While living in Ukraine I developed what I call ATFS or more colloquially — Afraid to Fart Syndrome. A year of diarrhea does not exactly impart a lot of confidence in the bowels. My condition came to a head while I was in a bus station bathroom taking a piss. I use the term ‘bathroom’ loosely because it would have been more accurate to say I was taking a piss in a hole in the ground. Midway through I felt a fart coming out and before I could suppress it I felt a bloooop……. shiiiiiiiit.
Fuck me, a little garter snake had wriggled out and curled up in my pants. I stared numbly off into the distance for a good 30 seconds, weighing my options, until finally determined that I had none. I shuffled to my bus, back to my seat, and then just… sat…. for six hours. Normally when I tell this story out loud I bump the number up to eight, but when I look at it now I don’t really feel like it’s necessary. That six hour bus ride of defeat and the eventual four flights of stairs to my flat were soul killing. At a certain point I just gave up, too despondent to even muster up the energy to cry. This is my life, this is me, I am sitting in my own shit and I just don’t care anymore.
At this point in my life there was nothing that I could make that would pick me off the floor and restore my soul, even to this day I haven’t made anything that would have been up to the task. So after I finished my fart in a more appropriate fashion, cleaned myself up as best I could, and threw away my boxers I knocked on my neighbor’s door.
My neighbor wasn’t surprised by my impromptu knocking and subsequent confession that I was hungry and had nothing to eat in my place (second part was a lie). At this point I was a regular fixture at her table and she was constantly barging into my apartment with a plate of food; she was surprised by my request.
Ukrainian food is heavily centered around carbs and starches: bread, potatoes, kasha, noodles to some extent but definitely last on the list. I mainly saw it at the school canteen or any other setting where ‘cheap as possible’ comes to mind. It’s cooked very plainly and served on the side much like rice or mashed potatoes. Filler, definitely not the center point of a meal. It’s not even cooked well: soft, gummy, sticky, overcooked by any definition.
There was something about it to me, maybe it had to do with growing up eating rice, but for some reason this was what my mind turned to when I was feeling down. I could eat a mountain of it. Whenever it was at the school I taught at I asked for a double portion.
This was when technique reared it’s awe inspiring, endearing, and frustrating head. I could not and to this day cannot recreate the texture (which when I think about it was what did it for me). There’s not really a recipe to follow because the only thing added is butter. To my knowledge what my neighbor would do is:
> Put in boiling water (with what I know now I would salt the water, but I don’t think she does)
> Take out and drain in a colander while still al dente
> Slowly pour boiling water into the colander with one hand while stirring with the other (that’s the weird part)
> Add butter… a lot of butter
The butter may be where I’m messing up, still too afraid to add in that much (and I’m from the South). The finished result was a grayish clump of noodles with a slight, yellowy, buttery tint, that… didn’t taste like much. It didn’t matter.
To be honest the physical, cultural, professional challenges in the Peace Corps were not insurmountable or overly daunting by themselves. What was difficult to me was the absence of all the things that you would normally turn to when you needed something to keep going. For some volunteers it was the smiles on their students’ faces, special moments of true companionship with their host families, the rare and beautiful small victories of every day life in a foreign country… for me nothing beat a mountain of this…. with a fried egg and some pickled tomatoes on the side…