What does the Food Say?

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Here’s to you, birdie

Midnight blue curtains tickle my arm as the early morning breeze blows in. The curtain’s silver sequined flowers sparkle iridescently as they catch the predawn glow, coaxing my eyes to break their fast.

I walk into the living room, where I hear the sizzling, spitting, sputter of the fry pan announcing breakfast. Minutes later, I smell fried dumplings, a softly sweet aroma that puts to mind N’awlins, beignets, and powdered sugar down my front.

My host mom sets my plate before me. I savor the stir-fry of pepper, onions, and seasoning, then cut into the smooth plantains. The banana-like fruit tastes like it’s been dipped in maple syrup, then fried in Heaven. I close my eyes and enjoy that honeyed bite, my rapture catalyzed knowing the sweetness is innate.

As I walk to training, I begin to sweat. I feel as if I’m in a sauna, but wearing too many clothes for the health benefits to kick in. Once I climb the stairs to our veranda training grounds, the sea breeze whips and stirs my hair into Medusa-like frenzy.

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SPLASH

When I get home, I feel like someone tried to cram the contents of Moby Dick and War and Peace into my bleary eyed brain. Then, I smell pumpkin cooking in the kitchen. Something else mixes with the summer squash- I later learn it’s pimento.

At the table, my host mom, joined by her mother and daughter, talks of cinnamon chocolate tea, ginger, sorrel root (it makes good beer), ackee, naseberries, June plums, at least four kinds of mangoes, star apple, and an aptly named fruit called stinky toe cheese. Her arms waving, and brow sweating as my host mom tells me of another foreign fruit, I imagine trying all these foods and drinks, stinky toe cheese included.

Watching three generations of women talk over each other in a rush to discuss the past and present of Jamaica’s fruits and food exotica, I realize all my conversations include food. I remember learning to love wine in France, always asking my host mom and dad for “un petit peu” more, making cheese over cow paddy fueled fires in Mongolia, and sharing baked macaroni and cheese with my ostrich farm family in Bulgaria. Now I sit at a table talking about a future filled with stinky toe cheese and ginger.

Coming together over food is not an esoteric cultural rite. Something about seeing people close their eyes and “mmmmm” while chewing food I have prepared sends warm flutters through my body. Sipping my host mom’s Jamaican Saturday soup, I feel grateful that someone includes me in their culture, and wants me to understand it. Since before Proust bit into his madeleine, humanity has embraced the nostalgic, intimate, historical stories food tells, for through them, we begin to understand the people behind the food.

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I’m glad my camera made this mistake, but I wish I knew how to recreate it!

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Do You Believe in Magic?

Black Sand Beaches, Iceland

Black Sand Beaches, Iceland

It’s said that some percentage of Iceland greater than zero believes in elves. Despite my skepticism, at some point, we all have to believe in something. Why not elves?

After traveling for a few weeks alone, I was thrilled to join several close friends in Iceland for Thanksgiving. I bought my allotted amount of alcohol (18 beers, 4 bottles of wine) and, escaping duty free, the gates to Iceland parted as my Icelandic friend warmly greeted me. Thus began my journey in a land of Skittle juice and whale penises.

The view from our cabin was more stunning than the most ersatz Thomas Kinkade painting. Snow covered the ground and mountains beyond as the gray sky melted into the snowy vista before us. Only one thing would improve this scenery: exploring it on foot!

Making our way to Bruarfoss, an azure waterfall bounding down pitch-black rocks, we began throwing snowballs at each other. Laughing and chatting back to the cabin, we peeled off our layers and roasted pleasantly in the hot tub.

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Bruarfoss, Iceland

The next few days, we hiked up a mountain blanketed with snow to a naturally hot river, ate a Thanksgiving feast in the Icelandic countryside, and squeezed through a fissure in a rock face, hopping from stone to stone to reach a waterfall well worth the effort (Gljúfurárfoss, below). Though we discovered many beautiful Icelandic sights, one eclipsed all others.

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Gljúfurárfoss, Iceland

There is a saying: “Make new friends, but keep the old. One is silver, but the other gold.” It is cheesy, even to me, but also true. I often can’t remember how I met those closest to me. One of my best friends, for example, I don’t remember meeting, because it seems we’ve always been singing Ella & Louis, and shouting at innocent bystanders in a butchered Cockney accent. It’s easy to forget how good things began, and how silver friends became gold.

I grew closer to each of the people I traveled with in Iceland, in the way you can only when you travel. By experiencing newness together, whether in uncomfortable moments of cultural ambiguity, or in awe of Mother Nature (who is surely Icelandic), we formed a visceral bond different from those made in coffee shops and group projects.

There were times when I wanted to be alone during our week in Iceland, but the moments together will be those I remember most fondly. The connections you make with the people you meet make life worth living. That is a magic more powerful than that of elves or witches. It’s at least as strange, and much more available. After all, I might not believe in elves, but if I’ve got to believe in something, why not the magic of human relationships?

Harpa, Reykjavik

Harpa, Reykjavik, Iceland