Well, That Was Unexpected

Real life is stranger than fiction...depending on which authors you read, of course.

Thursday, August 04, 2016

In Which The Author Engages In A Totally Frivolous Fake Low-Carb Noodle Taste Test

Sorry, I know my last post was about the Orlando shooting. And I've been mulling a long, scientifically supported explanation of my support of Black Lives Matter. But....alas.

 A few weeks ago I was shopping at a place whose classist reputation is odious, but whose selection holds certain surprisingly unique and even reasonably priced finds, including a most excellent beer selection that reliably has Victory Golden Monkey. I digress.

I was wandering the vegan section (not because I am, but my mom is, and they have some fake bleu cheese dressing I wanted to find for her).

Anyway, I found a whole selection of low carb and fake noodles. Now, as a person whose metabolism runs at -8 I have either tried or been urged to try like every diet known to humanity. I now refuse to bow to any of them because I had a very clear vision during one of my yearly reflections that if I died having spent that much time devoted to thinking about my body and food rather than say, friendships, family, literature, the ocean, the poor, adventure, etc, I would regret it. So I stopped. That said, I remember a time when I was doing a low carb diet and I was trying to find a good fake noodle substitute...because noodles are the best. And I actually have a serious love for spaghetti squash and prefer it to real noodles. Anyway, the fake noodles were cheaper than I thought they would be, so I thought I would try them: no harm, no foul.  A few days later I went to the local Korean supermarket and ran into some more fake noodles (classic shirataki and sea tangle) and I felt fated to create a Battle Royale in which all the noodles would compete for substitutional dominance!

Prep: I had actually gone a little crazy when I saw how cheap the fake noodles were and I came home with 5 bags. Turns out that 3 of them were slight variations on kelp noodles because, to the untrained eye, they seem the most likely to hold up as an al dente noodle. So, I decided to keep it classic and unflavored, leaving the koji berry kelp noodles and the green tea kelp noodles for another day. These were the noodles that made it into the ring:

1) House Foods Tofu Shirataki--10 calories per serving, 3g carbs and 2g fiber

2) JFC Shirataki--purple and black bag--classic shirataki made from mostly yam flour--5 calories, 2 carbs, no fiber per serving

3) Wang Korea's classic sea tangle noodles--5 calories 1 carb and 1 g fiber per serving.

I decided that the only fair way for me to see if I would ever buy these noodles again was to subject them to 3 of my most common noodle preparations: cold Asian, cold Mediterranean, and warm Italian. Two cold preparations because....I eat a lot of leftovers. These are preparations I throw together in good times and bad, which go well with various beverages, and whose flavors and textures are burned in my mind.

I took a portion out of each bag to rinse them off--p.s. the classic shirataki and the tofu were really offputting because they both come in water packs, which is a weird start for a "noodle" AND because they both have a weird fishy smell despite being vegan--apparently it's something in the yam flour...oh wait, or the added seaweed powder. ANYWAY, despite the smell, they don't taste fishy--I tried them cold and unrinsed. In a strange twist, the seaweed kelp noodles did not smell fishy at all and also had no flavor whatsoever when I tried them cold. whatever.  I rinsed each type of noodle twice in cold water because the internets had told me it was an easy way to get rid of fish smell. The internets were correct. (the internets also said to add some lemon, but the Julie is le tired and didn't think of it.)

I then separated them into three containers each--one for the hot preparation and two for the cold preparations.

The sauces:
1) the Mediterranean cold noodle involves some Trader Joe's quinoa pesto , bruschetta sauce, and feta.
2) The Asian cold noodle involves Kimchi, a dash of soy sauce, a dash of sesame oil, and a dash of rice wine vinegar.
3) The hot Italian--Mussels boiled in garlic and white wine (the Julie is anemic and mussels have like 65% daily iron per serving) with Trader Joe's vodka sauce, a dash of olive oil, and some parmesan.

For the cold dishes I just rinsed the noodles. For the hot dish I actually warmed the noodles up in the broth of the mussels because the noodles are all already cooked and just need warming.

The competition:

Round one: Cold Mediterranean. Winner: House Foods Tofu Shirataki
It annoys me when the most expensive version wins, but this was a clear winner for the cold Mediterranean preparation. Absolutely tasted the most like a regular noodle. Totally took on the flavor of the sauce. So yummy.

I had read that sea tangle kelp noodles were crunchy, but dear God in heaven there is no way for you to know from the package that they are crunchy like the rawest of bean sprouts or what I imagine eating a Styrofoam cup would feel like. Al dente can't even be used to describe it. Pretty unappealing in the Mediterranean dish.

The classic shirataki were fine, they would do, but they were a little more jellyfish textured than I'd like.

Round Two: Cold Asian. Winner: Classic JFC yam shirataki, but almost tie between JFC Shirataki and House Foods Tofu Shirataki

While again the sea tangle noodles were the unfortunate loser, I have to say, I still enjoyed them more with the cold Asian sesame kimchi flavors. There was something about their outrageous crunch that better suited the flavors. I wouldn't kick it out of bed.

Again the tofu noodles felt like a substitute I wouldn't even question as a real noodle (maybe not the BEST noodle I'd ever had, but a totally acceptable sub). But the sort of mid-texture crunch of the classic shirataki felt like home in its Asian accoutrements.

Round Three: Warm Italian. Winner: House Foods Tofu Shirataki, but just barely.

All the noodles tasted great in this preparation. The tofu shirataki just tasted like sauce, which is why it wins. But Most Improved definitely goes to the sea tangle kelp noodles. I had read online that when you boil the sea tangle noodles they soften into a better texture, and even though I only boiled them in broth for about 5 minutes I could absolutely tell the difference--much much better. And since, from the package they seemed the most likely to taste like real noodles and thus I bought 3 different kinds, there will be a lot of sea tangle kelp noodle boiling in Casa Juliana in the near future.

So, in conclusion, if money is no object, I'd say go for the House Foods tofu shiratakis. But if money is an object, regular  speckled shirataki is good and sea tangle kelp is good if boiled--like maybe just leave it on the over for 45 minutes and then cool it off. But the tofu shirataki noodles are definitely the lazy woman's winner if you want a noodle sub.

Thanks so much for reading. I literally did this for no reason except my own delight and so that I could procrastinate from cleaning my house.

Also, each noodle preparation benefited from the cook's drinking of the other half of the bottle of white wine used to cook the mussels while taste testing.


P.s. in the pictures the sea tangle are on the left, the classic shirataki are in the middle,  and the tofu shirataki are on the right.

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

The Muslims, the Christians, the Gays, and the Guns--Orlando

Oh Orlando, how I long for the days when you were a city I could mockingly hold up as an example of the kind of cultureless place where I never wanted to go. (though, inexplicably, some of my most delightful relatives live there.)

I've been sort of horrified and confused from so many angles, I'm going to try to explicate and extricate my yarnball of thoughts as best I can just in case anyone else finds it helpful. God knows I find ranting helpful. I hope you will all rant freely.

1. Islam
News outlets tell me that people ("people") are blaming Islam for the hate+terror attack that occurred in Orlando. I think it's possible that those people have never met an actual Muslim person. Everything in the abstract is so much easier to fear and hate and blame. My Muslim friends are some of the most inspiring people I know--selfless, generous, kind, and joyful. Our country would suck way worse if they weren't here. One of my friends, a doctor who works for far less than market price so that she can give high quality care to the poorest and most desperate people in her community, told me something interesting about her perspective on ISIS, ISIL, or Daesh...whatever those assholes are called. She said something to the effect of, "The Muslims I know don't even think to  decry ISIS because...it is just so obvious that they have nothing to do with actual Islam. And the vast majority of the people they are killing are Muslims...why would Muslims have to denounce a group that is killing Muslims?" 

It did strike me as rather obvious.

 I've been trying to find a Christian equivalent. Like if the leaders of the Inquisition represented Christianity. Or Westboro Baptist. Or if people said, "those creepy child-molesting polygamous communities on the Nevada/Utah border call themselves members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints...Jesus Christ is right there in the name, so clearly the Christians need to denounce them and monitor them and turn in any of them that they see acting shady." 

2. "Christians" and LGBT persons
I don't know if the Christians (especially the ones who freakishly align themselves with Republicanism more fervently than they align themselves with, say, Jesus) have any legs to stand on in this discussion--or, in Christianese, "remove log from own eye first." People who identify as Christians have been continuously attacking the LGBT community more viciously than any other group. "Christian" communities pass discriminatory laws, refuse to grant LGBT persons benefits, and generally make anyone who is part of the LGBT community feel as unwelcome, foreign, and isolated as possible. Republican Christian behavior towards the LGBT community is the opposite of Christlike. The guy who killed those 49 people might as well have been a Christian--The amount of LGBT blood on our hands vastly outweighs the amount on his. (p.s. Was that Indiana dude who got caught with guns in L.A. a "christian?" I'd put money on it.) (p.p.s. the only faith group that gave me the time of day when I was trying to get my innocent transgender client out of jail--super biblical--were the Unitarians. so...)

Sigh. I'm soooooo disappointed in The Church. I so want us to be the most amazing, generous, helpful, selfless people. As someone who loves Jesus and, yes, identifies as a Christian (or is it "Christ-follower" or some other term to help try to differentiate Christians who can read the New Testament from the batshit crazies?) this all horrifies me on so many levels. 

A. On the Dickensian level. Hypocrisy. Jesus' first missionary was a lady who had been married five times and was living unmarried with a dude when she scandalously gave him a drink of well water. Jesus got all up close and personal with lepers, dead bodies, prostitutes, tax collectors. He loved them. He hung out with them. It was shockingly loving, welcoming, and feminist! He didn't give the disciples instructions that they could refuse to serve bread and fish to anyone. Why is this Dickensian? Because the hypocrisy reminds me of this quote I think of vexingly often from Dickens' A Christmas Carol:  

"There are some upon this earth of yours," returned the Spirit, "who lay claim to know us, and who do their deeds of passion, pride, ill-will, hatred, envy, bigotry, and selfishness in our name, who are as strange to us and all our kith and kin, as if they had never lived. Remember that, and charge their doings on themselves, not us." (p.s. this sentiment is a courtesy we need to extend to others) 

B. On the legal level. So, in statutory interpretation there exists a rule of lenity. This means that if someone is on trial and there is an argument about how to interpret the language of a law, and after examining the language of the law using other tools the court still finds that the meaning is ambiguous, then the rule of lenity resolves the ambiguity in favor of the defendant. i.e. a case could be made for sending a person to jail for 20 years and an equally compelling case could be made for setting a person free? the person will be set free. It's a little act of grace. There are a number of biblical texts that can be construed this way and the verses that address same-sex relationships are some of them (the ones oppressing women and denying them leadership roles are too). If we can have grace, why don't we? Why wouldn't we resolve these interpretations in favor of inclusion, love, and acceptance? And if a person strongly feels that the interpretation falls the other way, why wouldn't they have the humility to think that God will be the final judge and let grace reign in the meantime or at the very least be civil and not vindictively try to ruin people?

I'm going to give my home church a shoutout and say that after the PCUSA changed its stance towards gay marriage, our church was really in turmoil. And, in my opinion, the church leaders handled it really beautifully--they held community discussions so that people could hear from each other and humanize each other. You can listen to the four week series here.

C. On the praying level. As a person who prays, I totally get why people are OVER the offering of prayers after tragedies when those prayers are not followed by action. They just ring so false. I'd rather have people say nothing. just go ahead and pray in secret--ain't nobody gonna be hurt if you keep that to yourself and your prayers are just as valuable in silence.  But societally, Christians have used their prayers to disapprove of people for years; have you ever heard a Southerner say, "i'm gonna pray for him?" That is a mouthful of sass. We have to give blood and donate money or resources or shoulders to cry on. But when, for yeeeeaaaaaars, Christians have tried to "pray the gay away," anyone with sense would understand why no one wants those prayers--ESPECIALLY when they are grieving the loss of their child or sibling or spouse. Now, if you go to a vigil for victims and afterwards say, "I'm going to keep you all in my prayers..." maybe THAT would get a pass. We need to earn the right for our prayers to mean anything. 

3. Guns
Um, I was in France when Newtown happened. all those babies. baby babies. There is a very strong part of me that feels that America's choice not to pass any gun restrictions after Newtown meant that the majority of our country was completely depraved. and that same part of me cynically just wants to stand back and watch everyone kill each other, while spitefully thinking, "THIS IS EXACTLY WHAT WE ALL DESERVE."  you looked at the pictures of all those chubby babies and said guns were more important? The central brain from iRobot that killed the professor may now take over as our sovereign. 

Sunday, June 05, 2016

Chocolate cake is for rich people. May I interest you in a kale cake?

A bit before Thanksgiving last year my mom decided to become vegan. Mostly for health reasons, though she has discovered in her journey that there are all sorts of compassionate stewardship reasons that veganism fits with her Christian values. I bring this up because her birthday is coming up and she has requested that my grandmother make her a kale and beetroot cake. To me this sounds like the least cakelike cake that has ever been caked in cake thought. (hold this thought)

I volunteer at a homeless ticket clinic in Venice once a month. Homeless people basically get ticketed for being unsightly on the Venice landscape and get tickets for doing what nonhomeless people would never get cited for in a million years, like sharing food or erecting an awning that can effectively shield them from the sun, or sitting down for too long. So our clinic provides attorneys to help defend them in front of judges. If you think it's weird that communities fine homeless people, who OBVIOUSLY CANNOT PAY ANYTHING, for harmless infractions, it is in fact a growing trend to try and annoy homeless people into moving into other communities. (hold this thought)

I am obsessed with the Great British Baking show (in Britain it is called the Great British Bakeoff) and have been completely hypnotized by it despite the fact that I don't really cook anything. I mainly subsist on a cold food diet. cereal, salads with cheese and lunchmeat, luna bars, etc. (hold this thought)

A bunch of my law school classmates have recently graduated or moved out of their campus housing. And because I am a late sort of person, I tend to visit them when there is a frantic rush to purge their kitchens. This has yielded me many delightful pantry items, but this year the items have spilled over such that I cannot actually fit them all in my cupboards. And then, fatefully, like the Ring of Power calling out to Smeagol, Jason gave me a bag full of sugar and cocoa powder and Kind bars. I got home to find that the cocoa had unleashed itself on all the other bag inhabitants. And then my public-interest minded cheapness could no longer be suppressed and was like "Dear God, we must save the cocoa powder!" Which led me to bake a chocolate cake, the first item I have ever baked for no particular occasion. Damn you, Mary Berry, you British national treasure!

Anyway, it was actually DELICIOUS. so so good. I mean, I know how opening the oven too soon can make the cake fall...it was a harrowing 40 minutes of oven wizardry that resulted in an awesomely moist, rich cake. (secret ingredient was a hot cup of coffee added to the batter...I brewed it, but I couldve just opened a vein and let my coffee-rich blood do the job).

So I am feeling like...TRIUMPHANT. I have saved the cocoa. I have wasted not. I have used the abundant ingredients of my pantry. I haveth bakethed. I cut the top off for me and my roommate--(still poor students, yo), frosted the sucker, and decided, wouldn't it be so fun if I took this delicious, made from scratch, cake to my homeless clinic clients? I mean, how precious am I? I am like...the BEST person ever. Will they not love and so appreciate this cake that I have made which might cost many dollars per slice at a Susie Cakes?

And so I presented my Gateau de Triomphe to the office. A few attorneys took slices and gave me the praise I, let's be real, EXPECTED because it was so yummy. SO I start offering it to clients who politely decline because they have: Diabetes. Gout. celiac disease, seizures, high cholesterol, etc etc.

Yeah, I totally forgot that my clients only have ER access to healthcare. And they don't actually want to go to there.

This leads me to the moral of this story: Donate a vegetable and fruit plate to your homeless clients or learn how to make a damn gluten-free kale cake. For the love of God, only rich people have the requisite gym memberships and cadillac healthcare to afford them the luxury of a piece of a conventional chocolate cake.

P.s. Please Please Please consider donating to get my innocent immigration client out of detention!

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Adventuring in lands of water and conspiracy theories

Adventuring gives me so many thoughts that can't be well distilled into other social media format, so, voila, le blog update. Also, I always feel like it makes my mom happy when I write more long form because she has said many times that she wished I would've been a writer...instead of the housing expert and now lawyer I am training to be. Yes, Amy Chua fans, it does appear that I am tiger-momming myself.

My little summer adventure started in London where I have two great friends, and I'm staying a night with each one at each end of my trip. Steve, who doesn't actually go by that name, told me that the day was going to be glorious and we would go to a barbeque with his colleagues. It was a beautiful day...one that was much like every day in Southern California. But in England it spawns this:
A Coachella-esque mass gathering in each of the city parks where people barbeque and drink beer and grill meat to celebrate above 60 degree fahrenheit weather and actually clap at the end of the day. I repeat, they clap for the beautiful day. As a Californian I couldn't decide if this was tragic or a beautiful gratitude we need to regain. Also, as a person who deeply loves cold weather and city life, I was wondering why there isn't some sort of citizen exchange program wherein I trade my US citizenship to a Brit and vice versa. Speaking of which, when you enter the UK there are signs that tell you that you need to apply for asylum ASAP when you get in the country and I was considering saying that this Donald Trump situation has made me realize that the melting pot America I was told to be so proud of is a farce and I fear that my countrymen are massive assholes. And Daniela is still in immigration jail. Anyway, I'm keeping it in mind for the tail-end of the journey. This desire to emigrate was not helped by the freakishly friendly Brits who helped me out each day--from the midriff baring white woman who painstakingly looked up directions for me at a tube stop partly because she was vexed that she didn't know her neighborhood well enough, to the black woman who saw me stuck at the tube stop exit and sacrificed like 3 pounds of her oyster card to help me get out of the station. Stop trying to seduce me, England...it's working. 

Anyway, Steve's coworkers were lovely and we first engaged in a conversation on a topic that we could all relate to: travel. They were actually telling me how much they love vacationing in the US. Yay! They also made sure to say they wouldn't want to live there. sad trombone. When I told them I was going to Slovenia to see castles and to Croatia to see lakes and Roman ruins , they were like, "but America has some of the best natural beauty!" and then they said, "oh right , but since you're from America you like going around to look at old stuff." And I was like, "indeed, despite the fact that there are societies in our country that are very old, the monuments and buildings are from colonial history of the last, young, 250 years."(Luckily no Brit can get self-righteous about oppressing native peoples. That's right, there's enough awful to go around.)

So they ask how long I'm staying (2 weeks) and then are like, "oh yeah, isn't vacation something crazy like 10 days in the U.S.?" sigh, to which i'm like..."if you're lucky enough to be in such a profession." They're like.."in Germany it is 30 days." I weep softly. Then one says, "oh, I heard they don't have any maternity leave, like when people have kids." And I say, "indeed, apparently lawmakers were very proud of themselves for passing a law that we have to get 12 weeks of unpaid vacation for babies and still retain our jobs." They say, "UN-paid?" I say, "yes." They say, "oh my gosh, then why does anyone have children?" and I say, like a knowing resident from some crazy backward land, "It is very difficult, but I have hope that our women will rise up and demand better." That's right, I said "our women will rise up." They nodded. You know, I want to be able to be proud of my country, but when natural beauty is your absolute best quality...you have failed as a human collective. "your humanity is terrible, but hey, at least you've got nice mountains and a canyon." facepalm. 

Anyway, on to Slovenia, which is a quiet treasure. The Irish lady sitting next to me on the plane said that there was some sort of Austrian conspiracy to keep Slovenia under wraps because it is an Austrian vacation favorite. Indeed--you can drink the tap water, the roads are incredible--but p.s. these speed-limitless auotobahn people are NOT messing around! They have delicious wine, Adriatic coastline and also Julian alps jutting into the sky, and the food is basically a German/Italian/slavic lovefest, which is damn good. then again, disclaimer: I never met a mushroom-heavy cuisine I didn't like. 

Speaking of cuisine, let me give you an insight into being a woman traveling alone (which I, a woman, love doing.) I go to a restaurant tonight where I am reading my book and eating some glorious slovenian sausage, mushroom soup, and sauerkraut--so quiet, so happy, so peaceful. This chef from the kitchen passses by and smiles, and then does so again like 10 times really creepily trying to talk to me. So, he thinks I'm cute. That's nice. I want to be alone. At the end of dinner, my waiter brings me a free grappa on the house. Now I have a dilemma. I really like grappa. But I am slightly concerned that my grappa has been roofied for the sake of creepy chef guy. So I split the difference and decide to drink half of it (which was sooooo good, damn it!) and then basically run toward my hotel, which is like a 7 minute walk away. My logic was : IF this drink is doctored, it shouldn't hit me before I can lock myself in my room and pass out--or I will pass out on a busy street where I am less likely to be violated. And I, while obviously adorable in my round way, am not even conventionally attractive. what do beautiful people do? well, get more promotions and have more positive attributes imputed to them by society in general, but STILL I say this distrust, which you are an idiot not to have, is totally unfair. If I had more energy I would start a campaign hashtagged #freethegrappa or something, but see Daniela above.

Anyway, tomorrow I am heading to the Plitvice lakes in Croatia. I AM SO EXCITED. I think it may have been over ten years ago that my heterolifemate told me a dude at her church had visited some place in Croatia that had like 8 lakes pouring over into each other. That was immediately added to my bucket list back then. AND I AM NOW GOING TO SEE THEM! The Irish gypsy woman next to me on my flight also said that the water in Croatia is the most delicious water in the world. She credits the Romans. I shall report back on the verity of this assertion.

p.s. did you know that you can download customizable portions of google maps into your phone for offline use? Life changing. Also, got major props from the Europeans for renting a car instead of using public transport...just in case you hadn't ever thought of it--especially good option with limited American vacay allotments. and freeeedom.

Friday, July 17, 2015

Cranky humanitarianism and murdery playlists

I've been working with a law firm that does international human rights cases and civil rights cases. And it makes me cranky. Every day I read a new case and it's a new company I can't buy from, new food I can't eat, clothes I can't wear, and power driving authority figures with weapons to become their worst selves. and transport? Forget about oil companies, if you don't think they will rape, pillage, and kill everyone in their way to get  to their oil, you're wrong. If you're a person living where they find oil, between where they find oil, or basically in any way concerned with oil, you're just screwed. You should move immediately or commit seppuku to spare yourself whatever indignities the oil company's security forces would impose before your death. Even Canadian oil companies. I feel like once you've corrupted Canadians, all is truly lost in your industry.

But don't we all know oil companies are evil? I'm aware, I drove a prius when I could choose my car. I make baby steps. And I've been all over Free 2 Work's list of slavey textile manufacturers. So, I'm pretty good about buying clothes only from manufacturers with B grades and above for their distribution. (ps, thank you Jesus that H&M is one of them). And, frankly, over the years out of a distaste for consumerism and a deepening in religious philosophy, I've been living a simpler, less acquisitive lifestyle. But the things I do love, I like...really love. and I buy them a lot. I come from the loins of a man who eats Subway every day for lunch. every. day. we're a family that likes ruts.

Then, in preparing another case, I had to read, and re-read, a case against Nestle, Cargill, and Archer Daniels. It's about how they basically allow and encourage their cocoa suppliers to enslave children.  So it's just awful. Everyone knows the chocolate industry is one of the worst offenders on the planet, but it's nice to live in ignorance. Ignorance is easy and delicious. At first I was like, "hey, I can just buy fair trade, chocolate, I'll just have to figure out which chocolate bars are made by these companies and not eat them, should be all good." you see where this is going, right? Like, I was feeling pretty good about myself and my general efforts. My pillow of self-righteousness is soft and large. And I totally forgot that Nestle is a huge conglomerate that owns everything. So I open my fridge to drink my most super favorite creamer, which adds daily (hourly!) chemical deliciousness to my life, which I look forward to every day and...I realize in horror that it is made by Nestle. And I'd just been immersed in tales of Malian children being trafficked and maimed and killed to work in the cocoa industry that supplies Nestle's chocolate. Fuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuck.

I just want to affirm that stories about maimed children taint deliciousness tremendously. consciousness is the worst.

Why do I have to make an effort to find things NOT made with slave labor? I should have to like really want slavey shit and go on dark internet places to have to find it. It's bizarro world out there in the global corporate economy.

Once when two of my best friends and I took a vacation out of spite to Siberia and Vladivostock (no seriously, we were living in Taiwan and I was like, "hey, we are so close to Vladivistock, we should go" and a coworker was like, "you can't, it's too hard to get the paperwork." And of course I was like, "game ON" as thoughts of Dostoevsky danced in my head. and then, you know I bribed the Russian consulate guy in Taipei, paid a bunch of fake fees and voila: communist housing, prostitutes, more fake fees, no smiling, white tigers, spinning wheels, red hair dye, vodka, troika dancing, women in short-skirted military uniforms and heels directing the plane on the tarmac, onion domes, and a working cannon. Russia.) anyway, we went out to see the people who were living off the land in Siberia. "living in the old way" or something. So there was this guy that we called Stepan the Hot because, well, right. This guy picks berries, herbs, and mushrooms from the forest, raises bees--from which he makes both honey AND vodka, made himself a fish farm, makes barrels from wood he cuts from the forest, welds iron stuff, builds houses, drinks the blood of weaker men, and is generally a complete badass. We kept saying that if the nuclear holocaust ever occurred we were heading straight to Stepan's house. People who don't use slave labor: Stepan. People who literally don't ever have to worry that anything they have was made by slave labor: Stepan. one guy in siberia. Stepan uses only himself and his hearty wife. *sigh* So. much. effort.

Just fyi, here is a list of ethical chocolate companies

In the midst of a bunch of my research on various human rights violations I was getting super depressed, but needed to like motor on with my research and I was wondering, "what's a good murdery soundtrack to motivate one as she's trying to clear-headedly present issues?"
I came up with MIA's Matangi--the songs Exodus and Bad Girls, in particular. Also, unsurprisingly, Rage Against the Machine, and Rise Against. Interestingly, usually when I would listed to these songs in other contexts they would amp me up. But when my head is full of the worst side of humanity, they are calming. Like, oh good, someone else is really angry about things, so I can just report on them. Thank you, Zack de la Rocha, for your rhythmic anger. If anyone has other suggestions, I'm in the market. 

Saturday, December 27, 2014

Reflections on El Camino de Santiago--Camino del Norte, Winter 2014

          Recently I’ve had what seems to be a flurry of people asking me about my experience hiking the Camino de Santiago. Since I’ve been meaning to write down a little summary of my experience ever since I finished the walk almost a year ago, this seems like a good time to get them written out while memory still serves and as it seems others are making plans for their own journeys.
          I hiked the Camino del Norte, a path that stretches from the Spanish/French border in Basque country and snakes the Northern Spanish coastline before turning southward toward Santiago. It is the longest of the Spanish Caminos and the toughest in terms of terrain. I admit I chose it entirely because I wanted views of the sea, which are even more plentiful than the guidebook said. There are multiple times in the first two weeks when you have the ocean to your right and a series of snow covered mountains to your left.
          If my insights and experiences are helpful, that’s wonderful, but I have a deep aversion to thinking my experiences are universal, so take from it what you will.

Quick Details:
Time of year: February-March (solidly the OFF season) If you were hoping to see almost no one, this is a great time to go. After meeting two fellow pilgrims the 4th night of my journey, we maybe saw 10 pilgrims in total for the next 21 days. And because of that, don't expect many albergues to be open, and many of the coastal services, like ferries are closed. 

Route: Camino del Norte, starting in Bayonne, France and ending in Santiago, Spain

Number of travelers: solo initially

Total days: 35 days, skipped seven sections in total because I had to get to Santiago to catch a flight.

Age: 35

Gender: Female

Citizenship: USA

On Purpose
           I had spent a month at a rustic spiritual retreat in Switzerland and a number of people there had done part or all of the Camino, which is how I learned of it. Having taken off a second year to travel and study for my LSATs (I know, what a spoiled asshole, but if it makes you feel better, I worked really hard and scrimped to save up money to travel for a year, which turned into two due to online consulting I was able to do while abroad) I found myself with time and my thoughts kept turning to the Camino.
            The Camino was an exciting prospect to me for a few reasons. 1) I love long walks. I’m the type who, wherever I live, likes to take meandering 5-10 mile walks to take in the city at foot speed. 2) I love being alone. Indeed, ever since I found myself relating strongly to the Julianne Moore character in The Hours who abandons her family to move to Canada to be alone and read, I’ve accepted that I need a lot of time by myself to be a tolerable human being.  3) I love spiritual reflection and meditation, but am easily distracted and had been yearning for a chance to get away for some hardcore meditation.  
             To anchor you in my spiritual geography, I guess I’m generally a Christian protestant. I attend a fantastic Presbyterian church when I’m in the San Diego area, but living abroad in Asia, where you kind of have to take what you can get, effectively robbed me of any strong denominational affiliation. My favorite spiritual writers are any of the Renovare crew: Dallas Willard, Eugene Peterson, Richard Foster, and then Henri Nouwen, Teresa of Avila, Martin Luther King, C.S. Lewis, George MacDonald, Soren Kierkegaard, early Philip Yancey, early mystics, Tolstoy, and Dostoevsky. 
              Richard Foster is fond of spiritual disciplines and general suffering for spiritual benefit and I was also annoyingly intrigued by what he might mean and what sort of potential blessing and benefit might be in store if I undertook some epic pilgrimage. So I definitely had Christian spiritual purposes in mind, but it comes into play that I do not actually believe in certain of the blessings one might have in mind if they were strictly Catholic. I don’t believe in saintly blessings and I actually believe that I can confess to and commune with God at any time with no intermediary.
Lacking solid Catholic goals meant that my purposes were somewhat vague, but generally prolonged spiritual communion in beautiful scenery with a dash of adventure was what I intended.

On Expectation and Results
                Expectation and result did not exactly match up, but all for the best in my case. I think this is actually a pretty common refrain amongst pilgrims after they finish their journey, but I’m so hesitant to assume that my experience will be similar to anyone else’s that I echo what people told me beforehand, which was, “just go.” Maybe it will be just as you expect, maybe it won’t…but worthwhile either way.
                I expected beforehand that the journey would be one of really intense and ecstatic spiritual engagement. I expected profound solitude. I expected reverie in nature. I expected to work through my future goals and to take stock of my life to see if I was headed in a good direction, asking myself questions like, “Do I still really want to go to law school?”, “Do I ever want to have children?”, “Are there any particular amends I need to make?” My expectations were lofty. I expected to become physically stronger and thinner, to ponder societal injustice over glasses of red wine after feeling pleasant exhaustion, to read at least 5 books.
                The reality of my Camino was that I was, let’s say, a tad overoptimistic in how easy it would be to tackle the Camino del Norte in the offseason. I am skeptical of seasonality, I think it’s a delusion that stems from being a Californian. I think my physical reality was a little more treacherous than what I’ve heard from people on the Camino Frances, but certain essentials are the same.

                So in my days prepping for the Camino, I would take long 10-12 mile walks and hikes a few times a week and think, “this is so refreshing and exhilarating, I cannot WAIT to do this for a whole month.” What I was not accounting for was that these moments of solitude, that were such a refreshing change of pace, were taking place in the midst of a full and familiar life. I got done with my walk, got in my car or went into my warm, known house and often met up with friends or family. The Camino, however, is not known. (I’m sure doing it a second time brings out an entirely different crop of greatness and revelation, but I can’t speak to it.) My thoughts on the Camino were constantly peppered with “sweet Jesus, where is that yellow arrow? I hope I’m going the right way and do not end up sleeping on the street in the rain…”
                I was not able to account for full days of solitude and navigation. Full days of solitude were different, lonelier and more frightening, than a few hours per day of solitude. This was not a bad thing, it gave me a lot of respect for the desert mothers and fathers I was reading about on my kindle at night, and is its own sort of revelation. This experience was certainly heightened by the fact that it was offseason and offseason on a less traveled Camino (I, I took the path less traveled by…sounds so much more romantic when Frost says it than when you are stranded in some strange town in the rainy dark.) I literally ran into no other pilgrims on my first 4 days of the Camino and all the albergues were closed in France and Spain. The first open albergue I encountered was the hostel in San Sebastian. That means I had been sleeping in comfort, but it was comparatively quite expensive and involved a lot more uncertainty at the end of the day when I was incredibly tired, trying, with my super basic Spanish phone plan to find a safe place to stay not far from the Way. (As far as ongoing blessings, I experienced the inordinate kindness of strangers in both France and Spain. I am a woman’s woman, and the women I asked for directions nearly always walked with me where I was going and made sure I was taken care of.)
      So, for the most part I was literally in my own head, alone, for the first four straight days. It turns out my head is not a silent, peaceful place. The distraction I blamed on my phone and social media was lessened for sure, but my thoughts were also loud and random. I listened to music, to books on tape, to Spanish lessons, to my own breathing. Often I just focused on direction, but random observations, mostly mundane but sometimes profound, would flit in and out of my head. I got kind of sick of each of these activities.


       I expected to experience a lot of reverie in nature. While the views were often incredible, I wished I had given myself more time to savor them. I’ve heard that the Frances has some nice views, but that the act of the walk and the churches are more the attraction. The Norte has the natural beauty, but I didn’t have time to really soak it in because I always had somewhere I needed to get to before dark and being unsure of the upcoming terrain, didn’t want to get stuck on a hillside in the dark. If I were to do the Norte again, I would give myself a truly luxuriant amount of time and would try, to whatever extent possible, to allow myself to stay in more albergues at closer intervals. It became abundantly clear to me that I was going to learn lessons from the physical exhaustion I experienced, but that they weren’t really necessary. We ended up being so exhausted at day’s end and so concerned about getting clean, warm, and tending to our blisters, sore muscles, and feet that we often didn’t have time to sit and record our daily thoughts and reflections. (In the end there are lessons in that as well, but I’d be interested in what comes of a more relaxed journey.)
             That said, the more I walked, the more impossible it was for me to ignore my smallness. As part of a legacy of thousands to come before and thousands who would tread the same ground, I found my perspective being, well, I would say “righted” or certainly anchored in a grander scheme. Thinking of all those thousands of people and staring at the same ocean and the same mountains they did hundreds of years earlier, made me focus not on the purpose of my own life, necessarily, but the purpose of all life or the purpose of any life. Those thoughts lingered and returned more than any of my specific concerns, which just seemed like the right order anyway.


           I did end up becoming stronger, and indeed also lost weight, but happily that concern, which I find to be such a cancerous obsession in my own life and in American society in general, faded to a murmur as more primitive concerns became primary. I became incredibly thankful for the ability of my body to even take this journey, and it seemed ridiculous that I’ve spent so much time finding fault with it.

            I was traveling with someone for whom, until the pain of the average 1800 foot inclines and declines became apparent, it was very difficult to vary from the official route. I started out with a certain perfectionist strain as well, and felt very self-righteous about going the long way. The longer I walked, the stupider that seemed. Was walking 16 miles instead of 13 really going to inculcate any incredible wisdom? In my opinion, no. It seemed like unnecessarily subjecting myself to injury and the wildness of the winter nature. Pavement might not be pretty, but if it was a safer route and shorter, I always took it. My companion nicknamed me captain shortcut. He changed his tune after a bad, wet day when 3 blisters formed and ripped off and caused serious crippling pain. There probably is a sense of accomplishment from doing every step of the exact route, but I assume it depends on what you're trying to get out of it. (or send me a message in the comment section if there is some obvious virtue in it that I don't see, since I don't really believe in perfection.)


         I also made a list of all my friends and loved ones and designated people to pray for, and it was a lovely secret to pray for their wellbeing without them knowing.
         I was seriously disappointed that so many of the churches and chapels were closed along the Way. I found myself being pissed off at a Catholic church that would have spent so much money building incredible cathedrals, to the undoubted detriment of the poor at the time, and then close them off. It was immature. What I really was to see the pretty cathedrals and pray inside them. But early on it re-occurred to me that I was a freaking Protestant and believed God was everywhere and I could commune with God any time I wanted. And so I did. But I did deeply appreciate the feeling of legacy I got from praying in Cathedrals along the way when I was lucky enough to be able to do so.
          I can’t speak for anyone else but on a nearly daily basis I would ponder what a weird thing I was doing. Why did I think walking for a long time was a good idea? Why did anyone ever think it was a good idea? Why did I think God somehow appreciated physical suffering? Why was I intentionally putting myself in daily, compounding pain? I don’t have any great conclusions, but for whatever reason, I found the aftereffects of suffering in this safe manner, to be incredibly productive and rewarding.

Summary on expectation and results

              What I expected was to come to grips with some specific questions I had about my life, and what resulted was much more general. I ended my Camino and immediately noticed I had a marked increase in patience. I assume that is something that only really happens due to the long, mundane nature of the walk and the fact that I couldn’t force it. If I tried to force myself to go faster, I would injure myself. I came to understand that I would get somewhere when I would get there. And I had a strong belief that I would, in fact, get there. 
              I also found myself with a deep gratitude for nearly everything. Certainly every modern convenience. Hot water, cars, buses, electricity, Wi-Fi, the kindness of strangers, the time and effort my friends and family take to keep in touch; I was taking nothing for granted, I was so thankful for everything. It reminded me of the line in T.S. Eliot’s Little Gidding “And the end of all our exploring/will be to arrive where we started/And know the place for the first time.”
               I would say the other really phenomenal change I experienced was a renewed sensitivity to emotion and other creatures. I find it difficult to cry, I am unsure as to why that is, but it just is. Whether it was some hormonal change from so much daily activity or so much time spent thinking and being at the mercy of nature, the elements, and the kindness of others, the result was that I returned home with a sense of peace of place that allowed me to be less selfish and engage more fully with others, including having more sympathy for the human condition.
I’m not even going to try to pretend that this condition didn’t fade, but I do think that some has stuck, and even the memory of those good changes is enough to get me into a better head space.

On Pacing and Scheduling

             People are very different and you really just have to know yourself. As far as daily walking pace, my companion walked faster than I did, but he liked to pause for long lunch breaks. I am one for slow, constant movement. When I stop, I don’t really want to get going again...because it hurts! So my pace was slow and I tended to eat as I kept walking, getting sandwiches from taverns and stopping only long enough to swig down my coffee with Bailey’s and get some water. My big stop of the day was for dinner and, on days when we walked separately, we typically arrived within half an hour of each other, the first to arrive being tasked with finding the tourist office to see if there was an albergue open and/or get Camino stamps.
             We were a little bit handicapped in our daily plans because so many albergues and hotels were closed—one day I had to walk 25 miles because the albergue that typically broke up the walk at the midpoint was closed. That saved me a day…yaaaay. I hurt so badly. So so badly. In fact, teh last blog post I wrote was the day after that day. Here's a link--spoiler alert, it involves a coffee-drinking dog. 
              I would have scheduled more rest days. I believe I took 3 rest days along the route and each of them felt soooo luxurious. I think when it really dawned on me that this whole pilgrimage was self-imposed and that it was for my own edification, it seemed hilarious that I had hemmed myself in with such rigid dates. In my defense, I wasn’t sure that I was going to find the journey profitable at all and was trying, on the front end, to hedge my bets, so that if I quit after, say, a week, I wouldn’t be stuck in Spain doing nothing for 6 weeks. I had heard from someone who did the Camino Frances that the scenery could be really ugly, and I didn’t want to spend 4 weeks walking amongst dry, brown ugliness. In hindsight I don’t think that would be an issue on any Camino.

On Companions

Part of my intention for the Camino was to have time alone. So when I met my first two fellow pilgrims I was afraid I might end up spending too much time with them and that I might miss out on some of the profound insights I, optimistically, assumed were imminent. Again, I can only speak to our unique circumstances on a little-traveled route in the offseason, but I ended up really treasuring my companions. I also found that, since none of us had chosen to do that route at that time because we wanted constant company, it was pretty easy to either overtly say we wanted to hike alone that day, or to trail off and indicate that we would catch up. We formed a little trio. One of our companions was with us for about a week before taking a day or two off in Bilbao, and then my other companion and I were together for a solid 21 days. I think we would both say that the best experiences were days when we mostly walked apart (maybe we started or finished together—lots of singing and trivia!) but then we reconvened in the evening to debrief, commiserate, find accommodations, and dress each other’s daily wounds. There were also some pretty critical times when the Way was not well-marked and we could help guide each other through. I, for example, got lost in a forest, and my companion stopped, dropped a pin in What’s App, and stayed put while I made my way to him.
If and when I do another Camino, while I might not actively try to find a companion, I would have no problem going with someone who expressed interest because there is so much time in the day to be alone that I found a companion helpful and comforting rather than annoying. It is also possible that it was because we had very complimentary personalities, but it reminded me of the best parts of relationship—sharing, supporting, encouraging. Indeed, if I hadn’t had a companion, I might not have made it as many days and as long as I did. The expectation that someone knew me, knew I was on the path, and expected me to arrive, was actually an integral motivator at certain times. That insight was also profound when I applied it in the context of spiritual relationship.

On Sustenance

        The food in Northern Spain is delicious for a day or two, but it becomes abundantly clear after a day or two that, at least during the low season, the one or two little bars that are open will be serving you some combination of cheese, chorizo, potato, egg, some shrimp if you’re lucky, and bread. At one point, in a larger town, I paid the equivalent of a full day’s food budget just to have a salad.
Wine is delicious, but heavy. Since Spain is relatively cheap, I usually just had wine at dinners, though may I say that when in pain, a glass or two of wine can really take the edge off of an interminably long uphill section. Also, if you're a coffee addict like myself, a coffee with Baileys costs about 3 dollars. it would really be a sin NOT to get one at every stop. 

On Language
        I love learning languages, have spent time in Costa Rica and Guatemala trying to learn Spanish, and have no shame, so I broke out my terrible Spanish on just about anyone who would listen. 

On Things—What to Take

        One of the most exhilarating things on the Camino is the act of throwing things away. I never knew how little I needed to subsist until I had to carry it all on my back. I cull belongings pretty regularly and the Camino just made me even more ruthless in not attaching myself to crap possessions! And since I would never want to rob anyone of the delight of sending things home or leaving things at various hostels and albergues and feeling the subsequent relief in your shoulders and back as your pack lightens, I will instead tell you what I couldn’t do without.
  1. My Camelbak bladder. I bought it in Bilbao and it was worth its weight in gold. I had been carrying water bottles, which was pure nonsense.
  2. A tiny sleeping bag. Worth the extra money—get the lightest, smallest thing you can find. They really aren’t more than like 80 bucks, and especially if you hike the Camino anywhere near the winter season—the albergues don’t really have heat nor do the monasteries along the way. They do usually have blankets, but they are cheap and often made of rough wool.
  3.  A cheap phone plan that works in Europe. I bought mine while I was touring around Seville before starting the Camino. You can get a chip and refill it at the convenience store in most towns. Calling ahead to discover whether albergues are open and then finding hotels and using data plan to find restaurants saved us a lot of headaches.
  4. Guidebook. I got the electronic version of The Northern Caminos and, while I was making notes the whole time about improvements I would have made, it was absolutely invaluable in helping navigate the Camino del Norte.
  5. Rain gear. If you go in winter, you must get rain gear, unless you have absolutely no time limit. I got a crazy huge poncho and backpack cover. The bonus is that tromping through the rain and puddles brings a childlike glee…at first.
  6. Hiking boots and soft shoes. From what I hear, this is specific to the Camino del Norte, but there were a number of dirt roads that were really wet and muddy and which required serious grip. (at one point I had to dig my boots out of a mud puddle with my hand. fun story…afterward) But then these were sometimes uncomfortable on long stretches of paved road, which is when a light pair of highly cushioned walking shoes would have been awesome. A really self-righteous and judgy French guy that walked with us for two days as we crossed into Guernica had some French leather supertough lace-up army boots he got at a surplus store and that he had waterproofed and swore by. Assuming the boots themselves don't turn you into an ass, might be worth looking into. His feet looked dry, to my great annoyance,  From what I hear from others, on the Camino Frances you really need the soft walking shoes and not so much the hiking shoes. It adds weight to have the two pairs, (and probably flip-flops or shower shoes for communal showering, but necessary on this path)
  7. Toe socks--I was all posh and asked my relatives for injinjis. they may look ridiculous, but I had far fewer blisters than my companions. 
  8. Advil. Pain, so much good pain. dull it. you have somewhere to get to!

On Finishing
       So, when the journey is the destination (possibly not the case for Catholics?), it turns out that the finish can seem a little arbitrary. Like, well, I had to stop at some point, so here we are. It was a little underwhelming at first. Santiago is just the designated end, but the result is what has been working itself out along the way, with every step. I stayed two days in Santiago, and ideally might have stayed for one more just to soak it all in…and heal. It is really delightful to go to the pilgrim office to get the compostela, to attend the pilgrim’s mass, and then to suddenly have no destination and realize you are creating your own new destinations, both physically and metaphorically. For me it felt like life was reopening in front of me. 
        My friend Beth once wrote a poem about a song that Louis Armstrong wrote for the Queen of England, a recording, a unique miracle of audio that got lost in an airplane crash. She said that, when asked about it, Louis answered, "There are other miracles, there are other dreams" which is a refrain I think of often when I am about to embark on something and might be a little sad that, once accomplished, I won't have that thing to look forward to anymore. There are other dreams. 


Saturday, March 01, 2014


I am near the end of my journey on the camino de santiago's camino del norte, I am in a cafe in Sobrado, waiting out a rainstorm only to see that the forecast for the rest of the day is a 100% chance of rain. Ah, sweet futility. As a bonus, please take a look at this hilarious "sculpture?" of a hipster pig made from cured pig parts and wine. I've been staring at him for 2 hours. He has a lanyard that indicates his name is Jacinto and that he is a volunteer with this local "comision de fiestas 2014." Indeed, party pig, indeed. The wine is made from a local grape called mencias and is super delish . (had to get one in for the foodies.)

 Last night I stayed at the monastery in Sobrado, which is attached to a lovely church. The only other pilgrim at this stage in the low season is a partially toothed man named Joseph, who has the requisite odour de pilgrim and has brought along his dog for the journey. It was me and Joseph and the dog in our room last night. I was not super excited about this, but was too exhausted to care or do anything about it. When we woke this morning--with the monks, at 7am, natch--we can hear that it seems to be monsooning outside. Now, one gift that the camino has given me is persistent enough rain that I had to buy full body rain gear (think the full body condoms in Naked Gun, but with a hole for the face and space for a monstrous backpack.). The amazing thing about full body rain gear is that it allows you to tromp through the rain with childlike abandon. This is mostly magical, albeit a little cold. The problem is that at some point too much rain obscures your vision (despite your super brilliant pre-camino move of buying contact lenses) and turns your path into a giant pool of lakes and mud. and while my body and backpack are nearly waterproof, my shoes are merely resistant--ie, subject to becoming fungal cesspools when plopped in mud. So, I am waiting for it to end and scouring my guidebook for a different path.

Joseph gets up to use the bathroom and walk his dog, looks outside and says "oh, we cannot walk in this" and leaves.  I had been listening, praying it wasn't as bad as I thought. I peeked outside. It was worse. Joseph returns with two cups of coffee. One for himself, and one...for his dog. He then says "I spoke to the Father and he says it is no problem for us to stay another night." He then proceeds to drink his coffee, and coax his dog to finish his own bowl of coffee. I said "I don't know what to do." Joseph says, "Tranquila..." and proceeds to stare at the wall while absentmindedly scratching his ridiculously well-behaved and adorable dog. It is clear to me at this point that Joseph is actually a Tim Burton character. He's the weirdo I found mildly scary who is actually super kindhearted and self-assured and has a firm grip on some of the great mysteries of life. He can teach me many many lessons about life quality .He carries a small transistor radio and a stick which he has adorned with feathers. He stares at the wall a great deal. He is a good dog owner. He allows enough time in his journey that he can "tranquilo." He is not walking on a 35 day pilgrimage to the airport in Santiago to catch a flight. he is on a journey with no particular end. Damn him. I hate recognizing this and knowing I am in no position (forgive me, knowing I am not in a WILLING position) to learn from him and embrace this. When I leave to find an internet connection to see how I can manage this part of the journey and, for the thousandth time, forget my hiking poles, Joseph runs to find me and says "just in case you do not return tonight." 

Joseph, I hope that someday I grow up to be like you. Until then, I have to walk in the rain. I have an airport to get to.