Surabaya Johnny – On Swimming, Aging and the Borshch Index

I watched a silly programme on the TV last night, all about exorcism. I don’t need to worry about demons, I have enough trouble with humans. Earlier in the evening I had been diligently watching another programme about discount supermarkets, but I missed the end because a woman from the Hateful Satanic B*st*rd Corporation (HSBC, for those lucky enough not to have to deal with them) rang up to tell me I had exceeded my overdraft limit and when could I pay some money in? Was there a particular reason why that had happened? Yes, buying food and children’s shoes. In the end she suggested I cut back on my expenditure till I next got paid.
Still, today is another day. In fact, Friday: bed linen washing day, and I manage to get all the beds changed (hateful job) before Jack’s school transport comes. That means I can put the washing machine on and then go swimming, but it is also something of a gamble as there is a good chance the outlet hose will come out of the pipe and I will come home to a swimming pool of my very own, in the kitchen.

At the pool, I decide to see if is really cheaper to hold the sort of membership deal I do, which allows you to swim whenever you want, but which I only use about twice a week at the moment. “It depends – are you over 65?” says the receptionist. Should I say yes, in the hope of getting cheaper swimming, or hit her? In the end I do neither, but slink off with a line from Kurt Weill’s song “Surabaya Johnny” playing in my head: “ich seh schon aus im Spiegel wie eine Vierzigjährige”. It actually translates along the lines of “I look in the mirror and I am like a 40-year old”. I am not sure if the protagonist, who tells us that she was 16 when she first met the dastardly Johnny (“take that pipe out of your gob, you dog!”), means that she is now 40 or that she just looks like she is. I’d be delighted if this happened to me either way, but just to make things worse, you usually find the line translated as “When I look at my face in the mirror, there’s an old woman staring back at me.”

I go straight from the pool to the cash machine (the scene of the great debit card robbery) to deliver the death blow to my savings account by drawing out the last £50. This ATM is outside the supermarket, where there is beetroot for sale. And if beetroot’s here, can borshch be far behind?

If chicken soup is Jewish penicillin, borshch is Ukrainian Valium. I’ve found that the amount of borshch I eat is inversely proportional to how good I feel. I don’t mean that eating lots of it makes me miserable – the mood comes first and the lower it is, the more borshch gets made.

I think of it as the Borshch index – the bluer I feel, the redder the meal.

Even the production process is relaxing because you can’t hurry it and the beetroot takes ages to cook. There are loads of recipes out there, the key ingredient is beetroot but it seems to be up to you after that. This is the one I find the most anxiolytic, in fact called “bortsch”, but let’s not go there:

500g beetroot
1 large onion
500g potatoes
2 tbsp oil
2 garlic cloves
1.2 litres vegetable stock or beetroot cooking liquid
2 tablesp lemon juice
salt & pepper

Wash the beetroot, place in a pan of salted water, bring to the boil and simmer till tender (this is the “can’t hurry” bit and I find it can take an hour or so). Cool slightly, peel and chop, reserving cooking liquid.

Wash and chop the potatoes, peel and chop the onion. Saute in hot oil for 10 minutes. Add crushed garlic and cook for a further 5 minutes. Add the stock/cooking liquid, cover and simmer for 15 minutes until tender.

Add the beetroot and lemon juice, season with salt and pepper and continue cooking for 5 minutes. Cool slightly and blend until smooth.

35 years ago my Russian teacher told me that the last letter of the word is called shcha and in those days (at any rate) it was pronounced “sh-ch”. So that’s why I am pretentiously not spelling it borsh, borsch, borscht, borsht or any of the other variants.

Once home, I find that God has smiled on me. Not only has the washing machine not flooded but the first lot is dry and all the shirts are non-iron ones. Into the drier with the second lot, which is all bed linen – that must mean I am catching up.

Better do some day job work. I have very stupidly agreed to translate a scientific paper into English, about the treatment of cyanide poisoning. Well, it’ll make a change from phone conferences. And nobody will know any better when, according to me, the abstract starts: “This paper describes the role of borshch in the treatment of a 52-year-old HSBC customer who preferred prussic acid to phone calls”.

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