Sunday, February 22, 2015

Further Adventures in Culinary Delights; or, Gourmande, I Ain't

Sometimes we find odd items at the commissary. Before thinking it out, I buy them up, bring them home, open my cookbooks (yes, I'm a throwback to the cookbook era instead of Googling recipes, mostly because, you know, GTMO internet), and I attempt to cook something new.

Most of the time the recipes involve cheese because, as you have probably read, I'm all about the cheese.

A few times a year we have brie cheese. I like to slather the top with apricot preserves, top that with sliced almonds, wrap it in puff pastry and bake until it's a gooey mess.

However, being GTMO, more often than not, if we do have brie (it's rare), we don't have puff pastry. (You can substitute refrigerated crescent rolls). Or we don't have apricot preserves (you can substitute any type of preserves). Or we don't have sliced almonds. At all. Yes, I live somewhere where we run out of things like almonds.

Ironically, I have an almond tree in my back yard, but they are highly toxic and there's a crazy process to make them edible, so I just admire it from afar.
The mystery tree---after 2 years, we got confirmation that it's an almond tree
We got Gorgonzola about a week ago. I don't remember seeing it before. I've had (and loved) Gorgonzola spinach cornbread. Just because you are eating something healthy like spinach doesn't mean it can't be encased in a high caloric fusion of cheese and bread, right?

But the recipe calls for cream. In 2 1/2 years, I have seen heavy cream at the commissary ONE time. Seriously. Once. You don't realize how often you use cream in baking until you need it.

So it's sitting in my fridge, waiting for Plan B. The expiration date is looming, so its future is uncertain.

Speaking of expiration dates, we've been told that is "best buy-by date." In 2 1/2 years, I have bought more eggs that are out of date than in date. They are always expired. Not sure why that is.

I also attempted to make corned beef and cabbage a few weeks ago. Found a beautiful, fresh corned beef, but alas, no cabbage. What can you substitute for cabbage? Nothing, right? So I put back the meat. Then a week later, we had a nice variety of cabbage, but alas, no corned beef.

It's a vicious cycle and a matter of timing.

Things we always have in our frozen meat section:
whole rabbits (yes, head, feet, everything)
ox tail
"cubed pork"---mystery pork with skin and maybe hooves
pig's feet, pig's tail
ham hocks (I love these in my red beans and rice)
things that look like pork chops, that upon further inspection, are actually sliced ham hocks

So we recently went to eat at a friend's house and were supposed to bring something. Baked brie? Nope, no brie. Gorgonzola cornbread? Nope, no cream. But I did have a coveted ingredient in the fridge waiting to be used. My husband recently bought the one and only package of FRESH mozzarella cheese we've found in the commissary since we've been here. Real mozzarella, y'all. I'm in heaven.

So I set out to make a Caprese salad with my nice block of mozzarella, but---you see where this is going, right?---no fresh basil. (I did have a basil plant, but it died a very sad, violent death, thanks to the Cuban sun and my negligent watering).

Do we get brie or Gorgonzola or mozzarella or heavy cream more often than I see it? Probably. Do I go to the Commissary every day? Heck no. I go maybe three times a week. I'd probably have more success if I tried to time my trips around barge shipments and went more often, but honestly, I'm used to making do with what we have. And who needs that much fattening food, anyway?

So we went to the dinner with an improvised pasta salad (orzo, mozzarella, basil paste, tomatoes, capers, balsamic vinegar, pine nuts, and olive oil).  We had fresh snook and permit. You can't buy fresh fish at the commissary, but if you are lucky, you have friends who will share their bounty with you (and several other friends who bring their own improvised dishes). And someone brought baked brie! They are much better at finding and hoarding than I am (and I'm glad they did it). There's no potluck like a GTMO potluck!

***post script: two days after writing this, what did I find in the grocery store? Cream! Seriously. I still haven't made that cornbread, but there's cream in my fridge. That's a first in 2 1/2 years of GTMO. 

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Weeding and Waiting; or, A Move in the Near Future

Almost two weeks after I wrote about the uncertainty (and lack of control I have) over our current condition, nothing has changed.

This I do know: I am definitely not in control.

I know this: We are moving to a new house.

No, it's not a new house in a new country. Instead, at least for the present, we are moving to a new house on base.

I got a nice surprise when I opened my email a few weeks ago saying that we were being offered a brand new house. We've been on a waiting list for a larger house for a year now. Then I panicked---what if I get a transfer? Do we want to move twice in a few months?

I also know that, as of today, I'm still Category F in the transfer round. This is the main reason I decided to say yes to moving to a larger house. We can't control the transfer round, but we can control the size of our house---a first since we moved from Texas in 2012. Base housing is free. That's the good. I'm not going to sound like an ingrate about my free house, so I'll just say that the best part of this move is that we won't be connected to neighbors anymore.

It's not that we have lousy neighbors; it's just that it's difficult living in a duplex house. I haven't shared a wall with neighbors since we lived in an apartment in Colorado over 20 years ago. I wish I had a dollar for every time I've said the following: Don't stomp up the stairs. Turn off the bathroom fan---it's too loud. Please come downstairs to talk to me instead of screaming. Turn down your music. Quit bouncing the ball on the wall (why do boys always do that?). You can't play your guitar because it's X-o'clock and the neighbors are probably sleeping. We try to be considerate people, but it's really a challenge with kids who have never shared such close quarters with neighbors.

I do know this, too: we still have a lot of fine quality crap that we hauled here. Some of it we hauled from Mississippi to Georgia, Georgia to Colorado, Colorado to Washington, Washington to Texas, and then Texas to Cuba. Seriously, 22 years of marriage means lots and lots and lots of fine quality crap.

I keep reminding myself that unlike a lot of our friends and neighbors here, we brought EVERYTHING with us to Cuba. We also moved with less than a month's notice to clean out lots of closets and an attic and a large garage. We didn't do so badly, considering the circumstances. We had a garage sale this past weekend and got rid of several things. It was nice to say goodbye to clothes and toys and books and small appliances.

As with everything else, we don't know when this move will happen; we are waiting for phones to be installed, and last I heard (three weeks ago), the phone equipment was on the barge. *sigh*

I don't like feeling like I have no control over the future, but that's sort of how you have to roll in this system. It has really been an exercise in trying to live more in the present instead of hyper-focusing on the future (something I've done since I was a child).

Moving to another house has given me a large positive goal to focus on. I'm just grateful to have something in my life I can control right now. It will be a lot of work (we have to move ourselves), but instead of sitting around, worrying and wishing and waiting, I can be unpacking and rearranging and still simplifying our lives by weeding out what we don't need.

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

She's Lost Control (Again); or, Delicious Ambiguity

from one of my very favorite memoirs, It's Always Something. Read it! 
Working a Federal Government job in uncertain economic and political times can be very stressful. My first year here in Cuba, I had left a job and colleagues I loved to try a new adventure. It was a huge leap of faith, and I found myself looking at the prospect of being furloughed within the first year of being here. 

That ultimately didn't happen, and I have to remember that eventually everything works out, one way or the other. Worrying won't change things. 

Part of the huge leap of faith of moving here was also the hope that this would be the best place for my family. At times, I have felt that our GTMO time has been the most positive experience possible for our family. We spend more time together as a family here than anywhere else we've lived. Sometimes life repeats itself, too. As a kid, I spent many hours hanging out in my mother's classroom after school (and in her classroom as her 2nd grade student), and I spent many hours working with my father in his drugstore. Today, I see my oldest son every day at my school and he's in my English class. He has a part time job that lets him work with his dad every week. 

Perhaps my oldest will look back and appreciate these things, too. I hate that he is stuck taking so many classes online (with the world's worst internet connection) and that there are so few choices of AP level classes. I have to get over my mother/martyr tendencies and remember that he has gained a world view he would not have gained in Texas. Three years ago, he was interested in computer programming. Let's just say that a few years with GTMO technology did away with that. But now he is talking about working in diplomacy. He is interested in studying abroad, in learning languages, in studying other cultures. He wants to do volunteer work teaching English. An interaction with a teenager who briefly attended his school has piqued his interest in teaching ESOL one day. The teenager was a Cuban refugee seeking asylum. The student moved to another part of the world, but one brief conversation changed my son's life. 

My youngest has spent hours running and climbing and riding bikes. He loves to swim in the ocean and has recently discovered a love for fishing. He had these opportunities in Texas, but his parents didn't have much time to take him. 

Time is a luxury. I recall the last conversations I had with grandparents who are gone and have thought, would I have said anything different if I had known? Would I have taken the risk to teach overseas many years earlier if I had known that our family would have more time together? 

So much is uncertain right now. I like to pretend that I am a laid back person, but I have a real good dose of Type A personality. I think that's why I love being a librarian---so much order, so much tedium with writing records, so much to being precise. There is an element of control in what you do. When I shifted back into the classroom this year, it's been chaos. I'll spare you the pity-party but will just say this: it's exhausting. I think that's the word I've used the most when I describe this school year---"exhausting." 

I have banked on leaving here for good this summer. After three years in a hardship location, I should be in category A and have a good chance of transfer. Except my first year was five days short of being a complete year, and much to my chagrin I found out during the application process that I am in category F.  This means I am quite possibly looking at another year here to be able to travel, have more grocery choices, have more shopping choices, and have more class choices for my son. He will graduate next year, so if we don't move this summer, he will do most of his four years of high school here. 

And I have no control over any of it. I cannot make my name magically appear at the top of the transfer heap, and I cannot make a tiny high school suddenly offer more rigorous courses. I cannot control the fact that the military is shrinking and federal schools are closing.

I cannot control if I am teaching yet more new preps next year. I don't want this (I would really like to be a librarian again), but I cannot control what my admin and district wants. 

I can control my health. I am feeling SO much better since surgery. Having major surgery here was a huge leap of faith that paid off. 

I can control that I can only do so much planning and grading and planning again as a teacher. I can do the best job possible with what I have. It's not the ideal situation for a teacher. I had some pretty damn good teachers in my small high school in rural Mississippi, and they, too, had several preps on their schedules. I can give my students the best education possible because they, too, deal with hardships, such as a hybrid of online and in-seat courses, and the stresses of living in a small fishbowl of a community. 

I can take opportunities to get away more often. Last weekend, the family took a Space A trip to the States. It was a very stressful experience getting on and off the base. Not only did I have to have tons of paperwork approved (and spent hours writing lesson plans for three days off work), but we weren't sure if we were going to get on the plane. There is only a limited number of Space A seats. It's the difference between making a $300 r/t reservation per person or basically flying standby with a $52 r/t expense per person. We arrived seven hours before leaving for GTMO, but we got on the plane. (As I told my husband, in that time we could have flown and landed in Hawaii instead of sitting in a cold terminal in Jacksonville, waiting for an ever-delayed flight). Like so much here, it was more difficult than you would believe, but the reward of getting away from GTMO for the first time in seven months was worth it. A weekend felt like a month away. Shopping for items you can't buy or have shipped here, eating food you can't get here, and visiting with Cuba friends who were visiting or living in FL made it worth it. 

Islands in the Stream---the Bahamas, maybe? 

To fly here from the US, you cannot pass over Cuba, so we have to take the long trip around the E end of the island to get to our little SE corner. My heart did flutter a little when we passed over a small group of islands (maybe the Bahamas?) and then saw the mountains and beaches of Cuba. When the pilot made the now-familiar announcement to "please allow the residents of GTMO to exit the plane first," I looked at the faces of the new families sitting and waiting to disembark. 

It's CUBA!  And a bad airplane pic!
I recognized the look of nervousness and bewilderment and wonder on their faces. I remember those feelings well. I felt some relief exiting the plane, feeling the blast of heat on our faces, putting on my sunglasses, and walking down the large staircase. Maybe it's the bizarre feeling of being an old-time movie star (or part of Air Force One), but exiting the plane, walking across the runway and into the terminal is always my favorite part of the trip. 

Or maybe, it's just that after 2 years, 3 months, and 15 days of living in GTMO, this is for us, at least for now, home.

This guy greeted us at the Leeward Ferry Terminal.