No place like abroad

Walk, talk and eat. Wendell Steavenson explains how to feel at home after a week in a foreign land
August 24, 2011
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 was 2005, and downtown was still under construction; what had once been the Paris of the east and then destroyed in the civil war was paved over by bland expanses of car park. I walked for an hour and a half until I was tired and thirsty and looked for a café. By the serendipity that often accompanies such wanderings and whims, I found one. It was a little bit hip, with funk playing on the stereo and a barista behind the bar coughing cappuccinos out of the coffee maker.

There were only a couple of customers. I sat at the bar and smiled at my good fortune, in finding the perfect café, the milky froth before me and the sunshine day. Then a man wearing a long raincoat came in from the street. He came straight up to me, pulled a gun from his pocket and pointed it at my forehead. In that quizzical moment before the panic had time to grip, I noticed that in his other hand he was carrying a palmcorder and that he was grinning. His gun, on second glance, was plastic.

“Ha, ha!” he called out to the barista, obviously a friend of his, “She was a good one, eh ?” He explained that he was doing an art project about fear and deception.

Though still discombobulated, I thanked him (because stories are always a gift), and said “What a perfect welcome to Lebanon !”

Exploring without a guidebook means whatever you find you have discovered for yourself and this, in essence, is the great joy of travelling. It doesn’t matter if you are in a place that is already well tramped. When I first moved to Paris I walked and walked. One day I was on the rue de Rivoli and noticed a stream of people going through an arch, so I followed them. On the other side, I gasped in wonder at a jewel: a great interior court collonaded with designer boutiques and filled with cherry trees. It was the Palais-Royal, one of Paris’s most beautiful and famous spaces. But I would not have been so happily dumbstruck by the sight if I had been looking for it. I was so deliberately naive about the city of a thousand travel guides, that a couple of weeks later I was delighted to discover, striding across a delicate curve of bridge, that there were two islands in the Seine.

Walking is important. Walking is where you peer at restaurant menus and wonder what’s up that flight of steps and come across some special shop that sells only honey or toy soldiers or ancient magazine covers. Talking is also important. I am a journalist and so it is my job to talk and to find people to talk to. But I have no special skill in this. Last summer I was going to Copenhagen and knew I would have a free morning. So I posted a Facebook status update: who knows anybody in Copenhagen that I can buy a cup of coffee? Presto, a cousin of a friend of a friend, met me in Christiana, the hippie commune, and we took a tour on a tuktuk and discussed socialism and architecture and limpid grey northern light and I marvelled that everyone left their bicycles unlocked.

The friend of a friend principle requires a little shameless cold-calling, but it can open a thousand doors: the restaurant that only locals know about, the good doctor, an invitation to a party. I cannot imagine going to a place without someone to call when I got there. When I was 19 I went on my first trip alone to what was then Czechoslovakia. It was January 1990, scarcely six weeks after the velvet revolution. A business acquaintance of my father’s told me I must look up his parents, who lived in a village in Moravia. With some misgivings, I took a three-hour train journey (window jammed open causing a freezing draught, lights blinking on and off) into the unknown. I was so richly rewarded, with warmth and welcome and strudel and stories and glass after glass of plum brandy, that I credit this experience with being the reason I have kept moving ever since.

I always reciprocate, and offer a spare bed or dinner or contacts to friends of friends in return. The kindness of strangers, I think, is what makes the world go round, or at least what helps me to go round the world. Without it, I would have never had anyone to show me monasteries in the Georgian desert or vineyards in the Bekaa valley or Gorbachev’s dacha on the Black Sea coast or the bistro in a hamlet on the edge of a salt marsh in Normandy where they toss Calvados over grilled lobster and set light to it at your table.

So you walk, you talk, and sooner or later it is lunchtime, you’re hungry and you find yourself eating again. Which is where the kitchen comes in, because with it comes the need to go to the market and there, wherever I am, is always my favourite place to be. The market gives you a purpose, but it also delivers an instant jolt into another culture. Taste tangy slivers of rolled apricot leather in the Caucasus, wonder at buckets of snails in rural Spain or tubs of pickled garlic and beetroot in Moscow or the salt sludge of preserved lemons in Cairo. I love the promise of the unknown road, and the unknown ingredient too. My rule is that if you don’t know what it is, buy it. I like to cook, so this is my way of discovery, but if you’re travelling, you’re probably doing it for the same reasons I do: for something new. So this is my advice : walk, talk and eat.