Thursday, April 03, 2008

The pierogi cure for homesickness: At home in Latin America

Part of the thrill of travelling to far away lands for extended periods is that you get to have another normal. Anyone who's done it knows that travelling is no vacation, not in the colloquial sense. Speaking the language is not the same as speaking the culture or understanding its confusing subtleties.

Everything is a little more involved. First you need to get a handle on safety issues, like say, do cars yield to pedestrians? Are adolescent boys with assault rifles members of a street gang or national security? When a man with a gun comments on your ass is he a threat or a flirt? Don't worry, you'll master these distinctions in no time. Practice makes perfect.

Then, you learn to get around. Will the bus driver get impatient with you if you try to pay fare when you board? Or, if you wait until you're seated? Either way, you've probably overlooked something, and you'll likely piss him off. Don't take it personally, you can't help that you're ignorant.

Next, your relationship with stuff changes. You have only a few select artifacts from your life back at home, whatever you could carry – all the necessities and a few weighty luxuries you mistook for necessities, like your favourite shampoo, and speakers for your iPod.

Your favourite underwear will wear out, you'll lose the rest of your clothes among sheets in hostels and on beaches at night. You'll replace them with local fashions, and realize you're losing perspective. You'll be pretty sure sequins are alright in moderation; spandex as day-wear? You'll consider it.

Maybe you thought to bring photos of home to show people you meet, or to remind yourself of your other context. They'll become bent, cracked and water damaged within days of your arrival, and later, develop thick edges like playing cards, all faded and torn. Soon, looking at them will make you feel as though you're a hundred lives from when you started out.

Eventually, you'll develop comforting little routines, parallel to those you escaped from at home, whether by compulsion or aspiration to some sort of normalcy. Food is the first comfort. You may never eat fast-food back home, but you will on the road. You'll find some chain that looks familiar, buy the most basic, signature item on the menu, and then marvel at how not even that tastes as it should. The pizza sauce is sweeter, the cheese doesn't melt, the burger is greyer, and the fat in the fried chicken is bright yellow. Then, you'll realize that if food is truly to offer you comfort, you're going to have to make it yourself.

Yielding to traffic, watching for motorbikes, and wondering why your ass is so compelling, you'll make your way to the market to buy ingredients for your comfort dish, your pièce de résistance. The simple one that never fails, the one you make to impress dates. At the market, you'll find nothing you need.

I made pierogi in Buenos Aires, or a close approximation. There is no bacon in Argentina, just steak and prosciutto and slabs of what could be cut into bacon. The potatoes and onions are watery, completely different from the Canadian sort (which are likely already a compromise for my Polish relatives). The cream is sweet, not sour. I asked the deli guy to describe various types of cheese to me, and he asked for my cell number. I settled on one that looked like old cheddar. Black pepper, I had to hunt for it. Flour. I found flour. Pastries smothered in dulce de leche would have been a breeze, pierogi, no.

In my friend's apartment in Caballito, a working-class district of Buenos Aires, I chopped, sliced, grated, caramelized, mashed, rolled, stuffed, boiled and fried my comfort. I added a little vinegar to the cream, because my comfort comes sour.

My Argentine friend was fascinated by this strange production, tolerant of the mess I'd made in his kitchen, and worried that I'd put too much black pepper in the mix, because it might be "spicy". That perspective, I thought, is exactly why I am cooking for myself.

Fried in far too much butter, these greasy pockets of perfection were exquisitely familiar. Even the improvised sour cream seemed right. I was no longer in an apartment in the southern hemisphere, in a city or sea of 17 million, fumbling with Argentine Castellano. I wasn't "Cucurucho", my southern stand-in, an adaptation of myself. I was no one but my mother's daughter, in her kitchen, stealing mouth-searingly hot pierogi from the platter on the way to the family dinner table. I was transposed. I stayed there until I had my fill, and was ready for my handsome, and now overfed and bloated friend to summon me back to Buenos Aires with his comparison of pierogi to empanadas.

The difference, thought Sebastián, was that the Polish version incapacitates you, making you feel as though you might die of a butter and starch overdose, but he was confident yerba mate would save us. It always did. And, now that I am back in Canada, when I am missing Buenos Aires, it still does.

De los primeros mates, originally uploaded by juanpol.

1 comment:

I'm Kate... said...

I love this post. You couldn't be more right - although its amazing to travel to foreign countries, after a few days, I would find myself looking desperately for the comforts of home. I was in Turkey a few years back, and I found myself with travel anxiety. What?!?!?! I guess Turkey was a few miles too close to Iraq for me, and I couldn't find anyone who didn't have a broken accent, a prayer rug and couldn't handle Turkish beer. The food was less than comforting. Although it looked fantastic in the deli window, it was nothing less than pasty and bland - a far cry from home cooking. Although I loved the country, and would love to go back, I couldn't wait to get to Italy where I could find little bits of the west that had infiltrated into the culture. I literally woke up in Turkey at 5 am, hung over from (one) Effe turkish beer (gross), to the sound of the Muslim call to worship over the loud speaker, hallucinating that Al Queda members with oozies were crashing down my door to kill me and my roomate because they had found out that we were Americans. He snored through my whole illusion. The jerk. :) ha! I vowed to never drink Effe beer again after that.