Friday, January 31, 2014

Animal hats ahead

Why do some women look so cute in a ball cap? You know the ones. They throw on a pair of jeans, a semi-nice looking top and then pull their thick shiny hair through the back part of a baseball cap and end up looking adorable. Life should be so easy.

Ball caps do nothing for me. First, never put a lid on a short person, it just makes us shorter. Second, my hair does not look good coming out of the back part, it sticks out like a rooster tail, and not in a good way. Lastly, I look like a criminal. Even my usually complimentary husband agrees - wearing a ball cap makes me look like I'm "on the lam" as he puts it so kindly.

Finally, I have discovered my preferred look in hats. They have to have a bit of volume on top to add some much desired height. They must have personality. Ears help. Yes, I have discovered the joy of wearing animal hats. Not hats from animal fur, that would be gross, we are talking real live fake animals here. It started with a bear hat Ernst bought me at Comic Con, which I brought to China. It was my only hat, so it was that or nothing. Then I added a panda hat to my sparse selection, another gift from Ernst. (He really doesn't want to be seen with me in any fugitive ball caps.) Now after discovering the adorable hats on Repeat Crafter Me, I'm on an all-out hat crocheting binge. The idea being, if I don't look good in a hat, make the thing so distracting that nobody notices. If I make any more, I may need to have my head examined.

First there was the bear hat...

...a gift from this serious fellow... kept me warm at 5 am on Tai Shan...

...well sort of...

...because we were too cheap to rent the coats for watching the sunrise.

Next came the panda hat, which with its ear flaps
would have been great in China.

The bear hat was great for Chicago...
...and then the sock monkey hat made its debut in the Windy City.

Next came the puppy hat...
...which was meant for a two year old, but it sort of grew on me.
This one is definitely for a child, it's way too fancy for me.

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Planes, trains and automobiles

It's usually not too hard to figure out how to get from Point A to Point B. If it's close and you feel like driving, you drive. If it's a bit farther and you feel like flying, you fly and rent a car when you arrive. If you're somewhere with a decent train service, you take the train. Pretty simple.

This summer our congregation has been invited to Point C, Chicago, for the first all Romanian convention in the US. Yes Chicago, the place I've been to already twice this year. The birthplace of my parents that I am finally getting to know as an adult. So close, and yet so very far away.

In order to get as many people out to Chicago as possible, Ernst and I and others have been researching every sort of way to travel there as quickly, efficiently and cheaply as we can. Our conclusion? How does the travel industry decide how much it costs to get from Point A to Point C?
Whatever the market will bear.

Remember when Southwest was super cheap? Sure you ended up in some pretty funky little airports no one ever heard of, but the savings were worth it. Want to fly to New York? Well, Southwest sort of kind of got you there, because for the low price, Islip on Long Island was close enough to count as New York. Besides you could hop on a train to the city or a ferry to Connecticut and have the fun of lugging your luggage that much farther.

Those days are gone. Southwest had to go and get all fancy. Now they fly out of the real New York, and their prices show it. So our dreams of flying cheap to Chicago were not to be. But we did discover a great website that beats Southwest, Expedia, Orbitz, CheapoAir and all the others. It's and it out-cheaps all the others by a long shot. But the price is still a hunk of change. There had to be a cheaper way.


We love traveling on the trains in Europe. We've been to Germany, Italy, Switzerland and even rode a sleeper train more than once. You can get on the train in any little podunk station in the tiniest town and get to another little podunk station in another tiny town. We loved the train in China too - leg room galore, room to walk around, sleep and stretch out. Wouldn't it be great to take the train to Chicago we thought. Two days of travel, room to get up and walk around, you can take FOUR suitcases at no charge and it would be nice for the ones in our congregation whose only plane trip ever was the "harrowing" one from Moldova to the US.

We looked at the prices on and saw they had a group rate. Terrific! We just had to have 20 or more people and we would get a 20% discount, plus kids are half off and seniors get 15%. Or so it seemed. We put in the request and they contacted us. Discount? Yeah right, it is at the discretion of the sales office. No group discount, the prices were the same as the online prices. So I asked very nicely, What is the advantage of getting a group rate? I was told that when you make 8 reservations online, then the demand goes up and the price for that leg of the trip increases. So the fact that we were requesting 20 tickets was making the price go up. Ahhhhh!!! OK, how about we drive?


Although Ernst has to fly because he has to work right up until the date of the convention, I have the freedom to take some time going there. Let's see, if I cram a gaggle of girls in our car and stay with friends on the way, how much would it be? Using the worst case scenario possible for gas prices going through the roof and a terrible head wind giving terrible gas mileage, we figure $500 in gas to and from Chicago, not including food and a motel stay in Nebraska.

Driving is totally doable, I drove to New York with my brother and sister in a '64 Volkswagen back in the day. We used a wooden peg as a means of cruise control and removed the front passenger seat and turned it around for more legroom. No air conditioning? No problem, we were made of tougher stuff back then. It was a trip to remember and I'm glad I did it. Once. All that corn was a bit much and once you've driven through Iowa it's off the Bucket List for good. Driving with the Moldovan girls would have been a hoot, but that is a lot of time off from the job I still don't have.

So after all that research, all the time searching for travel deals and drive times and train schedules and even the possibility of chartering a bus, we are still up in the air as to how to get there. Up in the air. We are flying!

Monday, January 20, 2014

Seeing spots

It was well past midnight, yet I kept on track. I was not about to go to bed with such an important task left undone. It would have bugged me to no end to leave the job unfinished, or just do spotty work. I was antsy to see the finished product, but these things can't be rushed. The time flew by. Soon I was done and could go to sleep without that creepy-crawly feeling of something buzzing overhead, needing to be completed.

Bug eyes!

Spots coming and going

Antennas are very important

To keep it from flying off

The pattern for this very fun-to-make hat came from the wonderful crochet site Repeat Crafter Me. This one took much longer to make than the sock monkey hats, all those spots needed to be carefully made all cute and rounded, and then came the decision of where to sew them on. Maybe I should have waited until morning to finish it, because I found a spot on the couch that didn't make it in. Can a ladybug lose her spots? Past midnight, yes.

I'm not addicted, I'm not addicted.

Monday, January 13, 2014

Eating our way through Chicago

(Eating our way through Chicago)

Two days after the Polar Vortex

When we get invited out to eat by people we don't know, we often face the dilemma of when exactly do we tell them we don't eat meat - red, white or any other color. Or milk, cheese, eggs or anything that had a mother. (Fish included) We know there's something for us to eat at most all restaurants, except maybe Heart Attack Grill. The last thing we want is people apologizing all night because we ordered a potato and salad. It's the company that counts and we really do love salads and baked potatoes.

After arriving last Wednesday in Chicago, we quickly changed clothes to have dinner with some friends we met briefly in New Jersey in 2012. Viorica picked us up after work and we got to experience a snow clogged Windy City traffic jam. After finally getting to their house, we went with her family to the Romanian meeting. Chicagoans are a resilient lot, and not only was the meeting full, everyone was dressed warmly and so very chic - a combo I have yet to master. After the meeting, our hosts were ready to take us to dinner. At 9:00 pm. Thankfully it was only 7:00 California time, because we never eat that late. But we had to fess up then and tell them the no food that had a mother rule. No problem, their adorable daughter Lorena is a vegetarian. Whew! That was easy. They took us to a charming Greek restaurant that had several choices for us. It was a warm, cozy, loud and happy place where the owner greeted us and let Titus bring in his own Romanian brandy. Great food, great atmosphere and vegan choices. Joy.

Titus, Viorica, Lorena and me

Chicago then went from super cold with snow underfoot... raining cats and dogs and small rodents.

Friday night after a trip to the Art Institute of Chicago, we wanted to treat the person who got us in free to pizza. Chicago should be crawling with deep dish pizza places, right? We got some really bad directions, some more really bad directions and tried smart phoning it. The skies were dumping water, the snow was melting and made crossing the streets a miserable experience - we were drenched and cold and hungry and dripping and did I mention cold? I finally decided I was going to ask a doorman, they are full of information. Well, he wasn't a doorman. He was just a guy standing in a doorway, but he ended up sending us to the most perfect place to warm up, dry off and chow down. We were so wet and sad when we walked in, the owner hugged me and said it was all going to be OK. It was warm and loud and fun and we ate Italian food. Ernst ordered a gigantic no cheese, no meat deep-dish pizza and he was in heaven. I ordered a salad and red wine and was pretty happy myself. While freezing once again waiting for a taxi, Ernst and Myra shared their leftovers with a homeless man - he even agreed that vegan pizza is not too shabby!

That's me, not the homeless man.
After a long day of work on Saturday, the Romanian family wanted to take us out again. That's always a good sign that we weren't too annoying the first time. Although all I wanted to do was crash into bed, I agreed to go. They picked us up with their daughter and another couple. They announced they were all in the mood for steak and had made reservations at a really great steak house. No problem, we said, we can have a baked potato and a salad. John said we could get chives on our potato to liven it up. Good idea, chives on a potato always are good. 

We pulled up to the restaurant. It didn't look like a steak house. It looked really minimalist and chic. They were all still talking about having their steaks. We walked in. It didn't smell like meat. On the shelf by the register was a book for sale, Soak Your Nuts. Then I knew where we were. I turned to them and said, This a raw vegan restaurant, isn't it? Those little sneaks with all their talk of steaks took us to non-hog heaven. It turned out there was cooked food there, but it was all vegan all the way. I could hardly concentrate on the menu just knowing nothing had meat in it, nothing. I decided to go all out and order from the R GF SF menu: raw, gluten-free and soy-free. Live dangerously, I thought. The food at Karyn's on Green was so good it was hard to wrap my head around it. So I wrapped my mouth around it.

Raw broccoli soup. 
Raw vegan tamales.
Raw key lime pie.
Ernst's dessert - cranberry cheesecake. He was a happy man.

So much for the steak house! Our hosts were adorable to surprise us with this restaurant, we know it would have been their last choice. When we got back in the van, Titus joked, So are we going to go have dinner now? We'll be back to Chicago in the summer and hope to try Karyn's two other places. Chicago, it really is our kind of town.

Sunday, January 5, 2014


My Mom's side of the family had some really cool names. There were my Mom's aunts, Emily and Rose, and her uncle Amadae (known as Ami). There was a Joe Champion and a Jimmy Valentine, names that belong in epic novels. And my Mom's step-grandfather was for some reason always referred to as Mr. VanDam. I guess if you marry a widow with seven children, you get called Mister out of respect. My Dad's side was more confusing. There was a bunch referred to as the "Oakland Relatives", although none of them lived in Oakland. And who could forget "Uncle Julie" who used to throw money on the floor for the kids?

The relative who's name fell like a ton of bricks is Aunt Hort. Now if you pronounce the name Hortence like the French do, it sounds lovely. Or maybe if our family used the pronunciation of aunt that rhymes with font instead of the kind that sounds like a household pest, Aunt Hort would have had a better ring to it.

What Aunt Hort excelled at was cooking and crafts. If she were alive today, she would probably have a blog and a website and a Pinterest account and a zillion Twitter followers. Poor Hort was just way ahead of her time. She was an amazing cook who tackled very difficult recipes. She was famous for her Grape Pie which involved peeling the grapes. And even though we were her little rug rat grand nieces and nephews out in California, she thoughtfully made us the most amazing handmade crafts. Her homemade holiday ornaments made our neighbor's cheesy store-bought ones shake in shame. She made me the cutest stuffed frog with a giant mouth pocket for storing my pajamas in. But burned into the memory of all us kids were the sock monkeys she would make us. Aunt Hort's sock monkeys were adorable. They had a place of honor on the window seat in our family room and even the dogs knew not to touch them.

In honor of those beloved toys from my childhood, I made Ernst a sock monkey hat. It was the first hat I've ever crocheted and it gave me quite the trouble at first. The initial version turned out gigantic and had to be ripped out. The second try went much better after I used a smaller hook and followed the directions. The full instructions are available on an amazing site called Repeat Crafter Me. The hat ideas are endless and I'm inspired to make the owl and puppy hats in the future. I think my Aunt Hortence (feel free to pronounce that the fancy way) would be proud. But I'm not about to start peeling grapes for pies.

The original on top, my version on the bottom.
I had such trouble with the ears!
I decided to make a Mr. and Mrs. Sock Monkey set.
The Mrs. has no ears, but she is sporting a pom pom.

Friday, January 3, 2014

Sara's Seriously Scrumptious Cereal

Remember when granola was good? Before it became part of icky sticky granola bars with marshmallows and rice syrup as the first ingredient? Before it became hard-as-rock cereal that could break a molar with one chomp? Take that memory of yummy good granola and fly it to the moon and you have the results of this recipe. My friend Sara gave us a batch of this concoction, all cute-like in a Mason jar with the recipe tied around the lid. It lasted about 16.2 hours in our house. Granola for breakfast, lunch and dinner it was. But with the recipe in my hot little hand, I could exactly copy the wonderful flavor and enjoy it again and again! Because I had the recipe to faithfully follow to the letter.

Sara's Seriously Scrumptious Cereal 

1/3 cup pumpkin seeds
1/4 cup shelled sunflower seeds
Vegetable oil cooking spray
2/3 cup maple syrup
1/3 cup honey
1/4 cup unsweetened cranberry juice
1 1/2 teaspoons cinnamon
2 cups old-fashioned rolled oats
1/2 cup chopped roasted and salted almonds
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 cup unsweetened dried cranberries

Oven to 350. Spread pumpkin and sunflower seeds on a baking sheet and toast lightly for 8 to 10 minutes. Cool. 

Reduce oven to 325. Spray a baking sheet with cooking spray.

In a small bowl combine maple syrup, honey, juice and cinnamon. In another bowl, mix oats, nuts, seeds and salt. Pour wet mixture into dry and stir.

Spread on baking sheet and bake for 20 minutes. Stir in the cranberries and bake an additional 10 to 15 minutes until brown but not too crispy. Let cool completely before storing.

A big pile of yumminess

Yumminess - baked and cooled.
Now comes the part where I say how I botched it and didn't follow the directions. I really tried to make it right, because Seriously Scrumptious Cereal should not be messed with. But we didn't have honey like I thought we did. I forgot to get the cranberry juice. We had walnuts not almonds and I think my cranberries were sweetened just a tad. Instead of the cranberry juice I put in some berry jam mixed with water. And I just had to add some chia and hemp mix - I love to say ch-ch-chia and I think the fact that we can eat hemp and make baskets from it should be celebrated. And I added more oats because that's a whole lot of maple syrup. Other than that, I stuck to the recipe faithfully. Except for not letting the seeds cool and forgetting to wait to put in the cranberries until the very end. And all my substitutions. Other than that...

I didn't botch it. This recipe is very forgiving, because even with all my changes, it was still one scrumptious tasting cereal. Thanks Sara - seriously!

My ramshackle list of ingredients

People food or birdseed, you be the judge.

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Hamster food is hip

We have turned the corner. The days are getting longer, and all the December silliness is over. The proof was in the entrance to Costco yesterday: gone were the tins of chocolate, truffles and toffee, replaced with health foods galore. Not just cheesy-psuedo-healthfood that has something-or-other-dextrose as the first ingredient, but a really great selection of rices and grains and raw sprouted seeds and snacks that are made from foods with real ingredients. I met Ernst there and we laughed when we saw we had both grabbed up the same bags of items - foods we would have considered hamster food in the old days.

A friend was asking me this weekend what we eat, and for once I didn't blank out. Instead of saying all the things we don't eat, I just rattled off what we live on. Hearty soups, beans full of added vegetables, rice dishes, Mexican food minus the meat and dairy, pastas with veggie sauces, Thai food, roasted veggies, fruit, nuts, cereals and then we are finally back to the hearty soups. Our meals use up a lot of bowls and we don't have much use for our steak knives anymore, but that's OK. In summer we are into salads, but right now dinner is most likely something warm and hearty in a bowl. Leftovers are king, queen and duke and we bow down before them.

And to the inevitable question that always comes up when discussing our diet, sit back and enjoy this little jingle.  :0)