Category Archives: culture

Eat Your Heart Out, Starbucks

via @anhptran

One of the cool things about my job is knowing cool people. Take my coworker S and her husband T, an extremely fun and gregarious Ethiopian couple. Not only are they inherently awesome, they are also starting a B-Corp coffee company very shortly.

As any Ethiopian will tell you, coffee originated in Ethiopia. I guess a goatherd and a goat discovered coffee after the goat didn’t come home, but I can’t tell you what happened after that because I always get distracted before the end of the fable. But my point is this: people in Ethiopia have been cultivating coffee longer than anyone else in the world. It’s a vital part of Ethiopian culture, history and economy. And it’s delicious.

Coffee is such a fixture of Ethiopian life that people roast it themselves. I have witnessed S do this on several occasions with very tasty results, and last Christmas S&T hand-roasted more than a pound of coffee for me to take home to my dad (!!!). That went down like this:

A: Hey S, I really want to get my dad some Ethiopian coffee for his Christmas stocking. Where is the best place to buy some?
S: I’m not sure, let me check with T.
A little while later…
S: Ok so I checked with T, and we don’t trust anyone to use the right kind of coffee. We’ll just roast it for you.

And then they spent like a day roasting coffee for someone they’ve never met, simply because they’re amazing. The best I could offer in return was some jars I painted to say “Tea” and “Coffee” in Amharic.

After that, I really wanted to learn how to roast coffee myself. I arranged with S to come over and learn, which quickly snowballed into a medium-sized dinner party and business meeting about T’s new coffee company. In a turn of events that surprised exactly no one, we all got too distracted catching up and eating food to talk about business. We did make coffee, however, and I documented with my trusty phone.

You start with green coffee beans. Coffee begins it’s life as cherry, picked when it is a ripe red. The fruit is then washed off and the bean dried. The raw beans are very difficult to chew and taste exactly how I would imagine the color green to taste. These particular beans are of the Harar variety (whatever that means) and come from the union T is working with for his coffee company.

Next, you put the coffee in a special little pan and roast it over some charcoal over this ceramic stove thingy. Gas flame will do in a pinch, though apparently you have to shake the coffee beans around more so they don’t burn. Delicious coffee aroma will begin to emerge and everyone is offered the chance to waft it towards them.

One time, I sat really close to S when she was roasting coffee and my hair and clothes took on that amazing, freshly roasted coffee smell. I never wanted to shower again (spoiler: I did).

After the coffee is the appropriate roasted-coffee-hue, you take it out of the pan to cool, and pick out the discolored bits and fan off the chaff.

Then you grind it up and put it in a special clay pot with some water:

As you heat the coffee, you pour off a little at a time into a separate container. This cooler coffee is then added back into the pot as it starts to boil over. At some point, the coffee is declared appropriately brewed by undetermined means. Then it is magically poured into tiny cups without getting any of the coffee grounds in the mix. This part of the process is lost on me.

This part is not.

Poop in a Bag

Our household is… special. Even though we’re all American, we still manage to mess up an astounding number of American things, particularly when it comes to speaking English.

This morning started out with a typical round of miscommunication at the Family Compound.

A: I think I made too much porridge.
L: Hah. Porridge. What are you, one of the three little bears?
A: There weren’t three little bears.
L: Oh you’re right. Those were just bears. It was the pigs that were little. They didn’t have any porridge. They just got their houses blown up.

You see, my father is Irish and so I grew up saying certain words funny–mostly things you would say around the house like, basil (bah-sil), porridge, and worst of all, dressing gown.

I believe you would erroneously call this a “robe.” However, if you are willing to part with $225 to buy it for me, you may call it whatever you like.

Whenever I say “Dressing Gown” the other people in the room affect a posh British accent and say things like, “Oh nooooo I’ve dropped my dressing goooown on the floooor! I must have some poooorridge and tea and then pop something in the boot of the caaaar!”

Everyone in the house has their moments, to varying degrees of frequency. KS is harder to make fun of, because, being Taiwanese, he mostly just skips over the unnecessary articles of English, and I can’t really fault someone for that kind of efficiency. K is plenty easy to ridicule, being from Connecticut, but her language skills are fine and so not pertinent to this discussion. Far and away, L has it the worse.

L grew up in Southern California, so in some ways, she’s the most American of us all. However, she also grew up in an Argentine household–both her parents are immigrants–so she missed out on several parts of American culture growing up. This is most obvious when it comes to idioms, either when she tries to translate them from Spanish or completely doesn’t understand them in English. Sometimes her comical mistranslations will make it into our vocab, like my new favorite phrase, “My eye is filling up faster than my stomach!” Sometimes we just make fun of her. But things got a lot worse when she started at her company two years ago. As far as I can tell, this company was founded on acronyms and jargonny cliches (to her credit, I had never heard half the phrases they used either). She spent the first year being perpetually confused by this new language, often with hilarious results. There was the time, for instance, after googling “out of pocket,” she couldn’t decide if it meant “unavailable” or “crazy,” as her boss either meant “You won’t be able to reach me because I will be becoming unavailable or alternately, insane.” To no one’s surprise, L suffered much mockery from us and from her coworkers because of instances like this.

Tired of being everyone’s linguistic punching bag, about a year ago she decided she was just going to play along and pretend like she knew what all the idioms meant. It was a solid strategy that worked well until one day, she was listening to a story from K about how her  high school graduation was postponed because of a bomb threat:

K: Yeah so we had to wait several hours because of this supposed bomb, but it turned out to just be poop in a bag.
L: So what was it?
K: It was poop in a bag.
L: Yeah no I know, but like what was the bomb?
K: It was a bag… full of poop…

L had made the critical error of assuming something was an idiom that is not. And we proceeded to mock her for it for the next several months.

In the process though, we discovered that L was a genius. Poop in a bag is actually a brilliant, useful phrase that needs to be incorporated into the English language immediately. 

poop in a bag (n). an idiom expressing the sentiment that an occurrence, object, or person previously noted to be important or consequential turns out to be overblown or insignificant.

My boss kept making a big deal about this TPS report I had to do, but it turned out to be poop in a bag.

James Franco is supposed to be awesome, but I guess it’s just poop in a bag. I mean, did you see the Oscars?

Strikes in France are poop in a bag.

Clearly now you can see that poop in a bag needs to be a phrase. If you are having trouble using it properly, please feel free to contact me for help or test it out in the comments. Get everyone you know to use this phrase. Because let me tell you: unlike fetch, poop in a bag is SO happening.

Welcome to Spa World. Please check your dignity at the door.

Two weeks ago, I went to the Korean bath in Centreville, VA. I’ve been meaning to blog about the experience, but it’s proved more difficult than I envisioned to fit so much crazy into one coherent essay. It’s weird enough to start a story with, “So I went to Virginia to hang out naked in the bath with some friends,” and that’s not even the half of it.

If you have never been, you have to understand that public baths are universally weird places, even beyond the nudity. Several years ago, K studied abroad in St. Petersburg and took up visiting bathhouses. In a Russian banya, you alternately sit in a hot sauna and then jump in an icy pool. Everyone wears little felt hats, beats each other with birch branches, and engages in knife fights. Russian people claim this is good for your immune system, but I’m pretty confident this is a lie. K took me to a banya in Boston once and I was very ill for the following week. Regardless, it’s an experience worth trying.

Fixtures of a Russian banya

Lacking a sufficient Russian population for a banya in DC, we go to the Korean spa in Virginia. Spa World is a place of epic proportions, a bathhouse so extensive that you could actually live there. It’s open 24/7 and has a cafeteria, an arcade, and sleeping areas in addition to its many baths and saunas. After hearing good reviews from multiple sources, I’ve been meaning to go for over a year but never got around to it. This is partly because it’s located in Centreville and, as a resident of the District, I’m obligated to hate all things in Northern Virginia. But mostly, I haven’t gone because as it turns out, being naked with strangers (or worse, people you know) is kind of a hard sell amongst our friends. Miraculously, we did finally find some people as foolhardy as us, and so two weekends ago, hopped in a car bound for Spa World.

I cannot begin to convey to you how strange it is to walk into Spa World. First of all, this palatial, 50,000 square foot bathhouse is located in a strip mall. It’s weird, though not nearly as weird as what happens after you check in and have the sudden and overwhelming sense that you’ve stepped through a portal into some sort of futuristic, culty dystopia. You’re issued a number, and this number coincides with a locker in which you deposit your shoes (so that you can’t leave). You take the key out of the locker and it’s actually a computer chip attached to a bracelet, which is what you will use to access everything in this new world.

Next, your party gender-segregates into locker rooms, where you find your locker (still the same number! always the same number.). You trade your normal clothes, for a unisize, universally unflattering jumpsuit. Women are all given jumpsuits that might be called orange for lack of a better name, and men’s are a hue that can only be described as the exact shade of a sweat stain.

Standard issue prison jumpsuits for District 13 Spa World. Unfortunately I couldn’t get the colors quite ugly enough.

Once leaving the locker rooms, you join back up in a large, co-ed atrium, off of which are several themed saunas and a cafeteria. There are no windows here or anywhere else in the facility, so the only thing that indicates a passage of time are large clocks located on either side of the room, above the to the stairs to gender-segregated sleeping areas. We went to get lunch, where you order from a list of pictures on the wall, give the worker behind the counter your electronic key, and collect your food tray when they call out your key number. Then you join your friends who are all in matching culty jumpsuits sitting in room full of other people in the same culty jumpsuits. If I hadn’t been having Mockingjay flashbacks during entire process, I would have been impressed by it’s efficiency.

After lunch, we tried out the saunas and were intrigued to find that each of them had its own personality. The first room we visited (Oak Charcoal) was dark and silent. The next room we visited (Red Clay) was completely different. There were people talking quietly to their friends and one woman with a completely unplaceable accent was teaching two others how to make the Princess Leia towel hats that seemed to be so popular:

These babies have much better sauna uniforms.

After learning how to make hats, the same woman told us she was a fitness instructor and wondered if we were interesting in doing some yoga poses. A circle of 10 or so of us agreed, and she led us through some very sweaty stretching and breathing (it was 170 degrees in the room) while the rest of the sauna inhabitants looked bemused. As the woman got up to leave, she informed us enthusiastically that it was her birthday.

The rest of the rooms were equally different–the ice room was icy, the red clay ball room was like a ball pit for adults, only less exciting, the blue onyx room lists sexual dysfunction amongst the list of things it helps cure, and in the amethyst room, we drove nearly everyone else out with our discussions about how badly you’d be injured if pieces of the amethyst mosaic on the ceiling started to fall. By a landslide margin, though, the Strange Award goes to the salt room, where Russian girls chatted happily in the corner, an older woman did calisthenics behind K, and a couple made out while lying next to each other on the floor. We left that one in a jiffy.

In all our exploration of these rooms, however, we had not visited the primary purpose of a bathhouse. We said goodbye to our solitary male friend and headed back to the locker rooms. Inside the locker rooms is another room entirely–the bath. This room consists of showers, a dry sauna, a steam room, an infrared area (??? yeah we don’t know what that one was for either), a cold pool, several jacuzzis and a large central pool filled with a variety jets and showers. Off to the side is a section where you can get massages or scrub downs by staff wearing the creepiest uniforms on the planet–lacy black underwear. They are better off than than the rest of us, though, because this is also the part of Spa World where you have to shed your unfortunate orange jumpsuit and go naked.

It is initially quite strange to be naked in a room full of other naked women, and stranger still if some of those women are your friends. Luckily, you get over it after a couple minute. In fact, I might argue that it’s a good thing to see so many other women naked. As my friend Kim pointed out, while we see boobs in movies and on HBO all the time, we only ever see one kind of boob. It’s healthy to look around the room and see MANY different kinds of boobs, nipples, asses, thighs, stomachs, and so forth.

And if anything, men are worse. We may never find out what the male counterpart to the lacy black underwear is (presumably not lacy black briefs?), because our friend kept forgetting to look. “I was too busy trying not to look at all the penises everywhere.” I think it would do Americans a lot of good to see more people naked.

Anyway, I’m glad I could get over the nudity factor, because the saunas are relaxing and fun. Plus, it’s noisier and doesn’t seem so taboo for conversing as say, the Oak Charcoal room did. In the Russian style, we baked in the dry sauna and then dunked ourselves in the cold pool. We got yelled at in Korean for accidentally sitting in the children’s jacuzzi (for the record, the children were sitting in our jacuzzi at the time). Our friend Dyevka told us a horrifying story about old people breasts in nursing homes that I’m not going to repeat here. All in all, it was good times.

After a little more co-ed sauna-ing and a seriously terrible coffee-flavored popsicle, it was time to go. We showered and put our clothes on and went to rescue our shoes. Cleverly, you cannot get your shoes back until you pay off your computer chip debts. As we rejoined reality, I was horrified to discover that it was night-time and that we’d spent six hours in Cult World. Like I said–you could live there.

Chad Michael Murray Need Not Apply

This week, K and I took L to see Giselle performed by the Mariinsky Ballet to celebrate her birthday. If you live in the DC area and have money burning a hole in your pocket, seriously go see it. I’d never seen it before, but L and I had covered the basic plot:

L: So then, the ghosts of the unmarried virgins dance their former lovers to death!
A: So it’s like thriller, but ballet?
L: Uh, yes?

But I’m getting ahead of myself… You can read a nice summary here, but wouldn’t you rather read my version of events? Yes, I thought you would.

We begin our story in Rhineland just in time for hunting/wine-making season. Giselle lives with her Mom in a little village there, and she’s like the hottest girl in town! She’s sweet and innocent and all the guys love that. In the Teen Movie Adaptation, she’d probably be played by Emma Watson, if Emma Watson were into doing Teen Movie Adaptations. Things are extra-awesome for Giselle since the cute new Mysterious Loner Dude who just moved in across the street/just transferred from another school! I don’t actually know how to cast him, and the only suggestion I got was Chad Michael Murray from K, because apparently she lives in the year 2002. She also attempted to put Selma Blair in this movie.

And Giselle and MLD are like totes in love! They dance around to show how happy and in love they are. Giselle’s mom is unconvinced and keeps warning MLD that Giselle’s heart is weak. Of course, in the TMA, Giselle’s mom’s character would be replaced with her Sassy Gay Friend.

Meanwhile, this guy Hans is also in love with Giselle, but she’s just not that into him. He’s really upset that Giselle hasn’t noticed the flowers he creepily left outside her door again. He spends a lot of time lurking around stage, watching Giselle and MLD jealously. Hans would obvi be played by Robert Pattinson, since he’s already got that brooding stalker vibe down.
While StalkerHans is doing his stalker thing, MLD scampers off, right before some fun festivities happen in the village for some reason! It’s a hunting party/the homecoming game and Princess Bathilde and her crew are there. Giselle dances for them and impresses Bathilde, whose name will definitely have to be changed in the TMA. Now they’re BFFs and Bathlide gives Giselle a necklace because she’s rich and that’s how she shows affection. They go and have tea or have a shopping montage or something. Bathilde tells her all about her awesome boyfriend, Count Albrecht, and Giselle appropriately admires her fancy clothes and sparkly engagement ring. I’m not sure what happens to the Princess and her Posse at this juncture because they go into Giselle’s house and never come out.
StalkerHans decides to do some reconnoitering over at MLD cottage and climbs through the window, natch, cause that’s what stalkers do. Then, for no apparent reason, a bunch of villagers show up and spend a very long time celebrating the grape harvest. There’s an impressive peasant pas de deux (highly coreograghed prom scene) that has zero to do with the rest of the plot. Then, when all the principals are properly rested, everyone important shows up again just in time for StalkerHans to produce what he’s found–a sword and a cape proving that MLD is NOT a peasant, he’s actually Count Albrecht! Everyone is shocked, most of all Giselle. Unsurprisingly, she’s none too happy to find out that her boyfriend is secretly engaged to her new bestie. She faints, lets her hair down, and goes crazy in a dramatic dance number culminating in her untimely death (remember what Sassy Gay Friend said about her weak heart?). Everyone’s very upset and StalkerHans and Albrecht point blaming fingers at each other.
Act II begins in a misty graveyard in the woods at night. StalkerHans is really upset about how things turned out for him, and goes to visit Giselle’s grave. He gets kind of spooked out and runs away, and rightly so cause who should show up next but the Wilis!!! The wilis are a band of ghostly-yet-corporeal spirits of tragical unmarried virgins who all got dumped before their weddings and then died. And I do not know what is wrong with this village, but their are a lot of dead jilted maidens, y’all. 27 by my count. And queen of the wilis is Myrtha, the most embittered zombie spinster of them all. She spends a lot of time dancing impressively. Actually, they all do (my favorite part in the whole ballet starts at about 6:30):
Ok, to be completely honest, I am not really sure where to go with the TMA plot from here. Obviously she can’t die of a broken heart because this isn’t a Nicholas Sparks movie, but I’m kind of at a loss. K suggested that instead of going to the spinster graveyard, she goes off to a Women’s College, cause it’s kind of the same thing.
Anyway, the spinster zombies wander off to look for men to torture and kill, but they’re kind of bad at it because while they’re gone, Count Two-Timer shows up to visit Giselle’s grave. He’s really gutted that he caused her death, as he should be. While he’s crying into his manly lilac tights, Giselle appears. She’s not a wili yet, because she is not being forced to wear tulle waterwings like the rest of them. Giselle runs off into the woods and he chases her.
Apparently the spinster zombies are not as bad as finding men as we thought, because they’ve caught up with StalkerHans, who now will serve the unfortunate purpose of showing us what the zombie sisters do for fun. Magically entranced by them, they dance him to the point of exhaustion and then drown him in a lake. How’s that for a hobby? Again, not really sure how to handle this plot development in the TMA, but having spent four years at Wellesley, this does not seem out of the realm of possibility.
We catch up with Giselle and Count Cheats-a-Lot elsewhere in the woods, where they do some truly exquisite, sorrowful dancing. Unfortunately for him, the spinster zombies show up and sentence him to die. They try to dance him to death, but Giselle still loves him despite everything and saves him. The sun starts to rise and the zombie spinsters and Giselle retreat, leaving Albrecht free to go.
Best. Plot. Ever. I’ll be waiting for my check, movie executives. You’re welcome in advance.