She opens her cookbook to a well-marked page. She tells me that she has perfected this traditional Austrian dish, and since we couldn’t order it at the restaurant last night we will make it together in her apartment on this rainy afternoon.
Later she will translate the recipe for me, handwriting it into my journal so I can make it in my own home, but for now she just tells me what I need to measure or mix. She narrates what she is doing and why.
She adds an enormous chunk of butter to the pan in which we will fry up the kaiserschmarrn (“a kind of scrambled pancake,” is how she describes it). Her boyfriend, who is training to be a chef, takes out some pear compote he made a while back so we can spoon it on top.
The end product is gloriously fluffy and warm and studded with raisins. We pile it onto our plates and eat.
He owns this restaurant and I can tell he is proud of it. He had invited me to come and try the food, and I do so happily because every time I’ve passed it on the way to my hostel the people inside looked happy, and there was always live music. I don’t realize that this is a sort of date until he sends one of the wandering flower vendors inside to give me a rose.
I am told to order anything I want, and so I choose the tuna steak, stacked artfully with roasted vegetables that are perfectly sweet and salted. He tells me how he has come to live in Portugal, but his love for his country, Cape Verde, is expressed in the food and décor of his restaurant.
Later he invites me outside where he so often sits to smoke a cigarette and talk with his friends. I sit with him and the others, sipping the glass of vino verde he has refilled for me, listening to the sounds of a language I don’t understand fill this narrow street, feeling as if I have just slipped into a life that is not mine.
We wake at 5:30 so she can make it to her shift on time. When we leave her little rented room and open the gate to the street, we are astonished by a wave of giant snowflakes that sweeps in around us. The quiet, pre-dawn streets have been further muted by a bed of white, and we laugh through the streets, churning the snow with our shoes.
We arrive at the hotel restaurant, and she shows me where I can sit. She prepares a cup of green tea for me and then hurries to get the breakfast spread ready for the hotel guests. And for me too, apparently. When everything is prepared and placed in the buffet, she comes to tell me that the food is ready and I should go get a plate.
I offer to pay, but she waves away the idea and flashes a huge grin. “Don’t worry about it, girl. Eat up!”
I fill my plate with those ubiquitous hotel scrambled eggs, some almonds and raisins from the oatmeal bar, and a warm croissant with rich jam. Outside the snow is falling like the world is coming to an end.
We have all just met, and we are all travelers from different corners of the world, but we talk easily at breakfast as if we are old friends catching up. The girl from Argentina invites us for a mate and we walk with her to the gardens of the Crystal Palace so we can sit outside in the fresh air and drink the tea together.
She shows us how she pours the dry yerba mate in her cup and then pours in the hot water from a thermos. She teaches us that we each take turns using the metal, filtered straw to drink all that is in the cup. She refills, and then the cup is passed to the next person.
We share the bitter but satisfying drink, passing it around the circle as we listen to Emanuel tell stories about his father and his home country, Cameroon.
This is not a meal per se, but it’s a form of communion, and I am reminded of all of those meals I’ve had with strangers, strange meetings of travelers where we share the cup or the plate, our stories and our silences, our time and our food. Most of the time, the food or drink is gifted to me, and I have to learn how to accept the sharing, how to offer my presence and my communion, how to say thank you. And even now, months later, I still give thanks for the meals I have shared.
Danke, Louise. Obrigada, João. Merci, Jess. Gracias, Vera.
Jenna Griffin loves foreign music, old cookbooks, public transportation, and sunsets in new places. After graduating with degrees in writing and French, she is spending her first post-grad year as an English teaching assistant in the Midi-Pyrénées region of France.