Foreign Film Fridays 01: Mostly Martha

Because what’s not to love about watching films on Fridays about foreign worlds? A weekly series of posts to follow on all sorts of films: thriller, romance, action, mystery, and just down right quirky from all countries and languages. If you have any suggestions, by all means leave a comment! I would love to receive suggestions for more foreign films. Opening this weekly series we have…

mostlymartha

Original Title: Bella Martha
Year: 2001
Country: Germany
Language: German
Subtitles: English
Length: 1hr 45 minutes
Availability: Netflix

The film begins with a mouth-watering, epicurean description of food as the eponymous protagonist details to her therapist how she would go about preparing the perfect full course meal. DISCLAIMER: DO NOT WATCH ON AN EMPTY STOMACH. I did and regretted it within the first two minutes.

The plot is deceptively simple: Martha is a single, German woman with a passion for cuisine who must learn to reorient her life around a new Italian coworker and to care for her orphan niece after the untimely death of her sister.  For those who have seen the American version, No Reservations (2007) with Catherine Zeta-Jones and Aaron Eckhart, the German original will breathe new life and understanding into its American counterpart.

But while similar in the main plot, No Reservations features an all Caucasian main cast, which in turn renders Mostly Martha‘s original secondary plots useless in the remaking. Other differences include the pacing of the film. American films tend to be fast-paced, segue easily and fluidly from one scene to the next, and stitch themselves together into a false sense of artistic perfection.  I say false because in the seamless move from main scene to main scene you miss the little scenes, the imperfect little fillers that give a film its realistic essence. By comparison, Mostly Martha is shot to give the viewer as much background context as possible about who Martha is and life around her. There are main scenes, not so main scenes, and fillers shots of the characters at their most candid. None of the romance or her flaws are romanticized or glossed over; the story reveals itself gradually at a natural pace. When Martha and Mario kiss, they don’t go at it calmly or at just-the-right angle, they simply have a go at kissing like most of us do, however awkward it may be to watch.

Also of note, our alliterative culinary artiste duo have all the tension and chemistry that two people from vastly different background can possess. From language and culture to the way in which they run their kitchens and the food the make – everything, except their shared love for the art of cooking, is different. As they learn how to bridge their differences through their commonalities and how to accept each other as they are, Martha’s and Mario’s characters grow. The secondary plot issues, palpable between German-born Martha and Italian Mario, revolve around race and who is an insider versus an outsider.This in turn makes his food that much more exotic to Martha, who has never once been to Italy and can only experience it through Mario’s cooking. Indeed, this film feels as much a discovery of culture and intercultural interactions as it is about the food and the romance.

Unfortunately, No Reservations also has no underlying current of bridging cultures and worlds through food. It’s feels more like two people who have a different administrative approach and can’t seem to see eye to eye on the running of a kitchen. While Catherine Zeta-Jones’ character prefers French cuisine and Aaron Eckhart’s cooks Italian, different culinary tastes do not an intrinsic cultural battle make. Also her descriptions of the food fall flat with her calm and quiet demeanor, where Martina Gedeck’s take flight through use of sensual intonation and passionate  verbal caresses. While I love and prefer the modern cinematography of No Reservations (and Catherine and Aaron do have chemistry), I would rate Mostly Martha as the better of the two films for its diversity and for being more than just a romantic caper between two chefs.

Both films are wonderful (yes, I went there) and worth watching… just not on an empty stomach! Bon appetit!

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The English Menu, or Why I Am A Horrible Human Being…

theenglishmenu

“Hello. Welcome. Table for two.” A hand shows the number two visually.

“はい、二人です。”

We are seated. We reach for menus and peruse while the waiter waits, watches us silently for a few moments. We’ve started speaking only to each other, unaware that he is still there, and are taking our time pointing out options to each other. This is mistaken as ineptitude.

“English menu?” he helpfully materializes an English version of the laminate copy. Any other time, I would be grateful. But this is the fifth time at the same restaurant with the same waiter and it’s been a long, long day. I glance across the table where stormy eyes concur with unsaid words. I turn suddenly to the waiter.

“ああ、大丈夫。読める。” I make an attempt at informal Japanese to show I actually can speak informally as well. Dark eyes blink back, slightly confused but the English menu spirited away from sight. Believing, I have established all information we needed to continue with dinner, we peruse at our leisure. We speak of silly things and serious things, we laugh at inside jokes, pointing out delicious options.

Five minutes pass in this way, until the waiter returns with a pitcher of water in one hand and…

…the English menu in another.

My mind screams in horror long before I’ve caught up with it. The pitcher of water is set down and the English menu dropped on the table where it cannot be ignored. To my very core, I am frozen, a mixture of emotions.

Shock. Laughter. Confusion. Fury. Despair. I want to cry. I want to laugh. Mostly I want to have dinner for once in my life, with the full comprehension that I know what I’m doing with a Japanese menu in my hand. Powder and sparks and consuming kisses, iambic pentameter, the sound of the atom bomb tests, Beethoven’s explosive fifth symphony… I think in sound, I think primarily in music. It’s all going through my head at the speed of light and anger wins before the rest of the emotions can catch up.

That all takes a millisecond to process. A fraction of a breath. I bend over across the table laughing into the hard wood surface, my arms encircling my head because I’m afraid of what I may do if he’s still around when I look up. I wait until I’m absolutely sure he is no longer near us. I surface for air.

“That’s it. I’m going to order in keigo.”

“What. No.”

We “argue”, my dinner partner and I, bantering about how we shall order in absolutely perfect Japanese keigo (or not order in such a way until we leave for our road trip and know for a fact that our passive aggressive actions will never negatively impact us).

“No, you’re right that’s just too rude. But still. I really want to order in keigo.” Internally, I tell myself that I might just wear my Waseda sweat shirt next time I go in. A sweat shirt made for autumn weather worn in the middle of summer is sure to illicit some response. Any response to the fact that I may not speak like a native but I can very well order at a restaurant.

Once we are quite sure that we know what we will order, we push the magic button that calls our waiter over and I speed speak through my order to show I’m not going to stumble through the conversation, I even give an explanation for why I can’t eat rice (allergy) and if it would alright to substitute it for naan. It’s not perfect, because I did slip up that last bit of grammar but I made myself more than intelligible.

Sadly, this isn’t the first time. It’s a performance piece we repeat ad nauseum, at every restaurant, and it eventually takes its toll on your self-confidence as a JSL (Japanese as a Second Language) speaker. Deep down inside you may know you’ve done it right, you’ve grammar-ed and words-ed your way through the linguistic minefield of what may be the exact opposite of how your native tongue works, and yet you will be rejected by looks alone.

He walks away even more confused than before. A different waiter comes to deliver the food. I’m unsure whether it’s worked or not, but we’re getting curry one last time before Kimmy leaves so, the fruits of our labor will be made known to us then. I feel like a horrible human being, relishing in the satisfaction of having pulled passive aggression on anyone. There are not buts to that sentence. I let it stand as is.

Rice Farming 101

 

I love science classes in Japan. They’re so much more fun in small schools, where the kids get a special yellow folder-esque backpack that they use to collect their data and samples. And because we’re out in the middle of nowhere you can be sure that the school owns a rice patch (or two) as well as a bit of extra land for vegetables and flowers.

About two weeks ago the kids planted the ricelings. By now my schools know I’m allergic to rice… But there seems to be some confusion on how the allergy side of things works.

“I just heard from Natsuhori-sensei! When do we plant the rice?” I asked excitedly. It’s been my dream, nay my sole reason for living (in the countryside), to plant rice.

“Oh.”

I await eagerly for my orders to ditch the indoor shoes and to go wade knee-deep into a field of water-logged mud.

“Well… It’s just that… The kids have already finished planting. They’re coming back soon.”

Shock. Dismay. Heartbreak. WHY?! Was I not loved? Was I too foreign to help plant rice? Did they not think I could survive a near drowning in a rice paddy?

“You’re allergic to rice so we didn’t want you to get a bad reaction. The kids were sad but they understand.”

O.O”?!

After a brief explanation that I needed to ingest the rice before feeling any of the ill effects they decided to schedule the follow up field work day on Wednesday (or as it is known at that particular school, the only day we know in English. Also known as, the day the ALT comes to the village).

The awaited day arrived and I counted down the periods to science with all the anticipation that my four-year old self counted down the days to Christmas.

A kind farmer who lived in the neighborhood brought all the necessary supplies to care for the field. After giving us a brief lesson in the ways of rice and growing the perfect batch, we set down to business.

We threw soy beans so that they could rot at the bottom of the murky waters. Then we threw left over a rice flour and mulch looking mixture to cover the top of the water with “a curtain”. This, I was assured, would prevent other plants like grass from sprouting. We were in effect feeding the rice plants and weeding out the competition in one fell swoop.

In two months  we’ll be releasing some koi and carps into the paddies. They’ll eat up whatever weeds and grass did manage to grow but leave the rice alone. Some farmers use ducks instead of fish, but I’m rather partial to the fish method because FISH.

And that was how I learned for the first time that fish get to swim in the rice. Mind blown.

Hachinohe Jomon Museum

 The Jomon Period was Japan’s Neolithic period from 10,500 BCE to 300 BCE and is famous for the lacquered, flame rimmed pottery. The destinctive rope pattering decorations gave this period it’s name.

The Hachinohe exhibit features the national treasure, Gassyo Dogu, a clay figurine that was made with hands clasped in a seated position. I was unable to take a picture of it but I did find a clear version on the Internet (credit goes to museum website). More than prayer, the little guy looks like the Japanese version of the thinker. I can imagine that whoever it had been based on, they probably liked to sit on some grassy hill to think. 

The best part of the exhibit, in my opinion, isn’t just the sheer variety objects on display. It’s also the interactive portion, seeing the Jomon world come to life in screen and getting to touch replicas of the objects – admittedly it’s more for children than for adults but I believe adults are just bigger versions of kids. We all yearn to discover the world through the curiosity of a child, the ability to follow through with action however has been stamped out by high school. 

The process by which the pots, beads, and dogu are made are all in Japanese with little furigana. Come prepared with apps that allow you to trace kanji in order to look up their meaning or with a fair amount of knowledge of archaeological terms in Japanese. 

The next best part of this amazing exhibit? The price. It’s only ¥250. Cheapest date night/educational excursion ever.

   

   

Alone in Two Billion One Hundred Light Years of Solitude

With the school principals seated by order of appointment in a discreet corner and their hospitality coffee served, my supervisor was free to return the tray and coffee things to the caddy stationed just behind my desk. Instead, he paused to glance down at my work… because no one really knows what I do in that office anyway. And I’m just the newest foreigner in a long succession of previous foreigners who have been teaching English since before my parents even dreamed of my possible existence. No one really knows what we do in that office, I suspect.

“Gaburieru Garushia Marukezu.”

Suddenly, without warning, he lifts my iPhone from its cover and pries open the battered book with the slightest traces of urgency. You can tell when someone loves to read. It shows and not just in the way they handle books. Anyway, as far as copies goes,  this one has seen better days, which means it has been loved properly. Again, I’m just the latest in a long line of assistant language teachers to inherit it over the past decade; also, I’m excited to see what his eyes might discover that I may have missed. On the title page, a boldly magnificent proclamation is brought back to life, its semi-neatly scrawled hand on the bottom right hand corner:

Bought by Kevin in Kinokuniya on 10/12/’o5 w/ Julia and Jason (on JET)

He points to the title.

“One Hundred Years of Solitude,” I read from the cover as he passes it back, gingerly, into my care. Subconsciously aware that used books breathe a different kind of magic, we’re very careful not to awaken it just yet. In a quiet whisper, I try with my limited, unpoetical, and clumsy translation skills to render the full weight of the title in a language that is not my own.”「百年の寂しさ」かなあ?” And then because I’m curious, too, ” どんな本が好きですか?”

Like most people, I realize immediately after speaking that there was actually a better word for ‘solitude’ but recognition comes a heartbeat too late to fix. Meanwhile…

…”I like poems,” he replies, finally replacing the coffee things where they belong.

“Like Matsuo Basho?”

Not Matsuo Basho. Tanikawa Shuntarou. I don’t think you’ll be able to find him, though,” he adds doubtfully but eternal optimists that we are, we both instinctively lean towards the computer screen anyway. It’s worth a shot, right?

The Google Machine sputters back nonsense juxtaposed next to potentially click-worthy links next to more nonsense. He’s silently not too happy with the results. “It’s okay. Let me look it up for you!”

The mastery of kanji is still outside my grasp but his native skills render a quicker and more successful search. I manage to scrawl the name onto my palm, a confused mixture of Chinese characters and Hiragana, before quickly making myself scarce as they’re busier today than most other days. In this way I busy myself in an office where no one – not even I – knows what I do exactly. Tanikawa Shuntaro’s Alone in Two Billion Light Years is metaphorically chewed on as my food for thought of the day. I can’t decide just yet if I like him or not; I can’t decide why I can’t decide, and that in itself is a beautiful feeling.

A simple enough conversation, an exchanging of pleasantries, yet I’ve been given a gift, the best gift: inspirational words to read.

 

White Day 2015

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As the legend goes, the reason for Japan’s strange tradition of having women give chocolates to men on the most ‘romantic’ date in the Western Calendar is due to a translating error. To be fair, Japanese and English are the exact opposite of each other. “I go to the store” is in English countries what “I to the store go” is to Japanese speakers. And don’t even get me started on passive grammar forms of keigo. Basically you can see how someone accidentally and quite literally translated the English for an otherwise catchy business slogan: “St. Valentine’s, a day for men to give women chocolate” into “St. Valentine’s, a day for women to give men chocolate”.

That’s right. Blame the translators that the men of an already heavily patriarchal society have been reaping the benefits of a holiday that forces women to shower them with even more attention and lavish gifts yet again. Feminists, unite! Cry havoc and release the dogs of war! Or not…

…strangely enough this version of Valentine’s is quite popular among most women in the adult night class that I team teach on Mondays.

“I like this Valentine’s Day,” one of the married women said to us. “Women are supposed to be shy. But on one day of the year they’re allowed to be forward and present the object of their affections with an interesting proposition: to date or not to date?”

Another woman chimes in, “And it’s not like the woman doesn’t get anything back. A month later, there’s White Day. On this day, the men that the woman has gifted with chocolate are expected to gift something back to her. And if he hasn’t already, he will also give his response as to whether he’s game to date her.”

But of course there’s always the chance that the men will forget, which is worse than an outright rejection. Or as the guys in the college dorms when I studied abroad did:

They taped up creepy pictures of Sadako from The Ring as our White Day present. Haha, very funny and clever />.>”

Thanks to my coworkers for surprising me with a White Day gift! I didn’t think that they would when I gave them the omiyage from Hokkaido but they did! I can’t express how happy it made me but it’s one of the best things that happened today!!!

Breakfast with Chopin + Vegetable Frittata Recipe

breakfastwithchopin

This morning hour is dedicated to the delightful music of Frederick Chopin and a simple vegetable fritatta recipe adapted from the more traditional tortilla española. The most classic of breakfast foods with one of the most romantic composers makes for a perfect rainy morning. For me, classical music has always been a source of great comfort: it’s what is left after there are no more words in any language to describe the strong emotions that remain. Compositions are moments frozen in time and immortalized in written form that bridge the gap between the past and present. It’s quite sad that most people think of classical music as dull… at one point this music was quite revolutionary and exciting! It was fresh, bold and daring!

As a musician and amateur composer, I can’t help but feel connected to the composer as well as to all the other musicians who have played the same piece, whether I perform it myself or listen to it for the first time. The same can be said of any music, really, though for me I feel that connection more strongly in classical music. Perhaps it’s because as a classical music enthusiast it’s so rare as it is to find someone as excited as I am about this genre… we’re a dying breed.

As for cooking, though, the technological revolution in mass communication has made it even easier in the past few decades alone to disseminate a world of culture and tradition with a few clicks of a mouse. Someone’s authentic Italian, passed-down-through-the-generations recipe for Spaghetti Bolognese might end up on my dinner table here in Japan one night. Metaphors and poetics aside, it is quite beautiful to feel that human link and know that somewhere out there someone might just be serving your version of apple tarts for a dinner party and so on, that a little bit of you could touch someone else’s life if even for a moment 😉

Here’s to good food, good music, and to the human connection! Cheers!

SIMPLE VEGETABLE FRITTATA

INGREDIENTS
3 eggs
4 small potatoes, sliced into thin rounds (with or without skins)
1/2 small onion, chopped
1/2 clove garlic, chopped
One small bunch of kinoko mushrooms, chopped
Olive oil
Dried rosemary for seasoning
Salt and pepper to taste
(Optional: 1/2 cup cheddar cheese for garnish; Julienne bell pepper slices; sun dried tomato; fresh basil, chopped)

DIRECTIONS
1. Heat the olive oil. Fry the potato slices in batches until they turn gold. Salt and season well on both sides as you fry, make sure they are well cooked through before transfering the fried potatoes to a separate plate and pat dry the oil off. Take three eggs, beat them well to form egg mixture. Add a dash of black pepper for seasoning and some salt to taste. Keep on standby in the fridge.

2. Once completely done with frying, the next step is to heat the garlic, onion, and mushroom until soft but not completely cooked through. At this point, quickly arrange the potato slices in scalloped tiers.

3. Pour the egg mixture over potatoes. Make sure to tilt the pan so that an even coating will cover the potato tiers. Cover the pan and cook on high for five to ten minutes. Flip the frittata face down to brown the top. This should take about three to four minutes. Use your spatula to gently push down against pan.

4. Transfer to plate, face up, and serve immediately. Goes well with home made tomato salsa or creamy guacamole (neither of which I made this time around but it tastes amazing on its own as well). The optional veggies all taste so well when combined in this recipe but I don’t have access to them at the moment. Living in a small town has its down sides: fruits and vegetables are not always available as consistently as they are in markets in bigger cities, where demand pushes availability.

frittatanflowers

Adapting to a Foreign Country

Oh my. You’re in for quite a ride… and the best part: there is nothing you can do to prepare before hand. When a person makes the commitment to live and work/study in a foreign country for the long-term things can get a little crazy.

Here is the break down of the four stages of adapting to a foreign country:

Honeymoon Stage

Culture Shock Stage

recoverystage

Recovery Stage

Adaptation Stage

These four well-known stages also closely resemble the “7 Stages of Grief and Loss”. Why? I have no idea but the part that is hardest to get through is the culture shock/recovery stage transition which I would associate as rough equivalents with stages 1 and 3-6 of the “7 Stages of Grief and Loss”.

Unlike the previous post, which I tried to keep light-hearted and humorous, I will go into a little more detail here on the positive and negative effects of adapting WELL or BADLY to a foreign country. I will use Japan as an example because that’s the topsy-turvy world I had to adapt to within a year for my study abroad experience in Tokyo for the 2011 to 2012 school year.

What I noticed happened to a lot of us as soon as we hit the end of the “Honeymoon Stage” is that we would begin to sink into a form of “WHY JAPAN, WHY?!” attitude anytime something absolutely shocked us – age of consent for sex (13 years old for females compared to 18 for males nationwide with each region having the right to choose any age between 13-20), extremely broad police powers, gender roles, weird pornography laws on what Japanese considered ‘acceptable’ and what not, etc. However, no matter how many times you ask yourself this… fact of the matter remains that there is nothing you can do to change it. Culture is culture and the sooner you accept certain norms as just that, norms, the sooner you can break away from the infinite loop of shock.

Because Japan is primarily (98%) Japanese and even Tokyo has relatively few foreigners compared to other countries’ capitals, any and all foreigners in Japan will be stared at wherever they go. It’s highly uncomfortable and annoying to the extreme. There would be days where I’m sure more than a few of us wanted to shout, “Why are you looking at me as if I’ve sprouted a second head?!” Another example on adapting well to a culture is that we would solve this problem by giving them a BIG SMILE. Traditionally, although looking anyone straight in the eyes is considered rude in Japan so if you find yourself in a situation where constant staring is making you uncomfortable just give them a steady gaze AND add a nice smile. It gets the point across without being ‘direct’ about what you want them to stop doing and it’s positive reinforcement that foreigners are not scary.

Here are some other things you can do (that I tried out) in order to help facilitate the whole ordeal of staying abroad long term:

1. Keep up a routine. Mine went straight out the window as I tried to adapt to a whole new style of living with my first host family and I quickly discovered just how dangerous that can be to your mental and physical health. I went six months without having any set goals to accomplish (like I had back home) and these were often times very simple little things for me such as playing with the dogs, starting/finishing an art/writing project, researching something within my major, reading, etc.

Whether you’re in the dorms, your own apartment, or in a host family, first set up some ground rules for yourself: the most important of which will be to not put yourself second or third. Your well-being is your first priority and if that means spending an entire day raiding the arts and craft shops in the Tokyu Hands building in Shinjuku then so be it. Just make sure you’re responsible about it and know when to put other situations above your immediate (not overall though) needs.

2. Eat your favorite foods. Okay so you’re on a tight budget and you’ve been rationing out the lunch money pretty carefully but one day you will pass by the super market window and it’s going to be there in all its glory: a dinky little 12 oz bin of extra chunky peanut butter. So long as you don’t go out of budget every single day it isn’t bad to treat yourself once a semester to something you really, really enjoyed back home but can’t have now because of the expense. I remember my first peanut butter and banana sandwich that I allowed myself to finally have back in December… I cried tears of joy… even though I used to hate bananas like they were the plague because I had to eat them all the time as a teenager (prone to leg cramps + member of swim team = fail)

3. Watch TV from your home country. No seriously. You’re already watching television shows from your host country. You’re also listening to their music, getting pummeled day past day with their entertainment media, advertisements, etc. and in the process you are losing touch with what’s going on in the other side of the world. One episode a night just before I went to bed is the route I took on the nights I wasn’t busy piecing together some essay or research project. Which is a big step for me if you know me at all (I do not watch TV or movies all that often).

I remember having skype sessions with my family and they would be talking about “so-and-so” movie just came out, “this-and-that” television show, “Senator Blah-Blah-Blah-Blarg-Blarg got re-elected” and I felt like a tiny little island in a wasteland of AKB48 and Prime Minsterialships gone wrong, unable to relate to anything my own family was talking about at all and vice-versa on their end as well.

4. And finally make lots of friends within your host and home culture. They’re the ones who will be able to best explain the new culture and will facilitate your transition while those from your home culture will keep your sanity grounded when it all becomes too much culture shock. They’ll also be going through similar experiences and often times sharing those with another person can make the experience that much more positive rather than negative because there will be lots of comedy involved.