Everywhere But Home

News and musings from wherever my crazy life takes me. My body may be back in Illinois, but at least for now, my mind is still in Mongolia.


And I thought Wisconsin was obsessed with dairy!

If I had only ten words with which to describe Mongolia and its people, the second word to make it onto that list (after hospitable) would be resourceful. Whether they are fixing things, staying warm, finding entertainment, or just feeding themselves off of the little their land gives them, Mongolians excel at making do with very little.

Take milk, for instance. Mongolians, historically, are herders, and their animals offer them sustenance in two forms: meat and milk. Traditionally, these two food groups were divided between the seasons; meat was eaten primarily in the winter, when it keeps better and when its nutritional value (and fat) is most needed. The summer diet centered around milk products – and not just the ones you’d expect, either.

Mongolians make hundreds of different kinds of dairy products. I’ve asked colleagues, friends and students for an approximate number but have yet to receive one; ubiquitously, they tilt their heads in consideration, then shrug their shoulders and offer one word in response: many. Here is a long, but far from exhaustive, list of what are collectively known as цагаан идээ, or white foods [1].

  • Сүү (suu) – Milk. It holds immense symbolic importance in addition to its many practical uses and is used in a number of ceremonies. That I don’t like milk seemed to strike most of the Mongolians I talked to as blasphemy, or at least baffling. It’s not just cow’s milk, either; Mongolians milk a wide variety of animals. People in the northern parts of the country milk yaks; in the south, camels. The Tsaatan, a minority group living in the taiga near Khuvsgul lake, milk their reindeer. Herders everywhere milk their horses, too, though horse milk is only used to make very specific products. I’ve never heard of Mongolians milking their sheep or goats, but I wouldn’t be surprised to hear that Gobi-dwelling people too poor to afford camels milked their goats.
  • Сүүтэй цай (suutei tsai) – Literally tea with milk, it’s probably the most ubiquitous of the milk-based foods, even more so than milk itself. Most Mongolian households seem to have a thermos full of hot milk tea on hand at all times, and the host will pour you a bowl of it the moment you’ve stepped inside. It’s more milk than tea – just enough green tea to darken it a shade or two. Most Mongolians will also add salt – a lot in the colder aimags, and none at all in some others. They may also add butter or some other fatty milk product in the winter, since whole milk obviously isn’t fatty enough.
    • Variations: In my visit to Bayan-Ulgii, which is primarily populated by Kazakh people, I learned that I much prefer Kazakh milk tea to Mongolian. It’s unsalted and more tea-y.
  • Уураг (uurag) – Colostrum, or the first milk of the year, which I’m told is so heavy with protein that it’s more gel-like than liquid in consistency.
  • Тараг (tarag) – Yogurt, though of a thinner consistency than most of what we’re accustomed to in the States. Kefir might be a more fitting equivalent. It is typically unflavored and unsweetened, and it can be purchased from food stores or made at home. As with milk and airag, most city-dwelling Mongolians seem to prefer the homemade kind, which they purchase from countryside people selling it on the street.

    A typical Mongolian breakfast. Image courtesy of Dr. Jimmy Tan via mycitycuisine.org

  • Зөөхий (zuukhii) – Cream.
  • Өрөм (urum) – Clotted cream, essentially. When fresh milk is boiled for a while and then left to cool overnight, it separates. The fat rises to the top and hardens as it cools, creating a layer solid enough to be peeled off the surface of the remaining milk but soft enough to be spread with a spoon. It’s often spread on bread in lieu of butter and then sprinkled with sugar for a typical Mongolian breakfast.
  • Хусам (khusam) – The denser, more highly-cooked parts of the pot used to make өрөм, which settle to the bottom. Mongolians will eat this straight out of the pot. According to one of my former coworkers, it’s delicious but makes you gain weight like crazy.
  • Хайлмаг. Image source: “United Nations of Food”

    Хайлмаг (khailmag) – A dish made by frying urum with flour and sugar until the oil separates. It’s often served with raisins. Mongolians regard it as a real treat, and a lot of Americans like it as well, but I didn’t find the cheesy sweetness particularly palatable. Then again, I don’t like cheesecake either.

  • Ааруул (aaruul) – Dried milk curds, which many Mongolians treat both as candy and as their snack food of choice. After draining the whey, nomadic families squeeze out as much liquid as they can and work the remaining curd into a wide variety of shapes, which they set on pans atop their gers to dry in the sun. Some varieties are sweetened, others not. I have yet to find a kind of aaruul that I truly enjoy, but there are an awful lot to choose from: brittle, semi-soft spirals, sweetened disks pressed into the shape of a flower, long and short tubes, dark, jaw-cracking slabs called ээзгий (eezgii). Those too hard to gnaw on are often dipped in milk or soaked in hot water, which is then drunk.
  • Шар тос, цагаан тос (shar tos, tsagaan tos) – Yellow and white oil, respectively. Despite being called ‘oil,’ these fats solidify after they are rendered from other milk products. Tsagaan tos is white because milk curds have been added to the fat. These fats can be eaten, cooked with, or used in ceremonial candles.
  • Нэрмэл архи/монгол архи (nermel arkhi, or Mongol arkhi) – Often called Mongolian vodka in English. This liquor is made by distilling yogurt, something I hadn’t realized was possible. I’ve never seen it sold in stores – just in the repurposed plastic two-liter bottles used by herder families. It’s much gentler than vodka, only about 10-15% alcohol, but the soured milk flavor is intense.
  • Аарц (aarts) – The boiled yogurt used to make nermel arkhi, which is then itself eaten hot as a special treat. I’ve never tried it, since I find the mere odor nauseating, but Mongolians love it. We always had to be careful when purchasing white cake or ice cream to make sure they weren’t aarts-flavored!
  • Айраг (airag) – Fermented mare’s milk. This one’s worthy of its own blog post, so I’ll get cracking on that. No Mongolian celebration is complete without it, and it’s drunk in large quantities at Naadam and Tsagaan Sar, the two major holidays. When I first arrived in Mongolia, I found it distasteful, but not nearly so much as I’d expected; by the time I left, I was actually starting to like it. It’s sour, but not in a milk-gone-bad sort of way. Just… sour. With the color and texture of milk.
  • Хоормог (khoormog) – Similar to airag, but made from camel milk. The khoormog I tried in the Gobi was thicker than airag and cheesier in both taste and texture – like a very thin, sour ricotta. I was not a particular fan.

The glaring omission from this list is cheese. Mongolians do make a sort of cheese, which they call бяслаг (byaslag), but it has little in common with Western-style cheese. It’s curdled with milk acid rather than cultured, which means it’s basically just pressed milk curd. That’s what it tastes like, too – congealed milk. Mongolians don’t have a tradition of hard or aged cheeses the way Europe does. You can buy cheese in the larger grocery stores, but most of it’s imported from Russia, and it’s expensive: a kilo of gouda was between 15 and 20 thousand tugriks when I left – 2.5 to 3 times the price of beef!

My (utterly speculative and un-researched) theory on this absence is that cheese has two main advantages: it stores longer, and it has less lactose, which makes it easier to digest for those who lack the gene for lactase persistence, or the ability to digest milk beyond childhood. (Contrary to common Western perception, lactase persistence, globally speaking, is the rule rather than the exception.) But since milk is historically such a staple in Mongolia, lactase persistence is necessary here, which renders one of those advantages obsolete. And with so many other ways to store milk, not to mention an entire country that turns itself into a freezer for five months of the year, the Mongols never needed to invent cheese.

Which is a shame, because cheese is delicious. And as much as I admired the Mongolians for their many inventive and resourceful uses of milk, I never learned to like most of the things they made with it.


  1. While цагаан идээ are usually referred to as “white foods” in English, that phrase comes out as цагаан хоол when translated back into Mongolian – and it means “vegetarian food,” not “dairy products.” Цагаан идээ = dairy, цагаан хоол = meatless.
  2. Most of this is information is common knowledge in Mongolia and was explained to me by various Mongolians. Obviously not a very scientific method of research, with much room for error and competing methods/definitions. When memory failed, or when I’d never learned the specifics, I supplemented my hearsay research with Mongolia Today: Science, Environment, and Development
  3. As always, the Latin-alphabet names are a transliteration, not a pronunciation guide. Хайлмаг/khailmag, for instance, is pronounced more like “chalmag,” with a very clipped /g/ and the Hebrew /ch/ sound in chutzpah or challah. And a totally alien /l/. But Mongolian phonics are another subject altogether.


The Birthday of Endless Cake

I. Gambir

I spent the three days before my birthday at Stepperiders, a tourist-oriented horse camp about 45 minutes outside UB. I’d stayed with them for one night last fall and done a couple of trail-less trail rides (steppe rides?), but this time, I wanted something with a greater sense of purpose. I signed on for a three day/two night trek, which brought us back to their base camp the night before my birthday.

As the volunteers and I sat playing cards after dinner that evening, my guide surprised us with an improvised cake: gambir slathered with off-brand Nutella, upon which the words “happy 24” had been carefully inscribed with jelly. The two candles present being our sole source of light, I’d nothing to wish upon, but they sang me “happy birthday” nonetheless.

The staff joined us for cake and airag and whisky and cards, and when they left, we sprawled across our beds and challenged each other to imitate horses in various human situations: wedding speech-giver, air traffic controller, zumba instructor, rap artist, first horse on the moon. The game left us paralyzed with giggles and wondering when someone would come to investigate the source of the hullabaloo. But no one did, and so we carried on until the last candle flickered out and left us to drift contentedly off to sleep.

II. Pizza

I arrived back in Erdenet in the late afternoon – too late to assemble the potluck I would have liked to, but plenty early enough to assemble at Marco’s Pizza. Marco is an Italian expat with more generosity than business sense who tired of his job at the Ministry of Agriculture in Rome. “I thought, ‘this is not life,'” he says of the decision that brought him to Mongolia, where he now runs a pizzeria with his Mongolian wife, Gerlee. His is the restaurant most requested by friends visiting from the countryside, and with good reason. Marco has always treated the Greater Erdenet Area Peace Corps/Fulbright community and has on many occasions closed early to privately host our birthday celebrations, going-away parties, and even an early Christmas dinner.

The pizzas take forever because there’s only one oven, but Marco brought us a plate of the day’s leftover pasta as an appetizer. The two large pizzas – one bacon, one chicken – were delicious as always and cost us a mere six thousand tugriks per person (about $4). The Nutella pizza he brought us after we’d finished, as he always does on on such occasions, was free. We’ve protested on previous occasions, saying that he’ll put himself out of business with such generosity, but he says only that his business “is a trattoria, not a ristorante” and refuses all offers of payment for the extra food. And he sings us “happy birthday” on the appropriate days, even if it’s already been sung.

III. Tradition

For as long as I can remember, I have had the same cake at every birthday. The friends who attempt, in the days before my birthday, to discreetly discern my favorite kind of cake are always frustrated when I tell them it’s not something you can buy in stores. It’s a granny smith apple cake, full of spices and not overly sweet, whose recipe my grandmother must have clipped from some long-ago newspaper.

It’s supposed to be made in a bundt pan, an instrument I always deemed unnecessary when packing for college but whose absence left me unsure how to adjust the baking time and temperature of the old recipe. Questions to friends about how they might attempt such an adjustment have, on two separate occasions, led me to receive a bundt pan as a birthday gift. I still don’t really know how to adjust the recipe, though I do know that the use of a bundt pan means that, in the absence of proper birthday candles, a jar candle can be substituted, a la the “I fixed it!” moment in My Big Fat Greek Wedding.

I did not have a bundt pan on this occasion, but I was determined to follow tradition nonetheless. My first stop upon arriving in the city was to pick up apples from the discount shelf at the fruit delguur favored by the Russians (and, for that matter, Americans). I knew that, when baked, they’d taste every bit as good as the absurdly priced bright green ones in the main display.

I was right. The cake took forever to bake in the toaster oven but filled the entire apartment with a delicious aroma, and when when sliced it up later that night, everyone agreed it was delicious.

IV. The Generosity of Friends

Although my host knew of my birthday cake tradition, having allowed me the use of her oven to bake one the year before, it seems neither she nor the others knew of my intent to continue it this year. Upon arriving at another friend’s apartment after dinner, I found that they had purchased another cake for me, a standard white cake with large frosting roses.

I’m not a particular fan of frosting, and Mongolian cakes have a very hit-or-miss reputation, but when they dimmed the lights to bring out the cake and its single flickering candle for a third chorus of “happy birthday,” I still found myself ducking my head and grinning ridiculously. It wasn’t the taste of the cake or the excess of frosting that mattered, but the presence of friends new and old, people who wished me well whether I’d been part of their lives for a day or a year.

As we settled to the floor for a game of Cards Against Humanity, stuffed to groaning with cake and good humor, I was grateful for the friendship and generosity of those around me. Even here, a world away from the people and places I know and love, I am truly blessed.

And not just with cake.

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Thailand: A Snapshot

Sorry to leave you all hanging on that last story, but I’m in Thailand now, and my plan to catch up on blogging while in transit did not go as planned (foiled by an inkless pen!). So perhaps I will catch up on writing while I head north on the train today. In the meantime, I present you with a mental picture of Thailand:

It is swelteringly, unbearably hot, a word whose meaning my body has forgotten. I raise my wrist to check the time, and even that small movement sends rivulets of sweat coursing down my arms. The searing heat on the top of my head reminds me that I will have a killer burn on my scalp – who thinks to put sunscreen in their hair?!

I’m sitting on a plastic stool in a street kitchen, one of what must be thousands dotting the roads of Bangkok. The posted menu, if there is one, is meaningless to me, written in a swirling and utterly indecipherable script. The air is perfumed with hundreds of spices and the sweetness of fruit: vendors at adjoining stalls hawk mangoes, watermelon, cantaloupe, pineapple, pomegranate juice, and even coconut milk, sipped directly from a shell in whose top they’ve hacked a small hole with a frightening but deftly-handled cleaver.

The chopsticks slip clumsily between my fingers, which have grown unaccustomed to this unfamiliar mode of eating. The food between them is brightly colored and unfamiliar – dark green verbiage, fiery bits of chili, oddly-colored noodles in a Crayola-colored sauce, chunks of meat of unidentifiable origin. It is sweet, and sour, and spicy, and salty, all at once. I have no idea what it is, but it is delicious.


What Do You Eat in Mongolia?: Beet and Cabbage Salad Edition

I’m not usually one to run to social media every time I sit down to eat. I mean, we all have those friends who bombard us with pictures of their every meal via Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, etc. ad nauseam, and really, who needs them? But there are some things that merit sharing, especially when they’re replicable.

I’m leaving my apartment in less than a week, which means I’m in the midst of trying to use whatever I have left in the apartment without buying anything new – a familiar scramble for many of us, I’m sure, but a tricky  one nonetheless. It’s a state of near-constant peckishness and deliberation about its extent, which of the dwindling supplies might satisfactorily alleviate it, and whether it merits the purchase of new foodstuffs. It doesn’t help that I tend not keep snack food around; neither barley nor dry beans are particularly quick to prepare.

But I managed to throw something together last week that fell into both of the previously described categories, and since that is a rare experience indeed, I figured I ought to share the recipe that left my mouth watering for more. It was sweet and tangy and earthy and crunchy and came out so much better than I had any right to expect given the haphazard preparation.

Must-Go Beet and Cabbage Salad

  • Dig half a baked beet out of your rapidly-emptying refrigerator. Halve it, then slice into strips thin enough to cook rapidly. Throw them into a hot skillet with enough oil to compensate for the degrading non-stick surface. The heat should be high enough to caramelize the surface of the beets nicely without burning them.
  • While the beets are browning, thinly slice a withered quarter of an onion. Reduce the heat slightly and add the onions. Throw in a spoonful of sugar as well, because who doesn’t like caramelization?
  • Mince a clove of garlic and add it, along with a little salt. Stir.
  • Shred or julienne a handful of cabbage and add it; despite my phytochemicals-are-tasty preference for red cabbage, I used green for color contrast. Stir a few times, then turn off the heat and throw on the lid – when mostly raw, they add some nice crunch.
  • Splash in some red wine vinegar if you live somewhere where it’s available; if you live in Mongolia, add just a tiny bit of the obscenely strong white vinegar they have here and be very careful not to splash it, because that stuff will give you honest-to-god chemical burns. Trust me on that one.
  • Enjoy with Mexican rice empanadas/khuushuur, or whatever else you happen to have. No, I have absolutely no problem throwing world cuisines together – why do you ask?
You know it's good when you gobble most of it down before realizing you probably want photographic evidence.

You know it’s good when you gobble most of it down before realizing you probably want photographic evidence.

If, like me, you love beets, cabbage, and vinegar, and this sounds absolutely splendid, I offer you one caution: don’t try to make this in large quantities. The balance of sweet and sour, soft and crunchy that so enchanted me when I prepared this small serving depends on caramelizing the sugars in the beets, as well as the spoonful later added, and that won’t happen if there’s more than a thin layer of beets in the bottom of the pan.

What are your favorite everything-must-go recipes? I’ve got plenty of potatoes and carrots left, as well as barley, black beans, red kidney beans, and eggs. Creative preparation suggestions are appreciated!

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Horses are Delicious

Those who know me at all know I’ve always been a horse girl. As a child, I collected figurines and books, and not just The Saddle Club and Black Beauty, either; my bookshelves were cluttered with anthologies and lots of non-fiction. I attended a sleep-away horse camp from age 11 to 14 and took several years of horseback riding lessons in middle and high school, as well as two semesters in college. And then, of course, I spent three summers leading trail rides and teaching horsemanship and animal science merit badges at MaKaJaWan Scout Reservation.

My love of horses, in fact, was a large part of my decision to come to Mongolia. I’ll admit that I didn’t know much about the country when I applied to be a Fulbrighter here. It was cold, I knew that much. It was the home of Genghis Khan. And it was a country in which horses held great cultural significance. And that was enough for me.

So it comes as a surprise to most people when I tell them that I eat aduuny max/адууны мах – horse meat. “I thought you loved horses!” they say, or “how can you eat them when you’ve worked with them?”

Here’s the thing: Americans tend to think of horses the way we think of pets. We name our horses, build relationships with them. I wouldn’t be able to kill and eat one of the camp horses unless a) I had no other sources of food, or b) doing so was a mercy to that animal. I wouldn’t want to kill them because I love them, but if they had to die, I don’t see how eating them would dishonor their memories or make my love of them any less.

But Mongolian horses are a different story. To call them “a breed apart” from the domesticated horses we know is an understatement. They’re a different subspecies: Equus ferus przewalskii instead of Equus ferus caballus, commonly known as Przewalski’s horses. They’re shorter and stockier than most domesticated breeds, and exceptionally stubborn. Even the prized Naadam racers are still half-wild; they may be broken to bridle and saddle, but you’re not going to see them performing dressage.

More importantly, the Mongolians view them the same way they do yaks, sheep, and cows: as livestock. They are arguably the most highly-valued variety of livestock, and one of only two that are commonly ridden (camels being the other), but they are livestock nonetheless. They are not typically named, but referred to by color or other attribute: “the grey one,” “the brown one.” They are ridden, and they are milked (more on that later) – and they are eaten.

In America, cheap cuts of meat are full of fat and connective tissue, while leaner cuts are more expensive; in Mongolia, it’s the opposite. Americans might like fat that’s well-marbled into the meat, but we don’t typically eat chunks of straight-up fat; Mongolians do. “жаахон өөх!” we Americans plead at the meat market – only a little fat! – to bewildered and often uncooperative butchers. Every Mongolian knows that the fat is the best part, and good for you besides; why wouldn’t we want it?

Stockily built they may be, but Mongolian horses are skinny, and that skinniness shows up on the butcher’s block. Aside from a thin layer of disconcertingly orange subcutaneous fat, horse meat is the leanest that is widely available. We Westerners flock to it for that reason. We also love it for its price: 5000 tugruks per kilo during the winter, versus 7500 for beef. Most of the Americans in Erdenet are Peace Corps Volunteers barely getting by on only a few hundred dollars per month; those 2500 tugs make a difference.

For reasons that are not entirely clear to me, horse is only eaten in the winter. Some Mongolians have told me that they only eat horse in early winter; by spring, the horses are too skinny. Others have said that horse meat is considered particularly nutritious and thus is saved for consumption in the winter, when it’s most needed. Whatever the reason, it is definitely the meat most subject to seasonal availability. There’s none to be had at the market now, and I miss it.

So yes, I eat horse. It’s cheap and lean, and tasty besides. I’ve never been squeamish about eating other farm animals; why should I start with horses?


Dinner in the Second World: Cowboy Potatoes

Life in the second world presents as a series of paradoxes. In some ways, I live the same life I might in America, with only a façade of Mongolian-ness thrown in for effect; in others, the roles reverse, and my assumptions about an apparently familiar subject are thrown into constant revision. In this series, I will attempt to bring this funhouse to life.

“What do you eat in Mongolia?” people ask, and it’s not always an easy question to answer. What I eat in the burgeoning metropolis of Erdenet differs greatly from what Mongolian people in Erdenet eat, which is different again from what people out in the hudoo (an Anglicization of хөдөө, or ‘countryside’) eat. But let’s explore this question via what I had for dinner tonight, and how I made it, because it does a pretty thorough job of reflecting multiple facets of a complex question. Also, it was delicious.

Cowboy Potatoes (a recipe shamelessly yoinked from fellow Fulbrighter Teresa and then modified to reflect my own notions of deliciousness)

  • Set some water to boil in your demonic тогоо (electric wok). Make sure to turn it on a lower setting so that it does not melt its own cord, and also that you put it in a room on a different circuit than the kitchen so that you do not blow a fuse by attempting to boil water in two different rooms at the same time again. Check periodically that it has not set itself on fire.
  • Throw out the carrots that have gotten moldy, and ascertain which of the potatoes are salvageable if you cut off the many, many sprouts. Attempt to peel them.
  • Sigh in frustration at the fact that your roommate has clearly been using the knives to open cans again, even though you bought a can opener. Grab a ceramic bowl, turn it over, and sharpen the knives on the unglazed bottom edge. Before using them, be sure to rinse off any metal or ceramic shavings they may have accrued in the sharpening process. Also run your thumb along the edge to remind yourself of their newly-sharpened status, as one trip to the emergency room is plenty.
  • Peel the potatoes and carrots using the smaller of the knives. In America, I’d just cook the potatoes with the skins on, but these were probably grown in China, and who knows what chemicals they spray their crops with. (Aside from distrust of all things made in China Mongolia has instilled in me, potatoes really are one of those foods you want to buy organic when possible.) Wash the dirt from the peeled root vegetables. Mongolians do it in that order (peel first, wash second) while Americans would do the reverse; I suspect the Mongolian method is chosen because it uses and dirties a lot less water.
  • Cut the carrots and potatoes into chunks and throw them in the water. Hope the тогоо doesn’t melt anything while you go back to the kitchen.
  • Fry up some bacon on on your little hot plate. Keep the drippings.
  • While the bacon cooks, cut onions, garlic, and cabbage. Most Mongolians prefer green cabbage, but I buy red when possible, because it’s pretty and because phytochemicals are tasty. They’re even tastier fried in bacon grease, though obviously not quite as healthy. Start the cabbage first, with a little water so that it steams for a bit while you do the aromatics. Add a little butter before mixing in the onions and garlic if the cabbage appears to have absorbed all the fat.
  • If the potatoes and carrots are cooked through, strain them using your dish drainer (since you don’t have a colander). Toss them back into the тогоо, as it’s the largest bowl you’ve got. Mash them, and thank the Korean home supply stores for the fact that you are able to do so using a potato ricer rather than a fork.
  • Add milk and butter and mix. Don’t use much butter; there’s already plenty of fat in the cabbage mixture, and whole milk’s got plenty of its own.
  • Cut up some cheese and add it while the mixture is still hot enough to melt it. Don’t use a lot, because it’s prohibitively expensive. Be sure to thank the Russians for the fact that it’s available at all.
  • Chop the bacon and sprinkle it in, along with the cabbage, onions, and garlic. . Dig out the aforementioned can opener and dump in a can of corn (drained) for good measure.
  • Season liberally with salt and pepper and mix.
  • Dish out; put individual servings of leftovers in ceramic bowls, since they can be reheated in the toaster oven or in boiling water without shattering.
  • Enjoy!
Cowboy potatoes: colorful and tasty

Cowboy potatoes: colorful and tasty

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Thanksgiving in UB

Well, this weekend has certainly been… eventful, in both good ways and bad. Good things first: Thanksgiving was wonderful. Lots of people, tons of food, and a good deal of fun. You can’t really get your hands on turkey here, but we had chicken – and lots of it. We also had mashed potatoes, gravy, stuffing, cranberry sauce, pumpkin pie – all the essentials. The Fulbrighters had all been invited, so I got to hang out with most of them; in a couple of cases, this was the first time I had seen them since I moved to UB at the end of August. It was loud and noisy enough that there was only so much catching up we could do, but it was still nice to be able to hug and say hello.

This weekend also gave me a chance to meet Peace Corps Volunteers stationed all over the country. I doubt I’ll see most of them again, or even get a chance to talk to them – I didn’t get their phone numbers, and most soumers don’t have particularly regular internet access. But new faces and friendly conversations were great, whether they took place at the dinner table, in the comfortable chairs at the Thanksgiving, or over a beer (or two, or three).

After Thanksgiving dinner, we went salsa dancing – not just me and my gallant host,  but almost all of the PCVs, and a few of the Fulbrighters as well. I didn’t get to do much actual salsa dancing; there were few people who really knew what they were doing, and they all had other people to dance with. I’m terribly out of practice in any case, so I  wasn’t following particularly well. But the dancing was very fun anyway.

My other dancing experience didn’t go nearly so well. Most of the PCVs, plus a number of other expats, went to Aer Club on Friday evening, resulting in a very packed dance floor and the first grinding I’ve seen since I left the states. Putting so many expats together in a city like UB is like piling dryer lint on top of birchbark; when sparks started flying between Mongolian men and American women, the whole place was ablaze in moments. Someone threw a punch, someone else threw one back, people waded in to pull them apart and got hit themselves – it got ugly very fast. The fighting had broken apart and restarted twice by the time the police arrived.

All the Americans who hadn’t already fled were busy looking for their things and their friends so that they could do so, but I was unable to join them. My host had jumped right into the thick of it and was throwing both punches and words, so I was stuck waiting. In the end, the police grabbed three foreigners (two Americans and my host’s British friend) and three Mongolians to haul them off to the police station. And since none of the foreigners really spoke Mongolian and my Mongolian host speaks fluent English, he accompanied them to translate. So I accompanied them as well, since I couldn’t exactly go home without them.

This was my second Mongolian police station in less than a week, and it was not an enjoyable experience. At 1 am, all we really wanted to do was go home, but instead we were stuck waiting while both sides wrote out depositions and filed complaints.

I also missed my train back to Erdenet on Sunday night, having given myself about five too few minutes to walk to the station; I arrived just in time to watch the train pull away from the platform.  At some point during our mad rush to the station, we also made an unpleasant discovery. I had carried my stuff around the city all afternoon without major incident – which is to say that while two people had made an attempt at opening my backpack, neither was successful. I had been careful to put both zippers all the way at the bottom, where they’d be difficult to get to; the zipper to the computer compartment was more accessible, but with such a full backpack, I knew from experience that it would be difficult to extract my laptop. Those first two attempts on my backpack were obvious, and I whirled around and smacked the offending passersby.

It’s harder to guard your belongings at night, though; when the temperature drops well below zero, the extra layers you throw on muffle your hearing and obstruct your peripheral vision. I was in a hurry, and walking with a friend, and both of those things distracted me enough for someone to get my backpack open. Only the things at the very top were lost; I wasn’t too upset about losing  a packet of star anise or my fleece gloves, since they weren’t nearly warm enough anyway. But my bag full of chargers and  cords is now also gone as well: my camera battery charger, camera/computer cable, Kindle/computer cord, phone charger, my iPod cord, the handy iPod charger I wrote about here, and the European outlet adapter that goes with it. It was a terribly inconvenient loss, but all in all, I’d say I was lucky; all these things are replaceable and reasonably inexpensive. Between my US phone charger and my external hard drives, I still had the cords I need to connect to everything but my iPod. A new phone charger and iPod cord/charger ran me about $14 today, though sadly the charger is only compatible with European outlets. A new charger is only $12, but the world adapter kit is closer to 40, and I still have most of the inserts. I’m not sure if it’s possible to buy only the European one. Still need the camera battery charger, though.

Having my stuff stolen wasn’t much fun, but all in all, it was still a good trip to UB. I went to see a movie with a new friend during my extra night (Hotel Transylvania, not the new James Bond) and spent some more time getting to know PCVs. Not quite what I expected out of this trip, but still plenty of fun.

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Last year, I celebrated Thanksgiving twice. I’m hard-pressed to recall the specifics of our big family celebration; we’ve had so many, and they do run together. Last year my dad’s youngest sister and her family hosted one major holiday, and we were late because the pumpkin pie wouldn’t set. My family hosted the other, and we stayed up late talking to the visiting members of the Burke Zoo Northern Branch. I was also serenaded, repeatedly, by my father and uncle with the Evans Sweetheart song, a bit of god-awful sentimentality straight out of the 1950s. But as I had recently started dating an Evans Scholar, an order of which my father and both of his brothers are members, I suppose it was sort of inevitable. My point, I suppose, is that while I do remember scraps of both those holidays, I couldn’t tell you which was Thanksgiving and which was Christmas.

But that was my second Thanksgiving celebration, and I remember the first much better. My roommate and I “pre-gamed” the holiday – not by getting drunk before going out drinking, as the term usually implies, but by celebrating with our friends at school before going home to celebrate with our families. We invited a bunch of our friends over (I think there were around ten of us all told), spent the entire day in the kitchen, and used every casserole dish that kitchen had.

I mean that literally. You can’t even see all the food in this picture.

It was completely worth it. This was my second family we were celebrating with, my home away from home. It wouldn’t have felt right not to celebrate with them in some way. I don’t think we said grace, as is traditional at Thanksgiving dinner, but we certainly felt blessed. To show how blessed, we each took a leaf (I had gathered and pressed a large number of colorful leaves earlier that autumn) and wrote the things we were thankful for upon it. Quite a few of them referred to the family we had created there.

Turkey, stuffing, sweet potatoes and apples, cranberry sauce - we even had green bean casserole.

And the food was delicious.

This Thanksgiving, inevitably, has been rather different. Once more, I’ll be celebrating it twice. Round one was last Sunday, when the nine American residents of Erdenet gathered at a Peace Corps Volunteer’s apartment. We had to make do with chicken instead of turkey, but the food was still delicious, and I ate far too much of it.

Still, it wasn’t the same. I managed cranberry sauce of a sort, but it lacked the bite of the real thing. More importantly, the atmosphere was different – companionable, but nowhere near as close-knit. I made friends at Miami whom I counted as sisters; I have yet to find sisters here. And though we had all the trimmings of the traditional dinner, some of the spirit of the holiday was missing. There was no acknowledgement of the things we were thankful for, and I missed that.

In my classes today, I tried to make up for that. I thought about playing “Over the River and Through the Woods” for them, or trying to teach them some Thanksgiving-related vocabulary, but neither would be particularly meaningful to them. So I replicated last Thanksgiving’s leaves: I broke out the construction paper, gave each student a piece, and asked them to write the things they were thankful for upon it. It took some translation to get the message across, but they did it. Some of their responses:

  • I am thankful for family.
  • I am thankful for education.
  • I am thankful for mother, father, brother.
  • I am thankful for Mongolia.
  • I am thankful for horse.
  • I am thankful for sportsman.
  • I am thankful for winter.
  • I am thankful for Chinggis Khan.

Rather a mixed bag, but they clearly understood the point of the exercise. And they didn’t copy the list of examples I’d provided straight off the board, either; I saw them checking through their notes for vocabulary words and asking the other teacher what words were. That’s a lot more engagement and comprehension than they usually show!

As for me, I’m thankful for a lot of things. For my family, even if I can’t go home to celebrate this glorious holiday with them. For the snow and trees and mountains that beautify the earth and the sunny days that make winter bearable. For cats and the way they always make me smile. For living in an apartment where I don’t have to worry about going to the bathroom outdoors in sub-zero weather and can (almost always) take hot showers when I want them.

But the one that hits most urgently this year is that I’m thankful for my friends – for the old friends who’ve kept up with me and supported me through a rough October, and for the new friends I’ve made here. I would probably learn Mongolian faster if I had no one to talk to in English, but I would be awfully lonely in the process. I am incredibly grateful for the Americans here; seeing them at least three times a week, even if two of them are to run English activities for the community, is part of what keeps me sane. I am grateful for the Russian and Mongolian friends who have opened their homes and their hearts to me, and I am deeply indebted to them for helping me with things like navigating the postal service and giving me a place to stay during this weekend’s trip to UB. I would be completely lost here on my own.

Whether you celebrate it or not, Happy Thanksgiving to you and yours.

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Homestay, part 1

17 September, 2001

It seems chose (well, Arcadia chose) a good weekend for my homestay. The traditional music festival is going on here in Tuam (pronounced [tum] or chewm – like ‘tomb,’ but with a ‘ch’) this weekend, which promises to be a lot of fun. Aside from that, however, I don’t know how much of a traditional or even typical family experience I’ll get here. I doubt that most Irish families take in six international students at a time in addition to their own four children.

There are two 17-year-old girls staying until Christmas, one from Switzerland and the other from Italy. There are also two 18-year-old French boys who are here for the week, and an 11-year-old Spanish boy who’s finishing out his month here. And then there’s the 14-year-old  Spanish girl who’s staying with the neighbors but spends most of her time here, playing the family’s 5-year-old girl. The teenage girls all speak good English, but the boys seem to be harder time. It’s like being back in Dijon only in reverse – they insist that we converse in English so that they can practice but I resort to French when they appear to be having difficulties.

I tried talking to them over dinner, but the conversation was about as interesting as the food. I can’t remember the last time I had chicken nuggets let alone Spaghetti-Os – but in all fairness, they do have a 5-year-old, an 8-year-old, and a 13-year-old. And I can’t imagine what it must be like to cook for 13 people.

I’ve talked with the parents, and with little Abby, but I’d like to get to know the boys in the family. None of them seem to be particularly talkative; the 19-year-old I only met in passing. The family’s been taking international students for 9 years, longer than the two youngest children have been alive – what must it have been like to grow up with such a transitory family?