It’s almost impossible not to feel a bit naïve or out of one’s depth while traveling, particularly when it comes to food. Nearly everywhere you go, whether it be a different state, region, or country, food tastes, looks, and smells a little different. Even acquiring food can be different. Some places you find it in nice sterile supermarkets, others you buy it from a cart on the street, or while walking down aisles with colorful, artfully displayed offerings and vendors trying to get your attention. The experience of seeking out food is weird. Things look different, they smell different, the way they are sold are unfamiliar compared to our processed and unrecognizable versions available in the States.
These differences in foods and the process of acquiring them are at the root of most of my travel stories and memories. Some are sweet, some are funny, and a few are embarrassing.
One of my most memorable occurred during my first trip to Rome in 2005, actually it was my first time ever traveling outside of the country as well as traveling on my own. The first 48 hours were pretty stressful figuring out where I was going, being overwhelmed by the language barrier, and general fatigue. It was also at a time where it wasn’t great to be an American abroad and I was self-conscious of this. I felt like a typical ignorant American bumbling around this beautiful foreign city asking people to not speak their beautiful Italian at me. I didn’t want to interact with anyone. My hunger finally won out a day and a half after my arrival and I sought sustenance. I passed a little market where I saw apples for sale. I asked for three, then asked if the woman could repeat the cost in English, which she could not but gestured with her fingers instead, I paid, and then left. I ate the shit out of those apples, down to the core and then some. Later that day I also stopped for a panini and ate it while on a hill overlooking some beautiful ruins. Funny enough, I think this is all that my family remembers of my trip to Rome because they were all worried about how desperate I sounded and were worried I wasn’t eating.
Quantity has also been an issue for me when obtaining food. After an excavation in Greece in 2007, I ventured out to a beautiful island for a day to walk around and enjoy being out of a city. I passed by a vendor near a beach selling the most beautiful looking green grapes I’d ever seen. She asked how much I wanted, I shrugged, she suggested a kilo, and I said OK. A kilo is a lot of grapes—a lot! I shared them with people in my hostel later that day and was still eating grapes two days later. They were delicious though.
A year later my best friend and I backpacked across Europe. While in Salzburg, Austria we decided to spend some money and treat ourselves to a proper meal blowing our pauper’s budget. I looked at the menu and said, “I’ll be ordering the meter-wurst. I am sure it’s a joke and not really a meter long.” Much to our shared amusement, a short while later a long board exceeding the width of our table appeared and I discovered that a meter-wurst is, in fact, a meter long (and delicious).
Occasionally, I have chosen poorly or incorrectly when buying food at the supermarket or off a menu. During the same backpacking trip, at least while in Italy, we developed an addiction to gelato; I think we had it twice a day some days. While in Florence, I distinctly remember the worst flavor I’ve ever tried—tobacco. I asked for a sample of it and it was surprisingly delicious, so I ordered a scoop of that and a scoop of…vanilla maybe? Anyway, about halfway through the modest tobacco-flavored scoop I regretted my decision. What started off as a new and exciting flavor turned into what I imagine to be the equivalent of licking an ashtray. Our room was being cleaned when we got back to the hostel and we had to wait in the cafeteria for what seemed like an hour. I had an insane buzz from the nicotine and had to lay on a bench holding on while the room spun around me; my best friend read a book and laughed.
In 2010 while traveling with my future husband through France and Germany, we stopped for a bite to eat at a restaurant in the city of Nancy. I wanted to order something exciting, so I went for the frog legs which are supposed to be a classic dish in the region. What came out was not frog legs, I could tell, but I ate it anyway. It was some sort of cartilaginous fish-type meat drenched in butter and capers. It was pretty good. After getting the bill, I stepped into the restroom while my husband looked in my dictionary for what I actually ate. He asked if I wanted to know what it was, I said of course! Turns out I ate skate, a relative of the sting-ray. The word on the menu for this was very similar, at least in my memory, to the word for frog. Oops! On that same trip while stopping in the region known as the Black Forest, we wanted to try their well-known dessert, Schwarzwälder Kirschtorte, a chocolate and cherry cake. We couldn’t remember the words exactly when it came time to order, so we selected Schwarzwälder Kirschwasser assuming it would be something similar and delicious. We ended up with two slices of pineapple drenched in an incredibly strong cherry liquor.
A more recent food error occurred in Mainz, Germany. I was on the way home from a friend’s apartment and stopped by a supermarket to get a few things for the next day. I bought a pre-packaged mousse that was red in color. I’m not sure if I assumed it would be a berry of some sort or if I just misread the label. It turned out to be the flavor of red wine and was one of the more disgusting things I’ve ever eaten, right up there with tobacco gelato!
And one last one to make your Friday a little bit better. A few years ago, while strolling through a riverside market in Lyon, France enjoying the beautiful sunny spring day, I felt something fall on my head. I hesitantly reached my hand up to my hair and touched. Yes, in fact, a bird did poop on my head. Most of the vendors were closing up, but I spotted a friendly looking woman and asked for her help in French while pointing to my head. The sweet dear gave me some tissues and gingerly helped clean the rest out of my hair. Shopping for food in an open-air market can be perilous.
I have to stop for now because I just keep thinking of more stories.
Food, because it is so essential, plays an important role in our lives. I’ve been thinking about it a lot in the past week as I try to figure out how to cook with the ingredients available here. You’ll probably see a lot more posts on this topic!