ROSE AND ZAATAR

A TASTE OF A LIFE IN LEBANON

Month: May, 2014

A stone’s throw and a cup of sugar

This week one of my friends left Lebanon. She was one of my closest friends here, and the one who lived closest to me, just across the street, almost literally a stone’s throw away as her daughter proved yesterday, dropping tiny pieces of gravel through the gap under their 9th floor balcony, while waving goodbye.  They didn’t reach us on the 6th floor opposite, but the bulb of garlic, thrown by my friend a few months ago (to rescue me from a culinary crisis), very nearly did, landing on the ledge below the terrace, just out of reach.

We once joked that we should rig up a zip wire between the two apartments and send our babies to and fro,  whenever they tired of our company, and wanted something else,  someone other than their mothers. (I realised recently that when my daughter says my friend’s name it sounds very similar to the word she uses to mean ‘other one’ or ‘over there’. I’m sure it’s not a coincidence).  I imagined our babies swinging back and forth in a wicker basket, like the ones you see lowered from Lebanese windows, to be filled with groceries below.

A basket like that would also have come in useful for all the things we passed between us over the past year, lending and borrowing until we lost track, including:

birthday balloons and cough mixture

pie dishes and cake tins

weighing scales and whisks

bath water and board books

butter, lemons and risotto rice.

But never a stereotypical cup of sugar , which you so often see on TV or film, as a way of intertwining the lives of neighbours in some way.

In our case there was no need for sugar, our lives were already intertwined:

stitched together in the long hours we spent in each others’ houses,

woven with the bright threads of listening and learning and laughing,

flecked with tiny tear drop jewels,

and tangled like the jasmine they left on their balcony, sending its tendrils slowly but surely in our direction, (making a zip wire after all) and all the while waving its delicate flower-tipped fingers, the way our girls waved, stretching into the sky and never doubting they could reach.

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The (tea) party’s in the kitchen!

You may have heard that the place to be at parties is in the kitchen. Well, it seems our 19 month old daughter has heard it too, as yesterday during breakfast, she decided to move the sofa cushions, ‘baby’, and her entire tea set (including 9 wooden biscuits, one by one) into the kitchen, for an early morning tea party which her parents weren’t invited too!

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Learning your colours in Lebanon

My current technique for distracting my daughter in taxis is to get her to look out of the window and tell me what she can see (usually cars, occasionally cats, and if we are very lucky, like yesterday, cows on the back of a truck- or bus as she called it!)

This activity has  got a little more exciting since we added a few colours to our repertoire and we were trying it out in our friend’s taxi the other day:

Me: Look! Look! What can you see? Can you see blue? (pointing at the roof of a Mosque)

Her: Yellow! Yellow! (Pointing at a digger on a construction site- another favourite thing)

Me: She loves yellow! (‘translating’ for the taxi driver in case he didn’t catch her pronunciation ‘yay-ho’)

Him: Really? She loves yellow? (chuckling to himself and sounding surprised)

When I don’t respond he explains that in Lebanon yellow is attached to a particular political party- not his.

Me: Oh yes… she also likes green, but that’s another party isn’t it?

Him: Yes! And blue is for….

And he goes on to explain that in Lebanon ‘all the colours are taken’. Except maybe purple.

But as she can’t say that one yet, maybe it’s better if we keep quiet in the back of taxis for now- we wouldn’t want to offend anyone by mistake!

 

 

 

No use crying over spilt self-raising flour

Today we baked together. A hummingbird cake, full of sweetness and spice and faraway promises, for a friend who is leaving us soon. A friend whose name you know and can nearly say, and whose daughter you love, like a borrowed little sister.

At this moment in your life, you want to do everything yourself, especially if there is risk or mess involved. So baking is perfect for you. Standing on a precarious chair at the table with bowls and bags of sugar and flour, you were in your element and before long the flour was all over the floor.

Not just any flour but self-raising flour, which is like gold dust in Beirut. Or perhaps star dust. Anyway, this morning it was just dust.

Oh no!!!

We both stood there looking at it. You were waiting for my reaction. So was I.

Should I say that’s it, take our aprons off and wash our hands, vowing to wait until are you are older before baking again?

Should I say forget the cake and let you carry on in your own sweet way, decorating the house with all the ingredients?

Or something else?

It was one decision too many for a tired mama and I was suddenly overwhelmed with exhaustion. For a second I wanted to cry. But I didn’t.

Instead, in a flash of inspiration, I moved the ‘real’ baking to the other end of the table and scooped up the spilt flour into a bowl, just for you, to play with to your heart’s content. And mine.

Later, while you napped, the cake cooked perfectly and I poured your flour into a jar, for another baking day.

Later still, we picked pink flowers from the terrace together to decorate the cake and the tears I had saved from earlier, I shed instead over my friend-who-is-almost-leaving, a much more worthy cause than flour (even if it’s self-raising and made of gold and stars).

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The Settling Point

On Friday I made strawberry jam, for the first time as a mama. I remember the first time I ever made it, and wrote about it here.

Then it was a June afternoon, in a huge aubergine coloured kitchen, with enough time billowing around me, only interrupted briefly by a knock at the door from a man who needed my signature to authorise the end of a tree, to ‘put it to sleep’ before it became dangerously entangled with the power lines.

I don’t remember the recipe I used that time, except that there were only 3 ingredients- strawberries, sugar (caster) and a lemon (juice and pulp), and to my surprise it set, sweet and sticky and scarlet. Looking back, I probably cooked it slightly too long, passing the setting point for fear of not reaching it.  I had too just a little much time on my hands to worry and wait.

This time I use the same three ingredients and Mary Berry’s recipe as a rough guide. This time it is night and I stand over the stove in my white-tiled kitchen, with the windows open, measuring the minutes and hoping that my unsettled teething toddler won’t wake up until I’m done. Of course she does. At the crucial moment, when I am spooning hot jam onto a cold plate to see if it’s ready, I hear her cries. My sweet husband does his best to get her back to sleep, but she just wants me, so I take the jam off the heat and hope for the best.

And it turns out, that her timing was actually perfect and so was the jam.So my mama answer to the question:

How do you know when jam is at setting point?

is

When your baby is at settling point!

 

The lion, the witch and the fridge

Most mornings my husband lets me sleep a little longer and takes my daughter for a stretch of time while he gets ready for work. What they do together depends, but usually includes a combination of finding their slippers, preparing and eating breakfast, nappy changing and making me a cup of tea. Sometimes, I fall back asleep and dream wildly and sometimes I don’t. But I nearly always lose my sense of ‘real’ time, like the Narnia children when they enter the wardrobe.

Today, when they brought me a cup of tea, it felt like they’d been gone for ages:

Did you have breakfast?

No.

Did you change her nappy?

No.

What have you been doing then?

Well… when she opened the fridge she saw the milk, and then she wanted to point at everything and for me to say ‘noooo’ until she pointed at the milk…..

My husband went on to explain their elaborate guessing game that had lasted who-knows-how-long.

On another morning I could have been annoyed at all the things not done, but today I marvel instead at his incredible ability to play with her, to follow her into the metaphorical wardrobe- or fridge- of her world and to lose track of the chores and the clock (or tick-tock as she calls it in both languages).

I wish I could join them there more often.