Sometimes in life we need a “timeout”. Luckily, out of the blue, an opportunity presented itself to me.
However, before we go there, let’s take a step back to explain why the need arose.
Istanbul, whilst being an amazing place to visit as a tourist, is, in my opinion, one of the most challenging cities in which to live. I’ve not lived in many to be sure, but that being said, I have been in 6 countries for more than 3 months - 4 of them living for over 3 years.
Many people living in Istanbul, I’m certain, would agree with me.
Thus, after 8 years and being completely honest – facing many tough times – my mind and body really needed a break from the hectic city I call home.
It all came about as I was talking to a Swedish cousin Ebba on the telephone. As we shared our “life’s tough” stories, I got to understand that life for her, her husband Oscar and their two kids Hugo and Astrid was busy busy busy. As I’m sure many of you know, taking care of a family and running a household can be a full-time job.
After chatting for a while, we dreamt up this “hairbrained” idea whereby I would travel to Stockholm and “help out” around the house.
At the time, as I usually the case, I had been reading and listening to books and videos explaining how to sort my “shit” out and one of those was to follow Mel Robbins’ advice. One of the things she likes to say is: “You know you want to do it. So just do it!”
While Ebba was suggesting that I come and stay in Stockholm to help them with cooking, cleaning, and other chores, part of me was saying, “That sounds ridiculous” while another part was saying “That would be a very challenging challenge!”
We finished the call saying that I would think about it and call Ebba back with a decision. 5 minutes after hanging up the phone, I remembered another of Mel’s now famous tips: 5-4-3-2-1! Essentially, this rule works on making a quick decision, before your brain has time to “screw things up” by thinking of reasons not to do what you want to do.
How could I delay? I called her straight back and said “I’ll do it!”. Then, unfortunately for me, my anxiety kicked in. For those unawares, I live with anxiety every day. Interestingly, I’ve recently come across a new term which I think fits very well: high functioning anxiety. Throwing “high functioning” into Baba Google produces quite a variety of high functioning conditions. There’s something comforting in realising that I belong to something.
Anyhoo. One interesting post I found entitled “6 Things People with High-Functioning Anxiety Want You to Know“ very nicely explains what I’d like people to know about me. I only wish I could have presented it to the numerous people who, with the best of intentions, have said things to me that had entirely the opposite effect.
I’m getting well sidetracked…
Not being satisfied with a simple holiday, the idea of putting myself into a stressful situation under which I had some semblance of control seemed like a good idea to get to grips with said “shit”.
Incidentally, this was my reason for leaving New Zealand in the first place and buying a one-way ticket to a foreign country where I had no job, no friends, no home and no language!
That’s the “why”. Now for the “how”.
On the first day, we agreed a program for the first week. I was to cook the evening meal for the family on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday as they were the most action-packed days. With both parents working and the kids having multiple after school activities there wasn’t much time for them to catch their breaths.
As well as the cooking, a list of the usual suspects for cleaning the home were added. On top of this, there was a desire to have the windows cleaned inside and out, together with the piles of old wood lying in front of the garage being taken to the recycling centre.
To be completely fair, in the end, it turned out to be a not-so-big list. But at the outset, it seemed quite something.
I hear parents and home owners laughing out loud, so I’ll explain exactly how it looked from my perspective.
Even though I’d lived on my own for many years, I’d never really developed the ability to cook much beyond my beloved pasta. You’d think I’d get tired of it, but I really was crazy about “fresh” pasta. Mmm tortellini.
I could hardly cook that for 3 days in a row. Besides, I’d always wanted to try “real” cooking. Before I overly raise your expectations, I’ll say up front that none of it really reached “mum” level (the primary cook in our house).
It’s not so hard then to understand that I had zero skills and it was super simple to panic each day about not only how the hell I would prepare things, but also face the huge fear of it being a complete disaster and potentially inedible. Sounds silly as I write it down now, but I can assure you that it was no joke at the time.
Not only that, but consider this: there were 3 different eating styles under the one roof!: LCHF (low carb – high fat), vegetarian, and “normal”.
Oscar, the dad, was the LCHF one. Hugo the vegetarian. Sadly, for Oscar, he sometimes got left-out as a result of my abysmal food knowledge. One such occasion was when I made this delicious green lentil soup with baby spinach. With my lack-lustre knowledge of food groups, I had thought this was fine for all of us. I’m sure you, however, know that lentils are mainly carbohydrates! A disaster of a different kind. I felt so bad when Oscar came home and, as it turned out, I had nothing for him.
The first Monday rolled around and it ended up being a 12-hour day.
Just before we go there, let’s just add another branch to the tree of stress.
The fact is that the panicking had set-in well before I’d even got on the darn plane! Actually, reflecting on it know, it was exactly the same way in which my June skydiving trip had started.
And …that reminds me. What a party we had when we came to land in Stockholm! Experts say that take-off and landing are easily the riskiest parts of flying, with landing being the most dangerous. You can imagine my feelings then, when the guy sitting next to me decided to make a phone call not 30 seconds before hitting the tarmac.
Not one to normally say things, I did in fact initially hold my breath. However, in the end, I couldn’t handle it and said enough (along with a mini-lecture – mental note: have to stop giving those) to make him cancel the call.
Just 5 seconds before landing, he was in the process of hanging up when “Woosh!!!” Seems we weren’t landing after all. Surprising that it hadn’t happened earlier I guess, but it was my first aborted landing. It was super freaky (read “shit my pants”) to feel the plane gain a huge burst of speed and bank steeply into the sky.
Perhaps needless to say, but my fried brain had put 2 and 2 together and got 17. I was sure our leap into the sky was because of the guy on the phone and I was livid. This was not because of the experience we all had had to endure, but the supposed notion that the phone call was more important than the lives of 200-odd passengers.
What was so surprising about the abort (I can’t say abortion right?!) was that in the last few years I’d experienced a number of turbulent one-wheeled see-saw landings. I mean, if those guys could land in those conditions, and there weren’t any significant winds this time around – what the hell was it that caused the pilot to decide it wasn’t worth the risk???
Anyhoo. To Monday we return with a description that gives you a fairly good idea of how the first few days were.
As soon as the entire family had had breakfast and left the house, my torture began. The first thing was to decide what to cook. It makes me think now of one time when mum asked me, “What would you like me to cook? Give me something. Anything.” She was desperate for inspiration, to which I was no help at all of course.
During the weekend, Oscar and Ebba had very kindly explained a few “simple” options for the evening meal to get me started. Bear in mind that it’s only 9am in the morning and I’m completely focused on the task at hand – the evening meal. Nevertheless, these options sounded too complex for me and so I again returned to Baba Google to find some simple recipes. I cannot even remember now what I started with – I think it’s a case of the mind blocking out past painful memories!
After finding a recipe with ingredients that I recognised – and more importantly, there was no requirement to make a sauce (mum level cooking) – I attacked the fridge and cupboards to see if we had what was needed.
Not to make the task of finding a simple list of ingredients, I had to convert English to Swedish and vis versa of course. Realising a few items were missing, I then headed out on the 15 minute walk to the local shops.
I mention the time because it makes the journey seem so easy. The “rellies” (relatives) live in Skogås. I encourage you to check it out and see just how the streets are laid out. Not so different from an English garden labyrinth.
Now, one phrase I love to use to explain to others just how easy it is for me to lose my bearings is “I can walk around a 100m block and be lost”. Needless to say, I wasn’t going 20m from the front door without the assistance of Baba Maps.
Three wrong turnings later… oh wait! Did I tell you that I was getting instructions in Turkish?! … I arrived at the supermarket. Best thing ever – in my numerous trips to and through Sweden I’d only encountered two people who didn’t speak English almost like a native. And neither of them lived in the capital Stockholm.
Smiling, helpful, friendly staff answered my questions and looked at the photos I showed them to guide me to the items that I sought. After losing my virgin status at the cashier with the coin system, I looked up the address and Baba Maps lead me home.
Two wrong turnings later…
Back at home, I checked and rechecked (and rechecked) the cooking ingredients and instructions. My confidence was building as I’d come to the part I was most confident about – cutting up the food.
Sometime later, I had lots of little bowls filled with an assortment of cut pieces – just like the TV chefs. I realise this isn’t what home cooking is all about, but it really simplified the process for me and meant that I could happily cut away without having to worry about what goes with what and how they are all mixed together.
During this time, I was listening to P3 Stockholm on the radio. Yeah, the radio. Smooth hip hop and R&B tunes helped to calm my nerves. The “famous” sing-song Swedish speaking of the DJs made it feel like everything was a song.
11am arrived and I had all the ingredients ready – for the evening meal.
The next step I felt most confident about was to prepare a salad. Hanife, my wife, is a salad guru. She somehow manages to make each daily salad seem different from the ones before and ensure they are tasty too! I’m convinced that her secret is nar ekşisi (pomegranate juice). I think it would be a great export.
Salad prepared. Check.
But wait – it’s like 11.30am. I throw it into the fridge to keep it as fresh as possible and feel a little silly in having it ready so early.
The hard part has been well avoided and has finally arrived – how to cook the meal. After reading the instructions a minimum of five times, and rechecking that I have everything required, I realise that I simply have to wait till the allotted time when everyone starts coming home.
Clearly, I can’t just sit around thinking about it. That won’t help with the anxiety and so I start with the chores.
When it became time to start the cooking, I was literally just following the instructions. All the while, trying to work out how the temperature worked with their convection stove. Very clever and safe technology, but controlling the heat was a minefield for me!
This is essentially how I rolled each day.
On one day, I did baked potatoes in the oven. Despite following the instructions to the “T” (yes, I researched cooking baked potatoes), when the kids arrived home and I confidently placed their spuds on their plates, we discovered they were still rock hard in the middle. A significant number of “throwing them in the microwaves” later, they were passable.
In spite of the embarrassment, it turned out to be one of the meals that the kids particularly enjoyed. I think a large part of this was that I had made a huge spread of ingredients that they could add or not add as they saw fit. It was essentially the closest I could get to Turkish kumpir. And, erm, we had to mash the potatoes as they had completely collapsed.