Locally Foreign: 2020/2021 in Review

My first year of Locally Foreign is coming to a close – I’m including the first month I did in December 2020 as part of it. It’s been incredibly fun to start this project – I’ve had friends and family join in (especially to play 20 Questions to guess next month’s country) and this has turned into such an enjoyable hobby. I’ve read a lot of good books, tried new food, listened to new music, and learned so much about different parts of the world.

This year (and a month) I covered 13 countries. My random selection pulled a good variety of countries: 2 Latin American, 1 Caribbean, 3 European, 2 Mid-East/North Africa, 2 Sub-Saharan African, 2 Asian, and 1 Pacific – though I do “re-roll” if I get a country too close to a recent one. For 2020/2021, I covered:

My goal each month is to learn new things about the given country – sometimes I’m starting with almost no knowledge (like Mozambique), and sometimes it’s a place I’m already familiar with (like Finland). A familiar country can pose it’s own challenges; and it can be an embarrassment of riches with countries that have a big online presence in English or French. I haven’t yet run into what I’m calling the “mega-countries” – places like the UK, US, India, or China – those may be genuinely overwhelming when I do come to them.

However, that’s the fun of it – I’m not trying to become a scholar and expert on each country I cover. I just want to get a glimpse and come away knowing a little bit more than I did before, and have a bit more richness of experience in my daily life.

Here are some of my favourite things from this last year:

While I’m not a cooking blog, food definitely makes up a big part of my posts. I tend to split food posts up into recipes I cooked myself, restaurants I’ve gone to, and snacks imported from that country. Here are some of my favs:

Each month had more than just recipes and books – even at the superficial one-month level, I was able to learn so much about each country’s history and culture, and examine my own biases and blank spots. At the end of each month, I summed up what I learned. For countries I knew little about going in, like San Marino, Mozambique, Togo, Albania, and Uzbekistan, I got great introductions to their history, arts, geopolitics, cuisine, philosophy, conflicts, and more. For more familiar countries, like Finland, Chile, Thailand, and Trinidad and Tobago, I was lucky to get a richer and more complex understanding and engage more with content created by people from those countries, instead of about them. Israel was a look into the internal complexities, conflicts, and culture outside of the Israel-Palestinian conflict that dominates most of our headspace. I had only heard of El Salvador in the context of gang violence, and that month helped bust a lot of stereotypes I held. Algeria made me think critically about settler colonialism – what, if anything, is the difference morally between French Algeria and Canada, and what narratives do we construct to justify our history?

Nauru was probably the most genuinely impactful month in my own life. The story of this tiny country, which had the sudden rise and dramatic fall of a lottery winner, is deeply interesting on its own. I also had the good fortune to get to know Nauruan writer and teacher Elmina Quadina, who shared her own experiences (and a great recipe). But the biggest impact was reading The Undesirables by Mark Isaacs – an exposé into Australia’s refugee detention camps on Nauru and Manus. This is a live issue, with people still being held in contravention of international law. After reading that book and talking further with Isaacs, I got involved with #OperationNotForgotten, run by MOSAIC and Ads Up Canada. This program is hoping to resettle the remaining refugees through Canada’s private refugee sponsorship program. I’m now on a settlement team here in Ottawa, and we’re working with with someone currently on Nauru that we are hoping to help get to Canada, and once here, help them settle in. The first few people have already arrived in Canada, and we’re hoping to welcome the rest as soon as possible!

Now, with Locally Foreign, there’s always stuff I wish I could have done better or stuff I missed out on. I had a few things that I ordered come too late to include in that month, most notably the excellent novella Neighbours: The Story of a Murder by Mozambican author Lília Momplé. I was also hoping to get an chekich bread stamp for my Uzbek non, but it got hung up in customs.

Looking back, there’s a few subjects I could have done better on. I absolutely dropped the ball on Israeli food – there’s so many good recipes like shakshuka or the immense variety of Jewish cuisine from the Diaspora that has returned to Israel, and I really did not do justice to that cuisine!

I also debated on how much I wanted to focus on conflicts, poverty, or oppression – I certainly don’t shy away from posting about real issues in countries, but I feel that’s also the only things we read about some countries in the media. Looking back, I also noticed I only really post about LGBTQ matters in countries where the situation is either positive or improving – I guess it’s because I’m well aware already that homophobia runs deep in many parts of the world.

All in all, it’s been a great first year, and I’m really excited for what I’m going to learn next year! For everyone that’s followed along, commented, or contributed – thank you!

Addendum: The chekich bread stamp has arrived from Uzbekistan! Seems like a good excuse to make another loaf of non!

What did I learn: SAN MARINO

Wrapping up this month with San Marino! I didn’t know too much when I started this month, apart from it being a microstate embedded inside Italy. So, what did I learn?

Well, I got a better sense of microstates as a whole, for one. As for San Marino itself, it was very interesting to look into why it’s an independent country, how the voting system works, the issues facing historical preservation, and its current-day politics, including the recent abortion referendum and high-level corruption prosecutions.

I also got a little look at some of San Marino’s history, including early medieval treasure, the history of its independence, how it got sucked into WWII (including having its railway destroyed), and the near-civil war of the Rovereta Affair.

For such a small country, I also got a taste of some good cuisine, including a big order of chocolates and baked goods mailed direct to Canada, plus being generally successful at making piada, and a bit less so at making pasta for nidi di rondine (but I did manage béchamel from scratch!)

There’s also a good variety of music coming out of San Marino, from big Eurovision hits, rock, rap, 60s pop, classical music, and a great international opera competition! It’s also a beautiful place, great historic buildings and stunning mountainous views.

One of the interesting things underlying this month was San Marino’s pride in its democracy and independence, even as Italy does impinge on San Marino’s sovereignty at times, including stopping San Marino from having both a casino and radio station, or how all of San Marino’s judges must be Italian (which may actually be a benefit, given the challenge of being objective in such a small population).

And someday, maybe someday, they’ll finally win a footie match.

SAN MARINO: Nidi di Rondine

There are lots of blogs doing the “cook one dish per country” challenge, and I won’t pretend that isn’t a big part of Locally Foreign too. However, with smaller countries, I’ve noticed that one recipe will become the default dish for a country, which everyone doing the challenge then replicates. Unfortunately, that can mean that if one blog makes a dish that’s not actually accurate, that recipe can be repeated by other sites until surely that must be an authentic dish. I found this with coconut fish from Nauru – I asked someone actually from Nauru how it was made and got a fundamentally different dish than every “country challenge” food blog I had researched.

I think the same thing is happening with San Marino – most “country challenge” blogs make nidi di rondine as the Sammarinese dish, but when I started doing a bit of research, I found that the actual dish is a bit different. Nidi di rondine is a dish of sheets of pasta with fillings, rolled into rosettes or pinwheels to looks like swallow’s nests – hence their name – and baked. Most of the “country challenge” sites use pre-made lasagna with the tomato-and-basil flavour pairings that are normally from southern Italy (they do look delicious). However, nidi di rondine is made both in San Marino and in surrounding Emilia-Romagna, and so is part of northern Italy’s cuisine – which is much less tomato-based. I found a few recipes on Italian sites that I translated, and they were consistent about using a large homemade sheet of pasta, filling it with northern Italian fillings like ham, mushrooms, and semi-hard cheese, then topping with béchamel.

I used this recipe from Giallo Zafferano (which is available in English), and swapped the Emmental for Danish Fontina (the Italian grocery I went to didn’t have the Italian kind). This is a tricky and fussy recipe, but I think it may have the same silver lining as the Uzbek non recipe – since it’s so finnicky, the authors set out plenty of instructions that leave little room for confusion on each step. This is also my first time making pasta from scratch, but since I’ve now had a couple attempts at bread, I’m feeling brave. Making béchamel from scratch is also tricky, but I’m almost kind of glad this recipe threw me in the deep end – the sauce did come together!

It smelled so good in the oven, and this is definitely not a dish for the lactose intolerant! I was a bit let down on how my first attempt at pasta turned out, I didn’t roll it out thin enough, so it was a bit too thick and bready. I think if I make it again I’ll either use the lasagna noodles or get a proper pasta roller. The fillings, however, were delicious – the mushrooms baked down and melded with the ham and cheese, and the little hint of nutmeg in the béchamel was just right.


A very brief overview of San Marino in WWII:

There’s a bit more meat to San Marino’s experience during WWII. Despite a fascist government that was unsurprisingly aligned with Mussolini’s Italy, San Marino had declared neutrality and tried to ensure Allied countries acknowledged it. It seems that the British and the Americans were willing to accept that San Marino had not declared war, but were reluctant to acknowledge its neutrality – likely because how aligned it was with Italy. (Italy also spread false reports of San Marino declaring war on the Allies, which had to be debunked by officials.)

San Marino holds claim to having hosted 100,000 refugees during the war, which boggles the mind since San Marino seems to have only had a population of 15,000 or so at the time. I can’t seem to find a lot in English – there is a book in Italian about Jewish refugees in San Marino during the war that sadly hasn’t been translated – but it seems most of that number is likely temporary refugees of Italians fleeing the fighting as the Campaign moved up the peninsula.

As the fighting came close to San Marino, it’s neutrality was soundly ignored by both sides. The British had bombed San Marino’s railway in 1943 on faulty intel alleging that Germans were storing weapons in the tunnel (more on that here). In 1944, Germans took up defensive positions in San Marino, despite that violating the country’s neutrality, and then the British defeated the Germans in the Battle of San Marino and in turn occupied Mount Titano until the end of the war.

San Marino tried to get compensation from Britain for wartime damage, which the British rebuffed, arguing that the Germans had breached neutrality first, but in the 60s, San Marino was able to get some compensation for the destroyed railway from the UK.

SAN MARINO: How democratic is San Marino, really?

There’s no question San Marino is a full liberal democracy – its republican and democratic roots run centuries deep. However, as a microstate, there is an asterisk to this statement.

San Marino Watch posted a few years back about the work of Dutch political scientist Wouter Veenendaal, who studies democracy in small nations. There’s an longstanding truism in political studies that small countries – microstates and island nations – tend to be more democratic due to the proximity between the voters and the elected. Veenendaal uses San Marino as a case study to see just how this proximity turns out in real life.

Veenendaal found that the smallness of San Marino does lead to close interactions between the public and the elected, as well as robust democracy and high political engagement. He also found that this proximity means that hard ideology of any flavour has a hard time establishing itself (notably how San Marino had an elected communist government that was operating within the democratic system instead of fomenting revolution in the years before the Rovereta Affair). However, the unsurprising downside is that in such a small country, the political elite can become “cliquey” and that clientalism and conflicts of interest can become a major issue. You can read more on Veenendaal’s findings with added Sammarinese commentary on San Marino Watch.

Like most European microstates, San Marino has a financial system that provides a tax shelter for foreign funds, and as a fully sovereign nation, it can use the sovereignty itself to its own benefit (see: Nauru). This can lead to some very microstate-ish issues, such as issuing diplomatic positions to wealthy foreigners (including, bafflingly, Sting) and connections to shady businesspeople and companies. The most notable scandal out of San Marino recently was the Conto Mazzini case, where in 2017 many members of the political elite, including several former Captains Regent, were convicted on charges of money laundering and bribery.

That being said, San Marino ranks a healthy 93/100 on Freedom House’s Global Freedom Score, and the fact that the Conto Mazzini case was a huge scandal that led to convictions of the powerful shows a real commitment to transparency and rule of law.

SAN MARINO: Domagnano Treasure

The Domagnano Treasure hoard is both a stunning medieval treasure, and another example of how a nation can lose control of its historic artifacts into the museum and private collection system.

The Domagnano Treasure is an Ostrogothic treasure hoard from the 5th century, discovered in the region of Domagnano in San Marino in the 1890s. It’s likely that it came from the short-lived Ostrogothic Kingdom that arose after the fall of the Western Roman Empire, then was crushed less than a century later by the Byzantines. The hoard is about 22 pieces of solid gold, set with precious stones and enamel, and would have been a jewellery set of a noble woman – not surprising since the Kingdom’s capital was in nearby Ravenna. There’s pendants, earrings, a hairpin and knife sheathes – most stunning are the two eagle fibula (brooches that were used to pin cloaks closed).

Reproductions of the Treasure in San Marino’s State Museum – Source: European Nomad

Unfortunately, the hoard was dispersed shortly after discovery to museums and private collections – with the majority ending up in either the British Museum or the Germanisches Nationalmuseum in Nuremberg, leaving San Marino with only one single piece, a small mount.

The only original piece in San Marino’s hands – Source: European Nomad

With Expo 2020 now on in Dubai, San Marino is making the Domagnano Treasure a key piece of their pavilion. However, it seems the nation was unable to get the other original pieces loaned back to them, so on display are high-quality reproductions. I can’t seem to find any sign that all the real pieces of the hoard have ever been re-assembled even for temporary display, so to see every original piece, you’ve got to go to five museums on three continents!