Friday, July 30, 2010

13 Hour Taxi Ride

My cousin Kristin, who is learning Arabic impressed us with her conversations with the the taxi driver. They had passionate discussions the whole day with lots of expressive hand movements.
Damascus is a city of small clunky yellow taxis, smog, and blazing heat. It is the capital of Syria, home to five million people and is said to be the oldest continuously inhabited city in the world. I have a super cool cousin doing an internship for the UN in Damascus. So on my way to Norway, it seemed like the perfect opportunity to visit her, and my aunt and uncle would be visitingtoo! Not every day you get the opportunity to have a middle eastern family reunion!
For me, the people of Syria are what make this country so special. They are so happy, kind and welcoming. As we walked through the souks, people would say “welcome” and shop keepers invited us for tea. I was apprehensive, I assumed they just wanted to take advantage of a bunch of European tourists. Actually they were really interested in getting to know us. They wanted to know where we were from, what we were doing in Syria, even if they only spoke a couple of works of English. We saw the coin collection of one backgammon board seller, and had our palms read by another. Then there was that trip with that taxi driver.

Our taxi ride started as a trip to get lunch and meet with another cousin who is in the UN peacekeeping force. What an awesome family I have, they are all saving the world! We ended up spending 13 hours driving around with our taxi driver. So we left Damascus at 9am and headed to the to the Gollan heights.

The Gollan heights are an area of Syrian territory occupied Israel, guarded by the UN peacekeeping force. So a small kebab shop near the boarder of Israel and Syria became the unlikely host of a family reunion. After our kebabs we went next door to visit Marco, a man running a small shop selling Syrian handicrafts and doing business for the UN peacekeepers. Before we knew it a pot of tea was boiled, a water pipe was smoking and we were once again enjoying Syrian hospitality.

Then we visited the shouting hill. A village chopped in two by the 6 days war in 1967. Some families found one day that their children and partners on the other side of the Syrian, Israeli boarder. Unable to reunite, they had to shout across the boarder to communicate using a megaphone. Telecommunication and mail between the countries were not allowed. With the invention of internet communication became easier, but for important occasions like weddings, families still shout.

Natural springs were our next stop. We watched people of all ages fill up their water bottles with fresh water straight from the spring. Then we had the most amazing lunch in an outdoor terrace area. Sliky hummus, flat bread, kofta, crisp salads, lots of pickled vegetables. So simple, fresh and delicious. I can still remember how good this salad was. It had croutons made from flat bread, cucumber, cabbage, basil, lettuce leaves, and a balsamic, oliveoil. Then we had fried eggplants. The eggplants in Syria are amazing, so sweet and juicy in comparison with Australian ones. I would go back to Syria just for the fried eggplant.

Our taxi driver and his wife. Who is also his cousin. And his brother married her sister. And his sister married her brother. The taxi drivers wife said she'd never do it to her own children, but it was normal to marry cousins at the time when they married. In 1992, so not actually that long ago! Shows how differently different cultures look upon things. But really they were the sweetest people ever.
Finally we were taken to the home of our taxi driver. We drank lemonade, Turkish coffee and met his family. His very large family. And the whole neighborhood. We were paraded around the small village, like we were royal family. I smiled and shook peoples hands. The taxi drivers daughter tried to communicated with me, but she actually didn’t speak any English. So everything I said she just replied “yes”. Very confusing! Nether the less she was trying hard, and I certainly didn't have any Arabic to try out on her. On the drive home our taxi driver said “Shall we visit my friend?”, and we all blurted out NO! Meeting the population of one Syrian village was enough for one evening.

We arrived back in Damascus at 10pm and popped into the local bar for a G&T and some pickeled carrots. It will be hard to forget this taxi ride.

Take a hike.

Norway is famous for it's mountains and fjords, so when your aunt and uncle invite you to spend four days hiking, the only option is HELL YES! Four days of mountain goats, beautiful valleys, icy cold streams and rock hard calves, bring it oh-on.
Norwegains are pretty clever when it comes to being clever, so they created an organisation called the DNT. It does many things including run mountain huts which hikers can stay at while out in the wilderness. I guess it is sort of like the system on the bibbulmun track, walking from hut to hut. Except that Norwegains are much more sophisticated. Some of the huts are self service, i.e. there is nobody there to run the place. Other hytte (huts) are fully serviced which means you get added extras such as three course meal in the evening and a hot shower. Bonuses which are highly appreciated after a day hiking in the mountians.
On the first night we stayed at a self service hut named Bjordalsbu, 158 metres above sea level. You rock up, find yourself a wooden bunk, take a trip to the pantry and make yourself a meal, hang your wet clothes by the fire, play a few rounds of cards.
It is sort of like you have broken into someones house and are using their stuff. You pay with your credit card details which you slide into a wooden box by the door when you leave. It is pretty amazing that this system is available and functional. Anybody could turn up and steal all the food or vandalise the hut. Although walking for six hours to steal canned reindeer balls, doesn't actually sound that tempting.
We also stayed in a place named Lungsdalshytta which was fully serviced. Ninety percent of the meat and dairy products came from the farm on which it was located. For dinner we were served sour cream porridge (rømme grøt). It is very typically Norwegian and very delicious. It is severed with cured meats, flat bread, and is topped with cinnamon, sugar, and raisins. My Mum usually makes is for the Norwegain national day in May. I love rømme grøt, but it is not the kind of dish I crave after several hours hiking. I don't know how they can serve porridge as the main course for dinner. Outrage! I wanted a meaty manly dish, like kjøtt kaker. They are Norwegain meatballs served with boiled potatoes and lingonberry jam! My favourite and much better than the ikea version.

Anyways, at Lungsdalshytta they were running a course to teach women how to look after the cows and make dairy products. The apprentice milk maids had spent the day making cheese, sour cream, yoghurt and milk. Sounds like a dream to me! Can you imagine running arcoss grassy medows with piggy tails, lederhosen, and a bucket full of fresh milk. Cue... "The hills are alive with the sound of music". In actual fact it would be more like 6am starts in a cold, dark, muddy shed in the middle of nowhere, with a bunch of smelly cows as your only company. On second thoughts mayyybe not.

On the final day we climbed to the top of a mountain. At the top was a stone hut known as the "Lord Hut". An eccentric British lord with too much money built it in the 1800s. It has an amazing view, but it is so remote and hard to get to that he must have been a little off his nutter. He also wouldn't let the builders working on his hut use skiis, so those poor men had to walk in the deep snow all the way up this ridiculous mountian. I wonder what he got up to in his lonesome stone hut? These days, it serves as a nice place to stop and have lunch while out on a hike.

Apart from lord huts and milk maids, there was plenty of other highlights. We crossed many streams with my not so waterproof boots, drank hot chocolate in the rain, met some of the local sheep, accquired some swollen ankles, and learnt about Norwegain mountain fauna from my expert Aunt. It was a fantastic experience I would recommend to anyone. But when we reached the end, we had to shout HALLELUJAH! It was good to be home!

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Mormor's Krotakaker

This week I have been hangin withma granny! It has been lovely, because I have had absolutely no commitments; places to be, peopleto see, things to do. We picked blueberries, strawberries, watched the Norwegian version of "Ready Steady Cook", and ate home cooked meals. My grandmother has lived in the small town of 2000 people named Husnes on the Western coast of Norway for 45 years. The population exists thanks to an aluminium factory, which looks quite ugly in contrast to the beauty of the mountains and the fjords which surround it. My grandfather was a machine mechanic got a job in at the Aluminium factory before it even opened, they moved in to this sweet white house in March 1965.

Living in Perth my whole life, I haven’t experienced how it is to live in a small town. It hasbeen quite fun to hang around and soak up the small town vibe with my mother and my grandmother. Everywhere we go my Mum knows someone. At the shopping centre my Mum pointed out her old teachers, classmates, ect. At the cemetery she knew almost all the people, as we walked through the graves of people who has recently past a
way she would say “oh blah has died, I wonder how they died”. I had the opportunity to learn how to make my grandmother's famous recipe for krotekaker. It translates to "scroll cake", but in my opinion it is neither a scroll nor a cake. I think of it as a sort of cold crepe? strange concept. Anyways it is a traditional flatbread form the Hardanger region of Norway. It is soaked in water to make it into a soft pancake like thing, then you butter it, sprinkle sugar on it, roll it up and eat it. In the olden days, making krotekaker was an opportunity for the women in the village to gather, work together and share the gossip. Two people would roll the cakes and one person would cook them on a grill. Apparently my Grandmother was the delegated cook, as she wasn't good enough to roll the krotekaker into symmetrical discs. So here is her famous recipe, you need a crepe grill or some other large form of flat grill to make them. They are one of the culinary highlights I look forward to each time I visit Norway.

(makes 50, more than enough to last you the winter and share with the neighbours)
  • 1L butter milk
  • 1 kg fine rye flour
  • 400g plain flour
  • 200g sugar
  • 200g butter
  • 2tsp bicarb soda
  • 1 tsp horn salt
  • Rub butter into flour, then mix in all other ingredients until you get a nice smooth dough consistency.
  • Refrigerate for half an hour.
  • Roll dough into 60gram balls. Make sure you use a lot of flour to prevent them from sticking.
  • Use a rolling pin to create "pancakes" 40cm in diameter. They should be as thin as possible.
  • Carefully lay them on the pan, no oil or butter is needed as excess flour prevents them from sticking.
  • Cook for 15 seconds on each side on medium heat.
The krotakaker should dry into crisp flat bread. To serve they need to be run under water and then left under a wet cloth for about 10 minutes. They are then cut into quarters and served with breakfast, rolled up, with butter and sugar inside.