In which we make key lime bars and learn something in the process

We get a lot of questions about how we’re educating the kids. Aren’t you worried about them falling behind in school? How do you know they’re learning anything? Do they need to prove anything to the school when they return? (The answer to that last one is no) And sure, we’re doing some academic formal schooling, but sometimes the lessons are those that come from just being somewhere else. 
Yesterday, the boys went off to a yoga class and left the girl and I for a little time alone. After a bit of reading, we thought we’d engage in the classic teenage banter of “I don’t know, what do YOU want to do?” Mulling over the park (too cold), the mall (uh, no), we settled on baking. Initially, I chose a salted caramel brownie recipe but then the girl saw a link for key lime pie, her and her brother’s favorite. I thought we should make it a little easier and go for bars instead, and off we went to the grocery store, shopping list in hand. Limes, butter, eggs, gingersnaps, cream cheese, sweetened condensed milk. A few veggies for dinner too.

She insisted on putting the coin in for the shopping cart herself. Here, the carts are chained together to prevent theft, and to use one while you’re in the store you insert a 50 cent coin that you get back if you reattach them. 

We got into the store, crowded as usual, and set about to find our ingredients. Limes were the first one. Would they be next to the lemons and other citrus fruit? No. Near the refrigerated section? No. Would we have to abandon our mission? No, we kept looking and found them tucked in between the ginger and the pomegranates, in what I think is the “exotic fruit” area. 

Butter, eggs,cream cheese were no difficulty. The next barrier was the gingersnaps. Walking through the aisles, none were to be seen. We thought, maybe we’ll substitute with graham crackers, but again no familiar boxes of grahams, even after studying the pictures. We settled on McVitie’s digestives, a crumbly round biscuit that resembles graham crackers, though doesn’t have their cardboard like properties.  
Then came the sweetened condensed milk. I actually thought this wouldn’t be a problem since it seemed to me preserved canned milk would be common for a prior Communist state, and headed for the packaged milk section to look for the familiar cans of Carnation. Of course, none were to be found. We searched the baking aisle, the sweets aisle (all on opposite sides of the store) and then one last search in the milk section. In the States, if a certain store doesn’t have an essential ingredient I’m looking for, I tend to do one of two things. Either I give up on that recipe for the day or I just get in my car and drive to another store where it will be and I can be out in five minutes. Here, it’s a bigger deal. If we wanted to go to the bigger store, at the mall of course, it’s a half mile walk and far more crowded. It would take us an hour. The girl, undaunted, was all for the extra effort of going, just to be able to make our recipe. One more desperate scan in the milk aisle showed me two bottles that looked like they had condensed milk. Was it sweetened? Who knows – the nutritional info label, in German, was covered up by a sticker in Romanian that I couldn’t translate. 
We made our way out of the store, not before being veggie shamed by the checkout lady as I thought the cucumbers we got were priced by the number, not kilo, and got home. 
The milk was just evaporated milk as it turns out, so I looked up how to make it into sweetened condensed, which involves a little sugar and and a lot of simmering. While that was happening, the girl got the other ingredients going until it was time to crumble the cookies. Lacking a food processor or blender, we crumbled them by hand until we had a relatively fine meal, using the flat side of a meat pounder for the rest. 

We don’t have a 9×11 pan, but do have a tart pan so used that instead. No mixer to beat the cream, so did it with a hand whisk, triceps aching by the time stiff peaks formed. Had to figure out what the oven temperature should be in celsius to set it correctly. Melted butter in a pan on the stove as we don’t have a microwave. Throughout all of this, not one peep of complaint or whining from the girl, even though this was much harder than it would be at home.

In the end, it all worked and we had some tasty lime bars. Sorry, this is the only picture I was able to get before the hordes gobbled them up. 

My point is this – one thing you can’t learn in a school is the essential lesson of learning how to figure something out. Maybe things don’t work exactly as you want or expect them to, maybe it’s harder than you anticipated, but you learn to make it work. I think it’s hard to do this in your familiar environnment as you know how things work and it’s set up for you. If I were Romanian and coming to the States, I’d be lamenting how to substitute for smantana and papanasi mix instead – it’s not about US vs other, it’s just about being somewhere where things are unfamiliar, being away from home. 
More than all the history and the culture, it’s things like this I think are the true value of leaving home, stepping outside your comfort zone. So while my kids may be missing out on watching a bean seed soak in paper toweling and sprout or making a solar system model out of styrofoam balls, my hope is that the lessons they are learning make sure if they ever need to figure something out, they’ll know how to.  


In which I go grocery shopping and face a wall of mustard and some guy named Bob Lung

Grocery shopping in any foreign country is always an adventure. First of all, you’re not sure where anything is and since you can’t just scan signs or aisles because of the language, you have to actually walk down each one and look at the pictures on merchandise to figure it out, given that you’re a functional illiterate. As a result, it takes three times longer than usual shopping. Most of the time it works out in the end, but sometimes you can end up with surprises like the time we thought we purchased tofu onigiri in Japan and it turned out to be mashed tuna. Things that you take for granted as being a typical food just isn’t so everywhere. Cheese in Japan was relegated to a small corner, and here in Romania things like fresh cilantro are nowhere to be found. On the plus side, Japan had more choices for noodles than I’ve ever seen and fresh sushi at the market and Romania has a ton of choices for sour cream, paprika and chocolates. If they’re on the shelves, that is.

In fairness, most shelves are well stocked.

You can use google translate, but other times even that doesn’t help. I wanted to get arborio rice to make risotto, but none of the “orez” was labeled as such, just had labels like “bob lung” written on it. Who’s Bob Lung? I wondered. (Means long grain, I’ve since figured out). Ten minutes of examining each individual clear plastic bag of rice to see which one looked like a short grain starchy rice, and found one called “camolino.” A google search and translate of camolino yields that it translates as….camolino. All the other pages were in Romanian. Another tricky one is the cheese – in the cheese section you’ll find a whole row of “branza,” “cascaval,” and “telemea.” Google will tell you that these are all “cheese,” so then you have to spend five minutes searching for the difference between them, staring at your phone like a moron in the dairy aisle while literate Romanians walk around you, grab their cheese and get out in ten seconds. (Telemea and Branza are feta like cheeses made from sheep and cow’s milk respectively, cascaval is a cheese akin to colby with a smoother taste in case you were wondering.)
As in Vietnam, you have to weigh your own produce at scales in the produce section, which spit out a sticker with the price on it. Thankfully, these are coded with pictures as well as words so it’s not entirely impossible. Fail to do so, and the checkout clerk will snap at you in disdainful Romanian, leaving you shamed in front of the line. God forbid you mistakenly identify your produce. There was a funky pear like thing here which I thought would be fun to try. I couldn’t find the sign for it so I just picked the picture that looked most like it on the scale and hoped for the best. The checkout clerk looked at my lone fruit in the bag and chattered at me in Romanian, clearly saying “This isn’t a pear, you fool! It’s a (something)!” And then she called a different clerk over who took the fruit away. I thought maybe he would weigh it correctly and bring it back, but no, it was simply not to be. No fruit for you! (I’ve since learned that it is a quince.)

Produce is all largely unrefrigerated here, woe is the endive

The scale for weighing

The stores are not arranged in any logical order either. You enter and to the left is a section for produce, behind it bread and wine. In the center of the store and seemingly blocking your path to the other side is a labyrinthine section of spice packets and some noodles. Beyond those are school supplies. Between the school supplies and some cookies there is a narrow entryway leading you to the other side of the store where you’ll find the dairy section, rice, and beer. It makes absolutely no sense and half the time is spent trying to figure out where the hell you have to go to get something in the first place.

Special offers in the front, like a wagon of cabbage. To tthe left is an electronics section. The actual produce section is clear on the other side.

Even in different stores, the illogical ordering of stuff persists. One “hipermarket” which I think is akin to our SuperTargets has an aisle with plastic wrap, tinfoil, but also hideously ugly bathmats, bath towels, and random plastic toys. One cool thing – they sell the plastic wrap rolls and such separately from the boxes, which is a brilliant way to reduce waste, I think.

Bulk frozen food!! Genius! Saves on packaging.

There are walls of mustard, yogurt, cheese, wine and beer at most places too. I love the “foreign foods” aisle, which stocks “oriental” food next to Swedish and British.


THE WALL OF OF PLAIN YOGURT. there isa nother wall for flavored yogurt.

The final gauntlet is the checkout line, which I have yet to see be less than five people deep, no matter the time. The clerks pick up each item, rotate it maddeningly slowly to find the barcode, then slide it over the scanner before moving it to the other side where you bag your own groceries. I have never missed the self checkout lines more.
Despite all this, I’ve managed to make some nice meals here with some twists! I couldn’t find ground coriander at first, so I had to make do with a meat tenderizer and a plastic bag. No chocolate chips exist, but that’s easy to do with just chopping up bars of chocolate. I don’t have any real measuring cups but using mugs works just as well and estimating spoon sizes has been fine too.

Coriander smashing technique


Butternut squash risotto, turns out camolino works just fine.

Curried vegetable and tofu soup

No poli to be had, so I made some! Not bad for a first try

Granola, of course