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The Sweet Taste of Serendipity

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I used to think we were really green in our lifestyle; now I realize we’re actually just cheap.

We got off of oil partly for environmental reasons, but we were really just tired of paying a bill that seemed increasingly out of control.  We garden partly because we like organic food, but I really get the most satisfaction out of having dinner makings 20 feet from my door rather than 15 miles away at the grocery store.

But, whether we do what we do because we’re charitable or cheap, an appetite for spontaneity has been the key to sustaining our sustainability.  Sometimes the appetite didn’t need whetting – like when a neighbor drops by with bucket full of acorn squash.  But other times – when the bucket is full of the same zucchini that we’ve already grown weary of – serendipity is an acquired taste but one that we both try (and try to force our kids) to appreciate , even when it takes some effort.

Most people my generation were raised by parents with their own childhood memories of the Depression, and I doubt even my kids and their friends have escaped hearing a chorus of  “There are starving children in…. “.  I only began to understand that refrain – and to appreciate the flavor of fortune when my parents briefly moved us to Peru when I was in the fourth grade.

We had lived there once before when I was five.  My parents rented both times, and both times they continued the employment of the housekeepers who had worked for their landlords.  They stayed in touch with both women long after their stay in South America, even corresponding with some of their children and extended family.  During our second extended stay in Lima, our first housekeeper invited us to her house for dinner.

We had been there before, but I hardly remembered the  first visit, and I still remember being shocked when we drove to her village and walked into a house that consisted of a few semi-finished walls of brick and several woven walls.  The entire structure was not much bigger than an American living room, but it housed her entire family and their chickens.  We knew any inappropriate comments would result in swift and severe reprimands, but we also loved this woman (she had taken care of us when we were much younger), and her chickens fascinated us.

My sister was going through a noodles and ketchup phase that year, but my parents had (and still have for their grandkids) a  rule that you had to try at least one bite of everything on your plate (which they loaded of course).  We had had mostly good experiences with Peruvian food, and we were usually – but not always – happily compliant.  For this visit, however, my father quietly made it abundantly clear that the one bite rule would be expanded to cover everything on our plates.

As it happened, she served us a Peruvian version of Arroz con Pollo, made with one of their freshly-killed chickens, and I remember easily cleaning my plate. Later, as we drove home we talked about the house and the chickens and of our hostess’s kids.  And when the conversation turned to the meal itself, my father mentioned that the food she had prepared for that one meal was more than most families in that village ate in a week.

Thinking back on it now, I realize their efforts weren’t just about expanding our palates and our world (although our stint there definitely did that).  They were trying to teach us not only to take advantage of opportunity when it presented itself but also to fully appreciate it when we did.  I took that lesson with me wherever I traveled.  And, while we will never know the level of poverty we saw in that village, being able to appreciate opportunities of all flavors has helped us sustain our lifestyle and, sometimes, our family.