Tuesday, December 28, 2010

"Old age is no place for sissies." Bette Davis said that.

In Brooklyn it is “old age sucks.”

This is our yearly trip to NY, to see the doctors and “OLD” friends.
It is a concentrated time of checkups, probes, and tests,
We do it once a year, our friends, stretch these visits out over the year.

Everybody we see seems to have something wrong with him or her, including me.
Aches, pains, pills, orthotics in your shoes, hearing aids, increased prescriptions, injections for sugar, prostate exams, gall bladder operations and God knows what else.

It is bad enough we have these things, but we talk about them to each other. It seems to be the main topic of conversation. I really cannot stand it but I find myself doing the same thing. This has to stop, much as I care for all my friends, the last thing I want to know about is the number of pills they take or their gall bladder operation.
I love them but enough is enough, basta, ya, finito, let’s talk about women or fishing or politics, anything.

A friend told me we are like an automobile, we are born like a perfect Mercedes, and over the years it requires servicing. At a certain stage it isn’t a 6,000-mile checkup, it is a lot worse, engine block cracked, needs major work. I figure I am at the million mile checkup, should be able to last another couple of thousand miles if they can figure out what that weird noise is.

OK, now here comes the crazy thing, I just read a report that our happiness and contentedness increases after the age of 50 and continues to go up for the next 20 years or so. It seems we do not worry about success, getting ahead and all the things we anguished about when we were in a developing stage. It sort of makes sense, we are what we are and are relaxed about who we are…a good feeling.

It seems odd to me, at a time when we are seemingly falling apart, we are happier and more contented than any other time in our lives.

It all comes down to a very simple thing; if you have a great mental attitude and are OK with yourself, the physical does not seem to matter much. A few aches and pains are nothing compared to the feeling you have that the rough part is over.

I think being “young” is no place for sissies.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Mom and Pop go to Greece on their "Honeymoon"

My father went to the States in 1912 or so. My grandfather, in Asia Minor, would send his sons out of the country when they became draft age. The Greeks there were drafted into the Turkish work battalions, basically a death sentence.

Pop’s brother was sent to England, and was forever known as “O Englesos,” the Englishman.

Pop went to America and became a candy-maker; he was in the States when the catastrophe happened in 1922.

Mom and her family went to France and eventually settled in Paris where she was a seamstress.

In 1928, Pop went to Paris and married Mom, I wrote a blog about that, April 7th, a very funny situation, the Francophile Greeks were shocked by Pop and his American ways and especially by his American suits,
“O Americanos” was what they called him until the 50‘s.

It is also, what they call me in Porto Heli.

After the wedding, in Paris, they went to Greece to visit family, my Father’s family were living in Edipso, on the island of Evia, and in Nea Michaniona, near Salonica.

The photo above is in Edipso, with my uncles and Aunts and various kids, who I assume are my cousins.

Family that is really unknown, this vague connection through old photos. This is just one of the results of the kind of emigration that was forced on people and spread them throughout the world. You will find Asia Minor Greeks all over the world, from Argentina to the States, France as well as Canada and Australia, and we know our relatives through photos like this, just sort of know them, not really well.

I have been to Edipso and met some of the people in the photo, 36 years later.

Mom told me that Pop was not happy about the visit; he does not look very relaxed in the photo.

It seems he had been living in the States about 10+ years, and seemed to have trouble adapting to seeing his family in Greece.

He had been sending money very regularly, and everybody seemed to think making money in America was easy.

The fishing boats, that he paid for, were on the beach and not being used, Mom told me Pop spent a day pouring water on them since they were dry and rotting. Meanwhile some of his relatives were in the Cafenion, complaining about the lack of plentiful fish.

Pop decided that their stay had to be cut short, he did not want to stay and be more disappointed by his relatives.

He felt that they believed he had it easy, “it was not difficult to make money in the new world.”

He worked 7 days a week and all sort of hours. He did that all his life, and I remember his hours at the store.

It was a naïve way to view life in America, lots of work, lots of money, easy life.

My mother took on the role of sending money to his relatives, Pop never did it personally, ever again.

It is a shame that his trip to Greece ended so sadly, he never talked about it, but Mom told us with tears in her eyes.

I wonder what he would have thought of today’s Greece?

Friday, December 10, 2010

The role of the computer in creative departments

There is no way that I will be an idiot and claim the computer has no role in agencies, I am old but not that old.

The computer has changed things in the creative department…not all for the best.

Somehow the computer is too perfect, it makes presentations look too finished. We use to make a thing called layouts, magic marker on layout paper. It showed the idea in a simple way; it required a little imagination to see it finished. That was the secret; you were able to use photographers, designers, etc. to make contributions to the idea. It was a collaborative project, it was better.

Today the computer shows it finished, as it will appear; some of the magic is gone. I think the art director is limited to what he can find on the Internet, what he can swipe. The clients are not required to imagine anything, sounds good but is it really better?

I heard a story about an agency that had an electricity shortage, it was a few hours, the creative department came to a standstill, and even the copywriters could not work. Whatever happened to pencils and paper? Ideas should be able to be created without depending on computers.

In our Columbian office, no computers are used in the morning, just layouts, paper and pencil. The computer is used to finish ideas up, for presentation.

An agency in Brazil, a great one, has banned computers in the creative department. Just roughs, “show me the idea” screams the creative director, “not your skill on the computer.”

I think we might be depending on the technology and not the content. We are paid to make people see things in a new way, things they already know. Technology is wonderful, but it is not what we are paid for, we are paid to make relative connections with the consumer on behalf of our client’s brands.

The digital agencies have yet to reach their potential creatively.

Unfortunately, or fortunately, a communication idea, content, will never be made by a computer programer, no matter the program.

Friday, December 3, 2010

"There is a universe in the basement!"

When I was in Japan, our financial director, a Japanese, a very formal elegant man, for some absurd reason took a liking to me.

He invited me to lunch with the head of Johnson & Johnson, an Englishman that I had been working with, on the next years campaign.

This was not a very normal thing, certainly not for me.

The client arrives to the office, for a meeting, it goes well, we then take off for lunch. We go in the financial directors car to a huge skyscraper downtown. It looked like a normal office building, without a restaurant in sight. We drive into the underground parking and go down about three stories. It looked like a normal parking lot, cars, attendants, numbered slots, all very much as you would imagine.

We pull up to an ornate, traditional wooden carved door, no signs, and three stories down. Attendants rush out to take the car and we are ushered into the “restaurant.”

We enter a world of sunshine and natural beauty. It is amazing, flowers, birds flying around…little tiny houses, bridges with little streams. It is raining over one of the small houses. All this three stories underground, unbelievable, talk about theme restaurants.

There is a whole universe down there.

We are led to a small house on stilts. It is where we are going to have lunch; there are two waitresses per person there. Drinks are served, no sooner do you take a sip when you are handed a fresh drink.

The meal is unbelievable; dozens of beautiful and delicious plates are served, each more amazing then the last.

This magnificent service goes on for at least two hours, the formal Japanese financial director loosens up and starts telling jokes, thank heavens there was no karaoke, we would have all done Elvis.

The most amazing thing about this meal was, no bill appeared, our car was ready when we left, we were handed beautiful presents, and addressed by name by the hostess.

Service, magic environment, wonderful food…all in a parking lot.

Synthesis or fusion?

This article appeared on Gourmed.com. It is an interview with my wife, by Panos Georgoutzos.

It is about the girl I met at art school, the one that prepared salty dolmades for my father, at our engagement party. She has grown into an amazing cook, and I am sure her skill in entertaining, has been a great help in my career
as well as in our life in general.

My size proves it as well as our kid’s ability to cook. This is her view on food and cooking.

“I loved the pumpkin soup we had last night. I love you too.”

Jeannine Birbil is an American of Albanian Epirot descent, whose maternal grandfather came to America in 1904. She was born in Massachusetts and was raised in NYC. Attending Pratt Institute she studied Fine Art & Illustration, and is an illustrator. She is married to an American of Greek descent, a born Brooklynite. They met at Pratt, and have 3 grown children.
Due to her husband’s job, in Advertising, they have lived, for the past 45years, in London, Madrid, Milan, Tokyo, Johannesburg, Mexico City, Bogotá, and finally Athens. They now live in Porto Heli, a beautiful port, in the Peloponnesus.

Since Jeannine loves to cook, this seems to be a perfect formula for a fusion cuisine. Her creativity, the spices, the ingredients, the dishes, the local customs, the restaurants, the friends, all this multicultural exposure have helped make her dishes unique and a true fusion. 
You cannot live in all those places and not shop. Jeannine has an extensive collection of dishes, glasses and various china wear, that she uses constantly. Among her favorite dishes are the colorful Talavera plates that she commissioned in Puebla, Mexico. 
As a child she learned traditional cooking from her grandmother, mother and father. Her creativity, her travels, and her interest in cooking have done the rest.

-What is your relationship with food? How did you come to love cooking?

I just love it. It is such an absorbing creative experience. I love the colors and the presentation of food is important to me. It is like painting a portrait and food is the medium. Living in so many countries as my family and I have, it’s always about what influences you bring together from all these different cultures into your cooking. Once when I was very young, visiting my grandparents I opened the fridge to get some milk for breakfast and I saw three lamb heads sitting there staring at me. You could say that it was a disturbing thing for a little girl of 5 or 6 years old to see. Instead of being scared, I was truly curious to know what my grandmother would do with them. She expressed her distaste and told me that my grandfather was the one who would cook and eat them. Intrigued I sat beside him at the table watching him enjoy this odd meal and he offered me a taste expecting me to say no, but I was more than willing to try. He gave me the best part, the soft, tender and succulent cheeks and they tasted wonderful. This experience triggered my curiosity and all my interest about food.

-So, which countries have influenced your cooking?

All of them!

-England too??

(laughs)…Well… yes! When we lived in England in the 60’s, food wasn’t a priority. If you wanted to go out and dine, you could only go to the center of London, where all these foreign restaurants were. English food was all about steak and kidney pud, roast lamb or roast beef and Yorkshire pudding, which although are hearty nourishing meals I don’t find them very challenging. I did learn to make great scones though and I always looked forward to the sweet cinnamon glaze on a tasty hot cross bun. Having tea and dainty sandwiches at Fortnum & Mason and strolling through the food halls of Harrods was a marvelous, elite experience. However England has changed and an interesting cooking culture has emerged. They now have some superb young chefs that have incorporated international elements to English cuisine and have done a wonderful job.


Spain. I loved Spanish food. In season, flavorful artichokes and peas sautéed with Jamon Serrano give a lovely salty, robust flavor to the vegetables. I still dream about the wonderful parrillada’s (a seafood platter) we enjoyed. Seasonal asparagus and wild strawberries from Arranjuez consume you for weeks. I learned how to make paella and now I love to make it in so many different ways. Also, Mexico for me has probably the most varied cuisine outside of Asia. As varied as the Chinese cuisine. It is a fabulous fusion of traditional Spanish cooking mixed with New World foods and indigenous preparation. Chilies are a very basic element that I incorporate into my cooking from my years in Mexico. At first I assumed that they are used in all Latin America but they are not that popular outside of Mexico. I realized that for the Mexicans, having more than 50 varieties of chilies, they are almost sacred. So I really like using chilies. I have to be careful in Greece, because not everyone loves chilies… Mexico was a real experience, and I kept as much as I could from that cuisine. Italy was wonderful too. Of course, there I learned how to use all kinds of ingredients to make pasta and a variety of risotto and especially how to use basil as an ingredient in sauces and pesto. As you know Greeks traditionally never use basil to cook with.

-What about Greek cuisine. Has it made any impact on your cooking?

Of course! It was my first cooking experience watching my mother and grandmother make those famous large round Epirus cheese and spinach pies. I stood by as a child mesmerized as they rolled out the filo. I loved the squishy, soft, tactile feel of the ball of dough my mom placed in my hand as I watched and eagerly tried to imitate their filo making. Here is an amusing story involving my Greek cooking. When my husband Greg and I were engaged, his family came to our home for the engagement dinner. I knew that his father loved dolmades so I decided to make them for the first time. I found a recipe and did everything right except for one very important detail. I didn’t know that the vine leaves are kept in brine and so I just rinsed them a bit under the tap, instead of soaking them. And if that wasn’t enough during the cooking process my father, a terrific cook himself, lifted the lid of the pot and to my horror added even more salt…My dad had never made dolmades either but was laughing when I told him how salty the vine leaves already were. When I tasted them I really had second thoughts about whether to present them to my father-in-law to be, but in my vanity to show to his family that I too can roll dolmades prevailed and in the end I served them. Unfortunately the first dish offered to him was my dolmades. Everyone was staring at Greg’s father for approval as he took the first bite, he paused and then someone asked him what he thought of the dolmades. His reply was: “The bride is very beautiful”. He didn’t touch another thing for the rest of the evening! (laughs)

-And how do all these influences come together? What is the result?

I use ingredients from all these cuisines together. I can use up to six different spices in one dish and people will go asking me “what is this”? Sometimes I even forget, because I’ll just grab 4 or 5 jars and go “oh, that would be alright to mix…” Most of my dishes are originals.
-So we come to the word “fusion”. Is that what your cooking is all about?

My husband doesn’t like that word…(laughs). Well it’s very difficult to find another word to substitute that. My way of naming my cuisine is “synthesis”, which is actually a Greek word.

-Which are your favorite dishes? What do you usually cook at home?

When I have friends over I love making Greek food. I make all the traditional dishes like moussaka, pastitsio or roast lamb. But I also improvise a lot. I make dishes with a twist from my international cooking background. I make a mean ceviche, spicy and colorful using fresh Greek fish and a wonderful oyster mushroom dish sautéed in olive oil with spring onions, chopped garlic, chili guajillo (a tasty, dried, calm, flavorful chili that you soak) coriander leaf and tequila. I love to marinate chicken or sliced turkey breasts in orange juice, fresh garlic, finely chopped ginger and curry with a dash of soy sauce. Sometimes I will use fresh limejuice instead of orange juice and combine lemon grass, just a touch of soy, you don’t want to overwhelm this dish with too much soy sauce, ginger, garlic, spring onions, a dash of white wine and a few fresh chilies as I sauté the chicken breasts in olive oil. I always use olive oil, which we harvest from our own olive trees and a variety of chilies, that I grow in pots on my terraces. 
As a variation you can cut the marinated chicken breasts into strips and sauté them in olive oil and chopped garlic along with strips of finely cut sautéed sweet red peppers and onions for a variation adding cumin and a dash of vermouth. There is no limit to what one can do with food. Creativity, imagination and fearlessness are the only tools you need. Know your herbs and experiment using cloves and cinnamon with meats, something that Greek chefs have been doing for centuries. Besides, always remember that cooking is fun.