Good Ideas, Executed

Frida has been having the good idea lately, as Hamburg slips into winter rather frighteningly fast, to light candles in the pre-dawn breakfast hour. Ah, she says, nice Christmas feeling.

She’s right, puttering around the kitchen is wonderfully cozy with the candlelight reflecting off the still-dark windows, but I’m afraid our holiday pre-game has been triggered dangerously early. Today, October 19th, I made the kind of eggnog that has eggs in it and I didn’t even bother scaling down the batch to single-serving proportions. We’ve been drinking winter-themed peppermint teas and it’s not yet Hallowe’en. I spied the season’s first panettone at the weekly market, made fun of the vendor for having them way too early, walked away and didn’t even get to the next stand before doubling back to buy it. At this rate we’ll have put on our winter weight by early November, and we’ll be sick of the smell of cloves and nutmeg before Thanksgiving.

That said, when you feel that you are ready to stock your fridge with holiday cheer I highly recommend this recipe:

http://www.thekitchn.com/how-to-make-homemade-eggnog-cooking-lessons-from-the-kitchn-214298

And if you’re not ready for a nutmeg-scented glass of cholesterol-diabetes-salmonella roulette, at least try the candles. Turn the lights off after dinner, light some candles, snuggle up in the cozy semi-darkness for a bit, and watch your loved ones flutter to sleep at a satisfyingly early hour.

Too Many Teeth References

Often, when I make a minor mistake in the daily grind of food acquisition-prep-consumption-sanitation or in the larger household organizational scheme, I wonder if high-level spies make the same mistakes I do. Having perfect aim, excellent command of Middle Eastern politics, and the ability to keep a secret under extreme pressure doesn’t necessarily mean that you always remember to take the laundry out of the dryer before it gets wrinkly, right?

I imagine the spies, devastating in their James Bond tuxedos or perfectly unremarkable in their eavesdropping camouflage, spilling coffee on their computers, forgetting to buy replacement vacuum bags or, worse, buying too many. I imagine them putting flimsy plastic takeout containers in their dishwashers and wondering if they’ve just BPA-poisoned themselves, or starting their phone call just as they step into an elevator. Maybe they, too, occasionally find an unmarked USB stick under the couch. (No worries, it was just a conference freebie. Whew!) Maybe they, too, circle frantically in their rental car, trying to find an Italian gas station that takes credit cards. Maybe they, too, bite into unripe bananas and have fuzzy dry teeth for hours afterwards.

If you’re a spy, tell me: are you always on time filing your taxes? Do you get your teeth cleaned as often as your dentist recommends? Do you remember every password to your media/banking/Amazon accounts? Did you update to the latest OS without losing everything in your calendar? Do you actually meditate in the last 5 minutes of the yoga class instead of just lying there? Do you use all of the spinach before it gets slimy?

I understand that you can’t tell me HOW you stay so organized – secrets are secrets – I’m just wondering if it’s possible.

Stolpersteine

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sweet Frida sounds out letters, makes them into names, makes them into people once again, the Stolpersteine. One she hasn’t seen is hers: her name, misspelled with an extra E; her end, miswritten. (It has to be.) It is on the West side of town. I saw a picture of it on the internet.

The Stolpersteine are everywhere. Outside the tennis courts, in front of the orthopedist’s office, two doors down from the nursery. They are in fancy neighborhoods, in poor neighborhoods, in my neighborhood, everywhere. These neighbors had so many neighbors. The whole city lived next door to a Jew. The whole city! How could they let this happen? How could so many people – millions – let their neighbors be taken away?

I thought that Jewish people lived in Jewish ghettos and that the ghettos were emptied into concentration camps. Incorrect. The Jewish people were not concentrated before the camps, they were everywhere – a part of the fabric of society. There were seders, and menorahs, and dreidel in a living room on every block in the city.

Our name is beautiful in German. What a shame.

Now there is our little Frida, a Rosenbaum, reading so well that I have to tell her father not to brag about it. (It is so easy for her we cannot possibly take credit.) She eats her pumpkin, she carefully breaks eggs right over the middle of the bowl, she is tall and strong and incredibly serious for a four-year-old. She speaks three languages fluently, she likes walnuts, she says fish is her favorite food. When she sits in the sun and reads names, she is delighted. “Otto Spiro!” she says. She listens carefully when I tell her about the dead people and the awful war. (We say awful war because we are not born knowing about war’s intrinsic horrors. When we are four and lucky we have to be told that it is awful.) Frida listens, she thinks, she moves on. Five minutes later she is lobbying for ice cream after dinner.

Late that night she wakes up with her first headache.

It is sad to remember the Holocaust, and sad to teach my daughter about it. I feel lonely here without my people; in Germany I am a stranger in large part because my family had to leave or die and it is difficult to come back after so many generations away.

I was so ready to fight before I had kids. Convinced of my convictions, angry at the neighbors for letting their neighbors go. I was, am, shocked at how personal the murder of strangers can feel.

Now, in these sad-proud-sunny-happy moments on the sidewalk with Frida, I am grateful that I’m so focused on a complex, profound, life and death topic that is not Max’s heart or his interrupted brainwaves or his chromosomes. Max’s problems are an unhappy accident rather than deliberate cruelty. Being reminded of that makes helping him more joyful, less depressing. This is the best I can do: with him, with the Stolpersteine.

stolperstein-frieda

Good Point

Frida : The world is my what?

Me : Oyster.

Frida : No, thanks.

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I am a novice face/arm painter but there’s nothing like carefully following the instructions on a YouTube video to make you wonder if you have some natural talent.

spider-paint

Warning: Not To Scale

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Hint: the secret to dramatic spider shadows? Black eyeshadow and not wondering which direction the light is coming from.

Based on the reaction I’ve gotten so far here in Hamburg, I will not be repeating this on my face as planned. Reactions range from disdainfully raised eyebrows (husband), to quietly ignoring it (friend), to saying “Wow” several times and then asking when I will wash it off (Frida). Max, for some reason, looked at it worriedly and then asked for a cupcake.

Obviously, I am grateful to have an overnight kit during an emergency stay at the children’s hospital. I am grateful for the toothbrush, the toothpaste, and the 29 contact lenses.

29, though? Can I trade 27 of them in for some face cream?

It’s lovely to think that Tobias assumes I achieve this state of radiance through will alone. It is less lovely to look in the mirror after a night of cot-at-the-bedside hospital sleep to find that my eye cream is really, really effective but only if it is used.

Happy upcoming 40th birthday to meeeeeeeee!

Seriously, though, folks, Max almost died yesterday and it was sad, scary, and tiring. He had a prolonged episode of tachycardia so we went to the emergency room at the children’s hospital but the reversal agent didn’t work. They tried it again and again it didn’t work. The third time it did work, but between the first and the third time I went from calm, seasoned mother of a kid with a chronic condition to a person who’s watching her son die on the table in front of her. To the outside observer this just meant that I stopped cracking jokes but on the inside I was like GIN! Now I get it! Homelessness after coming home from a combat zone? OF COURSE because trifling bullshit is trifling. Who gives a shit about loan deadlines when you know what this kind of pain feels like.

Luckily, this sensation lasted only a moment and has since been treated with sleep, an afternoon of cheerful chatter from 4-year-old Frida, and some very good Chinese chicken soup. Also gin, but mixed with blackberries and selzer and at a very moderate dosage. No worries, friends, I’m as uptight about deadlines and social conventions as ever.

 

E.T. or Baby Jesus?

E.T. or Baby Jesus?

 

Ciao, Italia, Ciao, Bella

The movers are here packing up boxes and I’m looking very officious and busy as I type this. (Better than continuing to get in the way.)

We are sad to leave our friends here, our patient babysitter, our hard-won transition from subjects to recipients of local gossip. We are, however, leaving a town where most of the pigeons have deformed left feet from inexpert banding. Creeeeeeeepy.*

Poor Max has been having a new heart problem, severe enough that it requires starting a thrice-daily medicine and frequent ECGs. He’s putting up with it admirably, pretending that his mobile heart monitor is a phone and calling everyone he knows. His little heart gets up to 240 bpm for 30 minutes at a time, high enough for his pediatrician to start crying in her office when she saw me understand.

We are glad to get back to the great pediatric cardiologist in Hamburg, and grateful for the expedient care we’ve received here. If I were my week’s schedule, I would be looking a little bruised from the thrice-weekly trips to the children’s hospital in Milan. Luckily, I’m not a schedule, I am a person with friends and family who are happy to cook and ferry and Google for us in a time of need.

It does feel a bit, though, like the power supply at my career’s cold storage facility might have had a failure, and I am at risk for what the pharmaceutical world calls a ‘temperature excursion’. I know I’m stressed this week even though I ain’t got no job, but please, career, don’t die on me. Also, don’t come back to life as an Italian Pediatric Cardiology Translator because although we’re muddling through, communicating life-changing facts and decisions in my fourth language does not feel like my greatest strength. (Picture me holding up my hands this far apart and saying, “This bad? Or this bad?”)

Next up: arriving in Hamburg, unpacking, doing the round of Max’s German doctors, evaluators and therapists, and reconnecting with friends for a few days before heading to Colorado for a much-anticipated 6-week collapse at the Rosenbaum farm.

I cannot wait.

*for me. Fuuuuucking nightmarish for the pigeons.

 

 

 

 

What a Collection!

Frida, age 4, attends weekly gymnastics lessons. She comes out of the lessons beaming, chattering happily about what they did while I help her out of her leotard. She says ciao to her friends and we load up in the bike trailer to go home. She never asks me what I did while she was in the gymnastics lesson, or maybe she did once and was so bored by the answer she never bothered to ask again. Let’s play…

45 Minutes in Heaven

how to play – imagine what you would do if you had 45 minutes of free time and access to the following, all of which are available INSIDE the gymnastics facility: 

  • an outdoor track complete with high jump
  • warm Italian May sunshine
  • ice cream, cookies, lollipops, and those chocolate wafers that always seem stale except in Europe
  • a smartphone
  • prosecco, beer, and various slightly bitter pre-mixed aperitivi (like Campari)

You would make yourself a prosecco-ice cream float and go lie down on the high jump mattress, right? Well done, you!

The other mothers* and I either stand around chatting, stand around staring at our iPhones, or stand around smoking. Never have I ever seen anyone go for one of the adult-friendly drinks at the bar at the kids’ gymnastics school. I think we’re doing it wrong.

 

*I would say ‘parents’ except that there’s a word for ‘parents’ if they are invariably female and that word is ‘mothers’. It’s always the mothers. It’s Italy. In 2016. Jesus, am I ready to leave. The gender role bullshit here makes me want to scream.

One quick example : at Mother’s Day at Frida’s school, there was a nice slideshow with pictures of all of our little darlings during their school day. The head nun was announcing the pictures and reminded us that our children were watching everything we did. She then turned to the next section, which was about the kids emulating their mommies. The first slide : kids ironing on little play ironing boards. I laughingly shrieked ‘Oh My GOD!’ because I thought that it was a very funny joke. It wasn’t. Next slide : kids washing dolls in the little play bathtub. Next slide : kids pushing prams with dolls in them. Next slide : kids with little play shopping carts. Next slide : kids putting dolls to sleep in little doll beds. The audience was sighing and weeping and I was torn between being an incensed American feminist and being so so very grateful that I am an incensed American feminist instead of one of the lovely, smart, kind, capable Italian working mothers who have to put up with this 1950’s pigeonholing for the rest of their lives. (While wearing high heels! Ugh.) When I asked a trio of Italian working mom friends about the lack of kids pretending to stay up late studying to get their Phds, or grab their briefcase to go to their awesome lawyer job, or go to the hospital to perform brain surgery JUST LIKE MOMMY, each of the women I asked got really uncomfortable. It wasn’t something that was OK to talk about. It wasn’t funny, it wasn’t ironic, it wasn’t changing, it was just their lives. I was immediately sorry to have asked.

Except that until you meet an actual real-live Hillary Clinton fan in person, you might not truly believe that one existed. I’m a feminism unicorn, sent to Italy to provide proof that feminist unicorns exist. We’re somewhat smellier than anticipated, but we bring hope from a land where women can have it all – kids, career, loving marriage, great friends, satisfying sex, high-quality chocolate, and toned arms.

Know this, American voters: if you elect Donald Trump, the unicorn dies.

 

Freezer Failures

In preparation for the move, I’m working my way through the freezer. I am, apparently, not one to throw away a chicken carcass. When I buy fish at the market the fishmonger (with whom I have been doing twice-weekly business for two years) asks proudly, “You will keep the head, yes?” He thinks I go home and turn those heads into fish risotto, something that he once described to me as “kids’ favorite!” I think of myself as someone who does this, who willingly embarks on experimental, nutritious cooking projects to broaden the palates of my two little fish eaters, but my freezer tells me that actually I just go home and throw the fish heads in the freezer with the other fish heads and then I make something they might actually eat.

Let’s Play….

Cultural Difference, Gross Food Edition

how to play: read through the list below, and decide which items are delicious and which are disgusting. Then ask yourself how anyone eats any of it. 

  • Fish Risotto (if you’re a kid)
  • Fish Risotto (if you’re an adult at a nice restaurant with white cloth napkins and a good white wine)
  • Fish Sticks – the best are the ones that bear absolutely no resemblance to fish in look, taste, or smell
  • Balut – fertilized duck or chicken eggs
  • Scrambled Eggs (after watching the Balut video in the link above.)
  • Coca Cola (after hearing that story about how tooth left in the cup of Coca Cola totally dissolved in like two weeks)
  • Bourbon (if you’ve ever had too much bourbon)
  • Egg McMuffins (anytime other than the morning after you’ve had too much bourbon)
  • Rotten milk, so rotten it is hard (some people call this ‘cheese’)
  • Raw, chopped pork mixed with onions. For breakfast! Ah, Germany, you are a strong sort.
  • Lamb, goat, pork, and beef

What did you come up with? Is everything delicious, or just some things, and does it depend on what you got used to eating when you were a kid? It did, right? So if I’m trying to raise culturally diverse citizens of the world rather than just picky little polyglots, I should start making some fish risotto.

The balut ship has sailed, though. Them’s nasty.

 

 

 

Leaving the Jasmine Hedge

We’re gearing up for another move, this time from Italy to Germany, and we’re having to ask ourselves some important questions. How important is it to you to know where to take dead batteries? How much do you value knowing when to get off the bus without looking at a map app on your phone? When thinking about your quality of life, does speaking the same language as your banker rate higher or lower than immediate access to fresh fish? Is the unit of measurement days or hours in your evaluation of ‘fresh fish’? What about if the fish is lightly pickled? Smoked? Salted?

We are adaptable, we humans, and we are at our best when we look for the things to like in our given situation. That said, my quality of life is greatly improved by access to direct sunlight and good eats, and I am tempted to extend our stay in Italy through berry season, into stone fruit season, and oh those Alto Adige apples sure are good, and then it’s time for the autumn crop of artichokes and then come truffles…

It’s not going to happen, though. The movers are coming on June 3oth. Better take advantage of our current condition, then, right? GELATO SEASON STARTS NOW.

Time to leave, really, before we start thinking that the smell of blooming citrus is a standard accompaniment to children’s school field trips.

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In case you were wondering how seriously Frida takes her carousel rides, here she is getting ready to practice posting.

Frida Carousel

 

This Week in Tomatoes

Dewds, I cannot tell you how delighted I am to have a 4-year-old guest in the house. She is cute and energetic and smart and all the important stuff but she also thinks that accents are very, very funny. Oh, Emma, you are a joy and I will read you any book any time.

My Frida is also 4 and it is interesting to see how wrong I am about the cultural differences between European and American parenting. Turns out we all worry about the same stuff: sleep schedules, eating too much sugar/watching too much TV, wondering why she ate broccoli last week but doesn’t touch the stuff this week. The major difference seems to be in our approach to hand sanitizer. I mostly use hand sanitizer as a punchline when making unkind jokes about Americans; this week’s lovely houseguests use it to clean their hands.

(Hey, you know that I’m American, right? You can tell because I keep forgetting to wear gloves while cleaning this season’s bountiful artichoke crop, so the fingers and fingernails on my right hand are stained brown. It really looks like I need some hand sanitizer.)

Today at the produce stand, I had to commit to a verbal contract before I was allowed to buy the low-acid, vine-ripened Sicilian tomatoes. I asked for tomatoes, the produce lady asked which ones. I pointed to the small, dark red, deeply creased donut-shaped tomatoes. She said, “These are for sugo.” And I said, “Mhmm, half a kilo, please.” Those tomatoes are so good raw. They’re fruity and delicious and not drippy. I could practically taste them. She said, “These are for sugo.” And I said, “Um, and some strawberries, please,” thinking about the sandwich I’d make with the tomatoes. Again she said, “These tomatoes are for sugo,” this time making eye contact until I nodded. “Ok, sugo.”

She rang me up and it wasn’t until I was loaded up and on my bike that she said, “No basil?”

Busted.

So now I’m making a minuscule batch of basil-free tomato sauce because having a clear conscience for future produce dealings is more important than a freaking sandwich.

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Max, lately, 10 times a day: Here, Mom, here? (Gesturing to a place to put whatever is in his hand.)

Me: That’s just the place for it. Great.

Max, nodding hugely and trying not to smile: Ok, yeah, ok. (Puts the thing down, looks perfectly smug.)

 

Let’s all remember to be pleased with ourselves as often as we possibly can.