Thursday, June 27, 2013

Remembering Rosemary

By Patricia Winton

There's rosemary, that's for remembrance.... Ophelia in Othello

I first encountered rosemary in a little red, white, and blue metal container. It didn’t—and doesn’t still—sit on my mother’s spice rack. When I opened my own kitchen, I began widening my culinary horizons, and rosemary became an early experiment. I hate to admit it, but I produced the worst meatballs ever to be consumed by humankind, and my enthusiasm for rosemary cooled considerably…until I first came to Italy and encountered it fresh.

I visited my friends John and Enzo in the village of Riparbella, not far from the Etruscan town of Volterra. Enzo prepared roast chicken by sticking slivers of garlic into the flesh, placing more garlic, half a lemon, and a large sprig of rosemary in the body cavity, and coating the skin with olive oil. He placed it in a large baking dish surrounded by quartered potatoes. These were coated with more olive oil and anointed with additional garlic and rosemary. My reaction to this dish was akin to Julia Child’s introduction to sole meuniére, her first meal in France. I’ve been a fan of fresh rosemary since. Variations of this dish still dominate the Italian dining table for Sunday lunch.

Rosemary, common throughout the Mediterranean, has long been an integral part of the culinary scene on the Italian peninsula. Archaeological evidence suggests that the Etruscans used rosemary to flavor their fish and meat as early as 700-300 BC. The Italian word rosemarino comes from the Latin ros marinus, meaning “dew of the sea.” The Romans spread the plant to England during their occupation, although it needs protection from the cold in that climate, and Italians took it with them to the Americas when they emigrated there.

When I returned to the US after that first experience here, I grew rosemary myself. It can survive outdoors in the Washington, DC, area, where I lived, and rosemary graced my community garden for ten years. When I left the garden, I transplanted it (with the owner’s permission) to an area behind the building where I lived. It was an enormous plant by this time, and I had to rent a car to transport it. It thrived that summer, and when winter came, I gathered sprigs to hang in my kitchen, but I always clipped a fresh bit for cooking. Imagine my horror the following spring when I went out to gather rosemary to find the gardener had hacked it down. More than ten years later, I still get an empty feeling when I think about it.

Here in Rome, I have rosemary in a pot on my fifth-floor terrace. I still haven’t gotten the knack for growing it in a container. Surprisingly, it doesn’t seem to like Rome’s summer sun, which is intense. But come autumn and winter, it will thrive again just in time for all those winter stews, roast chickens, and legs of lamb that I’ll enjoy.

This is my last essay on Novel Adventurers. Beginning today, I will be posting weekly on Italian Intrigues.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

The Original Star-Crossed Lovers

By Supriya Savkoor

Long before Romeo and Juliet, there was Laila and Majnu, the ultimate star-crossed lovers who generations of Middle Eastern, Asian, and African cultures celebrated through poetry, plays, art, and later film. 

The original story is based on a real event, about a Bedouin shepherd named Qays (or Qais) ibn al-Mulawwah back in the 7th century. Qays fell in love with Laila (or Layla) bint Mahdi ibn Sa’d, a young girl from his tribe, and wrote many poems about his undying love for her. However, when Qays asked Laila’s father for her hand in marriage, he was refused, and soon, Laila was married off to another man and moved away. Qays became devastated and left home to wander the wilderness and deserts where he continued to compose poetry but quickly descended into madness. He thus earned the nickname Majnun or Majnu, meaning mad or crazy.

Qays’s poetry and the Arab stories about him and his love were already popular and well known in the region during those times and were told and retold many times over the centuries until the great Persian poet Nizami Ganjavi wrote what became the masterpiece version. Ganjavi, who coincidentally first wrote a famous epic poem about Farhad and Shireen, the star-crossed lovers Heidi wrote about, researched both secular and mystical sources about Laila and Majnun and used techniques from the Persian tradition of poetry to make the tragic love story more vivid, boosting its popularity immensely.

After Ganjavi’s version came out – three centuries before Shakespeare wrote Romeo and Juliet – the story of Laila and Majnun spread like wildfire through Azerbaijan, Turkey, and eventually to India, where it’s still considered the penultimate story of star-crossed lovers. 

Take a look at some of the art this famous couple inspired.

From Mashhad, Iran, Majnun eavesdrops on Layla's camp
An Afghani rendering of the young lovers

A Tajik miniature painting shows
Layla and Majnu as young classmates
A tapestry from Mughal India shows
a desolate Majnu out in the wilderness
From a modern Malaysian performance
The story is so entrenched, so much a part of the cultures it spread to, the term Majnun or Majnu is commonly used in the Middle East, Central and South Asia, North Africa, even Somalia to describe anyone who is madly in love, as does the phrase “Laila-Majnu” itself (often describing blushing newlyweds, for example). In Turkey, where Majnun is known as Mecnun, when someone says they “feel like Mecnun,” it means they feel possessed, often by love. 

It could be said that most popular Bollywood movies retell the Laila and Majnu story in one way or another, but India has made at least a dozen or more films specifically about Laila and Majnu in many languages, including, curiously, Persian, Malay, and Pashtun. The Azerbaijani composer Uzeyir Hajibeyov set the story to music and made what is considered to be the Middle East’s first opera, premiering in Baku in 1908. In the 19th century, Isaac D’Israeli (the father of Benjamin D’Israeli, the future British prime minister) translated the epic poem from the Persian into the English, expanding the audience to the west.

Beyond the Indian films, the story has been referenced in much popular media, including Sufi qawwali poem-songs, bestselling novels by authors Orhan Pamuk and Khaled Hosseini, the famous Layla song by Eric Clapton (which even quotes a line from Qays's poetry), and the kitchy disco song Laila from the Indian film Qurbani. The couple has also been the subject of a Tajik Soviet film-ballet from the 1960s, at least one Iranian film from the 1930s, and a contemporary Yo Yo Ma concert.

Over time, the story has taken on slightly different retellings. In one recounting, Layla and Majnun were classmates, that Majnun wrote poems to Layla instead of paying attention to the teacher, and so received lashings in class. Every time Majnun was beaten, Layla would magically bleed, thus causing her family the consternation that leads to them separating the couple. In another version, Layla’s brother Tabrez protests Majnun’s love for his sister, and in the midst of their quarrel, Majnun accidentally kills Tabrez, which incurs the wrath of Layla’s family.

The graves in Bijnore 
In one rural town in India, many believe that the couple hailed, not from the Arab world, but from the north Indian state of Sindh. And when Laila’s family opposed the union, the pair sought refuge in the tiny Rajasthani desert village of Bijnore in India, where they eventually died. The local government maintains a tomb that purportedly contains the couple’s bodies. Not far from the tomb is a well that the locals say the couple regularly visited together. Each year, the town hosts a two-day fair in June to commemorate the couple, and hundreds of newlyweds and lovers attend.

Whatever actually happened, fact and fiction have blended to create one of legend and literature's most enduring star-crossed couples.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Indiana Jones, Tikal, and Me

By Alli Sinclair

At school, history was a bore. I mean, really, what's so interesting about studying dead people? But then a man with a battered hat, bullwhip, and a lopsided smile swaggered into my life. OK, it was onscreen, but still, Indiana Jones impacted the way I viewed the ancient world and literally, changed my life.

History became exciting. The people who lived in ancient civilizations had invented cool stuff. They made me realize we owe a lot to our ancestors for what we have today. And from the first moment I saw Indy swinging with his bullwhip across a chasm, I decided to go on my own crusade and discover ancient cultures.

One of the first that fascinated me was Tikal, one of the largest archaeological sites of the pre-Columbian Mayan civilization. Located in the lush Petén Basin in Guatemala, this UNESCO World Heritage Site is one of the most impressive, mysterious places on earth. Thick jungle surrounds the ruins and howler monkeys chatter overhead, accompanied by the lyrical songs of 410 species of birds.

Bound by rivers, the park containing Tikal provides protection for ocelots, peccaries, toucans, and jaguars, just to name some of the exotic wildlife that live in the shadows of the jungle. So far, only 3,000 sites have been uncovered, and there’s a further 10,000 waiting for archaeologists to unearth. It’s been 50 years since the first dig at Tikal, and given the expanse of the area, it could take many lifetimes to fully discover the history and secrets beneath the soil. The Mayans believed in reincarnation, and I wonder if archaeologists wish it were true, so they could continue with their discoveries.

In its heyday, Tikal was home to 90,000 people and covered close to 75 square miles (120 square kilometers).  Because of its geographical location, the Mayans needed to conserve water, and management of this precious resource was vital for the survival of their city. Surrounded by wetlands, the Mayans devised reservoir systems for water diversion and storage, taking advantage of the seasonal rainfall. Roads were paved with lime-based cement, and flint was readily available, providing the Mayans with a valuable stone to make spear points, arrowheads, and knives.

In 700 B.C., Tikal was a commercial, cultural and religious centre but by the mid-4th century, Tikal had morphed into a city of people who’d adopted brutal methods in warfare under the rule of King Jaguar Paw. It is still not known exactly what killed off the Mayans but the latest report in National Geographic suspects climate may have had a lot to do with their demise. Yet another reason why learning about history is so important – we have the opportunity to change our ways based on what our ancestors did, or didn’t, do.

The most striking features at Tikal are the steep-sided temples rising above the jungle. The plazas have been cleared of trees and vines, and the temples are partially restored. At times, great distances exist between sites, and one can stroll under the dense canopy, take refuge from the sun, and enjoy the rich, earthy scents of the low-lying vegetation. Even at peak tourist season, it’s possible to escape the throngs, step back in time, and imagine what life may have been like.

Translated from Itzá Maya, Tikal means “place of voices”, and it’s easy to understand why. Whispers from the past echo through the deserted corridors and around corners. The skin prickles, and hair stands on end with the feeling of not being entirely alone.

It’s a long, hot climb to the top of the temples but the view is worth every rasping breath. Temples tower above the dense forest, dotting the vista, and the great height of the monuments can cause giddiness. Star Wars buffs will note Temple IV was used for a scene of the Massassi Outpost on the fourth moon of Yavin. Even 1970s Hollywood saw the allure of such a magical place.

Tikal is shrouded in mystery and magic. It begs to be explored and the mind wanders, trying to create theories of how people lived and died. Maybe all the questions will never be answered. But what I do know is Tikal will always be a place I treasure, thanks to an intrepid fictional adventurer named Indiana Jones.

Monday, June 24, 2013

Layers of Identity

By Jenni Gate

“Middle child syndrome just doesn’t exist!” How many times I heard this as I was growing up. But I was convinced that birth order meant everything to personality. I was the verbal one, the mouthpiece for my older and younger sisters. I was the one who stood up to our parents when I thought life was unfair, stood up with an attitude. I was the outgoing sister who went out and introduced myself to the neighborhood every time we moved, then brought back playmates for my shy sisters. I was self-reliant, stubborn, moody, and introspective. My parents said I was “complicated.”

My epiphany came on the day of my grandmother’s funeral. We went back to her house and walked through it together. The emotion built in all of us. Mom put her arm around Trina’s shoulder and pulled her close. Dad reached over to Susie and hugged her tightly. I stood in the middle of the room, tears stinging my eyes, feeling profoundly alone. As I stormed out of the house, my dad tried to reach out to me. I brushed him away, thinking, “This is it, the one, single moment that sums up my life.”

It took me a while, but I finally realized being in the middle means being self-reliant, independent, and self-satisfying. My parents and my sisters love me, but being in the middle means being alone and on the outside more often than it means being surrounded. It means mediating with others to keep the peace. It means looking up to the sister ahead of me while pulling along the one behind. It means standing on the sidelines and looking in at the way others interact.

As a child being uprooted every few years and moved to another country, being self-reliant, independent, and resilient became a survival skill. Resilience is a Third Culture Kid (TCK) trait. Adaptability, the ability to blend in even when we don’t fit in, is another. And it could be said that the sense of being on the outside looking in defines much of the TCK experience.

What is a TCK? A TCK is someone who spends a significant period of time (more than a two-week vacation) outside of their parents’ home culture. Not fully fitting into the host culture, the family seeks out others who are also not from their home cultures. These friendships form the third culture. As we adapt to different cultures, we absorb much of our host culture; out of necessity, we grow close bonds within the culture of our immediate family; and we identify most closely with others of our third culture. We build relationships within all the cultures we interact with, but never have full ownership or belonging in any.

After finishing high school in Pakistan, I returned to the US for college. That year, I suffered the most intense culture shock of my life. I had an identity crisis.

Returning to my passport country, the U.S.A., meant coming “home” to a place I barely knew or understood. My senior year of high school, I got caught in the first Russian-backed coup in Afghanistan. It was bloody and violent, and I was well on the way to squishing the experience down into a little box and crushing it deep, deep inside. Coming home to the U.S. that summer, fireworks on the 4th of July freaked me out. Search light-type displays lighting up a night sky to advertise a new car dealership struck an irrational fear deep in the pit of my stomach.

I began my first year of college with mixed feelings, but mostly excitement to begin my life as an adult. I wanted to learn everything, try everything, experience everything my home culture had to offer. My new home was in the dorms of a Pacific Northwest campus set in a lush, beautifully manicured lawns and gardens in the middle of a rain forest. The contrast could not have been more exquisite. When I left Pakistan, the dust was rising off the desert plains and the monsoons would not start for several months yet. The Himalayas, always covered with snow, rose starkly from the dry plains below.

In Pakistan, the average annual income per family at the time was $100. At my college, although a percentage of the students were on financial aid, many came from wealthy families. Some of those flaunted sports cars, designer dresses, flashy jewelry.

A bigger difference was in traffic. In Pakistan, all of humanity and half of the animal kingdom share the roads: overloaded buses with people hanging onto the sides and goats and chickens on top, crowded taxis, motorcycles, bicycles, water buffalo and horses pulling carts, men pushing wagons, and people walking. At college, my friends would load three or four of us in a car and zip down a highway. I felt an overwhelming sense of separateness from people in other vehicles, a sensation that we were cocooned from others in our own separate environment as we weaved in and out of traffic. It was intense cognitive dissonance.

Carpet vendors, Islamabad
Photo by E.L. Headrick
But the biggest shock was at the grocery store. In Pakistan, we shopped a lot at the local outdoor and covered markets. We bought from vendors with small stalls crowded with beautiful displays of fruit, nuts, and vegetables. We bargained for every purchase, enjoying the interactions with shopkeepers and sense of pride when we knew we struck the right price. Special finds on the black market were prized. We understood the value of items that made their way across the desert on the back of a camel or smuggled across borders. I valued hand-made items, knowing the life of toil, uncertainty, and strife that went into their creation. Indian ragas blared from tiny transistor radios in each stall. Shopkeepers called to us by name and invited us to join them for tea, and we sat and sipped and admired the produce, making our decisions at leisure. About once a month, we shopped at the PX (post exchange) for items like toothpaste, toilet paper, shampoo, and alcohol. It was a small shop and only carried one or two brands of anything.

The first time I shopped with friends at college, I was paralyzed by over-stimulation. My friends lost patience with me as I stared at aisle after aisle of hundreds of choices, wondering how anyone ever made up their minds which one to pick. Endless choices of toilet paper—could there really be any difference? The aisles stacked high with factory manufactured goods were intimidating and impersonal. At the checkout stand, our items were rung up on a cash register. There was no bargaining, no casual talk while we verbally danced around the price of an item; just a "how are you today?" to which the cashier did not want an answer, a total amount due, and a "have a nice day" as we walked toward the door. I felt no satisfaction at the exchange.

It was not until I started college that I began to realize how unique my upbringing was. Rather than fitting in with my “home” culture, I was once again an outsider looking in. I’ve lived in the U.S. now, off and on, for my adulthood, and I’ve continued my nomadic, self-reliant ways. I know change, I know loss, and I know the excitement of new places. Overriding all of that, I know I am forever the outsider looking in.


TCKs learn to say goodbyes early and often. Some of us come to hate them, knowing we may never see our closest friend of the last few years or months again. Often, it is easier to argue than to accept the next loss. Infrequently, someone I have said goodbye to reappeared later in my life. To deal with the difficulty of goodbyes, I keep in mind how changeable life is. I prefer to wish us happy travels, until we meet again.

If you would like to read more about my travels or life as a global nomad, please visit my blog, Nomad Trails and Tales.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

The Impermanence of Identity

By Kelly Raftery

I lived in Russia for most of my early twenties. I studied at Leningrad State University, worked in St. Petersburg and Moscow and, visited countless other cities and towns as well. I have never stopped being completely enchanted by White Nights in St. Petersburg and never tired of exploring Moscow’s hidden treasures. The cupolas of the Assumption Cathedral in Sergiev Possad, painted a deep cobalt blue with a scattering of golden stars, always leave me deeply awed. 

White Nights in St. Petersburg,
one of the sights I would like to
show my husband, but can't.
Photo by Victor Griagas

I would love to show my son and husband the places that I lived in, places that I grew to love so deeply when I lived there. But, I can’t, I won’t. You see, my husband is not Russian, he is Kyrgyz. To most readers, this means precisely nothing. To people from this area of the world, no further explanations are needed.

Russia is and always has been a multi-ethnic nation. Today, there are almost 200 different ethnic groups living in Russia from Abkhazians to Yakuts. Some people in Russia are white skinned and European looking, including Russians, Ukrainians, Byelorussians, Estonians, Latvians, and Lithuanians. Others such as Armenians, Azeris, Georgians, and Chechens more closely resemble Mediterranean peoples like Italians or Greeks. Still further east are the peoples of Central Asia and the tribes of Siberia, who are Asian looking, more resembling Mongolians. The tribes of Russia’s Far North are most similar to their cousins across the Bering Strait, Alaskan Eskimos. You can read more about Russia’s ethnic mix in two earlier posts that I wrote here and here.

Jewish victims of Russian Pogroms.
It was not until I lived in Russia full time that I began to understand and grasp the full range of ethnic stereotypes and how these ideas impact on Russian and post-Soviet society. This complex interplay between nationalities and nations is a constant undercurrent that is ignored at one’s own peril. Ethnic hatred and directed violence are certainly nothing new to Russia. My mother’s grandparents fled Tsarist Russia during anti-Semitic pogroms over a hundred years ago. I was always cautious when I lived there, not telling anyone that I was Jewish by heritage.  But I had the freedom to cloak my background and if anyone probed beyond “American,” I could always hide behind my very Irish name.

My husband (and millions of others like him) is not as fortunate, as his ethnicity is written in the color of his hair, the shape of his eyes, and the hue of his skin. Soccer fans in St. Petersburg have taunted minority players with bananas and last year demanded that Russian National Champion team, Zenit, “preserve the traditional identity” of the team by not signing dark-skinned or gay athletes. In polling citied by an extensive article on Russian xenophobia, “One in five Russians strongly agrees with the slogan ‘Russia for Russians,’ while 43 percent believe that any measure taken to protect “my people” is good, according to research by Higher School of Economy professor Mark Ustinov. Nearly 70 percent of Russians have negative feelings toward people of another ethnicity, Ustinov’s research found.” 

When I talk about my concerns about traveling with my husband to Russian friends, they look at me in surprise and protest, “But, your husband is not like those people!  He is a professional!”  In my mind I often respond that I don't think a racial attack starts with a resume review.

One memorable evening a number of years ago, a Russian friend started ranting about the “darkies” who were despoiling the purity of Russia and continued on in a similar vein for twenty minutes. Once he had wound down, my husband looked him in the eyes and said in a quiet voice, “You do realize I am one of those dark people you hate so much, right?”  Our friend looked at him in complete shock, denied that my husband was “one of them” 
and in all honesty made no connection between my Central Asian husband and the Central Asian migrant workers he despised for ruining Russia.

Imagine my surprise when we were at a company picnic in Las Vegas a few years ago and one of my husband’s co-workers blithely informed me that he was “not a real Asian.”  My husband’s office was made up primarily of Chinese and Chinese-American technology workers and I was shocked to realize that none of them considered him Asian. In fact, they considered him Caucasian. Recently, I was discussing mixed race (Asian/Caucasian) marriages and specifically the phenomenon of white men actively seeking out Asian women to marry, or what my friend called “Yellow Fever.”  My friend is American, of Chinese heritage, and when I asked her if she considered my dark skinned, dark haired husband Asian, she promptly answered, “no.” When I probed a bit deeper, she told me that maybe it was because he speaks Russian that she doesn’t consider him Asian, but she really wasn’t sure. Another friend of Japanese and African-American heritage, who proudly considers herself a “person of color” told me that she doesn’t consider my husband Asian because he is light-skinned.

Imagine the irony – in Russia, my husband could be the target of vicious taunts and possible violence by merit of the color of his skin, the shape of his eyes. Many Russians would not hesitate to point out that my husband’s “kind” was not wanted in Russia. Yet, here in America, he is not even considered a “real Asian” by a considerable swath of the Asian community. Even white friends don’t necessarily consider my husband Asian, which I also find fascinating. Each person’s perception of my husband seemingly throws up a reflected image of the world in which that person lives.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Goldspot's Music Strikes the Right Chord

 By Supriya Savkoor

Siddhartha Khosla of Goldspot at Hard Rock Cafe
in Bangalore, India, in early 2012.

(Photo credit: Sohanmaheshwar)

Death Cab for Cutie meets Kishore Kumar meets the Beatles meets The Smiths meets … 1960s Bollywood nostalgia meets contemporary indie pop-rock.
Yes, there’s an American band that’s all that and more. You may not have heard of Goldspot, but chances are, you’ve heard one, maybe more, of their songs.
They’ve released two albums (are they still called albums?) with another one releasing later this summer. Their music is featured in everything from films, starring the likes of Reese Witherspoon, Vince Vaughn, Aasif Mandvi (of The Daily Show with Jon Stewart fame), and Kate Hudson; commercials for Apple’s iPad, eBay, and Chrysler; and popular television shows such as How I Met Your Mother and The O.C. The group has played in music festivals on both sides of the Atlantic and the Pacific as well as opened for bands such as Arcade Fire, Franz Ferdinand, Bon Jovi, and, of course, Death Cab for Cutie. They’ve won numerous awards, been featured on NPR, and were named “the best band to come out of America in years” by the UK’s Sunday Times.
Borrowing its name after India’s equivalent of a fizzy orange soda pop, Goldspot is fronted by its Indian-American creator and songwriter Siddhartha (Sid) Khosla, who was born and raised in New Jersey and grew up on a steady dose of Hindi film songs from the 1950s and 1960s.
Goldspot's music reminds me of all the diverse types of music I heard and loved growing up, including the sort my parents played when I was a kid, as well as a dash or two of my favorite kind of alternative music. Not indie folk, but that sort of serious indie pop that bundles influences from all my favorites sounds---echoes of the oldies from the British invasion as well as contemporary modern beats.

Following is a sampling of a few of my favorites. Apologies for not embedding the videos for these songs directly into this post, but clicking on the links will get you to the right link.

Here’s one of their catchy songs from the trailer of the U.S. film, How Do You Know?
And a Hindi version of the same song from the satirical film, The President is Coming, a parody based on a real visit George W. Bush made to India in 2006. (I haven't seen the movie yet, but doesn't it sound like a hoot?) The movie features Konkana Sen Sharma, a talented and well-known actress who stars in Indian “art films” (that's what non-Bollywood movies are generally known as in India).

I can’t not include this one, a cover of one of my favorite songs, Float On (originally by Modest Mouse).
I’ll leave you with this one, a song whose proceeds go entirely to the American Cross for Hurricane Sandy disaster relief. It's also featured on the TV show, The O.C.
Hope you like what you hear! Drop us a line and let us know.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Science Fiction--Just in English?

When I saw the Star Trek movie reboot in 2009, I was one of the first people in the world to be able to see it in the theater.  I was living in China, and, excited to be able to get to a premiere of a film before my friends commented on it on Facebook, I decided to go to a midnight showing at the cinema in our small town. 

In the early 2000s, I’d been a reporter covering the midnight showings of the new Star Wars movies in the US, and I had great memories of people dressing up in costumes, getting their lightsabers confiscated by ushers, and making the movie an event rather than just another film to see. 
The cast of Star Trek.

However, I had a feeling that Star Trek wouldn’t have the same cult status in China. 

And I was right. 

We had booked our tickets in advance--but there was no need. Dan and I were two of only a handful of people in the large theater. At first we guessed that this was because it was a premiere, and premieres in China are often shown in English, with Chinese subtitles. But no, as it turned out, we’d be watching the film in Mandarin. Good practice for our language skills, but not much for helping us grasp the nuances of character and plot. 

Since then, I’ve been wondering how different cultures view science fiction. I know there are Chinese authors of science fiction, though I have never found a translated book I could read in English. And I have heard that Avatar is one of the top-selling movies in China of all time, right after Titanic, which was the first Hollywood blockbuster to be released in the Middle Kingdom. But, the percentage of science-fiction films coming from China seems to be much below the percentage of science fiction being produced in English language film studios. 
Much of Looper takes place in China.

It could be because science fiction is ill-regarded in China. In 2011, it was announced that Chinese censors were going to ban movies featuring time travel. This may be why, some industry insiders suggest, the films Looper and Iron Man had such large chunks of plot set in China. This inclusion perhaps greased the wheels and made censors more friendly to the idea of letting the movies release to their huge population of cinema-goers. 

What are your experiences with science fiction in other cultures? I’d love to hear about some books or movies you’ve enjoyed. Leave a comment below, or Tweet me @bethverde. 

Monday, June 17, 2013

A Passion for Bread

By Heidi Noroozy

Photo by ph_en
Half a lifetime ago, I lived on the grounds of a Benedictine monastery in Vermont. Although I’d overcome a brief flirtation with religion by then and was well on my way to becoming a non-believer, I’d often slip into the back of the chapel in the evening when the monks gathered for vespers. Along with the customary Gregorian chants, these Benedictines sang beautiful songs written by one of the brothers. One song had a line that always remained in my mind: “Man does not live by bread alone.”

These words stayed with me because, well, I beg to differ. I could easily live on bread alone. Paired with a good Vermont cheddar cheese is best, but I’ll settle for plain butter, and some varieties are delicious with nothing at all.

I’ve always loved bread—even the rough loaves a neighbor used to make from coarse, hand-milled flour. But when I moved to Europe, where bread is serious business, I was in heaven. Different towns and regions have their own local specialties: Joggingbrot in Stuttgart, a rye bread packed with sunflower and pumpkin seeds, or salty Bretzeln (soft pretzels) in Bavaria.

In Salzburg, Austria, I bought my bread from a tiny bakery on the aptly named Brotgasse (Bread Alley). Identified only by the word Bäckerei (bakery) in faded letters over the door, the shop was easy to miss. It had a practical selection of baked goods and, unlike the elegant, tourist-packed Konditoreien (pastry shops) on Getreidegasse only blocks away, no fancy tortes or cream-filled pastries. It served oval loaves of rye bread, chewy in the outside, soft on the inside. Rectangular, whole-grain breads filled with sprouted rye, oats, and seeds. Large rounds of crusty sourdough. On the sweeter side, the options were a simple Obstkuchen (fruit-topped cake) or sweet roll. I knew I had been elevated to the exalted status of Stammgast (regular patron) when the baker started tucking little extras into my bread bag: a pair of Kipferl (crescent rolls) or even a slice of Zwetschkenkuchen (plum cake).

Photo by Kochtopf
From time to time, I’d head for the Franciscan monastery on the far side of Domplatz and descend a narrow set of stairs into the basement, where the monks baked huge loaves of sourdough rye bread. On baking days, a wonderful yeasty fragrance wafted through square.

You might think it disloyal of me to abandon my favorite bakery for the Franciscans, even temporarily, but it was such a treat to stand in the bakery and watch the brown-robed monks pull fresh bread from enormous ovens that stretched nearly all the way to the ceiling. The loaves weighed two kilos each, so I always bought a Halber (half a loaf). Bread addict that I am, even I couldn’t eat four pounds of bread before it got stale.

Years later, when I visited Iran for the first time, an entirely new world of bread opened up to me. Like other Middle Easterners, Iranians prefer flat bread with lots of crust. And they like it fresh, still warm from the oven. When my husband was a boy, it was his job to fetch sheets of warm flat bread from the neighborhood bakery—not just once a day but before every single meal.

Like in Germany and Austria, Iranian bread has regional variations. The ultra-thin lavash is made with white flour in Tehran but comes in tastier whole-wheat varieties in the villages along the Caspian Sea. The bakery in the Isfahan neighborhood where my sister-in-law once lived sold a fragrant barbari, a thicker, oblong loaf with ridges down its length. And Isfahan’s signature street food is beryan—ground mutton with savory spices, mint, and slivered pistachios wrapped in a round sheet of taftoon, which is much like an enormous tortilla.

In Paveh, a Kurdish village in the Zagros Mountains of western Iran, I started each day with sheep’s milk cheese, homemade butter, and sour cherry jam spread on the thinnest, laciest bread I’d every seen. It was perfectly translucent when you held it up to the light. One morning, my hostess added koloocheh, slightly sweet rounds of fried dough, a kind of donut without the hole. Breakfast became my favorite meal of the day.

But my all-time favorite Iranian bread is sangak, a whole-wheat flat bread studded with sesame and black nigella seeds. In Iran, it is often still made the traditional way, long sheets of dough draped over heated pebbles in a clay oven and hung on hooks from the wall to cool. The only drawback to this age-old baking tradition is that sometimes small pebbles cling to pockets in the knobby surface of the loaf, which can be hazardous to the teeth.

This hearty flat bread is so versatile, I could eat it with every meal—spread with hummus or smoky baba ganoush, wrapped around kebabs fresh from the grill, or torn up and stirred into the soupy portion of a one-pot, two-course meal called dizi.

Half the fun of travel is the opportunity to expand my culinary horizons and explore new tastes and textures. And visiting local bakeries to sample new kinds of breads usually tops my agenda. It’s an easy expedition—I just follow my nose.