The essence of travel might take different forms for different people. For me it’s about history and culture, while taking the opportunity to sample cuisines from all over the world. I’m not a foodie to the extent that I would blog about the last meal I ate, or post pictures of it on Instagram, but I live for new and varied experiences, including gastronomical ones. I visited a school friend in Germany and stayed with her for a few memorable days in October. Besides the trail blazing and urban walking, a significant—and at times unfortunate—part of our European adventures revolved around food.
Our first stop was Karlsruhe, a beautiful and serene city being developed into the cycling city of Germany. We walked through the magnificent Botanical Gardens, home to exotic plants and trees from all over the world. The trees had just begun to change color and the garden was a glorious mixture of hues.
Having worked up quite an appetite, we decided it was time to eat. My friend had been longing to have thali at an Indian vegetarian restaurant there. The thali is Hindi for ‘steel plate’ on which a variety of dishes are served in small bowls with chapatti (Indian flatbread) and dessert. Before you brand me a hypocrite for preaching on indulging in international cuisines and then having that of my own country’s, do keep in mind that India is very diverse and dishes differ from state to state. I agreed with her suggestion since I’d had it only once before.
We had a mild heart attack however, on seeing the price – 18 Euro=7 KD=over 1,500 Indian Rupees! I calculated the opportunity cost of the meal—in Kuwait I could probably have had lobster, and in Mumbai at least four or five thalis at a popular restaurant. As Indians, we were outraged at the thought of eating an Indian meal—a vegetarian one at that—at such a mind-numbingly exorbitant price. While I wouldn’t have had any qualms about walking out in indignation, we were accompanied by a German friend who was horrified at the idea. So we stayed put and ate. I felt cheated, but in retrospect I’ve realized that the things we take for granted just because we’re familiar with them can be of so much more value to others. To the European owner and her customers, the thali was a classic Indian dish which was worth what it cost.
The following day we took the train to Wissembourg, a little French village close to the Franco-German border. We spent a lovely afternoon walking through it. The houses there seemed to have come straight out of children’s books I’d grown up with; there were beautiful floral paintings adorning them and hearts carved out on the shutters. Some houses had vines creeping across them, bunched with grapes ripe for plucking. We walked right across town and hiked up a small hill whose paths were lined with apple and plum trees and tried to dislodge some of the juicier fruit, which was always dangling out of reach a few feet above us.
My friend somehow talked me into ordering escargots (snails) at a French restaurant in the village square; it just seemed logical considering we were in France. Here, every stereotype I’d ever heard about the French turned out to be true, what with the waiter dressed in tight pants and a full-sleeve striped t-shirt with a scarf around his neck, refusing to acknowledge me when I spoke in English or even broken French.
When the snails arrived, swimming in oil, we stared at them in silence for a full minute and then proceeded to eat them together at the count of three. My jaw twitched involuntarily as I chewed on the rubbery, greasy muck. I felt bile rise up to my throat; it took some self-control not to throw up the darned thing.
More culinary adventures followed; we dabbled with German, Moroccan, Chinese, Greek and Indian cuisines and on the last day of my stay, were invited over for lunch by a Brazilian family that only spoke Portuguese and German. Our host exhausted her entire English vocabulary while greeting me with “Hello. How are you? The book is on the table”, which had us all in splits. The table was laden with nothing short of a banquet: fried chicken, Portuguese fish, vegetables in gravy, roast beef, finished off with German cheesecake and pastries, the aroma playing havoc with our olfactory receptors. It was a delectable, hilarious and heart-warming experience, proof that good food transcends language barriers.
A word to those who are cautious about stepping out of their comfort zone, exercise prudence but be open to new cultural experiences. As Confucius so wisely said, “Wherever you go, go with all your heart.”