Wednesday, September 10, 2008

A Blank Canvas and British Reserve

When my cook books finally arrived after spending 5 mths gettinng to Albania, I found myself poring over them again, not weeping as I did in Sri Lanka realising how useless most of them wd be, but gleefully, realising all the things I could cook. It seemed like lots in comparison. I then found myself indulging in what was, no doubt, escapism or therapy, mentally planning meals for friends back home; thinking how Simon, an ex butcher, would love a good meat or curry meal, Big John, the traditionalist, Lanacshire Hot Pot or stew with dumplings, Giles with his addiction to chocolate, a roulade or chocolate mousse, Michael, just about anything as long as it was pudding, and Andy something simple, but impressive he could add to his 5 recipe repertoire. Strange it's always men. I think it's because I know my female friends are just grateful that someone else is releasing them from the daily grind, and cooking a meal for them, whereas our male friends are much more vocal about what they like to eat.

We have begun the slow, and sometimes wearying process of making friends and trying to settle, but it doesn't have the cosy comfort and warm familiarity of sitting down with friends who've known and loved you for a long time, for whom you are not a blank canvas. I miss the ease and tease of established relationships: even after long gaps, being able to pick up the brush, paint in a few missing details, and then carry on the unfinished painting.

Here it sometimes feels a bit more like 'paint by numbers'; artificial, and clumsy. And not terribly good.

Having said that I think we are further on than I thought.

We had a 'dinner party' on Saturday to celebrate M's birthday. 6 people for a meal. Haven't done that in, oh 2 yrs and 8 mths. I couldn't bear to cook in Sri Lanka, much as I normally love it. They say, if you can't stand the heat, get out of the kitchen. So I did. But I missed it.

It was great to be cooking again. And yes I felt it was quite an achievement that 8 mths after arriving, there were 6 people we could call friends who we wanted to spend the evening with. And who wanted to spend it with us.

The weather is still hot here in September. 30' hot, but cooler in the evenings, so we ate out on the balcony surrounded by candles (and many pots of basil, due to my over enthusiastic hand when sowing) It was a balmy evening, no breeze. The builders had stopped building, the lion wasn't roaring (zoo's next door) and even the newts in the lake had packed up and gone quiet.

It was a lovely night. Idyllic almost. And it was fun getting to know these people. It hadn't quite started out that way however:

To start with, I'd gone shopping for lamb with a friend who speaks Albanian. I am getting more used to the fact that the countries I end up in don't cater for control freaks. I just have to wing it and decide on the day, according to what's in the shops, what I'm going to cook. No planning. Well I planned loosely, and was prepaered to deviate if necessary. Actually I'd planned specifically. Lamb shanks, because I knew lamb was in the shops, and even shanks had been spotted by this friend. So I was feeling confident.

The 1st shop had sold out of lamb shanks. The butcher, though, was very helpful and did suggest if we waited half an hour he wd have a whole lamb coming into the shop. I didn't want to seem callous, but I didn't want to wait around for the death throes of this lamb, and anyway, unless it was a less successful 'Dolly the sheep', (i.e with 8 legs) would only have 4 shanks anyway, so we moved on.

The next butcher had lamb but no shanks so I decided to buy leg. This meant literally buying the whole leg, ie complete with 30+ cm of leg bone attached. It also had something else attached. No idea what it was, I didn't wan tto conjecture too much, but it was in the other butcher's too, something like a small rugby ball in a membrane dangling from the sheep. I didn't ask, and thought it wd be impolite to ask for it to be removed, as I'm sure it was some delicacy as Albanians do love their offal. I cut it off and binned it when I got home, knowing the street dogs, at least, would be grateful, and my non- Albanian guests no less so....

On Saturday morning, I experienced another of those miscommunications that has its roots in cultural codes. Or maybe I should come clean and just admit I'm a bit dim.....

An Albanian friend (who has lived in the U.S and U.K for 9 yrs, in the UK with friends who entertained all the time) ) texted to say could she bring a friend? This threw me somewhat as I had told her it was a dinner party. First my control freakism responded with 'how on earth can I stretch 8 individual cheese souffles into 9'??

And then the polite Englishwoman reared her well-mannered head, to ask how I was going to manage to say no politely? So I used the 'not enough food' ploy. In itself a shaming fact in ALbania. But I couldn't think of anything else....

I then asked her to bring something warm as we would be eating outside on the baclony. She replied with asking me what time to come and then added 'my mum's going to make stuffed peppers to bring'. She lives with her parents, as do almost all adults here until they are married, even after marriage actually.

This really confused me. a.) how was this relevant? and b.) Further consternation. 'Oh no she' thinks her parents have been invited, and is bringing them too'

Now the Englishwoman was in a blind panic. How could I avert this disaster? Politely. I could just imagine the scenario that evening as people arrived:

To couple number 1 "Oh how kind you've brought some wine, thank you"

To friend number 2 "Some flowers, how nice."

To friend number three "Oh, some stuffed peppers.....AND your parents too. You really shouldn't have."

What to do?

In the end I just bit the bullet said I was terribly sorry but there'd been a misunderstanding about her parents and how we'd love to have them another time.

She replied, sounding rather confused herself, "No, hon it's only me coming but you said to 'bring something warm', so my mum's making me stuffed peppers to bring"

So much for abbreviated text speak.... Why didn't I just say 'bring a cardi'?

I don't think I'll ever be an Olympian when it comes to cultural hurdling.


Iota said...

I love the picture of friendship as a painting.

The slow grind of getting to know new people can be exhausting, can't it? But yes, 6 people after 8 months is good going!

charlie said...

6 friends in 8 months is EXCEPTIONAL in a foreign clime. But yes it takes a lot more effort to start all over again as it were. Glad you are back to cooking again, it might inspire me to pop over.

GM said...

Chocolate addict? I could give up tomorrow. Honest. No problem.....

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