Between high school and college, I took my first international solo trip. While in Russia I helped in summer camps for orphans and soup kitchens. It was there that I learned the one thing I always remember when restocking a kitchen…
The room was dead silent. Her question sliced hotly through the air — again — this time, in English. My hands went cold. My cheeks boiled. My mind flashed to just a few hours earlier.
The lingering zing of borscht (beet soup) filled the air. All around me the sun streamed through the tall windows. It’s a blue light reflected off the chipped countertops and stained floors.
My hands, pruney and red from washing the dishes, felt blissfully warm as I placed the last dish into the drying rack. For a moment, that comfortable warm glow lingered deep in my bones, then the icy cold of the kitchen crept back in.
It was winter in Moscow Russia. The elements made a point of reminding me as often as possible.
The thin towel felt surprisingly rough as I wiped my hands dry. A quiet grin spread across my face. My chores were done! Upstairs my bunk waited for me. It’s nice, thick blanket (and the last few chapters of my book) promised a cozy afternoon.
Just three steps out of the kitchen I turned and paused. Slowly, I ticked through my chore list before I realized what was nagging me: I had only done my chores.
From as far back as I can remember my parents taught me to ask the question: What else? Don’t just sweep the floor, double-check to see if they need to be mopped too!
So I turned back for a second look.
Anything to be refilled?
Floors clean? Yes. Counters clean? Yup. Dishes clean? Check. Anything need to be refilled? No— Oh! The sugar.
A clear tub of unmarked sugar was wedged between a towering bottle of oil and an enormous pail of tea. The tub was half-empty. Ah ha! My opportunity.
I swaggered over to the cabinets and started searching for the massive bag of sugar. I knew it had to be hidden below. There! Tucked behind pitcher sized cans of spices and vegetables sat a paper sack marked “caxap.” With a tug, I pulled it out of the cabinet, wrestled it up onto the counter, and carefully filled the sugar tub up to the brim.
After elbowing the enormous sack back into the cabinet I paused again. This time, with my hands on my hips. My smile, from my heart, lit up my face. My parents would be proud.
…dinner was late
That evening, I was tugged away from my book by a grumble deep in my stomach. A glance at the clock by my head told me dinner was late. Really late. Odd! My fingers tapped a staccato on the spine of my book while my icy nose told me that the dorm smelled of pine — not dinner.
A trip downstairs would only mean cold toes. I burrowed deeper into my blanket and found my place in the book.
Soon, the tantalizing smell of pepper and garlic crept into the dormitory. My stomach growled a response as I clambered out from under my blanket. I pounded down the stairs (two at a time) and swung into the dining room.
There, steaming on the buffet, sat pots heaped with fluffy rice and richly spiced beans. My mouth watered.
But, before anyone could fill their plates, Maria rounded the kitchen corner. She was half my size; but, at that moment our cook was more like a giant. She glowered down at the hall.
Her Russian was fast, furious, and ended in a question.
My Russian wasn’t so great. My hands twisted into knots. Quietly, I hoped that whatever upset her would go away soon.
The hall was so silent I could hear the tick, tick of the radiator as it cranked along.
She took a breath then translated: “Who put the sugar in the salt?”
The next five minutes were a blur. Nobody confessed to the blunder. Least of all me.
My fingers clenched and slowly turn white. My stomach wrapped itself into a tight spiral. I tried to wish sugar into salt.
Eventually, she stopped demanding a response and took a long, slow breath.
First, she said it in Russian, slowly, carefully.
Then, again, in Portuguese.
And finally, each word clearly enunciated, in English:
“We do not put sugar in the salt. NO SUGAR IN SALT.”
What followed was the quietest meal I ever ate in Moscow. Without a doubt.
I wish I could apologize to Maria now! She didn’t deserve that “sweet” surprise.
But, embarrassment aside, I’m glad I had this experience. It became my first step on a long journey. One where I learned that a mistake isn’t the end of the world — it’s an opportunity to find new solutions and learn new lessons.
In this case, the lesson I always remember when restocking the kitchen is: always double-check the ingredients!