Healthy habits living abroad

Fruits and vegetables picture from Budapest Hungary

My Saturday Haul

My primary care physician is Web MD. I made the switch after our first doctor’s visit in Slovakia. As Pat recounted his medical history, the doctor stared back quizzically and then admitted, “I don’t know what any of that is.” She simply could not understand our American accented English. Fortunately, she signed our health certificates – a prerequisite for our residency permits. Yet we left realizing, once again, we were on our own – with our medical care and most other day to day activities. We return to Colorado annually for our physicals. The remainder of the year, I cruise the internet and consult Web MD (“Hey Pat, no worries. My eye should clear up in three to five days.”)

When we moved to Bratislava, life became one long vacation (we were in Europe, after all). We ate out. I ordered whatever I wanted. Each weekend we hiked the hills above Bratislava feeling increasingly fit. I never noticed the piper playing softly in the background as I wolfed down yet another saturated fat and triglyceride laden meal. This lasted for nearly two years – even after we relocated to Budapest. Fried cheese and French fries, baked chicken thigh stuffed with pork and cheese, spaghetti drenched in sour cream and grated cheese. I devoured everything completely unapologetic. At the height of my  frenzy, I mentioned to a work colleague my amazement at my love of meat. I beamed like Grandma Moses on the first day of painting class, thrilled by my nascent talent. When he questioned what type of meat I liked most, I simply replied “fried”. We laughed.

On my last visit home, my doctor walked into the examination room with my test results in hand. She wasn’t laughing.“What have you possibly been eating?” I fessed up, “Meat and cheese for most meals, generally fried. A croissant for breakfast. Oh, and those Viennese style cakes.” Before me stood the piper, hand extended, waiting to be paid. I plea bargained cholesterol medication down to careful eating and exercise. She accepted the deal placated by my sky high good cholesterol, my five pound weight loss, and the reality that she can’t order the follow up blood tests required with cholesterol meds. I left the office contrite, regretful and pretty darn excited. I love a challenge.

Perhaps I haven’t mentioned before my love affair with cooking: homemade whole wheat breads and pastas, multi-course French and Italian dinners, and always a plate overflowing with vegetables and salads. Some covet a Rolex or shiny new sports car,  I yearned for a double German oven. When we first moved abroad, our kids called me amazed, “Mom, are you OK? I hear you don’t cook anymore?” This stood in stark contrast to the person who drove 45 minutes to the Boulder farmers market every Saturday carting back boxes of peaches, organic chickens, turnips, beets, pungent greens – sometimes canning in the late fall to brighten our meals through the winter. As a child, I lived on my great grandfather’s subdivided farm in New Jersey surrounded by family. Each of us grew our specialties and shared from our gardens. My mother would recite our dinner menu prompting me to dash through the adjoining yards to collect the ingredients: zucchini and lettuce from my grandmother; radishes from my great-grandmother; and as I threw open the back door – I pulled a few tomatoes from our own vines.

The ubiquitous fruit and vegetable vendors of Budapest are like coming home. Some weekends, we wander the enormous market halls, but more often I stop at the minuscule shops dotting our neighborhood. I invested in a handful of high end kitchen implements and rekindled my relationship with my most prized wooden spoon. My favorite produce stand is a two minute walk from our apartment. Saturday morning I head out with my wicker basket dangling from my arm and return with a full basket; a haul which never exceeds twenty dollars. Dinners are whole wheat pastas tossed in a homemade eggplant and olive marinara, roasted vegetables, salmon, or lentil soup. Since produce is picked closer to the point of consumption, and our kitchens have limited space to store food, the fruits are tree ripened and sold to eat that same day or the next. We have trained ourselves to shop most days rather than our more normal habits of lugging home a weeks worth of food in a single shopping extravaganza.

Bottom line, an expat life invariably starts as a perceived vacation; a new place and culture with so much to discover. We have lived abroad for two and a half years. It is time to come to grips with this as our life. If I execute my plan to travel continually for some number of years after my retirement, I have to manage my health and Pat’s. We accept the implicit risk of limited access to fluent English speaking medical care. Eating well and exercise is our best insurance, like wearing a seat belt. It won’t miraculously save me, but it increases my odds and makes awfully good sense. Bottom line, I feel better when I eat well.

Heart healthy cooking is part of who I am. Exploring the markets of Europe has always been a passion. My mother in law and I discovered clementines in a market in Monaco one winter when she tagged along during a business trip. We bought handfuls, filled our pockets and stuffed ourselves as we wandered the alleys near the palace. Years later when clementines surfaced in the United States, she called, “Julie, you will not believe what they have in the grocery store!” Hungary is a country of cherries, leeks, arugula and every species of pepper known to man. Some people find their therapy in a bottle. I have always found mine in a pile of vegetables and my sharpest knife – chopping as the last of my angst falls with the carrots and leeks and celery into the bottom of my soup pot.

As long as my primary care physician is WebMD, I need to live like this. Vacations are fun, living abroad is a blast, but none of it is more important than maintaining our health. Given our goals, this change is non negotiable.



Categories: How To

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  1. A Slovak Happy Birthday « The World In Between
  2. Hunyadi Market in Central Budapest | The World In Between

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