Monday, July 30, 2007

Dear Diary: What was I Thinking?

This is one of the classic stories from my childhood: I got a new bike when I was about eight or nine years old. The neighboring apartment building had a large yard with some grass and trees and a parking lot where all of the neighboring children and their parents would gather in the afternoons for play dates and gossip.

My friend, Kata, really wanted my new bike. So she would say to me: “Hey, Zsofi, come here! I want to show you something!” Curiosity got the best of me and I got off my bike, walked over to her and she ran to my bike, got on, and rode away happily.

I don’t quite remember this incident, but apparently she did this to me about 10 times that afternoon and I fell for it every single time. My mom watched from the bench, along with Kata’s mom, hoping that I would catch on.

I didn’t.

How many times have I heard this story? Way too many, in my opinion. Kata is perfectly nice and we are still friends and really, she did what every other kid would have done. But the story still embarrasses me today, every time I hear it.

In fact, a lot of things from my childhood and young adulthood still embarrass me for some reason.

A couple of evenings ago I had a glass of wine and decided to read some old diaries. I shouldn’t have… The diaries were from my junior and senior years in high school and from college and after reading them I couldn’t look in the mirror for a couple of days from sheer horror and embarrassment.

As a teenager, I was SO stupid. I was so gullible and na├»ve and emotional, not to mention irrational and needy and clingy. What was I thinking? It’s not that I made too many bad choices; it’s that everything was such a BIG DEAL. A wink from a boy sent me over the edge, or an innocent word from my parents enraged me for days. Where did my cool go? Did I have any dignity at all? Was I all hormones and no reason? What was I doing kissing a 28-year-old French saxophone player? And even worse, how did I ever think that he would fall in love with a 17-year-old high school girl?

My current self was – and still is – mortified. I had to stop reading after a while and lock the diaries away for at least another ten years. Hopefully by then all of the pink ink I used will have faded into eternity.

When Drew got home that evening, I told him about my findings and he reassured me that no, I wasn’t a hormone-crazed, irrational, emotional wreck anymore. He also wanted to read the diaries, but I’d rather swallow the keys before I let that happen!

I am not sure why I was so embarrassed about my younger self. After all, everyone goes through awkward years, bad boyfriends, bad fashion choices, and arguments with parents and siblings.

I guess part of me was horrified for putting my poor parents through this. It must have been no picnic for them to live with me and to keep me out of trouble. And another part of me was – is – afraid that there is still a side of me that can easily revert to a crazy 17-year-old or 22-year-old at any moment. And I am not so sure that I wouldn’t still fall for Kata’s trick at let her ride off with my bike.

I haven’t kept a diary since college. It seems that once all of the drama of my life was over and I had to get up at 5 a.m. for my job at a newspaper – no more parties, no more international romance – life got a little too mundane for words. I do remember that as I was writing my diaries, I kept thinking how great it will be to read them a couple of years down the road and relive all of my misadventures.

Instead, the diaries turned into a cautionary tale and they made me realize a couple of things:
1. It is a wonder any of us survive our teenage years.
2. It is a wonder our parents still talk to us after our teenage years.
3. My future daughter better watch out because she will not be able to get away with anything. I’ve literally been there, done that, and I have the diary to prove it!

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

You are what your spouse eats

We are all familiar with “Freshman 15” — those extra couple of pounds new college students pile on during the first year of school. But a lesser-known phenomenon is the “Newlywed 20” — or 30, or 40 — that pile on during the first couple of years of newlywed bliss.

I admit that I don’t have the healthiest eating habits. I grew up on chicken paprika and Wiener schnitzel and lots of other pork parts with potatoes or gnocchi. At home, my parents cooked with lard, or if they wanted to be “healthier” they used goose fat. While delicious, it was certainly not the American Heart Association approved diet.

But when Drew bought Steak-Ums for one of our first dinners together as a married couple, I knew that we were going to have to do some negotiating about what goes into the fridge and into our bellies. Thankfully, we have similar tastes and no food allergies, so we didn’t have to spend a lot of time figuring out what the other can or can’t eat. I try to avoid hard-boiled eggs and tuna because Drew doesn’t like them, and Drew tries to dial down the hot pepper flakes in his cooking, but other than that, everything else is fair game.

Over the years, I branched out in my cooking away from Hungarian cuisine and into seafood and Italian dishes. Drew is staying away from the processed meat-like products and experiments with more fresh and low-fat ingredients. His staple seasoning is still beer — but once you try his burgers steamed in beer, you’ll understand that that’s not a bad thing.

Unfortunately, all this negotiating paid off a little too well, because five years later we are still carrying around that “newlywed 20.” We love to cook and eat together every night. We like to nosh on some hummus and pita while there is a nice pork chop in the skillet with some couscous in the pot. We love to sit and talk for hours at the dinner table over a glass of wine. We enjoy a $200 meal as much as we do burgers from Rapid Ray’s in Saco.

While we don’t want to weigh 600 pounds each on our 10th anniversary, I don’t think we’d ever want to change the basics of the way we enjoy food. Everything just tastes so much better when we eat it together. Food is something we bond over, just another part of our lives that we want to share. Cooking and eating involves all of our senses — the sizzle of the grill, the smell of the wine hitting the pan, the smooth skin of a fresh mushroom, the crisp crunch of an asparagus on the tongue — and watching Drew cook is incredibly endearing and fun. He is a very messy cook with lots of spices flying and sauces splashing around the kitchen, but I never mind the clean-up.
Sitting down together every night opens up lots of opportunities to talk and share things that happened during the day, to talk about things that might be uncomfortable under other circumstances, or just have a spirited discussion about politics or religion. Sometimes I think some of our dinner guests might think that we are crazy — but we really do debate and argue serious issues over dinner. It helps our digestion.

Realizing that getting so much pleasure out of eating might cause problems down the road, we’ve made some changes in our habits; we walk more, instituted salad days, banned canned or boxed meats a long time ago, and, weather permitting, we walk a few miles to Rapid Ray’s when the craving hits.

I don’t know if we’ll ever lose our “newlywed 20.” But I hope that we will never lose our need to spend our evenings together over a plate of good — and somewhat healthy — food.

And of course, dessert.

Monday, July 16, 2007

Make up, don't break up

Everyone is breaking up.

The past couple of weeks I’ve heard about at least three couples who broke up in my small circle of friends and acquaintances. Some were married, some not, but the results ended up to be the same.

What’s going on? Is there something in the air or the water?

Hearing about the demise of these relationships made me worry. These couples seemed to be so solid, so happy, so normal. Did they know it was coming? Does anyone ever know that it’s coming?

It is so hard to see into relationships. Couples that seem to be well-matched on the surface could be struggling to stay together, and some odd couples that I would never put together are thriving. I often wonder what people think of me and Drew. Do we make sense to the outside observer? Someone who doesn’t know Drew might think that he’s large and loud and a little arrogant. I’m flighty and moody and somewhat neurotic. I know that we have a great time together, but I doubt that we make sense to those around us.

Hearing of all these breakups, my first instinct is to feel superior: this would never happen to us. But then I start to worry — if it happened to these other, normal couples, could it happen to us? Is this a monster waiting under our bed?

So I turned to Drew with the questions: “Are we OK? Is there anything we need to talk about?” Maybe our calm, quiet relationship is about to implode and I just don’t know it. Maybe the next time I argue with him about the temperature of the dryer will be the last drop in his glass and that will be the end of it.

I’d like to think that we know each other better, that if we had really serious problems we would talk to each other and we wouldn’t let things get out of hand. But these breakups also reminded me that the trust and respect we built over the years are fragile and we can’t take them for granted. We can’t assume that just because we’re married our spouse is going to put up with hurtful comments or annoying habits forever and that the cup will never overflow. Even though we’re settled down in a stable relationship, we have to keep changing and growing to maintain and strengthen our bond.

We reassured each other that neither of us has any unspoken hurts or issues that can bubble to the surface unexpectedly. We usually nip things in the bud before they become big problems or big resentments. Yes, he finds it annoying that I think that my clothes can shrink even after 200 washes, and yes I think it’s ridiculous that all of our magnets have to align perfectly on our fridge, but these are surely no reasons for divorce.

“We are doing just fine,” Drew told me last night after we spent the evening listening to one of his friends who is on the receiving end of a break-up.

And that’s all I need to know.

Keeping the family ties

I am very lucky.

I am very close to my family. We email each other every day and we talk a couple of times on the phone every week. We discuss everything, make big decisions together, ask for each other’s opinion before making personal decisions, and we are always looking out for each other. We have little inside jokes, stories that only we find funny — like the time our car started smoking on a trip to Austria and in the confusion my mom yelled for my brother to stay in the car while we all scurried to the side of the road.

We’ve always been like this, ever since I can remember. Sure, we live far apart right now, but that hasn’t changed these dynamics so far. I might have gigantic phone bills, but I still call my parents first when something big happens, or if I am having a bad day, or if I need advice on anything.

And that is a problem now that I’m married. Well, it’s not a problem for me, but it is a problem for Drew. And so it is a problem for me.

But how do I stop? My parents have known me since, well, birth, and my brother and I shared a room well into our teenage years. We tell each other the stuff that we can’t tell our parents and we are the keepers of each other’s childhood memories. It’s hard for anyone to compete with that.

So, the first step was to realize that I was doing this. It’s so natural for me to pick up the phone and talk to my parents — I don’t even have to think about it. Don’t know if I should take that job offer? Call Mom. Can’t decide what to cook for dinner? Call Mom. Having a really bad day? Call my parents. And my brother too, while I’m at it. Sometimes, I’ll be talking to Mom on her cell phone, while my brother will be talking to my Dad on their land line. That way, all four of us are connected. It’s weird, I know.

But I never looked at it from Drew’s perspective. After I’ve discussed everything with my family, I didn’t have to say anything to Drew about my crisis. It was solved, after all. But that just made him feel like his opinion didn’t matter, as if he didn’t have a say in my life. And he’s not the only one who was bothered by this: my brother’s wife, Jenny, is also uncomfortable with our closeness. Neither of their families are like mine — sure, they might get along and talk a few times a month, but if something big is going down, Drew’s first call is to me.

It’s a tricky balancing act, letting Drew in and showing him that his opinion matters, while also maintaining the bond I have with my family. He is slowly beginning to understand that my family’s relationship — while weird and unnatural to him — is what makes me, me. At times, I think he might even be a little jealous of what we share and he enjoys being a part of our crazy clan.

I’m learning to share more with him and involve him more in every dilemma I face, big or small. He’s turning out to be a patient listener with his own twist on every situation, and I must admit that I enjoy the variety of opinions I get from all sides.

In the next couple of months, my parents will be moving to Maine. It will be a time of adjustment for all of us — they will be getting used to a new country, town, apartment, jobs and grocery store. I’ll be getting used to lower cell phone bills and having them close by again and also balancing my time between them and Drew.

I’m really looking forward to their move, even though I’m aware that it’s not going to be easy for any of us in the beginning. But at least I have lots of places to turn for advice.

Friday, July 6, 2007

A girl's best friends

I was thinking about friends and friendships recently after I had dinner with my best friend, Abby. I realized that she is currently my only good friend, or friend in general — one that I actually meet up with and go shoe shopping or have long discussions with about life in general.

Once “real life” starts it is so hard to find new friends — everyone has jobs and families and it’s not like you can pick up a friend at a bar. Nobody has time to sit over a glass of wine and figure out the meaning of the world anymore. And suddenly the meaning of the world doesn’t even seem that important. Abby and I struggle just to understand our husbands, let alone the world!
I am not ashamed to say that Abby is my only true close friend. I feel like I can talk to her about anything and she will know exactly where I’m coming from and won’t judge me or think that I’m crazy. And she will also tell me when I really am crazy — a sign of a true friend.

At times I think that maybe it’s weird to have just one such close friend, but then I realize that she follows three other best friends in line, who have been with me during various times in life.

There was Dius — we went to elementary school together and her Mom happens to be my Mom’s best friend even today. Dius and I played “office” where we were employees of an imaginary travel agency, serving the growing demands of a certain “Mrs. Wagner,” played by my Mom. I am still in touch with Dius (she has two kids and is divorced). When I saw her last fall for the first time in about 15 years, I was still expecting to see her as a 15-year-old. It was shocking to talk to her about childbirth and divorce and dating, and not about Mrs. Wagner’s upcoming trip to Paris.

In college, there was Myt, who introduced me to bar life. We charted our lives on napkins according to the teachings of our philosophy professor. I still have the chart and, strangely, when I look at the lines leading from “Magic Fingers” (code name for a German exchange student), to Coach’s (the local college bar), to “pulling yourself up by your bootstraps” (one of our philosophy professor’s many famous sayings), it all makes sense. The chart represents a great time in my life and I know that even though Myt and I live far apart and we might lose touch from time to time, I will always keep the chart and miss her.

After college I lived with Rose for a summer and she came home with me to Hungary a couple of times for Christmas and for my wedding. She wore lots of black and was mysterious and very smart and we smoked together and talked about love and life and the meaning of it all. I lost touch with her a couple of years ago and I haven’t been able to track her down. I am sometimes afraid that I’ve done something to offend her, although I can’t think of what it might be. When I’m having a bad day, I still get out the “drink alone” wine glass that she bought me for a birthday and think of her.

When I was growing up, I always thought that my Mom was a little obsessive about keeping in touch with her friends, remembering birthdays, planning special surprises for her best friend, hunting for days for the perfect gift, anticipating meeting her friends almost like it was a date. There was probably lots of eye-rolling going on from my part. Friends weren’t that crucial to me when I was 14.

But I’ve noticed that as I’ve grown older, my friendships have become just as important as they were to my Mom and suddenly I understand her efforts in maintaining these relationships. I especially noticed that when I turned 30, suddenly Dius and Myt and Rose were not just old buddies, but they were the people who were witnesses to my life and I was a witness to theirs. Even if we are not as close as we used to be, even if we don’t talk daily, even if I don’t know every intimate detail of their lives like I used to, I know that we could pick up right where we left off.

And if you would leave Abby and me alone with a bottle of wine for a long time, we might just solve the world’s problems.