Ah the perks of living abroad!
The excitement of an adventure; the countless possibilities of new experiences; the chance of walking your own path; the hope for a fresh start: We could daydream a gallery of idyllic images when we first picture ourselves living overseas before we actually leave the comfort zone of our home lives. Still none of them probably include the hard times we are bound to encounter when starting a new life in a foreign land.
Before leaving my homeland of Brazil to live in another country, I had already traveled overseas to visit and study a couple of times, so I didn’t actually consider myself a newbie to the whole idea of living abroad; I was pretty confident in my ability to learn new idioms and manage a foreign culture. I was naïve to the abysm existent between visiting and living in a country.
But here were my husband and I landing in Buenos Aires, the capital of Argentina, feeling a mix of excitement and anxiousness. We spent the first days in a honeymoon haze. Everything looked intriguing. We joked about our poor Spanish skills, went shopping, visited historical places as tourists, and delighted and feasted on delicious food. We had a blast!
However, Buenos Aires was not the place we were assigned by husband’s company to live. The plan was to stop there for a week or so to start the bureaucracy process for our visa, and then leave for Comodoro Rivadavia, a city in the Patagonian province of Chubut in southern Argentina, where we would live for the next 2 and a half years.
By the time we left Buenos Aires for Patagonia, the fog of dreams that blanketed our view of reality began to dissipate, and we gradually fell from the excitement to introspection. We made the trip by car from the Comodoro Rivadavia airport to the hotel in total silence. Our eyes met a couple of times, and in his I could read my husband’s concerns about our decision to leave everything behind. We were investing in his career, but that investment included my decision to put my own career on hold to live in the extreme south of this continent.
I was in shock – petrified by the landscape with its stunningly beautiful horizon and its harsh desert. Nothing looked at all like what I considered to be stereotypical Latin America. From the weather, topography, and food to people’s outfits and attitudes, everything was different, if not entirely opposite, to my tropical, warm, humid, beach-vibe home. Even our dog was intrigued by the landscape.
Where was all the anticipation I felt at the start? There was the excitement of adventure; countless possibilities for new experiences; the chance to carve your own path. Were these just pseudo ideas that I kept repeating aloud to myself in an attempt to cover my fear of regret?
Nevertheless, this is where I was, and so I started my new journey with what was right in front of me. I started with the food! Turns out it was a much easier venture than dealing with the people! I indulged in media lunas con jamón y queso, dulce de leches, facturas con dulces de membrillo, submarino, lomito de cerdo a la plancha, cordero patagonico, empanadas and choripans. You name it I had it!
But then I found myself sitting alone again in a restaurant, eating a rich and succulent portion of lomo de cerdo a la plancha con papas y zanahorias, paired with a full-bodied glass of wine feeling lost and alone. I’d satisfied my craving for new tastes (and started searching for a new pair of jeans two sizes larger) but I began to feel empty. What incongruence!
I missed Nana’s brown beans – the dish that graced our table at every lunch; the white rice cooked with garlic; brigadeiro; rosca de leite condensado e coco; pineapple mint juice; orange carrot juice, and all the flavors and scents that reminded me of home. In our family – like most Latin families – food was never considered as mere fuel for the body, but as a ritual – a unifying element around which we gravitated and indulged in at family gatherings. I longed for that!
In an attempt to ease my homesickness, I decided it was time to cook my own Brazilian food. There was one tiny problem: Besides sandwiches and sweets, I didn’t really know how to cook the basics. So I called my mother and asked for a quick introduction on how to cook everyday Brazilian meals made with beans, rice, chicken, and meats.
Although my first attempt at cooking rice resulted in an end product that looked and tasted like porridge, I was excited by my newfound knowledge. I burned many a dinner – including our first Christmas meal – before I could invite guests over. I attended cooking classes for bread, Italian food, and pastries because in spite of my inexperience, I was eager and determined to learn!
However, it was only when I allowed my hands and heart to take the reins instead of my brain that the change came. It was as though I’ve always known all along how to cook. My fingers and senses developed a memory, and cooking became a natural skill.
Learning to cook my hometown food and being able to make it whenever I felt the urge to taste and smell home, gave me back my sense of control and comfort, and kept me connected to my roots. It helped me cope with loneliness, frustration, fear, and anxiety in a foreign land. The taste, the color, and the scent of the food gave me a safe and familiar refuge in the hostile moments that would inevitably come with the pursuit of a new life in a new home.
What about you? What do you cook when you want to feel a taste of home?