Tests and tribulations, trials and travails

Boy, there are sure a lot of synonyms for “tribulations” that start with “t.” Thank you, English language, for offering so many opportunities for alliteration (and assonance).

I had to take a break from filling out applications to fill you in, dear reader. Life has been proceeding routinely since I last wrote, with a few exceptions:

1) Both my dad and Sergey had birthdays this month; Sergey is embarking on the first year of the third decade of his life. That is a complicated way of saying he turned 29. I wanted to get him flowers, but the shopkeeper sympathetically informed me that those are only sold on holidays, so I got him chocolate praline hearts and a Kinder egg instead. Out of the Kinder egg hatched a plastic bracelet ornamented with lion face stickers, which I believe has been re-gifted to me. It fits perfectly!

2) I was made co-emergency manager for the staff in my neighborhood zone because I am an excellent runner and would surely do well pulling people out of rubble. In my acceptance speech, I quoth, “Are you sure you wouldn’t rather ask Sergey?” So, more than ever before, I am really hoping Israel and Palestine cool down their tensions. At least I now boast the qualification of knowing the difference between vacuum cleaner noise and missile sirens.

3) The GRE. This forms my central subject (and the reason for the title of the post), so bear with me–I promise to make standardized testing entertaining!

Once upon a Tuesday, Sergey and I set out for our relaxing day-trip early. From crowded bus to crowded train to crowded bus we went until we reached the testing center in the Ramat Gan district of Tel Aviv. The Prometric site is located in a college that looks like it hasn’t undergone much change since the 1960s. Can I note that college students are starting to look pretty young to me? Goodness, how I’ve aged. Just preparing to eventually be an out-of-touch silver-haired professor…by the time I’m 30.

We poked our heads into the small facility, and the test proctor came to get my information. She was a lady in her early 60s, perhaps, who gave me an affectionate squeeze and told me that my scores would be good. I have to give this woman kudos. I don’t imagine that proctoring tests and interacting with nervous test-takers full time is an especially stimulating job, but she showed a good deal of human kindness. On my break, she handed me half of a clementine she had just peeled, for example. Also, now that I think of it, the bus driver en route to the college also went out of his way to help us. Sergey had asked about our destination when we boarded, and as he was about to pull away from one stop, the driver remembered this and communicated that we should get off.

Anyway, at the test center, I underwent an interesting bevy of checks. First I had to write out an affirmation of ethics–in cursive. It took me five minutes to write two sentences, clutching the pen like a tot just learning how to form letters. Thankfully, ETS is not scoring me based on the quality of my cursive. Then I was of course scanned with a metal detector, which is standard procedure in Israel. But the crowning ritual in this strange ceremony involved the Stripping of Worldly Attachments and the Turning of the Pockets. I was informed that my analog wristwatch and my packets of facial tissues, indispensable due to my constant allergies, had to remain in my locked cubby. After removal, I showed off my bare, ethical wrists to the video camera, in accordance with instructions. (I got a Prometric-approved tissue to replace my packets, don’t worry. And at the end of the test I disposed of this tissue in front of the watchful eye of the camera to prove I hadn’t transcribed test questions on it.) Then, in front of the video camera, I had to demonstrate that my pockets were totally empty. This raised profound questions I had never before confronted: how does one turn the butt pockets on jeans inside out? Or decorative breast pockets on flannel shirts? And is someone on the other end of the video feed laughing at my performance? For what it’s worth, the proctor let me know she personally hated this particular requirement.

I can’t say much about the test, both because it’s all a blur of 35-minute periods passing too quickly yet four hours dragging on and on, and because I swore to full confidentiality in that cursive statement. Sorry. I know you were really looking forward to hearing some sample math problems.

What I can advise is this. Make cookies part of your test prep. I had a ten-minute break in the middle of the test, during which I stuffed my face with as many homemade oatmeal raisin cookies as possible. These cookies offer the tester two benefits: a lot of calories and a bit of protein, and fond memories of Mommy’s cookies. During a time like the GRE, any fond memory is useful!

So, with the test over, Sergey and I spent the rest of our day in Jaffa, the charming old city of Tel Aviv, where we had what was probably our most delicious restaurant meal post-US trip and contemplated the dark waters of the Mediterranean. And then, as must happen to every vacation, our relaxing time off drew to a close, and we made our way back north.

Happy (belated) Ayyam-i-Ha!

Ayyam-i-Ha is the period of 4-5 intercalary (between calendars) days in the Bahá’í calendar.  It is a time for generosity, hospitality, and fellowship.  Here, there is an opportunity to host “Special Dinners” in celebration.  You sign up for a type of cuisine and a date, then get assigned a guest list.  Sergey and I decided to host one of these dinners (Tex-Mex themed, because I have no idea what Wisconsin-Moldovan cuisine would entail) for two reasons.  One was to extend hospitality to our colleagues and friends.  The other was to study our behaviour under pressure.

It proved to be a great test for that latter point.  From a beginning guest list of ten, we eventually inflated to 25.  Now, I’ve done most of the cooking for 15 before (Thanksgiving dinner), and had 25 people over (for the weekly study meeting), but this was my first time cooking solo for so big a crowd.  Calculating how much food I would need to feed 25 people bulking up for the Fast, I began to mildly panic.  Would polvorones and tres leches cake (which was almost autocorrected to the less appetizing “tres leeches cake”) sate the many sweet teeth?  How many gallons of horchata to brew?  Four kilos of chicken?  Ten avocados for guacamole, twenty tomatoes for salsa?  And how much caffeine for me?

And then there was the cleaning and organisation to be done.  Sergey recently moved into a flat that was previously occupied by an artistic nature lover.  Therefore, scattered around the flat were odd arrangements involving bamboo poles, rocks, houseplants, and an iron tub.  My favourite was in the dining room, where in a corner several bamboo poles and rough white rocks sat on a dais of tree trunk, with a lamp and a houseplant nestled in the middle.

Eventually we got the place looking less like an eccentric’s greenhouse, and I merrily went about watering the many plants.  One giant plant seemed especially thirsty, so I kept watering it.  Several minutes later, I noticed a yellow puddle spreading under the refrigerator from the plant saucer and realised that I might have been overenthusiastic in my plant care.  While mopping it up, I thought of an incident years ago during my toddling days when I had also overestimated my green thumb.  In our living room, we had some big potted jasmine plants.  In my childish ignorance, I guess I thought soil contained seeds, and all one had to do was sprinkle dirt around and, poof, plants would grow.  So, after enlisting poor Jasmine in my plan, we scooped handfuls of soil out of the pots and sowed a mess on the carpet and couches.  Our harvest was two peeved parents.

Anyway, despite our nerves–mine manifested in excessive baking sprees–and obstacles like a contrary oven, the night was a success.  (There were a few jalapeño issues, but no trips to the ER.)  After eating, we had an anonymous gift exchange, and then a musical portion with sing-alongs and call-and-response.  Although by this point I was collapsed on the floor, I really enjoyed hearing the voices of our guests joined in song.  People were happy.  There’s a quote of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá about how a gathering can transform a home into a house of heaven, and indeed, it was one heavenly flat.


My extended family

My extended family

For the weeks leading up to the fateful day of 30 November 2013, my life revolved around one thing: Thanksgiving.  You see, there was never any question in my mind that I would host Thanksgiving.  It is, as a recent New York Times article put it, the most important meal of the year.  And I think that’s all the more true for expats like yours truly.

First came the invites.  Once I had fussed over sending the most beautiful Outlook invitation I could make to fifteen friends, I realized I needed some food.  I asked my Moldovan friend Sergey to help me go grocery shopping.  He was puzzled by most of the foods on my list.  Squash?  Currants?  Celery?  Worcestershire sauce?  But mostly by French-fried onions, which I struggled to explain.  I mean, explaining them as, “The crispy onions that go on the green bean casserole, along with cream of mushroom soup and milk,” would surely cast doubt on American cuisine.

Well, I could not find those special onions, nor could I find the turkey, or breakfast sausage for the stuffing (solution: kebab with maple syrup).  Nor could I find whipped cream or pumpkin puree.  My dear American readers, I want you to appreciate how lucky you are to be able to crack open a can, dump in some cream and eggs, and basically have your pie, as opposed to chopping, then boiling, then blenderizing fresh pumpkin.  And don’t even get me started on trying to manually whip cream.

Nura’s World-Famous Spicy Pumpkin Pie, post-sampling

Oh, I did find butternut squash.  When I cut it open, I found that all the seeds had sprouted, giving the inside the look of a nest of white worms.  I stuck it in the fridge and haven’t looked at it since.  I probably should go deal with that…

There was a turkey leg for sale, but somehow, that did not seem right.  First, I considered going to Haifa Zoo, hoping they might display some American fowl.  Alas, I didn’t get a chance.  So I went to the butcher shop to buy some whole chickens.  A truck was being unloaded out front, and when I entered, there were crates full of apparently recently deceased chickens.  I bought three, and nearly fell over when the clerk handed me the bag.

“Um, do these have guts?” I inquired.

He shook his head, not understanding.  I shrugged and resigned myself to my fate.

I staggered up the hill back to my flat under the weight of fifteen pounds of meat, feeling like the Demon Barber with my cargo of carrion.

The day of Thanksgiving, I pulled out the birds, hesitantly grabbing them by the legs.  There…was…blood.  Ew.  I brought the first bird to the sink to rinse its cavity, and noticed the cavity wasn’t entirely deserted; two tiny kidneys dangled, and beneath, something dark red that I assume was the liver.

“Dear God, please give me strength,” I said.  If I were more in touch with nature, I probably would have said a prayer for the bird with whom I was enjoying intimate communion.  As it was, I grabbed a knife and started sawing away, thinking back to the cat dissection I did in high school.  I did poorly, but not because I was grossed out by the formadehyde-drenched feline.  I’m just not very good at cutting things.  But I do remember one thing: fasciae.  So much fasciae to slice, and here was fasciae once again.

Eventually, after submerging the chickens in olive oil and tethering their legs, I stuck them in the oven.  Actually, I crammed them in.  And then I bleached the entire kitchen.

Two and a half hours later, after I had manically swept, mopped, dusted, and decorated, the guests began to arrive.  The first one pronounced my cooking skills “legit.”  I told him he should wait to actually try the food.  The next guest I dragooned into carving up the chicken.  “How do I do this?” he asked.  “Here’s a book that tells you how,” I said, thrusting Betty Crocker and a knife into his hands.  I hovered nervously nearby, hoping the juices would run clear, as Mommy said.  The juice seemed clear.  The flat was filling with friends.

And then there were two.

And then there were two.

Everyone seemed to enjoy the meal, even if the greenhorns (your usual World Centre mix of South African, Dominican, Ugandan, Kenyan, Norwegian, Mauritian, and Moldovan) were a little puzzled by all the strange dishes.  “So what is with the orange food?” the Ugandan asked, poking at the candied sweet potato.  “You Americans like orange, both on Halloween and Thanksgiving.”  Hm.

All I can say is, I broke only two glass items and nearly started only one fire, and I am very thankful for that.   Happy Thanksgiving!

Recipe: Birthday pudding with rainbow frosting

Sometimes I like to put my apron on and make a mess of the kitchen, or as some people call it, “bake.”  (Please note that I have not yet broken the oven in my second flat.)  Today I would like to share with you a favorite recipe.

Here’s how to start.  Plan to host a few friends for dinner.  Find out a few hours before the event that one of these friends has his birthday and “you should really bake a cake.”  Try not to panic.  Luckily, of course you have a stock of the staples dark chocolate and raspberries, so decide to make raspberry brownies.  Google “raspberry brownies” and go with the first hit, because time is running out.  The recipe description is:  “Squidgy and super moreish, these gorgeous foolproof fruity chocolate bakes will be snapped up in seconds.”

Try to get over the way the words “squidgy” and “moreish” make you think of squids and Othello, the Moor of Venice.  In fact, try to get over that whole sentence with its bubbly British English.

Nickelodeon vs. Shakespeare

Shakespeare and Nickelodeon. I get them confused sometimes.

(Also, foolproof?  Just saying, have you ever met this fool?)

Follow the recipe.  It’s pretty simple, really, except that simultaneously you should also be trying to use a rice maker for the first time ever and chopping veggies for the stir fry.

Check the brownies after the allotted 30 minutes.  Discover that they’re still molten.  Replace in oven.  10 minutes later, they are a bit more magma than lava.  Take them out and let cool.

Now, “let cool” to you means “let cool for five minutes.”  And you’re impatient to get those birthday candles affixed, so stick ’em in.  Then realize they are melting into the brownies.  Remove.

Once actually cooled, reinsert the candles and light.  There are 26 candles; the friend is turning 27.  26 is still a lot of candles even if it is a lie.  Use approximately 10 matches and nearly burn your hands trying to light them all.  The candles are mere fluorescent stubs by the time you sing the birthday song and the wish is made.  When extinguished, the candles make a lot of smoke.  Luckily, you don’t have to worry about setting off smoke detectors, because you don’t have any.  And the birthday candles will provide a colorful layer of frosting.

After the fire.

Now wait for all the wax to be picked out, leaving the surface of the brownies pockmarked.  When it comes time to serve the brownies, they are, well, squidgy, which you now know means “floppy and pudding-like, refusing to maintain any shape.”  One of the friends inquires politely, “Are these fully cooked?”  They are.  They’re simply mislabeled, because you billed them as “raspberry brownies” when in reality it’s chocolate pudding with paraffin enhancements.

Thank you for joining me for another baking lesson.  There will be more to come as I pursue a truly “foolproof” (Layli-proof) brownie recipe.


Maybe I just need a cute apron.

Maybe I just need a cute apron.

There’s nothing like baking to make a place feel (and smell) homey.  I was so proud when I successfully baked banana bread, despite the inscrutable dials on our oven and lacking measuring spoons.

Best served with coffee

Best served with coffee

Too proud, it turns out, because the goddesses of domesticity decided to punish me for my hubris.

It began with good intentions (which I hear pave a certain road).  I wanted to bake oatmeal raisin cookies for my Serving the Divine Plan group, which meets every Monday night to get our spirituality on.  By the time I started, I was already tired from cooking several pounds of my special peanut noodles, but I was determined.  Three mistakes ensued.

  1. THE EGG. The batter seemed too dry.  “Hm,” I thought to myself, “maybe the eggs here are smaller than at home.”  I stared at an egg.  It looked small. I cracked a third egg into the batter. Now, I know cooking can be an art, but baking must be a science.  Exact proportions of ingredients are key to success.  I knew it was wrong to add that egg, but knowing and knowing are very different.
  2. THE COOKIE SHEET. After dolloping my gooey, lumpy batter onto a cookie sheet, I ran into my second obstacle.  The  sheet did not fit into our oven.  Now, why we have a cookie sheet that can never be used is way beyond me.  My flatmate Deirdre, amused by my consternation, helped me to transfer the batter to two smaller sheets.
  3. THE HEAT. I had been preheating the oven for an hour (yeah, I know).  This was unintentional; I’m just a very slow baker.  By the time I was ready, the oven had reached a temperature somewhere between a kiln and foundry.  The racks inside had turned a threatening red.  In fact, even the oven dials were scorching hot.  Concerned about burning down my apartment building, I shut it off to let it cool down.  And then tried to turn it back on.  Nothing happened.  I tried again.  Nope.  Desperate, I sunk to my haunches, fiddling madly with the dials, a protective dishrag wrapped around my fingers, to no avail.

“I broke it,” I whined to Deirdre. “I told you I break everything I touch.”  When she tried to comfort me but couldn’t help but chortle at my fiasco, I played stoic.  “There are worse tragedies in the world than me not being able to make my cookies,” I said.  She paused to genuinely consider this point, then convinced me to use the neighbors’ oven.  I did.  She recommended putting all the dough on two sheets to make two giant cookies.  I did.

This was the result.  Please keep in mind that I was aiming for 30 cookies.


In the words of Prospero, “This thing of darkness, I acknowledge mine.”  I’m still trying to figure out what utensil to use with my thing of darkness.  A small jackhammer would be useful.

Seriously, who else sets out to bake cookies and ends up breaking the oven?

Postscript:  No worries, the oven has been repaired.  I plan to bake some brownies soon–at a very low heat.