Probably one of the most mindless activities we do on a daily basis is eating. We eat our breakfast planning the day ahead or watching the news on the TV, we devour our lunch sat at our desks, catching up on emails and tight deadlines and we “enjoy” our dinner in the company of family or friends, chatting about how our day has been.
Most of the times, we don’t even focus long enough to actually acknowledge the lovely dish after the first few bites and chews.
One thing I’m still struggling with when it comes to practising mindfulness is eating mindfully. Like a lot of other people out there, I love to eat and I love food, so when it comes to getting sustenance for the body, I just gobble everything down.
This morning, as I was “enjoying” my spam butty, my mind took me back to a memory from my younger years, when I did eat mindfully. Once a year or so.
And so my story begins.
It was mid-December and I remember I was in town with my dad. I can’t remember much about that day, except the fact that it was getting dark, so must’ve been around 4pm and it was freezing cold, probably around minus 10 Celsius. What I remember was queuing up with tens of other people in front of this grocery store in the centre of my birth town for some pieces of fruit that were available only before Christmas: bananas.
At this point you’re probably asking yourselves a lot of questions about this picture. Allow me to enlighten you. I was born and raised in a town called Cluj-Napoca, the capital of Transylvania, which, for the past 100 years has been part of the modern state of Romania. Up until December 1989, this town, together with the rest of the province and the country, has been under a communist regime. Somewhere in the 1980s, our “beloved” leaders decided our lifestyle, not much different than the lifestyle of people living in the West, was too “decadent” and resembled capitalist lifestyle too much. So, no more Pepsi Cola, no more German beer, no more Kent and Marlboro cigarettes. Then they decided we ate too much. So they rationalised food, based on some “expert” advice on how much a person should eat to become a healthy and perfect human being. Being born in 1971, I was still too young to understand a lot of things, but I remember my parents receiving food coupons each month for bread, butter, milk, eggs and meat for the four people in our family (mom, dad, me and my brother). The “beauty” of the system was that, even with those coupons, you couldn’t find all those items when you deemed fit to purchase them (yes, we still had to pay for them). So whenever you saw a group of people gathered in front of a door, you could safely assume they were queuing up for something. And since everything functioned based on the principle “when it’s gone, it’s gone”, you started queuing up too, no matter what you were being sold.
Long story short, even though officially we weren’t allowed to celebrate Christmas, we were allowed to put up a tree with decorations to celebrate New Year, and we would still enjoy the visit from an old man with red suit and white beard called Father Frost. All the houses had the same decorations on the Frost trees, as we all queued up at the same toy store that sold decorations around 15th of December.
Around the same time of the year, the grocery stores would start selling a very limited quantity of oranges and bananas. Which leads me back to the beginning of my story.
I must’ve been around 10 years old that year when luck smiled on me and my dad that day as we spotted the long line of people in front of that grocery store. As soon as we reached the end of that queue, my dad asked them: “What are they giving us today?” Since there were still no people coming out with the “loot”, and given the later hour of the day, many times people could only assume and hope what the prize of the day would be. Eventually, after about 15 minutes, a couple of people came out of the store with large grins on their faces and carrying bags with a few oranges and bananas. Since this type of “treat” was not on any coupons, the stores would sell a set quantity per person in the line, so I thought to myself how fortunate it was for us that both of us were there so we could get more oranges and bananas, provided they had enough to last until we get to the till.
Now you are probably wondering how this is all connected to my memory of mindful eating. Well, apart from the fact that we were allowed only a very limited number of bananas per person, most of the times the bananas were green.
Eating the bananas became a ritual. As soon as I got them home, I’d wrap them in some newspaper and place them carefully on top of my wardrobe or on the kitchen cupboard, then patiently wait for them to go yellow. In my younger years I’d beg my parents to give me one banana from the cupboard, even if they weren’t yet ready to eat. As I grew a bit older, I knew I had to build up that patience somehow, as green bananas didn’t taste very nice.
As soon as one of the bananas were ready to eat, I’d hold it in my hand, feel its texture, smell its aroma, admire its yellow golden colour, remembering how cold it was that day when we queued up for almost two hours and how happy I was when I learnt that they had plenty of bananas for all the people in the queue. Then I would carefully cut its tip and slowly peel the skin. The first bite was always magical: that sweet aroma of the fruit filling my mouth, trying to chew it slowly so that it lasts longer… I’d sometimes eat one banana in one day, munching like a mouse just small pieces of the fruit so that it lasted longer. I’d look at its core and wonder if those tiny brown bits inside were seeds, and wondered if I could grow bananas myself if I let one dry out and let it go to seed. Then I’d think of all the people growing this fruit, how fortunate they were to be able to enjoy limitless quantities of bananas and also how nice of them to deprive themselves of some of them and send them over to us.
To this day bananas hold a special place in my heart and I hate seeing them go to waste. So, whenever we’ve got some bananas going brown and mushy I bake with them or feed them to the insects in our garden.
As for Christmas, the childhood traditions I remember from my home country are closer to Yule than the modern, westernised celebration. The tree was up and decorated 23rd of December earliest. Large gatherings were forbidden, so was walking on the streets at night, so it was more a case of brief visits to family members, admiring the same tree ornaments and eating pretty much the same dishes everywhere we went, having lots of fun in ten feet of snow, playing board games, watching grandmothers knit or crochet and listening to grandfathers telling stories of the great wars and better times to come.
About winter in TCM, I will tell you another day