I am terrified of heights. Put me on the top floor of a building looking down through glass panes or, worse yet, from the edge of a balcony, and my knees buckle as I grasp for a handhold. My heart pounds at the idea of funiculars or Ferris wheels and their anticipatory crawl up into the clouds. That glance down comes with the fear of knowing that when I finally reach the summit I will be staring into emptiness, a deep void, an near-endless drop only broken by the tiny ant-like beings down on safe, sturdy ground staring up at me, ogling, daring me to make the leap so they can break my fall. Roller Coasters slowly, painfully inching their way up until a mere thread is holding me over a dizzying descent make my head spin as my breath comes out, barely, in short, quick gasps. Airplanes, those silver boxes offering me quick passage to my loved ones, have me in a panic when I think of the nothingness holding them up. My very pragmatic, scientific husband refers to this seemingly (or so he says) irrational fear of heights as Cosmic Vertigo, these images in my overactive imagination of climbing up and standing on the edge of a precipice only to be pushed off of solid ground and plunging into emptiness, the unknown. So I never climb onto a Ferris wheel, it is impossible to convince me to climb aboard a roller coaster; as we spin our way up the glass elevator in the Mole Antonelliana in Torino or wander around the top balcony of the Eiffel Tower my eyes stay firmly squeezed shut and I can’t even look through the eyepiece of a telescope, nor am I comfortable wearing 3-D glasses or watching the world spin on Google maps. Yes, I am terrified of heights.
Yet here I am, teetering at the top of a very high peak, nervously peering downhill through squinted eyes, bracing myself for the moment someone tiptoes up behind and gives me that heavy-handed push, for I know that they will. And with that one firm, quick shove, I will topple over into the void and start that long descent down that slippery slope towards…
The second half of my life.
At the end of this month I will turn 51. One year ago as I pondered Fifty, I was caught between the love of birthdays, the cake and the gifts, the well wishes and all eyes being turned upon me (Oh, come on, don’t look at me with such disdain! You know we all love that!), and the absolute awe and anxiety of the whole aging thing, the leaving behind my youth and vivacity, turning, well, old. The silly schoolgirl inside of me clapped her hands and shouted with laughter in disbelief. “You?” she barked as she quickly thought of a dozen good pranks to play on me. “Old? As you sit huddled over your computer, giggling evilly, sending uproariously ridiculous, gossip-filled messages to your girlfriends? As your giddy laughter fills the house as you and your husband chase each other from room to room, shouting incomprehensible jokes to each other then tumbling into a heap on the sofa? Get over it!” Yet the charming, sophisticated, respectable woman of a certain age inside of me, the one peering judgmentally over the top of her eyeglasses, stares hard at the younger woman and snorts in derision. “You just mark my words!” she sneers between pursed lips, “She cannot run and hide from me! Age and all of those aches and pains, the stiffness and the added weight and droopy skin (not to mention the hint of mustache that always threatens), finding herself in bed at 9 p.m. and NOT for the good reasons! The crankiness and the forgetfulness! Well, deary, you can laugh all you want, but when my time arrives, I’ll be showing up, dressed and ready to take over!”
Yipes! Yet as nervous as I was, as much as I hated, nay, dreaded the idea of making that leap onto the other side, my true friends gathered round me and eased the pain with absurdity and merriment. The year flew by joyously with projects and trips, visits and sleepovers. The distractions were big enough that I barely felt the time rushing madly by, the laughter and the noise drowning out the rhythmic ticking of the clock. But how long can this go on? How long can I ignore the finger of Old Man Time as he beckons, how many years can I trick youth into hanging around, tempting that young girl inside of me to stay and play? I stare at myself in the mirror and see the faint lines of battle scarring my gently fading youth. There is a hint of silver in my hair, a hesitation in my step as I glance at a set of steps or a slippery sidewalk and, yes, husband and I are glad to tumble into bed as the sun glides behind the buildings, resting our weary bones.
Yet….yet…. I am not ready just yet. Yes, I stand at the top of that mountain and stare down into the dark unknown, yet I will not wait for anyone to come and push me off, losing my footing and control, sliding, sliding down into a fusty, cranky old fuddy-duddy! No, I think that my inner 16 year old will think of a way to stay around for a while longer; she will simply climb out the window, clamber down the trellis while the parents sleep and join her friends for a few more years of pranks and partying. She’ll keep joking, gossiping, laughing, dressing and acting her inner age rather than any number printed on a piece of paper. She’ll flaunt her youth, swagger gleefully by as her son rolls his eyes in embarrassment, fool old Mr. Time for another few years, for as long as she can.
I have a few more days, a couple more weeks to think it all over, plan my attack, select my party outfit and brace for the beginning of what I hope will be a long, tranquil yet exciting, joyful descent full of adventure, love and friendship.
Now what kind of cake shall I bake myself for my birthday?
Nothing says comfort like this bowl of warming, savory-sweet soup, thick and creamy and best eaten with a swirl of cream, garlicky croutons and lots of freshly-grated nutty Gruyère, Comté or Emmenthal. Our favorite recipe, so simple, from The Book of Soups by Lorna Rhodes.
3 lbs slice (1 ½ kg) of pumpkin
2 Tbs (30 g) unsalted butter
1 medium onion, peeled and chopped
2 ½ cups (625 ml) chicken stock or broth
Large pinch light brown sugar
Pinch ground nutmeg
¼ tsp paprika
Salt and freshly-ground black pepper to taste
2/3 cup (155 ml) light cream
Trim the pumpkin and discard shell, seeds and stringy bits. Cut the flesh into large cubes.
Melt the butter in a large pot, add the chopped onion and cook, stirring, until soft. Add the cubes of pumpkin, the stock and the sugar and bring up the boil. Lower the heat, cover (I always leave the lid slightly ajar) and simmer for 30 minutes. The pumpkin should be meltingly soft. Remove from the heat and purée either in a blender, food processor or, as I do, with a hand-held emulsion blender, until perfectly smooth. Stir in the nutmeg, paprika, salt and pepper to taste, and the cream. Heat gently until hot.
Serve with a swirl of cream, a dollop of sour cream or fromage frais and pass around the bowl of grated cheese.
FLAVORFUL BREAD TWISTS
Oh, joy! I had half a recipe of bread dough in the refrigerator and wanted to do something a bit different, more exciting than my usual focaccia. I came up with this fabulous breadstick, inspired by a recipe I found in The Good Housekeeping Christmas 2010 Cookbook (which is actually a magazine that I bought in London). Feel free to improvise, adding flavors and textures that you prefer. These are simply fabulous!
(The quantities are approximate as I pretty much ad-libbed it)
About 1 lb (500 g) bread dough, find my recipe here (enough for 12 long, thin breadsticks)
2 Tbs or so (about 50 g) pitted black Greek olives, sliced in half or coarsely chopped
Freshly and finely-grated Parmesan cheese, a few tablespoons
1 Tbs dried Basil
A grinding of black pepper, optional
12 thin strips of Speck or Parma ham
Briefly knead the dough to soften. Spread the dough flat and press the chopped olives, the Parmesan and the Basil – and a bit of pepper, if you like – and knead until all of the ingredients are evenly distributed. If you like, knead in the chopped and grated goodies in two or three additions.
Divide the dough into 12 even pieces and roll each piece into a long strip, at least 7 inches (18 cm) long. Allow them to rest on a parchment-lined baking sheet while you preheat the oven.
Preheat the oven to 400°F (200°C).
Once the oven is preheated and the dough snakes have rested, simply but firmly wrap one slice of ham around each breadstick, twisting the two together and then placing them on the parchment-lined baking tray.
Bake the breadsticks for 12 – 15 minutes until puffed and golden.
Enjoy with a warming bowl of Pumpkin Soup!