Reality Check

It was inevitable, the rude lurch into winter. Overnight, rich-scented fall days brilliant with color turned ashen gray. Cold blew in. Icey snow fell. The honeymoon ended.

I’d been floating on a magic carpet of dreamy-eyed familial love, deluding myself into thinking the splendid sun-filled days and warm moony nights were the way it would be forever-and-ever-amen. I was enmeshed in the rigors of remodeling, gardening, and harvesting. I basked in the company of my sunny-side-up sister and brother-in-law.

Yesterday, they left for Texas. They’ll be gone a week.

I’ve never known quiet as deep as the soundlessness that descended with their leaving. This morning I tried to meditate. I’d neglected the practice for the past two months. As I settled into position, the roaring in my head drowned out the silence. It was unreal. I thought I’d hear a deep, profound, nothing. But the clamor in my brain was worse than the traffic on the corner of Cjon. Valle del Maiz and Salida a Queretaro where I lived in San Miguel. I learned to tune out the cars and buses there, but getting past the mental babble that had taken the place of real noise proved to be a thousand times tougher.

So I sat. And waited. And focused on no thought, empty mind.

Quiet eventually came, then a dawning realization of the very different world I’ve landed in.

Ubud, Bali, Indonesia, and San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, were coveted tourist destinations. Both had thriving communities of ex-pats. Entertainment, fine food, and friendly people spilled out of every doorway. The hustle-bustle of shops and markets, the parades, the fireworks, there was always something happening. Distractions of every nature awaited discovery. Whatever I needed or wanted was a quick walk from my door.

At Granny’s Landing, I’m surrounded by thousands of acres of hayfields and forests. There are zero ex-pats. The friendly people are my sister and brother-in-law and I’m staying with them until my house next door is finished. A walk to the mailbox is a mile round trip. The food is superb but we cook it. A deer leaping across the meadow is a distraction. So is Freya, the six-month-old German Shepherd that owns us. Shops and markets are a half-hour drive to Grand Rapids, a small town that boasts a Target, a Walmart, and a Home Depot. What more could anyone want?

Hard work is also a distraction and there has been plenty of that over the past couple of months.

Two days ago, winter blew in from the north bringing snow and freezing temperatures. I went into hibernation mode. Yesterday, all day, the wind howled. Tiny shards of ice ticked against the windows and I remembered why I left Minnesota.

I chose to return even though for years I swore I’d never live in the north again. There is no doubt in my mind that it was the right decision for me at this juncture in my life. But in meditation this morning, I was faced with questions: Who am I here? How do I want to spend my time? What will occupy me through endless months of winter?

One thing that is crystal clear is the necessity of a wardrobe adjustment. In Bali and San Miguel, I pretty much dressed up every time I left the house. It wasn’t unusual to see tourists in Ubud decked out to the nines. Young women paraded the perilous sidewalks in spike heels and frothy gowns. And there will never be anything as spectacular as a Balinese woman in full traditional regalia. The see-through lace kebaya over a tight-cinched Mona Lisa corset with the colorful silk batik sarong hugging every curve and sashed at the waist is a hard act to upstage in any culture.

In Mexico, the locals’ love of costume, whether white-painted skeleton faces or feathers and leather, made everyone else look tame.

That was then.

I’ve put away all but my simplest earrings. I feel overdressed wearing even those. I haven’t touched my lacey tops and flowy skirts – I may not ever again. To go outside today, I donned a vintage jacket W’s brother had when he worked in Denver for Continental Airlines. I added a blaze-orange stocking cap (a safety measure since bird hunting season has begun) over the scarf wrapped around my neck, head, and face for warmth. Ski mittens and felt-lined rubber boots completed the outfit. It wouldn’t matter if I wore this getup on the streets of Grand Rapids. I’d fit right in.

Then I stepped into the whipping wind in this 30-degree Fahrenheit world to walk the dog.

If I’m honest, I have to admit it’s a relief. I’m tired of noise, congestion, buildings, and traffic. My nervous system needs a rest. I like the androgynous anonymity of winter clothing. It allows me to go anywhere incognito. It’s bulky and forgiving if my stomach pooches out.

I’m being pared down to my core. What’s left will be the genuine essence of someone I tried very hard not to be. But now I can embrace her. I’ve lived fully. I’ve loved wholeheartedly. I’ve earned this peace.

Bendik and Rakel – a love story – of sorts

Unlike my paternal grandfather, I love bananas.

Grandpa Bendik was born to a farming family in Førde, Norway, in 1881. He had a sweetheart, Rakel, on a nearby farm and they wanted to marry. But Grandpa wasn’t satisfied with what he could offer his intended, so he set sail for America to better himself.

As the story goes, the first thing he saw when he landed was a vendor selling bananas. Unfamiliar with the fruit, he failed to peel it before chomping through the tough outer skin. He spit it out and never touched the ‘foul stuff’ again.

This tale has a happy ending. He found work, went home, married Rakel, and brought his new bride to the land of the free. They bought land and built a house in northern Minnesota where they raised twelve children. Number seven was my father.

It’s too bad Grandpa didn’t give bananas another try, although they probably weren’t readily available in northern Minnesota in the early 1900’s. But by 1950, when I was born, they were, and from first taste I was hooked.

Bali has at least forty-two different varieties of bananas and I am addicted to pisang merah, the red ones.

Pisang goreng was one of the first things I ate upon my arrival eight years ago. This isn’t just a naked banana plopped in hot oil. It’s a naked banana, sliced and dipped in batter, then plopped in hot oil, fried, and served with palm sugar and sometimes, if you’re lucky, grated fresh coconut and ice cream.

I’ve never attempted to make them myself…until today. There are two reasons for that:

  • I didn’t know how
  • They’re like dessert, something I rarely eat

This morning I stared at six ripe-and-ready red bananas sitting on my countertop. I cannot – will not – waste a single molecule of that precious fruit! There exist many varieties of red bananas and they’re not created equal. The uber sweet, custardy ones that make me drool are grown on a different part of the island and are not easy to find in Ubud.

As I pondered their perfect readiness wondering how many I could eat before they went bad, another thought materialized. What about pisang goreng?

I obsessed while I journaled, while I yoga-ed, while I meditated, while I dressed, and finally succumbed to temptation.

Google had a recipe. It called for flour. You may recall my hazardous attempt to make naan with banana flour and yeast. That’s still the only kind of flour I have on hand. But this recipe used baking power as its leavening agent so I thought…maybe…red bananas…fried in banana flour batter…why not?

Oh, people!

Even now, hours later, after eating way too many of them, I get a severe case of drools just thinking about the crunchy outside and the buttery sweet inside of my red banana goreng.

I dipped them in palm sugar while they were still warm. The first one I ate with a fork. After that…the fork was way too slow.

I want you to note that I now have two back-to-back culinary successes to my credit. Not to appear overly confident or anything, but I may be on a roll. It’s too bad Grandpa isn’t here to try my banana ambrosia. I think even his pure Scandinavian taste-buds would do a happy dance.

This is lockdown. This is crazy time. This is living moment by moment…

As the clock crept toward 4 p.m. I craved chocolate. Not just chocolate. A brownie. I wanted, badly wanted, a brownie.

There are bonafide bakeries in Ubud that deliver. I could have ordered my sweet treat from professionals. But where’s the adventure in that? Where’s the fun? The suspense?

I remembered buying something called cacao nibs. I burrowed through the basket that holds miscellaneous such things looking for them. In the process I found a far more promising candidate.

The Bali version of Hershey’s syrup: Chocolate Topping Jam. Notice the expiration date. March 26, 2021. I’m checking more carefully now.

I would never buy chocolate topping jam. I inherited it from Ketut who used to squirt it on his delicious banana fritters. But there are no guests for the fritters now so it found its way to my stash of mishmash (along with the likes of decades old curry powder).

Next step: I Googled chocolate syrup brownies. Hundreds of recipes popped up – who knew? I chose Domino Sugar Chocolate Syrup Brownies, not because I had Domino sugar – far from it. Mine was a lump of the old, solidified, palm variety.

And of course I still don’t have an oven, or a 9 x 13 baking pan, so I halved the recipe to fit in my trusty non-stick skillet.

The ingredients called for four eggs – half would be two – but Bali chickens lay large eggs so I used one.

Pili nuts have a buttery flavor. They’d be a perfect complement. I dumped in a healthy portion.

In case you don’t know pili nuts, they’re a high fat (22g/ounce), low carb (1.1g/ounce) superfood. They also weigh in at 200 calories per ounce so they’re perfect for brownies that are already off the calorie charts. I mean – if you’re gonna do it – go whole hog!

I spread them in the pan, flopped the cover on, and turned up the flame. The recipe said bake for twenty-five to thirty minutes. I set the timer for twenty and started cleaning up. Three minutes into the bake cycle – burn smell. I whipped the skillet off the heat and flipped the contents up-side-down into a different pan. Salvaged. That was close.

Another three minutes and – done. I turned them out onto a plate.

I know – they don’t look normal. In case you hadn’t noticed, nothing right now is normal. The important thing was, they smelled right.

I washed dishes while they cooled,

Then sat down to test the results.

Oh! My! Oh, dear. These are so much better than any brownies I’ve ever tasted. No! I’m not kidding! They’re moist…chocolaty…sweet-but-not-too-sweet. The palm sugar adds a caramel flavor. Ohhhh yes!

See what I mean? Experimentation. Adventure. Suspense. I learned that a recipe that calls for twenty-five to thirty minutes in the oven takes a quick three minutes per side in the skillet. Never had to flip brownies before but, listen, whatever it takes, right? This is lockdown. This is crazy time. This is living moment-by-moment and making it work.

Try them! I dare you….

Che Bontà Pizzaria – and Claudio – Very Tasty Indeed

Today’s the day!

Che Bontà for pizza.

Overcast skies obscured the hoped-for pinks and corals this morning. An hour after sunrise light shone through a few cloud-holes casting dazzling pools on the sea.

I pulled on my ‘outside’ clothes – I have wooly leggings and a sweater for inside and black jeans with a couple of layers under my sweater for outside. Plus a jacket and scarf. I could have left the rest at home – so far. You never know when Cinderella might get an invitation to the ball!

There’s a marked difference in Via Roma during the week – no traffic. On my long Sunday walk, motorcycles, buses, and cars whizzed past. Today they’re all back at work and I have the luxury of the open road virtually to myself.

I stopped to admire several houses I’ve passed before but never really looked at.

This sweet casa has a real driveway winding down to it. A luxury.

This one has steps up from the street but note the tuck-under garage. Maybe there’s an elevator inside – or maybe not.

This might be old. If so, it’s been renovated and beautifully maintained.

And just look at this driveway! It feels fairytale-ish. Like any moment I will see Goldilocks, or Hansel and Gretel skipping along holding hands.

Like the road, Che Bontà was all mine. I thought I wanted pizza. Then I remembered Blackbeach, my favorite Italian restaurant in Ubud. They make melt-in-your-mouth panini. It’s all I ever order there. I had to know if the real thing, made in Italy, would measure up.

While I waited for my order, I chatted with Claudio who, bless his handsome heart, speaks English.

“Claudio, I want to buy the hard bread. The really hard bread. What is the name?”

“Yes, you must ask for pane biscottato.” I repeated the words, perhaps not very well since he added, “Or you can just say pane duro, that means hard bread.” I added it to my shopping list that consisted of coffee and limoncello – staples.

After not much time at all, out came panini and Claudio! What’s not to love? As he set the fragrant plate in front of me I asked him, “Che Bontà, Claudio…what does the name mean?”

The smile grew bigger, “It means, how tasty,” he said.

You have no idea how badly I wanted to comment on that. But I bit my tongue and smiled back. “Grazie,” I said.

Crispy-fried focaccia, melty mozzarella, mushrooms, tomatoes, the flavors melded in my mouth and went straight to my heart. How tasty indeed. I weighed the evidence, did Blackbeach or Che Bontà have the better panini sandwich? I think it’s a tie. I’m going to have to go back for another round.

I could only eat half. The rest is in the fridge for later tonight when the nibble bug bites.

The bill was eleven euros. Claudio showed it to me and said, “But for you, ten.”

“It says eleven,” I replied, confused.

“Yes, but for you, signora, ten.”

How tasty!

Need I mention, Claudio got a handsome tip? Then I was off to Centro Market to try out my new Italian words.

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