Monday, 7 March 2011

H for Halva, H for Health and H for Hooray (Χαλβά)

Throughout the many instances of bad luck in my life, I have been extremely lucky.

Nine years ago, I was pregnant with my second child, who was two months away from being born. On the Friday before a day like this one, I was supposed to go to work in the evening to teach English at a frontistirio. On that particular day, because I already had some horta and boiled eggs ready for my husband's lunch, I decided to get a few jobs done in town. So I got dressed up, fed my unborn baby's older sibling and took him downstairs to his grandmother, and then I took my handbag and went off to bank some money (oh, for the good old days when we were still doing that) and pay some bills (which are now paid online - boy, have we come a long way). While I was busying myself with my errands, I met up with a lot of people I knew who were also running errands in town. They all asked me how I was, and when the baby was due. I told them that she wouldn't be coming until after Easter, and it was now almost the beginning of Lent, so I had a long way to go yet. They all wished me "Με το καλό", and we all continued on our way.

I still had my pregnancy leave to organise, which was due to start on Clean Monday. Having been well versed on the matter, since I had given birth only just over a year before that, I was carrying a whole host of documents with me, the most important being my IKA health book, and a doctor's certificate stating when I was expected to give birth, approximately two months from that date. One document was missing, so I went into work to pick it up from the accountant. Again, my colleagues asked me when the baby was due, and wished me all the best.

Just before I went back to the IKA offices, at about 11.30am, I bought myself a piece of spanakopita (and a bottle of water), which is usually what I treat myself to when I buy something to eat in town. I made the IKA office my final chore for the day, where I was given preferential treatment, since I obviously looked quite laden. The paperwork took a long time - it involved a lot of double-checking of documents and signing of different papers because a large payment was going to be arranged to be paid to me. At the time, pregnancy leave was granted to working mothers-to-be two months before the birth, at which point, a compensation payment according to your IKA contributions would be made to you (I knew I'd be getting about 350,000 drachmas), with another similar period of leave and amount of money due after the birth. The clerk told me to come back in three working days to pick up my first payment.

By the time I finished from IKA, and walked back to my car and went back home, it was after 1 o'clock. I decided against doing any supermarket shopping because it was getting late and there were still chores to do at home before I went to work. I picked up my son from his yiayia's and fed him, then I warmed up our own lunch and set the table. My husband came home at the expected time. He made some funny faces with his first-born like most χαζομπαμπάδες do, just at the time I thought I felt like I needed to go to the loo, which I did. When I returned from the bathroom, I saw my husband ladling some horta onto his plate. I felt like I needed to go the bathroom again, and when I came back to the kitchen, he had just sat down to have his lunch. I took another trip to the toilet, and when I returned to the kitchen this time, he had just squeezed some lemon juice over the horta, and had picked up his fork, ready for the first bite, which, at that point in time, he had not yet taken.

"I need to go to the hospital," I told him. So he put down his fork (he hadn't taken any bite), called his mother upstairs to put our son to sleep, and drove me to the general hospital of Hania, where the doctors decided that I would be giving birth on that day. They asked me what I had eaten, and how long ago I had eaten it, because the baby had to be delivered by caesarean; operations on patients with full stomachs are less successful, so we had to wait another couple of hours in order for the doctors to ensure that I would have fully digested that piece of spanakopita. I was anaesthetised from the waist down, so I was fully aware of the moment when the baby entered the world; I remember her screams. But the doctors didn't bring her to me to see her. When I asked them about that, they said she was being prepared to be taken to a neo-natal unit in another hospital. I only got a glimpse of her dark hair. She was born prematurely, just as I had entered my eighth month of pregnancy.

The baby that was supposed to be born after Easter had kicked her way out into the world before even the start of Great Lent. I don't know what happened to the horta we'd left on the table, as I spent the next six days in the public hospital in a room on my own (which, I suppose, is standard practice when a birth doesn't happen in the expected way, as I couldn't be placed in a room full of mothers who had just given birth and had their babies with them). My husband remembers his first meal of that day - he had it at 11pm in Iraklio, where he accompanied his newborn daughter - 'Be prepared for the worst, Mr D', the doctors told him - to the neo-natal unit two hours away in Iraklio, where she stayed for 28 days. Not that we don't have a neo-natal unit in Hania; the problem is that it has never been operational (and all the equipment has now become obsolete through disuse - it's still lying there). If it weren't for the prompt actions of the hospital staff, the availability of an ambulance, and the achievements of modern medicine, my second-born would not have made it this far into the world.

For similar reasons, neither would my first-born child still be alive now. What initially seemed like a normal pregnancy and birth ended up in a very difficult first year for my son and his parents. When he was 40 days old, he seemed to be sleeping most of the day and he was as white as a ghost. We discovered that his 'blood-producing factory' (the one that all human beings are born with and which continues to work till the day we all die) wasn't working in his body. He was first diagnosed with an extremely rare syndrome called Diamond-Blackfan Anaemia (DBA), which meant that he would receive blood transfusions at regular intervals for the rest of his life. At the time of the diagnosis, the only treatments available for DBA were blood transfusions which carry inherent problems of their own (eg the need to undergo regular chelation therapy due to iron overload), or cortisone-steroids treatment which generally creates known problems in regular users. Since then, new studies have revealed that this disorder may be treated through dietary supplements, a fact that makes me very thankful to have direct access to really good high quality food. 

By the time my son was 10 months old, he had already had 6 blood transfusions at regular intervals (usually every 5-6 weeks). While I was in the early stages of my daughter's pregnancy, I drove the two hours needed to take my son to the University Hospital in Iraklio (where unusual cases of this type are treated) for his 7th blood transfusion. His blood was checked before the transfusion, and that's when the remarkable discovery was made: his blood counts were better, not worse, and close to normal levels for a baby his age. Nearly ten years later, he has never needed a transfusion since then. His disorder was re-diagnosed as a possible case of Transient Erythroblastopenia of Childhood (TEC), a kind of anaemia that lasts temporarily and could be linked to a virus, even though no virus was detected in my son's tests, and the temporariness of TEC lasts up to 2 months, not 6 as in my son's case. I kept records of all his blood transfusions and diagnoses throughout his treatments; I still have them tucked away in a folder.

Had these two children been born in Hania under similar circumstances 100 years ago, they would both most likely have been victims of infant mortality. They were both breastfed; even though I only saw my daughter twice while she was living in an incubator for 28 days after her birth in a hospital two hours away from our home, I continued to produce milk, and she took to it as soon as we were allowed to bring her home. I stopped producing milk when she 3 months old, due to an operation to remove a benign tumour that had developed in the birth canal, which was possibly the reason why she was born so early. I had to discard most of my own milk, as I had run out of bottles and storage space in the freezer. Had I known better, I could have been turning it into ice-cream and selling it at £15 a scoop.

Hooray for Life. Hooray for Modern Medicine. Hooray for the Future, because life can only really get better for all of us, not worse; the world is indeed a better place, even if it is a somewhat sick one.

*** *** ***
The year my daughter was born was probably the only year of my married life that I didn't cook on Clean Monday. It was probably the only Clean Monday of my whole life that I didn't fast, either, as it was the first day I was allowed to eat after the Caesarean - I remember my first meal being chicken soup. A Greek proverb says that God forgives the weak or ailing, the very young and the weary travellers.

This year's Clean Monday menu is a little less traditional than other years' in our house. International Cuisine Saturdays and creativity in the Cretan kitchen have become a more accepted part of the culinary regime. The menu reflects these concepts:
 Clean Monday menu 2011; most of the recipes have been blogged about

There will also be dessert. It isn't the first time I've used halva as my daughter's birthday cake. Halva isn't a festive sweet, but it's irresistible when it's as tasty as my one. I make it according to the good old 1-2-3-4 recipe. You really cannot go wrong.

You need:
1 cup of olive oil
2 cups of semolina
3 cups of sugar
4 cups of water
some chopped almonds and/or walnuts (or some other dried fruit of your preference: this year, I used dried Canadian blueberries and craisins)
a cinnamon stick
half a lemon
some cinnamon powder

In a pot, place the water and sugar, along with the cinnamon stick, the lemon juice squeezed from the half lemon AND the peel itself, and let the syrup boil away for 15 minutes. In another large pot, place the semolina and let it heat up until it starts to give off a slightly burnt scent. Then add the oil and stir it in. Let the semolina mixture cook till it turns golden brown, stirring constantly. Add all the dried fruit at this stage and let them cook together with the semolina (or you can add them at the end of the cooking time, if you prefer).

When the semolina is ready, pour the syrup (stick and peel removed) onto the semolina. Watch out - the chemistry of these combined heated products will cause bubbling splatters which burn if you aren't careful! Continue to stir the halva, until it begins to set in the pot, after which you must quickly turn it into a mould to set (or small individual moulds, if you prefer). Dust with cinnamon (or cocoa powder - it's lenten!) and let it cool before serving.

Καλή σαρακοστή to all.

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