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Easter Nostalgia 24 March 2010

Posted by uggclogs in Baking, Easter, Life.
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As a follow up on my post in November last year relating to my childhood Christmas memories, I thought I should make a similar one relating to Easter.

Yet again, these traditions are a bit of a mixed bag – all adopted from the different cultures I have grown up in. But they all contributed to a real “Easter Spirit”, something I have not really felt since leaving home so many years ago.

Easter used to equate to two weeks off from school, so it meant something to us, even though we did not actually partake in the whole Christianity rituals.

Leading up to Easter, we used to decorate boiled eggs by either painting them, or by boiling them in coloured water (beet root or onion peel, etc). At home, we used to have a little egg mill that would allow you to paint all around without getting too much paint on your fingers. But to decorate eggs like this, you need white eggs. And it was not until my partner’s little sister came to visit one Easter in Australia that I realised that finding white eggs there is practically impossible! And she underlined that sentiment (after I had finally located some) by admitting to that being her first time to ever see a white hen’s egg!

For the actual Easter Sunday mornings, we used to have elaborate breakfasts, with tablecloths (only came out a couple of times a year) and little fluffy chicks decorations (like the one below), eggs, breads, buns, stolls and chocolate.

Before breakfast could start, however, we would have to go egg hunting. In the Netherlands, the eggs would be hidden around in the garden (and my earliest memory of hunting for them was at my parents friends’ house, where I chucked a tantrum because I could not find them fast enough, and my brother, who was two year’s older, would find them all! Ah, the glory of sibling rivalry. In Norway, however, it was simply too cold to have real eggs outside, so they were hidden all through the living room instead.

After finding all the eggs, and placing them carefully on our ‘egg tree’, which was basically a carton structure for the eggs, we could sit down and eat as a family.

The Norwegians have a similar tree tradition – but they blow the insides out of raw eggs before decorating them, then they hang them up on twigs of pussywillow. You can also tie colourful feathers to these twigs for added pizazz. Plants in general are very important to me for Easter – especially flowers. Daffodils, Crocuses, Snowbells and the above-mentioned pussywillows. Hyacinths and Tulips as well.

But we never got on the bandwagon of the other major Norwegian traditions: a week skiing in the mountains; crime novels; and kvikk lunsj. We did like to watch the Easter quizzes on TV, though.

Back to the breakfast tradition; For breakfast, everything is tastefully arranged and very special. No eating in your undies on Easter morning! Both my brother and I would receive a large agg (ours were cardboard, but I have recently seen some metal ones that I really want) full of small, chocolate eggs from HEMA (bliss!). Grandma used to send them to us, and each colour used to have a different praline filling. They were (and still are) pure heaven.

Ode to the HEMA chocolate eggs:

All those recipes I intend to share on this blog over the next few days, have no fear! So until then – enjoy your Easter, for whatever it means to you! For me, it meant family above all.

Tet Celebrations 2009 10 February 2009

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Originally posted on 10 February 2009 (edited)

Happy New Year!

You might think to yourself (in that sneaky, judgemental way) that it is a little late for that, but no – Vietnamese New Year was only celebrated recently!

I must admit that I have been a little lazy this (Western Calendar) year, and have not been blogging. So, this (Lunar Calendar) year I will start with a post. The Vietnamese celebrate Tet every year with lots of bravado, and it was good fun to experience it here in Hanoi. Weeks in advance, the stockpiling of foods etc begins in the same manner that we do before Christmas, and there is a real atmosphere of excitement.  Tet is looked forward to all year for many reasons.

Now, my personal experience with Tet started when I (stupidly) went to the wholesale supermarket two weeks before Tet with a friend. We should have turned around at the door, but since I must have left my brain in my other handbag, we proceeded inside. The crowds were immense, and it was practically impossible to get a trolley.  I missed out on the first batch of trolleys that were pushed inside from behind a rolling garage door, but thought in my infinite wisdom that I would get one the second round, as I was now first in line.  Oh, yeah, I forgot. The Vietnamese do not queue.  So after being pushed out of the way and not getting one in the second battle for a trolley either, I decided the third battle was my battle.  So when the roller doors went up, I flew ahead and grabbed one.  Unluckily, the third round of trolleys were flat, low trolleys designed for big boxes only, so after getting stuck with a wonky and completely impractical trolley which was impossible to manoeuvre, the day was not looking up.  Going through the aisles was totally painful with this monster of a thing, and there was no space to move it in.  I have seen several Vietnamese climb over my trolley to get through, as patience is not a virtue in Vietnam (or it might be, but that would mean that there are no virtuous people here).  Checkout was the worst, though. Customers obviously do not appreciate standing in line for two hours, and I saw screaming, yelling, (probably swearing) and a little lady who literally started throwing the items that belonged to others off the checkout counter and around the store.  I left the store abused, bewildered and with massive bruises on my shins from where the locals had rammed their trolleys into me (mostly on purpose). My poor friend, who had just relocated to Hanoi the week before has been scarred for life.

Rightio. So that was the most traumatic part of Tet. After that, the fun things started. A week before Tet you are supposed to release a fish into a stream so that it may bring you and your family’s news from the past year to the Kitchen Gods.  The Kitchen Gods are important in Vietnam, because they look after your family.  The reason the kitchen is their domain is because the kitchen is pivotal in all people’s lives – everyone eats.  The kitchen also tells a lot about your situation – if you have better food this year than last year might mean you are better off.  Or if you eat less or more, this could mean that there have been additions to or deaths in the family.  The idea is thus that the fish is released so it can swim to the sky to tell the Gods about you.  The weird thing, though, is that sometimes, this symbolic releasing of fish into streams are done by releasing them into ponds and lakes… My partner told me he had even seen little plastic bags with water and a fish inside bob along on the lakes in Hanoi, Finding Nemo – style.  Which begs the question, of course – is it better to die of hunger inside a plastic bag, or from the polluted waters in the Hanoi lakes?

Before Tet, we went out to the villages just outside of Hanoi to purchase a peach-blossom branch and a kumquat tree for our apartment.  Here is the full Vietnamese experience:

On Tet (which is the 30th day of the 12th month of the lunar calendar) the government has several firework displays around the Lakes of Hanoi, and many young people go out to see them.  You can also buy paper lanterns which have a fuel soaked cloth attached at the bottom.  When lit, it will cause hot air to fill the lantern, and lift it into the night sky.  In principle.  Because the lanterns are made from paper, they are prone to catch alight, and you can imagine what happens then – great balls of fire that rain down over the crowd and the houses in the city.  Every time this happened, the crowd on the street started jeering and cheering, and lots of people had to scramble to safety to get away from the flames.  It looked dangerous, and the next day I read in the local news that several houses and a central power grid had burnt down causing a large section of Hanoi to be without electricity on the first day of the new year (coincidentally, one of the coldest days we’ve had in Hanoi).

Firecrackers are now illegal due to the danger it presents to humans, but I heard and saw quite a few being set off, mostly by young Vietnamese sitting on the back of motorbikes, who subsequently sped away in order for the police not to catch them. These youngsters (and many others) were also not wearing helmets over the Tet celebrations, which turned out to be due to the police not handing out fines for minor infringements during the holidays. This being widely known, people did not bother to wear them. There was, by the way, also a high correlation between youngsters not wearing helmets and piling three or more people on one motorbike.  Interesting anecdote.

The first day after Tet, it is very important that the first person to enter your house is a good person and someone that will bring you luck for the year ahead.  It cannot be someone of a bad character or someone who is ill.  Nor can this person be in mourning, so anyone who has recently buried a relative is not eligible to visit your house on the first day of Tet.  It is even more auspicious if that person’s birth year is compatible with the year that just started (so it needs to be compatible with the Year of the Buffalo).  Often, the Vietnamese choose in advance who this first visitor will be, and invites them formally to their house in advance.  We made sure to stay well away from the houses of the Vietnamese, as we did not want to bring bad luck on anyone for a whole year.  A few weeks, maybe, but a year is a bit much!  Although, in general, Westerners are regarded as good luck, as they are seen as wealthy and lucky.

Tet is a very superstitious time, as you can gather.  You may not eat dog or duck meat on the first day of Tet.  Bringing home a branch with new buds on it is good luck.  (So you can imagine what the trees around the lakes look like after Tet?) Placing sugar cane on either side of your door is lucky, etc. etc. The first day after Tet, the Vietnamese go visit the ‘internal’ family (being the family of the man’s side of the family). The second day, the ‘external’ (maternal) family should be visited, and the third day you visit friends, neighbours and colleagues. You are supposed to give the children and the elderly new currency for Tet (in red envelopes, as red is a ‘lucky’ colour) so Tet is a fun but very expensive time for the Vietnamese.  And a very confusing time for a foreigner!

But all in all it was a fantastic experience. After Tet itself, all the shops are closed and the streets are practically empty, something which is totally surreal in a buzzing country like Vietnam. I am glad we stuck around this year to see it all!

Starting to understand Vietnam 25 August 2008

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Originally posted on 25 August 2008 (edited)

And here it is, blog no. 2 from Vietnam.

As I told you in my last blog, I was intending to learn a bit of Vietnamese while in Vietnam (what better place to do so, right?) and I am about to finish my second month of tuition.  It is a very difficult language, but luckily I am starting to pick it up a little.  I do 2 hours a day, 4 days a week, and we are just about to finish book number one.  But I had a bit of a fright on Thursday last week when I tried to suggest to my teacher that I would like to revise some of the stuff that we’ve learnt, because I do not feel like I know it very well, and she turned around and said, “yes, when we finish the book, we will test you!”

Hang on a minute! That’s not what I meant! I am learning this language for fun and for me, not for anyone else, and certainly not for a grade at the end of it.  So I have managed to (gently) put my view across to my other teacher.

It is funny, by the way, how the dynamics between and my two teachers differ significantly.  Miss Huong treats me as a pupil, sometimes even as a child.  I always have to call her “co” (it means miss or female teacher), and she always refers to me as “em” (younger sibling, child, pupil). She always gives me homework, no matter how busy I am, and she expects me to always do my homework as well.  She always tells me that I do not study hard enough.

This may be true, but as I said, who am I doing this for again?  Miss Hao is completely different in her approach.  She always tells me I am hard working, how good my understanding is, and how pleased she is with my progress.  She calls me “chi” (older sister, woman of same age and social standing), and I call her the same.  She only gives me homework when I ask for it (which I always do, in case I will have time to do it) and she doesn’t mind if I have not got around to doing it.  She is currently helping me doing more listening exercises, which is one of the things I need more practice in.  I love having two different teachers, and it is great to have these two different approaches, but I do sense that I am no longer as patient with the former teacher as I used to be.

But learning Vietnamese has its downsides as well, especially when you understand that the taxi driver asks you to marry him, even though he is already married and has 2 children already.

Here in Vietnam, there are some questions that are asked very early on in conversation which I am not used to answering at all, since most of my exposure has been to Western cultures.  I’ll give you some examples:

1) How old are you/ when were you born? (This question is normally asked to establish what they should call you.  A female can be addressed as (amongst others) chau, em, chi, bac, co, ba or cu for example (roughly translated as child, younger sister, older sister, older sister of father, miss (or female teacher or younger sister of father) grandmother (or mrs) and revered person of more than 90 years old).

2) Are you married? If yes – how long, how many children do you have? If no – why not?

3) How long have you been in Vietnam? How long will you stay? Do you like it?

4) Do you work? Where? What do you do? (Sometimes: How much do you earn?)

And all of these, when fired off in rapid succession within the first five minutes of conversation makes me go through my Vietnamese knowledge very fast!  After that, I tend to just sit there and have nothing else to say, as there is nothing else that I CAN say…  Common, people, space it out a bit.

Funnily enough, I have never really been a feminist (to the great horror of my mother), but after only two months in Vietnam, I have come to feel differently.  Even though Vietnam has intellectually been very progressive for a long time (hundreds of years of feminist thought and poetry), society reflects but little of those ideals.  Yes, there are women in Public Service and the Military, and there are women here that do everything they want to and they do it well.  They study, and they work, they have careers, and they earn good money.  But then there is the complete opposite side of the coin here as well.  Men are renowned to be sweet and caring to you as long as you are not married.  They will do anything for you, shower you with gifts and compliments, make you feel like a million bucks.  But apparently, once you are married, all the housework and all the childrearing mostly falls to the woman.  (And I am generalising here, of course this is not always the case).  A lot of the hard labour in this country (carrying dirt at building sites, pushing the stinky rubbish collection bins rain or shine through the streets, the cooking, the cleaning) is all done by women.

To have a son is often still the only goal in life.  A western friend of mine once told me that while she was here in Hanoi, her Vietnamese (male) boss once told her that having a daughter was ok, having two daughters was misfortune, and having three daughters was the end of the world. What the men do do is drink beer (if you go to the local bia hoi (beer outlet) after working hours, you might see ten women and two hundred men), drive motorbikes and cars and trucks, sit on motorbikes and try to hail customers (sort of like a motorbike taxi).  Sitting on a motorbike like that all day means, by the way, that you are employed.  Whether you get any customers at all or not.  You might sit there all day and talk to your mate on the motorbike next to you, yet you are employed, meaning that the total unemployment rate for Vietnam is strikingly low (around 2%, I think).

A woman will move in with the man’s family at the time of marriage, and become a part of that family.  To be unmarried with no children is regarded as a great misfortune.  Unfortunately, being married does not mean that you have the sole right to your husband.  The latest numbers I heard was that 30% of married men regularly visit sex workers.  I assume that the amount of men that have been with someone else during a marriage is therefore much higher, as some men will keep mistresses or might not go “regularly” (whatever that means).  HIV/AIDS is a big problem in this country, even though there are hardly any statistics on it.  Having either comes with a very serious stigma as well.  Yet it is almost as if being promiscuous is not only accepted, but expected of men.

I have finally come to understand why some women (of Vietnamese descent) told me that I had to marry my partner before going to Vietnam.  It was not about stopping him from cheating, as I initially presumed, it was all about stopping him from leaving.  In Vietnam, most men will stay with their wives.  So if you are married, you will be ‘safe’, at least financially.  No matter how many girlfriends he might have, you will always be his wife, type of thing.

So, as you understand, after only two months here I am starting to understand this country a little better.  Or at least, I think I do.  I don’t claim to ever be able to understand everything fully about the culture, and I certainly do not think that I will ever come to terms with all aspects of the culture, but I am slowly starting to build up a picture of the country through my experiences, friends’ experiences, and the language training.  It is incredibly interesting and complex, and there are of course amazing aspects to this country that I have not got to in this post, due to my massive rant.  But in my next few posts, I will try to tell you a little more about the amazing things I have seen and done here.