British students want to be at University. The weather in Scotland and Iowa is the same: cold, wet, and erratic. The coffee culture is either nonexistent or frou-frou. French crepes are overpriced. Edinburgh citizens have different shoes. Their boots have pointy heals and rhinestones. Iowans wear snow boots and vans. Physicists wear wide thick-rimmed glasses out of necessity, not fashion. Other than appearance the main difference is student attitude.
My favorite place was the university-sanctioned bar in the center of campus. I had access to cheap coffee and bar food that didn’t make me sick. Local eateries expected me to eat and leave. I wanted to study after eating. I didn’t order a single alcoholic drink. People assumed I was seventeen. I couldn’t be American. Studying instead of drinking didn’t correspond with their preconceptions. My flat mates didn’t believe I was truly American either. My accent had been dipped with Irish from my summer abroad program. My British voice resurfaced after being dormant after returning from my brief summer high school study in Cambridge, England. I ate seared salmon and vegetables with chopsticks. Green tea was my hot drink of choice, as coffee was too expensive a habit to keep up. When I did drink it, my overuse of the single cup drip brewer made the entire common area smell like coffee. They said I was too “Lauryn” to be American.
What did that even mean?
I was born and raised in America. I say “originally” when asked my birthplace, but feel obliged to say I grew up everywhere but there. I never imagined that living everywhere would mean living nowhere. I don’t have grandparents to treat my friends to dinner on the weekends. I purposefully went to a University a state away to distance myself from high school friends and family. I needed that change of pace. I travelled across the ocean to get away further. Instead it held me back.
November rolled around and my Scottish flat mates and I huddled around the storage heater for warmth. We scrolled through pictures from bonfire night’s fireworks celebrating Guy Fawkes’s Day. We laughed about our Halloween “Guising” party. Almost mid-November, my flat mates turned to me for the one-true American tradition—Thanksgiving.
My family never had a traditional Thanksgiving. Our most conservative family in Texas had a lovely Korean woman cook their Thanksgiving meal. Our one true family thanksgiving involved Chinese food. My father sat at the head of the table holding my mother’s hand as we prayed around our take-out feast. We said why were thankful, and told the story of how Thanksgiving originated. Then we watched a movie I can’t remember but knew I enjoyed. Another time we invited our best German family friends to cook for us. Fresh vegetable stuffed turkey and German chocolate should have become our tradition. My family always searches for new traditions to take as our own. In the end, we relied on other peoples’ traditions. We never had established family traditions in my household. In Scotland, I ended up relying on another’s tradition too.
One of my classmates who was also studying abroad recoiled when I said I had no Thanksgiving night plans. She immediately invited me to her traditional party. Ironically, her friend’s German parents flew up from Germany to cook the feast. I arrived a few minutes early and entirely unprepared for the feast. The table sat fourteen. The food fed forty with extras. There were three casserole dishes of russet potatoes, another two pans of sweet potatoes topped with already melted-through marshmallows. There were vegan options, vegetarian options, and a whole roast ham and turkey. The combined tables could barely hold all the different breads, cheeses, fruits, and stuffing options without swaying back and forth. Green beans weren’t complete without bacon. Beverages precariously swayed on armrests. Plates were balanced laps. Knives were arbitrarily laid down by one person then stolen by another. We didn’t complain. We were college students. What was one stolen knife compared to tuition fees?
Thanksgiving wasn’t stressful. We didn’t watch television. We just asked questions. We enthused about international politics and Doctor Who. We conspired to start a revolution on campus. We lamented the coming of finals. We played music and cards and argued. We didn’t show off our couches or overpriced candles. We weren’t impressed by each other’s accomplishments. We didn’t need to talk about personal life. We enjoyed simple company.
A whole back table was dedicated to wine with another for non-alcoholic juices. Everything was for dessert. Ice cream and cakes and sweet potato pastries and brownies and pumpkin muffins, bread, and pie. We didn’t have coffee. I didn’t complain. This dinner reminded me of the ones out of movies. Families, friends, and randomly invited guests all passing plates of delicious food around.
I walked home at midnight to the sound of drunken Scotsmen and women dressed slightly more classily than the average American midnight bar crawler. I enjoyed their covered chests and tight-covered legs. My stomach was full. My head was sober. It had been my first, legitimate American thanksgiving and I wasn’t even in America. The irony made my eyes water.
I arrived back at the flat and crashed. My flat mates demanded another Thanksgiving feast the next night. They felt bad for having left me alone. Although I couldn’t share childhood stories of family Thanksgiving, I shared the Thanksgivings it could have been. They passed around my iPhone with gapping mouths. They couldn’t believe it. We sat around the storage heater curled in blankets. Their eyes sparkled and their mouths watered. Then they asked what I would have done with my family.
“We would have gone out for food,” I shrugged. What else could I say? I don’t think we’ve ever cooked our own Thanksgiving meal. They reacted with much less enthusiasm. They still wanted to believe in the American tradition I hadn’t even known I had given up. They wanted to celebrate my American Thanksgiving. So we scheduled a night where we were all free and I took them all to a new Indian restaurant. In the UK, Indian food is everywhere. I thought it gave a good comparison of what this tradition called Thanksgiving really is. But naan bread the size of my face and four scrumptious spicy meals later even I wished I had celebrated Thanksgiving more often. We decided all holidays should come in twos.
No matter how many Thanksgivings we celebrated, I couldn’t stay in Edinburgh, Scotland forever. Finals week was celebrated by feasting, clubbing, and reluctant goodbyes. I returned to America with new stories and old faces. I had a slight British accent and an odd habit of eating with chopsticks. I forgot that we have sales tax. I fumbled with our currency. I told stories that garnered meager interest. The only question college aged students asked me, “Why didn’t I drink more?” My heart fell into my pocket. I smiled and made an excuse about the cost of living. They couldn’t understand. I moved around too much to notice how people grew up only knowing one thing, one place, or one way. They heard me, but they didn’t care. They were just glad to have me back.
I walked to my familiar Starbucks café—completely changed. Long conference bench tables replaced my cozy small circle tables. The colors took on corporate tones of espresso and chrome. I blinked, then breathed in, and smiled. This was the scent of America. I drank my black coffee--yes!--in the new back enclave of the café. A stranger sat down next to me. We broke into sporadic conversation. I missed such spontaneity in Britain. He asked if I was Mexican. I laughed. It didn’t matter where I was. I would never be mistaken for American. I told him no, I was definitely American, although my father did look somewhere between Mexican and East Asian. He played off his mistake as a compliment.
I make me American; even if no one else will ever believe me.
Iowa is still cold in April. Some days I see a familiar outline or face. When we get closer to each other on the street, my face lights up, but then quickly falls. They can’t be there. Those faces exist in Scotland, studying medicine, Gaelic, and architecture. Thankfully, everyone smiles in the Midwest. My forgetfulness hasn’t been misinterpreted yet. I left my friends in classroom settings, final examination rooms, and tearing goodbyes on train stations. I left them with promised reunions and the only hope of seeing each other again. I left them, but they still haven’t left me.
My sister has a way of posing for pictures. She juts her chin out. She looks towards the sky. She salutes. She points. She turns her body sideways and spreads her arms out wide. Me? I just flash a peace sign every so often and pray that my face doesn’t look like a duck. Then there is my sister—the crane, the swan, the bird not afraid to show her wings.
My sister had never seen the European sun before. Should I have been surprised she always craned her neck to see it? We were in Paris. The skies were mainly grey. The streets were convoluted. The cafes were on every corner. And all my mother could talk about was how cold it was. She’s from Texas. I should have expected that too. My father on the other hand rarely wore a jacket. We had to climb the Eiffel Tower just for him to shout—IT’S CHILLY—over the wind in his beautiful professionally southern accent. I snapped the photo as my sister hid her face in my shoulder. She is still a fledgling teenager, embarrassed by her father’s actions. When I showed her, she argued it was just the cold. I would call it a conditioned response.
My father devotes his life to learning. We had to drop my mother at the hotel. The Eiffel Tower completely chilled her. The three of us backtracked to a little Niche of a German-French café bar. It was that time after dinner service but before the acceptable drinking hours. The restaurant was empty, save us three, nestled in the middle row of booths, trying to decipher the menu. My tastes are simple. Café Americano, no sugar, no cream, no milk, no spoon. My father’s tastes are cream, and milk, and sugar, and a little coffee for taste. My sister doesn’t choose. So of course she was the one having the most trouble. I pointed her to the Café Vienna Blanca. I knew what it would be; she was glad someone did.
The waiter was too polite. The brass fixtures and leather seating were uncomfortably upscale. This place is right posh, my British-soaked mind affirmed. My father didn’t notice. His hands were flipping through the pages of his travel journal. He proceeded to list all the fruits and vegetables, first in French, then in English. When our drinks arrived, he had to stop to enviously look at my sister.
Her drink was served warmed in a long thermal glass, held above the plate by metal rings. Topped with whipped cream, chocolate shavings, and cinnamon powder, it was a mixture of milk and white chocolate with foamed milk. I had to convince my father, no, he did not need a taste. There was no time to take a proper picture. She had already slurped half of it down. My father looked at his sugar packets. He started collecting them from our plates and shoved them in my messenger bag. They were wrapped in white paper with colored swirls and he wanted to show Mother. They were adorable, worth saving; but back to the language.
The word for grape in French is raisin. The word for plum is prune. It’s ironic the English made the French words for what happens to the fruit when it is dried. That’s the result of the 100 years war. In all seriousness, English words became much less English when we compared to the foreign languages we knew. In Britain, a zucchini is a courgette, which is French; but “zucchini” is from Tuscany, even though both courgettes and zucchinis originated where all squash originated—the Americas. This knowledge was crucial when getting my mother to eat.
My mother loves trying new things off other people’s plates. She’ll order the most bland—and thus most likely tasteless—option on the menu. True, it reads well; but when you’re reading in French, it never tells you much. She leaves a portion of her food untouched when it is despicable. She finishes her plate only when she had been beyond hunger. She delicately picks her food full of holes only if it was the most delicious meal she had ever had. She is dairy-free, sugar-free, wheat-free, and refuses to eat anyway else. I love her dedication to eating only perfect food. I only wish I could do the same.
My family quickly recognized I could pick a restaurant and navigate the streets of Paris at the same time. My sister would get lost in the architecture. My father had to read every single sign that wasn’t in English; no sign is in English in Paris. My mother just wanted to eat. It was like leading a circus. Keep one from walking ahead. Keep another from stopping. Reassure one that food was just around the corner, when you weren’t sure food was just around the corner, but if not this one then definitely the next. I digress. My family is beautiful. I will never know how we managed to get a table reserved for four at the offshoot, alleyway, cobblestoned entrance of a fish market in Paris for Christmas day. But we did.
My mother knew the word for chicken in French and ordered. My father settled for the Chef’s Choice Meal for simplicity. My sister was left bewildered, but chose what she thought would be steak. I simply ordered the choice fish. My father ended up with a sausage starter, which my mother fondly approved. We also shared a sample of Escargot. The shells are hard to grasp, but keep the juices of the meat inside. It was lightly salty, tinge of lemon/lime acidity, but spiced with herbs such as basil. If it cost less than €9 for 6 tiny shells, I would eat them for every meal. The main courses arrived in a flurry. My father’s turned out to be scallions. My sister’s was not steak of beef, but steak of pork. My mother’s chicken was a thigh, wing, and leg with lots of potatoes. I got a whole fish.
We laughed. I snapped incognito photos of our food. My mother had already begun eating. I had to work the small bones from my fish. My sister easily cut her steak into sizable samples for my mother. My father let her have two of his four scallions. She even tried a bit of my fish. Halfway through our meal, her fork lay beside her plate. Her russet potatoes lay helpless on her plate. We helped them find hungrier mouths. She never finished her chicken.
My sister and I crashed into our hotel room. We walked from Notre Dame in the 1st arrondissement to the restaurant in the 9th and our hotel even further. On the nightstand was a small box of macaroons. Thank you for choosing us, and we hope you enjoy the rest of our stay. Happy Christmas! We knocked on our parents’ door to see if they had gotten any. There was no reply. My sister frowned and titled her head. I beckoned her to follow down the four flights of stairs to the ground floor. There sat my mother and father, in the nook of a lounge area. My mother sat nibbling from a bag of almonds and drinking the complimentary espresso machine coffee. My father laughing at her. Why not? We had just eaten at one of the best restaurants in France. Here she was eating Blue Diamond almonds and drinking watered down espresso. She said she was cold. That didn’t explain the almonds. It didn’t need to.
Paris was full of connoisseurs, specialty coffees, and exquisite gourmand delicacies. My mother was a woman of expensive tastes, but practical expenses. She did not need to spend money to enjoy Paris. She spent time. Outside time was spent to warming her. My sister would rub her shoulders to generate heat. My father never let go of her hand. Inside time was huddled as far away from the cold weather as possible. I made her Café Allongé with extra hot water and sat with her in museum cafes. We would watch my father and sister argue. My sister only posed for me. My father never relinquished the family camera. We watched as they went from dictation--go and stand over there--to frustration—your pictures are always terrible--and reconciliation—do you want a coffee, later? Pose. Coffee warms the body. Laughter warms the heart. & we always know how to best keep warm.
As soon as my plane touched down in Edinburgh, Scotland, my 13.3in Macbook Pro decided it needed an indefinite break. The laptop refused to turn on, charge, and the adaptor I had bought wasn’t the problem. It worked with all my other electronics. It seemed it had enough of travel. On September 15th, 2012, my laptop declared itself dead. I hadn't even bought any coffee grounds yet. I searched for the nearest coffee shop on my iPhone. Black Medicine was two blocks away from my flat; and the website said it had free wifi. The bright green exterior was imposing enough without the numerous "No Cyber Squatting” signs littering its windows and table napkin stands. All I wanted was to run in, grab a take away coffee, and find the closest Apple store. I wasn’t intended on “stealing” their wifi for hours at a time. My large Café Americano came with a free banana. I didn’t want to eat and run, so I perched on a bar stool. Edinburgh was big to my eyes, but it still wasn't big enough to have an Apple Store. I sighed. My best hope was a local engineering outlet. Dejected, I turned to admire the décor. The rustic, log cabin interior was misplaced and strange. The green walls and misplaced fake foliage was overbearing. Even my surroundings disappointed me. Most tables looked for crowds of five or seven, not four. The table to my left was too small for the father and son's drinks, plates, and books.
His father tried to coax him into conversation. The six year old's eyes remained firmly on the pages. His hand groped air for his juice box or his bagel. If I was reading Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, I, too, would be less likely to engage in any conversation. The child's eyes suddenly turned on me.
"Are you judging me?" he exclaimed.
No. I was just admiring his dedication to Harry Potter.
"Do you know it?" his eyes twinkled at the thought.
Of course, I responded, I love Harry Potter.
Famous Last Words.
He proceeded to quiz me and trick me and con me into fumbling over Harry Potter knowledge I hadn't realized I remembered. He in Gryffindor; I was in Syltherin. His wand core was dragon heartstring; mine was unicorn hair. Every nuance was articulated with more verbose than I think his father even knew his son was capable of. Impressive. I looked down at my metaphorical watch. As amusing as this was, I really needed to get my laptop fixed. Apologizing, I said I had to go.
The next morning I was 5lbs lighter and still had yet to buy coffee grounds. I headed to the Brew Lab. I was intrigued by their alleyway New York City supposed vibe. The only view from their classy wall of windows would have been a row of dumpsters. I gave it the benefit of the doubt. Unlike the other coffee shops in the Edinburgh Old Town area, this one actually served coffee. Most places just serve espresso drink. While fresh, nothing gives you the caffeinated kick like a freshly brewed cup of coffee. As adorable as the brew masters behind the counter were, we just didn't share the same tastes.
I arrived before the 9 o'clock rush. We had plenty of time to debate an appropriate roast for my horrid situation. I prefer darker, rich roasts. This morning I wanted a staunch, bitter roast, with each sip I would be reminded of how I must have broken my laptop. I wanted to be jolted awake and punished. The brewers only had mild-mannered and subservient roasts. They would gently coax me out of my sleep-deprived state, each sip soothing me into an enjoyable outlook on my present life. I just couldn't be hard on myself, could I? Seeing my passion for coffee mixed with a slightly masochistic technological deprivation, the ginger haired brewer reached to a back cupboard and pulled out his favorite, unadvertised roast. His eyes lit up as he described it as delicate, spicy, and better than fair trade, because it was important all the way from San Francisco, America! The coffee beans were unground, and had to be freshly pressed for their filters. If I was willing to wait the extra preparation time, his delightful, super-secret roast could be mine. How could I say no?
I sat down in the black enclave of chrome lightening, rich wood tables, and red velvet curtains. I picked a Guardian magazine off of a deserted table. It featured a picture of J.K. Rowling slyly staring at the camera lens from a white Victorian armchair. Her legs were crossed, one arm folded over the other, the title simply read,
"What was life after Harry Potter?"
The special roast arrived on a wooden block in a tin kettle next to a tea cup and saucer. I smirked. The ambiance may scream neo-hipster American, but this enclave was still proper indie British. I poured it slowly into my cup. It was delicate, almost like highly caffeinated, doubly-steeped tea. I could barely taste any spice in the brew itself, but that was my fault. I had paired it with an over-powering chili cheese cornbread muffin. It rendered my taste buds useless for drinking coffee. I flipped open the magazine to the article on Rowling.
It was an interview on Casual Vacancy,
her new novel set to be released the following week. The interviewer got to read it early and absolutely loved it. Upon its release, I had read it and found it well-written and captivating. It was not as entertaining as I had hoped. The characters were too well placed, their voices distinct and humorous. They were uplifting when they needed to be; they were depressing where you would expect. They could surprise me, because they had lives outside of this book. I could see into their motivations, while maintaining a comfortable distance away from their immoral decisions. Small town politics and teenage molestation are not my chosen topics when I want to read general fiction. J.K. Rowling wrote well. The plot was just better than the story. The article was also less than inspiring. The journalist never asked the right questions.
How does she feel to be free from Harry Potter? Had her accountant ever suggested any sorts of tax avoidance schemes? I didn’t want to know about Rowling’s finances. I wanted to know about her
. What type of coffee or tea does she drink? Is her writing process as ritualized as the Elephant Café proclaims, because she first penned Harry Potter there? Do budding authors and writers need such a specific location or certain type of stationary to write well? Checking my email only to hear that my laptop was irreparable didn't help answer these questions once I finished the article. I was lost and disjointed from my traditional writing method. My laptop was gone. There were more strikethroughs than legible words on the page. My handwriting was unintelligible gibberish. How could I type my writing if I could barely read it? My first response to this predicament was to merge with my iPhone. We would become one and my thoughts would turn into digital typeface. Perhaps I could download an app to speak my words into digital writing instead. I went out and bought a wireless keyboard. There was a writing app; typing would be the same. Better, I would buy an inexpensive monitor for my phone. It would be the same as a desktop computer. Anything but having to write two-thousand, three-thousand word essays long-hand.
Alas, my neck finds the pen more comforting than craning to distinguish the letters on a 3in screen. My coffee hand finds it difficult to drink from a tall sit-in mug of Americano when said mug has to precariously hold up an iPhone. Writing, once a habit, has now become a chore. Lack of a laptop has completely altered my process. I have to set aside specific time and space to complete any written material. My writing process has now become too focused. I am not allowed to shift to and from inspiration and creation. I have to give it my full attention. Otherwise, I wander into smudged handwriting that renders even the best translators’ attempts at transcription fruitless. But I will do. I must do. If the pen was good enough for Poe and for Doyle and for Rowling, then it will good enough for me too.
I shut the magazine, placed the wooden tray gently back on the counter. I enjoyed the roast, despite its much-too-sweet notes of spice. I thanked the staff, and told them it was perfect. When I say perfect, I usually mean practical. The roast was far from ideal; but the experience made me aspire greater. I had not needed to be bitterly reminded of a lost laptop. I had needed to be subtly reminded that writing could go on without it.
The Irish sun sets so late I would rather be asleep than wait for it to slip beneath the horizon. Unfortunately, the Irish Writing Program at University College Dublin did allow me to sleep earlier than 11 o’clock. Each night was spent frustratingly battling between what I wanted to write versus what was required of me to write. Most people say they cannot write on command. I cannot write on demand. I have to be focused. I have to enjoy writing what I write. Most importantly, I have to feel passionate towards it. Everything I wrote was ridged, stagnant, and dry on the page.
What would I write? Why would I write it? Did it even matter what I wrote?
Even worse, Irish weather is dreary on all the wrong days. When I needed fresh air, it gave me rain. When I needed rain to keep me indoors writing, it gave me sunshine and blue skies. Studying abroad was supposed to be enlightening for my creative process, not inhibiting it. I sat day after night after day looking at the page again and again. Yes, I need all that repetition in that sentence. It was arduous to deal with the lack of pressure! Nothing I did would be graded. All study abroad courses don’t count towards GPA. They even told me they didn’t care so much about quality as about quantity. How could I write what I love if it didn’t even matter if I love what I wrote?
I could barely cope.
I could barely sleep.
I could barely keep my fingers on the keyboard.
They said they wouldn’t judge me. They said they didn’t care how I wrote. What if I wanted them to judge me? What if I wanted them to care?
My hands would reach into my invisible girl pockets and come up empty. Words fell on the page in spurts of hackneyed prose. At the end of my program, I wasn’t proud of what I had written. I was ashamed. The sentences were tasteless. The comma usage: absurd. My peers’ feedback was useful, but not inspiring. I wanted to really connect with other writers, to be immersed in an environment that was dedicated to writing, where everyone was passionate about the experience and thrill of the craft.
Even though my instructors were imaginative and exciting and my peers were intelligent and creative, I felt ostracized from the workshop environment simply because I wanted to write instead of drink.
I had planned to leave days after the program’s duration and from everyone else. I needed the time to compose myself before returning to the whirlwind of a Midwestern-American life. My escape was flawless. I captured three innocent writers and had them share a taxi with me as well as split a hotel room with me for two nights. Afterwards, I lay on a hotel bed with my things strew around the room. As if mocking my inability to pack correctly for return flights, the weather was bright, sunny, and inviting. The morning breeze intermittently pushed the clouds across the sun. It was perfect errand-running weather.
I had no errands to run.
I rolled to the edge of the bed. My suitcase stared innocently at me. Unsorted globs of clothes and coffee mugs huddled in odd stacks around it. The Irish weather taunted me. The ceiling offered no solutions. I closed my eyes. It was exactly 24 hours before my flight took over. What would a good, future-oriented college student like myself do?
Or more productively sounding: making a pre-departure list that required me to go outside and run errands.
Henry Street became my ideal destination. Despite a stream of shops on either side, it was rarely trafficked by the average tourist. Being on the North side of Dublin meant less marketing for high paying tourists. Instead, mothers with strollers, men in business suits, and high-school students flowed in and out of stores, an estuary of mixed motivations, clicking heels, and jingling ringtones. Diverting pathways led to other more niche markets of apparel or specialty goods. Signs to accept credit cards and traveler’s checks were written in Sharpie. Sale prices reflected family oriented goods, not Irish experience services. Used hardware stores and second-hand knick-knacks had locations next to brand name Marks & Spenser’s and Vodafone stores.
The Irish redbrick was worn down from use and beaten into odd pitfalls only people could make. Chipped sidewalks and deep grout meant wagon wheels and human feet had used these roads, not cars. It was a breath of fresh air for me, coming from America where these types of roads have to be recreated. Americans have asphalt. Ireland has history.
I followed one chipped cobblestone after the other. I came halfway down a block where asphalt began to mix with the bricks before I realized I couldn’t understand a single word being spoken around me. I looked around. Panhandlers and produce vendors surrounded me. Punnets of oddly shaped strawberries for €1 seemed too good to be true. Ten apples for €2 seemed suspiciously fantastic. Halal ingredient stores and Afro-Cuban wholesale shops bordered each other. I found a 25 oz. jar of curry powder for €3.
I wish I had discovered this sooner. Curry every day? Yes, please.
This street was disconnected from the others, but not so far away as undiscoverable. Latvian snacks? Lithuania soda? Ukrainian wafers and Polish chocolates? Every ethnicity was represented. The butcher shop offered every cut of meat. With trays of pig hearts, pig ears, and one pig’s head, I can now honestly say I have seen an entire pig both before and after death.
This underground market beneath the open-air shops had a Polish hair salon and an Oriental specialty market. I couldn’t read any of the labels on the packaging. Smiling faces of fruit told me the flavors of the candies. Vegetable flavored noodles? I’d try that. Meat looked like meat, though I couldn’t have said exactly what cut of meat it was. The store clerks eyed my questioningly.
I suppose, tourists don’t usually go through underground grocery marts rummaging through packaged food written in a language they cannot read. I also don’t suppose many tourists stare at a poster of scantily clad women trying to figure out exactly is being advertised in Russian.
My stomach rumbled. As much as I loved looking at the food, I couldn’t read if I was even able to eat it. Unfortunately, I merged back into the major stream of tourists on Henry St. Less than two blocks away, the modern food court was brimming with people. It offered Burger King, Starbucks, & a smoothie place that reminded me of Dairy Queen. I wanted my last meal in Ireland to be something I would remember and never could experience in the United States.
This food court was the same.
More aggressive walking and avoiding as many small children led me to another side street. To my left, a milkshake bar, to my right, a second-hand shop of tea sets and cooking ware, in front of me, an organic bagel bakery and a Mexican burrito bar, further still, a sushi shop, an epicurean food market, and a bento box themed restaurant. I had to sit down.
There are many foods I like. There are fewer foods I absolutely adore. These would be everything that currently surrounded me.
I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t just choose between them. I knew if I didn’t pull out my iPhone and look up what was around me, read reviews, or gain some stability I would falter and eat each of everything—bad for both my digestion and for my waistline. Instead, I took off Westward into Dublin, away from the main tourism and traffic.
This restaurant displayed mirrored windows and square black umbrellas in a corporate offshoot part of northwest Dublin. The highly maintained brick was a stark contrast from the LUAS rail lines that bordered it. Despite the harsh modern lines, the featured specials were written in brightly colored chalk outside the doors. For this place, I did my homework. €13 for three small plates. I could pick and choose between my favorite Asian fusions.
It was unique; it was light; and did the menu look delicious.
Koh Restaurant was classy, sophisticated, and art deco. Nothing I expected, but everything I ever wanted in an ethnic restaurant. Having ordered swiftly, the waiter brought me a small glass and a large pitcher of water.
This was going to be excellent.
The other patrons were all East Asian, if not directly Thai themselves. Not every ethnic restaurant can boast of serving its food to direct descendants of that cuisine. My excitement was only climbing. Pulling out pad and paper, I recounted the day’s experience. My eyes widened as the food magically appeared in front of me. I think the Irish have a different definition of “small plates.”
The soup came in a large white bowl, filled to the brim with spicy Thai basil and seafood. Two trout-filled, gluten-free spring rolls were presented side by side. Together, I think they were as long as my Mac and one-inch in diameter. To end, a large romaine lettuce leaf was stacked with a mixture of beef and pork sprinkled with limejuice and cilantro leaves. If I lived in Ireland, I would order the same thing for take away. It would be three separate meals for me.
I still ate all of it.
This meal was the healthiest, most filling, and spiciest meal I had in Ireland. It was the best meal I had while in Ireland. Dublin’s Irish pubs were not unimpressive by any means. However, they were repetitive. They began to remind me of American chain restaurants. The ethnic cuisine was always brilliant, always beautiful, and always clean tasting.
One Spanish tapas place turned dreary, pre-assignment Irish rain into a Mediterranean shower. One sushi on a belt-system Japanese chain restaurant redefined “all you can eat.” One ice-cream place gave me a shot of espresso with my sea-salt ice cream. But the Thai food at Koh Restaurant beat them all.
In the past, I described spicy food as piquant and sparkling on my tongue. This was more of a tickle. It prickled my tongue, never over-bearing, but never too spicy for me not to enjoy. Meat has been tender, has been juicy. Yet, this mixed chopped meat was not. It was cut into such small fragments that it retained its taste while changing the texture from chewy to crispy. The spring rolls were refreshing. The crunch of the glass noodles and the mint leaves showcased the trout without having an over-powering fish taste.
I could now cross off “last meal” and “snack breakfast” with one pen stroke.
Even better than being over-filled with glorious Thai food? When I did cancel the hotel breakfast, they didn’t even charge me for the previous two days I had eaten it there.
Beautiful. Positively, beautiful.
It takes an awful lot to give me culture shock. It isn’t where you live, but how you live there that gives meaning to a place. Then there is Dublin, Ireland. Situated on the eastern coastline in the middle of the island. The River Liffy separates Dublin between the north and south side. Few tourists ever recognize the difference between them, staying closer to the major thoroughfares of shopping, museums, and, of course, Trinity College.
My first impression of Dublin centered South of the River Liffy in this beating heart of pumped up portions of Irish food and pints of Guinness. With narrow streets, buildings closer together, and a cosmopolitan, chic vibe, this Dublin wasn’t really Irish; it was a tourist attraction. Further down Dublin became a central shopping area near St. Stephan’s Green. Hip UK stores lined the redbrick pathways with alleys of pubs, panhandlers, and pedestrians. Nothing struck me as Irish about the £5 bowl of Pad Thai for students or the giant leprechauns offering the “traditional” all-day Irish breakfasts for £7. Even the street performers weren’t Irish.
I walked past the gates of Trinity College and back north on Nassau St. It quickly turned into O’Connell St. The buildings became grander and older. A British parliament building turned Irish bank had high Greco columns and wide archways.
The Georgian architecture of the south gave way to cement-styled renovations and glass-exterior financial buildings. Further into the Docklands area, the streets turned to alleyways. Restaurants became take away combo diners and convenience stores offering coffee to go. As odd as it sounds in retrospect, this is the Dublin I had been expecting. The regular working class and commuter businessmen walked fast-paced and indifferent to an American flashing photos every three seconds. This Dublin was absent of the multitude of tourists snapping pictures, fretting over public transportation, and marveling at the multitude of fast food. It was starkly different than the local shops and eateries on the south side.
Ever since arriving, Ireland has somehow paralleled itself to Texas in my mind. Both places hold a strong sense of a cultural identity and ask me if I want lemon with my hot tea and fried, buttered, and sweet breaded substance. However, it wasn’t until I traveled into Belfast, Northern Ireland two days later that I truly understood what it meant to be Irish. Northern Irishmen have thicker accents. Even for my trained ear, it was harder to understand them. Tourist attractions were promoted differently. They advertised more of the “Irish experience” rather than the actual location itself. Being a part of the United Kingdom seemed to force the Northern Irish to stand out more than the Irish in the Republic themselves. I saw a reverse culturalism from being part of two cultures simultaneously.
Visiting Northern Ireland within the United Kingdom is stepping into another country just as visiting Texas has become stepping into another country within the United States. Northern Irishmen and Texans have a political pride for their countries—UK and US respectively—but have a stronger sense of cultural/social pride for their states. It is this social and cultural pride of where they live that begins to determine how they live.
I entered into my Irish study abroad classes perplexed by this emerging split Irish identity. My professors only furthered by curiosity by posing the first lecture’s question: what is the traditional and expected Irish person? As the lectures and assignments taxed me, I hardly had time to walk through the streets to observe the traditional Irish person. In truth, I doubt even my Irish professors would consider themselves the traditional. I was exhausted as the short-term drawing closer to the end. Having to read Mistaken by Neil Jordan seemed like a godsend. I didn’t need to drag my laptop the 20min bus ride into Dublin city centre. Reading in Fixx Coffeeshoppe sounded perfect to my LCD screen blinded eyes. Settling down into my corner leather seat, sipping the most artistically decorated cappuccino and feta-hazelnut broccoli salad, I dived right in.
In Mistaken, two twins—one from the Southside and one from the Northside—have been separated at birth. Throughout their lives, they are constantly mistaken for each other, with each one playing the part of the other during different parts of the story. However, their socioeconomic situations were polar-opposite of each other, just by living across the river. I wondered if the people of Dublin were just as starkly divided as the twins’ backgrounds. The architecture changed, yes, but did that mean the people acted differently because of it?
Dublin that tourists expect is the Dublin they are going to see. The Dublin people lived in, worked in, wasn’t the Dublin the tourist department wanted me to see. The Docklands have few attractions—but the best quick lunch deals. O’Connell St. is barren of a college crowd, due to its more family oriented, cheaper, and more spread out shopping. The public transportation was convoluted to work around if not already familiar with the area. My friends and I had walked through offshoot residential neighborhood for many blocks to get to Kilmainham Gaol simply because we had ridden the LUAS out, instead of taking tourist-friendly direct bus route. The tourist department knows Dublin is segmented. If the regular tourist hadn’t paid the city tour bus fare to get there, I highly doubt they would find their way.
Although Mistaken was unfinished, the sun had finally come out. With a free afternoon, I set off to be a tourist. A scarf vendor asked me if I had ever been to the States. A secret book clerk asked me how the weather was in New York. A bike messenger gave me a coupon for yoga and health supplements, saying Australians knew how to keep fit. I wish I were making these up. It didn’t matter which state or even which country I was from. People knew I wasn’t from Dublin.
I went from Dublin Castle to inside Dublina, and now found myself by Pearse St. Station after touring Trinity College’s Science Galley; and I was positively starving. Being a complete and utter Batman fan, I forced myself to walk the blocks to The Gotham Café, where menu prices started at €2.50 for a bowl of olives—at lunch. The interior looked expensive with its Rolling Stone magazines, distressed leather seating, and wooden tables with metallic furnishings. Even the table candles had their own red sheet covers.
I scanned the crowd. A young family sat in the corner with a little boy that couldn’t be older than four. A pair of business colleagues sat across from me. With a glass of wine in each hand, I was surprised when a pot of tea was delivered between them. A family spread between three tables sat down to my left. With green tracksuits and girlish giggles, the blonde-haired duo next to me would have been around fourteen. An elderly couple was seated on my right. This café had a typical crowd of everyone.
My sweet potato fries and chicken finally arrived. I dug in without thinking. Savoring the rosemary in the chicken, the crispy tang of the sweet potato. I looked to my right. I am still so glad I ate my sweet potato fries with my fork that day. The elderly man to my right also ate his thick cut fries with a fork. Only, he cut his into three separate pieces before eating them. Fries in America are eaten with the hands, no matter how greasy, how hot, or how oddly shaped. I have never seen a man so delicately cut his French fries. He partitioned his burger into individual segments before placing them in his mouth. His refined eating showed in every carefully cut portion. I blushed at the scooping of my salad leaves onto my fork. The only ones eating with their hands were children. I forked a sweet potato fry and chicken into my mouth. Thank you, Mistaken, for proving yourself right. He was the classiest man I have ever seen; and there were none like him on the Northside.
At the close of my meal, my waiter was surprised when I didn’t follow the example of others my age by ordering a wine and a cappuccino. The Gotham Café had children, families, and elderly couples all eating around the same wooden tables. And they all expected freshly ground black pepper on their salads. They all had expectations of a hostess to lead them to their seats. They expected to have my table empty by 6pm, for the onslaught of Friday night reservations. They took these expectations further, by having the expectation that those expectations would be met. Dublin on the south side is a cosmopolitan city. Dublin on the north side is a commuting town for shopping, work, and theatre. Dublin along the river Liffy is a tourist trap, sans the occasional workingman’s pub.
The people that live in Dublin are from everywhere. Dubliners were all non-Dubliners at one point. Thus, the people of Dublin are friendly, because they aren’t really from Dublin at all. They are from Galway, whose grandparents moved to Dublin for work. They are from Cork, performing in Dublin to raise awareness on Irish homelessness. They are flying to New York City to visit a friend. Even closer, they simply moved from Dublin 3 to Dublin 4. People have the stereotype of a friendly Irishmen because most of those Irishmen know what its like to be an outsider. Dublin is a crossroads. Somehow, everyone is both a part of and apart from Dublin.
It’s not a place. It’s a people. Dublin is a way of life. At the end of the day, we’re all Dubliners. Each district may view itself as completely separate from one another like, but today the lines are starting to blur. We are all living in Dublin—for the weekend, for the summer, for life. Mistaken was a fictionalized Dublin, but it reflected Dublin’s self-segregation beautifully. When the people of Dublin change, the place of Dublin will change. And in some convoluted way, a new Dublin place will change the new Dublin people. From an outsider’s perceptive, I think Dublin will never be like London or New York City because its people will never want it to be.
By the time I’ve finished typing this, Dublin may already have changed. In the midst of these changes, I believe it is what is accomplished in that place—regardless of when, where, or even who—that will matter the most.
There is no Wilcox Street. Apparently Bus 38L should have taken me straight to The Japan Center. Instead I found myself backtracking along the bus route, as the San Francisco chill slowly settled into my cracked fingers and exposed neck. I hadn’t thought to bring a scarf. Wasn’t California supposed to be sunny? At least a little bit brighter? I didn’t account for weather mimicking London side streets and the chill of the Bay wind that tore through my conference-issued hoodie. Another gust blew a newspaper over my feet. It was my own fault for not staying closer to the Hotel Palomar off 4th St. in downtown San Francisco.
I could have visited Union Square, taken a trolley to Pier 39, or taken a much-needed relaxing break at a Starbucks just around the corner. But no. I had to bus out over bumpy hills and under highways only to backtrack through unfamiliar, potential unsafe--No. Those are my dad’s thoughts. If there was anything I had ever wanted to do in San Francisco, this was worth the cracked cement walkways and blistering grey skies. Although Chinatown is common in bigger cities, how could I pass up the surprising Japantown? Four precarious streetlights later my destination stood before me.
Rather, it stood somewhat next to me in the form of a back, spa entrance into a two-story, concrete building labeled the Japan Center. The glass door read “Hot Springs and Relaxation Center.” There was less light inside the building than the dreary clouds let through on the outside. If not for my somewhat audacious initiative to enter regardless, I never would have found my way into The Japan Center. Chinatown has an ornate, gated-styled entryway. With loud vendors and louder music, a person knows when they’ve entered the Chinese ethnic district. However, Japantown is just a giant building. I could have walked around said building never realizing I was in Japantown. There was no traditional Japanese music inside and the outside was far less unobtrusive. Only when I had gotten to the central, shopping area did the modern and traditional images of Japan stand out.
The Japan Center mimicked a traditional Heian-era, Japanese styled house with a modern business center. The overall effect was modern-eclectic. The center of floor had fake bamboo flooring with potted, plastic cherry blossom trees. The actual shops and cafes had the executive grey tiles and off-white walls. With still water features and indoor replicas of traditional wooden bridges, the Japan Center settled nicely between an ethnic Disneyland and a typical shopping center. Each vendor sold something direct from Japan, from brand items such as Hello Kitty, famous districts like Harajuku, to the ever-popular Japanese Pocky, Ice-Cream Mochi, and dried calamari strips. Being surrounded by Japanese specialty shops immersed and entranced my Japanese culture-addict nature.
Every corner held something novel. Traditional shops of handmade towels and chopsticks were cattycornered from accessories stores selling mass produced, Pokemon and Nintendo backpacks. I felt pinpricks up my arms. I highly doubt modern-day Japan has stores in such close proximity to one another. But it's a great joy to know that this center did give its visitors an experience of both modern and traditional Japan.
For this food lover, the Japan Center was terrifying because of its range of appetizing sweet and savory options. Seeing a small snack vendor, I procured mochi dango—a sticky, soy sauce coated rice ball on a stick, usually in fours. With its filling nature and edibility on the go, I was hoping my over fondness for Japanese cuisine could be abate slightly. But as I walked over the wooden, Japanese bridge to the second tier, appetite did not matter to the tantalizing new restaurants in “Restaurant Way.” I highly overestimated my will power. More than that, I highly underestimated the power of good Japanese marketing.
The Japan Center posted menus outside their doors. However, instead of descriptions, or pictures, the restaurants in Japantown displayed their menu in a glass display case. Popular menu items were sculpted from wax, placed in premium lighting, and set in price order to attract customers. The menu items literally looked good enough to order every one of them. With another restaurant serving food on a conveyor belt system, my mind was overwhelmed with the sheer number of choices. My feet wandered around the building for a good hour before settling down.
Each grain of rice in the sushi rolls were painted by hand. The ramen noodles floated on top of their sauce. I knew if you tipped the bowl over, nothing would come out. It looked too good to be true. Yet, as I stared at one delicious looking tray after another, my eyes settled on the one that was finally everything I wanted. When I entered Takanama, I asked for my table in Japanese.
Thankfully, the umeboshi’s bitterly salty taste did not surprise me, despite its sweet-looking, purple imprint on the rice. With three pieces of tuna sashimi and three vegetable rolls, this bento seemed more of a bargain for $10. Yet, what characterized this particular variation of bento was the fried flounder fillet topped with spicy, Japanese mayo sauce. I can’t recall what was more surprising: me liking a fried fish or the waitresses’ look of surprise when I cleaned my plate and asked for a green tea ice cream to go.
Excuses are meaningless when it comes to food. Taking that first bite of something when I had no idea what to expect is always exhilarating. If I learned anything from this Japan in a box, it was that green tea is always the most refreshing item on the menu. Served warm in tea with a meal, baked into a dorayaki, or crisply chilled into ice cream atop a crepe, green tea never ceases to make me smile. Even worse, was that, the sugar high I got from it, lasted me until noon the next day.
The Japanese don’t kid themselves when it comes to sweets. The Americans may have corn flakes for breakfast, but the Japanese use their sugar-wheat consistency to their advantage. I have never seen so many dessert items use corn flakes as I did in Japantown. Corn flakes were used in crumbles on cakes or as central features in cookies. My green-tea ice cream crepe had the face of a pig thanks to cornflakes. I have also never seen cheaper food prices then in San Francisco. Maybe it’s competition, but if these prices stay the same when I come back, my body may leave, but my stomach never will.
It was too pleasant for the middle of March. Twilight warmed the red brick buildings of Kansas City Plaza. The walkways took on an orange hue, broken only by the occasional swaying of decorative shrubbery. My roommate Yuuki and I looped the Kansas City Plaza from specialty shops serving the Japanese soda Ramune, Greek Kasseri goat cheese to department chains like Halls and H&M. Yuuki stared into the windows of specialty chocolate shops admiring their construction as an art enthusiast would a review a modern piece of art.
Returning to stay with my parents in Southwest Missouri for Spring Break would normally be against my traveling mindset, but it was economical to return to curb hotel costs. After all the stories I had come back with from family outings to Kansas City, Yuuki didn’t mind having short spurts of time to sight seeing. She lived in moment, and at this moment, she was getting hungry. As our stomachs growled our feet lead us to W. 47th Street where The Cheesecake Factory and P.F. Chang’s offered the typical food choices found in pedestrian malls. Our restaurant of choice was neither and—unbeknownst to her—the height of food experience.
The clock had struck five when we approached the doorman leaning beside the carved wood doors guarding the entrance. Wearing a loose fitted blouse, skirt, and tights, my all black ensemble off set Yuuki’s printed T-Shirt and faded denim jeans. We were dressed for a casual tour of Kansas City, not a fine dining establishment.
Wavering between disinterest and nonchalance, I assume he expected us to pass him. His only movement in our general direction was to adjust the paisley noose around his neck. However, I grandly opened the door for my friend instead. Straightening to take the door from me as we entered, he was embarrassed by his misperception.
Although I had never been to this particular venue of Fogo De Chao, Brazilian Steakhouses are notorious everywhere for their high quality service, higher price tag, and the highest quantity of steaks, sides, and desserts. The traditional dinner crowd had not arrived. Only one other table—already halfway through their meal—was sat across the room from us. The hostess walked us from the slate tiled floors and stone faceted bar of an entrance to an elegantly spread stemware and white clothed tables. Having barely sat us down at our table, she was already replaced by our headwaiter taking our initial drink orders.
As a first-generation Japanese-American, Yuuki had grown up in two distinctly separate food cultures. Because her father prepared Japanese curry, omelette rice, and fresh roasted pork that would have emptied my wallet at any local Asian restaurant, her family would rarely eat out. Neighborhood potlucks featuring American slow roasted and deep fried foods comprised the majority of her out-of-home food experiences. Since she had only been to a handful of chain restaurants, it became my mission to expand her culinary horizons.
It must have looked like we were on a date. The headwaiter explained the all-included 30-item salad and side bar, the green to red chip system, and the ever-replenishing house’s fresh-baked cheese bread. Yuuki merely bobbed her head up and down. When he turned to leave, I couldn’t tell if her hands shook from anticipation or nervousness as she carefully picked up her stemmed water glass. My hands stumbled across the table passing her the bread. Jumping with excitement, I could only hope my exuberance would spark similar passion to abandon her Japanese upbringing of humility at the dinner table.
Offering imported prosciutto, 24 month aged Parmesan, Brazilian hearts of palm, Italian salami, and even tabbouleh, this establishment tried to fill us before we had even seen any of their fifteen cuts of meat. Her feet padded the ground in a loop. She grabbed the tongs for the smoked salmon, only to put them down and circle back to the cilantro-lime garnish. She went back to the salmon and then again to the mushrooms and then back around, debating whether or not to get the sun-dried tomatoes versus the sliced tomatoes.
Before Yuuki had reached the table, one waiter had removed her napkin from the table while another pulled out her chair. As she got into her seat, her plate was placed on the table and her napkin was placed in her lap. They both walked away to my friend’s mouth still agape, somewhere in the middle of “thank” and “you.” Seeing us settled, our headwaiter returned to suggest the house limeade, blended with fresh limes and sweetened condensed milk. Her face glowed at the thought of unlimited refills of her favorite citrus fruit. We each ordered two.
The first course consisted of smoked salmon, both sun-dried and sliced tomatoes, jumbo asparagus, shitake mushrooms, spinach leaves, cilantro and lime salad, and a basket of warm cheese bread. It’s strange to imagine food in terms of itself. Textures and tastes seem separate when I describe them. Yet, these sides made taste and texture seem inseparable. The asparagus and shitake mushrooms tasted like asparagus and mushrooms—not fancy seasonings or sauces. The bread pulled apart easily. Airy and feathery on the inside, the bread deceptively hid any appearance of cheese until it entered your mouth. Not at all overpowering, the texture blended the cheese taste throughout. The salmon’s subtle saltiness tasted straight from the sea to the smoker. As I reached for another piece, my fork slipped in my hand. Though I caught the fork, the salmon was not so lucky. Rushing to my aid, a waiter reached into my lap with tongs and removed the salmon. Yuuki did not so much as pause to comment. She moved around her plate en pointe. One small nibble of salmon, one tear of bread, one cut piece of tomato, circling the plate until she reached the beginning again. I returned to the other less suicidal sides relishing their unique tastes myself. Every side was prepared specifically to enhance its individual flavor. Simply seasoned and perfectly paired, we entertained the thought of going back for another salad bar trip. Our eyes traveled instead around the dining room stage. Gaucho chefs were already performing for other diners at this point. Sliding meat off metal skewer onto warmed plates, they leapt from table to table. Having already perused our table’s meat brochure, we eagerly flipped our cards from red (no meat) to green (all the meat please) to begin the second course of our meal. Within seconds, two additional waiters replaced our dirty plates with clean ones, cleaned the table of any fallen with tongs, and refilled our drinks. As our faces turned bright pink, we thanked the dimmed dinnertime lighting.
We were first presented with garlic-mashed potatoes, polentas (cornmeal), and caramelized bananas My friend smiled knowingly across the table. More starch was only an attempt to restrain our inevitable meat over consumption. The sides remained untouched as various chefs with skewers of meat danced around the dinning room. The meal was as artfully constructed like a ballet performance. Would we like to try the pork ribs? How about the filet mignon? Do you prefer your meat more rare, medium, or well done? I’ll send a fresh cut over for you right away. Our first sides remained untouched never needing to be refilled at the table. Yet, the steam rising from a new side in our headwaiter’s hand attractedgarnered her attention. He had placed a special order for of grilled jalapeños and onions to with our meal. No extra charge.
To make our evening special, one chef brought lamb tenderloin—absent from the menu—to our table. We were the first patrons that night to receive it.
“Did you ladies have any plans tonight?” our gaucho chef server portioned the meat onto our plates as we shook our heads.
“There’s a great concert going on at The Capital Grille tonight,” he continued. “I can’t give you any information, but if you’re interested….”
Another meat waiter ushered him along to begin serving other tables and we turned to the second course of our dinner.
We devoured this new entrée as slowly and tenderly as it had been prepared. She couldn’t stop raving about their succulence. The taste of lamb was now separated into slightly lamb and significantly lamb. Even the chicken became more concentrated in sustenance and texture. The ancho-roasted sirloin overshadowed the more traditional garlic sirloin and both came from the same area of the cow! Eventually, we no longer needed to use the signal chips. Once we had expressed our preferential meats, we were offered them as soon as a fresh skewer hit the dinning room floor.
The gaucho chef appeared again, bearing another skewer of the lamb tenderloin.
“You know, I can’t give you my number, but I can give you pen and paper…” his voice trailed off as Yuuki blinked in response.
“We’re thinking, “ I laughed the situation off. “But we’ve got a long drive ahead of us…” I hoped the dots spoke for themselves as he continued to smile running back to the kitchen.
We exchanged looks and burst into stifled laughter. Was it because we were not with our parents? Did we look that much older than we thought? Regardless, someone had taken an interest in our well being and, well, we were highly amused. We were playfully suspicious even as we bantered back and forth with the wait staff. Along with another trip to the salad bar, we consumed four limeades, a diet coke, multiple glasses of water, and three plates of meat each. Even so, when the table waiter questioned our capacity to consume one of the house’s specially made deserts, my friend’s smile stretched broadly across her face.
Our choices ranged from molten chocolate cake to South American flan, but it was the house papaya cream that caught our attention. Blended with real papaya, this dessert claimed to be a digestive aid after a big meal. However, I wondered if the blackberry syrup used to top the dish didn’t negate those healthy effects. Regardless, the sweetness of the cream was smooth and delicate. Although it had the consistency of ice cream, it did not taste like ice cream. It tasted like blended papaya. It tasted real.
We outlasted no less than seventeen different tables, staying a little over two and a half hours. The other diners entered and exited as we continued to eat to our heart’s content. When our stomachs were as full as our wallets were empty, a more expectant doorman took the door handle from me. Our bodies meandered around the Plaza attempting to walk off the calories of the meal. But our minds still lingered on the restaurant. The freshness of the vegetables, the juiciness of the meat, and the purity of the papaya grew even more succulent with each and every mention of them. As the key ignited the engine like the food ignited our taste buds, I look forward to testing our culinary—and monetary—limits together. I know that our next adventure will shape our palates further, but for now, this experience ranks first for our stomachs, our memories, and our hearts.
February always evokes feelings of nostalgia for my deepest loves: traveling and food. The half-frigid days usher me indoors to reminisce on my fondest food attachments. To rediscover my favorite cuisine, I must travel back to the origins of Western civilization—Greece. No other cuisine has given me more pleasure.
As my Education First group drove around the Grecian mountains, my brain and stomach starved for authentic, local delicacies. What was this creamy Moussaka—a creamy cheese topped casserole baked with eggplant and ground meat—my fellow travelers raved about? How would authentic Greek establishments make my favorite gyro platter? Would I even be able to read all of the multiple preparations of lamb dishes I craved? After traveling four hours through needle tree forests and olive vineyards, all I had was questions and an empty stomach. Our group had barely made progress to the Meteoras (which I would learn were towering rocks miles from the Mediterranean imbedded with seashells and fossilized ocean life.) Without a single English translation, the signs provided little help as to how long it would be before my Greek food craving would be satiated. I began to feel more and more like a tourist. At least in Italy, my Spanish background gave me basic communication with its people and its signs. In Greece, it was rare for someone to speak anything other than Greek. I was blinded and muted to semantic communication. I had to rely on the only other language I knew could be understood: money.
Entering an off the road gas station, I was shocked to find a restaurant-café merged with the pre-packaged food section of a grocery store that had sprouted out of a bakery. Still outfitted with the traditional soda and candies, this station seemed to have everything —only better. This couldn’t be a stop for most tourists; nothing was in English. Miles from any major tourist attraction, this bakery-restaurant-café-gas station-grocery store had to be a local venue. My stomach grumbled with excitement.
Having anticipated small bistro styled menus, I was overwhelmed with the choices. Knowing we’d be on the road for quite some time longer, my head turned the instant energy of carbs to keep me awake enough to take pictures out of the bus windows. Straddling the café and grocery section, the pastries were packaged in bulk. The typical red and white cardboard boxes I see American buffets use for to-go orders held everything from homemade cookies to roasted nuts. Although I couldn’t read them, the desserts were sitting in the café’s display glass with the same illegible names, so my fingers did not have to pry open every package. I chose a fragile cookie that had to be eaten very carefully. Not the best choice for a mountainous bus ride, but a delicious one nonetheless. My triangle treats were hidden in the mountain of powder sugar that covered them. About the size of a medium scone, the outer texture of this cookie was crisp on the outside, yet light and airy on the inside. It carried a lemony zest that never left the mouth overpowered. Instead, it endlessly persuaded me to continue eating it. The price was almost too affordable for me to comprehend. With such luxury, I could see why Greece has been romanticized.
Leaving the station, I realized I had seen no gyros or pita wraps. Viewed as a quick, working-class food that was not fit to be served at a restaurant, gyros were only at fast food street venders. I would never taste how they were prepared in the country of their inception. Yet, every Greek establishment I visited prized both quality and quantity. Each entrée I was served was spectacular in taste and never left me hungry.
From the succulent, slow cooked roast lamb to the wood fire grilled chicken kabobs, all meat that was served was juicy and tender. Some nights I felt the dinner portions was secretly supposed to be shared. They just didn’t tell me, because they wanted to make more money out of me. Every plate became a rich food experience. Even the cheese was indulgent, despite never being set on fire at my table. The food needed to be enjoyed over long periods of time. The quality forced me to savor; the quantity kept me at a table for hours. Of the 6 days I spent in Greece, I think most of it was sitting down with my favorite dish of all time—lamb.
Always slightly seasoned regardless of cooking technique, the lamb—as I came to find out—was always the most succulent dish on the menu. Smoked and served on the bone; slow roasted and served on a platter; basted in its own juices and served as cooked, pure Grecian lamb honestly needed no accompaniment. It came without sauce, butter, or additional condiments. Paired alongside with lightly salted and olive oil roasted vegetables, the lamb didn’t need thick, creamy sauce to give it taste. I found it stayed tastefully unique throughout all cooking methods. It was simply marvelous. It was simply delicious. It was simply lamb. My only regret is not having eaten enough of it.
My coffee mug leans precariously on a fringe pillow. It holds the last caffeine of the day. To prolong its effects, I have been diluting it with decaf from a stoneware mug. While I cautiously hold one mug over the other, attempting to prevent the liquid from frothing over onto my cut-up poetry, my hostess calmly sips her single-brewed beverage. If only she had my dedication—or perhaps addiction—to ensure I consumed an adequate amount of caffeine in every sip. It is an opportune moment for the blonde-bellied feline. Stretching her paws across my artwork, she quickly darts away before I can reprimand her. She settles into the cushion of an earth-colored Victorian chair, warming in the sliver of sunlight peaking in from the drapes. She is not the first cat to claim this chair as her own.
Once inside a New England porch, this piece of furniture was a mere stepping stool to the windowsill. Being the same width and twice the cat’s length, the windowsill became the hunting ground of the former cat. She would glide onto the wide, white sill and rub her ivory fur against the warm summer glass. In the same house, my hostess was sorting through old books. A classic, full-bodied blend by her side, the coffee filled a large mug to last her through her morning project. The novels comprised half of her original collection. The other half let go in lost romantic inclinations. Yet, this chapter in her life would give her the happiest of stories—in print and in memories—that would overfill her walls with faces and her rooms with literature.
Today, the books have managed to stack themselves in between half-knitted scarves and yet to be hung photography on the floor. They are used as pedestals for the Victorian styled porcelain dolls on the shelves. On the ground, they become the dividers of various projects. Their pages permeated by the smell of multiple readings and coffee grounds. Although a long russet couch hides the majority of the congested bookshelves, it is not spared of clutter. Yarn—entwined with even more colorful ribbon—winds around the cushions, armrests, and mountain of pillows. Multiple knitting needles imbedded into the couch’s pores. Each half-done scarf reminiscent of multiple conversations left purposefully unfinished.
As the Christmas holidays approach, desert recipes promise to be exchanged to avoid the traditional fruit and nut pies, cakes, and cookies. An Iowan woman brushes past the red velvet curtain carrying two steaming mugs. The coffee tastes like Christmas, cinnamon spice mixed with the grounds. Yet, two hours and four cups of the cinnamon coffee later, a trade has yet to be made. At the post New Year’s gathering, another visitor gasps astonished at the pile of Talbot’s bags. The hostess gleams triumphantly at her seventy to eighty percent markdown. Although most items are to be sorted, bartered, and gifted away, the promise of travel made parting with each item painless. The various clothing and accessories assure her visits to past houseguests. Only this time, conversation coffee will be in their own houses with their own personal brews.
One lady’s grandiose exterior slowly gives way to the earthy tones below. Another remains mild-mannered, despite their robust, dark infusion. Subtle sweet undertones compliment the blonder texture, despite being brewed with extra grounds to give it a richer taste, of a lady with an advanced mind. Together, they create a balanced, dynamic blend. Each separate texture enhances the various roasts. Their scents and tastes mingle into one solid companionship.
Just as each roast comes with a specific place of origin, so do their partakers, although neither one of them truly claims a specific providence as their homeland. Instead, they mark multiple territories for influencing their creations. From the wintry winds of Nebraska to the mid-Atlantic beaches of Maryland or from the heat of Texas to the mountains of the Ozarks, each time the coffee is brewed it always leads to new stories and newer inspirations. Coffee is just an excuse to get together, but the women who share its company don't need an excuse. They simply enjoy their conversations with coffee. Or rather, they enjoy their coffee with their conversations.
Conversations perpetually unfinished—meant to be left as unsorted photographs, half-knitted scarves, and cut ups of fashion magazines. They are left amongst the piles of clutter on the living room floor or littering the pieces of furniture. Guests walk away with various knick-knacks embedded with stories and inspiration. In turn, they leave tokens of appreciation for the hostess to remember them by.
As the daylight wanes from the South window, the cat moves closer to the brick fireplace. Soon, the chair is covered in pieces of fabric and photographs—caught again in the cycle of constant reorganization as life adds more faces and features to the innumerable amount already there. There it will wait until the next escapade of a dynamic duo comprised of a University writing student and a former design instructor.
As I step past the brick-floored foyer and into the cold winter air, another pot of coffee begins to slowly drip in the kitchen behind me. For me, the best coffees are not always labeled Organic, Fair Trade, or Starbucks. Most often, they are shared in local coffee shops or sprawled amongst craft glue and cutouts on the floor. Coffee was meant to be shared regardless of roast. Even as I write this from five hundred miles North, I know upon my return there will be fresh pots of a coffee and conversations just waiting to continue where they were left hanging.
I walked through the brisk air, pressing my hood to my head. My friends followed me out of my apartment all the way past Market St. They were over-jubilant at the thought of parsley, basil, and potatoes. Or perhaps, they want egg rolls and cheese; but their thoughts were too cluttered for my taste. Their chatter became white noise humming in my mind. I just want pancakes.
When I first stumbled upon the local griddle
gods’ pancakes, it was out of blind curiosity. Farmer’s markets provide fresh produce and handmade products cheaper and greener than any supplied in the local grocery store. Before discovering my true love, I shopped for the in-season vegetables and fruits. Already full of healthy granola, egg, or yogurt, I let the already warmed earth greet me around nine or ten. I was not—and remain not—an early riser.
Caught red handed by the pedestrian’s roadblock, the blinking crosswalk light only impeded my progress. It was too frosty for September, and I didn’t want to wait any longer. Then again seven-sixteen a.m. may have been too early to gauge the weather. The smell of autumn melded with the distant aroma of roasted meat and free trade coffee. Either of which served me no purpose. I clutched my 16oz thermos of my own brewed coffee— Starbucks, if you must know, because yes, I am a woman who needs a legitimate cup of corporation for breakfast. The commercialism offsets the home-created decadence of my succulent, delicious— I interrupted my own thoughts, amazed at my own drive. I darted diagonally through the street regardless. Past mornings have taught me that I won’t get caught. Hopefully, this morning wouldn’t be an exception.
I could see my breath. Making my own smoke stacks made the bitter cold seem more acceptable. I turned towards the entrance, littered with orange traffic cones, like a never finished construction site in high-traffic July. This scene always marked the boundary between commercial Iowa City downtown and local farmer’s goods and services. The stand—camouflaged under an orange-blue tarp—only differentiated by the portable grill and a chalkboard sign marked with two items—omelettes and pancakes.
My friends separated into their own corners of the market. It only took five minutes before I sat down in mine, situated on one end of a plastic picnic table with an elderly couple, a dog, and a pancake.
I attempted to nibble around the center. Redefinition in every bite, I begin to understand why the English decided to call such a decadent pastry pancake. Pan in almost every other language denotes unaltered bread. Yet for England, bread was not sweet enough for morning. The moistened honeyed pastry called cake must combine and create the sensation known as a pancake.
Taste overcame my desire to savor. Was it the home-created recipe? The early-morning wake up? The sheer complete and utter joy of knowing I was eating pancakes? Regardless, my mouth’s failure equaled my stomach’s immediate success. My etymology meant nothing to the serotonin flooding my system. I devoured every little secret lemon bit that offset the oncoming autumnal season.
From September until early November, I attended to this weekly ritual with the utmost care. Pancakes became my relief, edged into a staple of my budget. My grocery list consisted of fruit, eggs, and pancakes. This diet got me through midterm exams, science fiction theory papers, and mind-numbing Japanese dictation exercises. Pancakes had brought our shaking hands and smiling faces together. Unfortunately, the farmer’s market cannot withstand the increasingly frigid Iowan latitude. The winter months will pull us apart, but not for long. In spring, the season will succumb to dewy frost. The pancake princes will once again return to downtown Iowa City. My persistent patronage will begin again, continuing our weekly routine. Our hearts filled with friendships. Our stomachs swelled from the perfection known as pancakes.