Avocado for Lunch
Because my daughter needed a guinea-pig for her school project, and because my line of work doesn’t require much in the way of bodily movement (I work from home, translating news articles from Danish to English, a job somebody once likened to the 8th circle of purgatory in Dante’s Divine Comedy) it was decided, in that lopsided way in which a doting father and his teenage daughter decide anything, that a thorough overhaul of my diet should be implimented.
As a divorced Englishman living alone in the sleepiest of Copenhagen suburbs, and whose main form of excercise was getting up off the sofa in order to heat the kettle, my daughter concluded that I was the perfect example of a docile Western male whose eating habits were fundamentally at odds with a healthy existence – the perfect specimen to help this budding dietician achieve top marks in her Health & Nutrition class. So, one afternoon, she turned up at my apartment armed with her domestic science folder intent on working out just how much protein, roughage, and carbohydrates a balding middle-aged male requires to see him through the day.
’Look at this…..You eat too much fat, dad’ she told me, pulling out packets of bacon and sausage from my environmentally-unfriendly fridge. ’How can you live on this stuff! Full milk, tins of dairy custard, a pack of mini Mars bars…..Do you want to drop dead from a heart attack before you’re forty eight ?’
Having just turned forty seven I confessed that I didn’t.
’And where’s your fruit and veg ?’ she said, rummaging through a cupboard that contained only tea bags, instant coffee and a canister filled with white granulated sugar. ’Aren’t you aware that vitamin C is an important part of a regular diet ?’
’I get all the vitamin C I need from these, sweetheart’ I said, shaking a bottle of pills, to which she retorted: ’Not anymore’ and calmly prised the bottle from my hand. ’Pills are Ok if you’ve turned sixty but from now on you’ll be getting your vitamins from their primary source. Understand?’ And with that she deposited all of my Multi-Vits into the waste bin.
For the next hour my pulse was checked, my lack of free-time sporting activity logged, and my sex life consigned to the box marked zero without me even being asked. A weekly menu consisting of the finest organic root vegetables, fish and white meat was drawn up and taped to the fridge door ’where you’re sure to see it’. It was at this point that I noticed she’d included avocados in the section headed: Tuesday, lunch.
’But I don’t like avocados’ I told her as she prepared to leave.
’They’re good for the blood, dad’ she said.
’Isn’t there anything else that’s good for my blood ?’
She shook her head. ’Part of this project requires that I moniter your blood pressure, so avocados might well play an important role in the overall results.’
’And I’ve got to eat this rabbit food for a whole month ?’
’That’s right’ she said, pecking me on the cheek. ’So no cheating. I’ll be back at the end of the week to see how you’re getting on. And I expect to see avocado skins in the bin…..’
Still enamoured by the same wholesome Danish features which had attracted me to her mother, I solemnly vowed not to deviate from the nutritional cold turkey I’d signed up to. Then, after seeing her out of the door, I brewed up some coffee and sat calculating how much extra this new organic lifestyle was going to add to my weekly shopping bill.
Nine months later and things had changed. I felt like a new man. Thanks to the diet, which, at my own insistence, had been indefinately extended, I’d shed a few unwanted pounds and re-discovered energy reserves that had remained dormant since my early twenties. Not only was I enjoying eating the pulses, salads and low-fat dishes my daughter had recommended but I’d also invested in a pair of highly priced, high-tech trainers in order to jog round the tower blocks three times a week. And what’s more I was eating avocados like a chimp eats bananas. Had something happened to my taste buds, I wondered ? Had avocados become more amenable to my palate in the twenty or so years since I’d last eaten one ? Or had my palate simply become more discerning with age ? For whatever reason, the avocados I was eating didn’t taste like pulped, oiled grass anymore. Now they tasted sweet and exquisitely exotic, invigorating my system after the first mouthful. Avocado and salad, avocado and pasta, avocado and banana split - so succulent were they, so delicate in their flavour, that I started spreading the stuff on my wholemeal toast each morning for breakfast. I felt fit, I felt healthy, and felt certain the blood running through my veins had been transformed into green nectar.
But in the space of those same nine months my daughter too had changed, and not in the healthiest way I could have forseen. The well-meaning dietician-to-be had been transformed into a seventeen-year-old with the weight of the world’s problems on her shoulders. Instead of concentrating on her studies and emulating her older brother’s excellent grades, she was now hanging around with a bunch of young, political activists whose common appearance was at odds with the fresh-faced girlfriends she usually brought home. My daughter’s free time was being spent not on the badminton court or at the Tuesday afternoon move ’n’ stretch class held at the local youth centre – her two usual places of refuge - but in the ultra-Marxist HQ of a group known as Red Action Youth in the centre of Copenhagen. I’d seen the building – part of a former military barracks – on Tv a number of times, usually in association with running street battles between riot police and protesters. The black brickwork coupled with the blood-red window shutters gave the place a creepy, gothic look. And what with the Hell’s Angels who lived close by and a well-known squatters’ paradise just around the corner, I was naturally concerned at this sudden sea-change in her character. Don’t get me wrong – I’m not the kind of father who’s forever seeking out ways in which to shackle his kids. Latitude has always been one of the cornerstones of my parenting philosophy, my son, currently finishing up his medical degree in London, being the shining proof of my success. And what’s more, here in liberal, easy-going Denmark, where the buses run on time, the litter is always put into bins, and childrens’ rights are among the top ten concerns of every Danish government, the idea that a parent might actually succeed in shackling his or her offspring in any way is highly unlikely. More to the point: at the age of seventeen, if my daughter wanted above all else to hang out with radicals of the deepest shade of red there was next to nothing I could say in the eyes of the law to make her change her mind.
What did she do in this revolutionary gothic furnace ? Well, she helped produce the anti-globalisation leaflets and the weekly newspaper which on every page denounces Western capitalism as the great Satan. She stenciled in the hammers and sickles that adorn the group’s banners and flags. And when she wasn’t doing all that she was out on the city streets rattling a ’Red Action Fighting Fund’ canister and being paid for her efforts with universal abuse from passers-by. My daughter had metamorphosised. And had she turned into Kafka’s giant beetle her appearance wouldn’t have been any less diminished. Gone now were the carefully pressed blouses and slacks in soft pastel colours, replaced by torn jeans and t-shirts imprinted with images of Lenin and Che Guevara. No longer did she spend a good thirty minutes or so combing and dry curling her honey-blonde hair. Such practices were ’bourgeois’ and ’not compatible with someone in the vanguard of revolutionary political change’.
’She’s lost me’ my former wife explained over the phone. ’It’s getting so that I can’t speak to her. She stinks of hash and goes round with some kid named Louis who I know has a criminal record…..’
’It’s a fad’ I said. ’Look at it this way - If it wasn’t revolutionary socialism it’d be Kurt Cobain. She’ll get over it.’
’That’s fine for you to say. You don’t have to live with her.’
’You can’t throw her out because she’s in love with her own romantic notion of revolution. And she’s not exactly breaking the law.’
’Not yet she isn’t…..’
’And whatever advice we give she’ll do the opposite…..’
’So what do you suggest ? Congratulations ? Say to her: ”Great! Keep up the good work!” and hope she’ll turn back into our daughter ?’
’No. I suggest we let things ride out…..The most important thing is not to restrain her, otherwise we’ll drive her away.’
So that’s what we agreed to do. We decided not to be her judge and jury. We decided not to pressure her. We let her carry on expending her new-found rage in the arms of Louis, the pint-sized revolutionary hero who was going to lead the world to Marxist-Leninist Nirvana. And when she came round to my apartment I employed the crudest form of reverse-psychology, telling her that I liked her new hair-do, even though I loathed it; that her baggy t-shirts and ripped jeans looked ’cool’, even though they didn’t; and that her mad-cap tirades against every Tom, Dick and Harry who had ever tried to turn a profit carried some merit, even though I had to grit my teeth when I said so. And in between her visits I continued to jog round the tower blocks and feed myself lush, ripe avocados.
Easter, 2002. After nine days of bomb-belted members of Hamas detonating themselves in and around Israeli bars, cafes and vegetable markets, IDF tanks re-occupy the autonomous Palestinian zones in an operation christened Defensive Shield. There are claims of a massacre in a refugee camp in Jenin and the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem is under siege after armed Palestinian militants take refuge in this most holy of holy places. Arafat’s headquarters have been reduced to rubble and the Palestinian President is confined to a couple of candle-lit rooms with just a heavy-duty mobile phone with which to communicate to the outside world. Nightly, my TV screen is filled with graphic pictures of the carnage. In the volatile aftermath of September 11th it’s as if the whole world is starting to slide down the pan, with the conflict in the Middle East leading the way.
As always when a big news story breaks I’m swamped with translation work. Even my jogging has had to take a back-seat as I work day and night to write up articles about every aspect of the unfolding crisis as seen from a Scandinavian persepective. What happens to the articles I translate is something of a mystery. As far as I know they’re sifted through and passed on to likely news organisations looking for either something quaint and other-worldly to fill up the inside pages of English-language newspapers, or to simply help remind the English-speaking world that Scandinavia exists. Not too much happens here, you understand: but when something does you can be sure I’ll be turning the copy into crisp, English prose. Whether it’s a suspected outbreak of foot and mouth, a Danish supermodel out on the town, the rise of the far-right, or Michael Jackson hiring Tivoli theme park and taking Bubbles for a ride on the big-dipper…..the chances are I’ll be the one who translated the article. And afterwards, having punched in the last full-stop, you can bet that I sat wondering where I went wrong in my life to deserve such Dantesque purgatory.
It so happens that on the day before Good Friday I’m forced to leave my desk, difficult though this is, in order to go shopping. The high-protein, high-vitamin food stocks in my fridge are getting low. And with the holiday period imminent I need to replenish my supplies. So, I take the bus into the city centre to stock up on library books and visit a supermarket which I know sells all my favourite organic brands at a competitive price.
At first, as I approach the supermarket entrance, I’m under the impression that some kind of accident has taken place. There’s a crowd of people out on the pavement and I can see a guy in uniform swinging his arms. It’s only when I see the placards that I realise a demonstration is underway. And it’s only when I get up close that I realise the guy wearing the uniform – supermarket security – is swinging his arms in frustration because he’s speaking to my daughter.
’Sweetheart ? What’s going on ?’
There are about thirty people standing outside the supermarket, some of whom I immediately recognise as the goths who hang out at the Red Action HQ. But there are a number of others who don’t fit the bill: a few elderly people, concerned young women with their kids, a bearded man with a shock of grey hair who reminds me of a long forgotten lecturer in medieval drama from my university days. The placards they’re carrying show a familiar face distorted by a Hitler-esque block of moustache next to swastikas and slogans such as: ’Free Palestine Now!’ written in both Danish and English. The familiar face is that of Ariel Sharon, the Israeli Prime Minister.
’We’re demonstrating, dad, against Israeli aggression’ my daughter courteously informs me, and then, suddenly conscious of the embarassment of having her father impinge upon this first stage in the revolution, says ’What are you doing here anyway, dad ? Why aren’t you working ?’
The security guard is now engaged in animated conversation with another protester and so heated has this discussion become that the small crowd lurches forward in the guard’s direction. One of the protesters peals away, laughing, and settles himself beside my daughter. He’s wearing a green flack jacket and jeans and sports a mop of blonde curly hair. As soon as I set eyes on him I’m in no doubt that this person is none other than Louis.
’Don’t shop in this supermarket, man’ he commands ’We’re boycotting all Israeli goods. And this afternoon we’re holding a rally against fascist Sharon’s incursion into Palestinian territory. You know who Sharon is, don’t you ? He’s the butcher of Sabra and Chatila – the guy who guns down innocent women and children for fun. Now he’s doing it again in Jenin. And the whole world is sitting back and watching him do it. If you want to stand-up for basic human rights, man, join the march. It’s at 1 o’clock…..’
A leaflet is thrust into my hand – a leaflet which, amongst other things, lists all the foodstuffs comrade Louis wishes me to boycott in solidarity to the cause. Top of the list: Avocados.
’This is my dad’ my daughter announces and Louis’s eyes light up. ’You’re the English guy, right?’ he says, the question tinged with enough derision to make it clear that England comes third, after Israel and the USA, in Louis’ premier league of most hated countries. ’Have you written to that fascist Blair yet, man ? Have you told him how you’re against your country’s support for the US ? Bush is giving it Blair up the rear and the English can’t see it, man. Now Blair’s declared himself in favour of waging war against Iraq. Did the UK Parliament have a say in it ? Did the people have a say in it ? You want to go home and write Blair a letter, man. Better still, get involved in some direct action before it’s too late.’
Still digesting all the orders and insults that have been barked at me and trying hard to work out how I can simultaneously march, write letters, and chain myself to the railings outside No 10 Downing Street, I’m overcome by a desire to tell Louis that, sad to say, the world isn’t the glowing beacon of black and white he imagines it to be…..that perhaps Israel has a right to defend itself from deadly human explosions…..that Arafat and his PLO buddies are right up there with the Sicilian Mafia when it comes to closed, un-democratic organisations…..that if Louis doesn’t want to be on the receiving end of one of Saddam’s anthrax-coated buzz-bombs then somebody had better do something about Iraq sooner rather than later. All of these things flash through my mind – part of me insisting that I give it to Louis straight. Instead, polite Englishman that I am, I find myself screwing up the leaflet, re-depositing it into Louis’ hand, and saying something which turns out to be much worse: I inform him that I am going to walk into the supermarket and buy two kilos of avocados for my lunch.
Could I have mouthed a more inflamatory statement ? Perhaps not. As I attempt to walk through the supermarket doors, Louis blocks my path. I side-step this way, that way, and still Louis refuses to let me through. My daughter, torn now between her father and her boyfriend – and well aware, no doubt, of how instrumental she was in turning me on to the pear-shaped fruit which, according to the Red Action leaflet, fuels the Israeli war machine - places herself between the two of us in a vain attempt to defuse the situation. But it’s no use. Louis’s comrades and the supermarket security staff have already joined in the fray. There’s a lot of pushing and shoving and eventually somebody – as somebody always does – throws a punch at somebody else. The next thing I know, I’m propelled with a number of other anonymous bit-players in this Easter farce through the main doors and into the glass display case of the supermarket bakery. The display case collapses, the supermarket alarms and water sprinklers activate, a woman at the check-out faints, and I’m left spread-eagled beneath a pile of bodies, broken glass, and succulent Danish pastries - none of which contain avocado.
Two days in hospital with a cracked rib, a few shards of glass embedded in my hand (I was wearing a heavy coat when I crashed into the display cabinet, managing to shield my face from the worst), some lost translation work…..all things considered, I think I got off lightly. The Tv cameras arrived just in time to film me being stretchered from the scene, the reporter announcing that one of the injured was an English ’best selling author and translator’ – a not entirely true description but one that I was loathe to correct. And last month a surprise: in order to help offset some of the bad publicity, the supermarket presented each of us innocent injured by-standers with a free Shop Till You Drop voucher.
As for Louis: he was up in court on a charge of affray and is now enjoying a ski-ing holiday in Norway, courtesy of the youth probation service. Louis’s father, it turns out, is a well-heeled Copenhagen surgeon. He called round to see me one afternoon to apologise on his son’s behalf. Frightened that I might be about to press civil charges, he presented me with a case of wine. Then, before leaving, he slipped me his card and said: ’When the time comes for your triple heart by-pass, give me a call and I’ll fix you up nice and good’.
My daughter, the sight of her father crushed beneath bodies, glass and cakes, has now decided that non-violent action is the best way to salve the problems of the world and has recently traded her membership of the Red Action Youth Movement for regular sessions at the Transcendental Meditation Centre where she sends out good vibes in the direction of the Middle East.
As for me: I’m still jogging, translating, and eating avocados. I’ve also been reading The Divine Comedy. ’There is no greater sorrow than to recall a time of happiness in misery’ says Dante. And I ask you: has ever a truer jumble of words been written ?