And then to Lithuania as a family albeit one parent this time. Shopping was more or less easy, across the road in a tiny supermarket, or by taxis which could be called by telephone. Cooking was very simple, as the children were only just growing out of their finicky stage. Restaurants were very cheap for us, so we ate out often. At first they refused to go anywhere but the Irish Pub, which I got heartily sick of. We had a wonderful lady called Violeta, who cleaned, shopped, ironed, comforted and generally mothered me. Worried about latchkey children coming home to an empty home, we had a series of after school childminders, one of which, Sandra, a music student, is now one of our extended family.
Supermarkets enlarged every year from Minima to Maxima, (bigger than many in Athens) to Acropolis, the biggest shopping mall in the Baltic, which opened the year before we left. In the end we were only missing Greek yogurt and brown sugar, so a move to Athens was an unexpected surprise.
When we lived in a row of five town houses (kottedgy in Lithuanian, maisonetez in Greek, ironically both words mean quite a contrasting style of housing in English) in Vilnius, there were three other families with kids at the international school: American, Indian and Danish families. Neither mothers worked fulltime, but girls seemed not to be allowed in the kitchen to learn cooking.
Bee and I found that the girls and the boys would like to come round to our kitchen, as we did “social cooking”. This meant we cooked dinner together once or twice a week having the “what did you do today” conversation. The dinners were often pseudo (out of a jar or packet) Indian or Chinese, the emphasis being on quick, and so something a bit different for kids, but basic skills could be demonstrated and learnt during normal conversation. Bee became famous at school for her muffins and cookies which she would knock up at the drop of a hat. They were sometimes a little unusual, like the time she forgot to put in the baking powder so sprinkled it on top, and the muffins came out with green froth on top.
At Christmas, or birthdays, or the “in between Christmas and New Year” party tradition we developed, the menu got quite complicated, but preparation was a group activity. Other mothers seemed to prefer to cook guarding their territory and expertise, excluding their children for the tense preparation of the grand dinner party, if they cooked at all. But we regarded it as a social activity, one of the few things we did and still do together.
Yet the open plan kitchen/dining living space is popular with modern families, making this social cooking easy to achieve. The English country house kitchen with Aga stove (even if gas fired!) is still desired by many town based English families. In Kiev, my friends all crowded into the kitchen to chat and cook, even if dishes were simple. Is cooking too much of a chore now, or has it become too complex? Is there only satisfaction from something very grand, with complex ingredients you forgot to shop for?
And what of the life of working women? My team in Lithuania had two women with children. Ruta had to juggle taking her daughter to nursery in the morning while her son aged 8 went to school in the afternoon shift and had to be left at home in the morning. She would go home to her parents and bring back apples and other things from the country. One Christmas she came back with kuscukiai, the special Christmas Eve cookies which had been banned from bakeries in Soviet times, though her mother had always made them at home. Jurate struggling on her own with two teenage girls would always manage to bring birthday cakes for us, usually made at midnight after everything else was done.