Eat! It Creates Cultural Understanding
Posted on April 25, 2012
Last week, biscuit in hand, brötchen in belly and face smeared with the remnants of another chocolate themed post-dinner treat, I hit a wall. I ran into that sucker chocolatey face first and rubbed my plump little limbs all over it, begging it to, for once and for all, come between me and German bakeries. To stand firm in the entrance of those fragrant, starch-proffering havens, blocking the scent of fresh baked Laugenstange and sugar-dusted, jam-fattened Berliners. To put an end to this frenetic, sweaty, crackly-with-chemistry love affair with bread that has been ruling my life for eighteen months.
I have been bread, biscuit, chocolate and lolly free for eight days now. It had to happen. The turkey had to freeze. There have been times I have come within a whisker of hitting the aforementioned wall, but at the last moment, veered off and landed in a pot of cheese smeared bread rolls or comforting, creamy pasta. Each time, I simply haven’t wanted to detach myself from the baker’s teat, enough. I have been sucked back in for one more big, soft, white, salted, pretezelly bread stick. But this time I was ready to, shaky of hand, put down the biscuit and step away. Seven days off the starch, I have to say, I feel marvellous.
But all of that is by the by. Overhauling what has come to be a very comfort food based diet and less than ideal routine, got me thinking about the whole food thing. More specifically, the whole food thing when travelling and living in another country and culture is involved. Because food and culture are best friends, life partners, soul mates.
Discovering the way other cultures eat is one of the greatest pleasures of travelling (arguably life). Eating locally, and with locals, stumbling upon a city’s delicious secrets, learning what countries consider the staples of daily life, is a constant delight, one that forms a great deal of travel’s backbone. Oh sure, I may have gained a good whack of weight, but I am utterly without regret. I do not begrudge one of those German pommes drenched in mayo, or one bite of those Belgian waffles. I refuse to hate on any piping hot ceramic bowl of moussaka Greece has fed me, or berate those long digested Lindt pralines. And I would wedge in ten more New York slices if I could and wash it down with a big old Mexican fajita and some fried camenbert at the drop of a hat, if I were to find myself, once more, in New York, Mexico or New Zealand.
When you are in the midst of somewhere new and wonderful, you want to try it all. You want to have your cake and eat the specially seasoned chicken with a side dish of cool, crunchy Weißkraut, too. And you should. Eating and travelling go hand in hand. Whole cultures are unlocked by examining what it is they put in their bellies and when and how they do it. And entire friendships are born over a table of typical produce. Food is both a huge part of how we culturally define ourselves and how we socially interact – within and across cultures. It is a glorious, all encompassing thing that traverses almost each facet – biological, cultural, social and emotional – of being human. And, quite apart from the anthropology of it all, who knows when you will be back in that city that serves up chocolate crepes on every street corner. Get it while the going’s good!
Things with food step up a notch – heat up, you could say – when you move to a different country. Settling into a new culture involves settling into a new cuisine, one that may be wildly or mildly different to your own, but a new one nevertheless. Things you may have eaten plenty of in the past may not be readily available in your new local supermarket, or a popular feature on local menus. In their place, however, other delicious things will be readily available – things like salty, saucy schnitzel! – and these things will become staples at the expense of those your metabolism is more accustomed to. It’s all part of the process.
Along with the brand new smorgasbord to familiarise oneself with, one’s food habits change. One thing I really had to adjust to, in the early days and before I reclaimed my own routine enough to reestablish my own eating rules (and yes reclaiming routines and habits is as big a part of moving countries as anything) was eating late. It’s a European thing and more marked in some countries than others (Spain, I am looking at you). In the 2 months I lived with my German parents, before moving into my apartment in Münster, not only did I eat like a lamb being fattened for slaughter, but I did it two or three hours after my Australian stomach was used to shutting up shop for the night. I would love to be the kind of person who shovels in a 10 o’clock dinner of cream on carb and sleeps like a baby, awakening with a flat, empty stomach ready to go again the next day, but I am not. I need to eat dinner between 6 and 7pm and then, save for cups of tea and a few little sweet things, put out the Closed sign. I snatched that habit back as soon as I could.
And the last thing I have found – through serious field work – is that, really, you need to get it out of your system. You cannot stop until you are ready, so sometimes – or in my case, anyway – there is no point trying. There’s no point being restrictive and mean to your little belly who just isn’t yet sick of Doppelkekse with tea or unbelievably good schnitzel being a menu staple. Ride it out. Enjoy it. Get deeply, intimately acquainted with the way your new home eats, because that’s the way you will get deeply and intimately acquainted with its heart.
Trust me – and my belly – we would know.