This week Susannah talks to Moscow-born, American national: Margarita Gokun Silver,formerly a public health consultant in Uzbekistan and later a cross-cultural coach from Athens to Argentina and now a full-time writer. A successful author of a novel and an essay collection; prodigious freelance journalist and accomplished painter, Margarita is about to collect a second Masters to add to her Ivy League credentials.
What was it like growing up in the USSR in the 1980’s?
I started that decade by proclaiming my loyalty to the USSR as a Young Pioneer and I ended it by giving up my Soviet citizenship and leaving the country for good. In between there was everything that usually happens in a life of a young girl coming of age during the end of Brezhnev/Andropov/Chernenko stagnation era and Gorbachev’s perestroika and glasnost. We marched, we protested, we held kitchen discussions about Sakharov and Politburo, we queued for butter, and we hoped things were going to change for the better. Spoiler alert: they didn’t.
You left your Mechanical Engineering degree course in Moscow and emigrated with your parents to the US, what surprised you the most when you arrived in in 1989?
First impressions: way too many streetlights (Moscow had close to none); the size of their supermarkets, the friendliness of people. The fact that no one walked anywhere (we ended up in a small town—NYC would have probably been different) and the cost of tuition in a local liberal arts college.
After pre-med you went to Yale to do a Master’s in Public Health and later worked in health consultancy in Uzbekistan, how did that experience shape your life in hindsight?
I understood working in health care wasn’t my thing and I just wanted to write.
As the spouse of a US Diplomat on the move you decided to become a cross-cultural coach in Argentina, Greece, Russia, Spain and USA, do you draw on any of those skills and experiences as a writer today?
Curiosity is a big one. You have to be curious about people to be a good coach —and you have to be curious about the world around you to be a writer, to want to tell stories.
Do you have any funny stories about settling in Tashkent?
We bought our car in Tashkent on a Christmas Day by bringing a suitcase full of cash to a market on the outskirts of the city and hoping we’d leave that market driving that car and not stuffed into a trunk of another.
You were already an accomplished self-taught author of two books and many essays and articles, what was the most useful tip you learned in your Creative Writing course at Oxford University?
Sometimes just turning a noun into a verb gives you the exact word you’ve been looking for.
Have you had any feedback from the Russian authorities on your satirical novels?
No, and I really hope I won’t. They aren’t always very nice.
What inspires you to write?
Stories, other writers, conversations with people.
Is it true that if your great grandmother hadn´t missed the train you might have grown up in Argentina?
Technically it’s true but then again it wouldn’t have been really me because if she did make it to Argentina, she wouldn’t have met my great-grandfather and my grandmother would have never been born.
What made you decide to take up oil painting in your 40´s whilst living in Miami?
I’ve always wanted to paint with oil and always postponed it. Then at 40 I decided that waiting for (painter’s) life to begin was stupid and enrolled into a class. I wrote about this decision and how I made it here.
What is it about Madrid that prompted you to return here after your stint in 2012?
I like the vibe of this city, the friendliness of its people, the immensity of its blue sky, the imprint that sunlight leaves on its buildings. It just feels good to live here and at this point of my life that good feeling is what I need.
Which book do you most recommend to others?
Too many to mention and my taste has changed over the years, but I’ve always come back again and again to Bulgakov’s “Master and Margarita”.
When I first landed on these shores at the end of the 1980s it was very difficult to find any snacks on the street, especially in train or metro stations. I had grown up grabbing the odd marathon/snickers to line the stomach whilst en route to school or to the pub after work. Yet over here Twix and Mars bars are largely confined to bulk packs in supermarkets; the antithesis of spontaneous snacking.
However, Spaniards do have a very sweet tooth when it comes desserts, an unequivocal hangover from their seven-century Moorish ancestry. On inquiring about the correlation between heat and sweet on a visit to Dubai years ago I was informed that sugar boosts flagging energy levels in hot weather. In addition, in Arab cultures sugary treats are offered as a mark of hospitality and generosity.
One store which is promoting British stalwart brands from my mis-spent youth is Pepco. With 146 branches all over Spain, there´s bound to be a Cadbury´s Whole Nut bar nearer to you than you think. On my recent foray into the Calle Alcalá branch I was tempted by all manner of nostalgic confectionery including Curly Wurlies, Wagon Wheels as well as those moreish 1980´s favourite: Revels.
Having spent 5 years locked up in a girl´s boarding school in the heart of the Sussex Downs, I very much relied on our “tuck shop”. This was a converted stable filled with our favourite sugary staples where we could buy our weekly treats and make up for the lost calories of many an inedible lunch. Once our house mistress announced she would exchange postage stamps for cash I knew I was onto a winner. So as opposed to writing weekly letters to beloved members of my cherished family I swapped the Queen´s head for prized Bounty bars, Milky Ways and Twix´s. Having acquired something of a reputation for my devotion to confectionery some of the other girls dared me to eat 7 Mars Bars in a row….in order to qualify for a free one….Minutes later, tens of mullet-haired 12 year olds gathered round my bunk bed as the challenge commenced.
One by one the cloying caramel slabs disappeared down into the abyss of my gullet whilst I feverishly peeled off the next wrapper. Unfortunately for my room-mates, I didn´t feel sick at all, indeed, far from it. Egged on by the sugar rush all 7 of them slipped down quite comfortably and I am still extremely partial to a Mars bar or three today. Especially if they are presented to me in the format of a Mars Ice cream which can only be described as a feat of food engineering. How on earth does the caramel centre remain at that silky consistency in a deep freeze?
Another favourite activity was to write to the Complaints Department of Mars Inc. After popping our favoured confectionery for a spin in the school washing machine, we´d enclose it in a grubby envelope with a terse note complaining the Mars bar was faulty and demanding immediate compensation by way of a big box of said product. This deception was repeated with such alarming frequency I´m surprised we didn´t instigate a regional product recall. However, in those days Mars Inc were very generous in sending us endless freebies despite the obvious fraudulent nature of our claims belied by the address of our Malory Towers-esque institution. Looking back, I expect the Customer Service Director was sorely tempted to fill the wrappers with one of their other brands such as Pedigree Chum.
Wherever you´re from, if you´re feeling in the mood for some timeless British treats this Easter you can always rely on the British Corner Shop online delivery from their new EU warehouse to egg-sport you some fun. According to their CEO, Tom Carroll “Cadbury chocolate continues to reign supreme, with timeless treats like the Cadbury Flake and Dairy Milk bar still highly sought after by expats in Spain.”
However, if you´re after a fun chocolate tasting on a Saturday afternoon near Ópera you can book one with Helen López who hosted a wonderful Monthly Meeting last year.
What do Shakira, Salma Hayek, Amal Alamuddin (alias Mrs Clooney), Elie Saab (couturier to Angelina Jolie, Julia Roberts and Kate Middleton) all have in common? They’re all Lebanese, as have been former presidents of Jamaica, Colombia, Ecuador (3!) and Brazil.
The Lebanese are an entrepreneurial nation and many Beirutis I have met are proud of the commercial spirit that comes from their innovative and enterprising Phoenician merchant heritage; those ancient founders of coastal colonies all over the Mediterranean, not least in Cádiz.
In 2019 we decided to see Beirut for ourselves. After a fascinating peak at the local cathedral, mosque and recently-excavated Roman ruins my ice cream fetish started to override any more thoughts of culture and our 11 and 6 year olds’ eyes flickered with increasing interest. Having seen a particular ice cream parlour on one of Rick Stein and Nigel Slater’s UK BBC cookery programmes it had long been my ambition to try the Hanni Mitri ice cream for myself. So armed with former INC member Linda Talluto’s picture of the place we embarked on a monumental five-hour treasure hunt …on foot. There’s nothing like roaming through the streets of a city on a mission to savour superlative ice cream to really get to know it. If only our map had also marked the contours of all those steep hills that abound in Beirut.
After 5 hours I got very excited as we turned a corner and spied a very unassuming bullet-ridden corner shop at the end of a narrow road that I recognised from Linda’s photo. The children had virtually melted en route but were immediately revived and miraculously ordered strawberry and lemon flavour in fluent school French.
The family-owned business has been going since 1949 and has seen a few bombs in its time. There are no seats and no frills. The shop has since moved temporarily followed the Beirut blast in 2020 and the all the ice cream continues to be made on site daily.
Mr Mitri and his diminutive mother were both expecting us to order and leave their minuscule premises but there was no getting rid of us. Buoyed up by fragrant iced perfumes and the cooling freezers we weren’t going anywhere. Copious ice creams and Mr Mitri’s family history later (he ditched banking to take on his father’s ice cream business) we finally re-emerged into the burning sun. As Mr Mitri isn’t coming here anytime soon I urge you all to book a flight just to try his ices.
Mother Mitri uses plastic gloves to literally thumb the different flavours into narrow biscuit cones or down into a plastic cup that literally defies any normal physics of mass and volume. So you end up with rainbow ribbons of zingy oranges and lemons nudged into a corner by the heady aromas of rosewater sorbet and all tempered by a snow-white coating of clotted cream or “ashta”. In addition to the more traditional flavours, you can find mulberry, watermelon, mango and amareddine which is an apricot paste sorbet filled with crunchy toasted pine nuts.
There is clearly no need to fix up the bullet holes (one of them is actually embedded inside his ice cream machinery) as people are more interested in what’s in their hand than on the wall.
Now, you might think that 3,500 km is a long way to fly, albeit on a direct flight, for an ice cream but actually when you factor in all the ancient culture and the boundless hospitality on tap in Beirut it´s definitely worth it.
However, if you do find yourself on an authentic ice cream mission in Madrid here are a few of my favourites closer to home:
Heladeria Gioelia is a favourite amongst our treasurer, Shalini. Particularly the Cremino flavour of white chocolate with hazelnuts and chocolate praline cream. Most importantly, they also deliver!
Heladeria Los Alpes is one of Madrid´s oldest ice cream parlours, since the Tuscan founders arrived here in 1933 and has a few branches across the city and suburbs including Las Rozas and Pozuelo de Alarcón.
Meanwhile if alchemy is more your style, head to N2LAB where liquid nitrogen is the star ingredient and the resultant creamiest of creams are served up by staff in scientific overalls and protective glasses in Calle Gravina, 5 (Chueca).
After a gander round the Retiro I usually make a beeline for Maison Glacée which also doubles up as an innovative pastry shop. Ecological milk from the Comunidad de Madrid is used to ease out what for me is the most authentic Italian style ice cream in the capital in Calle Alcalá 77 and Calle Ibiza, 42
Italian INC member, Tiziana is rather partial to Gelateria Sienna on Calle Narváez and I´m inclined to believe her so I shall be heading there on my next trip into the city.
Finally, there is ubiquitous global brand, Amorino whereby exotic ices are fashioned with a spatula into the shape of a rose. Each flavour forming a different petal. My favourite branch is in El Corte Inglés Gourmet section in Callao from which you can admire spectacular views over Madrid´s rooftops.
Netflix, Spanish. Some have subtitles. You can find these shows with Netflix search bar.
*Las Chicas del Cable. A group of young women work as telephone operators in Madrid, from late 1920’s to late 1930’s. Love stories, politics, phone modernization (big implications for our “chicas”) and more. Very entertaining, though I didn’t like the last season as much as earlier seasons. Great clothes, and it’s fun to see places in Madrid that you recognize in a different period setting.
La Cocinera de Castamar. Young woman takes over job as cook in a noble house near Madrid (easily recognizable as the palace in Boadilla del Monte). The man of the house has a tragedy in his past, the cook has some big issues but is an astonishing cook. Things happen.
La Catedral del Mar. Based on a book by Ildefonso Falcones, this is about building Santa Maria del Mar church in 14th century Barcelona. It’s also a coming of age story for a poor young boy who helps build the church, and has some big adventures on the way to adulthood – and as an adult. This is sort of like a Spanish Pillars of the Earth.
Baztan trilogy, three movies, in this order: El guardián invisible; Legado en los huesos; Ofrenda a la tormenta. Based on books of same names by Dolores Redondo. Part pólice/detective, part scary supernatural, part return-home story. Some nudity and sex.
Amazon Prime, Spanish
Another treasure trove for language learners. If your Spanish is pretty good and you would like to know more about everyday life in Spain, check out Cuentame Como Pasó. This long-running series follows an everyday Spanish family from 1968 to 1992 (so far), key years in Spanish history.
French, a quick note: My Spanish is fluent, so I’m trying to recover my almost-forgotten French. Graded readers were really helpful, after level C1 and following suggestion of someone in Pasajes bookstore I jumped to unsimplified but easy reading: Harry Potter, figuring that an entertaining young adult book with a known story would be a good start (and yes, it is). For TV series on Netflix I’ve watched Bonfire of Destiny and Lupin, both are good, especially Lupin. Several other shows bookmarked for the future.
So will you be working on your Spanish in 2022? Language learning is not just memorizing grammar, mix it up a bit for more fun and probably faster progress.
Graded readers are simplified books, sometimes simplified classics, sometimes specifically written for language learning. They’re usually graded by classic language levels A1 to C2, and usually if not always have audio, CD or downloadable from Internet. Various publishers. Available at least at Pasajes bookstore (Calle Genova 3) and Casa del Libro (Gran Via 29 and other addresses).
Watching movies really can help, some people theorize that Spain is behind on language fluency because most movies are dubbed. Here are some tips for series that are entertaining if skewed to period pieces pieces which are my favorite genre (sorry). Depending on where you are or how you watch, some of these shows may not be available or might be available different ways (I think MInisterio del Tiempo was on Netflix in the USA), though all are available at present if watching in Spain. If you cannot decide, my suggestion is to start with shows with a * Another other option is to find a movie or series you like dubbed into Spanish and with subtitles.
RTVE Spanish TV. Since these were created for Spaniards, probably no subtitles.
*Ministerio del Tiempo. Time travel IS possible, and that means people going back in time can mess up the future (our present), intentionally or unintentionally, so the super-secret Time Ministry has a team of people to make sure that doesn’t happen. This can get complicated, but it’s fun, and you learn some history and meet interesting people, like painter Diego Velázquez. https://www.rtve.es/play/videos/el-ministerio-del-tiempo/
Aguila Roja. Gonzalo is a mild-mannered teacher in part of his life, superhero in another part of his life. His sidekick is the only person in on the secret, his son admires Aguila but thinks his dad is a coward. Some love interest, some really evil bad guys, lots of adventures. Historically fairly accurate, including King Felipe IV being a skirt-chaser, though the real Cardenal Mendoza is from another period and apparently was not as ambitious as the Cardenal in this series. Fair amount of violence (Aguila beats up at least one bad guy in every episode), some nudity or half-seen sex scenes. NOTE. This might not be available now, I was watching daily, stopped at a scary place and now looks like it will be hard to re-start, though the series may be available for purchase.) https://www.rtve.es/television/aguila-roja/capitulos-completos/
La Señora. Spain in the 1920’s, a young man and woman fall in love but it has to end because of social differences. They never forgot each other, meet up again years later. Just started watching this one, looks interesting. https://www.rtve.es/play/videos/la-senora/senora-capitulo-1/1583859/
Tiempo entre Costuras. Based on book by Maria Dueñas, translated as A Time in Between or The Seamstress (different titles in USA and UK); if you haven’t read it you should. Great story of a young woman from Madrid just before the Civil War who ends up in Spanish Morocco and eventually back in Madrid. Lots of things happen, can’t say more without spoiling the story. I loved the book, watched part of the first episode and as sometimes happens, one of the characters was so different from my imagination that it put me off, so can’t recommend personally (yet), though people who have watched most or all say it’s really good (I need to try again). https://www.atresplayer.com/antena3/series/el-tiempo-entre-costuras/ I think this is also on Amazon Prime.
Originally from Sweden, we take a peek at the varied life of INC president: Malin Garemo, mother of 3, who despite having left school with no desire to continue further education, went on to acquire a PhD in Nutrition and has made a career out of it in Denmark, Abu Dhabi and now Madrid as well as trekking across deserts and mountains, cooking up a storm and devouring copious books.
You have made a career out of nutrition, what prompted you to study Nutrition at university?
I am fascinated by the power of food and its capacity to prevent, cause and heal diseases. Studying nutrition gave me a chance to learn more about the interaction between the body, the mind/brain and food, all equally important for our health.
You are originally from near Malmo and in your 20s you moved to Denmark, are the two countries less similar than outsiders think?
On the surface Denmark and Sweden are very similar but the more I got to know the former the greater my appreciation of their differences became. Both the Swedes and the Danes are grounded, genuine and sensitive to the environment and once you have made a friend, that person can easily become a friend for life. When we left Denmark, I felt we´d really had an expat “living abroad” experience.
What did you learn about women´s and pediatric health when you set up a health consultancy in Denmark?
Loads! Women are powerful and the impact mothers have on their children’s life is immense and vice versa. What we know from research today is that children who grow up with mothers who have a positive body image are happier with themselves, if a mother is doing sports it has a more positive impact on the children than if their fathers are doing sports. By empowering women we give children a better chance to thrive. For me it is a privilege to support and enable women and children to be their best.
After 9 years in Denmark how did you find life in Abu Dhabi?
Super interesting. The desert is beautiful and people are friendly, curious and generous. I was lucky enough to work at the university, teaching young women from a very different culture than my own. I think I learnt more from them than they did from me.
Do you have any stories about adapting to life here in Madrid after 9 years in Abu Dhabi?
Moving here I could only say Hola and Gracias. Getting help from my children (who knew some Spanish) to sort out the internet, deliveries etc was a pretty humbling experience. It really reminded me about the power of knowledge (and innovative speaking J). I was very happy when I found INC- a tribe that understands my language.
As an expert in nutrition and holistic health, do you practise what you preach?
Well, yes to the point that my children once asked the host at a party why she was serving Coca Cola and then promptly informed all the children there that Coca Cola is a medicine that is only fit for consumption when you have a stomach bug at both ends!
On a bit more of a serious note, yes, I try. I am lucky to be surrounded by people that I admire and love. We eat with joy, I have been meditating for many years and I also move a lot in my daily life. All of those ingredients are important for a happy, and thus healthier life.
What research papers are you writing up for Zayed University in Abu Dhabi? Why did you choose that particular field?
Right now I are working on 3 projects all related to children: one focusing on infant feeding, one about pre-schoolers and their overall heath and finally young athletes, their performances, drivers and how they can be utilised as role models in their social circles.
As a specialist in paediatric nutrition I want to understand what is happening with kids when they are young in order to support them, and their mothers, to create healthier family units. Working with kids is fun-they are completely honest and that has always appealed to me.
Not content with your PhD, why have you decided to study world history at Gothenburg University?
It is something I have wanted to do for a long time and coming here, the stars finally aligned-I have the time and Spain reminded me about how little I know about this country. The course is a way to help me learn more.
You are a keen hiker and traveller, across mountains and deserts – tell us about any interesting stories on your trips
Early on I got a taste for travelling and my kids came too since a very early age. I remember once, on our way to the Philippines, carrying my youngest in a Babybjorn sling , while asking the boys to be patient and wait for our luggage. All of a sudden one vanished into thin air, until my eldest, then 6 years old, delightfully pointed him out “ Mummy, look, Wilhelm is whizzing around on the luggage belt”. Fortunately I managed to get him off the belt before he disappeared with the luggage… There have been times when I wished I was an octopus.
What other hobbies do you enjoy and how do they enrich your life?
Reading, puppy training, gardening, summer house DIY, running and doing nothing …Does that qualify as a hobby? I am very good at spending time with family and friends doing absolutely nothing!
Reading has always been a big part of my life. I am now a member of the INC area 1 Book Club, coordinated by Irlanda. We have read some great books and the meet ups afterwards are always equally stimulating. We are honestly having a real blast!
I am keen hiker and one of the most memorable experiences was to cross the desert between Al Ain and Abu Dhabi together with 40 other women –walking 30-35 km a day in 40-55 degrees Celcius in the sun and no shade. Talk about girl power!
I have also been on a lot of hikes with the children and it is such a great way to hang out. You talk, you are silent, you are together and the pace is soothing, once you get into it. And of course, a nice picnic along the road is the big reward. I have also done some amazing hikes around Madrid and can’t wait to do more together with INC.
What´s next for Malin Garemo?
Short term I want to improve my Spanish, get back to running nutrition courses, and run a half marathon with my son. Long term I am dreaming about my own retreat place with hikes, meditation and nutritious food.
What do you hope to bring to INC under your presidency?
The success of INC is built on team spirit and enthusiasm for the club. In my opinion the stability by long-term members is crucial, as is the inclusion and diversity. By always being equally welcoming and grateful to new members and their ideas INC remains dynamic as well. Isn’t that a great cocktail?
As the president I will always have a listening ear, an open mind and I will also back the team. I will strive to bring out the strengths in each of the board members to ensure that we can build continued success both by our traditions and also by incorporating new events that are relevant and interesting to our members. I am utterly grateful for all the support offered by everyone. It means a whole lot when you embrace on a new journey.