Recipe #1: Banana Chocolate Chip Bundt Cake

Browning, slightly bruised bananas: perfect for making cake!

Clearly I couldn’t wait to get started on this baking project! But the truth is, it was the bananas that couldn’t wait. They had passed their peak for eating, and had been languishing on the kitchen counter for a couple of days practically begging me to turn them into a sweet and moist semi-healthy dessert (okay, not so healthy if it falls into the dessert category).

I got this recipe from my mother many, many years ago and pretty much know it off by heart. It is dairy-free, which I consider to be a positive. However, it does call for A LOT of sugar. I think I could probably cut down on the sugar, but I haven’t tried yet.

Two eggs, half a cup of canola oil and a full cup and a half of sugar go into this cake
Flour, baking powder, baking soda and vanilla are added
after the wet ingredients are combined

Sometimes I bake this batter into muffins so the kids can take it to school in their lunches, or I’ve even done it in a loaf pan, but it seems to have a hard time baking through the centre because it’s such a wet batter.

Today I went for the classic bundt cake, which makes it bake up beautifully with a deep brown outer layer. An important note about the chocolate chips: if you use full size semi-sweet chocolate chips, they sink to the bottom of the batter, thus sticking to the side of the pan so that when you turn it out, your cake will have pock marks. I confess, I used about half a cup in this recipe, but I also added in chopped up semi-sweet chocolate bits and they did not sink to the bottom of the pan.

A well greased bundt pan will make it easy to turn the cake out after baking

The recipe I normally use also calls for half a cup of either orange or apple juice. I think this simply makes the cake more moist and gives it a nice glossy shine on top. I did not have any juice in the fridge today, but I did have a bowl of homemade apple sauce, so I used that instead and I think I might like the results better this way.

This is one of the most adaptable cakes I have ever made. It’s like an outfit that can go from day to night–it’s a great cake that you can call “bread” if need be, but it can also be fashioned into a layer cake with mocha or chocolate icing for a special occasion, which I have done in the past, particularly for birthday celebrations. Once you’ve made it as many times as I have, you will quickly realize that the threat of bananas going bad in your house is a non-starter because you can take those over ripened fruits and turn them into a delicious cake that is good to eat any day of the week.

A perfectly baked banana chocolate chip bundt cake

Baking with Purpose

Cookies, cakes, pies and squares fall into my bailiwick when it comes to baking sweets. I cannot say the same for fine pastries, breads or savoury baked goods. That doesn’t mean I don’t want to learn how to bake those things. I just hadn’t considered it before. “Before what?” you ask.

Before The Great British Bake Off.

Judges, Paul and Prue flank show hosts, Sandi and Noel

Yes, I got hooked a couple of weeks ago. And yes, I’ve been living under a rock for the past five years. I am not normally a fan of reality television involving competitions that induce sweating, heart palpitations and all manner of anxiety riddled activity. But I did like learning about different methods of baking and types of pastry that are commonly found in England and in bakeries, but rarely attempted by the home baker.

Given my propensity to learn and try new things in the kitchen I have devised a plan (well, it’s more like a list at this point in time) to make pastries I have never attempted before. Here’s my list so far:

  • Scones
  • Croissant
  • Puff pastry
  • “Rough puff” pastry
  • Hot water crust pastry
  • Choux pastry
  • Sugar work
  • Italian meringue
  • Mousse
  • Sponge cakes
  • Meat pies
  • Crackers
  • Swiss roll
  • Donuts
  • Madeleines
  • Danish
  • Pavlova
  • Chocolate Work
  • Ginger Bread
  • Marzipan
  • Streudel

I think that’s a pretty decent list to start with, don’t you? My plan is to turn it into my next 365 day project on Instagram, although I know I’m not in the kitchen 365 days a year (although pretty darn close to that).

SO! Wish me luck. I may not begin right away, but I’m going to figure out which pastry to tackle first. Don’t worry: you’ll know when the bakefest begins. EVERYONE will know! The key is to do this and not gain a bajillion pounds doing it. As my friend Shelley once exclaimed after seeing a post of my bakes, “How do you not weigh 400 pounds?!?!?” I figure if Christina Tosi can bake Crack Pie and Birthday cake pops among the many other tooth achey creations she bakes and still look fit as a fiddle, so can I.

My One Year Caliversary

It’s been one year since our family of five moved from Toronto to San Jose, California. I feel as though the last twelve months have flown by, and yet I feel as though I haven’t accomplished much personally or professionally in that time. For someone who is really good at getting a lot done when given a list of to do’s and a deadline, I’m also very good at being critical of myself.

To counter the negative, I’m going to do an exercise that is supposed to list the positives: what I have accomplished in the last twelve months—things that demonstrate all the skills I have cultivated professionally and personally have been put to good use. So here goes!

 

Research

I have researched the heck out of my new city. Doctors and dentists for children (and me) have been found and visited.

Speaking of doctors, navigating the health insurance system has been an education unto itself. The amount of time dedicated to research on this subject alone is immeasurable, and yet I feel I should be remunerated in some way for the pain and suffering it has caused me (yes, I’m being facetious, but just a little bit).

Driving routes to school and hockey practices have been cemented in my mind after countless excursions that I don’t need to rely on Google Maps anymore.

Grocery stores that carry the right kind of condiments, loaves of bread, cuts of meat, and snacks for school lunches have been raked over with a fine-tooth comb. I go to no less than three grocery stores to get what is needed. You read that right: THREE different stores! (sometimes more)

My research continues as the need arises. This skill has probably been the most integral to our settlement in a new city and country.

I also do research on where to go and what to do with the kids when we have free time, if we have the energy to go anywhere. There have been many excursions to the coast, sampling of different ice cream shops, exploration of hiking trails primarily with a friend of mine and the dog, trips up and down the peninsula in search of delicacies I crave, discoveries that even the locals don’t know about or haven’t bothered to explore. For the most part I have enjoyed this part of my research.

Researching involves benchmarking and I’m not sure what the benchmark is for excursions. This is where I still feel like a tourist that’s living in this town. If it were home I wouldn’t be excited by the vistas and views of and from the mountains and ocean. It would just be part of the scenery.

Organization & Scheduling

Three kids. Three schools. Three sets of extra curricular activities. Keeping organized and staying on schedule should go without saying, but there’s more to it. I went old school and invested in a white board. Yes, we always keep the kids’ activities colour-coded in Google Calendars, but I’m a visual person so writing out their activities and appointments has been a great way to keep track of all the moving parts.

I also did real meal planning successfully for the first time ever. They say the road to hell is paved with good intentions, but I managed to stay out of hell most of the time and stick with the plan. It also meant a lot less food waste, and meal planning has become, to my pleasant surprise, rule by consensus. I write out my ideas for meals and the kids weigh in with their ideas or change the ones they don’t like. Normally that would put me in a bad mood, but their participation in meal preparation has raised their awareness about the amount of time, effort and thought that goes into it.

Having a white board has also eliminated many excuses from the kids about not knowing they had an activity, not being prepared for a test or not getting out of the house on time. Despite all the technology that exists to keep us organized, the simple act of writing down schedules has had a marvelous impact on the family.

The infamous white board!

Networking

As I’ve said in a previous post, it’s hard making friends in your 40’s. I have been fortunate to meet some great people since my move, but it wasn’t happenstance that brought us together.

Meeting new people—making friends—is just like going on a blind date. So many of them were connections I made through Facebook groups. There are some people I have met who, I hope, will be lifelong friends. There are others who turned out to be a bad fit (can I call them wing nuts???). I’ve adjusted my expectations with respect to the success rate of these “matches.”

Networking is an art and a skill that requires time, effort and practice; something I learned from a former colleague of mine who has become a dear friend.

I also know I need to be in the right mindset to do it and that isn’t always the case.

Fortunately I have met people through different circles; some are parents of my kids’ classmates, some who are fellow Canadian expat moms and some who are fellow Canadian expat professionals who live and work in Silicon Valley. My circle of friends is small, but even my 11-year-old said, you don’t need a lot of friends, you just need good ones.

Volunteering

Since I am unable to work in this country, I thought I’d dip my toe into the volunteer pool and see how I liked it.

For the first time in the almost 15 years I have been a mother, I am able to volunteer at my kid’s school on a regular basis. Never able to commit to volunteering, I would pitch in at events like the spring fair on a weekend, even sitting on the Board of the boys’ daycare, but now I get to spend time with my youngest son and his class during the day. Once a month I plan and lead gardening classes with a fellow mom and I help out with the weekly lunch hour garden club with all the students. I love it!

There isn’t much for me to do for my older kids, but I do help out at the middle school snack bar, which gives me a chance to see what goes on at the school.

I have also volunteered to write for that Canadian expat professional group I mentioned before and contribute my expertise as a communications professional. There is something physiological that happens to a person when they volunteer. Maybe your body releases those feel good hormones called endorphins or maybe not, but in general I leave my volunteer gigs with a heightened sense of wellbeing. I will likely do more volunteering and make it a part of what I do going forward—even when I am back in a paid position. I never thought I had time for volunteering regularly, but now I know it’s so worth making the time.

 

Self Improvement

This is an interesting category because it could mean different things to different people. The first thing that comes to mind for me is my physical wellbeing. I have done more hiking in the last year than in my entire life and my dog loves me for that. I go hiking in the foothills near our home with someone who has become a good friend. I have also continued to run, but believe it or not, all this motion has caused repetitive strain injuries. So I’ve returned to yoga, which has been wonderful. I have also started taking pilates classes.

My eating habits are a different story!

My body is being looked after and now I am turned to improving my mind. My biggest worry about not being able to work was that my intellectual muscles would atrophy if I didn’t use them every day. Having to think strategically, have intelligent conversations and generate ideas is something I genuinely love to do and I miss it.

I’ve decided to enroll in online learning courses on design thinking and business strategy. No, it’s not the same as waking up every day and going to work, but it means keeping the synapses firing in my brain by learning something new and continuing to grow.

So that’s been my year in a nutshell. I could tell you so much more, but I think I’ll save it for another time…right now I have to go do yoga and try out a new dinner recipe on my kids!

1 Mom + 3 Kids= Countless Rides in the Car

I couldn’t think of a snappy title for this post because there really are no words to describe the amount of driving I do to get my three boys to school, soccer, hockey or anything else that requires transportation to and from said activity.

I’m at the rink right now as I write this, waiting for the stress chemicals to stop coursing through my veins after getting my six-year-old to and from soccer practice, followed by a trip to the rink with the other two for their hockey practices. I’ve now got almost three hours ahead of me before I get to go home, put on my pyjamas and climb into my cozy bed and have sweet dreams–about doing this all over again in another day!

I’ve done the math, and I visit the rink, on average, eight times a week. EIGHT. TIMES. A. WEEK.

Yes, I’m like an Uber or Lyft driver, but I don’t get paid for all the driving I do.

My commute to the rink is 15.3 kilometres in each direction (that’s 9.5 miles for you ah’muricans), and takes roughly 22 minutes. I call this commute The Drive of Utter Boredom.

The scary thing is my commute pales in comparison to that of other parents whose kids play hockey with my kids. There are some kids who travel anywhere from 40 kilometres to 96 kilometres to get to practices. I have no words…

Speaking of words, that is the best part of the drive with my kids–the conversation that otherwise wouldn’t happen! True, I have a captive audience, but more often than not, the kids are the ones who initiate the conversation. I’ve learned so much about what my kids are doing at school, talking about with their friends, or just thinking about at this point in their lives. I’ve had some very memorable conversations with the boys that likely wouldn’t have happened if we hadn’t been in the car together.

I can’t remember where I read it, but apparently it’s less intimidating to talk about difficult things when you aren’t in direct eye contact with the person you are talking to. So driving in a car or going for a walk are great opportunities to have meaningful conversations with your kids because they can talk about things that might otherwise be awkward or embarrassing.

This past summer I was driving with one of the boys from our cottage to drop him off at camp. The majority of the drive was spent talking about puberty, girls, sex, pregnancy and child birth. We basically covered the entire sex ed curriculum and then some–all of it initiated by my son. It was a great conversation. I felt so proud of him, that he felt confident–and safe–enough to have that kind of talk with me. His mom! Now he doesn’t have to wonder or go searching for answers on the internet. It was a proud parenting moment for me. I thought, “well I must have done something right if he feels like he can talk to me about this stuff.”

Despite my constant cursing and lamenting about the amount of time I spend on the road logging a lot of mileage, I do appreciate the time it has afforded me with my kids. They aren’t on their screens. We listen to music and sing along. We even have meals together in the car (no, I know, this is not ideal). It’s like our family room on wheels. I hope I look back on this period in my life with fond memories of trips to the rink, but who am I kidding? While I’m in the thick of it, I can’t imagine that, but before I know it, it will be over and the kids will be old enough to drive themselves (Yikes!!!!) or their hockey careers will be over. So I’ll take those conversations in the car while they last.

 

 

What It’s Like to Feel Homesick in your 40’s

Decorating the house for Halloween stirred up a lot of emotions this year

Last night I broke down. I spilled many tears and sobbed uncontrollably like a young child. The culprit? Homesickness.

It’s been barely 10 months since we moved from Toronto to San Jose, California and I’m exhibiting all the signs and symptoms of homesickness. I didn’t know what that felt like until it happened. I have felt an overwhelming sadness or malaise that can strike at any moment. Yesterday it hit me when I was unpacking our Halloween decorations. I remembered where each spider, skeleton, ghost and ghoul was placed on the porch and in the garden of our home. Now I find myself trying to find a new perch for the scary rat, or a new post to hang the drooping ghost. Are there hooks and nails for the other decorations? Am I allowed to put new nails into the house I am renting? Those questions seem trivial, but they triggered feelings of anxiety and loneliness beyond words.

I looked up articles online (something everyone knows they shouldn’t do but do it anyway) about homesickness and the first results I got were aimed at students who had left home for college or university; kids who didn’t know how to buy groceries, cook a square meal or find their way to a doctor’s office. Those are things I have mastered, not only for myself but also for my kids and husband. The practical aspects of living somewhere new have come easily to me. Finding doctors and dentists, sussing out the grocery stores for all the different foods we like, getting a driver’s licence, navigating the highways and roads, and opening a bank account. Even though I ran into some bureaucratic red tape along the way, everything went smoothly for the most part (Department of Motor Vehicles excluded, but that’s another story!).

What is much more difficult to master are social circles for adults–the very things that aren’t readily available to you, like they are for my kids with school and their sports teams. Breaking into a new community is far from easy. There are neighbours, school parents and hockey parents, but other than sharing a zip code and the same drop off at school or drive to the rink, nobody feels compelled to befriend me. And why should they? The effort must come entirely from me to reach out, make connections and take risks. This can be incredibly intimidating and uncomfortable depending on your personality.

I consider myself an extrovert so I don’t have trouble approaching a stranger and striking up a conversation. I credit my time as a radio and television producer for giving me the confidence to ask lots of questions and listen to the answers. But that doesn’t mean the effort I’ve put in has reaped overnight friendships, or people I can call upon to help out when I find myself needing someone to watch the kids when I’m in a pinch.

Most days are spent in solitude doing chores around the house or running errands. I talk to the dog a lot, but he’s not much of a conversationalist.

That makes it easy to fall into bad habits like comparing everything to back home–the food, the public transit (or lack thereof), the weather, the healthcare system, the schools, the homes, the neighbourhoods, the stores. It is very easy to critique and criticize what is different and somehow inadequate or disappointing in comparison. What is more challenging is finding the good in a new home and capitalizing on it.

For me that is hiking in the hills nearby and spotting deer and wild turkeys, or weekend trips to the coast for a day at the beach with a picnic lunch. It’s about having the time–and the luxury–to ride my bike to school every day with my son for drop off and pick up; or the time to try new recipes and cook with fresh produce that’s grown within an hour of where I live. Every place has something different to offer and it’s up to me to explore, discover and enjoy those amazing things.

Not being allowed to work has contributed, in some part, to my homesickness. This is the first time in my adult life that I have not earned a pay cheque, which is very disconcerting. I’m used to being self sufficient. But it’s not only the money that matters. Going into an office every day, feeling that you have a skill that adds value, and interacting with like-minded people are very powerful motivators that make you feel part of a community. In the absence of that, it is easy to feel alone and isolated when you aren’t part of “the hive.”

So I am volunteering at my youngest son’s school with the garden club and at my middle son’s school snack bar twice a month. Both keep me close to my kids, but I can’t say I have formed lifelong friends through these activities. I do go hiking with a fellow Canadian who has become my closest friend since moving here. She and I are kindred spirits, and I am so grateful for her friendship. I’m not sure how I would be making it through this year emotionally without her support. Unfortunately I already know that she is moving back to Canada after this school year, which means our time together is fleeting and as my husband says, I should really try and make more friends.

Back to that article I found online about homesickness–it appears everything that I am feeling is normal for someone feeling homesick and while there is no formal psychological diagnosis for the condition, there are plenty of things the article suggests you can do to combat the feelings of loneliness and longing, many of which I am attempting to do.

I think the biggest challenge for me to overcome is my attitude, which can be a huge barrier to happiness. If I believe I’m going to be unhappy and uncomfortable here, then I probably will be. If I decide I’m going to meet people, make new friends and try new things, then moving here could be a positive experience I can look back on with fond memories.

Yes, there will be moments when I can’t help but feel sad and miss the people I love who are back home, but I also know home can be in more than one place–that’s something I’ve told my kids. So it’s time to ditch the hypocrisy and embrace the new.

 

 

 

Craving Comfort (Foods)

Homesickness is a bitch. I don’t remember experiencing this kind of ache for the motherland when travelling overseas as a twentysomething, or even when living in Vancouver while attending university. There are myriad reasons why I could be feeling the way I feel at any given time. Maybe it’s the change in the weather–dark mornings and dusky afternoons, shorter days, a crispness in the morning air. Fall is my favourite time of the year, so maybe it’s the root vegetables, squash and apples that are in season right now that have me pining for home. Whatever “IT” is, I’m craving comfort and comfort foods.

Today I was a bit manic about cooking and I made a pot of pureed butternut squash soup (a la Martha Stewart’s fabulous Everyday Food cookbook) and roasted a batch of golden beets. But things didn’t stop there–I missed the Thanksgiving long weekend up at my parents’ cottage in Thornbury, Ontario and I was really craving pumpkin pie, so I made the requisite two-pie recipe. The first was almost gone before it had completely cooled.

But the soup and the pie were just the bookends–I needed to come up with a really good stick to yer ribs kinda meal. Ribs! That’s it! I had some lovely boneless beef short ribs in the fridge that I thought would be labour-intensive to prepare, but I they weren’t. I sliced up an onion, popped it into a slow cooker, cut up the ribs in chunks, poured some amazing L & L sauce on top (this stuff is like GOLD because I brought a case of 12 jars with me when we moved from Toronto last January). L & L is like umami for grilling or cooking meat, it’s just that good.

Slow cooker braised short ribs with garlicky mashed potatoes and blanched green beans (and a side of butternut squash soup)

What goes better with slow cooked beef ribs than garlicky mashed potatoes? Nothing. So that’s what I made. Oh! And there were delicious, fresh from the farm green beans, blanched and sauteed in garlic oil.

This was the comfort food meal to end all comfort food meals (until I come up with another–ahem! chicken pot pie).

Double the pleasure: pumpkin pie

But it’s not just comfort food that I’m craving–it’s coziness. It’s Hygge I’m also longing for–that key ingredient to Danish happiness. Pyjamas, sweatpants, sweaters, blankets, slippers, pillows, duvets, LOTS of candlelight, tea with honey, hot chocolate–ANY hot drink and pastries, LOTS of pastries. I have been fairly successful at achieving Hygge in the past, but now that I feel like a displaced person I think my home senses that I am homesick and therefore it is slightly lacking in the Hygge department. So it’s time to pull out the blankets, fluff the pillows, light the candles, bake some cookies, or brownies, or other pastries, put on my flannel pyjamas and get cozy.

 

 

I am NOT a Stay-at-Home Mom

I am NOT a Stay-at-Home Mom. Don’t get me wrong—I love my kids, but they don’t wholly define me. I had a life before kids came along, and I have had a life outside the family home since they came along. Yes, I admit, they are a big part of my life and in my current situation, I would say 30% of my time is devoted to being their Uber driver (curse you, hockey!!!!), 30% of my time is devoted to meal planning, grocery shopping, and preparation, and 20% of my time is devoted to cleaning, laundry and other household maintenance. So that leaves 20% of my time to pursue other ventures.

But I think I’ve done a pretty stellar job *training* these boys to be independent. They make their own school lunches, get themselves to school on their own (minus the six-year-old, although he insists he can get there and back on his own and I do believe him), bathe and shower when they *know* they need it, put their laundry away (okay, I nag them to do this), tidy up, and take the initiative to do their schoolwork.

This was happening while I was working full-time in Toronto. Then we moved to California and I was out of a paying job. You cannot imagine how this crushed me. Most women would think, “Oh my! I’ve hit the jackpot! I don’t *have* to work! I can be that lady of leisure I always dreamed about! I don’t have to race from drop-off in the morning, to an eight-hour day, and then race to pick-up and figure out what I’m making for dinner.” True, I’ve got the luxury of time, so-to-speak, to figure out what I’m serving for dinner, but don’t think for one second I’m anymore inspired to meal plan than I was when I was working full-time.

Yes, I enjoy being able to drop off my youngest at the schoolyard in the morning and pick him up from his classroom when the bell goes. I am happy that I have time to volunteer in his classroom and at my other son’s middle school. I don’t have the unnerving stress of making it home from work in time to gather up the boys and their hockey paraphernalia and shuttle them to the rink in time for practices. The absence of those pressures are certainly welcomed. However, I gave up a lot professionally to gain that sliver of time management. It is still a time crunch to get them home from school, fed and piled into the car with their gear.

What I miss is looking forward to that intellectual stimulation and adult interaction that challenged me and forced me to think HARD. Going to work and concentrating on subject matter that I might not have been familiar with kept the synapses firing. Taking the initiative to seek out this kind of stimulation while in solitary confinement is not something I’m good at. Yet.

I know, I know. There’s Coursera. There’s Khan Academy. There’s +Acumen. But sitting in front of my computer attempting to learn about something new is not nearly as inspiring as learning it from a real, live human being.

NO! I don’t want to go back to school. I did my time, thank you very much. And if there’s one thing I know about me, (yes, I am highly self-aware and emotionally intelligent) I know I learn better with real people, not from reading a text book or online modules. Let me interact with people and I will gladly contribute.

So right now I’m learning how to be out of a job, because I have no choice. I go for hikes with friends. I attempt recipes I otherwise wouldn’t have the time to make. I work up a sweat vacuuming, scrubbing and washing floors, toilets, sinks and counters. I do *far* too much grocery shopping. I drive my kids to hockey more than I ever imagined I would in a lifetime. And I write, because I know that’s what I’m good at.

But I am not a Stay-at-Home Mom.

Blogging about California

I turned my back on this blog many months ago. I didn’t feel like spilling my guts on to the proverbial page and leaving an indelible digital footprint, only to be discovered or stumbled upon by some poor schlub at some later date. Life was is in flux. My thoughts were are driven by emotion. I needed to give my head a break. And yet here I am, typing out my thoughts. Why, you ask? No good reason, really. It’s just time to start writing again.

Maybe I’m doing it to flex the writing muscles that have atrophied over the last several months; to remind myself that I am still capable of stringing together coherent sentences. Maybe it’s simply an outlet for my personal thoughts and ideas, and as I’ve been known to say (especially to my children), “better out than in!”

The truth is I was having a rough day the other day. It happened to be Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. The holiest of holy days in the Jewish year, occurring ten days after the New Year. I have a rather superficial relationship with my deity. It’s more of a means to an end, the end being Shabbat dinners on Friday nights, family gatherings at certain holidays. Food, food and more food. You get the picture. But this year things are different. We are in California without the extended family to have a meal with or sit with in synagogue and count the number of pages left in the prayer book before the service is over. I’ve struggled a lot with our move to the west coast, primarily because I miss our family and friends. When the holidays roll around those feelings are exacerbated.

People think, “California! That’s amazing! Great weather, mountains, ocean and Silicon Valley!” Those things are all true, and I have enjoyed those things. However, moving away from home is hard, regardless of the location you are moving to.

Writing about my experiences was my husband’s idea. While not in synagogue, we had a heavy conversation reflecting on the move, what it’s meant for our relationship and our family. What it’s meant for both of our careers–his moving forward, mine on hold. We also talked about our fears, which are very real. We don’t agree on everything, and in the past that has really shaken my confidence in our relationship. But during that heavy conversation we agreed that we were in this together. All for one and one for all. And that has bolstered my confidence.

I also think my identity is bound up in my country and my career. Absent those two things I am struggling to discover who I am and what I enjoy doing. So this hasn’t only been a literal journey, but a figurative one too.

I’ve decided to write down some early observations about our home away from home that have made me feel homesick. I now realize how much I romanticize the home I have left behind, and as a good friend said, I haven’t been able to “commit” to making a home here. I’m sure there was plenty to complain about back home, but I have a selective memory and have consciously and subconsciously chosen to only remember the good stuff. So I’m going to try hard to remember the good and the bad:

1. I am a slave to my car

Other than the pathetic little plaza out by the main street in my neighbourhood with a pharmacy, a mediocre pizza joint, a dentist, a suspicious looking gym, and an overpriced market, I have a 10-minute 8-kilometre drive up the expressway to the nearest collection of big box stores and decent shops a la Trader Joe’s. I wish my neighbourhood was more walkable from a retail shopping and public gathering place perspective. The upshot is we live close to many trails in the foothills of the Santa Cruz mountains, which means I can easily go for nature hikes without much effort. So there’s definitely lots of SPACE in the area.

The hockey rink where my kids practice and play is a 20-minute 16-kilometre drive from home. The drive is mind-numbing, but it could be worse. There are people who drive upwards of 50 kilometres in EACH DIRECTION to get their kids to practice three times a week! I also remember those drives to north Etobicoke and down to the bottom of the lakeshore to get the kids to games on weekends, or practices downtown at 5 in the afternoon on a weekday. That was no picnic. So any way you slice it, driving kids to hockey sucks. I am a glorified Uber driver, except I don’t get paid one red cent.

Some advice for the City of Sprawl San Jose and its planning department: it’s time to invest in mass rapid transit. The suburbs need trains. Big time. HOV lanes for Uber and Lyft drivers, electric vehicles and carpools during rush hour don’t cut it. If this city and State made it easier, cheaper and more enjoyable for people to commute to work by taking public transit, they might just solve their gridlock problem and improve the quality of life out here. Hey wait: am I talking about San Jose or Toronto????

Oh yeah–and fix those on and off ramps on your highways–they’re backwards!!!

2. The sky is blue. All. The. Time.

I wake up, the sky is blue. I go to bed, the sky is blue. Well, it’s black when I go to bed, but it was blue. All. Day. Long. There is rarely a wisp of cloud in the sky. It is dry. It is a desert. It is dusty. My house is dusty. The hills are like a crispy, brown tinderbox with a few green trees scattered about. It’s been like this since April. I know there are worse problems to have in this world, but the constant threat of drought and forest fires proves that climate change is real. When it rains here I rejoice. I heave a sigh of relief that the parched earth can take a deep drink and replenish its fluids. I am astonished that homeowners are allowed to water their perfectly manicured, deep-green lawns. Why do they have grass??? I feel like a hypocrite because our rental home has a lush, green front lawn with a sprinkler system that waters it every night.

I miss the seasons. I miss a rip-roaring thunderstorm. I miss the Monet-like shades of Autumn in the trees. I miss the smell of the leaves rotting in raked piles on the lawn. I miss that bite of cold air when summer has departed and Fall has arrived. I miss the first snowfall and seeing a puff of my breath in the air. I miss the glare of the sun off the blanket of pure white snow. A snow storm! I miss the thaw and the promise of something new shooting up through the ground. I miss a rainy day–and the smell of rain–curled up under a blanket with a book and mug of tea. I miss the humidity of summer and the refreshing dunk in the lake to cool off. I miss warm nights. I’ll say it again: I miss the seasons.

But let’s not kid ourselves; five months of winterish weather is not fun. You wake up and it’s grey outside. You go to bed and it’s grey outside. Correction: it’s pitch black at 4:30 in the afternoon after we change the clocks in November. I don’t miss gripping my toes inside my boots and bracing myself as I gingerly walk down the icy sidewalk for fear I will wipe out and break something in my body. I don’t miss feeling the hairs in my nose freeze as I inhale or tensing my shoulders, which lock up around my ears as I steel myself against the windchill. That gets old quickly. I recall piling on layers of clothing and the same boots, jackets, hats, gloves and scarves every single day for weeks and months on end. And that’s just winter! Summer humidity is killer. Without question you need air conditioning to survive. It’s just too damn hot and there is no relief.And the bugs! Don’t get me started on those noxious creatures. I don’t want to complain too much about summer in Ontario, because it’s so short-lived. Oh yeah, that’s the other drawback: it’s so short-lived.

3. What is with the food?!

Food is a tough one because it can provide comfort and make you feel at home if you’ve got access to the food you are used to eating. So visiting grocery stores here is a bit like being an explorer going on an expedition.

Food is also a bit of a double-edged sword because the area of California we live in is so abundant in some of the most amazing produce–on any given day you can source fruit, vegetables, meat, and any kind of dairy from within about a 100 kilometre radius. In that regard I feel spoiled. But I have to say, it ain’t cheap. Good food costs money here. On the other hand, bad food is easy to come by cheaply. Just visit any grocery store here. The cookies, crackers, chips and “soda” drinks are abundant. I have not indulged in such convenience foods, but they too, are overly abundant. I wouldn’t even call some of it food–maybe consumables, because you wouldn’t die (at least not immediately) if you ate it. Your body would just be full of sugar and salt.

The grocery stores carry enough variety that I can usually find what I want–I say “stores” because I have to go to three on average to find all the things I need. I definitely miss certain brands and products, like President’s Choice, Nestle nut-free chocolates, Shreddies and Vector cereal, and Ace bakery breads to name a few. I’ve tried to replicate some of them through other products on the store shelves here without much success.

And what is up with the absence of veal? I have looked high and low for veal cutlets but apparently eating baby cow is gauche here. I was jones-ing for an Italian veal sandwich several months back and every time I asked a butcher if they carried veal, they looked at me like I was a murderer. My quest continues, although I fear I may fail. (update: Whole Foods said they carry veal, but they are currently out of stock) I also haven’t been able to find Montmorency sour cherries (best for making sour cherry pie) or Cortland apples (for making sauce), but I am bound and determined to find them.

As for restaurants, I don’t bother eating out much here. The bar is pretty low when it comes to fine dining. It’s either fast food (I’ll take a hard pass, thanks), or mediocre chain restaurants. The best restos are up in San Francisco.I can’t even find a decent Chinese food joint in the area. There are lots of good Vietnamese places that serve Bahn Mi and Pho. Oh! And if you like Mexican food–burritos, tacos, etc.–you can find a decent taqueria on every other corner. Unfortunately Mexican is not my favourite. So I’m expanding my home cooking repetoire. I’ve got a board in the kitchen where I write down meal ideas and the list is growing. Let’s just hope the kids appreciate my culinary adventures.

I can’t really complain about the food back home. It’s good. (what I’d give for an Ace Bakery baguette right now!) But like I said, the fresh produce only lasts from late May to October. Then we are back to importing berries from Watsonville, which is an hour away from where I live now! And who am I kidding? We rarely got out to a good restaurant (although, when we did it was Amazeballs!), because kids, you know?

4. Americans are paranoid

Obvi! That’s why they carry guns! And have home alarm systems! And cameras to spy on their neighbours! And apps called Nextdoor where people can post about suspicious cars and people driving and walking through the neighbourhood! Maybe it’s only endemic to this particular corner of the universe, but my observations have led me to conclude that people are afraid of other people and it has bred a strange sort of alertness and vigilante-ism. And this is California–one of thee most liberal States!!!! The majority of kids don’t walk or bike to school–parents drive them to school (although, to be fair, many of those parents head off to work after school drop-off). Neighbours will post messages if they see someone they don’t recognize lurking about. That never happened back home. Oh wait! I’m wrong–there is now a neighbourhood watch and several people in the neighbourhood who wish to keep it clean and pristine (apparently there is a sex doll shop on the outskirts of the neighbourhood they are trying to get rid of) and free of any nefarious elements. So if I stop and really think about it, there are outspoken actors willing to step up and step in in both of our neighbourhoods.

Maybe I’m too trusting, maybe I’m oblivious or maybe I just don’t care. This one really stumps me and I have decided to study this cultural difference further as the weeks and months go on. I find it both fascinating and disturbing at the same time.

So those are my early observations. I’m sure others will develop over time. I plan on taking notes and posting about this again (I think I could write an entire post about the horrendous traffic in this region–and I’m not talking about gridlock this time, I’m talking about the horrible drivers). It shouldn’t take long for me to amass more topics (my head is FULL of them). I look forward to sharing with you in the future.

In the meantime my search for comfort food continues as does my dream for a rainy pyjama day.

 

Supreme Jam Sesh at Summer Kitchen

Today I got to put on a shirt and apron at a restaurant and make jam. Doesn’t sound all that thrilling, but for a wannabe it was SO. THRILLING. As my sister’s friend Jeff would say, I looked very profesh.

Looking like a professional

Here’s the back story: my husband has a cousin who lives in Oakland and runs a lovely little restaurant in the heart of Berkeley. She is a trained pastry chef and worked at the famed Chez Panisse. Her husband was an executive chef at restaurants in downtown San Francisco. Together they started Summer Kitchen and Bake Shop. The food is locally sourced and prepared fresh daily. Soups, salads, pizzas, sandwiches–all delicious.

We were visiting a couple of weeks ago and I was talking about how great it is to live so close to where the produce is grown all year round; especially fruit! I told them I had made a batch of strawberry jam, which I love to give as gifts to good friends and the kids’ teachers. They said they would love to be able to sell jam to their customers so I pounced at the chance to make some for them. The issue, of course, is that I don’t have a commercial kitchen, nor a cottage industry license (which you can get here) and I also can’t work, being a resident alien. My cousin said I was welcome to come up to the restaurant any time and make some jam with her. So I did!

I brought two kinds of berries: the traditional strawberry, which is a crowd favourite, and the olallieberry. “The olalliewhat?” you say? The olallieberry is a cross between a Logan berry and a Young berry. They look similar to blackberries, but they aren’t as big and they are slightly sweeter, closer to that of a raspberry. The hybrid was officially named and released in 1950. They have a short season and are only available for a couple of weeks in June. I got an early batch from Gizdich Ranch down in Watsonville. If you ever wondered where your berries come from in the dead of winter (hello, Canada, I’m talking to YOU), then wonder no more: they come from Watsonville, California where fields of berries stretch beyond what the eye can see.

Olallieberries

I made one batch of jam with Quickset, my favourite sugar/pectin mix from Redpath, but it was the only bag I still had from Canada. So we made our own version coming up with a good ratio of fruit to sugar and pectin for the remaining batches and I think the jam set quite nicely…I’m testing out a jar of olallieberry jam tomorrow morning (okay, maybe tonight) to see how the sugar/pectin mix worked with the fruit. If it works then I have a new formula and recipe for my jam since the old formula involved shipping the sugar/pectin mix from Canada, which is not exactly cost effective.

Sugar and berry mixture

I’m going to think of other combinations to mix with the fruit since it seems to be quite trendy (balsamic this, and pepper that). I’m a fairly simple girl when it comes to jam. I like to slather the jam on a slice of fresh baked bread or crunchy toast. Either way, the jam makes it taste that much better.

I’ve become one of those purveyors of “small batch, locally sourced, homemade [fill-in-the-blank-here]” but I don’t mind. In fact, I quite like it! Who knows? Maybe this could be the start of something really sweet.

Jars and jars of strawberry and ollalieberry jam

Ignoring my blog

I’ve been ignoring my blog. Not really on purpose, but moreso because I don’t want to keep feeding it. I’ve been feeding Instagram and Facebook a lot in the last four months and I must say, social media has an insatiable appetite! I kind of did it to myself–a little over a month ago I took up a year-long challenge to post a photo a day. There have been days when I’ve struggled to think of a decent picture to post (just see the one of my messy kitchen) and it’s only been a month! What am I to do for the next 11 months?!

But I also felt like there wasn’t much I wanted to write about that was related to homemaking, baking, cooking, decor, fitness, etcetera, etcetera. I’m actually waiting for a Duncan Hines cake to come out of the oven right now, so I figured I’d kill some time writing an entry. The cake is for the kids’ graduation. All three are graduating from a milestone year at school. Next year they will all be at different schools and as much as we all commiserate about the demands of parenthood, schlepping them hither and yon to school, daycare, hockey, swimming, blah, blah, blah, I know it will pass in the proverbial blink of an eye.

We are also days away from heading back east for the summer, which means now seems like a good time to reflect on our relocation to Northern California. It’s been almost five months to the day since the Big Move. I won’t lie to you–it’s been difficult for all of us in different ways. I think the biggest challenge for me has been the separation from our family and close friends, which won’t come as a surprise to many of you. I’ve also been really uncomfortable with unemployment. I managed to work remotely for the first three months, which helped immensely with the transition. Had it not been for a good friendship that I have struck up with a fellow Canadian (from Ottawa), I’m not sure I’d be in as good a place as I am now. We are in constant contact without being needy (at least, I hope I’m not!). We go on long walks and hikes regularly and our 11-year-olds have become good buddies.

I also joined the schools Gardening Club and purchased a summer “plot” even though I won’t be here to tend to it. I have made friends with some of the moms at the school who are fellow Garden Clubbers, which has also been a great comfort.

Those amazing Canadian Moms In Silicon Valley have also been my saviours. We are a mixed bunch at various stages of expat-ness, but we have our motherhood and national pride in common and that is a tie that binds us. A big shout out to Kathryn for being my life ring in the choppy seas of relocating.

Finding my “tribe” has kept me afloat on this crazy adventure. So, too, has my husband. I remind myself regularly that I’m not the only one who has had to make adjustments. And yet I feel a great sense of responsibility to each member of the family to make sure they are good, physically, mentally and socially.

Highlights of the Big Move: 

Hiking the Quicksilver Foothills (literally in our neighbourhood backyard)

One of the nearby trails I have hiked a few times

Gardening Club at the elementary school

All ready for a fun garden activity with the kids

Exploring the region (oceans and mountains)

Postcard-worthy shot of the Carmel-to-Big Sur coastline along Highway 1

Time…to cook and bake

A one dish dinner that was better than anything we could have got at a restaurant

The finished product

Writing letters home to my friends

I don’t have a photo for this one, because, who really needs to see the envelopes and stamps? But what I DO love is finding the perfect card for the right person. I think many of them would be copyrighted so I’m not about to photograph them and post them on my blog (although who are we kidding? is anyone of any import really going to read this and report me??). I have found solace in putting pen to paper and writing whatever pops into my head and sending it off for my friends to receive in the mail. Maybe I will singlehandedly revive the lost art of letter writing, or maybe not. I just know I’ll keep doing it because it makes me feel good.

Now I’m thinking about my next “move” (no, we aren’t moving to another city) when we return from our summer vacation. I will look for more volunteer opportunities, possibly putting my communications and writing skills to use. I am also considering some self improvement through online courses; maybe I can still learn something as I grow long in the tooth. And of course I need to keep up with my fitness; I still can’t seem to accept the mushy middle that is my mummy tummy, but I’m not willing to give up chocolate and chips, not gonna happen. So I’m going to have to devise another plan to feel good about my body. I think that’s plenty for me to contemplate over the summer.

Okay, the cake is done and it’s late so that’s the end of this post. Besides, I have to wake up at the crack of dawn and drive up to Berkeley to make a big batch of jam….more on that later!!!