Or: the Trials and Tribulations of an Uptown Girl with a Boyfriend from Old Europe

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Location: Basel, Switzerland

Sunday, March 25, 2007

All that you can't leave behind

After nearly two months of floating along in my comfortable little world here, this week I was powerfully jolted back to reality. Several incidents served to remind me that I'm quite far from my homeland, and taken together, left me feeling quite vulnerable. I've been stricken by another bout of homesickness, and as usual, it came completely out of the blue.

Although I'd been a little down all week, I didn't recognize the symptoms until Friday night, when Swissy Pie and I met up for drinks with a friend from New York, who happened to be in town for a meeting. We had a wonderful evening catching up, but as we emerged from the close, cigarette-fueled haze, I remarked, "Boy, that's one thing I miss - smoke-free bars."

In that moment of alcohol-induced clarity, I realized that I miss a lot more than the carcinogen-free air. I miss knowing what to do in an emergency. (Kids, 911 doesn't work here.) I miss having a bank account. (Damn you, Citibank, for charging me inordinately high "foreign fees"!) As much as I like rösti and fondue, I miss real ethnic food. (Sorry honey, that's why you've been coming home to kebabs, tandoori chicken, ma po tofu and Japanese curry.) I miss bagels. (My favorite splurge: an everything bagel, toasted, with cream cheese, tomato, and lox.) I even miss American-style potato chips, which I never ate back home. (Yes, they have chips here, but they just taste different. Less salt, less oil... they're just off.)

So - perhaps unconsciously - this past week I've been trying to make our apartment feel more like home. Helped along by miserable weather - the high winds keep me from venturing out more than the snow and the cold - I've resumed unpacking with a vengeance. I've reorganized the cabinets, planned and plotted how to squeeze the remaining boxes of clothes into the meager space remaining. I've filled the closet that Swissy Pie helpfully assembled one night. I've spent hours browsing through the garden center at Obi, trying to decide what kind of plants I'd like to have in our living room. (Swissy Pie is singularly unhelpful on this front. His allergies to flowers helps narrow things down, but otherwise, he just says, "Get whatever you want.")

To complete my good little hausfrau image, I've even been ironing. Now, the last time I turned on my iron was probably at least five years ago, but I schlepped the thing all the way from New York, and I'm determined to use it. (The absurd dry cleaning fees here are also a good motivation - 10 Swiss francs per item!) So one day I stuffed all of Swissy Pie's dirty dress shirts into the washing machine, dragged them upstairs while they were still damp, and set to work. It took me all afternoon, but at last I managed to wrestle the pile of tangled cloth into something approaching unwrinkled shirts on hangers.

But ultimately, the most therapeutic thing I can do is indulge myself with comfort food. One day, for example, I craved Japanese curry. Now, most people associate curry with India, or perhaps Malaysia, but anyone who's been to Tokyo will recognize it as a national dish: it's a cheap, nutritious meal that can be purchased anywhere for a mere 400 or 500 yen. Nevertheless, it's alleged to be the Emperor of Japan's favorite food, and the average Japanese family eats it 2 or 3 times a week. Japanese grocery stores - as well as those in New York - carry kits that make throwing a curry together quick and easy.

I haven't come across any of the kits in the Asian markets here, so instead, I cobbled together a makeshift recipe. It turned out pretty well. It's not fancy, or even subtle, the way most Japanese dishes are. But it definitely keeps winter at bay!
Japanese Curry

1 lb ground beef
4 medium potatoes, diced
3 carrots, diced
1 onion, diced
2 cloves garlic
4 C water
2 chicken or beef boullion cubes
5 Tbsp vegetable oil
1/4 C flour
4 Tbsp curry powder
1 tsp chili powder (optional)
2 Tsp salt (or to taste)

2 C short grain rice
4 C water

In a large pot, heat 2 Tbsp of vegetable oil. Saute onion and garlic until softened. Add the ground beef and cook until it is no longer pink. Add the carrots and potatoes, stir a few times, and then add the water and boullion. Bring to a boil, and simmer for 15-20 minutes.

While the meat is cooking, make a roux out of the remaining 3 Tbsp oil and the flour: heat oil in a medium skillet until shimmering. Over low-medium heat, add flour and stir, cooking until the flour is blended and takes on a pale golden hue. Add curry powder and chili powder, using the back of the spatula to blend it into the roux. The mixture will be powdery and dry.

Take 1/2 C of the hot liquid from the meat pot and slowly add it to the curry-roux mixture, stiring constantly to form a smooth paste. By spoonfuls, add the curry paste back to the beef mixture, stirring to dissolve. Add salt. Simmer the curry for 20-30 minutes, until the sauce has thickened and the beef and vegetables are tender.

While curry is finishing up, bring rice and water to a boil in a pot, immediately reduce heat to low, cover the pot with its lid, and cook for 20 minutes.

Serve curry with rice in shallow bowls. There should be approximately twice as much curry as rice in the bowl.

Yield: 4 servings

1) Curry mixes vary in ingredients and intensity, so adjust the spices accordingly.
2) Like a stew, there should be a lot of sauce, so if the curry is too dry, add more water.

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