look, it’s cereal” kind of cook. Which means that whatever is available is what’s for dinner…and since I was so ahead of the game in buying my Thanksgiving turkey parts, I came home to a lovely roast turkey breast last week, which followed a deliciously baked turkey leg and potatoes the week before.

No problem I thought. I could just run out and get some more on Wednesday. Again, an entire blog will be written one of these days just to describe the joy that is grocery shopping here, but in the meantime, suffice it to say, that it can be a chore, especially when dragging three sweaty, and oftentimes, grumpy children along. Anyway, I get to the store where turkey should have been and there was none. Well, I shouldn’t say “none.” There were wings and feet. But somehow that didn’t seem quite as festive. But like I mentioned before, I am Plan B kinda girl. When faced with an obstacle, I have no problem going for the next best thing. So I bought a chicken. A big, juicy frozen chicken. My rationale was that I would get nearly as much meat from this particular bird, and it would look pretty all roasted up and brown.

I left the giant chicken out to thaw overnight and bright and early Thursday morning, it was ready to go. This is when I chose to actually looked at the label. “Coq a Mijoter” it read. Now, I know that to order steamed dumplings at the Chinese restaurant, we ask for Ravioli Mijoter…so this was a steaming chicken? Then I saw the little picture of a simmering pot. Didn’t take long to figure out that I did not buy a Roasting Chicken. I bought a Stewing Rooster. The only thing I could figure is that for a rooster to be this big, he must have been old. And probably went down with a fight. Which would explain the giant thighs, which were, as it turns out, well-muscled as opposed to plump. My cooking skills are limited to only those things with which I am familiar. Like pasta. Cooking old, angry rooster was a bit out of my league. So I did what cooks have been doing for generations, I googled it. Come to find out, “coq a vin” is the primary rooster dish of choice…but even then, half the recipes called for a Cornish game hen or some other more accommodating bird. But thanks to Bob in France, I got a 15 page blog entry complete with pictures and lengthy descriptions of his trip to the store, his conversation with the butcher, his various cooking implements, the color, size and types of pots used and the general weather conditions. There’s marinating and boiling and baking and stewing and pounding and chopping and finally eating, at which point one has become nearly too weak to hold the fork. What I really took away, though, is that roosters take days to cook. I only had 8 hours to make this bad boy edible.

OK, so what do you do to make meat more tender? You can boil it. By this time, the girls had finished laughing at me and we agreed to name our rooster “Ricky.” I got out my largest pot and in Ricky went. Only problem was that he was too big to fit.

So I had to boil him head down for the first hour, then flip him. In the midst of all of this rooster handling, it came to my attention that he still had feathers in various places. Now, not only was I boiling his butt, I was plucking feathers from his neck. It just went downhill from there. After a few hours, I gave up, threw him in a pan, tossed him in the oven and called it a day.

Fortunately, a friend had called in the meantime to tell me that she had found turkey breasts somewhere else. After I told her that I had bought a rooster and she could breathe again, I begged a proper turkey breast off of her and within an hour, the girls were downstairs making a streetside turkey purchase through her car window. Thanksgiving was saved!

But now it was time to make the rolls.

Fourteen cups of flour later, I thought everything was pretty well under control until I realized that I didn’t have a rolling pin. After mashing the dough around for a while, I went for the wine bottle…works just as well as a rolling pin.

It works even better if you have Emma in the background doing her best late-night infomercial voice “Introducing the all new 2-in-1 rolling pin! It’s the rolling pin you can drink! Perfect for my mom!” Darling child. Not one to disappoint, I poured a glass or two just to make sure it would still work half-full. It did.

Fast-forward to Thanksgiving dinner. I showed up 2 hours later than I planned, because everything I volunteered to cook required the oven…and I had been drinking wine since noon. My rooster was hard as a rock, my turkey breast was dry, the stuffing was soggy and the rolls had refused to rise and looked like “shoes” to quote a friend. I think that is only because she wanted to use “shoes” in the description but thought “they taste like shoes” would be offensive. Ironically, they all got eaten – mainly because my Italian friend said they tasted like gnocchi. Thanksgiving gnocchi…just like the Pilgrims ate.

But, in the end, I have to say, Ricky saved the day. Not only did he make a nice centerpiece, he could also be picked up by the leg, swung around and not fall apart (I have photographic evidence). PLUS, he supplied the gravy. When someone said, “Wow, this gravy is great!” I just smiled and left out the part about the rooster.

The next day, Elise helped by chopping Ricky up and cooking him down into a nice soup. When I gave it to the girls for lunch, I told them that this was part of Thanksgiving tradition, you always ate soup made from the leftovers. Emma’s response was, “Seriously? Rooster soup. That’s what you always ate after Thanksgiving?” She makes a good point. I just reminded her to be thankful it wasn’t monkey.

So from farmyard to freezer to a Thanksgiving table in Gabon, that, my friends, is the story of Ricky the Thanksgiving Rooster.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Cat Tales

Lizards are so pass̩. After 2 months of chasing them when we first arrived, Nora moved on to bigger things. Specifically Рcats. More specifically, cats found in the gutter. To her credit, the cat in question was actually not much bigger than a lizard, given the average size of lizards here.

Anyway, the point I am trying to make is that Nora lost her interest in catching a lizard as soon as a stray kitten became the object of her desires. This would be fine as Nora is content to chase anything – pigeons, lizards, air molecules, whatever. The problem is her sisters. While lizards are quaint and amusing, a cat is no laughing matter.

Here’s how it all went down…

We were walking home one night from dinner. As we came up the drive to the hotel, we caught a glimpse of something in the drainage ditch alongside the hotel wall. It was just a shadow really. Only this shadow had eyes. Big, green, pleading eyes. No doubt it had heard us coming. And don’t think for one moment it didn’t know exactly what it was doing. There it was. Carefully positioned under a street light, just out of the drainage ditch enough to look pathetic, but just hidden enough to say, “I’m not desperate…I’m just hanging out in this drainage ditch. Without a mother. You know, it’s cool. I’m sure I’ll find some trash to eat. Or a bug. Or, you know, whatever.” It was so obvious.

Now working in the kitten’s favor was the fact that it was about the size of my palm with eyes the size of dinner plates. I don’t know how the physics of these measurements work out, I’m just telling you what I saw. Working against it was…well, there was the fact that it was a cat and then there was the whole “living in a gutter” thing…I can’t say I was completely in favor of picking anything up from the gutters of Libreville. Much less something that was still alive. The odds just aren’t in your favor on that one.

But of course, what I saw as disgusting, the girls saw as endearing and they were madly and desperately in love. And yes, I realize that this is merely preparing me for when they start dating. Suffice it to say, they had, in one simple glance, found their reason for being. And as we all know, once you’ve discovered your true purpose in life, nothing should stop you from going out there and grabbing it. Unless it is 6 inches long and lives in a gutter. Fortunately for the kitten, “seizing the day” by Team Strock involves running as fast as one can in a half-crouch while screaming “Aaaaahhhh!!! A kitten!!! Can we keep it?!!!” The kitten immediately returned the gutter from whence it came, presumably to die of fright, as any self-respecting kitten would when faced with an onslaught of three giant screaming blonde girls.

I probably don’t need to describe how the rest of the night went. But for the benefit of those of you who have never fully experienced the dedication and sheer force of will that children can lend to emotional manipulation, let me just say that Sally Struthers’ and her starving orphans have nothing on these kids. We were told that they wanted this cat. They NEEDED this cat. The absolutely had to have this cat. After all, we had made them give away the only pet they had ever known. That would be Maggie, the 13-yr old, deaf dog that they rarely played with and who ate food off their plates when they weren’t looking. Oh right, and there had also been Jack the dog and 2 former cats…also ignored. All the same, according to their argument, they have never NOT had a pet. They simply didn’t know how to live without one. They had been force to move to a new country where they didn’t speak the language and didn’t have many friends. And things smelled bad here. At this point in the conversation, I felt it was important to point out that they were straying a bit off topic…for all the good it did me.

Now it’s not as if I was telling them that they couldn’t keep their security blankets. Or forbidding them from breathing. I was simply saying that they couldn’t have a cat that lives in the gutter. I don’t think that’s such a far stretch especially since we were also living in a hotel. This last point proved fatal to my argument.

Children are truly remarkable. They cannot remember where their shoes are. They have no idea how to brush their own hair. Nora usually has her underwear on backwards…assuming she remembers to wear it. But one tiny slip on my part, and they’re all over it with the precision and skill of Harvard lawyers. In case you haven’t caught the slip, I was stupid enough to say “at the hotel” which translated to them as “Not to worry, dear children, as soon as we move into an apartment, you can have all the cats you want!”

Sensing that it was time to take the information they had and build a new strategy, the next day saw the implementation of “Operation convince Mom and Dad that we will grow up to be criminals if they don’t get us a cat.” And thus began the attack…

Stage One:
Emma and Ava, in a rare act of solidarity, came into my room and delivered the following well-rehearsed speech:

Ava: Emma and I decided that we have been saving our money for something special, and we really want a cat, so that would be special and we will use our money for it.

Emma: That’s right. We will buy food and litter and pay for a carrier. We’ll pay for everything.

Me: What about shots?

Emma: We’ll pay for those

Me: What about when we go on vacation?

Ava: We’ll take it with us.

Me: It costs money to put a cat on a plane.

Emma: How much?

Me: A lot.

Them: Ok, you pay for that and we’ll pay you back.

Me: Right.

It was impressive, if not in the soundness of their argument, then in the simple fact that they worked together. These are the same children who wait for the other one to decide which movie to watch just so they can choose a different one. And unlike most things (the fish, the former dog, music lessons) they actually remained pretty committed to the idea.

Stage Two:
This part of the operation was simple, but effective. It consisted of memorizing a speech from the movie “Despicable Me” in which they declared that their hearts had a cavity that could only be filled by a cat.

Stage Three:
Enter the big guns. They went to Chris and I watched him melt like an ice cream cone in the sun.

I understood the stakes here. Cats live to be 100. They shed and scratch the furniture. They poop in the house. They get on the counters and leave dirty little footprints in the tub. They are exactly like children and I do not want any more children. At the very least, children grow up and move out. Cats stay and often outlive you. Then they laugh and dance on your grave.

But their little faces were just so pitiful. And I’m not talking about the cat. The girls really, really wanted this kitten. They devoted every spare second to looking for it. I was forced at emotional gun point to buy cans of cat food at the store to leave out for it. The food was eaten, either by the kitten or by the giant crab that lives in a hole by the hotel wall…come to think of it, the crab may have eaten the kitten. None of which helped my argument. They named it Agnes if it was a girl, Tom if it was a boy.

And so there I was at a crossroads. What do I do? I always had a pet growing up. Pets are an important part of childhood. They listen when no one else will. They love you when it seems no one else does. They are unselfish and unconditional. If nothing else, having a pet is a chance to learn the responsibility and reward of caring for someone else.

Of course, it also means a smelly litterbox and cat hair on every available surface. All the same, I started doing a little research. First and foremost, I was told by multiple sources to never, ever, under any circumstances pick up a stray kitten. The environmental conditions of Libreville and its gutter populations have essentially bred kittens that are merely furry little balls of disease and pestilence. I don’t even know what pestilence is, but I am fairly certain I don’t want it licking itself on my living room carpet.

After asking around, I found out about a friend of a friend who had a stray that was several months old. She was from a litter of a stray mother that my friend’s friend, Ana, had been feeding. The kitten had hung around and made friendly with the guards, Ana and her pets. Apparently she was sweet and well cared for. The final stroke was the picture. One look at it was done. I named her Louise.

We were just a couple of weeks from moving into the apartment, so I went ahead and found out about a vet and arranged for the kitten to stay at Ana’s house until I could pick her up. They day I got her, the girls were at school. Ana had her waiting with a yellow bow around her neck that matched her eyes perfectly. She was solid black and fluffy. She looked so sweet and hopeful there in her little yellow bow that I didn’t have the heart to tell her that cats in my care tended to be eaten by dogs and accidentally shipped cross-country in moving boxes. But those are stories for another day…

Anyway, the vet said she was in great health. So we came home and I hid her in the bathroom until the girls got home. The rest, as they say, is history. Louise is loved dearly, desperately and often quite physically. She is carried, hugged, swaddled in blankets, dressed in princess clothes…and once, rather unfortunately, tied to a skateboard.

But she suffers it all with a patience that is admirable. She waits by the door for the girls to get home. She sleeps in Emma’s bed every night. She curls in laps and purrs when she winds around your legs. She kills cockroaches and mosquitoes. She is all that a cat should be. Most importantly, she is the friend that my girls needed when they needed one the most. I have made some mistakes in my life, but as it turns out, making my girls happy has never led me wrong.