Annie Bananie en Europe

A blog about travel, life, and everyday tidbits

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My stories 07: My first Greek word

Φλογερες, my first Greek word.

I went to a Greek restaurant (probably the only one in Wuhan) for dinner last night. There weren’t many diners, even on a Friday night. The lady behind the bar (I later found out that she was the co-owner) looked at my order and asked me if I had been to Greece, perhaps because most of what I ordered were the more traditional Greek dishes. I told her that I had been to Athens for an academic conference a few years ago, and I went to Santorini as a side trip.

This opened up a series of interesting conversations. It turns out that the lady is a Wuhan local, but her husband (co-owner and chef) is from Thessaloniki in Greece. In 2016, the couple opened this Greek restaurant in Wuhan, trying their best to restore the authentic taste of the chef’s hometown using local ingredients (with some necessary compromises and substitutes). The lady has lived in Greece for a few years and regretted hearing that I’ve only been to the two most touristy and commercialized places in Greece. Yeah, I agreed, but I had no time to visit other Greek cities, but I will go back to Greece in the future, with Mr. J! We then continued to chat about other random topics. I said, it’s so rare to find “non-mainstream” cuisine, like Greek food, in Wuhan. The lady said that many Greek dishes don’t cater to the local taste, and people are like this – no matter how much you try to convince them that a dish is authentic, if they are not accustomed to that particular taste, they will be unable to appreciate it. Therefore, there is no point forcing someone to like a type of food – people who like it will come naturally. She then told me that there are only maybe two or three Greeks in Wuhan (TWO OR THREE!) but in fact, I thought that one is already quite rare. You’ve gotta have a lot of luck to meet another Greek!

While paying the bill, I asked the chef to tell me the name of the dish that looked like spring rolls. He explained that the stuffing in these rolls contained smoked turkey ham, a Bechamel-based sauce, and feta cheese, all wrapped in thin filo pastry, and the baked product is crispy and flavorful (and heavenly)! This reminded me of the spinach pie that I ate with TK in Greece – spanakopita, oh my goodness. Although it was just a snack, it was an unforgettable delicacy that lingered in my heart. According to the lady, they don’t sell the spinach pie at the restaurant because locals don’t like the taste, and to that I can only say…y’all are missing out, people. The chef later taught me how to make spinach pie, and the procedure is actually rather complicated but…maybe one day I will try it 😉

And yes, we still haven’t gotten to the name of the spring rolls. The chef continued and said that the rolls are shaped like small, long flutes, so they are called Φλογερες – flogeres, little cheese flutes, and he taught me how to pronounce it in Greek (the “g” is pronounced like “ye”). When I pointed out some Greek letters that I recognized, the chef was quite surprised, but I replied that I studied science and in math and physics, we often use Greek letters as variables, so I was no stranger to them. (Side note: while chatting with the chef, I suddenly realized that I hadn’t spoken English for a long time…)

Continuing on, the chef said that he likes to visit small and medium-sized cities in China because in these places, he can truly experience the daily life of the local people. For example, he particularly enjoyed his visit to Changde in Hunan, as the city was unpretentious and the people were sincere. There are a lot of other details in our chat during this serendipitous encounter, too many to note here. But wow, it’s so rare (saying this for the third time) meeting such lovely people, and I felt that I could have kept on chatting with them for hours, sharing fun travel stories, joys of life, and our love for food! One day in the future, let’s organize a group trip to Greece and see Corinth, Marathon, and of course Thessaloniki, hehe~

Φλογερες, or flogeres – cheese flutes stuffed with smoked turkey ham, Bechamel-based white sauce, and feta cheese, at Aegean Blue Greek Restaurant, Wuhan, China.

My stories 05: Everybody’s Changing

“So little time
Try to understand that I’m
Trying to make a move just to stay in the game
I try to stay awake and remember my name
But everybody’s changing
And I don’t feel the same
You’re gone from here
And soon you will disappear
Fading into beautiful light
Cause everybody’s changing
And I don’t feel right…”

The song “Everybody’s Changing” has been on my phone ever since I discovered it, and I remember very distinctly the circumstances under which I first heard this song. It was October 26, 2017, my final week in Glasgow. I was having lunch with a friend at Chaiwallah, a cafe/restaurant nearby the University of Glasgow that popped up a few months before. (Side note: the site of the restaurant used to be a public toilet but has since been revamped into a cafe. As far as I am aware, at the time of writing, the cafe has closed down.) The space was small but cozy, fitting only approximately 15 customers. I wasn’t very close with the friend with whom I had the lunch date, and within the less than one year that I had known her, we never had a one-on-one conversation. Yet, there was an unspoken mutual bond between us, so it was only natural to finally have a chat with her in a relaxed atmosphere, before I left Glasgow for good.

We ordered our food, and mine was a sandwich with sweet potato, avocado, onion, and cheese. Though the portion was small, it turned out to be one of the best sandwiches that I’ve ever had, but in fact, food was not the spotlight of this meal. Our conversations were light but pleasant, brief but memorable. We talked about God, aspirations, relationships, the past, the present, the future. And then I heard it – a song played in the background that instantly caught my attention. I don’t know what it was that appealed to me. The instrumentals? The voice of the lead singer? The vibe? It didn’t matter – I knew I had to find out the title of the song and who sang it. Thankfully I had Shazam on my phone, which opened up promptly despite my phone usually being sluggishly slow. I told my friend, “I’m sorry, give me a moment, I like this song.” She smiled and waited. In a few seconds, “Keane – Everybody’s Changing” appeared on my screen, and it was like a dose of epiphany…of course!

Keane. I should have recognized that voice, and I shouldn’t have been surprised. “Somewhere Only We Know” and “Perfect Symmetry” were songs by Keane that had significantly impacted various phases of my life, and now, “Everybody’s Changing” made its way into my heart. The song speaks of embarking on the walk of life while all of a sudden realizing that nothing is the same anymore. It speaks of the struggle to accept change in order to stay alive in the game of Life but at the same time, trying to remain true to oneself and remember one’s own identity. But in this day and age, we are all sacrifices of our own products, aren’t we? When we are twisted, bent, and scarred beyond recognition, is it those around us who have changed, or is it us and only us?

Just imagine the sweet potato, avocado, and onion fusing together in a warm cushion of cheese – oh it was lovely!

(This short essay was written on January 16, 2019.)

My stories 04: Tim Hortons in Dalian

In February and March, J and I were stranded in the city of Dalian in northeastern China because Wuhan was on lockdown and we were unable to return. One day, I found out by chance that Tim Hortons opened two stores in Dalian, one of which was right next to the hotel where we were staying! Since this Canadian coffee chain entered the Chinese market (called Tim’s in China), it has successively opened stores in three cities (the other two are Shanghai and Zhengzhou, and I had already visited the first one to open in Shanghai last year). About Tim Hortons, its status in Canada is like that of Starbucks in the US – you could almost find one on every other block. The Canadians’ enthusiasm for Tim Hortons is no less than the Chinese people’s love for bubble tea. It’s not that the coffee is amazing or anything, but it is the taste of home that is irreplaceable. Grab a large dark roast double/double – mmm, such rich and familiar aroma that brought me a touch of colour and nostalgia in an unfamiliar city!

Large dark roast double/double with a Cesar chicken wrap. The wrap was mediocre but the coffee was desirable. I never had the dark roast in Canada and upon trying it for the first time in Dalian, felt that it was a bit too strong. I went back another day for a normal coffee double/double and immediately that authentic, familiar taste came back. Still, my favourite was the large steeped tea double/double, which I got during my third and final visit to the Dalian location. Unfortunately the steeped tea did not live up to my expectations 😦 Maybe Tim Hortons will come to Wuhan eventually…?

My stories 02: Chinese New Year

It is no surprise that the Lunar New Year is the most important event of the year for the Chinese, and growing up in a Chinese family, we observe it every year. We didn’t go all out with the rituals and celebrations, which themselves vary among regions across China. For us, it’s usually just a simple meal with the immediate family. The last time I spent Chinese New Year at home was in 2014, and my dad cooked a huge New Year’s Eve meal. I remember, though, that my mom unfortunately had to work that evening and was absent, so it was a dinner for three – my dad, my sister, and me. This year, however, I was finally able to spend New Year’s Eve with the entire family, after five years.

During the Chinese New Year celebrations, elders are obliged by cultural norms to give youngsters red pockets containing lucky money, or “lai-see” in Cantonese. When I was a kid, I would receive lai-see from many relatives and friends of my parents. What did I do with the money? Well, I’d be lucky if I knew how much money was in the lai-see. Why is that? Well, my mom (and many Chinese moms do the same) would claim that I was too young to spend money anyway, so she would “save up the money” for my future. After that, I would never find out the whereabouts of the lai-see. Another thing is that only married people are expected to give out lai-see – I think this is a Cantonese norm, but I’m not 100% sure. So, even though I’m in my 30s, I still receive lai-see from my relatives and am not condemned if I don’t “return the favour” by similarly handing out lai-see to their kids. I guess that’s another reason not to get married yet…

And then there are firecrackers. Perhaps it’s an irrational fear, but I’m deathly afraid of sudden, loud noises – popping balloons, thunder, and firecrackers. I can’t recall what prompted this fear in me, but I do remember shivering and hiding in the house when the firecrackers were lit in my childhood days. Nowadays, firecrackers are prohibited in many cities in China, but are still a widespread form of celebration in the countryside. It does seem like traditional Chinese heritage is being compromised by the diminishing popularity of firecrackers, but at least it effectively alleviated my pain and suffering from the deafening noises that remain in my memories.

Red pockets containing lucky money, given out during Chinese New Year.

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