Who I am. Where I'm from. The mad thing I'm doing.
Trip Start Jan 05, 2011
16Trip End Jan 05, 2012
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I was going to write a witty post introducing myself, but let's face it, that almost never works, at least it never does for me. I will therefore introduce myself to you by means of the over-dramatized essay I've been sending out to just about everyone who routinely gives money to starving students trekking abroad. May the Force be with them, truly (especially if they decide they like said essay and pay off some of the ridiculous debt I'm putting myself in to for this trip). Anyways, no more form me, enjoy!
The United States, more than almost any country in the world, lives a secluded life. We have just two neighbors, only one of whose culture differs noticeably from our own. Most children growing up in the USA today speak one language, and of the exceptions to that, Spanish is almost always the other. Countless numbers of them will never venture beyond our borders, and although the names of every State and Capital will indelibly be planted in their memory by the time the graduate High School, they might well lose Zaire, or Turkmenistan, or even Romania and Croatia, never mind the capitol of Laos. But in the end, we are, after all, still a very young country: a child in the eyes of history, trying to figure out who we are and what place we have in the world.
Years before I was born, my parents decided to abandon what has become of the American Dream. They sold their cars, gave up their jobs and any chance of owning their own land and flew to Italy to be artists. Neither spoke the language or knew a soul, but they, like the first pilgrims to set foot on the soil of New England, were determined to make their dreams a reality. A few years later, I was born: an American citizen who by three spoke flawless Italian and who the locals had no idea what to do with. The solution was travel a lot. By the time I was eight I had been all over Europe; by the time I was thirteen I had also spent the equivalent of almost a year in the USA and plans were being made for Japan.
In all that time and travel, the only thing I never had was a sense of home.
I wasn't Italian, because no-matter how hard I tried, they would not accept me; but how could I be an American when I had spent so little time there? Still, when we finally made the decision to move back to my parent’s homeland for my High School years, I did feel like I was coming home.
I was exhilarated and threw myself into this new life, filled with peoplewho had dreams and ambitions beyond their home village or getting married attwenty. But just like any form of culture shock, the excitement stage soon wore off. I was restless and thought I was homesick, but a brief trip back to Italyonly helped for a little while. By the middle of my sophomore year I was ready to explode. The dreams I thought were so expansive, I realized now, were just the American dream: college, career, home, family, retirement. Yes, different details,but they were all just shades of the same color, and the little town in California that had so welcomed me now felt more like a prison than the home Ihad at first found there (Although in hindsight it was a very comfy and entertaining prison full of wonderful people, and a key was hanging on the wall unguarded).
So I enrolled in a study abroad program, puzzling everyone I knew by choosing not the European country they expected but the Dominican Republic. Firmly in the third world, Spanish speaking and sharing the island of Hispaniola with Haiti, the poorest country in the western Hemisphere, the DR was exactlywhere I wanted to be.
Seven months later I returned, passes the Spanish SATs with flying colors,and started to apply to college. By that time, or maybe during that time, as I reflected on where I wanted my life to go, I finally figured out what I had been missing all those years. The home I was looking for wasn’t to be found inany one place. Yes, snatches of it were everywhere I went -the food of Italy, the wilderness of California, the music of the Dominican Republic- but it was in exploration, curiosity and change that I finally found a sense of stability.
I chose a major and moved to Massachusetts. One semester into my freshman year and I knew that three and a half more there were going to drive me insane. It’s not that I didn’t like it, the opposite in fact: the classes were on the subjects I was interested in, the teachers were engaging and I met an odd enough assortment of people to keep me occupied. The East Coast was just as much of a new world as the DR had been, if in a subtler way. But how can you settle down to a normal life when you have even an inkling of what’s out there, waiting?
During the long months of winter I found myself more and more often pouring over maps and signing up for airplane newsletters. In my free time I started mapping out trips and in my classes began picking projects related to other countries and to travel. Several years before I had decided that food was my passion. It was a survival thing at first. At fourteen I was diagnosed with Celiac Disease, or severe gluten intolerance, as well as allergies to a dozen other foods. I had to learn to cook because I was the only one who could keep all my allergies in line. But it just took one good teacher and the discovery of the Ethiopian grain Teff to make that spark of survival turn into a full-fledged fire. I had cooked my way to good health and it was in the discovery of the foods of other countries that I had been able to do it.
Through my creations and those of others I was able to travel far and wide. In my mind and mouth I climbed the Alps, traveled down the coasts of India, crossed Burma into Thailand and even ventured back to my childhood’s haunts in the kitchens of Italy. It didn’t take me long to decide that if I was going to do something with my life, this was it. I wanted to bring this joy, this sense of movement though flavor and smell, to others. For me, it became a language.
A language. My fourth language, but it’s one that doesn’t have to be learned. By looking at the world through food, I saw other ways to speak inthis new tongue. Dance, music, laughter, art, all these were just different dialects, and the most beautiful part of it was, every person on planet earth spoke it. It’s a way of communicating beyond words and cultural differences. In speaking it, all people were reduced back to their basic nature, and that is Human. It is, in a way, the language of peace, and to my great surprise I realized that I was a native and proficient speaker.
This whole revelation happened over Pad Thai.
I found my calling that night.
I would be an ambassador of peace. Not though words or politics, but through food. As humans, we fear what we do not know, and that fear breeds hatred and violence. War, in its essence, is ignorance, and we are, by some unfortunate union of geography and history, a very ignorant country when it comes to the ways of others.
What if, in my small way, I could change that? How can you hate and fear a people if you’ve eaten their food, listened to their music, heard their stories told and seen their smiling faces? Most people in the US either can’t or won’t leave it, but what if, instead of demanding they go out in to the world, I could bring the world to them? This is my dream. To create a restaurant that brings people together instead of reinforcing their separation. A place where several parties of strangers sit down together over a meal from a foreign land and leave as friends; where the servers are more than just employees, but rather ambassadors, telling stories of the people of the country they are representing; where photos and music flood the senses and make those far away places feel just a little closer to home. A restaurant that, in effect, let’s you travel with it, going to a new country every month. In the end, the food is only a vessel, a means to bring people from all walks of life together and discuss the world. As Ralph Waldo Emerson said, peace cannot be achieved through violence; it can only be attained through understanding.
This is my calling, to remind people, one by one, that just because they were never taught another language doesn’t mean they don’t know one. I may not change the world, but if I can inspire just a handful of people to open their eyes and see the foreign not as a threat but as beautiful, then I’ll be content.
But I’m still a long ways away from reaching that goal.
Before I can bring the world to others, I still need to see it. This is why, that night, after packing up my leftover Pad Thai, paying the bill and returning to school, I began working. I got home, sat down at my desk and pulled out a map.
I can’t teach what I have yet to learn, and there was only one way to do that. Travel.
One year. From San Francisco to Hawaii, to Fiji, New Zealand, Australia, then on land throughout South-East Asia and on to India. From there, Ethiopia, the country and cuisine that had first ignited my passion, and up to Egypt. A boat to Greece, trains all through Europe and a flight out of Madrid to South America, then back to the Dominican Republic and finally home. One year, following summer to study food all over the planet and meet people from all walks of life.
I can’t explain the hunger I feel for what’s out there. It does not originate in my stomach, but in my mind. I have seen a glimpse and now I just need to know more. I want to find the common threads that link us all as humans, even in our many differences.
I was born with no place to call home, but perhaps that wasn’t because of my parents, or the twists and turns of my life. I would rather believe that I have had a home all this time, but that it took a whole lot of searching, and cooking, and yes, that plate of Pad Thai, to find it. It’s the same home we all have, a little planet orbiting around an inconsequential sun somewhere in the vastness of space. It’s a good home, but we need to treat it better. Building understanding and appreciation between all of us who share our wonderful Earth is imperative. Without an understanding of what unites us we cannot hope to face the challenges of the coming decades. My generation has to take that leap: sit down at a table together, tell our stories and sing our songs. We must dance freely and not be ashamed or fearful of our differences. When we can do all that, then maybe we can create a future of peace.