Friday, July 29, 2011

Back to Real Life After Vacation

Getting back from a glorious day at the beach to unload sandy towels and bathing suits into the washing machine and unpack the picnic basket can be a dismal wake up call to reality.  It reminds me of going back to work on Mondays after the weekend. A little voice inside me says, “If only the good life could continue.”

Last week God gave me an amazing gift vacation.  My daughter and I planned to visit a friend who was house sitting on the Southern Turkish coast. I had no idea beforehand that my friend’s place was a luxury apartment right on the beach, with lovely gardens, four swimming pools, and two water slides. I had a chance to reconnect with my daughter as we spent five relaxing days at the pool and on the beach.  More importantly, I had a chance to reconnect with God during the morning hours I spent on the balcony reading, journaling, and enjoying the view and the cool ocean breeze.

By Thursday I was beginning to dread returning home, and when I walked in the door on Friday night, I was struck by the reality of a hot apartment, dirty kitchen floor, and laundry. 

Returning home from vacation has me thinking about enjoying everyday, ordinary life.  When Jesus said he came to give us abundant life, what was he talking about?  Surely he meant more than taking an occasional vacation!  Surely he was talking about a rich and rewarding everyday life. I want to cultivate an attitude that recognizes the abundant life God gives me every day, not one that longs for a perpetual vacation.

Here’s what I’m trying to focus on as I contemplate starting home school again after a summer break:

  • Enjoy what you’re doing:

I used to look at work as something to get over with so I could finally do what I really enjoyed: spend time with friends, read a book, talk a walk.  A friend challenged me with a surprising statement: “I try to enjoy what I’m doing as I work.  Otherwise my life will go by with my wishing I was doing something else.” That simple statement changed the way I view everyday work. Now I pray almost daily that God will help me to enjoy the tasks and responsibilities in front of me.

  • Cultivate contentment:

We all have life circumstances that we wish were different: financial problems, struggles with a child, stress at work.  Getting away from these while we’re on vacation is healthy, but they can loom larger than ever after we return. I want to cultivate a healthy attitude of acceptance and contentment even though everything in my life is not perfect.  I want to focus on the positive.

  • Thankfulness:

Often I don’t appreciate everyday life because I’m blowing through in a hurry, not taking time to stop and notice the good things God gives me.  In an effort to make myself slow down and take notice, I continue with my 1000 Gifts List:

340. A cooler night and more sleep
341. My daughter’s excitement over the book “Heaven is for Real.”
342. Prayer in the morning with my husbands.
343. Homemade jelly from summer apricots.

 If I pay attention, I see that my life is full of God’s gracious gifts, evidences of His care and blessing over me.

These are my efforts to bring a relaxed vacation mentality into real life. How do you look at getting back to ordinary life after time off for R & R?

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Taking Hospitality with a Grain of Salt

Blessed is the man who can laugh at himself, for he will never cease to be amused. 

This proverb is one of my favorites. It reminds me not to take myself so seriously.
Last week I wrote about hospitality mishaps, and this reminds me to take things that go wrong with a grain of salt.

Being able to laugh at myself certainly helped me during a recent catastrophe. My husband and I had guests, and when I stood up to re-fill the tea glasses, the slip I was wearing under my skirt mysteriously slid down in perfect ring around my feet!  I won't go into that story now, but I'm pretty sure it broke the norms of hospitality in any country, not just here in Turkey. (I still can’t believe that really happened.)

On a more serious note, one thing I appreciate about living here is the chance it gives me to learn more about hospitality. Turks are some of the most generous and gracious hosts I've ever seen. Hospitality is a virtue and an art, whether it's a casual visit over Turkish coffee and a piece of chocolate or a dinner with 10 different dishes. I've learned a lot about how to receive guests in my home, but honestly I sometimes feel pressured to somehow live up to Turkish standards, and If I compare myself to them, I'll always fall short!

Here are some helpful lessons I’ve learned:

  • Relax and be yourself

I'll never be the Perfect Turkish Hostess (P.T.H.), and that is okay!  Instead I try to relax in and be who I am. The P.T.H. is elegantly dressed and serves delectable treats while she chats effortlessly with guests. She probably only exists in my head. I'm much better at being myself than at striving to put on a show of elaborate hospitality that just leaves me feeling stressed.

  • Keep it simple
Sometimes it feels like I’m forever in the kitchen preparing food for meetings or for guests.  This is a warning that I’m striving too hard to be a P.T.H., and I’d better simplify things instead. I've seen Turks get out a simple assortment of nuts, fruits and bought cookies for visitors. That’s a lot easier than baking a cake.

  • Focus on your Guests

I can't prepare a 10 course meal and be happy and relaxed when my guests arrive. What I can do is a salad, main dish, rice and maybe a vegetable or soup. If I keep things simple, I'm more relaxed and able to actually enjoy time with friends.  

  •  Find a Middle Ground

I want to be cross-culturally relevant, so that Turks can relate to me. I try to do some things their way. I can kiss my guests, offer slippers, pass around lemon cologne (if I remember) and make Turkish coffee. But on the inside, I’m still American, and I need to be myself as well. For example, a few weeks ago, I had to gently explain to a guest that I needed to leave, something that a P.T.H. would try to avoid. I find that most of my Turkish friends are extremely understanding and kind when I do things differently.

  • Laugh at yourself when things don't go as planned

During the Classic Turkish Moment I wrote about last week, when I found myself serving a dinner I’d made for 4 to 9 people instead, I laughed.  What else could I do? Keeping my sense of humor helps me to continue enjoying cross-cultural life and time with my friends.

After all, isn't enjoyment what gracious hospitality is all about?

Friday, July 15, 2011

Still breaking the rules after 10 years!

I did it again. I broke a cardinal rule of Turkish hospitality: “Never, ever suggest to a guest that it’s time to leave.” How embarrassing. After 10 years here, I still break the rules, and it leaves me feeling like an Inept, Insensitive Foreigner.

Stand up my Husband or Kick my Guest out?

My friend Zühal was coming for breakfast between 9:30 and 10:00 a.m., so it never occurred to me that I wouldn’t have enough time to make it to a 2:00 p.m. prayer meeting. At 10:30 the breakfast table was set with eggs, tomatoes, cucumbers, olives, cheese, and bread, but no Zühal! I began to feel uneasy. By the time she arrived at 11:00, I knew I had once again overscheduled myself.  Apologizing profusely for being late, she walked in the door with a huge, well stocked tote bag, and her daughter announced, “We’re going to stay here with you until it’s time for swimming class.”

During our breakfast I was torn.  Should I skip the prayer meeting to stay with my guests?  That’s what any Turk would do.  My husband, however, would expect me to make the prayer meeting a priority. 

In the end, I let her know I had to go. I wondered if she connected the fact that she’d been an hour late with our time together being cut short.  I doubted it.  I made a mental note to allow 5 or 6 hours in my schedule when I want to invite her over: one hour for her to be late and four hours for our visit.

Classic Turkish Moment
(How I learned to cook for a crowd even when expecting two guests.)

My blunder with Zühal reminded me of one of my Classic Turkish Moments, during a two year stint in Istanbul 20 years ago:  It was 8 o’clock, and my 7 o’clock dinner guests, Nesrin and her mother, hadn’t arrived.  I stirred the spaghetti sauce, tossed the salad one more time and called to see what had happened. 

“Taner just got home,” Nesrin said. “He has to take a shower, so we’ll be late.”

“All right, I said.  “See you in a little while then.” But inside my mind was spinning. Taner? Why would Taner come?  I’d invited Nesrin and her mother. As I hung up the phone, a light dawned.  Nesrin had invited her brother and his family as well.

I made a mental adjustment.  Okay, instead of 2 guests, we’ll have 5.  I can do that. I opened the fridge, scouted for more ingredients and realized there was no way to make more spaghetti sauce. I got out more salad fixings, found an extra bag of pasta, and put more water on to boil.

They arrived at 9:15, 2 hours and fifteen minutes late.  Nine people came through the door taking off their shoes as my roommate and I kissed and welcomed each one. Nesrin not only brought her brother and his family, but also her aunt, uncle and cousin.  Now the dinner that I had cooked for two guests was looking very small indeed.  As 10 of us gathered around the small dish of spaghetti sauce at the table, I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry.

This happened 20 years ago, but things haven’t changed. 

I still meet with surprises and sometimes feel like I don’t quite measure up. Do things like this ever happen to you where you live?  How do you handle it? All I can do is accept that fact that I’ll probably never be the perfect Turkish hostess!  I’ll write more on that next week.

Friday, July 8, 2011

Cooking Bloopers and a Taste of Turkey

I had my share of cooking bloopers in my early days in Izmir.  (I still have them as a matter of fact.) The lasagna fiasco stands out in my memory as a time when I tried serving American food to Turks and could tell they didn't like it. Thinking therefore that I should adapt to their culture and serve them food they were used to, I tried to cook Turkish food. Only it flopped, and when you cook Turkish food for Americans, they can’t even tell if it turns out right, but my Turkish friends could tell, like the time my lentil balls (mercimek köftesi) were so soggy that they flattened out on the plate into one mass of goop.

My quest to learn some Turkish cooking began in earnest one Christmas when I wanted to host a party and realized, to my horror and shame, that I didn’t know how to make one main dish after living here three years!  In my defense, learning to cook a la turca is not easy because people don’t use recipes or exact measurements.  If you ask someone how to make something, instead of giving you a recipe, they’ll want you to come over so you can watch them and work on it together.  Everything is a pinch of this a pinch of that.

Still Learning
Turkish cooking is a work in progress for me.  I’m still learning.  For example,  I only make stuffed grape leaves two or three times a year, not often enough to remember how, so that the rice inside my dolma is either soggy and gloopy or dry and crunchy.  Not sure which one is worse.

This book has been a lifesaver for me. There may be others, but it's the only Turkish cookbook I've ever seen that uses accurate measurements and tested recipes.

My Favorite Turkish Cookbook

What about you?
Part of the joy of cooking is discovering new tastes, using new ingredients and combinations. If you live overseas, what is your experience with local cooking? Any cooking bloopers? What is your favorite local dish?  If you live in your home country, what is your favorite ethnic food?  (Scroll down to leave a comment after the recipes.)

I thought I’d share a few tastes of Turkey with you:

Zeytinyağlı Fasulye 
Green Beans in Olive Oil (My favorite summer dish)

1 ½ pounds of green beans, strung and chopped.
1 chopped onion
4-5 cloves garlic minced
1 tsp. salt
1 tsp sugar
¼ cup olive oil
2-3 grated or food processed fresh tomatos**
1 ½ cups water

Place the green beans in a wide mouthed, lidded pot.  Add the onion, garlic and tomato pulp raw.  Drizzle with the olive oil, add the salt, sugar, and water. Bring to a boil on high until the green beans turn bright green.  At this point, lower the heat and simmer 20 to 30 minutes. (Greenbeans in the US are more tender and should require only 15-20 minutes cooking.) Serve at room temperature as a side dish.

**Cut a tomato in half, then press the cut side to a grater and grate, until you are left with the peel in your hand.  I find this easier than peeling tomatos and dragging out my food processor. An alternative would be to 
food process the tomatoes with the peels, but don’t serve it to Turks that way!

Cracked Wheat Salad

1 cup fine grain bulgur wheat
1 cup boiling water
2 TBSP olive oil
1 small chopped onion
3-4 cloves minced garlic
3/4 tsp. cumin
3/4 tsp. paprika
1 tsp. salt
2 TBSP tomato paste
1/3 cup chopped parsley
2 cucumbers
2 tomatoes
3-4 dill pickles
1 large red or green pepper
3 TSPN olive oil
Juice of half a lemon

1.      Heat the oil in a medium saucepan, add the bulgur and onion and stir it until the bulgur begins to brown slightly.  At this point, add the garlic and seasonings.  Continue stirring a minute; add the tomato paste and stir one more minute.  Add the water, stir and cover. Let sit one hour. Chop the vegetables
2.      When the bulgur is cool, fluff it with a spoon and add it with the chopped vegetables and pickes to a salad bowl.  Toss with olive oil and lemon, add more salt to taste and serve.

Any comments about your cross-cultural cooking experiments?

Friday, July 1, 2011

Called Overseas to Cook and Clean?

When God called me overseas, I had no idea how much time I’d spend cooking, cleaning, home schooling, playing games, and driving kids to sports practice. Just as if I were still back home in America. I even asked myself, “Why am I here, anyway? I can mop floors and teach reading back home.”
I had no idea that when I led a women’s study group, I’d feel bad about leaving my kids home with my husband, and when I spent days on end caring for a sick child without leaving the house, I’d feel vaguely guilty for neglecting my “ministry” responsibilities.
Years ago I asked a more experienced woman, “How do you manage to have a ministry outside of your home?”
Her answer flabbergasted me.

She said simply, “I tried that once, and it didn’t work for me.”

I’ve been chuckling over it ever since. Her open, honest attitude somehow freed me to be myself and find my own way.

Mothers Serving Overseas Come in all Shapes:
I’ve seen that women servants come in all different colors of the rainbow. Some are basically “working” mothers, hiring childcare or sending kids to local daycare or school while they serve or study the language. Others choose to center their lives more closely around their homes and children.

Find the Balance that Feels Right for You:
I’m probably somewhere in the middle, which means I burn the candle at both ends! I enjoy homeschooling and caring for my family, but my heart yearns for more than just “staying at home.” So making my home a center of hospitality has worked for me. I also visit women friends when I can.

Let Go of Guilt
I tend to compare myself with other women who seem to have a higher level of involvement. This is dangerous because inevitably I then feel guilty over not doing more. But I’m learning to relax in who God is calling me to be and also to give this freedom to others, who may not share my views.

Comments From Other Women Servants:
Last week I asked other women for their views on ministry inside and outside of their homes. Here is what they said:
  • “Part of loving my teaching them…how to love others outside of our circle.”
  • “My family is my first ‘ministry.’ Any ‘ministry’ work that happens outside the home is just icing on the cake.”
  • “Since the kids were 6 mo. old, we've had roughly 15-25 hrs/week of childcare for them.”
  • “Considering the difficulties our kids go through to adjust to the new cultures, we need to give them the appropriate mother time. Actually, I find Turks very family oriented…As much as possible, I liked to do ministry that included my children. So often the children when they were young were the catalyst to relationships with other Turkish mothers.”
  • “Knowing myself, I will always work more than I should…The Lord has given me kids to slow me down, to disciple me, and to teach me that my value doesn't come from my productivity... 
  • “Balancing family vs. ministry isn't possible. Once things are "balanced", someone inevitably gets sick, a situation or crises arises in the work, or some other thing comes up. When we view family as ministry, you can move your fulcrum to one end or the other as needs arise. ..  
  • “Perhaps our most lasting and important gift that we give to our Turkish friends, is the model of a family that is submitted to Christ and trying to make him central.”
  • “While I had children at home, my strategy was to make home my primary place for outreach, discipleship and showing hospitality. Serving my husband and kids was my primary ministry, and they supported and helped me in reaching out and serving others too.”
I was encouraged by their wisdom. What are your views?