Here we are, in our beautiful Montenegro enjoying the Christmas season. We didn’t bring any Christmas decorations with us, so we decided to make our own ornaments this year. I found a good recipe for clay made from baking soda and cornstarch. You mix it together, roll it out with cookie cutters, let the dough harden, and then paint or decorate them. Fun and easy. I got so excited when I found large bags of both cornstarch and what I thought to be baking soda. The packaging was clear and the contents were white with the feel of baking soda. The label read “Vinobran”. And I thought, “Sure, that’s baking soda.”

So, I made the clay today. Mixed both powders together–two cups of the “baking soda”, with one cup of cornstarch and a cup of water in a pot and brought it to a boil. As I am mixing it, my eyes start watering, my nose starts itching, and my sinuses start flaring up. Joy came in to help, but couldn’t stay in the kitchen because the smell was so strong. (Joy has mild asthma, by the way.) I even opened the kitchen window to let some of the fumes out and wondered how “baking soda” could have such a strong smell. I let the mixture cool and then started rolling it out to make our ornaments. The smell was still strong, and Joy had to get away again. Hannah came home and wanted to help. So she sat down and worked with the dough while I rolled it out, my nose running and me sneezing. After a few minutes, Hannah started coughing and had to go to another room. Next thing I know, she’s wheezing! So I’m left alone, rolling out the dough and making special Christmas memories all by myself.

When my language tutor arrived a couple of hours later, we showed her our creation while Hannah mentioned that she had been resting because she helped make these beauties, but had to leave the room because she couldn’t breathe. So the obvious question from my dear tutor was, what I had put in it. Oh, just baking soda, cornstarch, and water, I say. Then I brought in the package to her,  just to hear her gasp in disbelief. This is not baking soda, she says. This is what we use to add to our jars when we want to pickle vegetables. And we only use a teaspoon at the most, she adds. So is it natural? Hannah asks. Oh, no, it’s a chemical. Ok, so at that point, we have a good little laugh about how I was making Christmas memories with my girls while they could not breathe-ha ha ha.

Later on, I went ahead and looked at the ingredients in this “Vinobran”. What did I find? It is Sodium Metabisulfite- “used as a disinfectant, antioxidant and preservative agent. It may cause allergic reactions in those who are sensitive to sulfites, including respiratory reactions in asthmatics, anaphylaxis and other allergic reactions in sensitive individuals. When mixed with water, sodium metabisulfite releases sulfur (SO2), a pungent, unpleasant smelling gas that can also cause breathing difficulties in some people.” I mixed TWO CUPS of this stuff with a cup of water folks. And we INHALED it while making beautiful ornaments on our first Christmas in a foreign country. We all survived, but the ornaments are now gracing the trash. I will never buy Vinobran again. And just for the record, baking soda in Montengrin is “soda bicarbone.”