thoughts on food, culture, and community

Archive for the month “January, 2013”

Brighting a dark image: All about… Iran {a cultural project}

“All about…” is a series of culturally-driven posts by guest writers who have lived, worked, or studied in a culture different than that of central Pennsylvania. These essays are not comprehensive cultural guides; rather, their purpose is to expose misunderstandings, clarify stereotypes, and highlight the similarities between familiar and unfamiliar cultures.

This week’s post is written by Ida C., a doctoral student at the University of Pittsburgh. She was born in Tehran, Iran, and grew up in Huntington Beach, California. Her dreams include opening her own language school, marrying George Clooney, and working for Rick Steves.


Iran is one of the most misunderstood countries in the world. I went to a lecture recently, and an Iranian author put it perfectly (I paraphrase): “Americans know two Irans: the Persian Empire or nuclear Iran and nothing in between.” But there is so much more to know! As an Iranian American, I feel that I am constantly defending my birth nation. While I can get defensive, who wouldn’t after seeing and hearing negative images and opinions about your country on a daily basis?

1. Iran is not an Arab nation, and we do not speak Arabic. Iran is surrounded partially by Arab nations and has friendly relations with Arab nations, but Iranians are not Arabs. Like Spain, Iran was conquered at one point by Arabs, meaning that many aspects of its culture reflect Arabian culture. For example, Farsi (or Persian) has Arabic vocabulary and uses Arabic script, but it is an Indo-European language very similar to Urdu.

2. Iran women have a lot of freedom. As Iran is under Islamic rule, there are many restrictions on what women can do and wear, but not to the extreme that most people believe. Women can work, study, drive, go out alone in public, and hold government positions.

3. Iran is a modern nation. We have cars; we don’t ride camels. We have an expansive highway, metro and bus system. We have modern homes with modern furniture. We have Nike, Puma, Apple and Samsung stores. But sadly, our technology has limits. ETA of magic carpets is…well…never.

4. “Iranians do not like Americans.” I can’t even begin to explain how wrong this statement is. What Americans see about Iran in the media does not even represent 1% of what the country and its people are about. In reality, over 1 million Iranians live, work, and study in the U.S.

5. “Persians” and “Iranians” are the same. When describing Iran’s inhabitants, some people say Persian, some say Iranian, and some say both. For many Americans, the word “Persian” conjures up images of cats or rugs, but for those who call themselves Persians, it’s a way of separating themselves from Iran’s negative image in U.S. media.

I do not pretend to be an expert on Iran or its people. This is just my opinion. However, what bothers me is people making judgements about a country that they know nothing about. Iran has a beautiful history and culture ready to be discovered with eager Iranians who are willing to guide interested discoverers on their journey.

Iran women



Take it easy, Santa: All about… Germany {a cultural project}

“All about…” is a series of culturally-driven posts by guest writers who have lived, worked, or studied in a culture different than that of central Pennsylvania. These essays are not comprehensive cultural guides; rather, their purpose is to expose misunderstandings, clarify stereotypes, and highlight the similarities between familiar and unfamiliar cultures.

This week’s post is written by Christine Stumböck from Ichenhausen, a small town in the south of Germany. She misses good German bread, readily-available recycling, and the ability to buy groceries by bike. Christine currently resides in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.


When I was younger and still living in Germany, I always had the impression that Christmas was a much bigger deal in the US. I guess it was mostly because of the blinking, colorful, and giant Christmas decorations that some families had in and around their house, often starting to pop up as early as November. Or maybe it was because of the fact that Santa Claus as we know him today is an invention of Coca-Cola. But anyway, my family always preferred subtle, natural-looking decorations like straw ornaments, and my mother would never put metal on our tree or plastic Santas in our lawn. It’s also a common German tradition to put up the Christmas tree and fully decorate the house on December 24. After all the work is finished, we sit together in the evening to open presents before going to church at midnight. So for me, Christmas always started late. And Christmas as a celebration always was over quickly because we received our presents shortly after we’d decorated the tree!

When I came to the United States two years ago, I realized that an American Christmas is much shorter than I realized. For a big part of the working population, Christmas is often not more than a single day off to spend with your friends and family. For those of us in the service industry — we who must keep the grocery stores and retail shops open at late as possible to accommodate last-minute shoppers — Christmas is the busiest time of the year.

Of course, there are also stores and restaurants open around Christmas in Germany, and many Germans consider the Christmas season to be a busy time. However, German federal law protects Christmas. First, there’s a law that requires stores to maintain “normal” working hours year-round for all those in retail; this law is called the Ladenschlussgesetz, or shop-closing law. This means that all stores are closed on Sundays and are never as late as 10 or 11 PM during the week; this is true even in big cities like Munich where I lived for several years. This law also has a specific regulation for Christmas Eve which requires that stores close in the afternoon so that everybody can go home and enjoy the holiday with their family.

Secondly, even though Christmas itself is shorter in Germany, Christmas as a season is much longer. The second day of Christmas, December 26, is a national holiday. And as most workers have more vacation days than we do in the U.S. (I had 28 days per year), many people are able to take off until New Year’s Day or even January 6, another national German holiday.

It took me a couple of years living outside of Germany to value federal regulations and realize what I really miss about Christmas. It’s not the colorful decorations, the shopping trips months ahead, or the plentiful gifts — it’s time. Time to sit together with family and friends. Time to calm down and fully relax. Time to think about the year that’s ending and to recapture all the memories, both good and bad.

So, Santa, maybe you could think about that until the next Christmas season rolls around…as I’m sure it will, way too soon.

Traditional spitzbuben cookies, December 2010

Traditional spitzbuben cookies, December 2010


Trier, Germany, 2010

Dried oranges from my German roommate, Talange, France, 2007

Christmas oranges dried by my German roommate, Talange, France, 2007

Friday Photo: Miracle on 34th Street, Baltimore

34th Street, Baltimore

34th Street, Baltimore, January 2013

Tasteless and overzealous or one of Baltimore’s holiday hits? This Friday Photo is of what’s known as “The Miracle on 34th Street,” not in terms of the movie but of the 700 block of 34th Street between Chestnut Street and Keswick Road in Baltimore, Maryland. According to Wikipedia, this display, which is a collaborative effort of all residents on this historic Hampden street, began in 1947 and can attract 1,000 visitors daily. Quirky themes include a Christmas tree made with old vinyls or bicycle-wheel snowmen.

This photo is of 34th Street in daylight, but click here to see photos of this miracle lit up at night.

Counting down

When ringing in 2013, I began counting down way too early. I was standing amid the crowd at a friend’s house in Baltimore and began belting out numbers once the clock read 11:59 PM and 45 seconds, but no one joined me until I hit the number 10 and we were all taken over by that familiar breathless and senseless excitement, the feeling of fresh optimism, a new year, and new possibilities. But this year, with each number that I called out, the dread mounted in me in second-deep intervals, thudding like a heartbeat. When midnight struck, I clicked my glass and kissed my boyfriend, but when someone began singing Auld Lang Syne, I was surprised to find that I was crying.

Usually, I like New Year’s. My philosophy on life since 2009 or so is that it just keeps getting better, that age equates to possibility, that choosing to take the plunge, however small, will be infinitely rewarded. On Christmas Eve of this year, I walked home from a party down snow-softened streets with my gloved hand tucked in the crook of my boyfriend’s arm — remembering how I had done the same walk from the same party with the same friends just 365 days before — and thinking about how violently a life bookended by two years can change. Each year of my life for the past handful has deepened with meaning. I’ve been surprised by people, inspired by people, upheld by people. The world holds so much to see. And there is so much to learn. Inchallah, 2013 will be no different.

But on January 21, 2012, my roommate Dan left for Philadelphia on the snow-covered turnpike and never returned home. He was in the hospital when I interviewed for entry at the University of Pittsburgh, and he died two days before I got the email stating that I was recommended for acceptance. I do not remember the winter of 2012 very well except for the time when I finally stopped thinking about Dan every hour of every day, by the time I had cleaned out his toothbrush and shaving cream from my bathroom, that I was living a whole month behind the rest of the world, writing the wrong date on my classroom whiteboard and missing deadlines for the Patriot-News with clockwork regularity.

I am not the first to have lost a friend, and lost him suddenly. I realize this. I suppose I did not expect that I could approach this January without feeling something deeply, for if I could, it would dishonor the person I found him to be when he lived and falsify the friendship that we had. I do not know what hurts the most, the notion that we lost him, or the notion that I can see The Hobbit in theaters and he can’t, that the restaurant he critiqued on Second Street just went out of business and that he won’t know, or the fact that the 2013 Pennsylvania Farm Show is opening tonight with their half and half milkshakes that he once brought home to me.

Last February, I was looking around me, trying to find Dan in the wind, but this year, as I counted down to 2013, I was looking around me, wondering if someone I know will die. Perhaps this reaction is a defense mechanism, a way to place death on my daily planner, for if I can anticipate what’s worst in life, perhaps it will not hurt so deeply and for so long.

But what I do not often think about is that I learned both from Dan as well as from the sudden loss of him. When living, Dan showed me — among other things — how to open yourself up to people, to draw in those around you, to create community, to cultivate love. His death only reinforced these lessons. If I could tell Dan that I have learned anything, it would be that I do not know what 2013 will bring, but that I can only face it as he would have, passionately and free and open with my arms ready and waiting and wide.

January 2012

January 2012

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