Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Two Months Post Move: Hitting the Reset Button

A few weeks ago on the eve of me and Fionn driving to our new home, I wrote about being honest about the upcoming transition. I worried most about entering that "now what?" stage that would settle once the boxes are unpacked and Fionn is off to work and I'm looking around trying to put the pieces of my life back together.

Yep, definitely feel like I've entered that stage!

The blog has been quiet because life has been full of all the annoying ins and outs of starting over. Trying to make friends, making our house feel like home, discovering that awesome local restaurant and getting there without using GPS...they fill up my days and they tire me out and I feel like I have nothing left to give to the blog but grumpy observations about how moving STILL sucks, and ain't nobody got time for all that negative blah blah.

It's also been hard adjusting to reverse culture shock. I'll admit, I didn't think this was really going to be a problem, but I have to be honest with myself. For the past 5 years, time in America meant I was waiting til it was time to head back to Europe. Since 2009, the longest I stayed in America was 7 months. The majority of my twenties have been spent in Europe, and it has been hard realizing that this might be it, that there is no return trip in my future. I wasn't ready to leave and I would have stayed if I hadn't been forced to move. In some ways, I returned to a country that is mine but doesn't always feel like it. Who changed, me or America?

This weekend was a turning point for me. I'd spent all week feeling beaten up by this move. I felt lost, confused, frustrated, and unsure of what to do next or if I could handle all the uncertainty. I just kept thinking, "This ISN'T where I want to be!!"

It was in this stormy mood that I hit the highway to go to my parents' house for Easter. Fionn stayed behind since he had a lot of work to do, and I had miles of open highway to process all of these swirly thoughts. As I drove, I smiled as I passed beautiful Georgia countryside. I sang along with my favorite songs and listened to talk radio in English (still a novelty). I reveled in big, multi-lane highways and being able to drive at a reasonable speed on the highway without being bullied by Autobahn drivers tailgating in their BMWs.

It dawned on me that I could throw a backpack full of clothes into my car and be at my mom's house in time for dinner. That I could do this any weekend I wanted, and that the trip wouldn't end with tears and farewells and wondering if it would be a year before I saw my family again. Instead, this trip would end with a smile and plans to meet up in a few weeks.

"Isn't this where I wanted to be?"

This thought came back again and again as I spent an awesome weekend with my family. All the small details seemed huge to me-men wearing seersucker suits to Easter Sunday service, families exchanging stories in thick Southern drawls, an Easter dinner with the staples I grew up eating year after year, the azaleas and dogwoods blooming in the backyard...these little details of my childhood upbringing pierced through the dark storm cloud I'd been enveloped in all week.

"Isn't this where I wanted to be?"

I spent 5 incredible years in Europe. I traveled, I lived, I loved, and I made the most of my opportunities. Our new home in Georgia is not where I chose to be or even where I want to be some days, but instead of wishing my time away, I should make the most of it, just like I did in Europe. True, I didn't get to spend Easter in Istanbul like I did in 2012, but I got to spend it with my family, something I haven't done since 2011. And somehow, this Easter was more memorable than the one in Turkey.

Like my mom says, "The best and the worst thing about life is that nothing lasts forever." How true that is. Europe was a season in my life. A beautiful, wonderful season of travel and adventure, and hopefully we get to experience that again someday. But there is more to life than just one season, and I want to experience and enjoy this one that I'm in now with its family and old friends and familiarity. Whether there's snow or sunshine, there is always something beautiful about wherever you are.

So, I'm hitting the reset button. I'm dispersing the rainclouds, getting my head back in the game and focusing on the silver lining. I just needed some perspective.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Tasty Tuesday: Chicken Pastilla - Moroccan Chicken Pie

During my high school French class, we studied the Francophone world and I had to give a presentation on Morocco. The one thing that stuck out in my brain when we started planning our trip to Morocco last year was that we had to eat chicken pastilla. Why? 

Because it's traditionally made with pigeon! And knowing my adventurous foodie husband, he couldn't pass up an opportunity like that.

No pigeon here, sorry...

We went to Morocco and ate pastilla from a street vendor on Djemma el Fna, the main square in Marrakech. I'm not sure if it was chicken or pigeon, but I DO know that it was pretty dang good. A spicy, savory chicken (or pigeon?) mixture wrapped in a flaky pastry shell, topped with cinnamon and sugar. The perfect blend of savory and sweet and exotically awesome.

Our Moroccoan street food feast, pastilla pictured in the center

Djemma el Fna food stalls by night

The other day Fionn and I were reflecting (somewhat dejectedly) that this time last year we were exploring Morocco. I wanted to lift our spirits, so I planned a surprise Moroccan date night dinner for us at home. The first thing that sprung to mind? Pastilla!

I couldn't find a recipe I loved, so I combined the pastilla recipes from Morocco Mama and
 Cooking with Alia to invent my own. 
Chicken thighs, bone in and skin on (though you can use chicken breasts if you prefer)
1 onion, chopped
Olive Oil
1 tsp ginger
1 tsp cinnamon 
2 tsp turmeric powder
2 tsp ras el hanout
Minced garlic
A large pinch of saffron (I left this out, but it's a nice touch if you have it)
1 1/2 cups of water or chicken stock
Handful of sliced dates

4 eggs

1 packet sliced almonds
cinnamon and sugar

Phyllo dough
1 stick of butter (melted)
1 egg yolk

4 oz of powdered sugar
1/4 of a teaspoon of cinnamon

Preheat the oven to 350 F/185 C

Drizzle olive oil in a large cast iron skillet and set to medium heat. Season chicken thighs with salt, pepper and turmeric, cinnamon, ras el hanout, and ginger and place them into the skillet, skin side down. After 5-7 minutes, flip them over to brown the other side. When both sides are browned, remove to a plate (it's ok if they're not done all the way) and add chopped onions, garlic, and saffron and let them brown as well. Add more seasonings if desired, you want the chicken nice and seasoned and yellow from turmeric!

When the onions and garlic are slightly brown, add the chicken back in along with 1 cup chicken broth or water. Lower heat and let simmer for 30 minutes, or until the sauce starts getting thick and the chicken is cooked through. If it starts to burn, add a little more water.

Once the chicken is done, remove the pan from heat and let cool. Shred the chicken in a bowl and discard skin and bones. Spoon a bit of the sauce over the shredded chicken so it doesn't dry out. Add some sliced dates to the chicken mixture.

Break the 4 eggs into a bowl and mix them with a fork. Then slowly pour them into the still warm chicken sauce mixture in the cast iron skillet. Stir until eggs begin to cook and the sauce becomes dry.

Sprinkle the almonds with sugar and cinnamon and toast at 350 F for 10-15 minutes. 

Grease a pie plate and carefully layer 3 sheets of phyllo dough on top of each other, letting a bit hang over the side of the pan and making sure to brush melted butter in between each sheet. 

Now you have two options-either do the filling in layers (chicken, phyllo, eggs, phyllo, almonds, phyllo) or mix everything together. I chose to mix everything.

Spread some the chicken-almond-egg mixture into the pie pan, top with 3-4 sheets of phyllo (brushing each sheet with butter as you go), then add more chicken mixture, then more phyllo. Continue until you run out of chicken mixture. When you do, cover the chicken mixture with 2 sheets of phyllo and then carefully fold the overhanging phyllo dough into the center. Brush the top of the pastry with egg yolk or melted butter.

Bake pastilla for 25-30 minutes or until phyllo is golden brown.

When the pastilla is done, remove from oven and using a sieve, carefully shake powdered sugar over the top, followed by cinnamon.

If you can't be in Morocco, I guess Morocco can come to you!

Friday, April 11, 2014

My Brother's First Art Gallery Showcase!

The artist himself!

My brother is a great guy. He's the funniest and kindest person I know and a talented artist who's about to graduate with an art degree. Last weekend I had the opportunity to see his work being showcased in a gallery! He put so much work into his senior show and I was so proud of how much he accomplished.

I'd seen most of his work, but he still managed to surprise me! Recognize this face?

Figured it out? My brother saw this Instagram I posted while we were visiting Norway last year and recreated it in watercolor!

My brother is great at a lot of things, but he's especially good at watercolor. He calls it "the thinking man's art". It's so cool watching him in action, creating amazing art from just a few dabs of color.

The cat pictures above were inspired by a silly postcard I sent my brother years ago when I was visiting Stuttgart. We always had an inside joke about cats, so it seemed like the perfect thing to send. Nice to see it immortalized in paint!

Watching my brother all dressed up and mature, speaking to the audience made me feel so proud. He's grown up into such an amazing, talented young man. I was so happy I was able to be in town for his big night!

Such a great weekend! 

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Cheap and Easy DIY Picture Matting and Framing

A few weeks ago, I took a picture into a framing place to get a quote. The bored looking saleslady replied, "It'll be around $60."

Sixty dollars?! For a 9 x 12 picture?!

I went home empty handed and was pretty worried, considering I had 14 pictures to frames and am not, in fact, made of money. How could I stay on a budget and still frame?

Luckily, the next day my brother (who's an art major) casually mentioned on the phone that he was framing a bunch of artwork for his upcoming show. I was intrigued, especially when he told me how easy it is to do DIY framing and how cheap.

We likes cheap!

The finished project, minus Fionn's pictures which were already hung up at this point

By the end of the weekend, I had 14 matted, framed pieces of art waiting to be hung. I managed to do it all for $130. Here's how, courtesy of my very useful artsy bro!

For This Project I used
12 Frames ($110, all bought during a 50% off frame sale) 
Pack of  pre cut 11x14 Mat Board ($6)
X-Acto Knife ($6)
Double Sided Tape ($3)
2 packs Self Leveling Picture Hangers ($4)
1 pack of felt bumpons ($.99)

Measuring Tape
Cutting Mat/Cardboard

Let's do this!

Step 1: Gather supplies

the supplies

 First off, measure your artwork and determine what size frame you'll need (don't forget to keep in mind how big of a mat board border you want around it! 

To get the best price on frames, watch out for when stores like Michael's or Hobby Lobby run specials on frames. According to my brother, about once or twice a month they discount everything 40-60%. I went to Hobby Lobby the week all frames were discounted at 50% and picked all of mine up-12 frames for $110!

While you're there, you should pick up double stick tape, an X-acto knife and choose your mat board. Mat board is a thick, heavy paper that comes in lots of different colors. If you know the measurements for your frame and the cut out area where your picture will go, you can get the store to cut it for you. In my case, I bought a pack of 30 sheets of 11x14 inch mat board is various colors and cut it myself.

Step 2: Measure and Cut Your Matboard

Once you have a store bought frame, take the cardboard or paper insert behind the glass and trace its outline on two pieces of matboard (make sure you do the tracing on the side that you don't want visible) so that they will fit inside the frame. Then, very carefully, use your X-Acto knife and a ruler to cut out the outline.

Measuring the frame insert against the uncut matboard

My brother helpfully added that this step is the biggest pain in the butt of the whole ordeal since it takes a little time to cut matboard with an X-Acto knife. If you know your measurements beforehand, get the store to cut it for you.

Once the matboard has been cut to fit the frame, decide how big you want the borders around your artwork to be. Generally I did 1-2 inches on each side, but for the picture I'm working on above, I wanted to include the artist's notes under the drawing, so the border on the bottom was slightly smaller than the one on top.

Once you make your marks, use a ruler to draw lines and create an outline for you to cut out (again, do this on the side that won't be visible so you don't have pencil marks marring your framing job)

Step 3: Let's Make an Artwork Sandwich!

Now that you have a back and a front for your artwork, slide it in there and see how it looks. Are the lines straight? Do you need to move it around?

Now you have some options. If you want to be a fancy pants professional, tape the two pieces of matboard together at the top so they are connected but can still open. Then carefully put a small piece of double stick tape onto your artwork to hold it in place on the bottom mat.

If you want to be lazy like me, get the artwork just so and double stick tape it to the back matboard. 

Then, sandwich your art!

Ta dah! Sandwiching successful.

Step 4: Put your art in the frame

Once your art is sandwiched, pop it in the frame and secure the back. You can do this by either using the cardboard back that came with the frame or by covering the back with brown craft paper. Your call.

Add on some felt bumpons to the bottom corners on the back of the frame to protect your wall when the picture is hanging.

Finally, carefully hammer your self leveling picture hanger onto the top of the frame, and voila!


When you're done, call over your darling husband favorite handyman to hang them all up for you.

Isn't that crazy easy? I can't believe I was about to pay $60 for ONE when I was able to do 14 for $130. Wowza. 

Thanks to my awesome bro for all his help, tips, and inspiration.

So, are you inspired to get your DIY on this weekend?

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Tasty Tuesday: Chicken Fesenjan - Persian Chicken Stew with Pomegranates and Walnuts

When I meal plan, I put all my ideas onto a Pinterest board called Cooking Wish List. If you follow that board, you probably noticed I have been on a Persian kick recently. We visited an amazing Persian restaurant twice last month and I have been dreaming of delicious Persian food ever since.

This dish, Chicken Fesenjan, is amazing with a capital A. I loved the recipe from Minimalist Baker because it uses shortcuts to save time without sacrificing taste. Tasty chicken is slowly simmered in a walnut and pomegranate sauce that gets thick and rich and beautiful by the time it's done. Spoon it over basmati rice and top it with pomegranate arils and mint and you'll see why I'm on a Persian kick. :)

This recipe comes from the amazing Minimalist Baker. Make sure you check out the deliciousness she has to offer! I've also included her recipe (with my changes) below.
1 large yellow onion, diced
3-4 Tbsp olive oil
1/4 cup pomegranate molasses (or 1 8-oz. bottle pom juice)
1.5 cups walnut halves
2 boneless skinless chicken breasts, cut into 1.5-inch cubes*
2 cups low-sodium chicken stock
2 Tbsp honey
1/2 teaspoon turmeric
1/4 tsp sea salt
pinch each cinnamon, nutmeg and black pepper
Jasmine rice
Pomegranate arils and fresh mint for garnish


Make your own pomegranate molasses by bringing a bottle of pomegranate juice, a pinch of salt and a squeeze of lime to a boil. Reduce heat and let simmer for 45 minutes.

Next, toast walnuts in a shallow pan over medium heat for 8-10 minutes or until golden brown and fragrant. Watch them closely or they'll burn (like mine did!) Once cooled, you can blend them in a food processor or put them in a plastic bag and smash them with a rolling pin. They'll be much coarser, but I liked the texture.

Cook the rice according to package instructions.

Heat a large pot over medium heat. Once hot add 1 Tbsp olive oil and onions. Cook until soft, stirring occasionally. Put the onions into a bowl and set aside. Add more olive oil and add chicken cubes. When they're browned on all sides, add the onions back to the pan and salt the mixture.

Next, add the chicken stock and bring to a boil.

Mix the honey and spices together and add to the chicken mixture. Reduce heat and add the pomegranate molasses and walnuts.  Stir everything together, cover and simmer for 15-25 minutes, or until desired thickness is reached. Adjust seasonings if needed.

Serve over rice and top with mint and pomegranate arils. Try not to devour right away :)

We ate ours with pita bread, hummus, and a Persian eggplant dip. Hope you enjoy!

Monday, April 7, 2014

No, My Name Ain't "Army Wife", It's Shannon.

Holy moly, I did not expect the response from my last post on whether or not military families are considered expats. I liked hearing from everyone, especially since the commentators came from various walks of life. Honestly, after I read the original post I felt a kinda sad, wondering if there was secretly a feeling that I somehow didn't belong among expat bloggers or that I wasn't welcome in the community. Luckily your comments showed me otherwise and I'm thankful. I don't think the original post set out to be exclusionary, but nevertheless, it's hard not to jump to that conclusion.

It seems like this debate has a lot of people riled up. But when I was thinking about it last night, I think my biggest problem with the whole thing (and probably a lot of other people's too) is that I felt marginalized. Typecast. Stereotyped. The problem is that people think they "know" who the average military family is, and they judge them based on that. During the expat/fakepat debate I read a lot of "I don't know anything about the military/know any military families, BUT... (insert totally wrong assumption here)" kind of comments. Especially now that I live in a town with a big military presence, I've heard a lot of "Well, you military wives..." or "You Army people..." lately and it's startin' to grind my gears.

Nope, not my name. Even if it is sparkly...

So I'm stepping outside the expat/fakepat debate and switching gears to what I think is a bigger issue for me personally.

"Army Wife" is NOT the essence of my identity.

I come from a military family that has served for generations. Air Force, Army, Navy...there's a little bit of everything. I married a soldier despite multiple youthful protestations that I'd "never fall for an Army guy!" I've unstuck my clothes from velcro uniform pockets more times than I can count. I've followed my man around the world, given up personal opportunities, and "embraced the suck" that comes with the military lifestyle.

But through all that, I am still Shannon. There are various Army Wife stereotypes, ranging from perfectly polished, snooty Martha Stewart types running FRGs and organizing bazaars to overweight, complaining tag chasers shuffling around the PX in house slippers. Do those women exist? Yes, I'm sure that somewhere in the world, they do. But getting my ID card didn't mean I suddenly morphed into them or any other stereotype.

During our time at our first duty station, I met a lot of amazing women, and I learned very quickly not to judge a book by its cover. The beautiful housewife with 5 kids would switch subjects from potty training to stories from her days at West Point or as a Company Commander in Iraq whose convoy was struck by an IED. Another wife was a former Miss America contestant and published author. I met women who had been everything from police officers to chemical engineers to helicopter pilots to physician's assistants before following their husband on his Army adventure, and plenty more who had big dreams they were working on for themselves.

Until you meet these people, it can be easy to judge them. You can dismiss them as housewives or "dependents" and you can marginalize their abilities and experiences. But every person is different. Your individual duty station affords you different opportunities (travel, schooling, volunteering, jobs). Some people rise to the challenge of military life and manage to thrive, others crash and burn. You make the best of whatever you have to work with.

People are unique in their abilities, experiences, and circumstances and there is no "one size fits all".

You can make all kinds of assumptions based on stereotypes. You can assume military spouses are cheaters, or can't be feminists, or have tons of kids, or live in cloistered ignorance when they move abroad, or assume you know how the military operates based on anecdotes and the occasional movie. Military spouses get riled up because for the majority of us, this is NOT an accurate representation and it's not cool to act like it's fact. Even if you have some experience with the military, it is just too dang big and varied to act like your experience is the end all be all for every military experience ever. 

Look, my name is Shannon, not "Fionn's wife". The Army is Fionn's job, and while I support him and am proud of the work he does, his job has no bearing on my personality, my goals, or the kind of person I choose to be. Yeah, the Army has a stranglehold on my life and its direction (since it pays our bills and tells us where we'll live), but it does not define me or how I live my life. Who I am and what I do doesn't begin and end with a job that isn't even mine.

Basically what I'm saying is, don't assume. Just because an Army Wife won't learn German and orders in English at the McDonalds in Munich doesn't mean we all do. Just because your cousin's friend's boss's brother's wife cheated on him while he was deployed doesn't mean we all will. Just because you know an Army Wife who acts crazy doesn't mean we're all crazy. Just because someone had a great time being stationed at Ft Wherever doesn't mean that we'll love being stationed there, or that we'll hate it either. 

We're not a homogeneous entity. I'm the wife of a service member. No personality traits come with that title, just an ID card and a whole bunch of dirty camo uniforms in my laundry room.

So let's just give everyone a chance to be who they are, not who we assume them to be!

Alright, now it's your turn! Do you struggle with stereotypes in your life? Do they make you wanna sing that Janet Jackson song?

Points to whoever can finish that line! ;)

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Are Military Families Considered Expats? I think so.

Yesterday a blogger I know and like, Deanna over at From Casinos to Castles, posted that military families couldn't really call themselves true expats since they have access to benefits that keep them closely connected with their previous American life. I read it, I commented, but I couldn't stop thinking about it.

I read the post at breakfast, and by lunchtime I was saying bye to my brother (whose birthday I was in town celebrating) and hitting the road for a 4 hour solo road trip back to Fionn across miles of rural Georgia farmland. It's a boring drive, and my mind kept wandering back to this topic, thus inspiring its own blog post.

That is the question!

Did that mean I was a fake expat? Did my experiences mean less because of my SOFA status? Should there be a distinction between civilian expats and military expats?

Here's the thing-I wasn't offended by the original post because she has a point...sorta. I agree that living in Germany with the military is very different than living here as a civilian expat or an immigrant. In some ways it is easier, that is true. But I disagree that the word "expat" can't be used to describe us.

Some background on me: From 2009-2011 I lived in France and Germany, first as a student and then later when I got a job working in Berlin. I set up bank accounts, waded through visa and registration headaches, doctor's visits in a foreign language, finding an apartment, accidentally buying the wrong groceries due to translation mistakes...basically, normal expat life.

Fast forward-I fell in love with an American soldier stationed in Germany and we got married. I began my life in Germany as an Army wife. Cue totally new expat experience! I had access to our base Commissary and PX, COLA, VAT forms, gas rations, on post clinic, etc. Many Pop Tarts were eaten.

Having lived as a civilian expat and a military expat, I have to admit, the military does make a lot of things easier. We get help finding a house, getting our cars registered, getting a driver's license, and thanks to the commissary I can find some of my favorite American foods from home. These are all great benefits and privileges we are allowed as the families of service members, and yes, the perks do make living in a foreign country easier.

But ultimately, the definition of "expat" is one who lives outside their native country. I consider anyone living abroad long term an expat. For all of our privileges and tastes of home as military affiliates, that's all they are-mere tastes of the home we were ordered to leave behind. 

Even when I was in my "military bubble", I never forgot I was living abroad. Our duty station was tiny, so I bought most of our groceries at German grocery stores (since oftentimes the Commissary's shelves would be empty for weeks). If something wasn't available at our little PX (which was all the time), I ordered it online or took the train to the nearest town 30 minutes away. When the clinic was full or went through periods of not accepting anyone other than active duty service members, I went off post to German doctors for treatments. Every one of my new mom friends gave birth in German hospitals. I spoke German with my German landlord. I had a vibrant life outside the military base, something I actively cultivated and took pleasure in.

Besides the everyday stuff, just like civilian expats, we get lonely. We struggle through a foreign language. We try to make friends and integrate into the local culture. We feel like outsiders. We have good days and bad days and days where we'd give anything to just go home and go back to normal life.

Yes, the military gives us some perks. But it doesn't keep us from the struggles of living abroad that "normal" expats go through. If we can't call ourselves expats, then what are we? Does it make our struggles and experiences and successes and advice less meaningful? Does it diminish the lives we've created far from home? Does it take away our right to long for our American home or to feel genuine love for our temporary German home? In my personal experience, did I suddenly lose my "expat card" the day I quit my job in Berlin, notified my landlady and moved down to Bavaria to be with Fionn? How could I go from "real expat" to "fake expat" in the space of a few hundred miles? That just doesn't make sense.

The line between what makes an expat "authentic" or not is too blurry and too personal to quantify, in my opinion. Every individual's experience is different.

This is what I struggled with on the drive home. During my time abroad, I deeply connected with the identity of "expat", whether I was in Berlin working in an office on a work visa or in Bavaria buying a jar of Peter Pan peanut butter at the Commissary. I was far from home, dealing with it, and I felt good knowing there was a community of people who felt the way I did, both on post and off in the civilian world. To me, military expats and civilian expats have more things in common than differences.

Being an expat is part of my life story.

So what's your take on this? Should military families be called expats or should they go with another word? And what should that word be?

Also wanted to note that I have no ill feelings towards Deanna-I love her blog and I thought this was an interesting topic that brought up a lot of questions. I'm all for mixing things up and getting conversations started!