Monday, December 20, 2010

Christmas: I Can Do This

Before I begin, let me just provide the following disclaimer: I like presents too.

That being said, working in retail has me swallowing down my own vomit with disgust at the commercialization of Christmas. I'm not super religious, and I know that kids love ripping open a ton of presents under the tree on Christmas Eve (or Christmas morning if you're weird) and that it's all part of the magic for them. I know this. But working in a major department store during the holiday season has me ready to spend Christmas in a monastery to get away from all this craziness.

Mostly it's the Christmas music that gets to me. I like a little Christmas music here and there, but when you're listening to it for 6-8 hours a day every day at work, it begins to feel like torture. Especially when they go beyond the traditional Christmas songs, a little Bing Crosby, a little Burl Ives, a little Mitch Miller and the Gang, and move into the weird stuff. Some country singer asking some girl why she left him right before Christmas, SO MANY versions of "Santa Baby" where that slut sings about wanting a yacht, and worst of all, a bizarre, trippy techno remix of Bing Crosby's "White Christmas," which is just plain sick and wrong. Bing! On behalf of the 21st century, I apologize. Forgive them, for they know not what they do.

I'm so sick of it that the other day when I worked in the Hip and Groovy Young People department, I was actually relieved to hear the horrible crap "music" they play in there. Actually, I think the people up in corporate must have hired a new person to choose the playlist, because some of it really isn't that bad. There's some more folksy rock stuff, and only a few aggressive hip hop artists screaming about sex and money. Although there are still far too many songs featuring spoiled teens bitching about their girlfriends or their dads or something, but oh well. And then of course there's like thirteen Taylor Swift songs and that other girl, the blond one from American Idol with the curly hair who sings country. I dunno. But the point is, it's not Christmas music, which is great.

The funny thing is that because it's almost Christmas, people who don't usually shop at all are now "forced" to because they have to buy gifts for their loved ones. You can always tell who they are. Every single man in the women's underwear department. Every single man in the shoe department. Every single man. I'm only kidding, we do have some regular customers who are male. But there are people who look so lost and confused by the entire purchasing-an-item process. It's funny except on days when it's annoying.

They wander around looking lost and confused. Sometimes they accept help when we offer it, sometimes they don't. Many people around here seem suspicious of us, as though we get to personally keep the money they hand over and are trying to take them for everything they have. One lady found a set of bowls that said "Popcorn" on them and asked me how much they were, if they were on sale, etc. I told her the price and then tried to hand the bowl back to her because I saw that there were people waiting for me at the cash register. She stood there staring at me and said, "But I don't know if they eat popcorn! Will they like this?" Now how in the hell am I supposed to know if some strangers I have never met before eat popcorn? I think I said something like, "Who on earth doesn't eat popcorn?" and she ended up buying them.

Then there are the people who act like they have never even seen a cash register before. They're confused by the entire process of buying something. I practically have to hold their hand through it. This is the part where you hand me the item. Now I ring it up. You have a million coupons? Perfect. Here is the one you should use. No, you can't use three coupons at once. No, this item was not on sale. No, you don't get an additional discount for using your store card if you also use a coupon. I don't know why, you just can't. Of course I would let you if you could. Sir, I realize that when you were a kid ice cream cost a nickel and that you've never paid more than three dollars for a sweater. But when I was a kid I wore neon pink leg warmers, times have changed. Yes, this is definitely the price. No, you do not get to name your own price. You're paying with cash? Easy. Oh, you're paying with a credit card? Super. No, give me the card. Now sign on that little electronic box. You have to hit "Enter" after you sign it. You have to approve the amount. Ma'am? You have to approve the amount. You missed the right box, click it again. Now you accidentally canceled it and we have to start over. No, no, it's fine, I have all day to stand here and teach you how to use your credit card.

I swear the way these people bitch about cost and try to haggle, sometimes I glance around just to make sure that the store didn't turn into a middle eastern spice market when I wasn't looking. America! Hear me when I say this! YOU DO NOT GET TO CHOOSE HOW MUCH SOMETHING COSTS. THERE IS A NUMBER ON THE TAG AND THAT IS THE PRICE. GET OVER IT. IF YOU THINK IT IS TOO EXPENSIVE, GO SOMEWHERE ELSE AND LEAVE ME ALONE.

*deep breath* Thanks for letting me get that out, I feel better.

So as a result of all this, I am so over Christmas presents. If you have not received a present from me yet and you are not my brother or my sister, I'm sorry but you're not getting one this year. It's ok, you don't have to get me anything either. I think I asked for a battery for my laptop and my parents have that covered. And I'm not sending out Christmas cards. I might do an e-card to save paper, but I haven't decided yet so probably not. I just want to finish this last couple of days of work, have a safe flight back to Maryland, hang out with my people, and eat hangikjöt. That is all.

Friday, December 10, 2010

*Insert Jumping Up and Down and Squealing Here*

It just occurred to me a few days ago that come January I really will be going back to Chicago. It took a moment to wrap my mind around this. Chicago really does still exist, my friends are still there, and in less than a month I will be too! Then I thought, how depressing is it that the thought of going back to a place where I once lived boggles my mind to that level? Clearly, it is time.

Idaho has not come without its benefits, however. It is beautiful here; I made some great new friends, and figured out what I want to do with my life. The time I spent here on my own provided space for quite a bit of introspection without distractions, and that is a good thing.

That being said, I can’t wait to get back to Chi-town! (pronounced “Shy-town,” I don’t know who came up with it.) I’m so looking forward to it that I’ve decided to make a list of things I will do as soon as I get back. Yay, lists! So much fun, and the reason why my pockets are always filled with annoying little scraps of paper.

1. I’ll arrive at my friend Elizabeth’s house, where after I throw open the door and say something to the effect of, “What up, dorks?” there will be much jumping up and down and screaming. As undignified as this behavior is, it is programmed into our ovaries and completely involuntary.

2. I will attempt to make conversation, but as I will be suffering from an intense case of “Road Crazies” from having driven for 8 hours a day for the past four days, I will first need to process the bits of BBC Radio podcasts and all of my cross-country driving music out of my brain. Also, an immediate shower will be crucial. The rest of the night will be a blur of squealing, excited chatting, and getting used to not being in a moving vehicle.

3. Riding the El, which is the city transit system, was always a nice little time-out in my day. Sometimes when you can’t get a seat or when a crazy person sits next to you it sucks, but my adorable old neighborhood was close to the end of the Brown Line, which is my favorite one because it has the best scenery, in my opinion. It was so nice to get to sit down and listen to music while staring out the window on the way to work. So I’ll definitely be charging my ipod and enjoying zoning out for a while.

4. Julius Meinl. This will be my first destination on the train. I will sip delicious Austrian coffee, eat delicious Austrian food and generally feel warm and cozy and happy. I’ll probably be meeting up with a friend or two, before buying several bags of their imported coffee, worth its weight in gold.

5. The Chicago Girls will be assembled once again, more screaming and jumping up and down will ensue, a bottle of Jameson Irish Whiskey will be sacrificed to the gods, and more groovy tunes will be enjoyed. Maybe we’ll bundle up and go somewhere, maybe we’ll stay in. Whatever we do is always fun because The Chicago Girls are down-to-earth and smart and funny and trustworthy and generally amazing in every way. You can always count on them to have your back. Once we were walking around somewhere downtown at night, and a man came up to us and started singing “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg.” We joined him, I think by the end of the song I was the only one left singing it with him, one of the girls videotaped it on her phone or camera or something, and then when the song was done the man demanded money. When I refused to pay him for what I had naively assumed was a shared experience of delightful randomness with a stranger, he called us mean names and then fled the scene amid the echoes of the girls cussing him out like a small group of adorable, well-dressed truckers. Ah, those were the days…

6. Nancy. Catch-up time with one of my two Chicago Moms. The other one is the mother of my friend Sara. Sara’s sister, Annie, lives about three hours from me in Missoula, Montana and is moving back to Chicago at the same time I am. Apparently when their mom heard I was coming back too, she said she was happy that “at least two of my daughters are moving back!” How cute is that. I’m excited to see both of my Chicago-based surrogate mothers who set me straight in person when my own mother can’t reach through the phone and knock some sense into me herself.

7. The Icelanders! My Icelandic Chicago friends are extremely fun. They also graciously allowed me to stay with them for my last two weeks in Chicago when I lived there before. We used to have what I came to call “rock’n’roll dinners” because we would eat while listening to various rock bands. It’s nice having people around who can pronounce my full name, and they are part of an extended circle of Icelanders in the Chicagoland area. I’ll also be back in time for Þorrablót in February, woohoo! Anyway, they party like it’s 1999 all over again, and we always have a blast and a half.

8. Ordering in exotic foods from many lands. Omg I’ll get to eat my favorite Vietnamese and Thai dishes and have them delivered right to my door! Then there’s the Chicago Brauhaus, famed Bavarian restaurant and bar, complete with a live polka band on the weekends. It’s like entering a time warp when you walk through the doors. A time warp filled with German and Austrian beer, dumplings and various pork products served with sides of foods whose names end in “-kraut”.  Then there’s the tiny Polish restaurant Podhalanka, an amazingly well-kept secret that serves inexpensive, filling, delicious foods from the Old Country. Also that sort of Belgian place in Andersonville, the Swedish neighborhood, with all of those beers and mussels and amazing food whose name I forget, I think it’s the Hop Leaf. And Ed Debevic’s, the touristy re-created 50s diner where the waiters get to be rude to you and they play oldies and dance on the counters while you eat your extremely greasy junk food. And the Peruvian place with the really good chicken! And dim sum in Chinatown! Holy crap, I have so much eating to do. Mmmm...food.

9. Lake Shore Drive. Sometimes when I was really bored and it was between rush hours, I would get in my car and drive down the length of Lake Shore Drive, affectionately referred to by the locals as LSD. “I took LSD the whole way there and it was really fun!” “Get off LSD now, you’ve gone too far!” “LSD again? Lose the habit!” It’s got a sick view of both Lake Michigan and downtown Chicago, complete with truly impressive architecture.

10. Trader Joe’s! Yes, in the spring of next year there will finally be a Trader Joe’s in Spokane, Washington, a mere 30 minutes away from Coeur D’Alene. But that’s not my Trader Joe’s. The one I drive to when I’m sick of walking to the ethnic market and I need to stock up on affordable yet tasty foods. Chocolate-covered pomegranite seeds! Four-flavors-in-one-package hummus! Lavender soap with the built-in scrubbing things! Garlic naan! Cheap wine! The list goes on and on...

Omg I’ll be in my favorite American city again! Swing dance night at that one tiny club downtown! Indian food! Poisonous air polluting my lungs! The Chicago Art Institute! Holding onto my purse tightly at all times and never walking down dark streets alone at night! Chorizo tacos after 2 am in the little Mexican place under that one train station! Taking an extra 45 minutes to get home because I got on the wrong train! Standing under the heat lamps with the pigeons in the freezing cold winter while waiting for the same wrong train! Forgetting where I parked my car! Bundling up in three layers of clothing and my snow boots before leaving the house! Having to moisturize my face with olive oil every night because the ice-cold wind is trying to burn off the top layer of my skin! Artsy movie theaters that show foreign films and weird documentaries and replay “Saturday Night Fever” every once in a while! Being only one day’s drive from my folks in Maryland!

Not that I’m excited or anything...   

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Christmas Means Hangikjöt



I wish that when I went to a restaurant and was asked how I'd like my meat cooked, "smoked" was an option. Every meat tastes better smoked. In fact, vegetables would probably taste better smoked too.

Soon I'm going back to my parents' house for Christmas, and that means smoked lamb time. Yes, there are presents, and family togetherness, and a tree with lights on it, and seeing my friends. But mainly there's smoked lamb. Oooh, there go my salivary glands. My mouth literally waters at the thought of wonderful, smokey hangikjöt.

My mom has it shipped from The Land at some point earlier in the year. When it arrives several months before Christmas, she carefully takes it out of the package and holds it up so we can all gather around and bask in the glow of its magnificence. We "ooh" and "aah" and discuss how wonderful it's going to taste at Christmas, before it is nestled in the freezer to sit, safely preserved, until the blessed event.

Normally people in the Motherland eat their hangikjöt on Christmas day, but in our family we eat it on Christmas Eve. This is primarily because we don't want to share it with anyone, and on Christmas Day there is the danger that guests could arrive, or we may be invited somewhere else. But Christmas Eve is present-opening night for us as well, so there is no danger of unwanted pickers of our meat at our table, and our ravaging can go undisturbed.

The Day of Christmas Eve I wake up and hang around the kitchen annoying my mom until she throws me out. I hover over the stove where the smoked deliciousness sits in its pot of water on the stove, just beginning the sacred alchemical process that must first take place before it is safe for consumption. I lick my lips and gaze at it hungrily, I ask again what time it will be ready for dinner, and hover and hover and hover until she has to push me out of the room and send me to watch a Christmas movie or something. But it's no use. I physically cannot be away from the hangikjöt for too long. It calls me back, and I must stare at it in the pot and think how in just a few short hours I'll be sinking my teeth into its tender, salty, smoky flesh.

At some point in the early afternoon, my dad and us kids find an excuse to leave the house for a while, usually on some lame errand that my mom makes up to get us out of her way. We don't actually need anything, since my mom is one of those people who is so prepared for every event that even if nuclear fallout were to occur we probably wouldn't notice for several days afterward.

But the point isn't the errand. No, no, no. The point is that by the time we get home, the meat has been cooking for a while. And when we pull into the garage, there is a faint whiff of smoked lamb in the air. We rush into the house, I pause for just a moment with my hand on the doorknob, trying to savor the anticipation before getting shoved inside by one sibling or the other. And when we walk in.... BAM! The scent of sweet, savory, smoky, salty, amazing, everything that is pure and good and wonderful in this world, the scent of still believing in Santa Claus (all thirteen of them) and miracles and most of all, the scent of almost-ready hangikjöt has taken over the entire house.

This is the point where I usually make a big show of falling to my knees in front of the stove before I'm swatted away by my mother, who guards her treasure trove of meat like it's the Ark of the Covenant, which, as far as meats are concerned, it basically is.

A little while later, dressed in Christmas finery, salivary glands on overdrive, seated, quivering, at the table, we eat at last. The juxtaposition of flavors, the cream-based sauce, the peas, the red cabbage, the Coca-Cola classic (I stick with my childhood preference instead of wine or beer), the also imported Egill's Appelsín, the holy of holies shining like a reddish masterpiece on my otherwise unremarkable plate... That's what Christmas means to me.