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Saturday, July 19, 2014

The Important Stuff: Flophouse Fruit Crisp

We must remember three things: 
Number one and first in importance, we must have as much fun as we can with what we have.
Number two, we must eat as well as we can, because if we don't we won't have the health and strength to have as much fun as we might.
And number three and third in importance, we must keep the house reasonably in order, wash the dishes and such things.  But we will not let the last interfere with the other two. 
Ed Ricketts quoted by John Steinbeck in The Log from the Sea of Cortez

Yesterday it was 37 degrees  (98F) on my back porch and sure enough I paid for my slovenly housekeeping habits.  Not only did the butter melt on the countertop but a lot of the fruit in the kitchen fruit bowl started to turn.  Not rotten, mind you, but not terribly appetizing either.

I may be a messy housekeeper, but I am a frugal one.  So here is what I do when I have a load of fruit that's too good to compost but not good enough to eat raw.  This recipe is an adaptation from one of the best cookbooks around, The Tassajara Bread Book (1986 edition).

Flophouse Fruit Crisp

Preheat the oven to 180C (375F)

Take an oven-proof pan that looks  something like this (and note last night's dishes still on stove top) :

Then start to fill it up with raw fruit.  I always begin with the apples that are going bad and I just core them, cut out the bad parts and then cut them up into little wedges.  I always leave the skin on, too.

Then cut up and add whatever else you have on hand that you like:  apricots, raspberries, blackberries, rhubarb, cherries, plums.....

(After you've made it a few times, you'll get an idea for the combinations that you like best.)

Then take one lemon and squeeze the juice over the fruit.  Add a little bit of cinnamon (a couple of shakes) and then mix it up.

Then using your mixer/Cuisinart/robot (or simply a bowl, a fork and your muscles) combine:

1 cup of flour
1/2 cup brown sugar (add less or more sugar to your taste.  I like less - especially with fruit that is already over-ripe and naturally sweet).
1/2 cup of butter

(Forget the notion of "cup" as a precise unit of measurement -  just grab a coffee mug or an old glass mustard jar and use that as your "cup". )

And then give it a whir or two (or put some muscle into it) until the butter is more or less the size of small peas.  Sometimes I make it mealy, sometimes it comes out creamy (because I used the butter that was melting on the countertop).  It's all good.

Sprinkle the flour/sugar/butter topping over the fruit.

Throw it in the oven for about 40 minutes or so.  If you can smell the fruit when you walk into the kitchen, then it's probably done.

Have fun. :-)

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Flophouse Versailles Garden

Mid-July already and how is the garden growing?

Here are a few photos so you can see for yourself.  This is the potager (vegetable garden) and as you can see I'm attempting to cram as much stuff as possible into that very small space and still have it all grow properly and deliver the goods.

So far it's working out alright. We had cherries and lettuce earlier in the summer.  We now have fèves (broad beans), haricots verts (regular green beans), courgettes (zucchini), cornichons (pickles) and framboises (raspberries).   We also have coriandre (cilantro), romarin (rosemary), sauge (sage) and laurier (bay).  We will have tomatoes very soon and turnips.  We might (if they make it) have carrots, too.  All the fruit trees except two are bearing and soon we will have apples, pears, and exactly one peach (better luck next year, right?)  And, of course, pumpkins.  (Oh and I forgot the rhubarb, leeks and green onions.)

I wish I could say that this is the result of careful planning and astute gardening techniques but that gives me way too much credit.  The only area where I can claim to have made a big difference here is the soil.  I put a lot of work into making it better with lots of compost from my pile and many bags of manure.  What I planted in spring and early summer was a combination of what old seeds I already had and what struck my fancy at the garden store.

For another potager in a completely different region here in France, have a look at Kristin's garden. More sun where she is and looks like she has room for corn (I am so jealous).

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

The Unofficial Ambassador

"When Americans go abroad as businesspersons, scholars or trailing spouses, they typically become highly effective ambassadors of American values. "

David Kuenzi
Wall Street Journal Op-Ed

This recent article which appeared in the Wall Street Journal uses a term that one finds over and over again wherever the American diaspora speaks in its own defense:  "ambassador" or the more qualified "unofficial ambassador".   I've used the term myself in my writing and whenever I've been put in a situation where I've felt the need to justify my presence outside (and my good intentions toward) the United States.

It's a wonderful term because it's just brimming over with goodwill.  When a country wants to maintain peaceful relations and contact with another it sends an ambassador (otherwise it would send troops, right?)  It's a terrible term because while it sounds so benevolent, it's precise meaning is elusive.  What does an "unofficial ambassador" do exactly?  If the position does indeed exist (unofficially), how could we tell that someone was doing a good, fair or poor job of it? And it is a dangerous term because behind it are implicit expectations about how Americans abroad ought to conduct themselves when they are living outside the United States.

If the United States has an empire (and I believe it does) it is one that the homeland insists is a better, softer, loftier empire than the ones that came before it.  Its values are universal and worth spreading and Americans abroad are useful to the extent that they are helping all this along.  That implies that the should be missionaries of a sort with a message to sell.  Since they are "unofficial" (meaning they are not connected to the US government and do not earn their living doing this) this is tailor-made to appeal to patriotic, individualistic, anti-government homeland Americans.  It is an argument in favor of (if not favorable treatment) then at least a certain consideration on the part of the United States toward its communities abroad.

Whatever the reality  there are several reasons to think a little harder about that term, how it's being used and to what purpose.

Information Welcome, Evangelists Not So Much:  As much as I am comfortable talking about being an "unofficial ambassador" with my U.S. compatriots, I cannot, for the life of me, imagine claiming that role in my interactions with people in my host country, though I can certainly think of times when the role has been thrust upon me; when I am asked point blank as the token American at the dinner table what I think of thus and such.

At best I am being asked for a personal opinion which will either play into or against whatever positive or negative stereotypes they have in their minds about Americans.  At worst they are provocation into "defending the indefensible" - a policy, an act, the result of an election that the people around me have sharp opinions about (and frankly something that I might not like much either).

That's information "pull", not "push".   And I've learned to be very measured in my answers to the extent that I will admit that there are many questions for which I have no answers. "What do the American people think of that?"  Honestly?  No idea.  We are, I point out, at the same level of information and they can look at the poll numbers or read the New York Times just as well as I can.

But it is the act of giving a thoughtful measured response that may make the difference here because one of the negative stereotypes about Americans is that we are not a particularly thoughtful people.  In any case, it's not the answers so much the way they are expressed.  Done well (that is to say without jingoistic blind patriotism that just screams shill for empire) then, yes, people might leave the dinner table with a much better impression of Americans then they had before.  That, I think, might be what a successful "unofficial American ambassador" looks like.

Sharing Values, Serving  Interests  In the "pull" scenario above if there are any values being transmitted between the apéritif and the dessert, believe me, it isn't on purpose.  If the American is living in another developed Western democratic nation-state then values of good governance, separation of church and state, gender equality, individual liberty and so on are not values to be transmitted because they are already there.  If the American civilian is living in a country or region that does not share those values, is it really his or her role to be an evangelist for them in America's name?  Is the "project" of sharing values (or serving US interests) shared by Americans in the homeland and Americans abroad?  In other words, is this an expectation coming from Americans in the US, or is it something that some Americans abroad have simply taken upon themselves for their own reasons.  I think this is worth discussing because there are way too many assumptions and not nearly enough clarity here.

The Face of Americans Abroad:  7 million people with very different reasons for being abroad and of every color, creed, class.  Some are indeed missionaries.  Many are teachers or professors.  There are retirees, economic and marriage migrants, true expatriates sent by their companies, and so much more.  The Peace Corps, for example, is still around.  There is also the military and former military.  

There is an almost infinite number of combinations here that begin with who these people were before they left the US, why they went abroad, what they do and where they went (or were sent) and with whom.

Kuenzi qualifies his statement by referring to three categories:  "businesspersons, scholars or trailing spouses" but these are only a small fraction of the Americans living abroad.

I think that the largest group of Americans abroad looks like this:  they don't want any or minimal contact with the US government and other Americans while they are living abroad, they do not want to join any American organization be it Democrats Abroad, Republicans Overseas, AARO or ACA: they are keenly interested in being good denizens of their countries of residence, and these days more and more of them aspire to become citizens of those states.  They make no demands on the United States while they are abroad.  In many cases the very minimal protection of the US government is neither attractive nor relevant to them since they know the limits of the local consulate's assistance (a list of local lawyers who speak English) and they understand that the US government will not expend political capital on their behalf to get them out of trouble.    And if it weren't for the fact that they have to have a passport to enter the US to see family, they would probably forgo that as well.  What they want is to be left alone to go about their business and their lives.

Are these people good "unofficial ambassadors"?  I have no idea and neither does anyone else.

We have been using this language for years now and I don't see it making any difference to the current debates.  For those who really did take that role very seriously, they have learned that there is no reward for their efforts.

As a result these folks are deeply deeply angry

For those quieter more discreet souls who I think are the vast majority, a kind of implicit contact was revoked when they weren't looking and now, instead of being left alone, they are discovering that their own empire calls them criminals and plans to track them down to the ends of the earth.

These people, too, are deeply deeply angry.

And there is a probably a minority who is so paranoid about the US government, and so convinced that its intentions are always nefarious, that none of this is a surprise to them.

I think those folks aren't angry, I think they feel vindicated.

In either case I think the "unofficial ambassador" argument is falling on deaf ears.  We are making a claim on the homeland for something it never asked us explicitly to do on its behalf.  That's my honest take on it and I'd be very interested in hearing your thoughts.

(And for those of you who are members of other diasporas, I'd be very interested in knowing if a similar situation exists between you and your home country.)

Sunday, July 13, 2014


If you have made imparting knowledge to the young and impressionable your life's work, then I hope that what follows will give you heart.

I just got back from four days in Rome.  As much as I enjoyed the climate, the people, and the food, the best moments came when I stood before something, read the sign explaining what it was and felt a click deep inside my brain.  Ah, yes, I remember...  And I wanted to weep with gratitude for every teacher (religious and secular) who gave me, not a classical education exactly, but a rigorous one that made what I saw last week meaningful.  The required Latin classes which meant that I could read many of the the inscriptions.  The history classes, not only the ones about the Roman Empire which meant I recognized the names of the emperors and their family members, but also Church history as I walked through Vatican City.  The religion classes so I could stand in the Sistine Chapel and look at the scenes from the Old and New Testaments and know them.   And to realize that I could reach for and find a timeline in my head so that I knew where to place each thing in history.

It's as if I was given a gift over 30 years ago and I only just got around to consciously opening it as I arrive at the culmination of the first half century of life.  
Le véritable lieu de naissance est celui ou l'on a porté pour la première fois un coup d'oeil intelligent sur soi-même : mes premières patries ont été des livres...
Et pourtant, j'ai aimé certains de mes maîtres, et ces rapports étrangement intimes et étrangement élusifs qui existent entre le professeur et l'élève, et les Sirènes chantant au fond d'une voix cassée qui pour la première fois vous révèle un chef-d'oeuvre ou vous dévoile une idée neuve. 
Mémoires d'Hadrien
Marguerite Yourcenar

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Simon Anholt and the Good Country Index

When I was studying for my MBA I had a great Marketing teacher, Professor Marco Protano.  He teaches all over the world - China, Morocco, Scotland, France and many other places.  If he is ever in your corner of the planet, and you have a chance to take a class from him, do it.  It was one of the best classes I had at ENPC because he is an energetic, euridite, and really funny guy.

Yesterday I found myself trying to recall some of the information he imparted to me as I discovered the fellow who created the term "nation-branding".   Simon Anholt is the author of a number of books, one of which I read yesterday:  Competitive Identity: The New Brand Management for Nations, Cities and Regions.  I am now in the middle of another, Brand America.

The latter is clearly the better book.  The one on identity is really just a collection of essays that needed a better editor.  Between the two books, and what I watched yesterday on TED and Youtube,  it gave me, I think, a decent grasp of his overall pitch.

Using the language of marketing when talking about nation-states, regions, ethnic groups is very clever.  He's able to say some very profound things by relating something everyone recognizes - brands - to something that people are unsure about - identity.  It's a trick, a little like when you can't solve a problem using your first language so you shift to your second, and suddenly things look a little clearer.

But as I've said before, People are Not Products, and I stand by that.  The notion that all people, cities, regions, nation-states are in this competitive struggle to survive in a globalized world is probably partially true but not always in all places.  I think opting out is alive and well.  There are consequences to that surely but most of the time they are not catastrophic. I do not buy into the Get On the Global Road or be Roadkill mantra. (You might think differently and if so, please say so.)

I'll let you watch Anholt in action for yourself so you can make up your own mind.  The first video is a talk he gave at the European Conference on Public Communication in 2011.  The intro is a long but interesting lecture worth watching but not to be confused with the heart of the matter.  It's when he gets past that he really shines as he poses and answers the question: What does Europe Have to Offer the World?  Quite a lot, he says, and I agree.

The second video is a recent TED talk he gave that has gone viral.  He took his Nation Brand index that he'd been working on and created another that he calls the Good Country Index.  Now, the idea is sure to raise some hackles, especially among Americans because the US is not even in the top 20 here.

His point, which I think is an important one, is that there are some small countries that do quite a lot of good in the world, and there are some big countries that don't do nearly as much good as they think. If looking at the rankings makes folks drop their idées reçues - those one-dimensional negative sterotypes of places like Switzerland or Kenya, then I think it has served a useful and important purpose.

Which Country Does the Most Good for the World?

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Expatriate Voting: Engagement or Illusion?

There is a discussion I am following right now over at the Canadian Globe and Mail.  Over 200 comments so far in reaction to an editorial about Canadian expatriates and voting rights written by a Political Science graduate student.

Semra Sevi is arguing against a territorial basis for active citizenship in a globalized world.  "While Canada may have lots of expatriates," she says, "they are no less committed to Canada than citizens living in Canada... Choosing to live outside Canada does not make one less Canadian. The idea that patriotism and civic engagement is tied entirely to geographic location is absurd."

Absolutely, but nowhere in her article did I see an argument for expanded voting rights from the Canadians abroad themselves.  And it is worth asking if it is something they want or something that Canadians in the homeland think they should have.  It is not obvious that the franchise is useful or effective from the perspective of the diaspora.  It depends, and since she cites the US as being particularly magnanimous in this respect, allow me, an American overseas voter, to point out a few disadvantages that I have come to recognize over the years.

There is voting as a right and there is voting as a responsibility if you are a citizen of a democratic nation-state.  Even where voting is entirely voluntary, the fact that the option exists and can be exercised means that one is responsible for whatever the outcome is.  That is true whether or not one actually sends in a ballot.  As one person put it to me the other day:  Not voting means that you have decided to let the rest of the nation decide for you.  In addition, if you have the franchise you also agree to abide by the result of that vote even if you don't like it.

However, having this voting right/responsibility does not necessarily translate into political power - the capacity to be heard or to be taken into account.  It's perfectly possible to have the vote and not have a voice.  Unless there are institutions to make that vote meaningful, then it is an exercise in frustration as the expats vote and what they really care about remains at the very bottom of the national agenda.

That is the lesson that Americans abroad learned.  Overseas voting rights for US citizens does indeed look generous until one looks below the surface and sees just how unrepresented Americans abroad feel and the frustration as they try to get attention for the few issues that matter most to them.   They have very few political champions at the Federal level and the organizations that work on their behalf seem to have much greater success with government agencies as opposed to elected representatives.  There is an on-going argument about this among Americans abroad with many calling for some kind of direct representation - senators or representatives directly elected by Americans abroad (like France).

Americans abroad are a fraction of the population of the homeland:  7 million versus 300 million.  Canadians abroad are 2.9 million versus 35 million - a higher percentage which might or might not make a difference.  How many of those 2.9 million expats  who were within the 5 year limit (now defunct) bothered to register?  No idea, I could not find any statistics.  The argument in the Global and Mail editorial would have been so much more compelling if there was hard evidence that Canadians abroad were clamouring for the vote.

Sevi argues that "Canada needs to take a proactive approach to engage Canadians living abroad."  I would say from my own experience that if expatriate voting rights equal responsibility without power or effective representation, then it is clearly NOT the best way to engage that country's expatriate community.  If the franchise is simply a symbolic gesture to show how very hip and global a country is (or an excuse to extract money/support from them), then it isn't for the expats at all - it's all about the homeland's self-image (and self-interest) - and that is a terrible place to begin a  dialogue with one's diaspora.

Monday, July 7, 2014

On Being an American

I wrote this post around July 4th of 2013.  One year (and 3000 fewer American citizens) later, it still sums up beautifully my thinking on these matters.  So I am dusting it off and posting it again.  Enjoy.  

Love where you're from but bloom where you're planted. 

Asking a migrant if she prefers her home country to her country of residence is a little like asking a child if she loves her father more than her mother.  It's an unfair question.  To the people urging us long-term Americans abroad to just go ahead and renounce already, they are taking that question one step farther and asking not only which one do you love more, but which one would you disavow if we made you choose? 

Now I'm a goofy old lady who firmly believes that love shared is not love halved.  I will never accept the premise that one can only love one country at a time and I reject any model that says that ideally we should all be serial monogamists (or that a person can't have two mothers/fathers).

I had an epiphany the other day.  I may have spent most of my adult life outside the U.S. but I was born and raised in Seattle.  No one can take away the first 20 years or so of my life.  I am an American and will always be one even if I decide to forgo the pretty blue passport.  Cutting ties by relinquishing/renouncing will mean cutting my ties to a political community but here's the kicker:   America is so much more than that.  There is a nation beyond the government and perhaps it's time to start putting the people above the state.  Yes, if I renounce I would no longer be an American citizen, but I would still be an American by culture, blood, language, and inclination.  I am part of the collective memory of this country and no one on this planet (not  the US Congress or the President or even the homelanders themselves) can take that away from me. 

And they can't take it away from anyone else either.  To the Canadian/American reader who left a comment about how distressed she was about giving up her U.S. citizenship, I'd just like to say that as far as I'm concerned she's an American as long as she wants to be one with or without her U.S. passport.  So she won't be able to vote anymore in US elections.  Big deal.   It's not like American citizens themselves do that with any regularity. 

Thinking about it this way makes me much more serene about the whole business.  What do you think of this motto for those of us thinking about renouncing? "Forget the state and just be a child of the nation."  

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

When in Doubt, Dig Compost

So much going on in the world right now and I am doing my darndest to ignore it all.  If it weren't for Arun, the World Cup wouldn't even be a blip on my radar.  If it weren't for Art, I would know nothing about Sarko's latest travails. And if it weren't for James, I wouldn't have a ticket to go see Garrison Keillor (The Prairie Home Companion) at the American Church in Paris this fall.  My thanks to all these fine gentlemen for keeping me moderately well-informed.

So what have I been doing?  Last week I had houseguests from Oregon Country and we went to my favorite place in Versailles, le Potager du Roi (The King's Kitchen Garden).  I go several times a year because whenever I get confused about how to prune my espaliered fruit trees, I head over there, take pictures and then just do what they did.

After the houseguests left, I moped around the house a bit and then summoned up enough energy to go out into the garden and start hacking away.  And when I hit the back perennial bed I realized that I could close my eyes, follow my nose, and find my compost pile.  A little too much kitchen waste, not enough twigs and other "brown" items, and I couldn't remember when I had last aerated it. So the pile had turned into an odiferous mountain of slimy waste.

Now the compost bin was a freebie from the city of Versailles and I only got it after I went to compost class and then signed in blood swearing on my firstborn that I would dutifully follow correct composting procedure lest the compost cops come and take my bin away.  From the odor I was definitely non-compliant with the rules and regs and it seemed like a fine project for a lazy summer morning.  So I grabbed my shovel and my gloves and happily spread half-finished compost around my flower beds.  (Not around the veggies, mind you, because that's a good way to make you and your entire household very very sick.)  It was so bad that when I finished I had to soak my gloves in bleach.

It was a very satisfying project, however.  Nothing like letting something get very bad and then marching in and making it right.  Makes one feel positively heroic.  I'm sure there is a life lesson in there but not one I think anyone should emulate.  And I really should know better, too.

After getting that done (and feeling mighty virtuous, I assure you) I deliberately ignored the ongoing Flophouse painting project (it's coming along and winter is months away, right?) and instead decided to grab some titles from my to-read list.

As always, it's a completely undisclipined mish-mash of this and that.  The Vizard Mask by Diana Norman was quite good.  It's a bodice-ripper but it's a really good one and I liked it so much that I picked up another that she wrote under a pen name called The Mistress of the Art of Death - a mystery set in 12th century England.   I finally got around to cracking open a very popular Urban Fantasy series called The Dresden Files by Jim Butcher.  It's a Harry Potter meets [insert favorite fictional private investigator here] mystery series.  It's a hoot.  His fans on Goodreads often quote this bit of dialogue and I offer it to you here to give you a taste of his style:
"We are not going to die."
Butters stared up at me, pale, his eyes terrified. "We're not?"
"No. And do you know why?" He shook his head. "Because Thomas is too pretty to die. And because I'm too stubborn to die." I hauled on the shirt even harder. "And most of all because tomorrow is Oktoberfest, Butters, and polka will never die."
On the non-fiction side I managed to get all the way through Ken Devos' Factors Influencing Individual Taxpayer Compliance Behaviour.  Not a scintillating read but it has a damn fine bibliography and summaries of different studies in different eras - many from the Australian Tax Office (ATO).  Interesting to note that some of the research suggests a positive correlation between religiosity and tax compliance. So maybe the Tax Justice people should invite all the tax evaders to a "Come to [insert preferred deity here]" meeting.  Just a thought and it's not any wackier then some of the ideas I've heard lately.

I've saved the best for last -  Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History by Michel-Rolph Trouillot.  I went through this one in my e-reader and I was highlighting and taking notes the entire time.  Really fine book.  It's on my "to re-read" list but before I crack it open again, I am going to dig deeper into the history of Haiti - something I realized I know nothing about which kind of confirms part of his thesis, doesn't it?  Reminds me of what an acquaintance told me about Ikebana (Japanese flower arranging).  It's not the just the flowers, he said.  It's the spaces between the leaves.

I need to get washed up - I still have compost under my nails and how it got there in spite of the gloves, I cannot say -  and head over to church so I will stop here and leave you with one (just one) quotation from Mr. Trouillot:
Hard facts are no more frightening than darkness. You can play with them if you are with friends. They are scary only if you read them alone.