Friday, March 28, 2014

The Critical Mom and the Crumbling Parents

First, the phone call from one of my daughter's best friends:  "My daddy's moving out.  He fell in love with another woman.  I'm very sad."
I'd just seen this girl's mother at the birthday celebration of another girl in my daughter's class, and when I said we'd chosen Gymnasium A instead of Gymnasium B, since B is run by nuns, and I don't go for nuns, the mother had loudly defended her husband's aunt, "who is a nun!  And a highly educated woman! Very intelligent!"  Which of course left me grinning foolishly and agreeing that indeed, many a nun is highly educated and extremely intelligent.  I kept to myself the rest of my thoughts on that matter, including that I think any woman who volunteers to give up love, sex, makeup, the delights of color-coordinating her clothes, and a pagan sense of joy has big problems with all of the above, and since I think those things are pretty important in any girl's development, I didn't particularly want her influencing my impressionable child.
So I thought back on the now-abandoned wife vouching for her husband's nun aunt, as if defending his honor, and I was pretty sure this new development had completely gobsmacked her, that she hadn't been prepared, that she'd never have been defending his honor if she had any sense that he doesn't have much.  He's leaving her with three children under the age of ten, including a two-year-old.  I can't say we knew them well--we saw them whenever we got our children together; we offered cups of tea and laughed about what the children had said or eaten.
A day after the birthday party, but before the phone call, the mother running the party, who had also been earnestly discussing schools for next year with me, announces as I run into her at the elementary school's circus, that she is "getting a divorce."  Since I'd just seen her with her very courtly husband, who was making sure every guest got some birthday cake, I was surprised.
"Are you all right?" I asked.
"Well, no, not really, because I am a Catholic!"  Now, there's an answer that leaves me gobsmacked.  My husband's a Catholic too, but I'm sure he wouldn't answer the question, "Are you happy in your marriage?" with "Yes, because I'm a Catholic!"  He'd say he had a good relationship with his wife.  In any case, further conversation didn't leave me a moment to ponder her answer.  The phone rang shortly after the school circus.
"This is X.  My husband is doing bad things.  Can my daughter stay with you tonight?"
"Uh, sure!" I said.  Because I'm not a Catholic, I almost added.  But didn't.  Now, the daughter didn't stay for one reason or another; the police were there, deciding where she could stay.  But the phone rang again this morning.  At seven, or before.  Could the daughter come there this morning?  
"Uh . . . "  As it happens, I have a very bad cold today.  Crawling into bed and sleeping it off is not consistent with calming a child I don't know well at all whose mother somehow trusts me . . . when I don't know either of them very well. 
"I mean just before school."  The kid's dad is apparently now not allowed in their house but keeps phoning every two minutes, and the daughter is scared.  Says the mother.  The kid was grinning from ear to ear by the time I saw her.  I introduced her to our guinea pigs and gave her a tour of our garden.  She walked to school with my daughter and my husband, and that was the last we saw of them.  Today. 
Is it parental breakdown week at the elementary school?  Just a full moon?  Are my husband and I the only sane parents?  I asked him this, and he pointed out that we do know one other sane couple with sane children.  Possibly two.  But there do seem to be an awful lot of angry, despairing single mothers and single dads out there in our city, more in the last two days than I expected to see.  I did spend some time explaining to my daughter that daddy and I are not divorcing, that I do not want another man and he does not want another woman, that we love each other.   And I feel very lucky.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

The Critical Mom Goes to Berlin on a Budget

Berlin is, but don't tell everybody, really inexpensive, especially if you're traveling from within Europe and don't have to deal with air fares.  Once you're past the airfare consideration, prices are in the range of those in Riga, Latvia, Sofia, Bulgaria, Kiev, Lisbon, and Istanbul . . . . now, Kiev and Istanbul are on the dangerous side, lately, and Lisbon, Riga and Sofia do not, for me, have the range of extraordinary attractions in the form of Western European history, art, culture, and architecture, nor the internationalism.  Berlin feels to me like New York.  Berlin is where you can get a bagel not only as good as, but better, than a New York bagel: Barcomi's is your best source for this delicacy, and believe me, having spent years being handed so-called bagels by well-meaning Germans and having to explain that no, this was an ordinary German Brötchen baked in the shape of a bagel, I was delighted to have the real thing.  I was equally delighted with my hotel, at least it called itself a hotel, but really it was a time warp off the set of Das Leben Der Anderen ("The Lives of Others," the  2006 film about the ways in which the Stasi, East Germany's police force, electronically bugged, harassed, bribed, and drove to suicide ordinary citizens.)
The walk to my hotel, about a mile from Hauptbahnhof, (Berlin's main train station--and the city has a bunch of them) took me past the uglier form of DDR architecture, the cement-cell-block type looking like Lego leached of color, only bumpier, not the nicer wedding-cake style seen in other parts of the city.  The hotel itself was easily spotted, the white sign and blue lettering standing out from a brown smear of a building on one side and a gated restaurant offering hamburgers and cocktails (Sex on the Beach, Long Island Ice Tea).  I entered and found myself standing in front of a dark, worn stairwell, and wondering if I'd really have to lug my suitcase all the way up to the Erdgeschoss, the so-called "ground" floor.  But no, an elevator the size of a large locker, with a door you had to pull open, appeared on my left, and then I noticed on wall above the stairs some soothingly elegant pink-and-white imitation Greek friezes.  I'd walk down the stairs next chance I got, and look at them.

The elevator worked and took me to a narrow warren of hallways in faded green carpet--again, right off the set of The Lives of Others--leading to a desk, behind which sat a shy, sweet, Matrioshka lookalike, who asked me to fill out a form, and hesitantly inquired in heavily Russian-accented German, as I pulled out my credit card, whether I might pay in Bargeld?  (Cash).  I pulled out a fifty, and no, I didn't have to pay that much.  The room cost thirty-five euros a night, plus a small city tax, plus an optional buffet breakfast for six euros at the gated restaurant next door offering hamburgers and those cocktails Don Draper's gal Friday might like.  Total:  slightly over forty-two euros.  I paid--there was no Starbucks around--and breakfast the next morning proved spectacular:  friendly, smiling, a waiter poured coffee and directed me to a buffet redolent of freshly-baked Brötchen, plus a vast spread of yoghurt, breakfast cereals, canned fruit, jams, butters, platters of salami, heated silver warming dishes of eggs, bacon, you name it.  I wished I were hungrier.  
I was handed an actual set of keys on a bulbous red bakelite key chain which I was very tempted to keep as a souvenir, but did turn over after my stay, because it was the right thing to do, and because the lady was so nice and helpful and made sure I found the correct train station from which get to the event I was attending, and thank goodness for her--the invitation left me clueless.

My room itself fulfilled every criteria I hold for a hotel room:  it was very clean, and quiet as the tomb.  The bed was reasonably hard and I like a hard bed.  Plus, it was actually attractive, in a very sparing way:  I liked the broad-boarded hardwood floor, the fluted glass Russian ceiling lights (in which it had always been so easy to conceal an electronic listening device back in DDR days).    Was there soap?  Certainly not in the bathroom, but atop the white towel on the white duvet I found tiny packets of soap and shampoo--plenty, for a one-night stay.   Two very utilitarian bedside tables, devoid of Gideon bibles, stationary, or anything else, buttressed the comfortable double bed, and a curiously shaped line from floor to ceiling in one corner, thin as twine and right under the plaster, suggested a leftover coil of electronic wiring from DDR days.  The place was filled with silent Chinese tourists and one or two European students, and I slept very well indeed.   Hotels like this abound on Trip Advisor, and if you want even cheaper, signs in Hauptbahnhof advertise youth hostels "from 15 euros" per night.

Friday, March 21, 2014

How to Deal with Dinner Guests Who Have Allergies

I eat gluten by the gut-full, I never heard of Paleo, and it seems that butter is back--yippee!  In any case, nothing could be ruder than announcing to a hostess that you are on a very particular kind of diet involving some holier-than-thou food philosophy.

But it is okay to say that you are a vegetarian.  Or even a vegan, but if you announce the latter, you have to define terms for your hostess: "That means I eat _________, but I don't eat __________ and I can bring my own food."  Remember, Moses Montefiore brought along his own Kosher chicken to a formal dinner (and it seems Queen Victoria was there).  

If you're the hostess, however, you must ask.  You call somebody to invite them to dinner and you say, "By the way, is there anything you don't eat?  Or allergies?"  I always ask, and people usually eat everything, but I do get the occasional, "Oh, I really don't like fish!" or "I hate Brussels sprouts."  Then I know, and I can plan the menu.  

If a guest does have an allergy to nuts, then it's your responsibility, for a small dinner, to avoid them entirely--to reassure the guest that salad is made with olive oil, not hazelnut oil, to understand that hidden allergens cause anxiety--as when a friend offered a chewable vitamin E tablet, I chewed, and it had almonds in it.

If you're hosting a large party, it's your responsibility to tell the guest which dishes have nuts and which don't--and to provide something that he or she can eat, even if only salad and cheese and crackers.  The good guest recognizes that a hostess should never be asked to provide a special meal.  The good hostess remembers that she has an allergic person coming to dinner, plans accordingly, and puts the guest at ease.  If you buy something and you don't know what's in it, read labels, or just tell the guest, "I can't be sure about this dish."  Waiters do this all the time, and believe me, I appreciate it.

In a nutshell (so to speak) being a hostess to an allergic guest is just another dimension of being a good hostess:  you greet guests, you make sure they feel at home, you introduce them to people you think they'd enjoy, and you get them talking over food they feel happy eating.

Here's a list of DON'TS for a host or hostess with a guest who has just said, "By the way, I'm allergic to nuts":

(1) Do not reveal your anxiety, as a hostess recently did to me:  "Uh, I'm not sure I can rule out debris and uh, uh, I'm not sure if it's okay."

(2)  Your guest should never have to say, "Please don't worry--I eat most things and I know to avoid chocolate.  I'd just like a heads up if you know there's nuts in a dish."

(3) Do not forget to tell the guest that you remember he or she cannot eat nuts.  When they arrive, and you hand them a glass of wine, you've got to remember to say, "I just wanted to let you know, you're safe with the salad and the meat, but the appetizer does have cashews."

But this is all part of the same dynamic:  you make the guest comfortable:  you reassure him or her; the guest never reassures you.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

The Critical Mom and the Taxis

If you're a native New Yorker who never learned to drive and transit goes on strike--everything, that is, the buses and the trams--then you are up the proverbial creek without the fabled paddle.  Today, my husband drove both boys to school but then found himself almost late to a meeting in another city.  I walked my daughter to school and then rather than have her walk all the way home and then walk back up our hill to her music lessons, I schlepped her recorders and violin to school and she sat rather forlornly with me in a local cafe having a tea and a brötchen.  It might have been more restful to go home after all, the freedom to lie in one's own bed for a whole ten minutes overriding the amount of walking then necessary to get you to the first music lesson.  The second required a cab, and the cab company had to be called, for cabs do not cruise in our city.  This being Germany, the dispatcher wanted an exact address, not the corner from which our tram runs.  

"Um, er," I said, running out of German.  She rapidly gave me an address and hung up on me, and luckily we found it.

At the violin lesson I sat reading my students' exams, and learned that Oscar Wilde's Jokanaan had been "decapitulated."  I was delighted to find that he had also been de-headed.  

During the violin lesson, I called the cab company and the lady said, "Das dauert!"  (It's gonna take a while!")

"Meinen Sie mehr als funfzehn minuten?" (More than fifteen minutes?")

She sounded very annoyed, possibly because it was impossible to give me an exact answer, and told me there were a lotta cars out there on the street and how should she know, since she never took cabs.

I'm living in a place where if you take a cab, you're an elitist snob.

Which I'm not.  But I'm spending money like one, because by the end of the day, when all children are home, we will have spent close to eighty euros.  The folks on strike, by the way, make 18-19 euros an hour, which might not sound like a lot, but it's a dang sight more than I make, and by way of comparison, hospital nurses make 7 euros an hour.  The cost of living here is around one sixth of the cost of living in New York, and health care is universal. 

So it's paradise.  But if that strike continues tomorrow, our piggy bank will be in shards.  At least the cab came fast.  No sooner had I gotten out my cell phone to try to tell the boys to put the chicken in the oven than our driver screeched to a halt in front of us.

Monday, March 10, 2014

A Fish Recipe Peg Bracken Might Like

If anyone's old enough to remember the original I Hate To Cookbook (1960; revised and re-issued 2010), you know that the criteria of her recipes remained:

(1) What's easiest

(2) What's lying around within reach--you should neither have to go to the store nor walk to the other end of the kitchen.

(3) Whatever ensures that the family won't complain.

(4) Liberal dollops of Bracken's wit.

I can provide the first three, but you'll have to pretend that Bracken would somehow have been interested in a non-artery-clogging, sustainable-food, fresh as opposed to frozen or canned, way of life.  Which she wasn't, not one bit, but when I feel like a cake that tastes like one, or a really creamy dish, I resort to her immediately.

But this doesn't go the butter-salt-sugar-mayonnaise route.  This is just easy:


Three 200-gram (about 7 oz, or a bit more) slabs of fresh salmon (another fish will do, too)

Seasoning of your choice (I used garlic salt; you can use Lawry's, Mrs. Dash, fresh basil, or the herb of your choice.  Anything from Oil&Vinegar is fine)

Three or four fresh red (or yellow, or orange) bell peppers.

1. Pre-heat oven to 180ºC or 350ºF

2. Slice big pieces of pepper and lay flat on pan--enough to go under the fish.

3.  Lay fish on top (probably best to rinse and shake dry first).

4.  Sprinkle on the garlic salt, or the seasoning of your choice

5. Lay more broad pieces of pepper on top of the fish.

Bake for about 25 minutes--turn on whirling heat at the end if you like.

I served this with steamed broccoli and snow peas.  And we all would have lost weight if we hadn't chased this perfectly sensible meal with a cheese course, wine, and a hunk of chocolate.

Monday, March 3, 2014

Rosenmontag, Red Bull, Carnival-Zug, and Teenagers

This being Germany--the pagan holiday, Carnival, kind of like Hallowe'en-- appearing right before Lent, for convenience, the kids have no school Monday and Tuesday.  Now, says the fifteen-year-old, would just be the perfect time, please Mom, for another overnight computer-games party.  So okay, if you do your clarinet practice and go to fencing and complete your homework . . .  yes, yes, yes.  Now, my husband and I have weathered two other all-night computer parties with charming, very school-oriented young men with delightfully nerdy interests like U.S. Presidents and good internships, and found that the young men fell silent about 5:30 or 6:00 a.m. on each other occasion.  Not this time.  They were lively as all get-out when I went downstairs at 7:00 and I immediately discovered the reason why:  there, on the coffee table, stood several empty cans of Red Bull and some other Godawful substance called Monster cola (140 mg caffeine per can, as opposed to around 95 in your average cup of coffee).

I stomped around, removed cans, yelled at my husband to yell at the boys, while, in the background, the boys were alternating, "But I didn't drink any," with "Mom, has it been scientifically proven that this stuff is bad for you?" and "Besides, you never told me I couldn't drink this and I didn't buy it--my friends brought it."

Grrrrr!  I said.  And reminded the kid that once upon a time the principal of my old school dealt with a problem girl who'd stolen the rabbit from the science room and played with the animal in the bathroom.  

This would not do, said the principal.

"But," said the girl, wryly grinning, "I never heard of a rule that you could not play with a rabbit in the bathroom."

Well, Carnival in Deutschland is the time when everyone is playing with the rabbit in the bathroom.  The Ruhrgebiet doesn't go as far as New Orleans, where mooning from balconies is the least of it (a very experienced friend admitted that Carnival in New Orleans had introduced her to sexual positions and language that had previously seemed beyond the reaches of her Olympic imagination) but still, there's plenty of topsy-turvy.

You stand out on the street (my husband and I went as cowboys and our youngest went as a hippie) and yell, "Hello!  Hello!" as the carnival floats go by--and the folks on the float, dressed in hats that look either like a Freemason's hat on steroids or a bishop's mitre on speed (complete with pheasant plumes) throw you candy.  But sometimes they throw it AT you rather than TO you.  In Cologne, a few years ago, Cologne being the heart of carnival around here, there were reports of people being hit in the head with massive boxes of chocolate and frozen hams.   It didn't get quite that bad here . . . . I did duck once or twice when the hard candies pelted down . . .  and though we stood in chilly pouring rain we heard good band music and saw every costume imaginable, from Jack Sparrow to nuns (but with split skirts showing a lot of thigh) to a toaster (complete with toast).  

And then I had a sedate tea with a good friend, and we gossiped.  A lovely day, by the end of it.