It has been sweltering hot in my Serbian home town the last few weeks. As soon as I get up and water my mom’s geraniums and azaleas, I close wooden shutters on all the windows, drape a dark green tablecloth over the upstairs bathroom window, and close the back door in an attempt to block the ruthless heat from penetrating the house. (Husband, the mole, would find himself at home, enjoying the dusk-like quality of light and deep shadows that preserve the traces of fresh morning air).
I make Turkish coffee, strong and black for me, weak with a touch of sugar for Mom, and we drink it in the back yard, at the table in front of the house, chasing the shade cast by the roof. My sister-in-law, Tanja, joins us if she is not at school where she teaches Language Arts, and we spend a leisurely half an hour gossiping, exchanging stories and advice, laughing, and reminiscing. I sweep the leaves that magnolia shed during the night, not missing the beat in the conversation. When the sun reaches the six terazzo steps leading to the back door, leaving us no respite whatsoever, I pick up the cups and follow Mom as she slowly makes her way up, leaning on two canes, one metal, one wooden, that Father had bought in San Francisco’s Chinatown last Fall.
Once she is comfortably settled in her bed, with four pillows meticulously arranged to support her aching spine, I bring her breakfast on a small purple plastic tray with a white damask napkin as the nice, antique silver trays lining the upper pantry shelf on the right are too heavy for her to support while laying down. I learned the first day that she eats very little and I bring her very little, aware that even the sight of too much food will make her nauseated. I start auctioning food, offering everything available in the house and in the stores a few blocks away, knowing that I can make it back in time. She scrunches her nose and makes faces until a craving appears. When she locks onto an idea, she looks at me with her big, blue eyes and asks me for a soft boiled egg with sliced tomato, a warm croissant from the corner bakery, cream of wheat with raisins and cranberries, or a half a piece of toasted French bread with a slice of Havarti I brought form the US, knowing that she would enjoy it.
She turns her TV on and watches the morning shows, while texting with family and friends. With one last glance I make sure that she is feeling alright for the moment. I drag the white and navy checkered grocery bag with wheels, don my straw hat and my cheap, oversize a la Victoria Beckham sunglasses, and head for the market. I walk briskly, weaving in and out of shades that our linden trees provide, my feet following with certainty the path they carved so many years ago.
Going to the market is a social occasion. I will invariably meet several people on my way to the store. I will stop and chat, punch in a long-lost friend’s cell phone number to connect later, make a date for another day, and continue with my enjoyable daily task. During the week, outside cafÃ©s are filled with people huddled under the awnings, seated as if in a theater, facing the main pedestrian walkway down the middle of the street that has been closed for traffic since I was a teenager. On the weekends, there are only a few souls brave enough to face the merciless heat, as the wise and knowledgeable blue-hair ladies have finished their daily shopping hours before.
The first stop is a grocery store, where I usually buy juice, yellow European butter that smells like fresh milk, yogurt, Happy Cow cheese, and a variety of small portions of deli meats, always hoping that I could coerce that stubborn woman to take a piece for a mid-day snack. Knowing that Father will dutifully collect all flimsy plastic bags that come in various pastel colors, unable to part with them, fold them neatly, and lay them carefully on top of another hundred or so neatly folded bags, I refuse the offer from the cashier, and place the groceries one by one in various pockets of my huge canvas bag.
Moving along, I cross a little square and pass by the pastry shop Pelivan, where mothers and children sit and eat gelato, cream puffs, or baklava, chasing the sweets with the best tasting lemonade in town. I arrive at the butcher’s appreciative of the modern addition of air-conditioning, while reveling in the old-fashioned custom of not having every cut of meat on premises at all time. I buy on recommendation, trusting my butcher’s pride in his craft. Our dinner plans may change drastically based on my purchase, but I embrace the challenge and adjust to the moment.
As I approach the farmers’ market, my step quickens and my eyes focus on the first stalls laden with beautiful produce, looming just beyond the cast-iron gate. The merchant who makes leather goods stands erect in front of his shop just before the gates, his arms crossed behind his back, his mustache curling upwards, the caricature of one of the hunters in fairy tale Peter and the Wolf. I have to weave through a throng of Gypsies hawking cheap socks, t-shirts, and soap bars, and move to the side when old women march ahead, burdened with overfilled canvas bags.
I am mesmerized by color and smell, and overwhelmed by a feeling of abundance every time I come to the market. I always visit every stall, remembering not only the best produce, but the friendliest and most sincere vendors. By now, I recognize most of them, and have a few that that are definitely favorites. In the beginning, I wanted to but everything every day, greedy for the luscious, sweet tomatoes, firm peppers that take my breath away with their smell, perfect young potatoes, curvy and lopsided carrots that remind me how carrots should taste, and pale yellow beans speckled with purple that I rarely manage to find in farmers’ markets in California.
I still have to restrain myself, but the temptation is weaker now, as I know that only fifteen minutes separates me from this place. I dutifully follow the plan, only occasionally picking a beautiful eggplant that seduces me, sitting innocently next to the onions I really have to buy, or a head of cabbage picked that morning, so cheap that it could be free. I carefully place my vegetables and fruits in the bag, making sure that nothing gets squished, and with a last longing glance I leave the market and head home.
As I close the gate behind me and enter the yard, Mother is already watching her Turkish soap opera, alert and freshened from her nap. I recite to her who I met and what I bought. After taking a vicarious walk through town with me, she smiles mischievously and makes a dinner request. I play along and feign annoyance at her choice, inwardly beaming, happy that she feels anything at all about food. I bring her a juicy peach or a few figs, fluff her pillows and kiss the top of her head as I leave the room to start unpacking my purchases and putting every vibrantly colored piece to its designated place.
I struggle between laughing and crying, anticipating nutritious meals that would boost her immune system and keep this filthy disease at bay. And I know that she trusts me, even though I see myself as a Don Quixote, foolishly attacking these windmills with nothing else but a bunch of vibrantly colored vegetables and pure love for the woman who taught me to how to laugh, how to cry, and how to love.
Last year, about this time I wrote about the book Hungry Planet and Chicken Makhani in my Hunger Challenge series.