This week I’m writing about food. A general passion of mine. I will forego gifts, clothes, even museum tickets if yummy food is at stake. Some people enjoy the activities or the shopping while the travel, I, on the other hand, prioritize les repas. But very rarely have the expensive meals (few and far between) or even the delicious solo dessert enjoyed in front of a monument or park, those have not been the great food moments. Nope, the ones I remember most are the brief moments of a shared package of store bought cookies, the extra apple purchased for a stranger, me, on a train, the simple dinners of pasta shared at a large, filled table.
Food has always held an important place in each culture. It’s where we meet, where we break bread, share the day, develop our own culture, introduce and make war or peace, it can connect in ways that few other shared experiences can. Nothing proves this more than in the little, poor moments. There’s the quotation from the New Testament Christian text, echoed before and after by many other similar sentiments, “It is better to eat a crust of bread in peace, than a grand feast with enemies.” And what a powerful statement that is. Below I share just a few of these moments. These are excerpted from my travel journals.
Mfangano Island, Kenya
For dinner, I had meat for the first time in 3+ years. Well, fish, actually. Not sure I could stomach red meat or chicken, but the fish was served w/ugali and stewed cabbage, all of it was delicious. Yunis, the mother, asked me what I did and didn’t eat, and started talking about other volunteers who only ate “greens” and how she didn’t understand that. So I felt really and I said I didn’t eat meat.
“But fish, yes?”
“Uh, I haven’t for awhile, but I try it.” Slight regret already.
I attempted to explain that the meat in the States and elsewhere isn’t like here, it’s full of hormones and antibiotics, but all this was irrelevant to her it seemed. We prayed before dinner, a genuine giving of thanks, and I prayed with them. I added a silent prayer to the fish, thanking it for it’s sacrifice. Eating with them felt like the right thing to do. It was full of respect and in fact, had I refused, would have been the opposite. So I ate.
We’ve been eating breakfast in the guesthouse kitchen every morning. The cute Nepali hostess makes amazing vegan breads, crepes, and potato-heavy curries. We sit and sip tea on the floor pillows and read The Himalayan newspaper, smudgey ink and all. Chatting with whomever happens to be taking their breakfast at the same time. Two college Aussie’s trekking to Everest Base Camp (EBC). A Holland jazz teacher.
The owner told us about the earthquakes, how their house stood through the shaking, but they spent many nights under the rain and stars on the street outside “Stars, no rain and very happy. But rain made very hard.”
St. Julien de Genevois, just outside Geneva, on the French side
Tuesdays the maid comes, and we had a nice chat over her lunch and my tea. She’s a slight lady, who at first glance appears much younger than she really is. Up close you can see the wear and tear of life on her. She has a calm, but kind aura about her. Invited me to share her sandwich, a simple repas of cheese and yoghurt, wrapped in cellophane. It reminds me me of a school lunch I would have packed up and brought myself.
We sat there talking about how it’s hard to learn French (but complementing each other on our skills), my textured, multi-colored wool pullover and her maids uniform stark contrasts to the black marble and stainless steel appliances of the modern kitchen. Our laughter and her warmth filling the large, empty apartment where we both work. She laments about how hard it is here in France, but how money is much better here than in Portugal, where she’s immigrated from with her family.
“Very lucky to have nice family, they are good,” she tells me. “Not all are good.”
I’ve been very fortunate to meet many people, to extend and be extended a veritable encyclopedia of foods from around the world. These are the moments when my emotions have turned from loneliness and uncertainty, to feeling welcomed and accepted. The gift of offering food transcends language barriers and shows, even if only a brief moment, a connection from one human being to another.