This week, I lost my last grandparent. My last living grandma passed away on Monday, thus forever stripping me and my brother of our grandchildren statuses. Both of my parents are now completely parent-less, and that must feel even weirder.
While most of my grandma+food related memories are firmly connected to my other late grandma (you know, all those leek pies I can’t seem to shake off …oh stop rolling your eyes!), I have foggy visions of homemade yogurt, roasted peppers with garlic, perfectly round buns and thick slices of white cheese somewhere in my head that smell like this grandma. Granted, there is a heady aroma of Turkish coffee always somewhere nearby coupled by the faint note of cigarette smoke.
How does one re-learn the fine skill of guilt-free self-indulgence? That’s not a rhetorical question, I’m actually asking for your help here. Because try as I might to undo the (what seems to be) permanent brain
damage rewiring parenthood does to you, I keep on failing miserably.
In the past few months, since Ognen’s medical ‘adventure‘ and his necessary break from daycare, we’ve been lucky enough to fall back on the omnipotent Balkan child-rearing safety net known as ‘eager grandparents.’ The kiddo is now spending his mornings and afternoons with his grandma who comes to our place every day and he somehow manages to balance out the stifling confines of our home with the ability to learn new ‘grown up’ words and phrases from her. Some of which never fail to illicit a blank stare on my face when I hear them coming out of a tiny man’s mouth. Oh, and he also sits down with a cloth napkin in his lap when its time to eat (?!). But with this new setup comes a new kind of freedom for us parents; seeing as Ogi has become so comfortable (and genuinely happy) in the presence of his grandparents, it does give us the option of letting him spend an extra day/night / weekend over at their place and out of our hair. But what does one do exactly without the toddler at home?
I had a draft of this post ready to go, it only needed a quick read through. It was dated November 3rd, 2012 and I actually remember the moment of writing it as if it was yesterday. Ognen had been feeling cranky and drowsy all day, running a bit of a fever and went to bed early that night. I remember that horrible worm called mom’s intuition gnawing at me all evening as I sat down to do a bit of blogging to take my mind off of thinking that this is not teething, that he has been having quite a bit of colds in the last few months, that he’s been irritable for a while now…
And after the feverish and long night the morning came, along with a swelling the size of a golf ball behind Ogi’s left ear. And then things went downhill from there. One moment we were at home discussing whether to put on this jacket or that one, and only a couple of (crazy) hours later, we were being checked into a room at a public ENT clinic with a diagnosis that read “suspected mastoiditis”. Now at this point, I could expand this into a treatise on the public healthcare system in Macedonia. And when I sat down today, that was my initial plan. To tell you how it feels when you have no idea what is happening or what will happen or why one doctor claims your kid needs nothing but a heavy dose of antibiotics and then another one waltzes in 20 minutes later saying a surgery will be performed in the afternoon…or how a suspected condition goes unconfirmed for 48 hours in the day and age of x-rays…I was going to tell you about the nurses, the ego-trips, the hygiene…but you know what…I gave up. I’m not going to do that. My words will come out jumbled, I will probably break into tears at least six times, I will get worked up and that will require at least some amount of chocolate to remedy (and believe me, my current waistline cannot support that…)
There is some sort of internal force governing the behavior of Balkan grandmothers in the presence of their grandchildren. This mysterious force turns normal human beings into well rehearsed feeding machines; permanently shadowing hyperactive toddlers, a plate in one hand and a well-composed bite in another (a little piece of bread, some vegetable, a chunk of meat if they manage…) always aiming for the kids’ mouth, using every single chance said mouth is open (be it for purposes of speech, laughter, cry, whatever..) to park the bite inside.
We typically spend our weekend lunches (and the ensuing afternoons) visiting grandparents. For us, it is an opportunity to sit down to a proper meal which I didn’t quickly scramble in the kitchen while the toddler was getting into one trouble or another. For Ognen, its an chance to explore new rooms and spaces, marvel at other washing machines, test car toys on unfamiliar surfaces, hide behind doors and generally run around squealing in delight. For the grandpas, its a weekly dose of physical exercise. For the grandmas, its the ultimate test of seeing how much food they can stuff into him.
For the first time, in a long time, I can say that my sketchy presence here has not been due to lack of time spent in the kitchen. Oh I have spent time; perhaps not as much as I would have wanted to, but time, nevertheless. The sad truth is that I’ve had more cooking flops in the last 2 months than I thought was humanly possible. And it is all due to my stubbornness.
For some reason, the prospect of fall brought forward some mysterious will to bake. Yes, bake. First, I had a strange obsession to make a focaccia. Initially I wanted to replicate the taste of the most wonderful focaccia I have ever tasted which was in a small place off of Marktplatz in Basel. I should perhaps mention that I was about 6 months pregnant then so the focaccia may as well have tasted like cardboard but…I am almost certain it was excellent, partially because of its rich toppings which made it a decently filling snack after a long walk in the beautiful city, without breaking our budget (something which most snacks and meals in the city usually did). The taste of it is still on the tip of my tongue but it has taken me almost 2 years to get inspired to try to make something similar.
So you know, I’ve decided to pretend that I was whisked away to some exotic place for a retreat and that I was so busy relaxing and being pampered that I let dust accumulate here at the blog. That dreamy version cannot be further from reality but if I start telling you about the last 2 months I’ll bore your ears off. So for those of you just can’t live without at least a short version of our daily grind here goes:
Hot. June birthdays; we turned 37 (Ivica) and 31 (yours truly). This blog turned 1 somewhere in between those 2. Very hot. Short June ‘escapade’ to the mountains and by the Ohrid lake. Sunburns galore. Extremely hot: 40+C. 3 new challenging clients at work; way too many long meetings and impossible deadlines. Inhumanely hot; I actually saw 48C on a thermometer somewhere.
Told you, spa retreat was heavenly.
There used to be days when I had no worry in the world about how long a dish took to prep. This was particularly true during the last 3 years of our life in Greece, when I was fortunate enough to have a job that gave me the ability to be home by 3:30pm ( and even 2 hours earlier during summer – I worked in a school). Even with my perennial workaholic and tendency to stay late in the office, there were only a handful of times when I didn’t get home before 5pm. Which meant my afternoons were so relaxed that I could easily fit in 2 trips to the nearby grocery store (well, because there’s always something I forget) as well as have ample time to fiddle with any challenging recipe that may require marinating, chilling or masochist chopping and shredding. And even with the many neighborhood tavernas constantly beckoning with their aroma of fresh grilled squid and roasted eggplant, we used to eat home cooked dinners each night. Sitting down, at a table.
Gone are the days. My brain is now programmed to scan a recipe and calculate the time it will take me to prepare it and rejects anything that will require more than 30 minutes of my partial attention and/or a last minute trip to the store. Have you tried stuffing grape vine leaves with a mobile toddler roaming around the kitchen? Me neither. And it doesn’t look like I will any time soon.
It must have been around this time last year that the idea of this blog started sprouting somewhere in my tired, sleep-deprived, new mom brain. Back at that time, I was looking for something to keep my mind occupied when it was not crumbling under the weight of dirty diapers; something that I can put the tiniest shreds of energy left in, so that at the end of a long day I would feel as if I’d actually done something that day; that no, breastfeeding and baby-carrying are not the only functions I perform in my life. I don’t exactly remember the specifics of how I reasoned that starting a blog with a cranky two month old permanently attached to me was a good idea; frankly though, I don’t really care. Amnesia is often a welcome friend when you’re past the newborn stage.
But what I do remember is that before I “officially” (what, you didn’t get the party invite?) started this blog, I did spend a considerable amount of time tossing and turning at night trying to decide on one thing: should I blog in English or Macedonian? English is by far the language I am most comfortable writing in; all of my higher level education and about 90% of my professional experience has been in English. Macedonian is my mother tongue but I’ll reluctantly admit to this: I am still having trouble finding my proper writing voice in Macedonian (everything I write in Macedonian sounds to me as if someone else wrote it) or perhaps I never developed one. I guess I could have taken the challenge to blog in Macedonian but I also thought about all those unfortunate future readers who happen to not know Macedonian and would (for whatever reason) want to read my ramblings…On the off chance that there would be at least a couple of them, I wasn’t going to risk it.
If I told you that I have somewhere around 20 lasagna (or lasagne? which one?) recipes bookmarked, would you believe me? If there’s one thing all of them have in common, it’s some unusual twist; an ingredient you don’t typically find in such a dish (like hazelnuts or pumpkin for example). Here’s the thing: I’ve never made proper, Garfield-style lasagne. I know it’s not exactly rocket science but I’m always put off by worries about what type of lasagna sheets to use and my dislike for tomato based sauces and for handling minced meat (just when you thought I couldn’t get much weirder, right?)
One evening last month, our next door neighbors (a bustling full-of-life family with 3 kids of varying ages, managed by 2 successful entrepreneur parents) knocked on our door with a huge pan of half-baked lasagne. Due to some clerical error their electricity was cut off in the middle of baking and they asked if they can finish baking in our oven (it is moments like this when I think ‘gosh, I really should clean the oven more often!‘). As their youngest daughter entertained Ognen and we grownups had a cup of coffee, the aroma of the lasagne bubbling in our (not so clean) oven was intoxicating, even to me. When it was finally baked and before they headed back to their place to eat a family dinner by candlelight (I guess you have to take romance where you can get it when you have a house full of kids), they left two sizable slices for us to try. As we sat in silence and gobbled them up, I guess what was going through Ivica’s mind was something along the lines of “who the hell did I marry? couscous, sweet potato burritos and salads with pears? there’s families eating lasagne out there…”
We spent this Sunday at our friends’ house on the outskirts of the city. Under the scorching sun and amidst the heaps of barbequed meats, the reggae music in the background, the flowing beer and rakija, and the laughter and conversation of some 20 adults and 3 toddlers (and 1 dog), I couldn’t help but somewhat envy the childless ones among us. Free to hold a beer in one hand and a fork in the other, to sit down undisturbed for longer than 3 minutes, not squinting to see if there’s some dangerous object located right in your child’s trajectory, no worries if he has slept, eaten, bumped his head, turned the sprinklers on himself and is now wailing for you to change him… I had time to think about this while I was desperately trying to put Ognen to sleep as his crankiness level hit the dangerous zone, while the others were eating, drinking and laughing.
And then…as he was finally giving in and started closing his little eyes, I thought back to the morning in our kitchen. My little sous chef, perched on his high chair, inspecting the muffin liners, munching on the grated cheese, timidly touching the wrinkles on the roasted peppers, playing with olives…and, a little bit later, peeking through the oven glass to look at these muffins as they grew, almost the way kids grow when you’re not paying attention.