Monday, January 05, 2015

a look back on life abroad: quesadilla confessions

In the somewhat recent past, I called Copenhagen, Denmark my temporary home.  I still remember the excitement of accepting a contract position at a study abroad company overseas. I had always romanticized the life of an expat, and even after living the reality, I still romanticize it to some extent.  It is an undeniably lucky scenario when you have the opportunity to live and work in an international setting, and when locals generously let you into their routines and traditions. And for a food enthusiast, each daily trip to the grocery store is an adventure. 
Despite my affection for southern California food culture, I had always longed to live among the traditional butchers, bakeries, and specialty cheese shops of Europe.  
And they saw plenty of me, as I made it my mission to sample their work as much as my budget would allow (too meager for a Noma visit, but big enough to invest in some modest hunks of artisan cheese now and then if I kept my priorities straight.)  

But the dirty secret of expat life is that for every 10 life-changing, mouth-watering experiences in food culture you take advantage of while abroad (like this), you have one moment of a hometown food craving that threatens to defeat the very purpose of your journey (like this.)  The roller coaster might start when the Danish government tells you they are experiencing backlogs processing international work visas, and your first day of work is scheduled for the next day.  Or maybe it's the day when the local police pull you over in the bike lane on your commute home because you forgot to turn your bike lights on, threatening a fine that would equal all the kroner you budgeted for groceries that month (don't worry, I talked my way out of that one.)  Or the day the internet is on the fritz and you have to cancel a Skype call home.  Daily events and frustrations seem just a little bit more dramatic when you're far far away from everything familiar.

I suspect all expats have their moments of weakness, when they crave the comfort food of home.  When you're serious about exploring food, you land in the airport like a tough guy and take the culinary-driven expat vows: Every meal shall be different.  I will not go to Americanized chain restaurants. I will not eat at tourist traps where every flag of every nation in the world is advertised on the menu (with each dish translated into your home language.) I will not eat at the same restaurant twice.  I will be an expert in menu Danish, if not in Danish itself (a very hard language to master.) And so on, and so on.  But then reality sinks in.  You miss your loved ones, you're in the cold of the Scandinavian winter, and it happens: you buy some tortillas and cheese, melt yourself a quesadilla right there on the stove, and dip it into a pool of the generic, not-at-all-spicy Danish supermarket salsa.  What you wouldn't give for some Tapatio or Cholula at that moment.  Every expat has their moment of quesadilla shame-- the dish might change, but the emotion is the same.  

Some ingredients do not have an equivalent overseas, and for me this was the case with California Haas avocados.  The avocados in my neighborhood market were so disappointing, I stopped buying them (which led to a good 6 month long guacamole-only bender upon returning stateside.)  It may seem obvious that not every day can be a postcard worthy adventure when you're living a semi-normal life in a new country and just trying your best not to piss people off in the bike lane during your commute to and from work.  That being said, I tried my best to make an exceptional effort to explore. 

I ate at most of the buttery Danish dough-driven bakeries in the city, noshed on smørrebrød (open faced sandwiches) with knife and fork in hand (the Danish method of sandwich consumption), visited old school butchers and tried to translate animal body part names from English to Danish, and had many many adventures in between.  And on some of the brutally rainy days?  I confess, I threw in the occasional grilled cheese and tomato soup.  Despite my expat food vows, I'm only human. 

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