When Nomads Dream: Of Kitchens and Pantries

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In Sicily, I’m dreaming of kitchens.

Lately, I’ve had very domestic dreams. Things like waking up and making oatmeal pancakes with bananas and toasted walnuts and maple syrup. Yeah, you know you want it.

I dream of making chicken pot pie. I wish I could have tourtiere for Christmas. I might try making tourtiere anyhow, but I worry about the flour and the pie pan and the meat and all of that. It’s just more complicated.

Mostly, it’s not that I’m not resourceful enough to make these things abroad – it’s that 3+ years of my life have now been spent being 100% resourceful all the time. The fantasy isn’t really making the oatmeal pancakes – it’s padding casually into my kitchen and rifling through my pantry and just magically having everything I need for the breakfast I want, and all the labels being in English.

Hell, the fantasy IS the pantry. Stuff! My stuff! A bottle of fish sauce, just THERE when the thought arises. A bottle of Worcestshire sauce so I’ve got that little bit of oomph a meatloaf needs. And don’t tell me I can buy that stuff abroad – if I bought every “background ingredient” I needed for my whimsical cooking urges, I’d literally spend over $500 in a year, if not far more, for things I use once or twice then leave behind for the property owner. That stuff adds up fast, especially abroad – where it comes with a premium price, if you can even find it. When I move back to Canada, I’ll do one shopping trip where that’s all I buy – pantry staples, and you’ll see how pricey it is just domestically to make a pantry starter-kit.

When I had a home, I’d make this kind of thing all the time on weekends. I had a good pot for poaching eggs, I had a double-boiler for making Hollandaise sauce — which is sadly missing here. I had a Corningware dish I’d “toast” my rosti in, in my toaster oven, while getting everything else ready. It was a ritual. But most of the time when travelling, I don’t know who has good avocados, I don’t have a box grater, I don’t even have the right vinegar for the egg water. So this was a rare treat.

I dream of A LOAF PAN, EVEN. Don’t even speak about muffin tins to me. DO NOT EVEN. I cannot tell you how much I long to make my “everything but the sink” muffins or just classic oatmeal-blueberry muffins. And that smell! The beautiful aroma wafting around the apartment as it bakes… oh! The stuff of dreams.

Once, when I was a girl, we came home from an overnight adventure to find the ladder propped up against our living room window and the window ajar – the only thing stolen? My mother’s blueberry muffins. Mom’s muffins were legendary in the neighbourhood, so much so that one of my earliest memories is my six-year-old brother wandering around, singing “I am the muffin man, the muffin man, the muffin man!” Do you know how unsatisfying commercial muffins are, compared to proper home-baked ones? And, worse, European commercial muffins, which are essentially cupcakes? Blech!

My muffinless nomadic heart weeps for quickbreads.

And I long for things like making a roast and having Yorkshire pudding and not worrying that an AirBNB host will freak out about grease splatter in the oven. I mean, god forbid you actually live in your “live like a local” home or anything.

This is pasta with green beans, a jarred pistacho pesto, and sundried tomatoes. It’s heavenly, but back home in Canada, I’d likely make the pesto from scratch. I already know my kitchen will have a mortar and pestle in it. It’ll be heavenly to make rustic pesto from scratch when life is less complicated.

The fantasy is also about not clogging store aisles while using Google Translate to see if it’s the right ingredient, or to Google what flour is best to use for pastries in Italy. It’s about not buying a bottle of “vanilla essence” from a store catering to African immigrants in an Italian city, knowing it’s not real vanilla but is “safe for consumption” (well, thank god for that), but having no clue where to find the real deal.

And do you know when the last time was that I bought something abroad, had it been wrong, and was able to return the purchase? Never. Not ever. (Except through Amazon, but don’t get me started on how complicated that can be, just receiving it, because I might have to remind you of the Parcel Force Parcel Farce debacle that unfolded in my first six months as a nomad.)

The first time I’m back in Canada and I buy the wrong thing at a store and take it back and get a refund, I’m either going to laugh giddily or cry with relief. In fact, I might do it on purpose because it’s such an exciting idea. Just casually, you know, buy the wrong cream. Ask for a refund while slyly eyeing the cashier, knowing they’ll just look at my receipt then do that hoodoo-voodoo sexy magic with the cash register – ca-ching! – and GIVE ME MY MONEY.

I saw these incredible carrots in Bari, Italy, and I was so hopeful that I’d see some like them in Sicily, but no. I wanted nothing more than to roast these. But… no. How glorious would a roasted carrot soup be with these? So glorious.

I’m still enjoying aspects of being abroad. I know I’m lucky to be in Italy. But yeah, if I was returning to Canada tomorrow, I would be elated just for the simplicity-of-life thing. For instance, my iPhone battery needs replacing and back home it’d be $29 and I could pop into an official Apple Store to deal with it. Abroad, I’ve got to deal with some unauthorized reseller and I’m not assured a replacement for that price. In fact, I’ll likely have to pay over $100, because my currency is worth so little in Europe. That’s just part of the deal with being a nomad abroad. What’s a girl to do?

Of course, I know parts of being back in Canada will rub me the wrong way, but it’s kind of like with family – they might be annoying, but they’re your kind of annoying.

And I am so, so tired of being taken advantage of abroad. This week, I made the incredibly naïve mistake of knowing I was being charged €1.60 for my sausage, then giving the guy €2.60, and having him give me €0.50 as my change (should have been €1) and him acting like that was fine. I argued, he gave me another €0.20, but that was all I was getting from him. These guys pretend they don’t understand what I’m saying and it drives me mental. I was THIS CLOSE to using my “I Watched The Sopranos So I Can Swear In Italian” potty-mouth on the guy.

The other day, a guy tried to tell me the toilet paper was €2, when I’ve paid between €1.20 to €1.50 everywhere else. I was clearly pissed, demanded my original money back, so he gave me the €0.50 change for that purchase, but COME ON. I expect to have to be vigilant about Big Things like getting robbed or mugged, because I’m a tourist and it’s a thing, but being vigilant about BUYING TOILET PAPER? SERIOUSLY?

Then there are the folks who go, “Hey. Relax. You can afford to overpay some.” Oh? I can? I can afford €1.50 overpayment on things that cost €3.10? And how often do you just casually shrug off paying an extra 50% for daily necessities? Are you doing it every few days, weekly? How about for three years in a row?

I’m not on vacation. This is my day-to-day life, so all of that just adds up to my being hoodwinked. Whether it’s paying €5 for a €2.49 wine, or it’s overpaying for an iPhone battery, it’s that kind of slow-drip constant barrage that makes a nomad chuckle dismissively in the first couple months, but after two or three years of it in country after country, it’s not okay anymore. And it’s why you really need to stay for a month or more when nomadding, because you’ll be robbed blind for the first two weeks in some places.

I feel like Liz Lemon at least five times a week while I’m a nomad. Someone’s always overcharging me, but they play the “well, you don’t speak my language, so OOPS” card. And yeah, they’re right, it’s my problem that I don’t speak their language, but I’m quite confident they know remedial math too. It’s just part of the price when living this life.

When I get back to Canada, I get to enjoy the protection of the Scanner Price Accuracy Code via the Retail Council of Canada! I mean, oh, I never thought I’d long for bureaucracy, but sign me up, baby.

This girl’s bullshit-meter runneth over. I ain’t having it anymore.

In theory.

But, in reality, for the next 4.5 months, until my nomadic life abroad ends, it’s likely that I’ll occasionally be helpfully relieved of my money by unscrupulous persons. It’s happened in Bosnia and Serbia and Morocco and Thailand and Cambodia. It was probably Vientianne, Laos, that left the worst taste in my mouth as far as overpaying went. I left there just furious. At least in Sicily I know there’s the mafia element that has always made things a little dubious here. It’s part of the, um, “flavour.”

In the meantime, I’m dreaming of kitchens. Stoves where the gas isn’t so powerful and I can actually simmer a stew. A cast iron Dutch oven, a kitchen where I want to make bread, in an apartment that feels like home because, well… it is.

Sometimes, I can’t believe I’ve lasted this long as a nomad. I was raised by a true “home-maker.” My mom loved to decorate, and my father had a renovation company. Together, they literally built my childhood home – from clearing the lot to laying the foundation and framing the house. I remember Dad pulling old oak floors from demolition-ready homes and refinishing it for our house. I remember going shopping with my mom to choose carpet for the spare bedroom – a funky green velour that was the perfect “grass” under my Fisher-Price play towns. I remember Sunday afternoons cooking the roasts, decorating for Christmas, and the frequent familiar smell of paint or wallpaper glue as rooms got periodic makeovers.

Home wasn’t just walls and a roof in my world, it was everything. It was comfort and decor and personality and style. It was a representation of who we were, the minute you stepped in the door.

For over three years I’ve meandered through an endless stream of apartments, some with no soul and others with too much of it. I can tell you what the most over-used fake plant in the world is, and what the most common cheap chairs are. I know an Ikea mattress just by the look of a corner of it, and I know how to use any kind of stove I find in a kitchen.

But I can’t tell you what it feels like to feel at home in any of them, because that’s not what they are.

Home, it turns out, is something more intangible. I won’t need a lot for a home to feel like home, but I’m making a list.

Thus far, the list has a lot of specific things – a wool duvet, a nice pillow. A cast-iron Dutch oven, kitchen gadgets from the secondhand shop… a muffin tin.

So, I’m dreaming of kitchens. And blueberry muffins too.

I am the muffin Steff, the muffin Steff… blueberry muffins from Smitten Kitchen.

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