Walk, talk and eat. Wendell Steavenson explains how to feel at home after a week in a foreign landby Wendell Steavenson / August 24, 2011 / Leave a comment
Cairo: the market “delivers an instant jolt into another culture”
Let me recount the countries I have lived in by kitchens: Moscow, winter of 1994, I had a hemisphere window with a view of the Kremlin’s spires and a red linoleum floor that turned out to be very good for dancing when you spilled salad dressing on it; Tbilisi, during the dark, unelectrified Shevardnadze years, I left the oven on all winter for heat; Asmara, ten years ago, water was scarce and came through the taps mixed with red sand; Tehran, in 2002, I hid bootleg cans of gin in the freezer from the cleaner who was almost certainly reporting on my activities; Baghdad, in 2004, I found the most delicious lamb chops but could not persuade any of my Iraqi friends to eat them pink; Beirut, the following year, I had a deep wide stone sink, mould on the ceilings and a lemon tree on the balcony; Jerusalem, earlier this year, I left the boiler on and it exploded and flooded the kitchen. I have lived in many places, working as a reporter and writing books. This spring I moved to Cairo. Now practised in the art of homemaking in under a week, I ran around buying bright cushions and old movie posters for my rented flat. Then I had a long and intricate hand-gesture consultation with the butcher round the corner and bought a rack of lamb and invited people over. I don’t really travel, I inhabit.
But in doing so, along the way, I believe I’ve stumbled upon some of the secrets to being in another place. A little engaged activity goes a long way to stripping away the insulated tourist experience of hotel, restaurant and sightseeing. The simple act of finding food means that you have to go out and be among the locals, shopping, looking, running errands. Don’t worry about communication, a smile goes a long way, and luckily English is the world’s lingua franca. (I haven’t lived in a place where I speak the language well for 15 years.) And if you can muster a frying pan, you can fortify yourself with breakfast and entertain new friends for dinner.
It begins with a walk. I never take a map or read a guidebook. My first day in Beirut I went out to explore, keeping the sea to my left as a rough orientation. It…