Thursday, October 15, 2009

Autumn in my life


6 September, Belgrade, Serbia

Can’t recall what more I wanted to add on the 28th, so will launch into a new area of discussion. I’m in Belgrade, arrived last Thursday night to attend a Serbian friend’s wedding yesterday. I was a little hesitant about going to the wedding -- it took place on Peter’s birthday. I had the options of a week on a Greek isle with MN friends, but the airfare was prohibitive, or just staying in Warsaw or going somewhere on my own. I decided I’d go to the wedding. Natasa was so excited when she invited me and when I said I’d try to come. And I’m glad I went.

My flight to Belgrade was event-full -- Because we left Warsaw 30 minutes late, I landed at the intermediary airport, Munich, as my Belgrade flight started to board. I literally ran through the airport and was grateful that at passport control, only one or two people waited in each line.

Thanks to friends Jim and Irina, I have an apartment next to theirs where I’m staying, and it’s in the same neighborhood where I used to live. So it’s easy to find places to shop, eat, meet old friends, which is what I’ve been doing.

Yesterday I drove through chilly rain from Belgrade to Ljig, the village where the bridegroom’s parents live, with friends of Natasa. We arrived at a small picturesque Orthodox church on a hillside just as another wedding party entered. We hovered under the overhang outside a small chapel and waited. Our uncertainty over whether we were at the right church was reduced each time more friends, and finally Natasa and Zoran, arrived.

Natasa wore a strapless bustier over a floor-length skirt with small self train. Her long blonde hair was enhanced with extensions, curled and hung with flowers down her back. I hadn’t met Zoran yet, and his serious expression made him look a bit fierce.

For those who haven’t been in a Serbian Orthodox church, there are no pews. So we all stood while the priest chanted the entire service for 30 minutes or so. That included tying the knot (knotting a long ceremonial scarf around the couple’s clasped hands), placing crowns on their heads and walking them in a circle. Of course, I didn’t understand many of the words but like everyone, I did realize he’d asked Zoran, “Do you take Marijana ...” Zoran politely corrected him with “Natasa,” and everyone laughed as the priest apologized (or I think that’s what he did).

Someone had literally slaughtered the fatted lamb along with a pig or two to feed us. Platters of pork in every form possible, assorted cheeses, pate, pickled red and yellow sweet peppers and mushrooms, warm home-style breads -- those were the starters. Then came platters laden with roasted lamb and some fresh tomatoes and cabbage salad. Several hundred people ate, drank and danced for four-plus hours before the lights went out and the wedding cake was wheeled in. Three chocolate walnut tortes each on a separate tier of the cart and each with a humongous sparkler lighting the scene. After the ceremonial cutting and first bites, these cakes and several others became part of a dessert buffet. A small band with two singers belted Serbian and American songs throughout.

The Balkan countries all seem to do the same dance that reminds me of the Jewish hora, and during the early eating, that was a favorite. Men and women holding hands and winding their way through the tables with the pace increasing with each new song. They also do another dance step that has Turkish overtones and movements, one that I joined to work off the starters. As I was exhausted and ready to leave the floor, the band announced a song dedicated to me. I doubt that anyone understood the irony of the song being “I Will Survive,” followed by a second one, “Hot Stuff.”

The wedding was perfect and made a perfect tribute to Peter, who would have loved it. I remember the fun he had as my escort to Susie Frisch’s wedding, where he learned that vegetarian good can be very tasty.

September 18, Sandomierz

Well, I got the blog up and running in a very rudimentary way and sent off emails to alert family and friends. Now to follow up on the returned mail ... only five. Not sure if their ISPs don’t like mine or if I have incorrect addresses. Finding out will be my next chore. The ISP that covers the blok where I live is owned by someone who makes most of his money by pirating videos, so it doesn’t surprise me when my mail is rejected. But it does annoy me that no one does anything about pirating; Poland’s in the EU now ... but then, I’m out on the “fringes,” 200 km from Warsaw. Enough.

This week I added two aerobics classes in the evenings to my exercise regime. I swim at least three mornings a week, which made starting the aerobics easier than I thought. The instructor is nice, keeps things simple, paces the class well. I had hoped to do water aerobics, but the instructor is pregnant so won’t teach.

20 September, Hala and Michal’s farm in Czermin

Having heard too many tales of people eating toadstools by mistake, I am not a big fan of wild mushrooms. I was always surprised when my parents took up this hobby in their later years since my dad was one of those who had been poisoned by a bad mushroom. So it was with some trepidation that I agreed to go wild mushroom hunting yesterday morning. Mostly I wanted the fresh air and walk since I always eat too much and rest too well at the farm. Michal’s degree, original career and first love is forestry. So he knows mushrooms well. He shared a comprehensive book complete with photos and showed me which ones to pick and avoid. Spongy underside good; membrane bad.

So, we drove off promptly at 7 am for a nearby forest known for good wild mushrooms. Armed with our plastic ice cream buckets and small sharp knives, our little group (the three of us plus Adam, their neighbor) tramped the damp forest floor of dead pine needles and some kind of green ground cover. (As you can tell, I am not a forester, not even a gardener. ) Unfortunately for us, others had been there even earlier -- probably during the week -- and picked the forest clean. Ditto the second forest we tried. Among us we got less than a third of a bucket, but we did get a lovely walk in the fresh air for a couple of hours.

Back home in the kitchen, Michal got the trays from the food dryer while Hala gently cleaned up our small cache with a crushed paper towel. She prefers to do this before drying although Michal says any sand will fall to the bottom of the soup pot. I took pictures and will post in the gallery (

This afternoon, following a particularly large Sunday dinner, Hala and I walked in the forest near their house ... and I took pictures of the farm. We had planned to get up early and go out, but last night Hala learned that her sister and two nieces had picked wild mushrooms in that forest on Saturday, picked it clean. We couldn’t even find any bad mushrooms! But we did get in an hour-long tramp in the fresh air.

Yesterday evening and tonight we watched “Ojciec Mateus” (Father Matthew), a very popular Polish TV series about a mystery-solving priest who lives in Sandomierz. The cast and crew have been here several times to film scenes and background. I was at the hotel the last time in August and saw some of it. The lead actor, who is way too good looking to be a priest, likes to stay at our hotel. He has a favorite room that he books, and it was used in the episode we watched tonight as the room of the killer tourist. It’s fun seeing places that I know and recognize. The program has brought significant recognition to the town and is great publicity for the hotel. The front entry, complete with the big Hotel Basztowy sign over the doors, was prominent in several scenes. The only downside was two “guests” complaining that their room was cold.

21 September, Sandomierz

Photos from the weekend have been captioned and posted to the web site, and I’ve had my morning swim, got to the green market and nearest “supermarket” and done two loads of laundry. I’m on a roll! Okay, not exactly. I decided to sit down for a while before walking to the Center. I will meet my landlady there and pay my monthly bills for utilities and administration (like a condo fee only you get less service for the money -- the domophone that allows guests to call from the front stoop when they arrive still hasn’t been repaired and the request went in before I moved in)

Price check. I bought a kilo of beautiful red apples for 95 cents, and for a total of $5, I filled my tote with two large peppers (one red, one yellow), five large tomatoes, seven baking-sized potatoes, a bunch of radishes, 5 nice-sized mushrooms, 1/4 kilo of raspberries and three lemons. I am so out of touch with prices of any kind in the US. Can I do this well at the Minneapolis Farmer’s Market or Thursday farmer’s market on Nicollet Mall?

Now, after all that shopping, I should clean out my refrigerator and defrost the freezer before re-loading it. I probably should have done that first ... but I was hungry. And after a weekend at the farm, I had nothing to eat. I never have been particularly organized about house stuff (I’m sure there’s some deep Freudian meaning there).

23 September

Yesterday and today have been spent playing Suzi Homemaker: defrosting the freezer, cleaning the bathroom, scrubbing floors, washing rugs, etc. The apartment almost sparkles. I also cooked a pork roast with sauerkraut, which I love. It will be served tonight with mashed potatoes, peas and made-from-scratch apple sauce. For some reason, I’ve been hungry for this traditional Jean Kanyr (my mother) meal, maybe because it feels like fall. Hala and Michal will join me for dinner, a way to say “thank you” for all the meals I’ve had at the farm.

Suzi Homemaker is a side of me that many of you have never seen, especially those I met while working internationally. Because ten-hour work days are pretty much the norm when you’re overseas, post Peace Corps I’ve always had someone to do housework, a necessity more than a luxury. And it’s not expensive unless you get a “breaker,” like the woman I hired in Warsaw years ago. Because she worked full time as a housekeeper at the Marriott Hotel, I thought she’d be a good choice. Not. Hardly a week went by without something being broken. I give her credit: She never tried to hide the breakages -- they were always on the kitchen counter with an apology. But after a while, I began to wonder if I’d have anything to eat off or drink from ... and out she went.

Some housekeepers also ironed ... everything, including dish cloths and underwear. This was a requirement in Africa because ironing kills the eggs laid in the wet clothes by some itch-creating insect. But in Eastern Europe? Trust me, while as I’ve said before, I actually enjoy ironing, my undies and dish cloths stay wrinkled.

As for cooking, I can enjoy cooking but I need a crowd of eaters. After all, I learned much that I know in the kitchen from my mother. Mom cooked for a minimum of five people daily but always prepared enough “just in case.” Someone might drop in, and God forbid that we not be able to feed them. Dropping in was actually okay in my neighborhood back in the olden days, probably because telephones were rare during my childhood. And people did drop in unannounced, individually and as families. So my favorite meals and any family recipes feed an army, way too much food for one or two.

When Peter was in high school and I was single, I started the tradition of cooking a big Sunday dinner never knowing for sure how many of his friends would join us. But we always had enough food, thanks to my mother’s dictum. After Peter died, I fixed comfort food like this pork roast dinner for “the guys” (Peter’s friends), my late friend John and others. John offered to host the next dinner, and until I left for Uganda in April 2002, we took turns hosting these family dinners, then John took over until he died last year. He was a great cook as well as a great friend.

25 September

Suzi Homemaker continues. Okay, off the floor. I have to do something with my spare time besides play on the laptop. Michal tried to fix my oven after dinner yesterday but could not, so he arranged for someone to come on today to do that. I was anxious to get the oven fixed because so much that I cook requires an oven. I love a whole baked chicken, for example. Simple, easy, tasty and can feed me for several days. And I have been thinking of my mother’s “cur’n’ cake,” what most people would probably call raisin squares, that unlike her pork roast, cannot be adapted to stove top cooking.

Immediately after the repair man left with my 40 zlotys (about $15, no receipt), I went to the outdoor market and bought fresh apples for apple crisp, which I made tonight. Looked good but I didn’t taste it because it’s for Hala. She will be feeding scores of family and friends this weekend for Michal’s name day. My contribution to the cause.

26 September

Yesterday, in lieu of the ironing that I’d plan to do, I decided to bake something easy to help me learn the oven and also how to convert US measures into metrics. Since I don’t have a muffin tin, I needed a muffin recipe that I could bake in a bread pan. I spent a ridiculous amount of time wending my way through recipes on I love all the information that’s available from sources like this, but it is hard work to sort through. I was appalled at the number of recipes that called for a box of cake mix or something similar. Does no American cook from scratch any more?

Aside -- years ago when we were PCVs, my late friend Ellen invited a new teacher volunteer to tea and baked chocolate chip cookies for the occasion, having chopped up Wedel chocolate bars as a Nestle’s substitute. Seeing the freshly baked cookies, the young woman cried out, “Chocolate chip cookies. Where did you find the mix?” As Ellen noted in re-telling the story, now there’s a real example of the generation gap.

Well, I found a usable blueberry muffin recipe that I turned into cranberry orange bread. It turned out nicely, if I do say so myself. One loaf for me, the second for Marzena, the hotel manager, who is at home sick today. I am encouraged and will probably bake some more quick breads next week with other dried fruits. And I’ll go back online to find a recipe for pie crust that uses cooking oil (no Crisco here) and make cur’n’ cake.

28 September

This is turning out to be a great month. I’m having another interview with the Dutch this week about a possible assignment back in the Balkans next year. This has moved very slowly because of the major changes they’re undertaking -- my kind of place to work. Early taste tests of my attempts at baking indicate success. Michal said the apple crisp was “pyszny” (delicious), and Marzena was delighted with the cranberry-orange bread. Friends are committed to visits: Sue from St. Paul will be here to celebrate my birthday in late October; Bob will spent a week between assignments in Afghanistan and Kosovo the first of November. And I made reservations to join friend Jean in my favorite big city, London, for Christmas week. ‘God’s in heaven and all’s right with the world.’

As I was writing this, I literally watched the fog roll by. I noticed it had gotten windy and a bit overcast looking and at first, thought it was smoke from something burning or a misty rain being blown by. But when I got up, I saw it was definitely fog being blown between my building and the next. What an eerie sensation. By the time I was dressed for the pool, it had all gone and the sun was shining ... as it still is.

Later: I wrote a while back about my hero Walter Cronkite. Since then, I’ve had an email from a friend in Kosovo who actually met him back in the early ‘90s ... and she had dinner with him. She said he was as warm and charming as he appeared. Nice to hear of an untarnished hero. Thanks for sharing this, Marilyn. I am green!

30 September

It is not my plan nor purpose to make this blog in any way political ... I have friends and family of all political persuasions. However, the dysfunction that I see in the country of my birth makes me sad and also fearful. So, I am digressing to share two columns who express my concerns with more eloquent voices than mine. David Brooks may be more conservative than I, but overall I agree with what he says. Thomas Friedman takes it a bit further.

The Next Culture War


The United States needs a revival of economic

self-restraint to restore its financial values and make it

a producer economy again, not a consumer economy.

Where Did 'We' Go?


There is no more "we" in American politics at a time when

"we" can only manage, let alone fix, our huge problems if

there is a collective "we" at work.

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