My number one priority is to relearn Spanish! It’s not quite been a month and living in Washington Heights has already provided many lessons. Lessons in patience. In faith. In tolerance. In observance. In staying alert. Mostly, I find myself learning how to ask for help. And very few people speak English so I am going to Duolingo my way back into Spanish and melt away the communication barriers. (Duolingo is a language-learning app.) Communication has been frustrating, to say the least.
I moved from a safe neighborhood full of longtime close friends. Some of them had keys to my apartment to feed my kitty or rescue me if I lost my keys or locked myself out. Not to mention that I lived with my best friend, so there was always someone familiar and trusted to lean on.
Not that I don't feel safe in my new neighborhood — for the most part, I do. Yet there is a huge element of the unknown (my bearings, the people on my block, and in my building, and what is that smell, and what is that sound, etc.) And when we don't know something, we proceed with caution. And caution can oftentimes lead to doubt and fear.
The real safety problem has been my keys and the lock on my door. Twice, as I was trying to leave, I've been locked INSIDE my home. Twice, as I was trying to leave, my key would not turn to LOCK the door, so I walked away leaving it open as I scrambled to find someone to help me.
When I first came to look at the apartment, my realtor and I actually couldn't get inside because the key wouldn't open the door. I pay attention to signs but who was to know this would be a recurring theme?!
The first chance I got, I told the building superintendent and the property manager, "I think the doorknobs and locks are put in backward. They need to be reversed." They said that wasn't the problem, and they would fix it. After a month of sticky locks, and a zillion other things going wrong, (I have never given value to the planet mercury being in retrograde...until now!) Yesterday was the day it was all getting fixed. I entertained the superintendant of my building and two plumbers for about five hours. Things got checked off the list right and left. Hooray!
I will cut to the chase. Everyone left after the work was completed; I tried to leave five minutes later and was locked inside my home, AGAIN. I called the plumbers since they were the last to leave, begged them to come rescue me. They did, (phew!) and they took one look at the lock and declared that the lock plates and knobs were backward!!! They called the super, demanded him to fix them while they watched. They used words like 'unacceptable' and 'unsafe.' I had muttered these words for weeks to no avail.
Here's the thing, I'm not mad that no one believed me about the locks, or that as one woman I was helpless until two men saved me. I’m not mad. I am grateful for the opportunity to ask for help. I am grateful for the help received. Period.
We – as a universe, global citizens, society, country, state, community, neighborhood, and humankind – must take care of one another. We must look out for the new people, the old, the sick, the marginalized, poor… Everybody. How can we be of service? How can we offer a helping hand? And when someone offers a helping hand it's our duty to accept it. To let them serve.
The epilogue to the story is that later that evening, after everything was seemingly fixed, my key broke off in the lock and my phone was inside my apartment. I. Cried. I walked downstairs to the stoop of my building begging someone to help me. "Sorry, Mami. No Ingles." I kept crying. Clearly, it all eventually worked out because I'm writing this from inside my home.
My biggest lesson: as the new minority in town, and by minority I mean non-Spanish speaking, I am not the priority. And my trials with this new home are nothing compared to the tribulations of the other minorities that people the earth. I know this. But for the next time, I am armed with my new favorite phrase, "Ayuda me, por favor!" Help me, please!
An ingredient that is in every market in the Heights this spring is okra. Each package has a sticker on it that says 'Imported From Mexico.' Ha! To encourage my quest to relearn Spanish I bought some. Okra gets a bad rap. Prickly. Slimy. I did it a service and helped it out by charring it and mixing in some tomatoes and preserved lemon. This has been on repeat all month. It's so easy with store bought preserved lemon.
This recipe is from my favorite chef, Yotem Ottolenghi of Jerusalem, Plenty, and Plenty More cookbook fame.
Charred Okra with Tomato, Garlic & Preserved Lemon
300g baby or very small okra
2 tbsp olive oil, plus more if needed
4 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
20g preserved lemon skin, cut into 1cm wedges
3 small tomatoes (200g in total), cut into 8 wedges, or halved cherry tomatoes
1/2 tbsp chopped flat-leaf parsley
1/2 tbsp chopped coriander
1 tbsp lemon juice
Maldon sea salt and black pepper
1. With a sharp paring knife, trim the okra pods, removing the stem just above the pods so as not to expose the seeds (and trigger an ooze onslaught). Heat a large cast-iron or other heavy skillet over high heat for a few minutes until it is very hot. Working in batches so you don’t crowd the pan, dry-cook the okra, shaking the pan occasionally, for about 4 minutes per batch. The okra pods should have the occasional dark blister.
2. Return all the charred okra to the pan and add a generous drizzle of olive oil, the garlic, and preserved lemon. Stir-fry about 2 minutes, shaking the pan. Reduce the heat to medium and add the tomatoes, a couple of tablespoons water, the parsley, a generous spritz of lemon juice, and a grind or two of pepper. Gently stir everything together and continue to cook until the tomatoes are warmed through, 2 to 3 minutes. Transfer to a serving dish, dress with more olive oil and a sprinkle of that beautiful flaky salt, and serve.