New Place

This weekend I re-read Bella Tuscany by Frances Mayes for about the hundredth time. Reading that book, her writing almost poetry, is like wrapping a warm and comforting blanket around me. I had seriously considered bringing that book with me when we travelled because of its ability to distract, comfort and calm. (As it turns out, there was absolutely no room for the book and I had much less need for it than I had anticipated.) There is a quote that I came across on Sunday that now seems more poignant than when I last read it 18 months ago,

“Setting off to see another country, I set off to see what is more grandly other- whole cultures, geographies, languages. Who am I in the new place? And who are they who live there?

If you settle in, even for two weeks, live in a house not a hotel, and you buy figs and soap at the local places, sit in cafes and restaurants, go to a local concert or church service, you cannot help but open to the resonance of a place and the deeper you go, the stranger the people become because they’re like you and they’re not.”

How true! How exactly, perfectly, succinctly true. I read that and instantly thought of Istanbul, how when we were there, we rented a flat for two weeks and indeed shopped for figs and soap at local markets, played backgammon and drank tea at local cafes. There’s no question that we still stood out as the stupid foreigners we were, there was hardly any chance of us blending in, but going for groceries, or visiting the hardware store, or briefly getting to know the patterns of our neighbours and internalizing the Ramazan drumming at dawn to the point where we were no longer woken up by it, made me feel like I was just slightly less tourist and very slightly more a resident. The difference is the thickness of a strand of hair but it made me happy to carry a jug of milk instead of a camera and to think that the people who saw me perhaps thought “There is a foreigner who lives here” rather then “Look, another tourist”.

A little of that feeling remains now that we are living in the United States. I am barely noticeable as a Canadian; until we speak in metric or use the word “toque” or have to show someone our ID, we are the Canadians that walk unnoticed amongst them. Most of the time, we are easily mistaken as Americans and I’m glad to blend in, the same way I was glad to blend in a shred in Turkey. I’m always especially pleased to be able to offer someone directions, and I’m asked often enough while walking the dog in the more touristy areas of town. Surely he makes me appear more a resident and occasionally, I am actually able to respond to a question in such a way that sustains the illusion; I wish I never had to say “Sorry, I’m not from around here…” and then not even be able to direct a visitor to a gas station for directions. But the longer we stay, and the more exploratory walks we take, the closer we will come to resemble San Franciscans, though I doubt we’ll ever shake the metric.

cimg7051.jpgMeanwhile, in an effort to rekindle some of the travel vibe, and to use some of our souvenirs, we made a splendid curry. While in Udaipur, a man that we met, Krishna, set us up with a private cooking tutorial which involved an early-morning trip to the market and a lesson by his grandmother’s neighbour, a woman who cooked in a tiny, concrete kitchen tacked onto the rooftop courtyard of her building. After our lesson, Krishna obtained two sets of spices for us; we had told him we were not married so he had assumed that we lived apart and would, therefore, each require our own samples of curry, turmeric, cardamom and saffron. As a result, we have alot of spices to go through, a pleasant enough chore. This curry ploughed through a fair portion of the turmeric but we used whole cinnamon, bay leaves and cardamom pods. We also used two burners, which is one more than Krishna’s grandmother’s neighbour had. There’s no way we could’ve remembered and/or duplicated the chapatis she taught us to make- that will take an afternoon of patience and practice someday, an afternoon when we can invoke some travel memories of what it was like to cook in someone else’s kitchen.


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