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A nation must think before it acts.
We’re entering the month of April and week three of social distancing and quarantine. The country has at least another month of abiding by the national guidelines to flatten the curve. Since April Fool’s Day was yesterday and people may be getting anxious about spending another month inside, we’re going to mix things up a little. You’re going to get a break from our regular discussion of key foreign policy developments. Instead, we’re going to discuss how we’re spending our free time inside. We all need to find ways to kill the hours of quarantining, so maybe something in our conversation will help you.
This Round Table features a conversation between Thomas J. Shattuck, Research Associate in the Asia Program at FPRI; Aaron Stein, Director of the Middle East Program and acting Director of the National Security Program at FPRI; and Maia Otarashvili, Deputy Director of the Eurasia Program at FPRI.
General reminder to our readers to keep up to date with guidelines coming from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; continue to stay home as much as possible; and when you must leave your home and engage with people, be mindful of social distancing practices; and wash your hands frequently with soap for at least 20 seconds.
Thomas Shattuck: Aaron and Maia, thanks for agreeing to do something different for this discussion. We’re all stuck inside for at least another month, so I thought it would be nice to discuss ways to pass the time when not working. Aaron, you seem to have taken up cooking extravagant meals. What inspired you to start cooking, what have you been cooking, and what’s your favorite new meal?
Aaron Stein: Well, at the onset of this crisis, we decided to cut dairy from our diet, and that pushed us towards a pescetarian(ish) meal plan. We downloaded an app, where a lot of our meals are some variation of quinoa and chickpeas. We intersperse that with lots of seafood. I follow the recipe while cooking, mostly because I cannot speak French—our son goes to a French-speaking school. My wife, a French-as-a-third-language speaker, has to help with the homework. So as the less lingually capable person in the house, I am left to cook. Some of the better tasting meals have been a scallop salad with walnuts, a chickpea dish that includes egg and spinach, and I finally made my own Tortilla Espanola, the Spanish dish that I love to eat whenever I visit Spain.
Tom, you are the resident TV expert at FPRI. What have you been watching and what would you recommend to FPRI readers?
Shattuck: Aaron, I made that Tortilla Espanola recipe you sent over, and it is absolutely delicious! I’ve been cooking bulk meals that will feed me over the course of several days in the event that I come down with COVID symptoms. I’ve made corned beef, whole roasted chicken, pork roast, and chili—all things that I normally wouldn’t be able to cook after a long day at the office.
To further kill time, I continue my usual routine of watching TV shows, but perhaps a little more than normal. One show that I cannot get enough of and recommend to everyone is Tiger King, a documentary series on Netflix about the life of three people in the world of “big cats.” It tells the story of Joe Exotic, an eccentric man who owned a private big cat zoo in Oklahoma and is serving time in prison for reason that I won’t spoil. The series has quite the cast of characters and introduces watchers to a completely new world that at least us “coastal elites” have never been exposed to. It is a rare documentary where all of the main characters don’t come off as the traditional “hero.”
Other shows that I’ve gotten into recently are the HBO miniseries The Plot against America, which follows a Jewish family living in New York during a Charles Lindbergh presidency. Lindbergh’s campaign against Franklin Roosevelt mirrors that of the Trump campaign in 2016, and the miniseries has taken on an extra meaning considering the crisis that we are living through. Lastly, I’ve been watching the sitcom Superstore on Hulu. It follows the work lives of employees of a knock-off Target called Cloud 9 and the various situations that they get themselves into.
Since baseball has been postponed indefinitely, I found myself yearning to watch the Philadelphia Phillies. We’ve had a number of rough seasons recently, which I hope is beyond us under the new leadership of Manager Joe Girardi. I went to Youtube to rewatch the 2008 World Series documentary that follows that Phillies magical and victorious season. Unfortunately, this recommendation only works for Phillies fans, so if you have poor taste and don’t root for the Phillies, I cannot help you.
Maia, I’ve had your Khachapuri and if I hear you’ve been baking it and I’m missing out because of the virus, I’ll be very sad!
Maia Otarashvili: Thanks, Tom! This approach to the “Beyond COVID-19” series is a great way to mix things up. Aaron’s dishes sound delicious. And the Tiger King docuseries has really swept the nation!
Khachapuri is the ultimate comfort food, but a diet based on a combination of butter, cheese, and dough is probably not the best idea right now. That is not to say I haven’t been cooking Georgian dishes (thankfully I have all the spices I need), but there are a lot of healthy options in my native cuisine. I highly recommend the lobio salad and eggplant with walnuts.
Let’s talk alcohol, but not as the cure for COVID-19, Lukashenko-style! It’s been harder to stay indoors now that the weather is so beautiful. One of the things that I’ve been missing desperately are our regular happy hours after work. Nowadays, to quote Ina Garten (@Inagarten) from her recent Instagram video, during a crisis, cocktail hour can be almost any hour (is Jeffrey home? Is she self-isolating with or without Jeffrey? Was that giant Cosmo just for her, or will she share it with Jeffrey? Why must she remain so mysterious? Why do her coronavirus jokes sound like she’s trolling us? (“oh, wait, no one’s coming”) These are the questions that keep me up at night!). Thankfully, this proud Georgian has a well-stocked bar cart. I’m very grateful for my collection of Georgian wines, chacha, and Sarajishvili cognac—most of it available for purchase and delivery at PotomacWines.com. I have been religiously following the Green Hour on Instagram (@the.green.hour), the most fabulous destination for delicious cocktail recipes and mouth-watering pictures of the cocktails (the Delft Blue is a must-try!). For a proper TGIF celebration at home, I’ll be trying out their “Hell of a Week”—it’s a lovely combination of absinthe, St. Germain, gin, Lilet Blanc, and lemon juice. When the liquor stores closed in Philadelphia and panic set in, Aaron was kind enough to let me know about a great wine delivery service called WineInsiders.com—it’s a lifesaver if you are running low on your favorite Montepulciano d’Abruzzo or Prosecco (for proper day-drinking during those incredibly long weekends).
Aaron, how else do you unwind after a long day of working from home?
Stein: I try to avoid looking at the news. This may sound odd, but, if we are being honest, the day-to-day in the United States isn’t changing rapidly. It is simply a matter of waiting until the status quo changes, and that change will come only after we all stay away from one another for the appropriate amount of time. So far, I’ve reread Afshon Ostovar’s Vanguard of the Imam, which I had started before we all went into lockdown. Since being confined to the house, I powered through Peter Westwick’s Stealth: The Secret Contest to Invent Invisible Aircraft, am about halfway through Annie Jacobson’s Operation Paperclip: The Secret Intelligence Program that Brought Nazi Scientists to America, and just purchased Douglas Waller’s Wild Bill Donovan: The Spymaster Who Created the OSS and Modern American Espionage.
Tom, before the pandemic, you were training for a number of races. What are you doing now that all outdoor activities have been cancelled?
Shattuck: This has been a rough few weeks for runners. Every race between now and May has been cancelled or rescheduled. I was supposed to run the Allstate Hot Chocolate 15k/5k on April 4 and the Broad Street Run in mid-May. Not anymore. I’ve tried not to let this get me down, with mixed success. I run at least 2-3 times a week in the event that my races in June actually happen. As the weather warms up, I expect my motivation to increase because it’s the only time other than grocery shopping that I get outside. I have three half marathons scheduled for June, but if they get cancelled, it doesn’t hurt to train early for the Philadelphia Marathon in November!
One runner got creative with all of these cancellations. A man in France was supposed to run a marathon that was cancelled due to COVID-19, so he decided to run the race on his balcony. It took him nearly seven hours of running back-and-forth to get to 26.2 miles. People are getting creative with fitness in their homes, and I imagine that this trend will continue throughout the remainder of the pandemic
Maia, what are you reading and watching during your free time?
Otarashvili: Tom, you are right, people are getting creative to stay fit. Our own local Barre3 studio now offers classes over zoom. It gives us a chance to keep supporting a local business and not miss our favorite workouts (sometimes).
Spring is usually a time of awakening. We come out of the long winter’s lull with newfound zest for life after having had a chance to retreat and reflect during the cold winter months. This spring coincides with a global event of immense magnitude. We must take this opportunity for introspection, and try to make sense of what is happening around us: meditate, write, read, remember what really matters in life, and hopefully return to society as better people. So, I keep finding myself drawn to philosophy and keep revisiting some great thinkers. Netflix has a lesser-known mini-docuseries called Genius of the Modern World, where British historian Bettany Hughes takes a close look at the lives and works of Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud. Chase that with a healthy dose of passages from Master and Margarita, In Search of Lost Time, and Love in the Time of Cholera, and you will come back to reality feeling like you’ve just taken a very long journey around the universe.
And if you feel ready to reinvent yourself, now that you’ve rediscovered the meaning of life and the purpose of the human experience, I highly recommend a brilliant self-help book a dear friend gifted me recently: Vladimir Putin: Life Coach—you’ll thank me for the laughs later.
Shattuck: Aaron and Maia, as always, thanks again for the discussion!