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On food and friends
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It all started with Emily Blunt.
I was standing in our minuscule British kitchen, haphazardly putting together some sort of makeshift dinner. That’s the only kind I make here: canned sauce, two kinds of pasta for my two (differently) picky eaters, maybe a salad, perhaps with dressing, if we are lucky. The kitchen is a tiny box for one person, we have virtually no equipment, and since we are living in one of Cambridge University’s colleges, most nights we are fed very well in the dining hall. So unlike in LA, where I regularly spend hours leafing through my go-to favourite recipes (I could name them all but my cookbooks rival my book collection), here I do the bare fucking minimum, which is a kind of liberation, too.
Anyway, in the teeny kitchen, I was listening to Ina Garten’s podcast. (Pause here to say that I had no idea you could listen to her TV show on Spotify?) Emily Blunt was the guest and Ina got her talking about how she and two British girlfriends in Brooklyn all rotate hosting Sunday roasts, those long, leisurely British inventions where someone hosts family and friends for the whole afternoon, everyone generally eats and drinks a lot, and the whole thing lasts hours and hours and hours and hours. (Honestly, it’s basically like Shabbat?) It sounded beyond divine, and I decided I needed to start doing this immediately.
But then I remembered: we have very, very few friends here, and no place to host anyone for dinner.
I’ve been an expat three separate times, and amid all the excitement and joy and strangeness of living abroad, there has always been, for me, an uneasy undercurrent of loneliness, of isolation. It doesn’t come on immediately and is certainly not a permanent state of being — there does come a time when you, more or less, if not fit in, then make it work in its own wonderful way, and the excitement and novelty never quite go away — but it does sort of float through, knocking you down occasionally. It usually comes up on a Saturday morning when you have no one to call, when the kid’s only friend is busy with family all weekend, when your own tiny family is snapping in every direction, when every outing is An Adventure! (read: museum) and you’re all just frayed. In expat life, there are few pressure valves that can be released.
This time is different because it is so short. Unlike in Vienna, where I actively, aggressively sought out girlfriends (and in Munich, where I was too caught up in the new boyfriend), here, given that we only have five months to go (!), it is difficult to know how hard to try. (Also I am wholly preoccupied with whether the kid has friends: this, as a foreigner, I’ve never before worried about, and I’ve been sure to keep her social calendar going.)
For some insane reason I went into this thinking I’d survive (?) without (?) girlfriends (!!!). I thought I’d be quite satisfied spending my days writing and reading and walking and being sort of quiet and sans much human interaction. HAHAHAHAHAHHAHHHA. Like, truly, hilarious. I’ve never survived a single thing without my girlfriends.
Which brings me back to Ina and Emily: After listening to that episode — and many others — I became weirdly obsessed with Ina? I’ve never actually bought one of her cookbooks (too much meat? too “American”? too much pork I’d never cook? I’m not sure why? Anyone?), but I was determined to get my hands on one.
Spoiler: could not find one here. So instead I downloaded a bunch from the library and started reading through the recipes at night, in bed, on my kindle, to feel connected to something outside my new little life. There was something about her very American (sort of Jewish? née Rosenberg) vibe that felt, in the moment of feeling sort of adrift, enormously warm and comforting and grounding in a very different way than a novel helps you feel less alone. Ina was a very bubbly, inviting character talking directly to me, a person taking so much joy in the simplest things in life: a drink, a chat with a friend, hosting a dinner party, eating a delicious scone. (How fun is that?)
She felt like a dear friend, which is what I was after. Which is, truth be told, all I am ever after.
Every time I go somewhere new I think: Could I live here? And there are so many moments here where the answer comes back a resounding yes: when the kid comes out of school in her incredibly posh uniform all smiles and with Latin and French homework in her backpack. When I spend hours in the library immersed in my work. When I walk to one bookstore and then another and then another. When I meet people I would have never met back in LA. When I brace myself against the cold, knowing summer will come, a satisfying celebration.
And if we stayed — we can’t, don’t worry, this isn’t a moving announcement — we’d make life-long friends, as we did in Vienna. Friends we’ve been waiting almost seven long years to see, whose presence I can almost touch.
But there is also something to going home, to making a home that sticks. To seeing what can be built out of years and years and years of commitment to community. To years of breaking bread with the same people, to reaching over them to grab the gravy, to dipping your forks into the last slice of cake. This is perhaps the thing I miss most now: a big group of friends, around my table, a familiarity and a depth that comes only with time.
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