Lessons from the Birthday Boy

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My biggest shortfall after being in Croatia for almost a year is that I still can’t speak Croatian. I know only the pleasantries.

I’ve discovered the limitations of charades and Google Translate. I know greetings, basic numbers and days of the week (barely). But things like parent meetings at the kids’ school leave me lost. I’m still intimidated by the circle of school moms whose conversations I don’t understand. I get excited when I know the words in Croatian television commercials. I’ve given up trying to decipher the local news.

When I’ve ordered pizza for delivery, I put my son on the phone to speak in Croatian.

I make shopping mistakes all the time. I once bought sour cream instead of coffee cream. Last week, I opened a can of something like Spam for lunch when I was expecting it to be tuna. And it’s not only Croatian that gets me. When we were in Germany in December, I bought a goose when I thought I was buying a chicken. We feasted on our first Christmas goose purely by accident.

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I keep thinking if we were staying longer, I’d put the effort into taking language classes. It’s been pretty easy for me to get by relying on the kindness of strangers. I’m just embarrassed that I haven’t caught on to the language the way Sarge and the kids have.

Moving abroad has been harder for the kids than it has been for me. Yes, kids are resilient. They have made friends and adjusted well. At school, even though it’s international, not all classes are in English. Math, for instance, is in Croatian. I’d be in tears by the end of the day. They’ve learned how to adapt.

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Today is our oldest’s 12th birthday. Almost every boy in his class showed up at our place last night to help him celebrate. They didn’t eat as much as American birthday-goers his age. That might be because they were playing outside most of the time. I asked them if they wanted to watch a movie, and they told me they didn’t want technology to spoil the party. They wanted to play. I love these kids.

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The most stressful part of the party for me was writing the invitations in Croatian. I’m still not sure if they were accurate, but they worked. Everyone arrived on time, even the one whose mom called and tried to speak to me in Croatian to get directions. I had to put Sarge on the phone with her husband because we couldn’t get through the language barrier.

This afternoon, our birthday boy is happily playing with Legos. He is looking forward to dinner at our favorite restaurant and having more of his chocolate cake. I interviewed him with a little birthday quiz I found online about his favorite things.

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One of the hardest questions was: “Who is your best friend?” He told me it was too hard to name just one. He has friends all over.

Pete’s Red Sauce

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Back when moving abroad was just a fantasy, I got in touch with my friend Eileen to see how life abroad was going for her. She and her husband made the transition from military life to retirement in Malta. (They were even on “House Hunters International.”) I always hoped we could meet up again.

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Eileen and I were friends what seems like a lifetime ago as military wives in Hawaii. She helped me through a tough year when my husband was in Afghanistan. Our diversions included pontoon boating at the Kaneohe Bay sandbar and organizing neighborhood parties. She was my partner on a women’s sailing club. When my husband returned from war and I got pregnant, she and her husband, Pete, held a surprise baby shower for us.

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It’s been nearly 13 years since that baby shower and the military moves that separated us. Ever since we’ve been in Europe, I’ve been trying to figure out when to squeeze in a visit. When would I ever be this close to Malta? I had to work it into our travels.

Our reunion came last week, when our boys were away on a school ski trip. Sarge and I dropped the boys off on a bus headed to Bosnia. We drove to the airport with our fingers crossed. We prayed the boys would be OK on a ski trip away from us.

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We arrived in Malta to see Eileen holding a welcome sign. We talked like old times. Our husbands bonded over military service stories. And we helped them celebrate another milestone. We were in town for their daughter’s eighth birthday.

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One of my favorite parts of seeing old friends is just hanging out and getting a glimpse of life on their turf. Malta was amazing. It’s on our list of “Places Where We’d Like to Retire.” But rekindling an old friendship was even better.

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During our years apart, Eileen and Pete did Navy moves to Italy, Hawaii and California. Eventually, they moved back to Italy. Pete retired from the Navy, and they went to cooking school in Florence on the GI Bill. Pete was our chef on the trip and made us lasagna and Caesar salad with homemade dressing. He gave me tips on coddling an egg for dressing and making spinach seasoned with garlic and oil.

He told me one of his biggest lessons from culinary school is that you can make a good meal with just a few ingredients. I took notes on his red sauce, which doesn’t need hours to simmer:

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PETE’S RED SAUCE

Ingredients:

  • about ¼ cup olive oil (enough to fully coat the bottom of a large pot. He said it will seem like a lot of oil.)
  • 3 to 4 cloves of pressed garlic
  • 2 teaspoons dry basil
  • a pinch of salt
  • a dash of chili pepper flakes
  • 2 (700-gram) jars of “rustica” (rough-cut) tomatoes
  • 1 (700-gram) jar of thin crushed tomatoes
  • 1 bay leaf
  • salt or more garlic to taste

Instructions:

Pour the oil in a large pot over medium heat. Add the garlic, and bring the oil to temperature. You want to flavor the oil but not brown the garlic. Add the basil, a pinch of salt and some chili pepper flakes. Stir with a wooden spoon. Once it starts to boil, and before the garlic browns, lower the heat and add the crushed tomatoes.

In Pete’s case, he used two 700-gram jars of rustic (rough-cut) tomatoes and one jar of thinner tomatoes. He said when I’m back in the States, I can make substitutions. Instead of jars, I can use two cans of crushed tomatoes and one can of tomato puree.

Add a bay leaf.

Let the sauce come to temperature. Bring to a boil and then simmer until slightly thickened. The tomato will soak up the oil. You don’t need hours of simmering. It takes about 30 minutes. Taste to see if it needs more salt or garlic. Remove bay leaf before serving.

 

We’ve already tried this upon our return to Croatia. I have never gone to culinary school, but I’ll never turn down cooking lessons in someone’s kitchen. I may never buy jarred sauce again.

Thanks for the memories, Pete and Eileen. I’ll think of you every time we have pasta and red sauce. Hope to see you again soon, wherever we are in the world.

 

Confessions of a 40-something CrossFit Newbie

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Sarge and I joined a gym.

It’s basically like CrossFit in Croatian. The thing that makes it less intimidating for me as an out-of-shape, closer-to-50-than-40-something is that not only do I not know any of these people, I probably wouldn’t even understand if they were making fun of me.

I’ve met two instructors, Luka and Roko (it seems like all of the Millennial Croats are named Luka or Roko). There’s a friendly guy who translates for me when I’m looking particularly confused. I think his name is Igor or Ivan or Ilija. And there’s a funny one whose name is something like Domagoj who calls me his “Jim Bean sister from Kentucky.”

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The women I’ve met in the classes haven’t said much in English. I have a feeling they can understand me, but they’re probably thinking I should learn their language and speak in Croatian. At least they let me follow along and do what they’re doing when I don’t know what I’m supposed to be doing. They are young fitness fanatics, and I can’t keep up. I really don’t care.

I was looking for a workout routine I could do with Sarge, and this is more his style than Pilates or Zumba. If I look like a big dork trying to do a burpee, it’s a little easier doing it in another country in a room full of strangers.

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The gym is no-frills. It has motivational signs in English — “Mistakes Are Proof That You’re Trying!” — plays American music and even has the time count-downs in English. I don’t think this is one of the official global CrossFit affiliates (there are something like 13,000 worldwide), but it looks like that kind of cult you’d probably find anywhere in America.

The setting is more like a garage than a gym with stations for barbells, dumbbells, kettlebells and medicine balls. It has plywood walls and ceilings and no shower rooms to speak of. I saw one guy change out of his shorts and walk across the gym in Speedos the other day. And one woman ends her workout drying her hair by the front desk at what appears to be the only outlet for her hair dryer.

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I thought the focus on weightlifting might be too dangerous for me. I didn’t want to have to carry truck tires or teammates anywhere. This doesn’t seem that intense. Coach Luka doesn’t care if I do push-ups on my knees or if I modify exercises to the beginner level. His high-fives and “bravos” are encouragement enough. He also shows me if my technique is off: “Donkey kicks up!” (not out), he says. There’s a camaraderie at the gym even if I can’t understand everything they’re saying.

Pull-ups and handstands are still never going to be my thing. But living abroad may be improving my workouts. It’s made me realize I can be the oldest, or the foreigner, or the slowest in the room and not be intimidated. Well, not as much!