Monday, 30 March 2015

An Atlas Full of Purpose

Hands down the most common thing friendly strangers tend to ask me since immigrating to Canada is: "Where are you from? Oh... let me guess! Are you Polish?"

And for more than a decade and a half I have been trying to explain that no, I am not Polish. 
I only  s o u n d  Polish. "I am Serbian" - I would say proudly - "but I sound Polish because all Slavic languages are related..." which is too long of a conversation for a stranger who never wanted to learn about the origin of European languages from a pharmacist.

Then about two years ago, I flew with LOT - the Polish Airline flight - en route: Toronto - Warsaw - Belgrade. I settled into my seat looking around with a bit of nervous anticipation. You see, I have a history of attracting people who migrate into a third of my seat while sociably chatting me up (not too difficult a task!) only to eventually collapse without warning into a deep sleep, using me as a neck-pillow. As the plane started taxiing I broke that one on-board rule about switching off all electronics and I called my mom, whispering: "Am I adopted?" Apparently I don't look Serbian at all!!! Needless to say, I felt cloned. 

The strangers I get to meet for the second time often ask out of courtesy: "Have you ever been back home... In Siberia?" And then with as much compassion as I can muster for the lack of elementary education they haven't been provided, I start that slow motion wording, that annoys me to no end when other people do it, mouthing S-E-R-B-I-A, not S-I-B-E-R-I-A. Shaking my head - No, No. Not the same thing. And then sometimes, I still have to clearly stipulate that when I did go back to Serbia, one time 15 years after immigrating, I did not stay in a gulag... I only ate goulash. Which is my favourite Hungarian dish. But I'm digressing. 
Forget Waldo! Where is Serbia?

I think I got hooked on geography at the age of 10 because of the "forbidden fruit" principle. You see, we entered grade 5 grasping the new expansion of our world -- we no longer had a home-classroom. We were moving, period after period into a different part of the bigger kids' school which housed grades 5-8. Even the big kids’ schoolyard was elevated by a few stairs and we would look with nostalgia - while hoping we looked disdainful - at the running and screaming kids we left behind in lower grades and the lower school yard. Serbo-Croatian, Math, French, Biology, Physics, Chemistry, History, Geography, Art, English, Tech-Shop, Phys-ed... each subject except gym had its own classroom which was now fancily called a "cabinet", and every 45 minutes we would engage in a crazed and hectic migration, dragging all our possessions with us while munching on snacks and eyeing the boys and enjoying our tender and silly girlhood. No lockers. Ever. Sulk.

The first time our geography teacher entered the classroom I detected the faintest whiff of a fine flowery perfume. This went well with her "Clan Campbell" patterned plaid skirt. Ружица Гранић, our teacher whose first and last name have the words "rose" and "branch" in them, was an elegant Old Belgrade-style lady. I don't remember anymore what I liked best - that her voice had a refined ring to it, that she had an elegant hairdo worthy of 10 Downing Street, that a silk scarf would often be accompanying her sophisticated yet discreet look or that for those forty-five minutes she would effortlessly transport us into every corner of the world, training our brains to recognize, to connect, to memorize – spinning a web that is 35 years later still stitched solidly in my brain. Every day new facts, people and places were embedded precisely on the correct longitude and latitude. What a gift!

Name the longest rivers in Asia:

Ind, Gang, Bramaputra, Yang Tseng Yang, Hoang Ho (Yellow River), Volga...

What are the names of Soviet Union Republics? (This was 1980, collapse of all our countries was too far in the future for us to see):

Azerbejdžan,  Belorusija,  Estonija,  Gruzija,  Jermenija,  Kazahstan,  Kirgistan,  Letonija,  Litvanija,  Moldavija,  Rusija,  Tadžikistan,  Turkmenistan,  Ukrajina,  Uzbekistan (for the record, I recited these names known by heart into my keyboard in one breath, so forgive me for saying them in Serbian - that's how they have stayed in my long-term memory).

Myself, my friends Ana, Dubravka and Mirko (the famous eye surgeon!) and many others would then start shouting, competing... delighting our teacher.

Which mountain has a nickname "Roof of The World"? - Pamir!!!
What is the desert with a highest altitude in the world? - Atakama!!!
What are the grasslands called in Eurasia? - Stepa (steppes)!!! In Sudan? - Savana (savannah)!!!

This knowledge certainly comes in handy for crossword puzzles or in that QuizApp game that I sometimes play on my smartphone for fun, burning some serious world-wide-nerds with my photographic memory and everything I learned in Ms.Granić's class.

The alluring raised-relief map
There was only one thing that was a major offence in Ms. Granić’s cabinet: walking too close to her precious raised-relief map. On an occasion when one of the snowy mountain peaks had been accidentally obliterated by an unwitting backpack our good teacher almost suffered a heart attack. She was passionate that the map would stay intact for the next generations to learn to be "Citizens of the World".

Fact that my seat was located in the row next to the wall and right in front of that map - not the flat boring ones - was always too tempting for me. So, during some lessons, when the tectonic movements or geo-politics would take over the conversation, I would stare at the tiniest details, getting fully immersed in its peaks and valleys, the blue depths of the oceans and the archipelagos that stretched so remotely I was sure this must be what they called the 'end of the world'. The strict classroom rule was never to touch the map. I still vividly remember once being brave and stretching my hand, while facing the front of the classroom pretending to listen intently. With my heart pounding as I felt the smooth plastic surface of the map, I traced the raised and wrinkled shape of the mountains. As if it were Braille, I tried to use my tactile senses to orientate myself. The area was raised and wrinkled on the top, then formed a triangle of sorts with a wide circle just off its right side.

"India!" - I whispered to myself, glowing with enthusiasm that I recognized the Himalayas and Sri Lanka and the triangular shaped subcontinent in between!

"MARINA?!!!" was the astonished shriek that even her A student was breaking the rule - "DON'T TOUCH THE MAP!!!"

"I... I just wanted to try and guess which part of the world it was, without looking..." - I explained sheepishly.

"What are the largest cities in India?" - "New Delhi, Bombay (again my "old" world geography), Bangalore and Kolkata!" - I answered breathlessly.
What is the former name of Sri Lanka? -"Ceylon!" Capital? - "Colombo!"
Name the guerilla-group fighting against Sri Lankan government? - "Tamil Tigers!"

"You are forgiven!"

And you have never been forgotten Ms.Ružica Granić!

Exactly three weeks ago, I received unbelievable and unexpected news. The reputable international company I work for has selected me to be one of 100 ambassadors who will be volunteering for two weeks in one of ten camps around the world in their "Connecting Hearts Abroad" project. This very summer, I will be heading to India to be serving in a Diabetes Camp, putting to work everything I have learned so far as a pharmacist, a life coach, a volunteer, a writer, a friend, a mom and a human.

"Hey there, I heard you guys went on a trip to Israel to meet your hubby's family! How exciting!!!" - a very young and very friendly mom addressed me as we were waiting for our kids' swimming lessons to end.
"Did you, like, also go see your family in Syria?"

I am happy to report that the stand-up-comedienne in me managed to bite her tongue!

"No, not this time."

Monday, 23 March 2015

PaRENTing, ParenTEENg...

One of the first nice spring days last year an unusual thing happened to me: as I was backing out of the garage in my Toyota Rav 4, in the rearview mirror I spotted a man sitting in the very middle of our driveway. A bit startled, I immediately cut the engine and stepped out of the car to find a young fellow sitting on the ground picking loose stones out of our driveway. It was only then that I remembered my husband telling me that someone would be coming to fix those stones for us.

I introduced myself.  He had a broad smile and seemed to be in his late twenties. I made a little joke - something along the lines of a blonde driving an SUV – and then asked him not to risk his life by letting me manoeuvre around him. Unexpectedly, he scooted sideways and picked up two crutches that were lying on the grass. He then swiftly arose using only his impressive upper body strength and smiling all the while spoke a cheerful: "Here you go, Miss!"

I have to admit that although I have completed all sorts of disability and sensitivity-training modules, I thought about him that whole day, and I felt sad.

Karen Salmansohn wisdom
And now, this spring, in a seemingly-unrelated turn of events, I have found myself over and over again on the receiving end of what quite a few concerned parents have been telling me about their teenagers. The sheer volume and variety of feedback from both the "strangers" I coach as well as the people much closer to me has resolved itself in my head as the most prominent current topic.

Kids are talking back. Kids are failing school. Kids are hooked on gaming. Kids are having sex.

What did she say to you? How did the teacher react? How many hours was he playing that game?  Have you approached the topic of safe sex?

Forget about my coaching skills: the parent of a confident and well-balanced 19-year old immediately offered a silent prayer and a thank you to her first-born. Parenting him was a breeze. Or was it really? The beautiful thing is - I don't remember. Long ago I heard my favourite parenting quote - in Serbian - from a beautiful and wise woman who single-handedly dealt with some of the toughest life's problems while parenting. I am happy this wisdom has found its place in Gretchen Rubin's book, The Happiness Project. It goes: "Days are long but years are short". 
Simultaneously, that same parent of a 4 and a 6-year-old nearly freaked out as I calculate that by the time these 'midgets' have reached that same trying age, I will likely be right in the eye of the hormonal hurricane called menopause. I remember my own good mother urging me to work on finally checking out of puberty - the late bloomer that I was - as she felt she was riding on a speed-train headed straight to hot flashes and night sweats. It was not advisable that the two of us cross paths as crash would have been inevitable. Casualties guaranteed.

Life is busy and messy by default for those who have children. What do you do when these former little darlings start exploring life with no warning and at full speed "21st-century style": noise-cancelling earphones on, a smartphone glued to the palm of their hand, the screen lighting up every few seconds and an occasional photo disappearing as soon as it appears?!

I won't pretend I am a parenting expert who understands the psychology of adolescents and family dynamics - for all I know, my parenting style all those years while being a single mother was called "winging it". Miraculously though, it worked. It worked mostly – or perhaps because - my child was very clear he should not mess with the one parent he actually had. The sweet fact about single-parenting is that there is no struggle between different parenting styles. There is no good cop/bad cop. The little negotiators (read: manipulators) can't strike a deal behind your back. For every problem, guess what? You still have to come to me. And me only. And if I am any good, very soon you will be able to guess my response with near 100% predictability. Predictability was my best ally raising that kid on my own.

For the last few weeks I've been mulling over what would be the most effective advice I could give to all the concerned and loving parents, the future me included, who have been hijacked against their will into the mess of "big kids' problems".

From a personal trainer
The best way to narrow it down is a two-step process: fast forward and take care.

First: fast forward a decade. What does life look like?

What would the future you tell you about you as a parent from this sensitive time?

Were you a gong-show parent who exploded with each new 'undesired' event? Were you disintegrating into smithereens mourning 'what could have been' should your child have obeyed all the rules you laid out? Were you the human equivalent of a drone hovering above your kids attempting to prevent ‘bad’ things from happening, even at those times when their decisions should start being considered personal and theirs alone? Were your kids altering the truth to protect you from you while sombrely facing their real issues?

Or were you a parent who knew how to listen; how to say - "Wow, hold on darling, are you sure that was safe?" A parent who received all the facts with "help me understand" as the only reaction. A parent who, no matter the news, could take a deep breath and say: "This did take me by surprise - but I am here, no matter what. And I love you. Always.”

Second: take care of yourself first. You’ll need all your strength, sanity and humour to be able to push through this and every other part of life. Equally important, your child needs to see (not hear) that all of life doesn’t orbit around them. No matter how loud or defiant they get, right now they do feel lost - the last thing they need is all the attention while figuring their stuff out.

That’s right: They have to figure out their choices. They have to ‘rescue’ themselves. You can stand by or listen or strategize if it’s welcome. Most of all just love them through it, seeing them a few years from now as solid, on their feet and well on their way to the life that serves them best - and much wiser for this rough patch.

One of my biggest epiphanies, coming from the Serbian culture of mothers who love to sacrifice, was to put myself first. Then came my son. Many methods describe this principle through the attendant’s safety instruction recited at the beginning of each flight: “put your oxygen mask first before assisting other passengers”.

I saw myself as a tree trunk that needed to be strongly rooted and nourished in order to provide for that light green, fresh little new branch with a tiny leaf on it. It took some serious work but I did achieve a zero sacrifice/zero guilt equation. This served my son really well.

Now that my big kid is on his own, making decisions about what to study, what course to drop, with whom to move off campus, how to spend his free time, etc., it may sound dry, but I see the past 19 years as "renting" the time and space with him. I paid in unconditional love, effort to figure out a better way, time (as in buckets of patience) and then some money too, to have the opportunity to grow this young life. To be a part of his journey. At first, just to love, nourish and sustain him. Then slowly to teach and empower him, while modelling the healthy behaviours myself. Then finally, to trust him, to see him start to self-direct and let him go explore life on his own. And then to tell me about it when he is in the city or when I'm in town or when we are both on-line and he is done Skype-ing someone very important to him ;-). I am no longer 'renting'. He having me in his life this much is completely optional. And I'm grateful.

I love the line Hal Edward Runkel, a licensed marriage and family therapist, wrote in his book Scream-Free Parenting: "The truth about children (and the stock market) is that past performance is never a guarantee of future results." This can help us to see all children, no matter what headache they may be causing their parents this very moment, as whole and capable of great things.  Perhaps this hardship is their best education to date, the lesson that had to come in this exact shape and form. Envisioning best-case scenarios and meditating on them perhaps the last five minutes before falling asleep is a great use of our parenting time. Worrying about potential even worse-case scenarios just seems like choosing a very sinister energy to marinate in thinking it will help. Perhaps a part of our 'rented' time with our soon-to-be grown-up children is to learn and apply that alluring unconditional love coupled with the absolute absence of judgement. They need this lesson. It’s all good.

Just as the sun was setting a year ago and I was coming back home from work, I met a woman who was parked in front of our home, MADD sticker on the back of her car, blocking the now neat and repaired cobblestone driveway. She opened her window and cheerfully waved at me saying: "Sorry, I am just picking up my son, he will be out in a minute."

I turned off the engine and stepped out, intrigued: "I met your son this morning... he left quite an impression on me!"

"Oh, he is stellar! I am so proud of him.” Then I learned it wasn't always easy:  “At 17 he got caught up with the wrong crowd and was in a motorcycle accident while driving drunk." Thankfully, no one else got hurt.  “He speaks in schools now about safe driving and works full time, loves masonry.” She laughed a little: “He is now my rock!”

Monday, 2 March 2015

Israel: Eat, Pray, Love

Not quite 40 days and 40 nights but rather 4 hours and 40 photos to tell the tale via the Blogger App and a smartphone!
Israel: Eat, Pray, Love


Put a Serbian anywhere in the world and I bet you the first place she will gravitate to is the Market. After all, I am my father's daughter - Belgrade's green market "Каленић" was the greatest passion of his. So no wonder that the first day in Tel Aviv-Yafo and Jerusalem and Tiberia and Akko, I found myself at the Market. 
My first mission, given I've been told Israel's dairy products are exceptionally good: find the cheese most similar to the one I grew up on. White, moist, just salty enough to find its place between the Bulgarian feta and bocconcini. Add sesame rich Jerusalem bagels sprinkled with za'atar spice, few kinds of olives followed by amazingly flavourful dried fruits and a cup of hot sahlab sprinkled with cinnamon and toasted coconut and by the time I leave the marketI have had one of the most delicious meals all while walking around, pushing a stroller and of course - bargaining. At the market, you buy nothing without the bargaining. It's the mandatory part of the shopping experience!


The best liked choices for our sit-down meal affairs came as a surprise - for the most part they were vegetarian! Hummus, tahini, falafel, pita breads and our new favourite egg dish, which now replaces the omelette as our savoury 'emergency' meal - eggplant and black olive shakshuka.

Lastly - the guilty pleasures. Beware of temptations, they are on every corner (for the taste of heaven, do travel to the Arab village of Abu Gosh) - it is well worth the climb and the calories!


One doesn't have to belong to an organized religion to feel 'elevated' in Jerusalem. The drive alone up from Tel Aviv with our ears popping as we were reaching an altitude of 2474 feet or 754 meters suggested there must be a reason why this city was founded in this exact location in the 4th millennium BCE. I will never forget that first sight of a high hill behind a hill behind a hill, deep green tall cypress trees and "Jerusalem stone" houses glowing on its tops. This city had me at 'shalom'!

Jerusalem's Arab quarter
One also doesn't have to know much of  ancient history to understand why every square millimetre of this sacred real estate matters so much. Blood still spills on its cobblestones just for wearing the Magen David symbol on a necklace. The insider's warning is to avoid the Arab quarter when the Mosques are finishing with one of the five daily prayers. Although the local Arab shop owners appeal for this location to be spared the occasional fanatic will still carry a knife. One such incident occurred just two days prior to our somewhat-rushed stroll through the Arab market on our way to the Kotel. Thankfully, both victims survived. For once it was beneficial to look like a stupid tourist (more specifically: a stupid tourist with a double espresso in hand to trick the 7h time difference!).

Jerusalem is an equivalent of 'all you can pray buffet' where every religion and every stream has its place. 

And then there is the Kotel. The Wailing Wall. For something as universal as tears and hope and something as powerful as the ask and the intention. I am a believer that one need not know how to pray in order to have a profound and meaningful experience at the only remaining wall of the twice-destroyed Jewish Temple.

The Wailing Wall
My first time at the Wall - I nervously clutched a piece of paper I had ripped from a journal and on which I wrote in Serbian Cyrillic my greatest wishes for each family member and close friend. I folded it many times, pressing the edges so they were neat and sharp and able to get into a crack in the wall in between thousands of other notes. Why in my original language? Firstly, I do believe that the great spirit understands everything. But to tell the truth, I also kind of felt that should some faithful soul were to  'clean up' after the last of us retires for the night and just so happens to read my plea a bit before God does, I wanted to trick her and protect my deeply intimate whisper to the divine and therefore earn the consideration for all my wishes to be fulfilled. 

I approached the feminine side of the wall with the jitters, yet that didn't surprise me. I've been waiting for this moment for the last 27 years (as described in my previous blog). What did surprise me is that when my forehead touched the cool, smooth surface of the wall for the first time, the flattened paper still in my hand, my eyes closed and my lips parted reciting slowly and with deep care every word of the Shehecheyanu prayer in Hebrew that my heart felt like it was on fire. Warm tears streamed down my cheeks. Just like the moment of giving birth to each of my children, this moment will stay extraordinarily vivid in my memory. There was something intensely clear in this experience. 

Just as I was falling asleep that night I had another goose-bump reaction - I had  forgotten to include myself - my own personal hopes and wishes for my life.  So the next day, feeling it might be a tad too late, I jotted it all down, this time in English because it's faster, and I rushed down to the wall. Not sure if God would even bother to consider it, partly because I was 'unreasonably greedy' in what I asked and partly because, being an ambitious beginner blogger, I figured my readers might appreciate a visual of the wall and notes and... hence the profile selfie. Judge me all you want - it won't be worse than how I have already judged myself!



Other than for politics and the politicians I neither understand nor care about regardless of the country I'm in (the elections are in only two weeks from today and Bibi Netanyahu is confidently smiling from billboards all over Israel) I pretty much loved everything else. 
Here is my top ten list:

1. I loved meeting my warm and welcoming and ginormous extended family. Hasson's and Hanan's - Thank you! I felt at home.

2. I loved seeing a glimpse of the complex map of the Middle East and sensing, going through the peaceful and prosperous Arab villages on our way to Tiberia with its unique architecture and tall minarets, that peace on this land is possible and in many cases already here. And not only peace in the geopolitical way but seeing Arab women living in Israel being protected from domestic abuse, equal and educated and having careers that matter. Girl power regardless of head-covering.
Mosque in Akko
3. I loved standing on the grounds of history's great yet often tragic tales. Being Serbian I understand the importance of defending the nation's historical and cultural cradle and the cost of failing to do so. This made me wonder: why do we know about the Las Vegas strip and not about Masada? This is Masada. Please Google it. Your breath will be taken away. I promise. 
4. I loved awakening my taste buds, unlearning the bland dangers of omnipresent North American GMO foods. 

I also loved seeing people shopping for Shabbat on foot, buying only how much they could carry and that could sustain them until things opened again on Sunday morning  (good luck trying to park anywhere near the Jerusalem Shuk - market, on a Friday!). Witnessing this made me feel ashamed of my atrociously large SUV/Costco runs - after all a lion kills only one antelope to feed his pride, not ten.

Jerusalem Shuk

5. I loved the blend of new and hip Tel Aviv (watch out Miami!) with the ancient and ethnic Yafo (think Scheherezade and 1001 nights) as one same city!
Tel Aviv


6. I loved standing in awe of natural wonders - 1300 feet below the Sea Level
Judean desert
and feeling the silky, almost oily feel of Dead Sea water on my skin.
Dead Sea and the view of Jordan

7. I loved being in the presence of true devotion...

An hour before beginning of Shabbat

Me'a She'arim - ultra-orthodox community

...and our family's lighter version of honouring our religious roots.

8. I loved getting messy with the Dead Sea mineral mud...

... and realizing I just publicly posted a photo of me in a bathing suit - a big No-No-PUHLEASE-No of the last decade!

9. I love Israeli music and I'm grateful for the serendipitous occasion of attending the "Eyal Golan & Sarit Hadad" concert in Yerushalaim - of all places!

10. I am choosing to end with the least romantic-looking of all my impressions of Israel - but likely the most important one. Wherever one looks, in whichever direction, whether in the city or the side of the road, on the beach or top of the hill, at any given hour of the day or night: cranes, diggers and front loaders are building a stronger and better Israel. Even more impressive - all of this is done with only 20% of the budget - the whopping remainder MUST be spent on defence. In only two generations the desert has been transformed into an oasis - shepherd villages into hi-tech genius hubs. Soon the serpentine highway connecting Jerusalem and Tel Aviv will be replaced by a flat and straight elevated highway; the fast railroad will bring the same two cities even closer through the mountain-tunnel speed rail. 

This is the dedication, the gift and the legacy the future generations need from us. Israel is already well ahead!

As I drifted off to sleep on our last night in Israel, it seemed to me that the last twelve days had been barely twelve minutes long - it had felt alive and meaningful and spontaneous and - surprisingly - safe.

So perhaps the next time you start contemplating that 'been there / done that' Caribbean vacation, you might decide instead to explore life from its very cradle and venture into the Holy Land. I quite certainly will!

From your blogging correspondent from the Middle-East: Laila Tov! Goodnight!