Happy Holidays from the desert!

Before I disappear for the next two months, I wanted to take one last opportunity to post something. This one is much easier to read and digest than my last post, I promise! No MBA required here — topics and photos include desert beauty, food, more food, fun exercise to work off that food, and a thank-you note to some very important people.

First, there were a couple items of business I didn’t manage to fit in the last post. One is that we’re still waiting for the details of Seb’s employment with the new company. He’s hoping to stay and see what working for a Chinese company is all about (and isn’t), but waiting to see what they have to offer. Regardless, the next year in Congo would be a transition period from current majority owner/operator to new, so he would probably stay put for that. Meanwhile, we don’t know when or even if I’ll be invited to return. That will make a difference in his decision making as well. So, when I finish up my class in France (plus another week at a friend’s house in Switzerland – yay!), I’ll be returning to Arizona, but with no idea of how long. Or where, at this juncture. Our two houses in Tucson are rented out but one becomes available at the end of March, so that’s a possibility. If by then I’m still not allowed back in Congo, Seb wonders if it’ll be time he gives Tucson another try.

I have to admit, part of me — maybe a very large part, given my last post — is rooting for Tucson. I have had such a great time being here! What started off as a 4-week break in August has turned into a 4-month furlough, with all the inconveniences of living out of a suitcase that brings, but it has turned out to be wonderful. I have been able to catch up with amazing friends and family, not just here but all over. I’ve started a couple new activities and made some new friends, including some quite unlikely ones! (More on that later.) I’m also extremely fond of the desert. I sometimes forget that I didn’t much like the desert when I first moved to Phoenix in 2001 — back then everything looked brown and thirsty to me — but within a year or two I found my “desert eyes.” This place is just magical. And the weather is pretty darn nice, too.

The desert in September, after a heavy monsoon season.

The desert in September, after a heavy monsoon season.

Tucson is surrounded by five mountain ranges, and two national saguaro forests.

One of Tucson’s colorful downtown neighborhoods.

The mountain lion mascot of Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum.

The view from my apartment balcony last night, under an almost-full moon.

Did you know Tucson is a UNESCO-designated City of Gastronomy? The only one in the U.S., in fact. It’s part of what they call a “Creative Cities Network“… which just so happens to include Kinshasa for its music, and Lubumbashi for its crafts and folk art! Small world.

My favorite local gastronomic creation, however, is not very high-brow. And on each visit I throw myself into the task of trying to find the best one in town.

Sonoran hot dog!

The Sonoran hot dog! I’m up to seven on this trip, I think. And El Sinaloense food truck gets my vote every time. (Thanks to my Mom who heard about these delicious things a few years ago from a travel magazine on the plane as she was coming to visit.)

Of course I have nothing against eating out. And on vacation I usually give myself license to eat whatever I want, since living in Congo is a natural weight-loss plan that never fails. Once this turned into a long-term stay, however, I knew I needed a more sustainable plan. I love to cook, but unfortunately I’m kind of tied to fancy recipes and cookbooks, which require fancy pantries, which I sadly neglected to pack up in my suitcase last August. So, once I got settled into my corporate apartment, I decided to give Blue Apron a try. And now, I have appointed myself their ambassador.

I love Blue Apron!! Can I just tell you? It’s brilliant. It’s a grocery-delivery service, but not just any groceries. No, they deliver exactly the pre-measured groceries you need — no more, no less — to make three fancy recipes per week. You can choose meat, fish, or vegetarian menus. They include the spices, the condiments, the butter, the cheese, everything the recipes require. The only thing you need to have at home is olive oil, salt & pepper. (And preferably lots of all three.)

Nearly every recipe has something unusual or exotic in it (like furikake, aleppo pepper, saffron, persimmon, black rice noodles, purple daikon radish, khorasan wheat, labneh, I could go on…). The recipes are easy to follow, don’t require fancy equipment, average 30 minutes to make, are healthy whole foods and make your house smell good. They might even be economic. They certainly are for me, with an unstocked pantry and enough food from each meal to have leftovers for lunch, usually more. I could eat hot dogs for less than $7 a meal, but not too much else.

Sorry if my enthusiasm is annoying, but each time I cook up one of these dinners I feel like doing a little happy dance in the kitchen. It reminds me of the pre-Africa me who didn’t really know how to cook, or didn’t see the point of preparing a whole nice meal just for myself. (There IS a point, friends. It’s called nutrition, and pleasure, plus something to absorb the wine that was already on the evening’s menu, if we’re being honest.) If I could go back in time, I would tell that girl that Blue Apron is all she needs to learn how to cook. Well, maybe a knife skills class, and cable television too. Or at least PBS. My latest learning is how ridiculously often salt should be added while cooking. (I thought these must have been typos until I coincidentally came across Michael Pollan’s pages on salting in his book Cooked. Salt early, often, and liberally!)

Message me privately if you’re interested in a free trial. The downsides: You don’t get a ton of choice regarding what’s in your box each week. (Limited menus are part of their commitment to local seasonal produce, though.) There are vegetarian options, which quite honestly I’ve liked better than their meat selections because they’re more creative — but unfortunately they don’t cater to other diet restrictions such as dairy-free, gluten-free, etc. And, there’s a lot of packaging, which can make you wonder about the “less waste” advantages. However, almost all of it is recyclable, and if you don’t have local recycling facilities, you can return the box and packaging for them to do it, free of charge!

Apparently meal delivery service is the new big thing right now, and there are lots of other companies to choose from. Many thanks to my Mom (again!) who inspired me after she signed up with a similar company called Home Chef. And she said it was my post on food waste that inspired her to look for ways to cut down waste in her kitchen. Aww, thanks Mom!


Besides sampling hot dogs, cooking at home, and reconnecting with my long-lost cat Chyna (talk about purrfect timing there), I have thrown myself into hiking. After being inspired by my friends’ generous invitation to join them for three days in the Grand Canyon, I joined a club here in Tucson. Which basically means I googled “hiking clubs Tucson” and went with the first one. Good thing they didn’t mention in their promotional materials that their average age was 70, or I might not have joined. On my first hike I climbed 1800 feet, alone, pausing several times to catch my breath, before finally continuing to the top to discover that the 78-year-old trail leader was already up there, chatting with her 76-year-old friend. (I had started 10 minutes behind them, as I didn’t know where their meeting spot was but knew which trail they had taken.) After a brief break for one of us (i.e., me) to stop gasping for air, we headed back down the trail, chatting all the way, and I’ve joined the club on a dozen hikes since, loving every minute of it! Leave it to retirees to build an active club with something on the schedule nearly every day. Everyone I’ve met has been super nice, and so inspirational. A lot of them have told me stories about their “peak-bagging” days, which means earning a badge after climbing 400 or more peaks in Southern Arizona. Peaks much higher than the measly 1800-foot “conditioning hike” I was on that first day. Most of their stories included a tidbit like, “Oh, I can’t really do that anymore, but back then…” just to find out that by “back then” they meant in their late 60s and early 70s. They rock.

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One of many beautiful mornings in Sabino Canyon.

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Sunrise over the city.

I much prefer sharing the top with this little guy than a mountain lion!

Maybe the holiday spirit has gotten into me, but I think it’s more than that — I’m feeling extremely fortunate and grateful for everyone who’s made my sojourn here so enjoyable. I never could have lasted this long without them. I don’t mean to make this a roll call or a who’s who or anything, but I feel indebted and know that when I look back on this years from now, I’ll be glad I included the details. I already regret not doing it for past trips. So here we go.

I love that my girlfriends from Phoenix jumped in a car with me to L.A. to help me pick up Chyna from the most selfless guy in the universe. I had such a great time staying with friend Kim, cooking and singing old country songs together that I hadn’t heard since childhood. I so appreciate her and my brother for tolerating my early Annie Lennox look, which I’m still slowly growing out of. (I think you are the only ones I let see it in the bleach-blonde stage.) I adored staying with friends in lovely Wisconsin, celebrating a birthday and admiring all things Frank Lloyd Wright. I had a great time speaking only French with Seb’s parents for a week in beautiful Québec (and an equally great time resorting to English with his brother and sisters a week later — plus, best massage ever). I had a blast traipsing through the woods and the museums of D.C. with a person I admire very much, my generous friend Lauren. Thank you for taking me in just when I needed it most! It was a pleasantly unplanned surprise to get to spend time with Mom in Florida, and an ever bigger surprise to visit her hilarious in-laws, even if a hurricane chased us visitors away a bit early. A little later, it was great sampling Ethiopian food and exploring Tucson with Dad and Carolyn, who were serendipitously in the area on a babysitting mission. It was so nice also being able to drop in on my brother and his family in Phoenix from time to time, cooking up a storm (sometimes literally) with my adorable nieces and nephew. Thanks also to Linda and folks from the office for fun lunches and one French potluck; Lupe for her endless attempts to rescue the Italian Job in my hair; Jen for a fun lunch; Sara for a fun dinner; Stacie & John for a spare bed one night before an early flight; Stacie, Sara, Isabela & Sofia for an amazing and memorable Saturday in Tucson; sister Carrie for her upbeat messages and Gilmore Girls guidance; and Michelle for being my indefatigable phone buddy.

A very special thanks to Debbie & Jeff who took me in for weeks at a time, generously sharing their home with me as if it was my very own. I adored taking Tagg for long walks each evening while they were in Ireland, water leaks notwithstanding. I hold special memories in my heart surrounding Debbie’s kitchen. Whether we’re cooking together or I just get to enjoy the fruits of her labor, nothing says “love” quite like a homemade meal. For me, her meals and our time together was inspirational.

Another special thanks to Nora & John, who reminded me that friendship has no expiration date. You guys were brave inviting me to join you in the canyon! I’m so glad you did. It’s been a blast reconnecting with you, whether here, there, or in Mexico. 🙂

Last, thanks to my husband, who financed most of these adventures, kept in touch every day despite comms constantly crashing, AND had to put up with me raving about all the fun I was having while he was stuck at home alone in Congo, cleaning a litter box for a cat he never wanted, and eating beans out of cans. I’m so sorry and I love you babe! Now, see you in Paris in a few days!

Merry Christmas to all! Happy holidays, and a very very happy new year.

Xxx

7 comments

  1. Jen, thank you so much for taking the time to make such fond memories. The girls and I thoroughly enjoyed it. Wherever your travels take you, I (we) hope to be a part of it. Much love! Enjoy Paris!

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  2. Jen, you have been on such a fantastic, wild whirlwind journey! I’m so happy for you. I think your are on to something by hiking with 70 year olds! They didn’t get to be that old by letting the world pass them by! So inspirational! I hope you have great trip over the holidays. Enjoy your time with Seb, and I hope you have a Happy New Year — full of more adventures!!

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  3. Bonjour Jen, je viens de lire ton blog sur le traducteur Google. Merci de nous raconter ton séjour et j’apprécie particulièrement la phrase ou tu parle de nous. J’aimerais bien faire les randonnées dans le désert avec les gens de ton club de marche. Qui sait un jour peut-être si vous revenez à Tucson. Je vous souhaite de joyeuses Fêtes et surtout un beau séjour en amoureux en France. Bye et au plaisir de vous revoir.

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  4. Thanks for sharing travel news from Tucson! Have just returned from lunch and your mention of food has made me hungry all over again! Good luck to you and Seb with possible continued employment–and residing–in the Congo and a decision about “settling in” somewhere in the world!

    A belated Merry Christmas and a happy and prosperous New Year in 2017!

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