Thursday, July 25, 2013

Cooking meals from scratch

My husband and I like food, and we enjoy cooking and baking very much. We explore grocery stores anywhere we go. Last summer we spent quite some time in Italy, and had a lot of fun cooking meals in the evenings with ingredients we had picked up in the local grocery store. 11 years in Belgium and six years in the Middle East, plus a lot of meals with friends from all over the world have made us develop our knowledge and expand our cooking; we make an awesome chicken Thai soup, amazing homemade ravioli, fabulous mole poblano, very tasty hummus and perfect Swedish gravlax.

Although my husband grew up here, and although we’ve spent quite some time visiting the US over the past 20 years, we both feel like complete strangers in the grocery stores here in the US. Exploring food here is as exciting as anywhere, and we are very much looking forward to a year filled with fun cooking. As far as we can tell, Americans eat and cook quite differently from people in Europe or the Middle East. There seems to be a lot more snack food available, baked goods, and a larger variety of soda and breakfast cereal. In general, I find that there is much more readymade food in the grocery store than anywhere else, and/or prepackaged meals and snacks. Instead of making pasta sauce from scratch, people seem to buy readymade pasta sauce in a jar, for example, or instead of buying lunchmeat and crackers and serving this to a child, parents buy something called Lunchables.

The other day my husband wanted to make home made pizza, but we couldn’t find the special pizza flour we buy in Lebanon. Looking around, we noticed though that you could buy fresh pizza dough in the deli section, frozen pizza crust in the frozen section, and cans with pizza dough (made by Pillsbury, I think) – the kind that pops open when you peel off the label and push down in the middle. How convenient. Not only would this save time and dishes, but the readymade pizza crusts where quite cheap too.

"Embrace the culture, honey!” I said encouraging, “If you want to survive here, you have to adapt. Blend in and do what the natives do." I picked up a can.

Husband: "I will NOT buy pizza dough in a can. You hear me? Never! If I so have to buy extra gluten to *make* the perfect pizza flour, I will." He put the can back.

We bought bread flour and gluten to make the special pizza flour, yeast and olive oil. Perhaps it was a bit more work to make the crust ourselves but oh – the pizza was very tasty!

Getting a license plate for my car

There is a license plate for my car on its way in the mail! Insha Allah. It took quite some effort, I’m telling you.

To transfer a car title and to license a vehicle in Indiana, you need to prove your residency or provide an Indiana state driver’s license. You also need a valid ID, proof of insurance, and – obviously – proof of ownership of the vehicle. The day I purchased my car I got an insurance through Geico, however the residency proof was a little trickier, because only certain documents are acceptable if you don’t have an IN driver’s license; you need two pieces of official mail that was sent to you – mail by certain standards, such as utility bills or bank statements. Since we’ve specifically asked our bank not to send paper mail – since we are usually abroad – we had to change our paper-less preference and then wait for a bank statement. It came in the mail the same day the dealer had the title ready for me, so I went to the Bureau of Motor Vehicles with my documents.

The first time I went, I wasn’t able to get the paperwork done, because my address was not printed on my car insurance card. I went back home, printed out my insurance policy with my address on it, and went back.

The second time I went, I wasn’t able to get the paperwork done, because of the “valid ID” part. I had no idea, but as it turns out, if you are in the US on a non-immigrant VISA, you need to provide your I-94 VISA number, and it’s not printed in the passport with the US VISA, but is on a document that can be found online. So again, I had to go back home to print this out.

The third time I went to the BMV – the next day – I didn’t have to take a number and wait, because the manager and one of the clerks felt sorry for me, having had to send me away twice already. They were all so nice. My paperwork was all finished within ten minutes.

Yay, me!

Monday, July 15, 2013

Credit in America

Since neither one of us has lived in the US for the past 16 years, we don’t have anything on our credit report, which means, as you will know if you are familiar with the American credit system, that our credit score is bad. It doesn’t matter that we have cash savings or that we have paid bills, rents and held credit cards in our names in four different countries without ever owing anyone anything at the end of the month (because we’ve always paid everything on time and never spent money we didn’t have); in the eye of an American business, we are not financially trustworthy.

Since we might want to one day live in the US permanently, we are looking at this year as an opportunity to fix this and to build up our credit (so that one day we can purchase a house, for example, or do something else you need good credit for). And since we had to buy a car first thing when we got here, and we know this is something people might get a loan to do, we thought it would be a good start for us to take out a loan to buy our car, and then pay it off. This would look good on our credit report, right? Well, guess what? The car salesman said he couldn’t help us if we didn’t have a credit score, and our bank turned us down when we applied.

We had to pay for our car in cash.

This is going to be more difficult than we imagined.

Sunday, July 14, 2013

I’m a stranger here myself: at Steak ‘n Shake

We drove out past 30 initially to have dinner at the Chinese buffet, but since it was late in the evening, we decided when we got there that the food on the buffet wouldn’t be fresh. 

As we turned around, we noticed Steak‘n Shake. “A steak and a shake – sounds good, right?” we said, and happily discovered that they stay open 24 hours, which is perfect for a jet lagged family.

We sat down and studied the menu. After a couple of minutes, Courtney and I exchanged puzzled looks and leaned in on each other, whispering “I don’t see any steaks on this menu. This is so strange. Where’s the ‘steak’ in Steak ‘n Shake?” We looked around: nobody was having a steak. Was it possible that they didn’t serve steaks here?

We decided to blend in with the natives, and ordered burgers and shakes. It was all good.

When we came home, we asked Courtney’s mom about the steaks. She gave us a look like the look you would give a small child who is asking questions about something everybody knows, "Do girls have penises too?" and answered as a matter of factly, “No, they don’t have steaks. They serve burgers.” Duh.

Of course. 

We’re the silly foreigners who thought we could order steaks at Steak ‘n Shake.

Not just visitors

Three weeks ago, we packed all our personal belongings into a storage closet in our apartment in Beirut, Lebanon, said good bye to friends, took a taxi to the airport, and traveled via Rome to Boston with five suitcases, four kids and a lot of expectations.

We spent 10 days in Massachusetts with friends; chatting, playing, eating, enjoying, going to church, the farm, catching up. It had been four years since we last visited, and during this time, between the two families, we had increased in size by three babies. Our visit there was intense, busy, awesome, and over too soon.

Then we flew our five suitcases and our four children, plus a car seat we picked up in Boston, via Detroit to Fort Wayne, Indiana, where mom & dad picked us up at the airport.

We spent the first week buying a car, insurance and catching up with administrative business.

We spent the second week in a kind of jet lagged state (it finally hit us, I think), unable to establish good sleeping or eating habits, going swimming, buying way too much stuff, and hanging out.

Now, here we are, halfway through our visit with family, but not halfway through our stay, because this time – for the first time since the beginning of this family – we are not just visiting: we are here in the US to live for a whole year; to walk the streets like normal Americans, do American things and buy American stuff.

Are you ready to hear about our adventures?

Three weeks in

Whoa, what just happened?! Three weeks in the US already, and not a written word. Nothing?

For a while there, time disappeared; between my fingers the days slipped, passed, and instead of writing about our adventures, I spent the evenings holding a baby and chatting with my old friend, or family.

Now things are slowing down a bit. Temporarily. And the baby is napping. So let’s catch up, shall we?