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2019 Grateful 27: Pass the Zucchini

I’m at a loss as to how to explain to her-next-door that there are only two of us. Twenty eggs. (Eggs come in boxes of 10 here.) Two kilos of uborka (pickling cucumbers). A kilo of cherry plums. Two kilos of peaches (or maybe they were apricots). And two massive zucchini. And this was just last week. With so many fruit trees in the village and so many locals growing their own veg and such, getting rid of what you can’t (or don’t want to) use is like a convoluted game of pass the parcel.

When the farmer up the road at home drops into my mother with eggs, she bakes him a tart in return. She mightn’t want to bake. She mightn’t have planned to bake. She mightn’t be in the mood to bake. But bake she will. There’s some sort of unwritten code that demands it. I always thought she was mad. I figured my city-loving genes would have long-since throttled any lurking country ones, given that a greater percentage of my life has been lived within the madding crowd than without. But no. I’m turning (or perhaps have already turned) into my mother. (And that’s not a complaint – she’s a grand woman.)

No matter what I’d planned to do that day or what I might have wanted to do that day, if the eggs arrive, I have to bake. Anything. Something. I think though that herself has gotten smarter. She’s seen the Pavlovian pattern. I’m sure she realises that if she drops off eggs AND zucchini, then zucchini bread will follow. Perhaps I’m giving her too much credit, but I certainly have my suspicions.

So, when life hands me a mammoth zucchini. I bake. Walnut and zucchini bread. Loaves of it. And then I pass the parcel to anyone who might drop by that day. Or the next. The painter got lucky last week. He’s sold on it. But when I gave him the first one to sample, his wife sent him back with uborka that I added to the bucket already awaiting pickling. Village life is a never-ending cycle of give and take.

After nearly three years, I’ve finally mastered the unregulated gas oven. I bake now by smell. But that means I can’t leave the kitchen lest I miss the crucial turn-around point and the even more crucial turn-down point. But when I get it right, I get it right.

Recipe for zucchini and walnut bread

Some of you have asked for the recipe. That, too, I’ve fiddled with to the point I can do it blind. Here it is. (Forgive the translation – it’s for me.)

In the first bowl, mix

  • 3 cups of sieved flour (finom liszt if you’re in Hungary – not the rétes liszt)
  • 1 teaspoon of baking soda (1 teáskanál szódabikarbóna)
  • 1 teaspoon of baking powder (1 teáskanál sütőport)
  • 1 teaspoon of salt (1 teáskanál só)
  • 1 tablespoon of cinnamon (1 evőkanál fahéj)

In the second bowl, mix (manually rather than electronically – am not sure why this is better but it makes a difference – I found this out the day I couldn’t be arsed taking out the mixer)

  • 3 eggs (3 tojás)
  • 1 cup of sugar (1 csésze kristálycukor)
  • 1 cup of vegetable oil (1 csésze növényi olaj)
  • 3 teaspoons of vanilla extract (3 teáskanál vanília kivonat)

Then add the dry ingredients to the wet ones (not the other way around) and when it’s mixed, add

  • 2 cups of grated zucchini at least (Legalább 2 csésze reszelt cukkini)
  • 1 cup of chopped walnuts (1 csésze dió)

Grease two pans with just enough butter to make them shine – too much and they’ll burn. Oil doesn’t work … I’ve tried.

Put in the oven and bake. I can’t help you with temperatures  because I’ve no markings on my oven knobs.  I turn it to 8 pm for about 10 minutes and then turn the pans around before turning it down to 7 pm and waiting for anywhere between 20 and 35 minutes. Again, no clue what the difference in time is – but when you start to smell it,  keep an eye on it. When you can stick a knife through the centre and it comes out clean, you’re done. Take them out of the oven but let them sit in the tins for a few minutes. I found this out because the phone rang one time and I got distracted. But letting them sit makes a difference. Then cool them on a wire rack.

Store, not in a tin, but in Tupperware in the fridge. Or freeze them wrapped in baking paper. They’ll keep for 10 days or 2 weeks in the fridge and only need a couple of hours to defrost from the freezer.

loaves of zucchini and walnut bread

I’m slowly getting the hang of village life and on a good day, I revel in the bounty. On a bad day, I curse it. But thankfully, I have more good days than bad.

Cherry blossom

Operation Cherry Begins

When I turn down an invitation to a lamb birthday BBQ, it’s serious. When I decline knowing I’m missing out on a glass or three of Zengő wine, it’s even more serious. When I pass on an afternoon with good mates, you know something is up. Read more

The long way home

I’m not one for taking a walk just to walk. I do it, of course, but on some level it seems rather pointless. Yes, I know there’s the benefit of exercise and getting those steps in every day can be a challenge. But walking without purpose for some reason doesn’t sit well with me. If there’s a shorter way to get from A to B, I’ll usually take it. The long way home isn’t for me. Read more

2019 Grateful 38

I’d been looking forward to April 18th for weeks. The first day in the lead-up to Easter Sunday. The day I’d finally get to leave the city and head to the village.

Read more

Washing windows

Life in the village has its own momentum. Nothing seems quite as urgent as it does in the city. My days are governed more by what I feel like doing than what I feel I have to do. Wednesday, for instance, I felt like washing windows (yep, I was surprised at that, too). I actually felt like it Tuesday, too, but by the time the water came back on, the humour had worn off. Wednesday, we had water. And vinegar. And a fresh sponge. So I got to work.

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Swan in the road

Trash talk

We went looking for holly the other day, down by the lake. It was glorious – one of those magical brisk winter days when the sun plays hide-and-seek and the fields are half-planted, half-ploughed. The wind couldn’t make up its mind what it wanted to do and for a few seconds, we were caught in a leaf storm as it whipped through the trees trying to tear the last of their leaves from them. They fought a good fight.

leaf storm

The colours were of the stuff no artist could capture. In one spot – a narrow neck of water between the fields and the island – Kányavári sziget – the water was trying to freeze. It was humbling to see the broad rough water in the distance to the right, the little ripples by the shore and then in between, the still, glass-like effect of ice in the making. Such is the multifaceted power of nature.

Kis-Balaton icing over

Kis-Balaton icing over

It’s recycling week in the village. On Thursday, we can leave out our paper and plastic for pick-up along with the regular rubbish, so I grabbed a yellow bag (plastics) just in case we happened across any litter on our walk and we set off. We decided to drive to Hídveg and then walk the bike path back to the island. But I missed the turn. And I’m glad I did, because there, in the middle of the road on the bridge, as brazen as you like, was a massive swan. He was busy cleaning his feathers, standing on one leg, neck turned under, oblivious to us. I crawled closer waiting for him to look up. And he did. And then he went back to what he was doing. I beeped the horn. He looked at me again, this time in disdain as if to say, get real, I’m busy. I drove slowly around him to the right and he did move, ever so slightly to the other side of the road. I turned around to come back and faced him again. But this time, he wasn’t going anywhere. No way. Not moving. It was a first for me. I’ve seen elephants, cows, chickens, monkeys, dogs, horses, donkeys, pheasants, deer, moose, pigs – you name it – but this was my first road-hogging swan.

Swan in the road

Photo credit: Steve Jacobs

On our walk, we found the usual flurry of litter – plastic water bottles, beer cans, sandwich wrappers, and the remnants of black plastic bags. I had to concentrate on my breathing to avoid getting really pissed off at the people who’d so carelessly trashed the place. I’m really making an effort to reduce the stress in my life and to stay the anxiety, but it’s a struggle when inconsiderate, thoughtless people, make it so difficult. Seriously! I was blaming the cyclists who use this path until himself (a cyclist) reasoned that they’d be unlikely to carry 1.5L bottles. Okay, so not the MAMILs but the tourist pedallers then. But it doesn’t much matter who did it, it simply shouldn’t be done.

A new addition to the litany of litter is the wet wipe. Duh, people, these don’t disintegrate in the rain. They’re not biodegradable. You shouldn’t even flush the ones that say they’re flushable. Remember back when plastic bags were free and the world’s collective environmental consciousness was comatose? You’d see bags hanging on trees like ornaments. So plentiful were there that at times it looked as if they were a fruit. Well, now that we’re doing better with our bags, the latest foliage is the wet wipe. Don’t worry – I had my litter gloves on. We almost filled our large plastic bag – I stopped counting at 20 bottles and as many wet wipes and am still wondering where the second sandal is and why I found just one sleeve of a faux-leather jacket. At one stage I wondered what number I’d call if I found a body.

Photo credit: Steve Jacobs

As we walked towards the lake, I saw this big piece of pipe, just sitting there. That nearly set me off completely. Whatever about thoughtlessly casting aside a water bottle or answering nature’s call and leaving the wet wipe behind, carrying stuff into the woods to deliberately dispose of it – that’s a hanging offence in my world. But himself, ever rational, pointed to the end of the pipe that was buried underground and suggested it was part of some irrigation system using water from the lake. Alright, I suppose, but it looked ugly and out of place and upset my sense of being.

If you’re out and about walking round the Kis-Balaton, or anywhere really, think about taking a rubbish bag with you. Picking up after others isn’t anyone’s idea of fun, but don’t think of them, think the critters who could do without eating or getting ensnared in our waste.

Years ago, Mother Patrick, a nun who taught us in primary school, asked us how long it would take to sweep the streets of Paris. We guessed days, weeks, months even. She said 10 minutes – 10 minutes if everyone swept outside their own doorstep. The countryside doesn’t have doorsteps. It has visitors. Be a sweeper. Make a difference.

2018 Grateful 6 | Making the Move

Things have been a little scatty lately. What with my recent memory blank and other odd stuff going on, it felt like the puppet master was tugging a little too heavily on the strings. I was a tad discombobulated. Something was off and I couldn’t quite put my finger on it. Back in Budapest for a few days after a quick trip home to see the folks, I ran into a friend I hadn’t seen in a while. They congratulated me on making the move.

What move, I asked?

To the village, they said. I hear you’re now living down there during the week and just coming to Budapest at the weekend.

That stopped me in my tracks. I’d no idea that I’d moved.  But the more I thought about it, the more I realised that I had … mentally. I’d shifted from living in the city to living in the village. Budapest is somewhere I have a flat I can use when I’m working in the city or travelling in or out of it. The village is home. And with that admission, the discombobulation recombobulated and life suddenly felt okay again.

It’s 1 degree outside. It’s snowing. And we’re just back from a rather silly venture. I had the bright idea to go check on the walnut tree we spotted last year on the track that runs along the lake at the end of our property. Walnuts are in short supply. It’s been a bad season. But I figured we might strike it lucky. What I didn’t figure on is that they’d be impossible to find, buried as they no doubt are beneath layers of fallen leaves. Sometimes I seriously doubt my intelligence.  But it didn’t matter. We were out. It was bracingly cold. And it was snowing.

We came across this lovely red-stemmed bush with bunches of black berries. The red really stood out against the browns and golds of the dried leaves around it. And the grape-like clusters of berries looked good enough to eat. And I would have, had himself not pulled me up with a word of caution.

They’re low. There are deer tracks. And the deer haven’t eaten them. You sure you want to try?

I couldn’t fault the man’s logic. So I checked WebMD.

Pokeweed, aka American Nightshade. The root is supposedly used in medicines to treat a range of ailments from acne to ringworm, from achy muscles to syphilis. It’s used in food and wine a colouring agent and in manufacturing to make ink and dye. I was already seeing the possibilities. But then I read on, on the same site:

All parts of the pokeweed plant, especially the root, are poisonous. Severe poisoning has been reported from drinking tea brewed from pokeweed root and pokeweed leaves. Poisoning also has resulted from drinking pokeberry wine and eating pokeberry pancakes. Eating just 10 berries can be toxic to an adult.

There went my pokeweed jam idea. Unless I wanted to cause vomiting, cramps, diarrhoea, incontinence, and more along that vein. [Could there be a market in that?] Apparently, even touching it can cause harm. Getting mixed messages and not willing to believe that this luscious crop of berries couldn’t end up in a jamjar, I checked Poison.org. Yep, pokeberries are definitely not good for you.

Although disappointed I couldn’t put them to good use, I was pleased that I’d make a discovery. That I’d learned something new. As the snow blew across the fields, parallel to the ground, I felt the crispness of winter. I was cold. I was wet. And I was happy. This week, I’m grateful to be home.

 

 

 

2018 Grateful 15 | Meditations while oiling the garden furniture

I’ve gone a whole week without doing myself damage – am impressed with myself. I woke up knackered this morning but I think it was because I was dreaming about chasing the recycling truck down the street. Exhausting stuff.  Temperatures dropped 13 degrees overnight from a lovely summer 27 yesterday to a cool autumnal 14 today. I’m not complaining. This is my time of year. I love autumn. That cool crisp air, the geese-laden skies, the frog chorus from the lake. All good stuff.

It marks a setting in, a holing up, a getting ready to batten down the hatches and hibernate. Mind you, I’ve never let the seasons affect my hibernation but still, autumn is when it comes into its own.

I spent a gruelling few hours each day this week readying the garden furniture for its winter holiday. They’ll all be packed away in the barn, newly oiled, for a well-deserved rest as I plan to get a lot of use out of them next year. Painting linseed oil on garden chairs is about as close as I can come to meditation. The mechanics of it all are mesmerising.

On Chair 1, it struck me that this week marked the two-year anniversary of picking up the keys for the place in the village. Two years. It seems like a lifetime ago, as if we’ve always been here. The general consensus was that we’d use it the odd weekend. No one was more surprised than I at how quickly I took to country living. I have to be pried out of the place. Reflections on life in the village set me up to tackle the table and the lounge chair. I was making great progress.

There’s something deeply satisfying about seeing a work in progress completed. As each rung of the chairs darkened I came one step closer to the end. A little like life really. I’ve been through the 18th birthdays, the 21sts, the engagements, the weddings, the housewarmings, the christenings, the noughty birthdays, the big wedding anniversaries.  Now I’m at the edge of the funeral era where funerals are the most common meeting occasions. I started on Instagram a few weeks back for one of my other blogs – www.dyingtogetin (be sure to sign up for email notifications of new posts) – and posted an image of a gravestone from a cemetery in Geneva. It put my school French to the test but what a lovely sentiment. I think it was on Chair 2 that I started wondering about my own epitaph, what it would say about me – and it wasn’t until Chair 3 that I remembered I’m going to be cremated.

The chicken from next door kept me company for Chair 4. She’s looking rather motley, a tad dishevelled, somewhat defeathered. I think the other chickens are picking on her and perhaps that’s why she spends so much time at ours. Or perhaps they’re picking on her because she spends so much time at ours. Or perhaps she’s just moulting. Like everything else, there are at least three sides to any story – mine, yours, and theirs. I’ve had to cut back on my tweet reading because I’m finding it hard to decipher the actual story these days for all the sides they have.

By the time I got to the final chair, my back was killing me. I was cranky and irritable, and beginning to feel like my nose was lined with linseed oil. I swore I wasn’t doing this again next year. I’d have to figure something out. I’m just not as supple as I used to be, not that I was ever supple at all, but I’ve been looser than I am now. And then I remembered that this time next week, I’ll be three days into a month of daily Thai massages. That’ll put the s back into my upple. And do my back the world of good. And get rid of the knots and the stress and the pains.

Ah yes, chairs oiled and ready for winter. Me, soon to be oiled and ready for pampering. What’s not to be grateful for.

 

PS – I’ll be moving over to www.anyexcusetotravel.com for the forseeable future so if you want to continue reading, be sure to sign up for email notifications of new posts.

2018 Grateful 20 | Pears

I’ve always thought the word ‘bounty’ to be a peculiarly Protestant word. Not specifically Luthern, or Methodist, or Church of England, just generally Protestant. I associate it with harvesting and harvest time, a season much celebrated by the Church of Ireland at home. The bounty of Mother Nature, that whereby we eat and live. I see farmers markets, the like of which I visited recently in Warsaw, as a drip feed towards a collective bounty. Farmers balance those who don’t have gardens and the wherewithal to grow their own food. There’s a sharing. Yes, of course, money changes hands, but there’s still a sharing.

There’s no drip feed in our garden – there’s no metering of her measure. It all comes together. At once. Mother Nature has had a right old time in our garden this year. The plums were few and far between, the peaches even scarcer. The cherries were half of what we got last year and the apples? Well, we’re still waiting. But the pears. Man, the pears. This year they’ve gone mad.

At a conservative estimated, we have at least 200kg of pears to be processed or given away. The problem is that when everyone else in the village is in the same boat, no one wants to take anything. Just yesterday, himself proudly returned an egg box to her next door with 10 of his own tomatoes in it (yes, eggs in Hungary come in batches of 6, 10, 20, or 30). She’d helped him plant them. The offering seemed a fitting tribute. But then she gave him 20 of her own. To compare.

Yesterday, I picked and peeled and cored and chopped. I froze pears in slices. I froze grated pears for cakes. I made pear chutney. I poached six large jars worth of the yellow buggers. I even made pear and walnut bread. And that took care of 50kg. The remaining 150kg are destined for the pálinka still. An experiment. His domain.

Come winter, I’ll be glad I did this. I like the idea of subsistence living. I’m all for reducing my dependency on mass-produced foods. I’m a supporter of shopping local. I’m into second-hand and vintage. I prefer old and recycled to shiny and new. I’m all in favour of making life simple.

Village life

Yet rather than taking all this for granted, I’m increasingly conscious of how lucky I am. That there are so many people going without in the world drives me to make sure that nothing we have is wasted. I find myself saving the smallest portions of leftovers, reluctant to throw anything away. The ‘new’ gate in the back garden was cobbled together from scraps of wood. The ‘new’ door in the barn was refashioned from one that came out of the house. I have a vague notion that an old shower frame might well end up as a grape arbour.

And while we’re harvesting and processing, the starlings are pigging out on the apple tree next door on the other side. We rarely see those neighbours. They’re never there. And if they are, they’re there when we’re not. Their fruit goes uncollected, left to be pecked, to fall to the ground and rot. For the last couple of days, a murmation of starlings has descended on the tree chattering at full volume, doing their damnedest to pick it clean. I’m in awe of such blatant gluttony. But they have to eat, too, right? Why, I wonder, have I been conditioned to see this as waste?

Her next door is engaged in a running battle with the birds. She regularly goes out into her fields banging an old tin can, causing a terrible racket, making the birds hightail it to the quieter pastures. But then her livelihood is at stake. She depends on her crops to live; what she reaps this summer she’ll need to get herself through till the next. She sees the starlings are her enemy. I see them as noisy friends, as entertainment. But for us, the harvest is not nearly so serious. It more a matter of making good with what we get. And for those on the other side, the fruit clearly doesn’t matter to them at all. It takes all sorts, each of our perspectives governed by our needs.

The farmer up the road at home brings my mother fresh eggs. In return, she bakes him an apple tart or some brown bread. Her next door occasionally drops in some fresh eggs and in return she gets a loaf of whatever bread I’ve made – this week it’s pear and walnut – which she has just begun to grudgingly accept. Yes, my mother will never be dead as long as I’m alive. There’s a happy co-existence. Last year’s fence war has been all but forgotten. The world outside continues to run amuck. Egos prevail. But in the village, there’s a balance, with give and take and all sorts living side by side and making do. And for that, I’m grateful.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

2018 Grateful 24 | A baby came to mass

A strange thing happened this morning. After a night laden with thunder, lightning, and teeming rain, the village had a clean feel to it as we walked to mass. The thunder was still making itself heard and rain threatened but it was warm enough. The congregation was smaller than usual, probably to due with the weather. We slotted into our usual seat and then, just as mass started, a young couple with a baby arrived and sat in the seat in front us.

I’ve seen them around before and think I’ve sussed out the connection – his mother (I think) lives locally, and they visit on occasion.

We had a priest this week. I’ve given up trying to figure out the roster between our village and the neighbouring ones. Most weeks we have a deacon, who although has only half the mass to say (the Eucharist and such having been prepared earlier) still takes longer than the regular padre. Give a man a pulpit and you know not what you’ll get.

The usual pattern of little old dears surrounded us. Normally, these women wouldn’t crack a smile if  Ági Néni went up to Communion with the hem of her skirt accidentally tucked into her knickers. They’re serious about their prayer and come to mass armed with prayerbooks so heavy they all walk with a slight tilt – and they use them. But when the baby arrived, everything changed. The priest was no longer their sole focus. God was forgotten. Their faces broke into broad smiles as they sneaked surreptitious glances at the child, who was tidily seated in his buggy in the aisle.

All was going well until he got bored. And he started making noises. The parents smiled indulgently at him. I had to hold my blood pressure in check. It’s a pet peeve – why people allow their kids to make a ruckus in Church but wouldn’t think of allowing them to do so at, say, a theatre. I can’t believe I’m saying this… but when I was young (yes, I’m cringing!) and too young to go to mass quietly, mam went to one mass while Boss minded us; he went to another later or earlier. There’s a mass on the hour in any of five neighbouring villages so there’s plenty of choice. I found myself asking why… why didn’t one of them go to 9 am in the next village over? They could bring the baby down after mass to meet the nénis.

He wanted out of his buggy and mam obliged. The priest was showing mild evidence of irritation (I’m with you, Father) as he tried to compete, volume wise. The little old dears were bending over backwards in all sorts of contortions trying to make the kid smile. It was at once annoying and amusing. The mass was lost on them. Their prayers forgotten. Everyone was focused on the kid.

When it came to the offering the sign of peace, the Santa Claus lookalike who sits opposite traversed the aisle to shake hands with the toddler, a big smile on his face. This ageing church had been imbued with new life. And as everyone filed out after the final blessing, there was a noticeable spring to the collective step.

I’ve lived a life without issue. That particular door never opened and for that I’m grateful. I wouldn’t want to be responsible for anyone other than myself in this life. But every now and then I get a glimpse at what I might have missed. And I smile. I smile a smile tinged with ‘if only’ but laced in gratitude. Yep – even I was making faces at the toddler in the end.