When I was filling out the application for the Student Exchange program in my Junior year of college, I did not think for a second that I was irrevocably changing the path of my life and that nothing would ever, ever be the same. Because of that I have sentenced myself, my family, and my friends to a life of inconsolable goodbyes and days filled with endless tears. At the same time, I have opened up the atlas previously folded tightly and made our world bigger.
Last night we drove to LAX and sent Father back to Serbia. He has been here with us for two months. He is a stubborn, opinionated, and extremely loud old goat who drove me and the girls crazy almost every day. As a retired surgeon, he definitely suffers from the “benign tyrant” syndrome, at least. At seventy six, he considers himself middle-aged, to which I do not have a reason to object – I guess it makes me a mere teenager, so I’ll take it.
Mother diligently took several English courses in her fifties, when I married an American. She did not want Husband to make mother-in-law jokes behind her back. She can read, write, watch TV, and converse even on the most complicated political issues. Father, on the other hand, refused to move forward and learn one more word past the lessons he learned with a private English tutor he had in high school (the woman was placed in Deda-Ljubo’s house after WWII, and felt an obligation to help out the family that lost living space alloted to her, so she taught Father English).
He has been visiting our family every year since 1996, toting a dilapidated booklet titled English for Travelers without opening it once, asking the questions in a language stored deep in his spinal column, without waiting for a response he knew he could not understand. Every time he boards a plane, there are concerned and well-meaning people on both sides of the ocean who sacrifice sleep and stay up for hours, biting their nails and trying to calm their wildly beating hearts, imagining the worst possible scenarios, only to face the grinning, albeit tired Father, safely deposited at the right place. It will never cease to amaze me that he manages to plod his way from one continent to another when I know that he has never once filled out the customs form successfully, and doubt that he even knows our address by heart.
He is like a child, amused by the most inane things. Husband and College Kritter call him K-Pax, because his sunglasses hide the eyes turned upwards, his mouth opened in wonderment. He is convinced that “laguna” is a synonym for “valley”, and we gave up trying to dissuade him. When he is here, he is mostly bored. For years, he was everywhere. There was no party, wedding, or feast in town that he was not a guest of honor. He traveled the world, enjoyed the best in food, alcohol, cigars, and women. The doors always miraculously opened for him, and we never had to wait in line (if he did not offer to deal with the bureaucracy for us). He loved people, and people loved him in return.
But when he retired, his usefulness dwindled. A lot of “friends” turned away from him. The invitations to the important parties slowed down to a trickle. Women started to see his gray hair once he shed the white coat. He stopped smoking. And his life became dull. With so much time on his hands, he constantly tries to satisfy the little boy still living within, whose childhood was abrubtly interrupted by Stukas and Messerschmitts flying above his village back in 1941. He hoards seeds, nuts, and fruit seedlings, and plants them envisioning a garden of Eden. He always has a dog or two, and he takes them hunting for rabbits and pheasants. He raises turkeys chickens of several different breeds. He wants to expand his homestead and introduce goats and sheep to his Ranch. He is seventy six, but in some ways, life is just beginning.
In the winter, he visits us. He goes for walks in the neighborhood, examining various shrubs and nodding hello to Mexican abuelas watching the children play. Around eleven he changes into his swimming trunks, dons his K-Pax sunglasses, grabs a towel, and heads for the pool, where he lies in the chaise-lounge and takes an occasional soak in the jacuzzi. At one o’clock he enjoys his vodka-tonic and takes the first nap of the day. To fill his afternoons, I give him simple kitchen tasks and plenty of time to finish them without rush: he can slice and dice the onions, mince the garlic (if you are not particular and do not mind pretty sizeable chunks), peel and cube the potatoes and carrots, and prepare any meat for dinner. He holds the knife like a scalpel and arranges the food in neat rows when he is finished. He cleans the pots and bowls he used with cold water and no soap, still refusing to plop them in the dishwasher. And then he retreats to the couch for a round of reading and another nap.
By the time I arrive home from work, he is eager for conversation. Husband works at home usually, but speaks less Serbian than Father speaks English. They get along perfectly. I’m scarcely in the door a nanosecond before Father begins reciting the detailed account of his day. He will manage to weave in a small hook that enables him to take me on another trip into his past, the days of medical school, summers in Dalmatia where he ran a students’ camp for years, or the time spent on the island of Vis where he served as a medic in the mandatory Yugoslav army. Most of these recollections I have heard before, but each telling becomes more embellished and fanciful. Once he starts talking, his world alights again, and very few things can snatch him away from the seductive calls of his adventurous youth.
The blue skies of California remind him of the skies over the Adriatic. He looks lovingly at the mountains and imagines the slopes of Mount Biokovo. He relives every day the dawn fishing trips with the locals, the feasts of strong red wine and fresh seafood in the stone taverns, the briny smell of the harbors, and the warm mistral carrying on its wings the droplets of the sea. Born in a small village far away from the ocean, only at the sea coast does he feel completely alive. He is afraid of the future. He does not care for the present. The past keeps him afloat and fuels his energy.
At times I longed for the routine of my life before his visit and freedom from his passionate monologues. I occasionally sneaked to the bedroom toting my laptop, trying not to wake him up and provoke another one of his long-winded talks. I caught myself several times counting the days until his departure, only to feel completely devastated by the guilt.
The check-in process at the Lufthansa counter was unexpectedly quick. We had already reserved a wheelchair transport to the gate – he is in a great shape for his age, still agile and spry, but we do not have to worry that he would get lost navigating the airport maze. The time to say goodbye approached much faster then I anticipated. We hugged and kissed, he squeezed me tightly, and sat in the wheelchair. Looking from above, his hair was never whiter. His shoulders slouched, wrapped in a light coat several sizes too big, he looked small and vulnerable. I held his hand as the Indonesian airport worker pushed him towards security. As he was just about to disappear around the corner, he turned, smiled, and waved, his tired eyes glistening. I waved back, tears running down my face, my heart held in a vise of grief.
I did not talk much on the way home. When we arrived, I put away the nail file he left on the coffee table, and washed his wine glass. I quickly hanged clothes on several hangers left empty behind him, and put back the sweaters on the shelf I let him use. I smiled when I saw his neatly folded sheets and towels in the hamper, and I started missing him.
Today was a quiet day. He arrived safely, Mother said. I chuckled, knowing that her days are going to be filled with his accounts of the California visit, and that she is going to sigh impatiently and roll her eyes before she retreats to her sanctuary of a room and her own computer. I felt at peace, relaxed, and relieved. While I was gathering everything I needed for dinner, I thought of him, his life, his memories, his endless stories, and his immense love for the ocean. I felt that the fish stew I made would have made him happy. If he were at the dinner table, he would have taken me again to meet the handsome, young man he once was, sitting on a pier in the Adriatic, looking at the horizon behind his K-Pax sunglasses.
LIGURIAN FISH STEW (adapted from Giada De Laurentiis)
The stew was pretty simple to prepare and not time-consuming. The flavors came together, enhanced by the homemade seafood stock. I served it with a loaf of fresh bread and a salad. The original recipe called for crostini.
- 3 Tbsp extra-virgin olive oil
- 2 medium carrots, peeled and chopped into 1/2-inch pieces
- 1 large onion, chopped
- 2 cloves garlic, chopped
- sea salt
- freshly ground pepper
- 1 Tbsp tomato paste
- 3/4 cup white wine
- 1 (28-ounce) can whole tomatoes
- 2 cups seafood stock*
- 1/2 teaspoon red pepper flakes, plus extra for garnish
- 1 1/2 pounds fish fillets, skinned and cut into 3/4-inch chunks (I used swai and salmon, but any firm, white fish would work)
- ½ pound shrimp, cleaned and deveined
- 1/4 cup chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley
Heat the oil over medium heat In a heavy bottomed skillet or Dutch oven. Add the carrot, onion, and garlic. Season with salt and pepper and cook, stirring frequently, until the vegetables begin to soften, about 5 to 8 minutes. Add the tomato paste and stir for 1 minute. Turn the heat to high. Add the wine and scrape up the brown bits that cling to the bottom of the pan with a wooden spoon. Cook until most of the liquid has evaporated, about 5 minutes. Add the tomatoes, stock and red pepper flakes. Reduce the heat and bring the mixture to a simmer. Cover and cook until the vegetables are tender, about 18 to 20 minutes. Add the fish to the stew. Cook until cooked through, about 5 to 8 minutes. In the last 3 minutes add the shrimp. Season the stew with salt, if needed.
*I always have seafood stock in the freezer, and several bags of shrimp and lobster shells, along with fish heads, waiting to become stock one fine day
I know that this stew will be in good company at SoupaPalooza event organized by Kristen and Cheryl. And I know that my dad will enjoy the company of mostly females:)
I present this hearty and flavorful dish to the I Heart Cooking Clubs hosted by Natashya of Living in the Kitchen with Puppies. The theme for this week was potluck. Another one of my favorite blog hops is Hearth and Soul, hosted by Heather of Girlichef, and this is my entry.