Small Town Gossip

by emily on October 2, 2012

I am still alive. However, it seems that I accidentally conducted my own Walden-esque experiment by passing the summer in a town that didn’t believe in supporting a reliable telecommunications infrastructure. Why use the Internet when the party telephone line at the local inn works more efficiently at sharing news than email? (True story.)

Besides, the need for modern day communication winnows to nothing when you’re surrounded by beauty like this when you leave your apartment.

The more I connected with Skagway, the less pressure I felt to stay up-to-date on all things non-Alaskan. The lifestyle and attitudes of the people in town were more compelling than any I remembered in the small town America where I grew up. It’s a place of people living a different type of American Dream, the type where they have the ability to get-up and get-gone when they want, and the ability to pull together as a community at a drop of a hat.

It’s the type of town that produces a newspaper only once a week and features a column called “Heard on the Wind.” Locals mainly use it as a release valve during the summer months from living a bizarre reality version of Bill Murray’s Groundhog Day. From May to the end of September, native Skagwegians are asked the same questions by cruise ship passengers every single day. At first the questions are charming – “What do you do in the winter?” “How in the world did you end up here?” “How much snow do you get?” “What’s an…you? Loo? You-li?”*

After a month it becomes a mental exercise to stay convivial and welcoming as well meaning, curious people ask the same questions that the similarly well-meaning, curious people asked yesterday. You need a place to share stories like this:

“Another person at the same shack later in the week asked, “How far is Russia from here?”

When told by the tour seller that it was about 2,500 miles, the visitor responded, “Then I guess we can’t see it from here.”

This drew a very grim reaction from the tour shack attendants.

The visitor, sensing the obvious, stated, ‘I didn’t want to bring up Sarah Palin, but…’

‘It’s better that you didn’t.’

Speaking of Sarah, where is she? Her reality TV show never came to Skagway-Dyea to hike the Chilkoot Trail a couple summers ago, and we felt dissed. It will soon be prime time on the trail, where the wind also blows up on occasion. Maybe we’ll find her there since election season is upon us, and there are all kinds of metaphors you can use around the themes gold rush and stampede for Facebook updates. Perfect for the twist and shout. The windy one can’t wait. In the meantime, while we wait for Sarah’s return to her original Alaska home,** you can send us wind in the usual manner. Dress it up in red, white and blue and drop it off at the News Depot, where we are always feeling independent and free.”

The town police blotter in the newspaper introduces other elements of life in Skagway too, with weekly incident reports that read with the pull of a Closeau whodunit. There are regular reports like “Police responded to a dispute among roommates. Both ladies suffered injuries during mutual combat. One agreed to spend the night elsewhere” or “A suspicious circumstance was reported in a resident’s yard. The center of a wood pile was found hollowed out. Officer was unable to tell if the center had been stolen, or if the wood had merely been piled high to build a fort. It was odd that it could have been done during the day or night without anyone seeing or hearing it. The pile is not particularly stable enough to hold a large person.”

The Skagway News is not winning any hard hitting journalism awards, but its ability to inform and teach about Skagway was enough to help this outsider feel slightly more connected to the people around her. At the very least, it has made reading the local news in the Lower 48 seem a lot more dull. It’s a good thing I have the Internet again.

* This refers to an ulu, a traditional arctic utility knife.  Traditionally made from whale or walrus jaw bone and now stainless steel, it has been the everyday Arctic women’s knife because of its versatility.  It’s still widely used throughout Alaska.

** One of the first towns the Palins lived in when they first moved to Alaska was Skagway.  This is both a source of pride and annoyance for Skagwegians.


The Alaskan Kir Royale

by emily on June 16, 2012

Mix two parts of Alaskan Brewery’s Raspberry Wheat Beer (or any other similarly tart red fruit beer) with one part prosecco (or champagne).  Cheers to a classy new crisp summer drink!

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The Lynn Canal slices up Southeastern Alaska for 90 miles.  Rocky shards of geology contain the path of North America’s largest fjord, their mountainous faces scaling outwards and upwards from the water’s edge.

The canal’s ferry that runs between Juneau and Skagway tugs itself on water that descends 2,000 feet below the hull. The surface is hard and flinty, as if the mountainsides have tumbled into the canal, blending the textures of earth and water together.

There is nothing playful here. The odd home or two rarely breaks up the line of the watchful mountains. The houses are too far away from the ferry deck to discern if they are inhabited or showing signs of neglect. The only suggestions of life are the tips of dorsal fins shaving the water’s surface as orcas profit from the wealth of food during the warm summer months.

At the top of the canal sits the Alaskan town of Skagway. Considered the home of the North Wind, this nonessential Tlingit town became the West Coast boomtown of 1898 when gold was discovered and the Klondike Gold Rush began.

Skagway survived the collapse of the gold supply, but now depends on cruise tourism for survival. Five months out of the year, the town that is twenty-four streets long and three streets wide accepts passengers on these vessels of vacation. People come from China to Mexico and Tennessee to Germany to see Alaska and the Inside Passage. Up to 10,000 passengers come each day on these ships, hoping to see bears, bald eagles and the glaciers that continue to shape Alaska’s terrain. At the end of September, the cruise ships stop coming, shops close up, and only 300 people remain to tuck into the Alaskan winter. It’s a town on life support, with a heart that depends on the extravagance and spending of outsiders.

It’s definitely not Brussels and it’s definitely not the America that I know. At least, not yet. This is where I’ll be for the next few months, staving off reverse culture shock by immersing myself into an American culture totally unlike my own. I’ll be doing the odd job here and there while using the opportunity to learn about the culture – both in general and in beer-related terms – in America’s last frontier. Perhaps by then, I’ll be tough enough for another sort of Wild West – that of my uncharted, unscripted freelancing future.

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And So It Goes…

by emily on June 6, 2012

I never thought I would leave Belgium after moving back to Brussels in 2009. And now that I have, I find myself struggling with how to tell you, the reader, that I left Belgium for the US at the end of April.

Many of you come here because of your interest in Belgium and Brussels, whether it’s connected via traveling, food or beer. Some of you are here for the times when I dabble in recipes. There are also the many of you who come because you know me, so telling you why I left seems redundant.

So the facts are these: after living and working in Brussels for three years, I decided to move back to the US. I’ve been struggling to make this move public because partly, it seems absurd. I still can’t believe I left the city that I enjoy so much. Publicly announcing the change also scares me because it means that I have to face the reality of my decision and reverse culture shock is an intimidating thing to handle.

At the same time, while I’m sad and scared to have left my Belgian life and job behind, there are newer and more challenging prospects ahead – like throwing myself deeper into the worlds of beer, brewing and traveling. Which is what I’m going to be doing a lot of in the near future as I train to become a certified Cicerone.

This means I will continue to write about Brussels and Belgium because it will remain a part of who I am. I have friends there and a part of my life will always exist in that often-overlooked bit on the European map. I will also continue to write about food, culture and traveling because that is who I am and those are things I will never stop doing. The subject of beer, and the culture surrounding it, will obviously also stay and take up some real estate on The Petit Four.

So I guess this now makes everything official and explains the sporadic schedule of posting for the last few weeks. More posts about Brussels and Belgian culture are coming up, but also, some new topics and vistas will start gracing these pages. I’m pretty excited about the upcoming additions and writing about the new opportunities. In the meantime, if any of you are spending time in Brussels, take good care of it for me. I can’t wait to get back.


Asian Food Discoveries

by emily on May 29, 2012

I wrote several months ago about reverse culture shock and why it’s one of the more destabilizing feelings a person can experience. It’s the earthquake equivalent of emotional adjustment. All you want to do is lie on the ground to make it stop, but that only serves to exacerbate the feeling of unsettledness. The very thing that should be anchoring you is the very cause of disturbance.

To date, most of my quests to merge past lives into my current one revolve around finding Asian food. I’ve needed to stop the gap in this seemingly bottomless pit of an appetite for Chinese food I cultivated five years ago when I lived in Kaifeng. In the years since I’ve left, I have found only three things that have scratched this neverending itch.

Serve the People by Jen Lin-Liu has been my standby for homemade Chinese food since a friend recommended it to me a year or so ago. If you are suffering from withdrawal from the food of Northern China and the atmosphere that surrounds the steamy bowls of spicy broth noodles, this book is your new jam.

Asian food discovery number two was in one of the most unlikely of spots – on a side street in the center of Brussels. Rue Grétry is parallel to Celtica, that boozy bastion of insanely cheap happy hour specials that always turn into bad late-night life choices.

Auntie’s Café is a narrow, two-storied restaurant and one of the most authentically Chinese restaurants I’ve encountered outside of the People’s Republic. The tables hold lazy susans, the enabler of family-style serving that’s found throughout China, and the tea is served in tall, cylindrical glasses that show off the blooming of the tightly packed dried tea leaf as it soaks in the piping hot water. Elaborate fragrant cedar carvings and Chinese fortune knots decorate the walls that otherwise have that shabby greyness of utilitarianism to them.

But it’s the food that won me over. Their yu shiang, or fish-fragrant eggplant, was meaty and slick with a sauce that slipped over the tenderly cooked slices of aubergine, carrots, garlic and onions. The baozi, soup-filled pork dumplings, were soupy and soft, the dough stretching valiantly to keep itself together despite the weight in gold it carried within itself: that buttery, pork flavored broth and meat that’s the heart and soul of the famous dumpling. The condiments on the table were fit to boot as well: nothing but black vinegar and chili sauce to swirl together in the tiny saucer-like dish next to your plate.

If I wanted to truly dig into my Chinese past and end the meal in the only appropriate way for a proper Chinese feast, I could have had a digestif of baijiu, that inescapable rice liquor whose very smell is the smell of my liver dying. Needless to say, you can pass on that when topping off a meal at Auntie’s Café in Belgium.

The third place I’ve found has been equally as random and equally as distant from Asia as Auntie’s Café. Walking into Café East, a strip mall restaurant located next to a bowling alley and grocery store in the southeastern London neighborhood of Surrey Quays, is like walking into the Southeast Asian peninsula without needing your passport.

The only people who eat here are the Asian immigrants who have found themselves in London. It’s a large open room with tables packed closely together, making it feel more like a cantine than a restaurant. The fresh cloth tablecloths help tip the restaurant’s balance in favor of being efficient and clean though instead of stark and utilitarian.

The food is astoundingly good. The noodle soups thrive on that delicate thread of evenness between being searingly spicy enough to make your eyes and nose water just ever so, while being supported on deep base of umaminess. This savoury foundation anchors the broth in pure comfort food territory.

The mix of noodles – hand pulled, glass and egg – slink and skate around slips of fragrant cilantro, meat and vegetables. There’s no way to eat it politely. It’s too good and savoury to let you waste any drop, so you’re resigned to literally hunkering down and slurping with the best of them.

Sadly, I don’t have photos of any of these places, I was always too busy fixating on the meal at hand to care about photographic evidence. But just knowing that there are places out there like this beyond Asia is comforting. It helps to somehow quell the annoying, stressful feeling that I’m forever going to be missing some of my favorite experiences from life in Asia. But then again, it just gives me more reason to go back.


Yelyam on Bottlepopped!

May 24, 2012

These last few weeks have been a blur of travel, making my access to the internet non-existent.  However, I’m back in civilization, but before I kick it into high gear and break down the quality travel tales, it’s time for another installment of Bottlepopped! This edition features Yamina El Atlassi, one of my personal gurus [...]

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The Barcelona Microbrew Scene: Glops

April 27, 2012

Spain is by all accounts a wine country.  But despite the vinters hold on the Iberian Peninsula, there is a growing microbrewery movement taking root, especially in Barcelona. These Spanish brewers are worthy additions to the world’s brewing scene as they have that certain trait of joyful insanity that seems to be instilled in many [...]

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The Petit Four’s Guide to Cafes in Brussels

April 20, 2012

I was recently asked by RyanAir’s Inflight Magazine to put together a little restaurant and café guide for Brussels.  It was a lot of fun to make the list, so I thought I would share a more expansive one for those of you who won’t have a chance to see the article while flying on [...]

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Happy Birthday to the King of Beer, Gambrinus

April 11, 2012

Santa Claus, and the other variations of wintertime’s favorite jowly character, is the world’s most famous happy fat man.  The runner-up to this rotund jolliness though is Gambrinus, the King of Flanders. He is also, and most importantly for the world and Belgium, considered to be the king of beer. Nobody knows for sure if [...]

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The Barcelona Effect

April 9, 2012

Barcelona is the sort of place that makes me nervously tongue-tied. No matter how much I enjoy myself while I’m there, I always leave feeling untethered and unsure. Spain intimidates me because it’s so close to the world that I know, but operating on its own frequency.  It’s this alternate rhythm that’s nerve-wracking. When you [...]

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