travels in a story without borders

dinner combo

I never thought I’d do this. But it was because of my enjoyable interactions with Misha which got me thinking about how planes, trains and the internet connect us to people who live elsewhere and yet enter our lives bringing in a whole new atmosphere. This story begins with food, but it’s also about what happens when people’s inner worlds collide and we find ourselves tipped into a new country.   

We were expecting an interesting guest for dinner – a visitor who’d arrived from the Netherlands.  He’s a well-travelled medical doctor who now does wonderful work in organic farming development.  A man who has met both kings, queens and farmers in remote rural areas in the course of his work, and who was instrumental in pioneering the first Dutch health insurance scheme in the 1980’s to accept alternative practices such as homeopathy, chiropractic and acupuncture.

And being the cook of the family, I begin to muse on that maddeningly unresolved-until-the-last-minute daily question: what to make for dinner?

Short on time, I look in the fridge to see what remains of the weekly organic Harvest of Hope veggie box we subscribe to: a pack of gooseberries, an avocado. Sweet potatoes. Some lettuce leaves.  Dash to the shops to buy other ingredients. And what emerges is this: a sweet potato recipe remembered from reading a foodie magazine years ago.  Now I’m no good with quantities so please don’t ask me. Just sweet potatoes – I like the orange Beauregard best,  chopped and baked with a little olive oil and salt in the oven covered until just tender and then uncovered for 30 minutes to brown-roast them a little.

Meanwhile mix a good wedge of butter – oh gosh, I don’t know – 4-6 tablespoons? – with a bunch of freshly chopped chives, a grated thumb of ginger, the zest of one orange, 3 or 4 cloves of garlic and some salt.  Add this mixture to the sweet potatoes as soon as they come out of the oven and let it stand so the butter melts and the flavours meld.   When you taste this, you will want to say to yourself: mmmm it’s the garlic which makes it so… no…wait… actually it’s the orange zest….although no …  really it’s the interesting addition of the ginger… and of course it’s no one of those ingredients. It’s in the mix.

The Japanese have a wonderful expression for the indescribable good taste of something that isn’t just salty, sweet, sour or bitter: it’s a fifth taste they’ve called umami. Roughly translated as yummy deliciousness, or a pleasant savouriness.

It looked so pretty when it came out of the oven I decided to take a picture. Which made me think of Misha and his wonderful blog the poor man’s kitchen. I’ve enjoyed reading his recipe stories and have even tried a few of the Japanese ones myself – albeit taking great improvisational liberties in following them. We’ve pleasantly exchanged a comment or two. But here’s the thing; it’s because of those exchanges that I’m writing about food,  something I never thought I’d do.

Sweet potato dish

But that’s not all.

It seemed we had a visitor at the table who knew how to tell a good tale and the story which unfolds is unexpectedly personal. Riveting. Deep. By the time he’s half-way done we have all stopped eating.

Our guest pauses in his narrative and takes a mouthful of guacamole with warm melted cheese-drizzled nachos. He pronounces it to be very good.  The crunch of the nachos a satisfying complement to the soft creaminess of avocado.  This somehow gives us all permission to eat some more, spellbound as we have been with the story.  I have – weirdly I know but it was because of the avocado in the fridge – chosen this along with a fresh salad and a dish of olives to accompany the sweet potatoes.  The guacamole I make, with its usual ingredients of avocado, garlic, lemon juice, salt and pepper, is probably not to be reconciled with its Mexican origins including as it does dried black olives, fresh diced baby tomatoes, roughly chopped piquant coriander leaves and slices of soft goat’s cheese. The trick – taught to me many years ago by a friend –  is to mix these ingredients together very minimally so the avocado is still chunky and the different tastes – and colours – don’t get smudged into each other.

Guacamole 4 1500 x1125

Once told, his story lingers and although we began the evening as relative strangers,  it now feels as if we’ve stepped over the borders of each other’s lives. As the dishes are cleared and I prepare the next course,  I think about how we open a window to ourselves in our stories.  And perhaps because our guest is a man of a certain age who has traveled a long way bringing his story with him,  I am reminded of how another stranger offered me just such a vivid glimpse into his life that remains with me still.

On the platform waiting for the train into London at Heathrow, I stand next to a man from Bahrain.  I know he’s from Bahrain because I’ve overheard him telling someone on his phone that he left there yesterday.  He looks like a business-man, expensively dressed in a suit and coat, briefcase and carrier bag in one hand, his suitcase on wheels standing next to him. Although he has grey hair and appears to be in his mid-60’s, he has a smooth olive complexion and despite his dark melancholy eyes an air of anxious excitement.

“Are you going to Paddington Station?” he asks me.  I am and we exchange the relieved smiles of uncertain travellers who have confirmed with each other they are in the right place after all, and if they’re not, well there’s now at least two of them who have got it wrong.

He takes a peek inside the carrier bag he’s holding as if to check that what he’s bought is still the right thing, and impulsively shows me the purchase of an ipad he’s made at Duty Free.  “For my daughter, ”  he says and his eyes shine with a sudden intense reverence. “The one I thought I’d lost for 42 years,”  he adds, a huge smile of sheer happiness breaking open his face.  And now he has my full attention.  So it seems quite natural that when it arrives, we should sit next to each other on the Heathrow Express as it speeds us towards evening in London.

He begins. “Her mother and I…well…”  and then pauses, glancing at me as if to check with himself that he should be even telling me such intimate things.  Something in my face must have reassured him because he continues.

“It was not a successful romance.  So we parted ways and then she let me know she was pregnant. You can imagine,  I was beside myself.  I couldn’t stop thinking about this child of mine.  When it was born, she told me I had a daughter, only she refused to let me see her. I missed so much.” His face softens with regret, crumples momentarily.

“It was as if she were punishing me somehow, for the relationship not working out. That’s what I think now of course. At the time all I could see was her irrationally refusing to let me see my own child.”  He sighs heavily. Looks out of the train window at the shadowy landscape rushing by. Our reflections against the darkness.

“I begged her, you know. But she continued to refuse and one day she was no longer there. She simply disappeared and I lost all contact with her.”

He tells me of his ongoing struggles, his frustrations as he tried everything in his power to locate his daughter. “ Eventually, after 40 years of searching, I just gave up.”   We are silent for a moment.

“And then what happened?”

“What happened? Well, then a miracle happened!” he laughs at the memory.  “Two years later when I’d given up all hope, I receive a letter out of the blue.  It’s from her…my daughter!  Can you believe it?   For all those years I was searching for her, she was  looking for me too!”   And his eyes fill up suddenly.  Now we both have tears in our eyes and we look away from each other.  When he speaks again his voice sounds muffled.

Almost to himself, as if he can hardly believe his own ears he murmurs “and so of course I  immediately jumped on the next plane to the UK.”  He looks at me now, eyes bright. “Once I reach London I still have a way to travel to get all the way to Liverpool. That’s where she lives now. ”

At Paddington we say our farewells.  Incredibly, a brass band is playing on the platform as if to welcome us and my friend is waiting to greet me.   I turn to watch the man from Bahrain as he walks away clutching his carrier bag, his pale trench coat flying in the wind of departing trains.  He half turns then as if remembering something he forgot to say, as if he thinks he may have left something behind.

And  in a way he has.  I feel tilted, held for a moment at an odd angle to the earth by what he has told me. Because although he could not possibly have known this, he chose to tell his story to a woman who was exactly 42 when she went in search of and found her own unknown Japanese father. She too found him by writing just such a letter, a letter out of the blue.

We affect each other – sometimes subtly, sometimes overtly and often profoundly.  We need only walk into a room to change the mood of it. And even when we hurt each other, there’s redemption in it. We learn. We shift. The pain presses us into adopting a new position.  It’s just that sometimes we forget how much even the smallest of what we say and do can impact on another in a big way.

Stories have a way of meandering; they divide and multiply, straying along unforeseen paths ending up in the strangest territory.  How could the man from Bahrain ever have imagined a part of him would end up here.

And let’s not forget the gooseberries. They were cooked lightly with sugar and then blended with custard and thick cream to make gooseberry fool.  At the end of the meal the only sound was the clink of spoons scraping wistfully against empty dessert dishes.

There was nothing left over.