Sorry Life Stories

My cleaning lady and I don’t talk a lot. Partly it’s because her German is quite limited, her English is nonexistent, and my Hungarian consists of hello, goodbye and “one coffee please thank you”. Usually when I say something to her, she just smiles, laughs a little and agrees. So we have conversations like this:

“How was your week?”

“Yes, yes.” (Little laugh).

Or, today:

“J., you don’t have to do anything in Mitzi’s room today. It’s a disaster zone. Just shut the door and forget about it.”

“Yes, ok, yes.” (Little laugh.)

She then started on the upstairs bathroom while I did the kitchen – the other disaster zone she doesn’t have to deal with. As I was sorting through the vegetable and fruit baskets, removing all the things that were no longer edible, my cleaning lady came in with a huge collection of dirty, crusty dishes and glasses, cups lined in dried cocoa with the spoon cemented to the bottom, a bag full of used tissues, empty plastic bottles and potato chip bags, candy wrappers . . .

“Oh! Are those from Mitzi’s room?  You didn’t have to do that!”

“Yes, yes.” (Little laugh)


food1Despite my troubles in communicating with my cleaning lady, this morning had no shortage of stories. That is because I decided, as long as I was at it, to rid all the kitchen cupboards and the refrigerator of expired foodstuffs too. In the process I discovered all sorts of new life forms residing in back recesses. Some had grown eyes. Some had grown hair. Some were all shriveled and discolored. Hard things had become flaccid and creamy things had hardened. Juicy things had dried up and once crispy things had become juicy. Some of the foods I simply couldn’t identify anymore. Some were wrapped in tin foil and I just tossed them out uninspected. Some of them had been there so long that they seemed close to achieving mobility or even sentience. And they all had stories to tell.

food2Take these pineapples for example:

Life started out so well for them. They blossomed and thrived somewhere in the Philippines in a region which I am pretty sure was NOT called “Sweet Valley”. They had decent lives until one day a few years ago when the machete showed up. Suddenly they were being rounded up and sent with 1000s of their kind to collection centers in Indonesia. Then the sorting began and these particular ones were not considered attractive or useful enough to be spared and left intact. They were handled roughly, stripped, sliced and diced, doused in acids and sugars, treated with chemicals, forced into metal containers and locked in airtight. Enter Otto Franck of Augsburg, (why is there so often a German in stories like these?), the wholesaler who said he would take them in. Thus began the pineapples’ long trek to a new home on the other side of the planet. After arriving in Europe, they were packed into a truck and dispatched in all directions – these particular ones to a small town in Austria, finally landing on a supermarket shelf. A middle aged man then chanced by, grabbed them and tossed them into a cart. They were destined to become part of a fruit salad – not a bad end for a pineapple, really – but then only half of them actually made it into the bowl. The rest were still stuck in the can, cooling their heels in our fridge. They kept getting shoved farther and farther back until they were completely forgotten. This went on for a long long LONG time. Well, today, they were finally released. On their short trip to the compost bin they saw the sun again (!!) if only for a few fleeting seconds. And then they reached their final resting place. They can now decompose in a mass heap together with thousands of other foodstuffs from all over the globe.

Once again, the sheer amount of (former) food I tossed out today made me feel ashamed. (It’s another reason I always do the kitchen myself instead of asking the cleaning lady to do it.) All of these foods – like my pineapples – probably traveled hundreds or thousands of miles before landing in my kitchen. They were grown, processed, packaged and distributed in a (fossil fuel) energy intensive way. Their various ingredients – like the high fructose corn syrup surrounding my pineapples – probably came from huge, corporate-owned mono-culture fields on land once dotted by now-defunct small farms. Fertilizers and pesticides were used liberally as well as chemical additives – the flavoring from New Jersey and the vitamins from China. Trees were felled to make the paper that the labels and advertisements were printed on. More gas guzzling trucks were used to distribute these. Maybe some of my food’s plastic wrapping ended up in the ocean and suffocated or strangled some poor sea creature.

But the worst part is that the sum total of what I threw away today was probably more than people in other parts of the world eat in an entire week – including some in my neighboring country of Hungary. I found myself thinking about the photo essay “Hungry Planet” by Peter Menzel, showing typically-sized families from countries around the world surrounded by the food they eat in one week. ( ) Here are a few examples to give an impression:

What does it say about the world that the wasted and decomposing foods in my compost heap are more traveled than the average American? That – comparatively – they have impacted the environment more than many an African? That I am one of about 8 million residents in Austria, 7,940, 281 of whom regularly throw away food just like I do?

“Eat your vegetables, C. There are children in Ethiopia who are starving.”

I suppose I could buy all my meat and eggs from near neighbors. I could restrict myself to local, seasonal, organic, fair trade and vegan products. I could say ”No” to fruits from plantations in Spain in winter. I could say “No” to fair trade products from countries farther away than, let’s say, 500 kilometers. I could say “No” to the entire frozen food section in the store. Canned foods too.  I could say “No” to ever eating in a restaurant. I could say “No” to the next trip to the grocery store as long as all my kitchen cupboards are already filled with foodstuffs near or beyond their expiration dates. Or I could say . . .

Our entire food system is a disaster zone. Just shut the door and forget about it.

“Yes, yes.” (Little laugh.)