Wednesday, August 12, 2015

What Do Doro Wat, Pannekoeken, Marsala, and Baklava Have in Common?

When I was growing up, cooking and baking were a way for me to escape the problems of the day and ultimately find a new vantage point.  I remember lonely Friday nights during middle school where I would get lost in baking cookies.  During the measuring and mixing, I would stop obsessing about my status at school or the day’s slights.  When the cookies were cooling, my perspective would have altered just enough so my world seemed a little brighter and my problems almost manageable.  Thinking back, I realize the act of food preparation helped me break negative circuits in my head as I allowed myself to enjoy the creativity and the creation inherent in the act.

Growing up, my sisters and I learned Dutch before English.  We attended school and church with people of similar origin.  We celebrated traditions from the land well known for its windmills.  We also traveled back to the Netherlands every five years or so to visit extended family.  My immigrant parents and I often found a gulf separated us from fully understanding each other.

Food became part of a bridge we built in my adult years.  I vividly recall making pofferjes at my Oom (uncle) Piet’s house as a child.  The small, puffy, round pancakes dusted with powdered sugar melted in my mouth in just one bite.  Now making them with my kids takes me back to those times.  On New Year’s Eve, my dad made oliebollen—fried dough with raisins and chunks of apples dipped in powdered sugar and eaten hot.  When I learned to make them, I felt a new connection form.  I share this experience with him although we prepare the dish at different times and miles apart.  My parents and I still have much we don’t understand about each other.  But when they see my kids scream for pannekoeken (thin Dutch pancakes) and witness me preparing them as they did for me and my sisters, I can show them their culture has become a part of ours too.

Offering an opinion while enjoying pannekoeken with friends in Holland

My first date with my Greek-born husband was at a restaurant called Greek Islands in Chicago.  It was my introduction to the taste of his food and coffee, which I found out the hard way had grounds in the bottom.  My initial visit to his homeland was ironically without him.  My mother-in-law cooked “eggplant shoes,” wonderfully unlike anything I had ever tasted before.  She was a food-is-love person and was always in the kitchen fixing something.  When I mastered the art of baklava and my husband complimented me by saying, “Wow, this is as good as my mother’s.  Just don’t tell her!” I felt a little Greek too.  And I paid homage to his mother, even though our lives have taken divergent paths.  She taught me to make a few of my favorite Hellenic foods before she passed away too soon.  She didn’t use recipes.  So my son Damian and I stayed in the kitchen for hours documenting every step.  I don’t think I felt closer to her than when she shared this gift—with minimal words spoken but much laughter and tasting.  Language was a challenging barrier for us but communication through food broke through it.  And she created a special bond with her grandchildren this way too.

Loving on Yaya at a Greek Restaurant

When we went to Addis Ababa to meet our daughter, we sampled Ethiopian cuisine for the first time.  Bringing a child into our family from another part of the world gave us the responsibility to connect her to her culture.  For me, learning to cook her food and seeing her natural affinity for it (quite unlike her brothers who are finding it an acquired taste), made me feel a little bit like an East African mama.  Preparing these dishes and stocking my shelves with spices I just discovered felt like an investment in her roots.  As the smells of lentils cooking with berbere or duro wat waft through the house, I imagine these are the same aromas as those in the kitchen of her first mother.  And I feel the expanse of half the globe disappear.

Celebrating a special birthday at a local Ethiopian Restaurant topped off with Baklava

When I traveled to India to celebrate two friends’ union, I witnessed that no other culture quite does weddings like Indians with a week long affair of parties and festivities.  I enjoyed marsala tea for the first time and many vegetarian and non-vegetarian specialties.  I continue to drink that spicy tea with milk and am transported to the beauty and chaos that was my Indian experience. I also learned to make some of my favorite dishes as a way to honor the amazing heritage my friends and their families opened up to me.

Food is a wonderful, accessible expression of culture and a way to connect.  There are no rules, boundaries or judgments.  I can mix, match and modify while learning and enjoying.  And you can share it too. I like creating cookbooks so my children can join me on this journey and add their own twists. Specifically, I found the preparation and the creativity of opening my mind to new tastes, flavors and combinations opens my internal dialogue to new paths and connects me with others whose cultures differ from mine.

One Friday night, I felt quite down after receiving disappointing work news.  I woke up Saturday still blue.  Without thinking, I headed to the kitchen.  I started cooking and baking.  My three kids joined in or passed through as the hours lapsed.  At the end of the day, the disappointment was less bitter and the possibilities more exciting.  I was transported back to those middle school baking sessions that had the same effect.  I realized my culinary exploits that led to this Zen feeling had broadened to include the cultures I embraced.  With no specific intention, my Saturday offerings included Greek zucchini, Ethiopian lentils, Indian curry cauliflower, as well as a few variations of cookies.  Maybe the connection to the individuals and cultures they represent was part of the genesis for the peaceful feeling I gained…at least I would like to think so.

A version previously published on InCulture Parent.

Monday, June 8, 2015

Happy Seventh Birthday Little Leyla Marie Fasika; Seeing the World Through Your Eyes Revealed A BIG Heart!

My youngest turned seven recently, the same age her closest brother was when she joined our family in 2008.  She is no longer the chubby faced baby with gigantic orbs taking in the world.  Those early years I was struck by her solemn study of the people whether familiar or stranger.  She seemed to be taking pictures in her mind; capturing each detail from head to toe.  I remember thinking this child is an observer of the world.  But for what purpose?  What does she see or think, I wondered?  Oh to be able to get inside and see out of those eyes too so I could share her view.   

Observing the world and getting used to a chillier winter
Over the years, I have gotten a glimpse of the world through her eyes in beautiful and unexpected ways.  And it revealed more about her heart than I could have imagined.

My little girl unwrapped many of her most wonderful qualities in beautiful ways.  One includes some interesting role reversal as she is frequently worried about me.  “I don’t want anything to happened to you, mama,” she will scold if I am not watching out carefully for cars as I cross the street or taking my medicine every night.  She is a “little mommy” and has the amazing gift of being completely certain she can help; whether it be a teenage brother who has a vexing challenge or her dad or me with our adult challenges or as we learned, for a little friend or even strangers half a world away. 

When we were living in Luxembourg, she started school as a four year old.  In Europe, school begins a year earlier.  She had a little boy in her class adopted from Korea.  He was rambunctious and she thoroughly enjoyed his company being quite high energy herself.  His father had been battling cancer for some time and about half way through the school year he died.  His mother was a beautiful women in all respects. She soldiered on gracefully raising her two sons alone.  We offered condolences and help but both seemed wholly inadequate in the face of such a huge and unimaginable loss.  And soon life went on for us. 

Later in the year, this mother sought me out.  She said, “I want you to thank Leyla for helping my son.”   I said, “I would be happy to do so but I don’t understand.  What did she do?”  She explained that her son was understandably having a hard time with his father’s death.  As a result, he was acting out in school.  She explained. “Leyla continually reaches out to him even though he is pushing people away. Many of the other kids just get upset.  She both supports him and lovingly gets him back on track.”  My eyes welled.  She had not said a word.  But she had observed and identified a way to make a real difference for this little boy and his mother. 
Saying a prayer for a friend in beautiful Greece
That summer, we were on a walk in Greece where my husband grew up.  Leyla saw a little blue and white small chapel by the side of the path which is a common sight.  She asked what it was and I explained, "People say a prayer or light a candle here for someone who has died".  She then asked me, “Can we say a prayer for my friend’s dad because he misses him a lot."  I said of course, my eyes again filling.  I was humbled by her beautiful gesture that seemed to be as natural as breathing to her.
I also a glimpse of her vantage point of the world as she became aware of opportunity inequities.  When she learned  kids in Ethiopia often don’t get the chance to learn to read or go to school, her reaction was swift and fierce, “That’s just not fair!”   

Good spot to read a book -- OHBD 2011
So each year since she was 4, she has spoken at our Open Hearts Big Dreams Event benefiting Ethiopia Reads in Seattle. (At 3 she just took the opportunity to find a quiet place to read.) The first year she spoke, her sweet voice quavered as I held her on my hip.  She had asked me what to say.  And she delivered the few words we worked on together with deep seriousness and sincerity.   

OHBD 2012 my turn before Leyla's
The next year she wanted to talk more specifically about the unfairness she saw and asked me to help her think through how to do that.  We worked out what she would say.  I again held her petite little body as she courageously spoke her words of truth to a large audience of supporters; those big eyes moving slowing reading the sea of faces in front of her.  

"It's not fair that all kids don't get the chance to go to school"  OHBD 2013
Last year, I asked her if she again wanted my help.  I was taken aback when she firmly told me, “No, I know what I want to say.  I just need you to be my coach to practice and I need you to hold my hand so I don’t get scared.”  She was growing up before my eyes.  

When we spoke together this last December (captured in this video), her tinker bell voice moved the audience with its clarity. 

Afterward she told me, “I felt like I might cry when I was talking and I felt like you might too, why is that?”  I explained to her that for me, and likely for her too, speaking about something I care deeply about triggers emotions and sometimes even tears (although they can stay inside).  And I (and she) need to be brave to put a vulnerable piece of ourselves out into the world and it can feel scary. She nodded seriously at my words.

As her birthday approached, she was so excited to be seven, a milestone she wouldn’t own until the actual day.  She wanted cinnamon rolls for breakfast, a special day with the family, a Tiana birthday cake and party with her friends.   But she also wanted to help kids in her birth-country so she asked her friends to make donations to Ethiopia Reads instead of more gifts for herself.

Birthday girl modeling some of her gifts
Happy Seventh Birthday, my little Leyla Marie Fasika Angelidis. Looking at the world through your eyes has shown me what a BIG heart you have!  You remind me everyday, "the people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world are the ones who do."  

And you already are . ..   as a kindergartner!

Sunday, January 18, 2015

“Beep. Beep. Poopy Butts. Get outta my way!”

May is a special month.  It starts with May Day, which I appreciate more now after having lived in Europe, and the beginning of spring.  It is also the month my daughter was born which is reason enough to call it special.  May is also a month of good byes. 

I recall vividly one May about a year and a half ago.  I was on Facebook when I saw a prayer request from a friend for a friend of theirs who had just lost their toddler Ethiopian daughter in an accident.  My heart stopped!  My worst nightmare became a reality for this family.  I felt anguished and helpless.  I reached out to learn more. I don’t know why.  For some unexplainable reason, I was compelled to find out who and how and more importantly why.  But the last, I already knew in my heart of hearts, there was no answer. 

I learned the little girl had been hit by a car in parking lot waiting for her brothers’ sports practice to end - -something very familiar in our house.  I couldn’t get this toddler and her family out of my thoughts.  I saw her pictures and she reminded me so much of my daughter at that age.  She had a similar spunk and light.  Her family openly shared their pain as well as the support they were receiving.  They set an example I am not at all sure I could in their shoes.

After some weeks, I send a note to both parents offering our family’s condolences and connected via Facebook.  I checked in as often as I could and tried to provide what support was possible being a virtual stranger who lived abroad.  Everything I could do seemed wholly inadequate.  But still I truly felt I needed to try my best; for myself and my little girl, as well as for this amazing family and theirs. 

My middle son and daughter were drawn in too -- seeing what I did -- our family mirrored in many respects.  I recall sitting watching a tribute video and my son started watching over my shoulder.  I was pulled out of my own experience by the sound of jagged sobs.  I turned to see unbearable pain spread across his sweet face.  He then just buried his face into Leyla as he hugged her tight.  I could feel a bit of the anguish Marra Freh's brothers must feel as I watched my son in that moment.

Amy, Sten, Mihret, Jenna, Leyla and me in Washington DC at a awesome chance get together

These two and I talk of Marra Freh often.  Damian sees his sister in her, himself in her older brother and me in her mother.  He is so grateful to have his sister still with him but wanted to help the grieving family who lost theirs.  One of his gifts is poetry.  He wrote one about Marra Freh for her mother Amy (shown above) and also mentioned the garden her brother had planted as a memorial.  Amy Olsson sent him a note, picture and special treat which he treasures. 
Damian with his special treats from Amy
Damian and Amy get to meet in person

Leyla laughs at the stories she hears and videos and pictures the Olssons’ shared – including the quote on this shirt.  One day she was telling me some things she was going to teach Marra Freh when she met her.  I gently asked her if she remembered that Marra Freh had died.  She replied quickly as if I was the slow one, "I am going to teach her when I meet her in heaven." and then smiled at the thought.  Her answer reminded me I too can choose to focus on the beautiful, the funny and what is possible, rather than what is lost.
Marra Freh
Leyla at three
Marrah Freh with a perfect t-shirt
Leyla at three

The Olssons are an amazing family – this was so crystal clear even though I got to know them when their world was rocked by grief.  We were lucky enough to meet in person recently and it was so sweet. 

I want to thank Marra Freh for the amazing gifts she gave so many in her two and half beautiful years on this planet.  What gifts could a toddler give people far distances away who never met her?    

She gave me the chance to celebrate an amazing life.  Her life was brief but its impact was the kind I hope for at the end of mine.  Her gifts were abundant, open and enthusiastic love; laughter with utter abandon and an exuberant zest for life.  It leaps out from each picture and video.  She touched so many by just being her amazingly unique and authentic self. 

She also showed me so beautifully that death is not the end.  Her family keeps her memory alive in so many impactful and creative ways, giving people who loved her in life and those who came to love her after, the chance to celebrate and rejoice in her spirit.

Marra Freh also reminded me that life is unpredictable and fragile.  I need to grab and hold on to those fleeting moments like the precious hug or the bright smile or the potty humor of a toddler.  She gave me this priceless reminder to slow down.  

When I think of her, I found myself consciously remembering to enjoy more special "every day" moments with my kids.  When my little girl asks me to lie with her as she goes to sleep, I say yes most times where before I might have thought I was too busy.  I go out of my way to make sure I hug my teenage boys even when it is less than enthusiastically returned.  I consciously listen to their music, watch what catches their attention, take long walks to talk, or just be together. These treasures of moments are so easy to miss. Marra Freh has made sure our family has more of them.

She gave me the example of how to live life to the fullest when you are here and that your legacy is rooted in the love and memories of those you touched .  Marra Freh's legacy is huge.  Random kindness done and races run -- in her name.  Many, many lives touched and enriched because of her.

I desperately wish I could have known Marra Freh in life.  I wish even more I didn’t meet her family through the tragedy of her death.  But I am glad I know her now.  I am glad I can love her too and help keep me memory alive.  I am glad I got to know her family who inspire me with their strength, courage, vulnerability and openness. 

Thank you angel Marra Freh for sharing your family and your life with us.  I, like Leyla, can’t wait to meet you in heaven.  
Sten Olsson with 2 Angelidis and two Olsson kids
Leyla enjoying time with Marra Freh's sisters