Our Natural Bent

An open letter at the end of my travels, to all those whom I have met along the way,

I am back in the United States, readjusting to this time zone and American restaurant portion sizes. After a year of travel, I am happy to be home, though my idea of “home” is fast changing.

I am tempted to make all sorts of sermons about what I’ve learned, but I have a hard time distilling my experiences into easily digestible lessons. There is no wisdom earned by traveling, no insight inherent in moving yourself from one place to another. The messy and complex and valuable lessons come from unsettling your perspective, whether you are at home or abroad. They come from considering that other ways of living are as valid and multi-dimensional as your own. They come from traveling outside of habit and assumption into spaces that are not designed to make you feel comfortable. In trying to do this, for months, I’ve realized that I don’t really know much at all. I want to be quiet for a while.

In lieu of any lucid traveling advice, I instead feel a deep urgency to express my simple gratitude. For I have spent this last year as a guest of the world, a guest in many countries and in many people’s homes. I have been hosted by farmers, dentists, nuns, insurance salesmen, artists, casino card dealers, teachers, and IT technicians. I have been given clothes when I was cold, food when I was hungry, love and support when I was lonely, and gifts for no reason at all. Anything I gave was returned a hundredfold. No matter how much or how little people had, they shared.

I am fairly overwhelmed by the kindness I have received in the last year, wanting to repay those who have given so much. But no one’s kindness keeps a tally, and people who offer such hospitality do not expect something in return. Instead, I hope to pay forward and multiply all the gifts that I have received.

From the smallest villages to the biggest cities, hospitality is a human value. And so is kindness. Adjacent to suffering and conflict is people being kind to one another. In my highest highs and lowest lows, I saw that we all share this bent. I will attest to this, and practice it, for the rest of my life.

To everyone who has shared a word, a meal, and compassion and empathy, I thank you for all that you have given me. I hope our paths will cross again.

Corinne

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The Stories We Tell

I’ve arrived at my hostel, taking a deep breath as I put down my bag. I go through the motions, familiar by now, of unpacking my bag and chatting with my temporary roommates.

This time, it’s two young European girls on their university break, touring around a new country. We exchange questions and answers like playing cards- where are you coming from, how long are you staying, and the inevitable,

“Are you traveling alone?”

“Yes.”

“Wow, you’re so brave!”
“I would never do that.”
“But it’s so dangerous.”
“You have so much courage!”

“What’s it like?”

I pause. Images flash through my mind. Alone, last night, I arrived at a cafe and met a few friendly students with whom I ended up going out and having a fantastic time. Also alone, two days ago, I was groped on the train while other people watched it happen and didn’t say anything.

The two young girls are looking at me. This is the first time they have traveled without their families, and this is a big trip for them. They have expectations, preconceived notions, and internalized beliefs about their ability to travel alone. They are looking at me, an example of traveling alone while female, wondering about my experience.

Maybe what I say will matter to them. Maybe it won’t. But I feel some sort of responsibility- for what? I want to tell them how I’ve struggled, and how I’ve succeeded. I want to tell them how I’ve been “brave”, and how it actually isn’t so hard. I want to tell them to be safe, and to be courageous. I struggle for words.

What story do I want to tell?

———-

There is an archetype of the Solo Female Traveler. This is a woman who, in general, has the resources and opportunity to travel for pleasure, around the world, by herself. I am a Solo Female Traveler, a white cisgender woman from the United States, who has the means to work and travel for a year.

The very existence of this Solo Female Traveler is, in my mind, astounding. Women that can choose to freely travel alone in foreign countries without patriarchal protection are a rather new phenomenon. This phenomenon is not equitably distributed around the world or across class lines, certainly, but compared to most of human history, a woman’s freedom to travel alone is growing rapidly.

But even as Solo Female Traveling has become more common, it has not become easy. When I meet other Solo Female Travelers, eventually our conversations will turn to our shared experiences in this role. Many of these shared experiences are about the harassment, threats, assault, or mental and physical violence that we have faced while traveling. We talk about the times when we have said no when we wanted to say yes, or yes when we wanted to say no, out of a desire to not be harassed or hurt. We talk about how many times adventurous spirit has been taken as a sign of sexual availability, how many times an acceptance of hospitality or offer of help has been taken as a sign of sexual availability, how many times a polite word or smile of acknowledgment has been taken as a sign of sexual availability, how many times appearing in public or being silent has been taken as a sign of sexual availability. We talk about how we have denied ourselves experiences, because of a deeply internalized command, “don’t let yourself get raped”. We have debates about what it means to “stay safe”, cowardice or common sense, openness or “better safe than sorry”.

If there are Solo Male Travelers in the room, they will usually offer one of two responses. One, they will be so eager to establish that not all men are harassers, violent perpetrators, or rapists -especially not these men here, talking- that they will minimize the Solo Female Traveler experience until we change the subject. Or, two, the men will point out that, indeed, there is danger all around women, and they will press this point until the women affirm that we understand the vulnerability of our gender and the protective benevolence of this Solo Male Traveler. Either way, the conversation will end with women swallowing their words left unsaid.

If there are only women left around the table, we will continue to share our stories, until fatigue or frustration changes the subject.

These conversations resurface over and over again in my travels. They are opportunities to empathize, to support and find support in women who have had similar experiences, who feel similar fear and anger. At many points on this trip I have felt utterly alone and vulnerable, after piled-up aggressions and harassment and altercations. These conversations have provided me with new breath.

These experiences are worth talking about. At first, I wanted to write an essay condemning the harassment and discrimination I have faced this year, on the basis of my gender. I wanted to channel these conversations held with other Solo Female Travelers, to focus on our stories. I wanted to fall into the anger and resentment that I feel, and use it for vindication. Indeed, at one point, I wrote the above to tell some part of my story and frustrations.

But these conversations cannot be the only story I tell. This narrative of the Solo Female Traveler, alone and discriminated against in foreign lands, victimized yet courageous in spite of it all, isn’t appealing, nor sufficient for me anymore. It was a narrative handed to me by other people, by those who assumed they knew what the world was like and by those who decided what it was like a long time ago. This narrative stroked my ego, telling me I was brave, keeping me feeling self righteous and self centered. It was a narrative that condoned and stigmatized victimhood at the same time. It has evolved from many sources, including myself and my own conversations.

But today, I want to start to write a new narrative. I need a new narrative, one that acknowledges my reality and realities beyond my own. For the stories that we tell ourselves, true and false, are very much real.

———-

My rejection of the Solo Female Traveler narrative comes from two reasons.

First of all, this narrative feeds into the idea that the outside world is dangerous, and women are vulnerable creatures who, outside the protection of a man, are frighteningly responsible for their own safety. It creates a lens of fear that discourages women from seeking new and valuable experiences.

In reality, I have not experienced more or less harassment and violence in the world at large than I have experienced in American society. We have a tendency to simplify the problems of others, while assuming that our own house is clean. But women are far more likely to experience harassment and violence from people that they know than from strangers. For Solo Female Travelers, many of whom have class and other privilege, daily discrimination experiences are usually limited to street harassment, and more rarely random acts of violence. On the whole, it is when women are not protected by outsider status, or the privilege of travel, that they endure systematic oppression and violence.

And yet, this fear permeates the narrative of the Solo Female Traveler.

I do not believe that the perpetuation of fear is the solution to the problem of sexism and violence against women who travel, just as telling women to defend themselves against rape is not the same as demanding that men are taught not to rape. Teaching women that they are responsible for not becoming victims is not the same as questioning the structures that designate them as such. Telling women that traveling abroad alone is unsafe is not only directly contradictory to my experience, but it also places the responsibility for sexism on foreigners while erasing culpability in my own society.

There is a global patriarchy, and, traveling or not traveling, women will face sexism. This is a reality. Adding a layer of fear of the unknown on top of that reality discourages women from searching out experiences that are both possible and immensely valuable.

Everywhere in this world, there are dangers and there is kindness. Overwhelmingly, my trust in people I don’t know has led to inspiring, rewarding, life-changing moments. I do not want to contribute to any narrative that discourages women from these same opportunities, because of some unnamed fear, in a world rife with kindness.

———-

The second reason I find the Solo Female Traveler narrative problematic is that when we focus only on our own difficulties and hardships as travelers, it minimizes the experiences of the women in the world who do not have the privilege or desire to travel alone. We are writing our story over theirs.

Tara Isabella Burton’s viral article, “Dangers of Traveling While Female”, eloquently points out the travel stories that we glorify. These are stories of adventure and risk taking, imposed narratives and projected egos, that for centuries have been written by and about men. Burton writes,

“Such an approach to travel – the grandiose conviction that the world exists to be mapped, shaped, formed anew with reference to the author’s own preconceived convictions of how it ought to be (Fermor insisted upon calling Istanbul “Constantinople” long after the Turks themselves had decided otherwise) — is exclusively the provenance of the privileged, the powerful: those who never doubt that the world belongs to them… [It] is often the world in which the storyteller, with his witty quotes and charming misfortunes, becomes a kind of literary colonizer: the true subjects of the story – these locals for whom “Constantinople” is only ever Istanbul – reduced to mere background objects, picturesque scenery.”

Travelers want to come back with a good story. As often as I hear boasts of careless revelry or close calls come from (usually) male travelers, I hear lamentations of missed opportunities come from female travelers, including myself. Why can’t we have the same adventures?

Perhaps that is not the question to ask, because perhaps these adventures are not owed to us. When we righteously demand accommodation in a foreign place, we ignore the valid, complex realities of the people who live there.

I have had many disturbing experiences this past year. But this reality exists not because I am a Solo Female Traveler in sexist counties, but because this reality exists for many women around the world. My feelings of entitlement for safe travel, while valid, are not more important than any woman’s desire to live in a safe and equal society. It is not enough to demand less street harassment, or safer public transportation, or any other issue that female travelers tend to focus on, without also considering the circumstances of the women that live there. To focus only on what we want as women travelers is to ask for special privilege within a system that does not provide for all, instead of creating agency for everyone.

It can also be an attempt to create an agency over the heads of other women, without their voices. Our voices as foreigners should contribute, but not talk over, local dialogues. We are travelers passing through a place, and our observations and simplifications, even if well meaning, are not more important than how women in their own societies choose to live. Sharing stories and empathizing is important, but creating connections also requires listening and considering another perspective. There are stories outside our own.

———-

I have met some of the most awe-inspiring, incredible women I have ever known in the last year. They have showed me their worlds and their homes. We have shared chores and meals, and many, many cups of coffee. They live in a world that frequently does not give them enough recognition nor opportunity, and yet they inspire me to no end with their courage, vulnerability, love, and joy.

They have also repeatedly humbled and reminded me, both by example and directly, that my way of looking at the world is not the default. These women have been my teachers. They have shown me the projections and assumptions that I make. They have taught me that travel should not be an imposition onto a place, but an immersion. They have taught me that the world is full of beautiful, and not beautiful people, and yet the only real choice is to continue on with what you want to do anyway.

These women have taught me that I don’t need to buy into old stories- I can write my own. This is my choice. I have no new overarching narrative to present; rather, I want to complicate the story we are already telling ourselves. Global feminism, when it includes many voices, is anything but simple.

Complicate the narrative.

Family is Sweeter Than Honey

I came to the monastery for the honey.

Well, ok, I came for many different reasons. But the prospect of fresh, sticky honey sweetened and sealed the deal.

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The oldest, most established monasteries in Romania are hundreds of years old and can house up to 500 nuns and monks. They spend most of their time preparing celebrations, hosting guests, and playing large public roles.

However, the younger monasteries, established after the communist era in the last 25 years, function differently. These monasteries are smaller; for example, only 14 nuns live at Fardea Monastery. In addition, because new monasteries do not have ancient, cultivated land and established property and resources, they need to provide more for themselves. To do so, many of these young monasteries in Romania start small businesses.

When I ask for some examples of these businesses, I am surprised at the diversity- there are monasteries that make vinegar, rugs, herbal products, traditional clothes, soap, candles, and numerous food products, to name a few. Many monasteries function like workshops, producing a craft, in addition to all religious activities.

Here in the Fardea Monastery, besides manufacturing religious icons and clothes, they produce another beautiful product: buzzing bees.

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One day, while picking tomatoes in the greenhouse, a bee gets trapped under my skirt and stings me. The lunch bell rings soon after, and when I sit on the bench, I wince.

“Maica Siluana, a bee stung me on the butt today.”

“Ah! You are lucky. It’s good for the health.” She tries to keep her smile under wraps but soon cracks into laughter. Later, I am offered sweet honey on fresh bread, to ease the pain.

The nuns keep over 250 hives of bees. They harvest different types of honey over the season, like linden, acacia, and forest honey, as well as pollen, propolis, royal jelly, honeycomb caps, bee bread, and other bee products. I’ve been lucky enough to taste many of their products, and they are extraordinary.

I’m not the only one who has noticed. The monastery had a contact in England, who distributed these products to different natural food stores. But after the acacia and forest honey won major awards at the Great Taste awards, other stores started to be interested in selling- notably, Harrods of London, one of England’s upscale department stores. While I am at the monastery, we send off the first shipment of product samples.

Thanks to a wonderfully talented Hungarian graphic designer who is also a volunteer here, the honey has been elegantly branded and packaged. Every time I eat some of this honey, slathered on bread or in my morning coffee, I think: Londoners don’t know what they’re in for.

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Working with the bees is overseen by two nuns, and they do almost all of the specialized work themselves, keeping a close eye on the bees. Watching over 250 hives is an enormous task, and they are busy year round. There is no honey harvest while I am here, but I do stay busy helping package the final product.

While sticking labels onto jars one afternoon, I tell Father Moses how much I’ve enjoyed eating the honey here. I ask him if I can buy some to take home.

He’s incredulous. “Corinne, do you have brothers or sisters?”

“What?” I ask, “umm… yes, I do.”

“And if you came to their house and ate something, would they ask you to pay?!” Father breaks into a smile. “Of course you can have honey. But don’t ask to pay for it- it is our gift to you.”

I smile back, and accept their gift of sweet, sticky gold. I came for the honey, and I found family amongst the bees.

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Busy as the Nuns

Chomping down watermelon after a lunch at the monastery, I cautiously eye the honeybees that linger around my plate. They are visiting our table, searching for sustenance to take back to their hives. The nuns keep a few hundred hives of honeybees (more on that in another post). With this summer abundance, the bees are everywhere, preparing for the cold winter.

As the bees do at the monastery, so do we. The nuns grow most of their own food, and during the summer months, they keep busy juicing, pickling, drying, pureeing, freezing, and preserving it. Feeding fourteen or more people, year round, requires much work and planning. I’m not sure who is busier- the nuns or the bees.

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Most mornings, we harvest whatever vegetable is most ripe. This region’s summer heat wave has finally been broken with days of steady rain, and every vegetable seems to be reaching its peak production. We pick tomatoes, eggplant, beans, zucchini, cucumbers, and peppers in enormous amounts, each harvest bigger than the last. Other nuns pick forest herbs and flowers, destined for tea. Plums and grapes are beautifully ripe, and even the apples are ready for the table.

The afternoons and evenings are spent processing most of our harvest, to keep it for winter. We pickle green tomatoes and small peppers, lining up the jars on shelves. Trays of roasted eggplant are peeled and packed into sterilized freezer bags. The hundreds of kilos of tomatoes are juiced and mostly distilled into concentrated products, like spicy ketchup or tomato paste. Beans are cleaned, blanched, and frozen. Slowly, our wheelbarrows and crates full of fresh produce disappear into jars, bags, and bottles that can be stored for the upcoming months.

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“How do you say ‘zacusca’ in English?” Maria, a Romanian volunteer, asks me.

Before I can respond, Maica Irina interrupts with her answer: “Zacusca.”

She’s right. There is no English translation for one of my favorite Romanian foods. Zacusca, basically meaning snack in various Slavic languages, is essentially a vegetable spread. Its exact contents vary, but most families use finely chopped and blended eggplant, peppers, onions, and tomato paste. This mix is slowly roasted for hours before being canned. Made at the end of the summer harvest, it is kept over the winter, usually eaten on bread. It has a taste that reminds me of summer’s bounty, with roasted, smoky, rich flavors that only deepen over the winter.

Having tasted zacusca for the first time when I was Romania in March, I was incredibly excited to be back in the summer, to learn how to make it. The other two volunteers, Maria and Teresa, and I spent one rainy, long Friday preparing it with the zacusca expert, Maica Irina.

Like most delicious dishes, zacusca takes an immense amount of work. Even having harvested and roasted all the ingredients in advance, we still spend the entire day cleaning and processing and stewing them. The peppers need to be peeled and de-seeded. The eggplant is peeled and washed and made into a paste. And all the onions need to be peeled, cut, and cried over.

I stare, mouth agape, as Maica Irina finely chops buckets of onions faster than any chef I know, while still keeping an eye on the cows trying to enter the kitchen. We are making large quantities of zacusca, measuring ingredients in kilos and liters. Having made this vegetable spread since she was young, Maica Irina can practically peel a pepper with her eyes closed. And her hands behind her back.

I am humbled by how quickly and efficiently the women cut, clean, and process these vegetables. I cannot even compare with their deft hands and experienced movements. They work longer days than I do, sending me to take breaks while they continue. If I look tired, a nun will suddenly appear with coffee, hot chocolate, or fruit to give me energy.

I try to be as helpful as possible, learning what I can, and not being in the way. Nuns are busy. There is a lot of work to do.

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Late in the evening, with the zacusca finally finished and packed into glass jars, we breathe a satisfied sigh. The last little bit of hot zacusca is spread and shared on slices of bread, and I enjoy the fresh fruits of our labor.

Every day, we take some of the summer’s bounty, and save it for winter. It’s a lot of labor, but, like the worker bees, these nuns keep moving. I’m starting to see new truth in the old saying, “keeping busy as bees”.

And I’d like to propose a new phrase: “keeping as busy as the nuns who keep bees.”

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Celebrations and Feasts

I spot the two nuns through the packed crowd on the train platform, and after brief introductions, we head towards the car. I’m a little nervous, wondering what these Romanian sisters will be like. Maica (Sister) Antonia and Maica Demetria quickly put me at ease, joking, laughing, and asking me questions as we speed through the Romanian countryside.

The rolling hills, forest, and fields of corn and sunflowers makes me think of the last time I was in Transylvania, in March. I am happy to be back, watching familiar images whip quickly past my window. My first lesson: being a nun does not stop Maica Antonia from driving like a getaway driver.

“So…” I ask, tightening my seatbelt, “What kind of work are you doing at the monastery right now?”

Maica Antonia and Maica Demetria look at each other knowingly and burst out laughing.

“We are preparing for a special event. It is… a lot of work. You will see.” Maica Antonia says, ending with a mischievous smile. “We are happy you are here to help us.”

I had no idea what I was getting myself into.

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I am spending a month at the Fardea Monastery, located 100 kilometers from Timisiora, in northwestern Romania. This Christian Orthodox monastery was founded in 2001. It is home to fourteen nuns, the church father, some workers from the village, and other Romanians who spend parts of the year at the monastery.

This monastery also welcomes women from around the world to stay and work with them, which is unique in Romania. We help them with the enormous amount of work that goes into running a monastery. Without prior knowledge, I had arrived just in time to help the monastery prepare for their biggest celebration of the year. August 15th is the feast for the Assumption of the Virgin Mary, and this is the holiday with which this monastery is associated. On this day, the bishop, regional priests, and busloads of local worshippers will arrive for a 16 hour service. And at the end of it, we’ll feed them all.

There is a lot of work to do, indeed.

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The weeks before the celebration, we are kept busy tidying the grounds, cleaning buildings, moving furniture, and arranging rooms. The monastery is thoroughly polished and shined, inside and out. But the few days before the 15th of August, there is only one large task left: cooking the food.

Preparing food in large quantities is an enormous logistical task. Feeding hundreds of people requires careful planning, large pots, and many hands. Luckily, the nuns are experts, experienced with these types of feasts. The menu is already worked out in advance, and all we have left to do is to face the mountains of uncut, unwashed, unprepared food.

Gutting a hundred kilos of fish with two of the nuns, I keep thinking of the summer I worked in a catering kitchen in Wisconsin. It was the first time I thought about food in terms of weight. Instead of talking about the number, or cups, of potatoes, suddenly you are measuring what you need in terms of fifty kilo bags.

We spend the days peeling potatoes, de-scaling fish, and picking through beans. The kitchens are full, people coming in and out, jokes being passed back and forth. The nuns are busy before I wake up and continue after I go to my room to sleep. I am, obviously, not responsible for any of the logistics, but I feed off of the tangible energy in the air: the stress, and excitement, that a big holiday brings.

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Finally, the 15th of August arrives. A stage has been built outside, near the monastery’s church, as the church itself is not big enough for this special service. Threatening rain clouds menace us in the afternoon, but they clear up by evening, bringing in a refreshing breeze. The buses arrive and unload locals from the surrounding regions, families and friends convening and reuniting. The service starts on Friday evening and will continue through the night, until Saturday afternoon. Those who can will fast during the entire service, and I join them.

I do not follow all of the service, despite the English explanations from helpful friends. But I sit, stand, and kneel in the grass, mesmerized by the beautiful singing of the church fathers and the nuns. Later in the night, everyone holds candles, and the cool evening air brings us energy. Some people nap on blankets, drifting in and out of the prayers.

I eventually retire to my room, falling asleep to the sounds of the continuing service. I dream of candle flames and the sound of bells.

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The next morning, I attend part of the service again, but I soon make my way to the kitchen to help the nuns with the final preparations for the lunchtime feast. We set the tables, and I help to carefully carry full pots and plates from the kitchen.

We soon run out of space to put new dishes on the tables. There are the Romanian classics: bread, onions, cabbage, and of course, ciorba, the Romanian sour soup. Heaping plates of sarmale, steamed stuffed cabbage leaves, line the center of each table. We add two different types of stuffed and roasted fish, different cheeses, olives, tomatoes, creamy fish eggs, and buttery mashed potatoes. The tables groan under the weight, but there is dessert too- piles of juicy Romanian grapes, plums, and pears, cookies, and finally, layered cake.

When the service ends, sometime around 1pm, the benches and chairs are filled, and we feast. Relieved of my responsibilities, I watch as the nuns continue to work, making sure there is enough food in front of everyone. Of course, with all their careful planning, there is an abundance of everything, and we all enjoy the end of the celebration by stuffing our stomachs.

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There is a beautiful, tired air that descends after a holiday. Saturday night was quiet at the monastery, the nuns taking naps that, for some, lasted until Sunday morning. I found myself at ease, and grateful to be here.

As I helped wash and dry a truly enormous amount of dishes, I reflected on the holiday. We put so much effort into a single celebration, preparing for weeks for one single day. And yet, afterwards, I felt nothing but contentedness, a great exhale from the nuns. One of my favorite parts of a holiday is the release after it is finished, when the work and celebration are over. This is when you can pause, see the arc of the seasons, mark the passage of time. It is when you can reflect on the holiday, and why we celebrate these traditions to begin with.

But as I stared at the mountain of plates and silverware, my stomach full and happy, I admitted to myself the true reason I love to celebrate these holidays: people never seem to come together without someone suggesting that there be food.

 

(Note: out of a general respect for the nuns’ privacy and their services, I limit my photos of the monastery and the activities there, so they will rarely include people besides myself.)

Dining in the Vercors

Out of breath after a steep ascent upward, I pause and stare up at Annick as she beckons from the mountain path above. “Come on!” she tells me. “Come look at the cows!”

I do as she says, continuing the climb up, up, up the steep mountain side. The faint ringing of bells grows louder and louder, until I reach the top of the crest. There, looking over an enormous valley in the Vercors, I spot the cows. The herd is far below us, but their bells echo up the stone mountainside. They graze near a small but solid house, made of stone and plaster.

“Who lives there?” I ask.

“A shephard,” Annick answers.  “You can tell because there’s no road that leads to the house.” She’s right. I stare at the house, wondering what it must be like to wake up to the sounds of cows’ bells and a view over the Alps.

Claire, Annick’s friend, joins us at the hill’s crest. I ask another question.

“Think their cow milk is used to make the Vercors blue cheese?”

“Oh definitely. And we’ll be eating that tonight, on our pizza!”

I smile as we continue on, Annick and Claire outpacing me. I’ve returned back to the Alps for a brief stay with my former hosts, who are starting to feel like family. This visit to the Vercors, a range of mountains close to Grenoble, has been one of the highlights of my trip.

Queen of the Vercors cows looks over her domain…

An afternoon rain cut short our hike and created a layer of fog throughout the valley. We explored the small surrounding villages instead. The Vercors are an old Catholic region, with crosses crowning hills and crossroads.

Camping sites in France have one major difference from those in the United States: in France, you can order fresh bread in the morning, and it will be delivered to you. Instead of soggy, stale Wonderbread packed into cartons, we eat fresh baguettes and croissants for breakfast. Although I love the simplicity of camping cuisine, I must admit that this morning luxury of fresh baked bread is much appreciated.

We eat well during our four day trip, packing a light lunch to eat in the mountains and preparing a healthy dinner in the evenings. One evening, we visit the camping site restaurant, where the three of us share well-earned pizzas. My favorite was aptly named “The Vercors”, topped with specialties from the region: ravioles, bleu du Vercors-Sassenge cheese, and lardon, or diced bacon. What a perfect meal after a day climbing up and down those steep mountain peaks.

Annick and Claire walk ahead of me, as I take a moment to admire the surrounding view.

Roadside milk, pumped fresh from the cow every day at 6pm.

The final evening, I try what I’ve been waiting for, since I was in the Rhone-Alpes last month: ice cream, à la Chartreuse. With a scoop of chocolate ice cream, la Chartreuse flavor is strong and tasty. I debate ordering the small shot of la Chartreuse to pour over the ice cream, but I choose to enjoy the flavors alone instead. We drink more Chartreuse later, snuggled near the campfire.

I sigh contentedly when I’m finished. The Alps have left me feeling absolutely full: mountain views, mountain air, and mountain food.

The view from the top of Col Vert- 1800m (almost 6000 ft). The world’s best view for a lunchtime picnic!!

Four Days and Four Nights of Dour Festival Cuisine

I called my Belgian friend Arno back in March, when I first arrived in Romania. I had planned little of my seven months in Europe, beyond the first step, and I was looking for advice. Arno had been an exchange student at my tiny Indiana high school, and we had stayed in touch over the years as he moved between America and Europe.

“Come to Belgium in July,” Arno told me. “I want to hear how good or bad your French has gotten. And I want to take you to Dour festival.”

Flash forward five months, and I’m standing in a grocery store in Liège with Arno. We’re staring at our cart, calculating.

“Ok, so that’s enough for the breakfasts… and the sausages and the breads… the noodles for dinner…” Arno is going through some mental checklist, created from years of experience. I, however, am looking around in awe; we’ve come to “the cheapest grocery store in Belgium” to buy in bulk, and I feel like I’m in a dystopian European Costco.

“Alright. The beer, and then we’re good.” We head to the liquor section, and Arno reaches for the Jupiler without hesitation. We are in Belgium, after all, and Jupiler is Belgium’s cheap beer of choice.

In the checkout, the cart is loaded. I stare at its contents in fascination. You could say that this is festival cuisine.

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Dour is an annual alternative music festival that takes place in the fields next to a tiny town near the south Belgian border. The lineup is DJ heavy, with a lot of electro, drum and bass, house, and techno, but there is plenty of metal, hip hop, indie, and reggae as well. The festival, though medium-sized by European standards at 220,000 people, still draws thousands of loyalists every year. Like at most festivals, the entry ticket is exchanged for a fastened bracelet. Those who have been coming to Dour for years proudly flaunt their wristband evidence. There is an air of freedom, and grit, to this weekend.

We spend the days relaxing, talking, and eating at the campsite. I take the opportunity to learn as many French curse words as possible from Arno’s friends, in exchange for teaching English ones. We eat slowly, throughout the afternoon, without hurry to be anywhere at anytime.

The evenings are spent at the music venues, moving from artist to artist in an attempt the create the perfect lineup. Not knowing many of the European artists to begin with, I find a lot of new talent to add to my playlists. A few American artists are there as well, and I’m happy to sing along in English.

The obvious highlight of the festival, for me, was seeing Ms. Lauryn Hill perform. The concert was made all the better by an unlikely meeting with the only other Belgian person Arno and I know from Crown Point High School. Fiona, a former high school exchange student as well, was at the concert too. The three of us never could have imagined, leaving Crown Point, Indiana five years ago, to find ourselves reunited at a Ms. Lauryn Hill concert in Dour, Belgium. The world is a strange place.

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The four days of music and staying out until early morning require fuel. But in a campsite where tents are packed like sardines, there is no electricity, and even getting water requires waiting in line, food options are limited.

I quickly learned that Arno was wise in choosing the food that we brought. After now having the experience of camping at a festival, I can delineate a few simple rules for what I’d like to call “festival cuisine”:

1. Do not bring anything that will suffer in the heat. Forget shade, forget cold spots;  don’t bring anything that can spoil. And after that first afternoon, forget even the possibility of a cold beer.

2. The bare minimal amount of “cooking” possible will be boiling water using a small gas stove. This will enable you to make pasta, instant noodles, and coffee.

3. If it’s processed and comes out of a plastic bag, it will probably taste good after a might of festivities. Give in to it.

4. Though you may try to hold out, eventually, late at night, you will buy a kebab from one of the vendors. Also give in to that.

5. Bring more food than you alone can eat- share with your friends.

A pictorial survey of some ideal festival cuisine:

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At the end of the four days, we emerge from our tent cocoons, pack up, and go home. The ground shows the destructive signs of the festival lifestyle: mud, and garbage. Eating this kind of processed food generates a lot of waste, and here most people leave it on the ground, ready to be picked up by the festival volunteers. I shudder at the mess, realizing the reality of eating festival cuisine. It generates a lot of waste, and judging from the way I feel, it isn’t good for the body.

I’m ready to return to a simpler diet, full of cooked foods and fruits and vegetables. Though I enjoyed the four days and four nights of Dour, I think I need four days of good food and four nights of good sleep to recover.

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Cool Cats in Amsterdam

I spend one quick weekend in Amsterdam, stopping over to meet my Belgian friend Arno before returning back to Belgium. The weekend was full of beer and bicycling, as I lost myself between all the canals and bridges of the charming city. I saw signs for “Amsterdam coffee shops” everywhere, packed full of tourists trying Amsterdam’s most famous product: strong weed.

However, on a rainy Sunday, Arno suggested a different kind of experience, asking, “want to go to a cat cafe?”

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Cat cafes are exactly what they sound like: cafes, with cats that live in them. The concept started in Taiwan, but grew to be most famous in Japan. Sometimes, cat cafes are themed, and frequently they are associated with animal adoption charities.

Kopjes, Amsterdam’s first cat cafe, is named after a clever word play: “kopjes” means both “cup” and also the “nuzzling” that a cat does. The cafe has only been open for a few months, but it is usually packed. The food and drinks are prepared in an exterior kitchen, then passed through a small window into the interior room, where the customers are surrounded by cats.

There are seven cats in this cafe, each with a glamour shot and bio listed on the wall. They all come from the adoption center, but their permanent home is this cafe. The walls and floors are littered with boxes, perches, and scratch posts for the cats. They climb around, laze about, and occasionally do something that makes the whole cafe laugh. Entertainment is included in the price of the coffee.

The cats themselves get more than enough attention from the patrons during the day. True to their species, they seem wholly uninterested in the caffeinated humans that are busy snapping pictures. But somehow, that’s what gives cat cafes, and indeed, cats, their charm.

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Belgian and French Fried

If you’re traveling to Belgium, as an American, you’re bound to offend if you don’t watch yourself: those aren’t French fries. You can call them by their French name (frites) or Dutch (frieten) but in English, they are not French fries. They are Belgian fries.

In Belgium, any grandmother will tell you that the secret to good fries lies in frying them twice. The first time, fried on low heat, the potatoes cook and become fluffy. The second time, on high heat, the outside of the fries becomes crunchy and crisp. If you order your fries at a friterie, they will come in a white cardboard cone, with sauce squirted on top. Most Belgians prefer mayonnaise, and perhaps ketchup.

Belgians supposedly consume more French fries frites than anyone else in the world. As I wander the streets of any city in Belgium, it comes as no surprise. The Belgians celebrate their history by placing a friterie about every block.

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Fries, or chips (for all you Brits), are essentially all a comfort food should be: hot, salty, starchy, and fatty. It is no wonder that there is a hot and salty (and starchy and fatty?) contention over who “invented” them.

A French person will quickly point to a number of anglophone sources, including Thomas Jefferson’s own writing, that refer to fried potatoes “served in the French manner”. “French fries” may indeed come from the old culinary term, “French fried”, which referred to any number of different things that are deep fried.

The Belgians, however, claim that while France, the bigger country, may have popularized fries in the world, it was the Belgians who showed the French how to make the dish in the first place.

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There are an enormous number of origin stories of “French fries”. When the potato was introduced to Europe from South America around 1600, most people thought it was toxic. It wasn’t until the late 1700s that the potato became popular in western Europe.

One origin story claims that when Belgian peasants ran out of fish to fry during some particularly tough seasons, they cut up potatoes in thin strips and fried them to mimic the way they normally prepared fish. This dish eventually spread to France, where it was then exported to the world under the French name.

Another popular Belgian story comes from WWI, when the many American troops stationed in Belgium tried the local cuisine, which included fries. The mobile troops, not really knowing European geography and hearing the locals speak French, assumed they were in France. When they returned to the US, they called the dish “French fries”.

No one knows who “invented” fries. It’s possible that the Belgians invented the fries and introduced them to the French; the reverse is also conceivable. Or, the dishes evolved concurrently in different places that already had similar climates and cuisines. What is most likely is that we’ll never have a definitive answer in this debate.

And yet the lively debate continues, over cones of fries in Belgium and France. This is what is most interesting of all: how cuisine becomes tied to identity. The ownership of fries is not a major dispute. But to those involved, it is a debate of both gastronomical legacy and of cultural influence. People want to claim ownership over what they see as their contribution to the culinary world, because food is tied to cultural identity.

This is why, in every debate that I witness, I try to set everyone off balance. “Wait…” I ask, acting confused, “didn’t McDonald’s invent the fries in like the 60s?”

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To Each, His or Her Own Glass

On my arrival in Flanders, I was welcomed with great hospitality and beer. I don’t know which was better.

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Flanders is the Dutch speaking northern part of Belgium, a tiny region filled with loads of history and kind people. I was lucky to be hosted near Gent by the aunt and uncle of a good friend. Peter and Ann showed me more kind hospitality than I knew what to do with, helping me explore the region on bike and by train, and feeding me well.

Peter and Ann live in the Flemish countryside, where the flowing fields of corn and wheat quietly remind me of my home in Indiana. The land here, however, doesn’t bear the same signs of big agriculture that I see back home. Farms, even when big, are split up into smaller plots, with farmers owning many parcels in different locations. Homes that have been around for generations rest on their land, making it difficult to consolidate. Small walking paths that crisscross the fields provide arteries of public access through the farmland.

I take a few long bike rides through the countryside, using the region’s brilliantly laid out biking map. I follow back country roads, avoiding the big highways. On these little roads I can pass an entire afternoon without seeing anyone but the occasional tractor and other cyclists. I pass tree nurseries, full of young lindens and ash and maples, destined for cities all over Europe. Some of these trees stay in the region too, relining the country roads that were a long time ago made bare. The countryside, here in Flanders, is tranquil.

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In the evening, to my great joy, Peter and Ann would usually crack open a beer. I couldn’t have been more content; I think Belgium makes some of the best beers in the world. And I was eager to drink these beers in the proper way, Belgian style.

Belgian beer afficiandos need to have a lot of space for glassware, because each beer has its own glass. Chimay, Duvel, and Westmalle all have differently shaped, branded glasses, and a Belgian beer drunk in the wrong glass would be an embarrassment. It is said that the shape of the glass allows the beer to breathe optimally, but I like to say that the name in the glass helps you remember what you’re drinking as the night goes on.

True to form, Ann and Peter had all the proper glasses, and we drank each beer in its own. I’m no expert on Belgian beers, but I think I have been converted. A special glass makes a special occasion out of each beer.

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The last night I am with Ann and Peter, we celebrate the summer arrival of fresh mussels, from the northern coast. We cook the mussels with onion, a few spices, and, of course, beer. With a side of Belgian fries and mayonnaise (see the following blog post), the meal is perfect. We spend the night around the table, eating, drinking, and talking.

I could not be more grateful, to be welcomed and sent off in the same way: with great hospitality and great beer.

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