Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Saving the Green Tomatoes: Spicy Green Tomato Chutney

Today is halfway into November and last night, my tomato plants finally froze. We have seen several frosts over the last three or four weeks, but they never crept into our yard, until last night. My fig trees threw off their leaves like they couldn't wait while the peppers and tomato plants just shriveled and hung their leaves like wet socks. Little green figs still hang out there naked but I don't have any uses for them. The green tomatoes will make an awesome chutney, perfect for spicing up dull fall meals.

I am using a Russian recipe as my inspiration but adjusting it a bit with fig leaves, thyme, dates and wild crabapples. Fig leaves add such a tropical coconut flavor while the thyme adds butteriness and the crabapples add pectin. My yellow crabapples are from a tree I rescued from the woods and I use it as the bee attractor for my early blooming apply trees.

I love the colors of the green tomatoes as some are solid green while others have a touch of pink or orange. They are slightly sweet with a touch of acidity and more meaty than ripe tomatoes. They should be perfect for a preserve.

My first job was to wash the tomatoes and then chop them up into somewhat small bits. I started with my knife and quickly realized chopping would take me forever so I switched to my food processor. After a couple of pulses, I had the perfect uniform size. I tossed them into my largest pot.

In the meantime, I decided to cook my crabapples separately so I could put them through a food mill to remove the seeds and stems. I use an antique food mill I have had for decades, but you can find new models at lots of stores. I covered the crabapples with water, brought them up to a boil and let simmer until they were soft. They were easy to process and the soft yellow mash blended perfectly into the colors of my green tomatoes.

Chutney needs spice and to bring out more of the flavor, I toasted them over a medium flame for a couple of minutes while trying to keep the mustard seeds from popping out. The heat seems to intensify the flavors of dried spices. Some recipes call for the spices to be ground but I decided to leave mine whole as I love the pop of mustard seeds and the spiciness of black peppercorns. Besides, after grinding spices and cooking them, they can seem a bit more bitter in the end product.

My recipe called for a mash of ginger, garlic and chilis and while I had all the ingredients, I didn't quite make a mash. Instead, I used a microplane to grate the ginger, chopped and mashed the garlic and coarsely chopped the peppers with my regular kitchen knife.

Since all the ingredients would simmer away for a couple of hours, I knew the garlic and peppers would soften but heat doesn't soften the ginger fibers. I needed to break down all the fibers beforehand - hence the microplane.

Now for the heat. I had a couple of chili peppers from my now dead garden as well as a couple of jalapenos and habaneros from the bottom of my frig. I looked around for a pair of gloves to protect my fingers from the oils, but...oh well.

I deseeded them as the texture of pepper seeds is almost never desirable, and chopped up the peppers coarsely. My fingers were so spicy even after washing them with soap and water.

Now I don't know how many people know that fig leaves give off a coconut flavor. I personally found out the first year I grew the plants. When we had our first freeze, the leaves fell to the ground and smelled strongly of coconut. After a little research, I found that I could use them in cooking. I remove the center stem and then chop the leaves so that they will blend into whatever I am cooking. I added a little thyme too.

I knew I needed sweetness to cut the heat of the peppers and wanted more of an earthy sweetness so I used raw sugar cubes and chopped dates. I did try using the food processor for the dates, but they just stuck to the blades. My knife worked just fine.

I kept adding each ingredient to the pot which I had on a low flame. By the time the vinegar was added, there was only about a half of an inch of room to the rim. I kept the heat very low and let the chutney simmer for a couple of hours, stirring every thirty minutes or so.

 Finally, I jarred it up into wide mouth pint jars and processed them in a hot water bath for about ten minutes. A quick wipe and tightening of the lid and they were ready to rest.

Here is the actual recipe:

Spicy Green Tomato Chutney

3 kg green tomatoes
125 g crabapples
2 heads of garlic
75 g minced ginger
4 tbsp yellow mustard seeds
6 green chilies- or similar
2 tbsp black peppercorns
1 tbsp fenugreek
1 tbsp cumin seeds
5-8 cardamom seeds
2 tbsp chopped fig leaf
125 g chopped dates
500 g raw sugar
2 tbsp sea salt
1 tsp thyme
500 ml red wine vinegar

Use a food processor to chop tomatoes. Pour into a large pot and place on low heat.

Place crabapples in pot, cover with water, cover and cook until tender - about 12 minutes. Process through a food mill to remove seeds and stems. Add resulting mash to tomatoes.

Toast the spices in a dry pan over medium heat until their fragrance is released and the mustard seeds start popping. Add to tomatoes.

Mince ginger with microplane. Chop garlic and chili peppers. Add to tomatoes.

Remove center stems of fig leaves and chop finely. Add to tomatoes.

Coarsely chop dates. Add to tomatoes.

Add raw sugar, thyme,  salt and vinegar to tomatoes.

Stir tomato mixture and simmer for 2 - 3 hours, stirring well every 30 minutes.

The finished chutney will be thick but still have a saucy aspect. Pour into sterilized pint jars, cover and process in hot water bath for 10 minutes.

That's it! Try this spicy green tomato chutney on your next turkey sandwich. It might be your new favorite condiment.

Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Canal du Midi

Canal du Midi
For months, My husband, Eric and I dreamed about our trip to Europe and then specifically, to France. We originally were thinking of going to Greece, based upon the recommendations from a lot of fellow travelers, but the struggling economy there scared us off for this trip. Instead we settled on southern France. 

This was a big deal for us. We have four adult children and after thirty years of marriage, we felt like we really deserved to splurge on ourselves, but like most folks, our finances were limited.

We settled on renting a boat that would take us along a section of the Canal du Midi. The pictures on their website were breathtaking and although we did not speak any French, we felt this was a way to enjoy the area without having to do a ton of dialog. After shopping around for a few weeks, we chose a company, Nicols, to hire the boat from as they seemed to have the newest models and lots of good reviews. Thankfully, they had a broker who worked out of Florida to help us work out all the details.

Train Station in Narbonne

I got creative and scratched together all the credit card points I could get my hands on and was able to get flights to Germany with just points, saving us a lot of money. Slowly, we chose each section of travel to get to the port in the south of France, just north of the Mediterranean Sea. We booked trains, shuttles, buses and taxis and a hotel room. Most of the businesses did not have much of an internet presence, but we figured it out. 

The day finally came and we headed to the airport. Of course, our flight was delayed, but we were not concerned and we made it out only a couple of hours later. We hoped to be able to sleep as it was an overnight flight, but a screaming baby kept us all awake right up until our landing. Flexibility and patience is a very important part of traveling! Our flight attendants were kind and wine and beer was free so we all managed.

Ryan Air Lobby in Germany
Ryan Air was our next stop, but we had almost ten hours to kill. We wandered around the airport in Frankfurt, took our shuttle and hung around the airport in Kirchberg. We couldn't find a comfortable place to chill so we actually found a nice grassy spot outside and napped with our luggage for an hour or so. Then we checked out the curry sausage stand - rather interesting; then the beer spot - pretty decent but no variety; the empty upstairs until finally, we were in line to board our flight to Montpellier!

A fast moving storm blew in and all we could hear was the noise of the water on the corrugated metal roofing, or at least we thought it was water. Come to find out, it was a mix of rain and hail. So much hail that there were piles of it along the runway. The rain was intense and as we waited we saw firemen rushing about dropping boards across the bases of the doors to stop the inflow of flood waters. We were all hustled to another higher part of the airport and got off the ground before the next round of rain started.

The Citadine Hotel in Montpelier
Montpellier was dark when we arrived but we found our way to the shuttles that would take us to our hotel, the Citadine. The streets were well lit, but almost no people were to be seen. Thankfully, we found our hotel just a short distance away even though our phone had spotty coverage. The concierge greeted us in French but quickly changed to speak to us in pretty clear English. We were surprised that more people didn't speak English but we managed. Our room was a shock when we walked in to find a couch and a bathroom. A fold-out couch? Thankfully, it was really the best fold out we had ever encountered and although we could not locate any place to get a bite for dinner, we slept quite peacefully after a hot shower.

Montpellier Train Station
Our alarms went off from our newly charged phones (we didn't forget to bring our inverter and plug converter) all too early, but we had a train to catch. After finding some French coffee in the lobby, we set off on foot to find the train station, listed as being about half a mile away. There were several folks about, some seemingly on their way to work and others just enjoying the cool morning air. After one correction from a gentleman, we found the steel and glass dome-shaped station. We struggled to understand which platform or how to get our tickets, but one of the managers spoke some English and helped us get tickets and we figured out which platform to get on just in the nick of time. 

Eric enjoying the comfortable train ride through southern France.
The trains in France are wonderful. They are clean, cost efficient and punctual. There were electrical outlets for charging our phones and we could easily get up and walk around. Riding across the countryside, we watched the terrain go from very Spanish looking clay homes in an arid landscape with olive trees and yucca plants to vineyards and more lush gardens.

Fantastic bread display in Narbonne
The train took us about 90 minutes to get to Narbonne - almost to our destination. The area was much busier than Montpellier and we decided to check out the town for some lunch. We found a little cafe and the menu had English translations. Of course, they served wine with lunch. I ordered a tuna sandwich and was surprised and delighted to find they made it without mayonnaise, just lettuce, tomatoes and onion in a baguette.

We loved the vast spread of olives 

After a tiny cup of espresso, we headed out to check out the Les Halles de Narbonne, an indoor market of many vendors recommended to us by our travel broker. Talk about phenomenal products! So many cheeses, olives, fruit and vegetables, fish and meats, breads and candy! We feasted with our eyes on the freshest foods imaginable and massive displays. Nothing commercialized about shopping there. Mostly men were doing the shopping with cloth bags or baskets. I thoroughly enjoyed the experience even though we only walked away with a little cheese, some olives, a dried sausage and fresh strawberries, and the unforgettable baguette.

Incredible displays of fresh meats
There was a little bar in the middle of the Hall where several men were drinking wine and talking so we pulled up a couple of chairs to a large wine barrel converted into a table. We sipped Rose wine like the locals and enjoyed watching the French folks doing their shopping. No one was speaking English and it was fun not understanding their words but still being able to understand pretty much what they were talking about just by their body language.

After the respite, we headed on to find a taxi for the last leg of our trip before we boarded the boat. We read that you have to call for a taxi since they are not just waiting around busy areas. We walked to where a taxi company address was listed to be and found nothing - no office, no taxis, nothing. Perplexed, we went into a bakery and asked the girl behind the counter if she knew where we could get a taxi but she didn't speak English. Another customer came into the shop and thankfully interpreted for us. But she still didn't know! We did a little internet searching and found the phone number which we called, only to find out that they didn't speak English either. By this point, we were finding our situation a little comical but we figured out that we could get the shop girl to talk to the taxi and have him come to her shop. It worked and a few minutes later he drove up to tell us he had to pick up someone ten minutes away. It gave us time to buy a croissant from the baker and hang out on the curb watching little cars buzz by on the cobble streets.

Cafe in La Somail
Le Somail was a tiny little intersection with a cluster of beautiful old stone buildings along the edges of the Canal du Midi. Since we were a little early to pick up our boat, we stopped in a cafe' with outdoor tables and ordered one of their handmade pizzas and wine of course! Little children were all dressed up and running around while their parents ate and drank wine with their friends. The atmosphere was quite relaxing.

Eric piloting from the top of our boat.
Our boat was ready on time and we stepped aboard after sighing all the paperwork. The next stage of our journey was about to begin!
Our houseboat for the week

We dropped off the couple of bags we brought in the boat and filled out the final paperwork in the rental office. There was a real sense of festiveness as a small band was playing outside. Eric assumed the position of captain and once papers were in hand, he started up the diesel engine and pulled our little boat out into the canal. Fantastic hardly describes the fun of it. We had fresh bread, cheese and some strawberries from the market in Narbonne in our refrigerator, a snugly bed down below, our own bathroom with a shower and a 360 degree view from our dining room table. The air was fresh and only around 65 degrees out and we were in France!

The canal was rather narrow in spots, so narrow that sometimes we had to almost come to a stop to let another boat pass. Everyone was quick to wave and call out greetings to us. Our first little town was right along the canal and a winery with a huge barn from the 1500's was selling wine by the gallon jugs (actually 4.5 liters) and with the advice from previous travels we stocked up with three jugs that ended up lasting us the whole week.

500 year old castle selling wines

After that we boated on for a couple of  hours just soaking in the bucolic French countryside. Our first lock was a little nerve wracking as we had only two sets of hands to work the boat and the ropes. We would wait for a signal from the lock keeper to enter the lock and then proceeded with caution. 

Eric buying some fresh produce in an open market

Once inside we had to pick a position along the towering rock walls, toss a couple of ropes up to the top where either I was waiting or another helpful traveler, secure them tightly and wait until any other boats joined us. The lock keeper would then release the water gates and fill the lock. Water rushed in, tossing the boat like a cork, then slowed as it leveled with the top level of the canal, the gates opened and we boated on. Somehow we never understood that we had to do 54 locks over the time of our week of meandering up the canal. Our advice for anyone doing this would be to start at the top and travel south on the canal. But we had a blast.

Beautiful canal boats line the canal 

We saw many amazing canal boats that folks lived on either year around or at least for months. We could pull over at any point along the canal and drive a stake into the ground and tie off the boat so we could explore the countryside. Old ruins scattered the countryside and our canal actually went over streams. Our first lunch was so fun sitting in our little dining room.

One of our lunch spreads on our boat.

Our mapbook was critical for learning about the little towns along the way. Also, we had perfect mobile service for our T-mobile cell phones even though we were way out in the country. One thing we did notice almost immediately in our interactions with the French people is that they did not speak English, or at least very little as in one or two words or expressions. We learned to use gestures and expressions and eat whatever they served us!

Some locks were centuries old

Along the canal were old, very old plane trees that looked like our sycamores. Many of the were cut down to stop the spread of a blight and a huge project is underway to replant the trees for miles along the canal. You can still see the remains of old roots hanging over the water like wooden fingers.

See the wooden fingers along the canal

We enjoyed finding little cafes along the way where people treated us like we were their guests in their homes and served us wonderfully fresh food. There was a notable lack of commercial products or labeled foods. Even wine was served in carafes not wine bottles and sometime for free.

The food was always fresh and creative yet simple and delicious.

The French are very practical at least where we traveled. Flowers grew everywhere as well as flowers, vegetables and fruits. Tiny little vineyards took up little corners of yards but there was very little lawn. I guess they valued their land too much.

Sitting in a little cafe along the canal.

We enjoyed traveling by day and stopping in at the little towns for lunch and to look around their shops. I was not used to seeing buildings that were 500 years old or more and still in use by small businesses, not museums.

Tiny cobbled streets in Castelnaudary

We heeded the advice of other travelers and made sure we always had bread and cheese and a little fruit or vegetables on board because restaurants were never guaranteed to be open for dinner. That way, we could enjoy exploring by day and still have a nice dinner at night.

Our little kitchen sink and stove

The weather was wonderful. At least that is how we chose to view it. We had rain for several days and got thoroughly soaked which was chilly in 65 degrees but we had heat in our boat and could always warm up between working the locks. We did rent bikes for the week but found that we didn't use them as walking was easier and most of the villages were right along the canal. 

A lockkeeper's house. Notice all the herbs and flowers growing naturally

Our trip along the canal was both relaxing and hard work. We did see older citizens on boats like ours and hoped they were able to make the journey as the locks did take a certain amount of physical strength. The views from the canal were constantly inspiring us. I can understand why the French people love their land.

What an awesome way to travel!

We spent a day in the town of Castelnaudary. The steep little cobblestone streets that ran through centuries old buildings up to the top of town where you could look out and see all the little neighborhoods as far as the horizon reached. We tried their famous cassoulet in a tiny little restaurant where the cook was happy to talk to us about his travels to Chicago. Fun times and great memories!

The last of the 32 Windmills from the 16th Century

History here is far different that the history of the United States! I won't take the time to mention all the little towns we visited but suffice it to say, each has their own character and is beautiful.  By the time we finished all the 54 locks and made our way into the base station, we felt like we had been comfortably immersed in the gentle and generous nature of the French people of southern France. 

This was an experience that we would highly recommend. Even if you don't feel up to captaining your own boat, there are plenty of companies that offer full service cruises. 

Fun decorations grace the canal boats.

Monday, May 9, 2016

My Nightmare

There are several situations that I never want to be stuck in and one of them is being admitted to a facility for mentally unstable people, Perhaps I read too many stories when I was a child, but the idea of being locked up really bothers me. One day I let my imagination run a bit and this story was the result...

I lay back in the warm sunshine. The air was cool but as long as the sun stayed out from behind the clouds, I felt deliciously warm and comfortable. There was nothing but the sound of the wind in the trees of the scuttle of the dry maple seeds scraping against the concrete patio. My writing notebook sat unopened on the table next to me accented by the color of the royal blue pen next to it. I glanced at it from time to time as if I was checking to see if I was ready to start. To start on a journey that might mean trouble. Trouble is what got me here in the first place. Place, this wasn’t a place, it was a prison. Prison - why do they put people in prisons instead of letting them live. Live was all I wanted to do, through my pen and paper. Paper was the entrance to my stories. Stories were an expression of where I could go without ever leaving my chair or moving a muscle.
My thoughts meandered as easily as a butterfly might flit from flower to leaf without rhyme or reason. The sounds of the masses of bamboo swaying in the wind were fuel for my imagination, but I enjoyed it only temporarily.
Genius some said. Works of art. I wondered why they felt the need to categorize and rank my writings. I wrote to create a story and my pen was as a musical instrument is to the musician. When it stopped, the story stopped. As long as my hand could keep writing, the story stayed alive.
Breakdown? What did they mean? I wasn’t broken - everything worked fine. Just because I didn’t feel like jumping back into their reality didn’t mean that I was broken. I just had something to finish first.
The sunlight broke away to hide behind a thick cloud and a chill went through my bones. Standing up, I pulled my long hair back out of my face and twisted it into a loose knot. A pathway between some large hemlocks looked inviting, so I tucked my things into my cotton bag and slunk it over my shoulder. The institute was a large place with several buildings stretched across the manicured lawns. I found the grounds almost too boring. Where were the tenacious vines that covered over fallen trees? What about the wild garlic grass that usually grew faster that my lawn at home? No honeysuckle or shiny poison ivy leaves or even the fluffy dandelions or scrawny mustard plants.
Order. Everything was orderly and groomed. Was that my problem? Did I not see or value the importance of order? I liked the randomness of the wild. Why did there need to be so many controls? IO felt like I was an animal - fenced in and not allowed to be who I was. Wasn’t the world a large enough place to allow all of us to live together in the space we each needed?
My mind was clearing as the drugs they used to calm me wore down.
I had signed myself in for treatment, but really all I wanted was a place where I could imagine and write without distractions, while others took care of my physical needs. After several weeks of disappearing from reality for days on end, my boyfriend was convinced me to get some help. I did it to make him happy. His job was taking him away on business for a week and he feared for my safety. When I suggested the clinic, he jumped at the opportunity, glad to think that I was trying to change my habits.
I understood his frustration, I could see reality; I just chose not to embrace it while I was in the midst of creating my story. There was a sense of urgency that pulled me into the stories, warning me that if I stepped away for too long, the story would fade and the characters left voiceless in the silence of the white paper.
He was a wonderful man, talented in his business of financial trading. Usually, he understood my need for finishing my stories as he often worked late or wake early to follow the markets overseas before the official stock market hours would start or finish. The times when both of our schedules coincided with free time were like honey on toast. We were meant for each other. After a class of brandy for me, and a scotch for him, we could talk for hours either in front of the fireplace or out back in the sunken hot tub. Laughing at our childhoods or making fun of people at his work or whatever we felt like talking through.
“Elizabeth!” Jason, the therapist on duty was calling me.
I turned to acknowledge him with a look instead of answering.
“It’s time for group therapy. Would you like to join us?” he asked.
Although I came here on my own volition, I had no respect for some of the therapy that they would try to use on me. The director, Alan Baker knew me from my books and had given me leave to write undisturbed. “No thank you. I think I will pass on that invitation, but thank you,” I answered trying to be polite.
“Well, actually, I really mean that we would like for you to come to the meeting,” he insisted, pursing his lips together rather effeminately, I thought.
“Dr. Baker said I could be excused from any therapy sessions that interrupt my writing.”
“Well, Dr. Baker has left for a week-long conference in Albany so Dr. Cheryl Wood is in charge. She asked me to bring you to the session for your valuable insight.” He was obviously trying to butter me up and I found it irritating. I wasn’t going to waste my time arguing with him.
“Oh, I see. Okay, I’m heading in.” I pretended to be agreeable, “I will stop by my room first.”
He left me as I walked back along the path to the back entrance. I knew I would pass the director’s office on my way.
“Dr. Wood? Hello, my name is Elizabeth Mason.” I held out my hand in greeting to the lady sitting at the desk.
“Hello, Elizabeth. Yes, I am aware of who you are.” Her handshake was cold and unfriendly.
“I’m not sure if you have heard of me but I am a writer and I came here for some time to write unhindered. Dr. Baker excused me from attending the therapy sessions.”
“Well that was nice of Dr. Baker, but while I am responsible, I feel it is my job to extend the therapy sessions to all of our patients, not just the ones that feel like coming.” Her voice took on the condescending higher tone of tired therapists.
I knew immediately that she did not like me and that I could expect no favors from her. I felt my anger rising but refused to give her the credit of annoying me. She had no business being in the health care system with her cold heart. I excused myself quickly to get away from her.
It was then that I first realized that maybe this was not such a good place to be, but I decided to stick it out a little longer for Mark’s sake. The meeting was in a classroom with a high ceiling and fluorescent lights. Tiny windows high on the wall let in the afternoon sunlight in long swaths across the tiled floor. A circle of plain metal folding chairs sat in the middle of the room. Austere, unfriendly, cold, trapped were the words that immediately came to my mind. There were only two empty chairs and I took the one closest to the door. I tried not to make eye contact until I sat down. Then I was that they were all staring at me so I put on a little smile to acknowledge their attention. This was embarrassing. The people focusing their dulled eyes on me needed help, but this was not the way - it couldn’t be. I resisted the urge to run out and reminded myself that this scene would be excellent material for when I got back with Mark. I could just visualize him howling at my humorous description. And that is how I survived the meeting - I pretended that I was in a comedy where the audience was cheering and clapping at the ridiculous remarks, mostly from the therapist.
After dinner at five, I excused myself from the table and told the few people listening that I was heading back to my room. One nervous girl with light thin hair tried to invite herself but I firmly and quietly convinced her that I needed some quiet time. My room was not much different from a prison cell, except that it was bigger and the bars on the window were painted white. Thankfully, my room was not locked.
I pulled out my pad of paper and a pen, settling back against my pillows to write. My mind kept going back to the faces of the people in my therapy session. Had their families given up on them? Why did people on the outside think that by lumping all the folks with problems together with each other was a good idea? And then to drug them up just added to the insult? Was this a vestige of the Middle Ages still clinging on to our society?
My pen moved slowly at first until I drifted into the story and saw it come to life again. Only thirty minutes into writing, a knock at my door interrupted me harshly.
“Miss Elizabeth?” A young African girl with beautiful ebony skin and even white teeth spoke in a British accent, “Here are your meds.”
“But I am not on any meds,” I answered her.
“Dr. Wood prescribed them for you. She said you were upset.” She spoke so kindly with her soft voice.
“But…” I stopped talking and held out my hand. I couldn’t argue with everyone or they might label me. I had to beat them at their own game. I slipped the pills into my pocket.
“Oh no, you have to take them now,” she insisted. “It’s part of my job to make sure you take your medication.”
I hesitated and then realized that I had no plans for leaving my room and considered that some relaxing drugs might actually help my writing. Smiling, I swallowed them down with a few gulps of cold water.
“There you go, honey. Good job,” she said, patting me on my knee. She pulled the door closed behind her as she left and I heard the lock turn.
What! I was getting locked in?
“Hey!” I shouted as I jumped off my bed and ran to the door. The aide saw me through the glass window and opened my door.
“What’s the problem, dear?”
“You locked my door!”
“That’s just standard procedure for folks who are upset. We don’t want to spoil the peace of everyone else,” she explained.
Suddenly I felt my neck muscles soften and then my spine. Grabbing onto the doorframe, I realized the pills she gave me were far stronger that I expected. I turned to make the two steps back to my bed before I fell over.
“Good night, dear. You should sleep well.”
But it’s only six-thirty… my mind argued as I closed my eyes. I need to get out of here…
My eyes opened slowly and I realized where I was. I didn’t quite feel like moving yet, but I could see my door was now open by an inch. Someone must have come in during the night because I didn’t remember changing out of my clothes or placing them neatly on my chair.
Realizing that I needed to get myself sobered up, I stumbled out of bed, grabbed my towel and peaked out the door. No one was in sight, so I left it slightly ajar and went into the shower. The lukewarm water was slightly chilly and it helped wake me up. I dressed quietly and brushed my hair. No one was going to say that I was upset today. I reached for my purse to grab my cell phone, but it wasn’t in its usual side pocket. I knew if I called Mark, his voice would reassure me that all was okay. I couldn’t find my phone. Where could it have gone? Did I use it during the evening? I looked thoroughly around my room - but it wasn’t there.
What’s next? First, they make me go to a therapy session, drug me up, lock my room and steal my cell phone. I turned my back to the door in case anyone passing by might see me in my anger, and looked out the window. I was determined to play their game better than they did; I wasn’t going to let them make a drugged patient out of me, but how? Without my cell phone, I had to rely on myself and therefore couldn’t be drugged. Gradually, I began to take confidence that I could get out if I paid attention to the details. Since the door to my room was open, I figured they must expect me to come out when I was ready. Before I left, I took my purse and placed it in full view of the door, but took out my credit cards to hide in my pant’s pocket. I noticed a little box of breath mints and suddenly realized that at first glance, they looked just like the pills they gave me the night before. I smiled to myself and slid a couple into the side pocket of my sweater.
Hoping to distract them from my purpose, I put on an act of being groggy and sleepy as I made my way down the hallway to the kitchen.
“Excuse me?” I stopped to ask an aide that was approaching me in the hall. “I can’t seem to find my cell phone.” I rubbed my eyes and yawned as I made the statement nonchalantly.
“What room are you in?” he asked. I pointed across the hall at my room. He walked over and did a quick survey of the room. “Nope, no cell phone. Maybe you forgot it at home.” His reply was a little too quick, but I pretended not to care.
“No, I’m sure I brought it. Can I report it to someone so they can check on it for me?” I tried to look endearing.
“Well, all thefts have to be reported to the director - Dr. Wood right now, but she’s not in her office yet.” he answered me.
“You know, it doesn’t look very good on the reputation of this place if the patients are having their stuff stolen.” I wanted him to think I was still under the influence of the drugs from the night before and slurred my speech a little.
“Don’t worry. I’m sure it will show up,” he said. “Why don’t you go down and get some breakfast in the kitchen?”
I followed his suggestion and walked towards the kitchen. I passed the lobby and asked the lady sitting at the receptionist’s desk if she could buzz my out of the front door so I could take a walk. She looked down at some papers on her clipboard and then looked up at me.
“No, I’m sorry. You need to get an aide to take a walk with you,” she replied with a smile. “Would you like me to call one for you?”
“No. I’ll get some breakfast first. Thanks.” Now I knew that they were controlling me and that I needed an aide to help me get out.
A few people were sitting at the tables in the dining area, most of whom I recognized from the therapy session. I chose some scrambled eggs, toast and juice from the ordering window and found a table where I could see the whole room.
“Someone stole my cell phone last night,” I announced it loud enough for most of the room to hear but without looking at any one person. I poked at my eggs pretending to be absent minded.
“Oh, no. That means we have a thief here,” an older nervous lady said.
“You probably misplaced it,” another man said as he scratched his head compulsively.
“No. I know that someone stole my phone. I always put it in the same place and this morning, it was stolen!” I raised my hands for emphasis, as if to say, what’s next?
A college-aged guy entered the room and immediately two ladies spoke up, “There’s been a robbery. Have you had anything stolen?”
“Whatever,” he said as he shrugged his shoulders and went to the ordering window.
“Have you had anything stolen? I asked you a question,” the nervous lady asked him again, this time a little louder. I was pleased that I was raising the tension in the room.
“No. Nothing is stolen.” He spoke even louder than she did.
“Yes. My cell phone was stolen last night,” I retorted as if I were part of the argument. “You probably know who did it, too,” I tried accusing him.
“You are crazy, lady. Leave me alone.”
An aide walked into the room. “All right, calm down,” he said in a deep baritone voice.
“That lady was robbed and then that guy called her crazy!” the nervous lady said in a high-pitched worried voice.
“Let’s use names. Remember James?” he looked at the college-aged kid. “And I’m sorry but I don’t know your name - you must be new,” he said looking at me.
“Elizabeth,” I answered. “And someone did steal my cell phone.”
The room erupted into worried voices again until the aid asked everyone to please be silent for a minute. Apparently, it was one of their tricks for calming the room down because it worked immediately.
“Elizabeth, why don’t you come with me and we will report your cell phone. The rest of you go back to eating your breakfast, quietly.” He added the last word with special emphasis.
I left my tray on the table and followed him out of the room. My plan was working. He led me to the director’s office where Dr. Wood was sitting behind the desk.
“Elizabeth. Good morning. What brings you here to my office today?”
“She claims that her cell phone was stolen,” the aide spoke up.
“Well, that’s not good. Are you sure you didn’t misplace it?” she asked as she looked through a stack of papers on her desk. “Marcus, why don’t you go back and help Elizabeth find her phone.”
“No. I know it’s not in my room. I looked for it this morning,” I wanted to make sure that she knew I was upset.
“All the same, Marcus, would you help her look?” she answered as she looked through a pile of papers on her desk. As I turned to leave the room, I saw her stretch out her arm and place something in Marcus’ hand - my pills, most likely.
My purse was right where I left it in plain view, but it was turned around.
“Time for your meds,” Marcus said holding out his hand to me.
I pretended to not know better and slipped them into my pocket. “No, you need to take them now. It’s the rules.”
“But I thought you were coming down here to help me look for my cell phone,” I asked as I pulled what looked like the pills from my pocket. The breath mints were easy to tell apart from the meds with their slick shiny surface feel. I looked directly at him as I placed the pills on my tongue.
“Now, you can look around and let me know if you still can’t find your cell phone. I really don’t want to be going through your stuff.
“Whatever.” I pretended that I was getting tired already and sat on my bed. “I told Dr. Wood so there’s not much more I can do.”
“Okay. I’ll turn your TV on for you. I’m sure your phone will show up. They always do.” Marcus muttered the last phrase to himself.
I knew then that it was routine for cell phones to be removed from patients’ rooms. I lay back on the bed and pretended to fall asleep as Marcus left. I knew I had some time to kill as they thought they had drugged me and I wanted them to think that I was sound asleep. Instead, I lay there with my eyes closed trying to come up with a plan. I was sure that they had my cell phone in the director’s office but decided that I would just have to leave it there. Maybe Mark could come back at a later date when I was no longer a patient.
I heard Marcus come back to check on me with another aide after about thirty minutes. I kept all my muscles as loose as possible so they wouldn’t suspect me of being awake.
“Elizabeth Mason, twenty-six year-old female, Depersonalization disorder, self-admitted. Dr. Wood notes here: Suggesting patient needs several weeks for therapy of selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, anticonvulsants and opioid antagonists along with cognitive behavior therapy. I think this lady is not going to be too happy when she finds out this diagnosis,” I could hear Marcus reading my chart and talking to the other aid.
My heart rate was going up and I tried to slow down my breathing, hoping that they wouldn’t pay too much attention to me. I was angry and claustrophobic - I had to get out. “Play the game, Elizabeth. Don’t be a patient,” I warned myself. Rolling over on my side to face the wall, I could think better. I knew I had to leave as fast as I could and not worry about my belongings or even my purse. The lady at the desk before breakfast had told me that I needed an aide to give me a walk. Somehow, I would get away during that walk, I just had to.
I actually fell asleep for about an hour and woke up much calmer. The sense of panic was making me sick to my stomach and I didn’t want to blow my chance of walking away today. Without moving a muscle or even opening my eyes, I gave my brain a chance to wake up and breathed deeply. I could see my watch and it was just about noon. Listening intently for a while, I could hear a few voices down the hall, but no one seemed close by.
I rolled over and sat up on the bed. I yawned loudly and decided I was going to play the drugged act even if I didn’t see anyone watching me. My credit cards were still in my pocket and everything else in my purse would have to wait. I slipped my shoes on and slowly walked to the doorway, holding on to the doorframe. Walking slowly, I made my way past the director’s office.
“Heading down to lunch, Elizabeth?”
I slowly backed up, leaning on the wall until I could see her. “Almost. I think I would like a little fresh air first.”
“You will need an aide. Let me call Jason for you.” Dr. Wood picked up her phone and talked briefly. “Okay, he said he will meet you at the front door.”
“Okay, thanks. I appreciate you working that out for me. I am pretty tired,” I play acted, still leaning against the doorframe.
“Jason will take good care of you, Enjoy.”
 Funny how she seemed almost pleasant when she thought she had me under control. I shuffled down the hall to the front door. As soon as Jason met me, the receptionist buzzed the door open and we walked into the bright sunshine.
I think Jason was happy to be outside and he chatted easily. When he mentioned that his back was bothering him, he eagerly accepted the couple of white pills from me when I told them they were pain pills that would relax his muscles. We walked around the back of the buildings for about twenty minutes and then headed around the tree-lined path towards the front gate. There was a sturdy iron bench under one of the larger maples and Jason suggested we rest for a second. I obliged, knowing the sedatives were starting to work. He leaned back and shut his eyes for a second after mentioning how much better his back felt. I congratulated him and stood up.
“Hey, can’t you sit for another minute. I am just getting relaxed,” he said with a groggy laugh.
“Don’t worry. I am just going to look at the flowers by the front gate. You can stay right here and watch me.”
I slowly walked down the path, pretending to be interested in the plants until I reached the front gate. Two stone pillars bordered the iron gate and I wondered how I would ever get out. The gate must have been at least ten feet tall. I was in good shape but I still didn’t think I could make it. I looked back at Jason and he was happily sprawled out on the bench. Suddenly, the quiet was broken with the clang of the iron gates opening. I turned my back and started walking back to Jason as my heart beat hard in my chest. This was it! This was my chance.
I waited until the car passed me and then I turned around and ran as fast as I could through the closing gate. I was out! I slowed my pace to a slow jog, as my loafers just weren’t suitable for running. Thankfully, the hospital was close to the busy area of town and I was able to stop at an ATM and get some cash with my credit card so I could catch a bus. By two o’clock, I only had two blocks to walk. I was free and happy as I found the hidden key for the back door and entered my wonderful apartment.
“Hey, honey. I wasn’t expecting you home.” Mark was in the kitchen holding his cell phone. “I just got a phone call from you, but it wasn’t you - it was the institute saying they found your phone. Did you lose it? And why are you home early?”
“Why are you home early is my question?” I asked.
“Cause, their key speaker got sick and I didn’t feel like staying for the substitute.” He walked over and hugged me tight. “It’s much better to be home with you. Should we go get your phone?”
I pulled away, “No. I will never go back there. Can you go back and get my things? They treated me like a psycho, drugged me and locked me up. It was a nightmare!”
Mark laughed, “Just like the movies?” but changed his tone when I glared at him, “Okay, don’t worry. I’m sorry. You never have to go back.”

2016 copyright. Use only with permission.