“A Bellini as a starter dish… hmm, how intriguing.”
And that’s how it usually starts.
Dishes on restaurant menus fall into three categories for me – the ones I like the sound of, the ones I don’t fancy, and the ones which I don’t have a clue what they are. One of the latter is usually what I eventually opt for.
Pondering how a chef would turn the Italian peach purée and Prosecco cocktail into something that was suitable to eat as an entrée was enough of a hook to make me order one.
A year ago Andy and I sat on the terrace of a shepherd’s hut on a plateau in Slovenia whilst I tucked into a bowl of gruel otherwise known as buckwheat mush and sour milk. Why? Because it was there… and I hadn’t eaten buckwheat mush and sour milk before.
The unfamiliar simply has more allure than the familiar.
I knew this was the case with food and travel experiences in general, but a discussion about a future which, thanks to Brexit, is uncertain made me realise that both of us also subconsciously relished the unfamiliar in everyday life far more than we had realised.
Discussing what would happen if, come the end of 2020, we are ‘kicked out’ of Europe thanks to the (spit) wishes of others (am I bitter? you bet I am. I’m Buffy in episode 3 of season 6 of Buffy the Vampire Slayer bitter) we talked about the scenario where we might have to return to Britain.
Initially, and trying to look on the positive side, the idea of not having to formulate words in another language before undertaking any transaction held a giddy appeal. In the last few days Andy was taken into the dim depths of a retrosaria (old-fashioned haberdasher) on a back street in Setúbal in order to find the perfect replacement button for a pair of shorts; I had my first post-lockdown haircut, explaining to a Brazilian barber in bad Portuguese how I wanted it cut; and I arranged to have the front two tyres of our car changed at a local garage. Their shocking baldness was pointed out to us by Andy’s brother John and our nephew Liam whilst we were in France… just before the 1600 km drive back to Portugal.
None of these things are remarkable, but each required using different subsets of words (hairdresser words, haberdasher words, mechanical mutterings – of which I’m poor in English let alone another language). Here’s the thing, when you’re in a land where your foreignness stands out like the proverbial sore thumb, where your grasp of the language is pitiful, every little transaction that you manage successfully feels like a small victory. It can be hellishly frustrating and depressing when it doesn’t work out, but most of the time we are rewarded with surges of feel-good adrenaline just by achieving simple tasks we wouldn’t think twice about doing in Britain.
When we first moved abroad, feeling different from those around us, like awkward outsiders, was intimidating and off-putting. I remember a tiny Mexican bar on a back street in Puerto de la Cruz whose counter I yearned to sit at, but I just didn’t have the bottle to enter.
Now I’d walk straight in without hesitation. Being an awkward outsider has become normal to such an extent there’s a fear that not having to struggle to communicate; of understanding exactly how to do things in any number of situations; of being able to tell a fishmonger exactly what you want him to do with a piece of monkfish, might actually make everything feel far too easy to the point of being banal. Sounding the same as everyone else around might even seem a wee bit dull.
A world where unfamiliarity is a regular visitor has become highly addictive – an addiction we’re not keen to relinquish.
The Bellini arrives; there’s no evidence of Prosecco or peach – it’s shocking green with a dollop of Chantilly cream on top. It looks more like a detox smoothie than a ‘creative’ version of a sinfully good cocktail. It is also disgusting, the cream and green combination really doesn’t work, it makes me feel quite queasy. Andy laughs at my expression and says “that’s what you get for always picking the oddest thing on the menu.”
There are times I really, really wish I’d stuck to strolling down familiar street.