Tuesday, 28 July 2015

The Case of the Missing Flip-flop

If you want to hear the truth about something, just ask the kids! 

That's exactly what happened upon our return from a nice and relaxing family vacation in Florida - three eager grandparents inquiring: "How was it"?!

And to my utmost surprise, rather than bragging that one learned how to swim while the other one lost three baby teeth - earning a whopping $30 from a ridiculously generous southern tooth fairy - the following information was shared:
"Mama kicked three women out of the swimming pool and Aba… Aba said the F-word!!!" 

Three grandparents looked quizzically straight at me. Was this true? Great. Just  g r e a t.

I take zero credit for the idea to actually go on vacation while being on vacation. It was my husband and a scene from his favourite Meet the Fockers coupled with his zest to be on the move introducing us to the southernmost tropical island of Key West

Key West must do: Cuban Coffee Queen
I should have known that booze consumed by other people would have been the deciding factor in this travel experience. A rowdy bachelor party of about 15, all wearing bright pink T-shirts with a guy's stupid face printed on it labelled with the promising "Frank Da Tank" hashtag boarded the early morning fast liner. When the bar opened at 7:30 AM they all promptly and tidily lined up ready to begin the weekend-long liver challenge. Call me a sexist, I don't care - although I think it's more my feminist's outlook - but it's never a drunken man that irritates me the most. Sure he looks stupid as he shouts something illegible making everyone burst into laughter that sounds more like snorts and grunts than anything else. But it was the three drunken women at the hotel pool who were well into their thirties and blatantly begging for the attention of the aforementioned pink-shirted party that really bothered me. I'm a life coach -- if lucky, there will be a few sessions before any of them gets to understand the concept of self-love and self-worth. When high-pitched screams and forced laughter failed to get the attention of the already-plastered bachelors' crew, they resorted to the option B that usually guarantees a double take: girl on girl action!  
I was averting a major pool fight between my own boys all the while obsessing that neither of their mouths would come in contact with the pool water (I'm not brave enough to imagine the chemical content of it given the amount of beer cups lining the poolside) when my 7-year-old pointed and yelled loudly: "Look JoJo, BOOBS!" 
View from the old Lighthouse
And indeed, boobs there were, as two out of three clearly desperate yet not-that-young women engaged in French kissing while grabbing each other's bathing suit tops. And attention they definitely got from a 4 and a 7- year-old and their not-so-amused mother. But alas, no attention from the guys in the bachelor party.

The usually-patient me cursed the 5-star hotel's delayed late check-in, which had forced me to take the kids to the pool to spare the lobby patrons the Hunger-Games-worthy battles that usually occur when there is space and sofa pillows and chandeliers. 

That's when I noticed that one of the women was under water, while another who had been licking that one's face just a second earlier was attempting to yank on her limp arm in order to lift her up. The third woman was just standing next to them, eyeing the pack of guys from under her mascara-smudged lids while professionally wearing her RBF. I was starting to get nervous when the woman's head finally emerged.  A second later she splashed again face first to the other side. 
"You have to get her out of the pool!" - I made eye contact with the woman who was still making no move to help her friend. And while I understood this was likely their attention-grabbing strategy I was becoming increasingly anxious seeing the nose and mouth both still fully immersed even though quite a few seconds passed. 
"Get her out! Get her out" - all of a sudden the pink shirts all hopped off their lounge chairs, leaving their booze behind. Clearly, this was serious. 
The 'drowning' girl, although pale and dazed, re-emerged sporting a faint smile. I guess she was acting after all. Then the third chick, aware that none of the dudes had actually jumped to the rescue - it wasn't a bottle of Smirnoff being dropped in the pool after all - looked menacingly at me while unleashing a stream of words - Was I crazy??? Didn't I know how to have some fun??!! Why was I creating all this drama?!!! Each of these were laced with a certain word that rhymes with - er... witch? 

"Shut up and get out of the pool! And sober up! I'm calling security!" - I growled with so much force I actually surprised myself, never mind stunning the kids. In return, I got two determined and one hesitant middle finger waved at me as they sloppily collected their sunglasses and smart-phones and dripped away to the Key West sunset. Phew!

The following day, while playing real tourists, boarding the Conch Train Island Tour, my husband had a chance to show the kids he too knows how to be a - er... witch? 
Conch Train on famous Duval St.

Three couples and their numerous kids all over the age of 10 were already on the train when we occupied the last four spots, trying to escape the heat. As the driver humorously outlined the tour's safety rules: "keep your arms, legs, little kids and other belongings in at all times as we don't stop for lost arms, legs or little kids..." the group was already getting their party started - drinking coolers wrapped in tacky Key West memorabilia (It’s my Birthday Bitch!) and eating sunflower seeds with such ferocity the shells pretty much rained over everything. 

I really wanted to hear why so many roosters are free to roam the island and why each ceiling of the signature Key West porches were painted blue, never mind the countless anecdotes of the island's famous inhabitants like Ernest
Blue ceiling on a Key Lime house
Hemingway or Tennessee Williams - but the group wouldn't allow it. The constant banter and shrieks had the rest of the tourists, us included, constantly shushing them. The train driver made few unexpected stops in order to make a point - but to no avail. A woman I'll call Shabana (chosen by the most prevalent logo she wore) was particularly determined to have a great time. Every time someone asked for the group to tone it down, things seemed to get exponentially funnier to her. Just as we made a decision to hop off and switch trains on the next stop, Shabana started screaming - "Stoooop, stop, stop the train!!! I dropped my flip flop!!!" 
Boy, karma works real fast down South! 
Our burly driver - named BJ if we were to believe his name-tag - took real pleasure in repeating the safety regulations we heard prior to the train leaving, enunciating every syllable with painful precision. 
In my next life, I'll want to be a rooster on Key West
"You are welcome to collect your lost belongings with the understanding you cannot board this train again ma’am”. Ha, a pickle indeed!

What Shabana didn't lack in the vocal department she definitely lacked in charm and attitude - she pouted and demanded and threatened while listing all of her requests. It did not work - BJ was rock solid and determined to follow the SOPs to the letter.
Shabana was still arguing when my inner - er... witch could not hold it in any more: "I really think you should go get it! All of you, just go get the poor flip flop!”- I was actually sounding friendly yet convincing. But we were a 20-minute walk away in scorching heat from the next stop and there were a dozen of them in their group. The verdict: my Shabana lost her Dolce and Gabbana!

At the next stop as they got off the train, she turned to me with evil look in her eyes and yelled her curse: "I hope you lose something you LOVE!" The always practical me looked at her, shrugged and suggested: “...or you just go buy another pair of flip-flops?”

I don't know if that answer managed to anger her towering husband but he angrily got right into Ram's face - "You'd better get off here, 'cause we are gonna continue to talk!" unaware he was talking to an Israeli. "Are you threatening me?!" - my otherwise sweet husband suddenly turned the volume up. "F*ck yourself" - the man muttered. "No, YOU FUCK YOURSELF!!!" bellowed my brave hubby taking an unreasonably large step forward, of all directions available. A crowd formed. Our little kids started crying. My hands trembled and I squeezed kids closer to me. Thankfully, BJ broke it off with a single thunder of a command: "EVERYBODY SHUT UP! Especially YOU" turning a huge finger towards a man who had just attempted to hit my husband with a mega bag of sunflower seeds - it looked like a giant piñata broke! "YOU AND YOUR GROUP ARE NOT COMING BACK ON THIS TRAIN." Shabana, in the true fashion of her people, threw a shoe at him. Or should I say her other flip-flop. 
The Southernmost Point

As the train left, we nestled into the seats the dirty dozen used to occupy. As for them, they were now surrounding the tour supervisor - kicking, screaming and demanding a full refund for all 12 of their tickets. As our train disappeared turning the corner, I took a slim island map folder from underneath me - I had accidentally sat on it as the fresh group of tourists boarded. In it were six adult and seven children's tickets with a neatly-stapled receipt for close to $400 paid in cash. Guess there won’t be a money back guarantee coming after all - the Southernmost recycling bin made sure of that! 

A - I love beer. On a hot summer day, there is nothing I like better than a cold Stella Artois on tap. Or a Corona Light. Or Mill St. Organic. Or Loose Cannon. Or Belgian citrus laced Shock Top. 
B - I did make a subtle comment while on that train intended for my husband's ears only: "Jerry Springer Show people are actually  r e a l". So perhaps it wasn't so subtle...

Wednesday, 8 July 2015

Falling in Love - with India

With just a bit over a month away from the long-awaited and dreamt-about, in-detail-imagined and anxiously-anticipated departure for India as a member of the medical volunteering team, I am compelled to list in one place all that I have been reading, viewing, ingesting, googling, pondering and imagining in order to make sure that my time in India counts - for the sake of the people I will be serving and for the sake of my own very sheltered yet ridiculously happy life. 

Mowgli - my first crush (Walt Disney animation) 
It is a funny thing to remember my first crush. He was small and skinny and wore only an orange langot - a loincloth. I was completely smitten by him although I believe he was likely twice my age at the time. He hung out with a bear and a black panther, elephants and monkeys. It is indeed Mowgli I can thank for my earliest fascination with India, and the enchantment with the idea of the human and animal worlds living in harmony. Add a catchy tune from Disney's The Jungle Book based on Rudyard Kipling's book and I happily committed to a tomboy childhood.

Books have always been my favourite way of getting to know places. Although I am no literary critic, the following are the books that got me hooked on India, its many faces, that one giant beating heart and one calm and friendly demeanour that greets you with "Namaste".


1. The White Tiger: A Novel - Aravind Adiga
Otherwise a slow reader, feeling as if the Bangalore driver had been writing directly to me, I read it over two nights, my heart pounding, my sense of self, smell and hope being put through the ringer. 

2. Shantaram - David Gregory Thomas
The best part of this epic novel was having my phone (and car) read it to me. I downloaded it from Audible - not only did 900+ pages simply fly by, but the accents! Oh, the accents were such a delight: Australian, Afghan, Nigerian, French, Persian and of course Prabhakar's Indian. For a while I added the "baba" after my family's names (driving them crazy) in the style of the novel. Never have I enjoyed being stuck in rush hour traffic so much!  

3. Q & A  (Slumdog Millionaire) - Vikas Swarup
If you have seen the movie which became a worldwide blockbuster, you will LOVE the book even more - Mr.Swarup's first literary accomplishment! 

4. Midnight's Children - Salman Rushdie
A long, fascinating yet convoluted story about a man who had been "mysteriously handcuffed to history" and "what's his name" - God.

5. Life of Pi - Yann Martel
Richard Parker. So worth reading even if only to find out about who he is. 

6. Siddhartha - Hermann Hesse
I read Siddhartha for the first time when I was 13. My friend Dubravka had it in her sea-side condo. I was bored and confused. Yet intrigued. Intrigued enough to pick it up again 30 years later and understand it. Understand it and love it.

I have always been a movie buff. And although a fun night of going to the cinema for a movie opening got majorly derailed with the arrival of my little people, the me of my mid-forties guiltily admits to loving my time alone, late at night while everyone's sleeping, with the iPad and earphones in bed (everything opposite of the wise advice about how not to disturb your sleep!). It's simply a gift from me to me!


1. Gandhi
I saw this movie in Belgrade's cinema "Kozara" when it debuted in 1982. It was 3.5 h long and there was an intermission while they changed the reel. I was profoundly moved by the true account of this man's great life and became a life-long fan of actor Ben Kingsley. I just watched it again - it is a masterpiece and a must-see.  

2. Deepa Mehta Trilogy: Fire - Earth - Water 
All three are breathtaking. "Water" is my favourite - whether because it is set in mystical Varanasi or because - to the feminist that I am - it sheds light in a powerful way on the deep-rooted custom that women can be and should be thrown away.

3. Monsoon Wedding
Light, funny and very Bollywood take on the importance of family in India and the tradition of the arranged marriage. After witnessing some amazing real-life matches, I am - interestingly enough - not against it!

4. Passage to India
Pretty epic and not only for the mid eighties - it is a great cinematic glimpse into the British colonial India and why it really needed to end.

5. Lagaan: Once Upon a Time in India
I come from a place where soccer (fudbal) is "the most important secondary thing in the life". Apparently, Serbians got it all wrong - it's cricket!

6. The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel
To make it up to the Brits for being escorted out of India, there comes a cute movie that made me smile during the in-flight presentation. Although sequels are seldom worth it, the same goes for the The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (now playing on Air Canada flights).
They say "Love goes through the stomach" so here is the section that needs no intro. I am a foodie. Will go a long way to source the authentic spices and ingredients cooking up a storm at home or track down the ethnic take-out spot in town where the women in saris line up to shop.


1. Punjabi Chicken in Thick Gravy - Cilantro for breakfast? Not a problem!
2. Masala Chai - Indian spiced tea - it is the book Shantaram, that convinced the low-carb moi to drink this delicious sweet tea!
 Recipe at thebackpackman.wordpress.com
3. Chana Masala - Savoury chickpea dish - Married to an Israeli, it's no secret we eat hummus with each meal. So this was an easy yet spicy upgrade!
4. Samosa - Favourite on the go - I know it's deep fried, dammit! It could be baked, in theory. 
5. Palak Paneer - Fresh spinach with cheese - I actually crave this, right now. Googling Naples Indian take out... brb
6. Gulab jamun - Cardamom, saffron and rose water delight - I salivate even while pronouncing it out loud! Try it! It's also a great threat for my four year old: "When I catch you I'm gonna make Gulab jamun out of you!" - then he giggles uncontrollably, which is even sweeter!


I added New Delhi to my weather app (and world clock to start planning for the 9.5h time difference), back on March 5th, when I heard the news I had been selected as the Canadian volunteer for the "Connecting Hearts Abroad" mission. It is a part of my daily routine and something tells me I won't be able to ever delete it from my list. Thankfully the monsoon did arrive, ending one of the worst heat waves in history, hitting the frail and the homeless by the thousands. With "dust", "haze" and "smoke" as common weather descriptors and photos of melting Delhi streets all over the internet, this former West Nile Virus sufferer is often asked: "How are you going to survive the heat/humidity/mosquitos/pollution?"
First - I have no idea. Second - just the same way the patients I'll serve will. Thanks Dr.Saldanha for the first round of my travel vaccines - I haven't slept on my left shoulder for a week! Looking forward to the part two, not!


Not in love yet?! Take a look at my favourite YouTube clip: Baby bath time in India
I'm a mother of three and although I was a bit shocked the first time I saw it, I now tend to envy both the moms and the babies. It is a beautiful and social time for the moms - aren't we all a bit lost those first days of motherhood - all isolated in our near sterile surroundings - intimidated by the little body parts we need to clean, all the while making sure not to squish or drown them? Isn't the full body baby massage beneficial for circulation, release of gas and 'skin-on-skin' soothing effect? I would have loved to try this!


Do follow muradosmann - his mesmerizing and breathtaking photos of India - a part of his #followmeto travel series - will get you to travel (smart phone in hand) and see the world even while lining up at the grocery store behind that ultimate queen of coupon-ing - and you won't mind!

Best news story of 2015: 

The best 244-words-long article giving me hope young women in India are done with tolerating crap. Game over!

Blogs about India:

Lathmar Holi - a day when women beat men?
- Old Delhi food photo blog


I have been a hot yoga devotee for the last few years: twice a week, my husband and I have a "date night" on the mat -- 75 min of warrior twos, downward dogs and dripping sweats. Sleep like babies afterwards!

Although I couldn't have been any more smitten in the sweet anticipation of my first trip to India, what's yet to be accomplished between now and me boarding a 17h long flight is a full Bollywood Dance Cardio workout, that neck movement, the hips, the teasing jerky moves - it's on my must do list!

Great read while pondering legacy

With all the sights and flavours and colours it is easy to get lost and forget what's my mission. This time around my mission is to be of service. My mission is to extend my heart, to deepen my humility, to bring my best skill, to spread my enthusiasm. My hope is to become a friend and a family and to instantly cease being a stranger. To upgrade from a fellow traveller to a life-long companion. To be that one of the 7+ billion, that knows that each act of kindness both matters and multiplies.

My legacy?

Today I would be only guessing what my true legacy after this mission will be. Something tells me that once I land, fully take in the new surroundings, visit the local market and adorn myself in the traditional kurti (long blouse) and dupatta (Indian scarf) and meet my new family, the clarity will start sinking in and I will know what's next. For now, inspired by a volunteer in Guatemala, I've collected about 30 pairs of used prescription glasses and will be bringing them with me. Apparently, what keeps sitting unused in many drawers (changed Rx or post LASIK) equals life and livelihood in the poverty-stricken parts of the world. I know that's just the beginning!

I'm ending this heart-fluttering-in-anticipation report with the poem, that has been my favourite for many years. It only happens to be written by an Indian poet - the same one that got me to fall in love with Mowgli. Namaste!

"If "  by Rudyard Kipling

If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you;
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
But make allowance for their doubting too:
If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
Or, being lied about, don't deal in lies,
Or being hated don't give way to hating,
And yet don't look too good, nor talk too wise;

If you can dream - and not make dreams your master;
If you can think - and not make thoughts your aim,
If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
And treat those two impostors just the same:.
If you can bear to hear the truth you've spoken
Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,
Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken,
And stoop and build'em up with worn-out tools;

If you can make one heap of all your winnings
And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss,
And lose, and start again at your beginnings,
And never breathe a word about your loss:
If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
To serve your turn long after they are gone,
And so hold on when there is nothing in you
Except the Will which says to them: "Hold on!"

If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,
Or walk with Kings - nor lose the common touch,
If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you,
If all men count with you, but none too much:
If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds' worth of distance run,
Yours is the Earth and everything that's in it,
And - which is more - you'll be a Man, my son!

Wednesday, 1 July 2015

It's "Oh, Canada!" not "Ouch, Canada!"

July 1st is a big deal to me.

Yes, I certainly know how to roll my eyeballs while checking the weather app before clutching my morning coffee mug and pressing ON on the blue-light lamp that wonderfully dispels my Seasonal Affective Disorder nearly half the mornings of the year when a deep freeze decides to couple with gloomy grey clouds. But really, I do love living in Canada.

I vividly remember the day when the thought of “leaving one day” nested into my conscious, never to leave again. I was 16 and in Grade 10 in one of Belgrade's elite high-schools. The teacher for our last period called in sick and the school dismissed us ahead of schedule for not having a substitute teacher. A sunny spring day at noon meant rushing home, kicking off my shoes, blasting the stereo and enjoying our two-bedroom condo all to myself until the rest of my family started gathering in the early afternoon. WOO-HOO! The Serbian working hours of 7 AM - 3 PM worked for everyone other than moody teenagers in search of some privacy. At 3:30 PM when my parents arrived from work we would prepare a family lunch, the biggest meal of the day. Since working for many years in the field of diabetes, I have come to believe that having the biggest meal of the day so early played a big part in Serbia’s being a lean and healthy nation, superior in many sports. The day was also young for doing homework and chores but also socializing; we were beautifully oblivious to which day of the week it was – TGIF did not exist.  The social life went on regardless of how many school/work days were left in the week, for both kids and adults.

I flew up 2-3 stairs at once, rushing home to my uninterrupted “me time” when I heard someone call my name. Ignoring this, I continued climbing.  Who could be there to call me? My neighbourhood friends were all still in school and my sister in university. 
“Marina!” - I heard it again!
Annoyed to no end, I noticed my father waving at me, gesturing for me to come closer. He was standing in front of the grocery store.

Our "big deal" day in 2002
He was beaming and said with relief:  “Excellent timing!”  - “Sine (Serbian fathers tend to endearingly call their daughters “Son”), stand here in this line, so we can hold the spot - I will just run home to get the tickets. The truck is on its way!”  he half-whispered excitedly. A friend of our neighbour’s, the grocery store clerk, had tipped him off to the imminent arrival of a flour truck so he had left his work early. 80kg bags would be distributed in exchange for ‘flour tickets’ and money this afternoon. My father was a resourceful man, a true provider – just this past month, he had managed to get the maximum allotted amount of both sunflower oil and sugar, cashing in all our tickets. Coupons, tickets and schedules were a normal part of growing up in Serbia. Something was always lacking - electricity, gas, food. Becoming resilient and street-smart, über connected, was mandatory and part of the very fibre of my being long before the takeover by social networks.

I observed that the line-up in front of me was comprised mostly of elderly people and a few moms with young children. People stood and conversed, bending the line so they could all get some relief from the sun under the shade of a tree. Someone brought a tray of Turkish coffee; a few women sipped from the small china cups while they chatted and laughed. A few people read the daily newspaper, Politika, commenting on the crooks that were leading our country.  Two old men played magnetic chess while smoking and enduring the comments and teasing from the onlookers.

Rascal, made in Canada
My father returned, coupons in hand: OK, we are ready. I glanced at my watch. I had been there 35 min. Thirty-five minutes I will never get back. Arghhh! But I was a polite kid. So I stayed with my father waiting. 80kg bag of flour is not something that could easily be carried upstairs. Not with his health. I chatted with our neighbours. Played with a few babies, making them giggle. Made faces at a toddler who was sticking his tongue out at me, hiding behind his mother’s skirt. This made him shy. Then much bolder and obnoxious, the little rascal! 

A sudden commotion announced the arrival of the truck at the bottom of our street. With clinks and clanks, the china was put away. The newspapers folded. The chess crew, too engrossed in the crucial next move, kept playing, oblivious to the anticipated arrival of the white cargo. Starting tonight, smells of rising yeast and homemade breads, simple vanilla cookies, apple pies, cheese bourekas, croissants and crepes, would fill the kitchens of the neighbourhood of Konjarnik for the next several weeks. Plates with treats covered with white starched kitchen towels would travel from floor to floor, from door to door, treating each other with the taste of the latest recipe. I sometimes forget how amazing it was when we knew ALL of our neighbours, sharing our lives with them.

The line-up was moving up slowly, with 3-4 people in each row, fumbling through their pockets and wallets, then each dragging a giant brown paper sack, trying to awkwardly hug it and lift it to one arm. In one of many attempts, one bag slid off a shoulder and splattered in the middle of the street. A cloud of white powder engulfed the man who stood there helplessly as his newly-acquired treasure literally disappeared into thin air. Then a few people from the side of the road came, lifted it all up and helped the poor man to his home, a line of flour marking their trail.
The person in front of us had a 20-something year old son, so he effortlessly lifted the bag as his mother was paying.

My father and I moved up one step as soon as they left.

“That’s it for today!” - “We should have a shipment sometimes next week or so - if the government approves opening the federal reserve.”

The sheer horror of understanding that all of this, ALL of these 97 minutes of standing and waiting were for nothing, started pounding in my brain.  A few swear words and loud grumbles chimed in behind us. I actually didn't even like bread - I couldn't have cared less for the 80kg of stupid flour not coming home with us. But I felt used and stupid and cheated out of my fun few hours of freedom. I wanted my ME time, dammit!

Then I looked at my father. He hadn’t been one of the men who swore or grumbled. The look of utter defeat lasted for only a moment - then he put his hand on my shoulder and said - “Let’s go home, Sine. I know who to call to find out exactly where the truck will be next week.”

There is a group of social media users I call ‘awfulizers’. Yes, they are friends or acquaintances, and they are nice folks, but they tend to announce when things do not go in the desired direction. A lot. With the 2015 Pan Am games just debuting in Toronto this summer, these are the people already criticizing the temporary HOV lanes on the GTA highways. We find out about the atrocity of every TTC and GO train delay. And the endless injustices done by the parking service.

Canada flag breakfast crepes
I have days too, I admit, when I would rather be driving down Coconut Rd and not Confederation Parkway. Because nothing beats the breeze of Florida life!

But we do have it good. We have it so good. In Canada, we all have it so good, we should feel very privileged and very chosen. And perhaps just today we could also feel greatful and festive. In a few hours, I will do a little mini ritual of the past 16 years - throw some steaks and veggies on the b-b-q, pop a cold beer open, wink and whisper to myself: I AM CANADIAN! Happy Canada Day! Živeli! Cheers!