Recently, I posted on Twitter about the weight of our increasingly long list of destinations. Estelle, a long-time follower and now a contributor to The Road Taken: How to Dream, Plan, and Live Your Family Adventure Abroad (she was the grandmother who moved to Italy with husband, daughter and son-in-law, and their infant daughter—a stirring tale and one that had me rethink the idea of permanence) offered a suggestion. Why not have a theme? Some way to organize our trip so as to compare and contrast our experiences. When prodded for what she meant, she tossed out ideas like traveling along the same meridian or night life across the globe.
The former won’t work for us because we’re not willing to box our destinations. But it is true that when I read travelogues, I really like some way to compare places. A common frame gives some dimension, rather than the places being like a series of unrelated postcards.
So I started to think about our global year. I considered some borderline pretentious themes like medieval history (yawn) and folklore (less yawn, though neither is yawn really, I’m fascinated by both of these, but not like I want to make those the focus of our travels).
As I tasted each idea like flavors of fancy gelato, it dawned on my what my natural theme is. A plain and perfect one I’ve been carting around my whole life.
You see, for what seems like forever, the first question that pops into my head when I hear about a culture is, “I wonder what they eat for breakfast?” I’m actually lying here, just a little bit, because I wonder that about anybody not just people in other countries. I once was so tired leaving the county fair, I didn’t realize I’d asked aloud about the guy directing cars, “I wonder what he eats for breakfast?” And that was the first time Keith realized that his wife had a very strange lens through which to see the world.
Why breakfast? I don’t know. Maybe because it has the most variation across countries. Most every culture has their own approach, their own idea about flavor profile, their own notion about how it opens the day. Think about it. If you consider dinner at any two places in the world, they’ll share lots of similarities. Take Palermo and Hanoi: Dinner in Palermo might be couscous and swordfish and a salad. In Vietnam, some rice noodles with marinated strips of beef and greens. Both flavor profiles are savory, both include meat and vegetable and starch, both are eaten at a table (though that table might be knee high in Hanoi), in the evening.
Now breakfast. In Palermo that’s commonly a brioche bun with lemon or almond granita at a bar, while in Vietnam it’s noodle soup at home or at a stand (pho places open early). Not at all similar.
I love that!
Keith says, “You don’t even LIKE breakfast!” which is patently untrue. I just am not a huge pancake person and I don’t like going out for breakfast because it’s ridiculous to spend gobs of money for a meal that I could make for under a dollar. I adored breakfast in Southeast Asia.
As Siena mulled over the notion of breakfast as a theme, she added that the interesting thing about breakfast is that it’s always a surprise. When you think of a culture’s foodways, their dinner options are what spring to mind. If I mention Thailand, you might conjure up pad thai. And that’s accurate, there’s lot of pad thai and variations on that theme in Thailand. But if you stay at a Bed and Breakfast in Bangkok, you will have no idea what’s coming when you show up in the dining room (for us it was exquisitely flavorful satay and rice porridge festooned with pork meatballs and the most intriguing fruits we’d ever seen). It’s a total discovery.
She’s totally right. And as she was talking about it, I realized that that’s because breakfast foods are home foods. Places we’ve traveled, there aren’t breakfast restaurants (unless you count bakeries, and hey, why not! I’ll explore those, too!). In Italy we learned from our neighbors that breakfast is a pastry from the bar or at least something small and sweet, always with coffee. In Asia we got a sense of breakfast from Bed and Breakfasts. Yes, many cater to Western tastes, but they usually had something traditional on the menu. Those traditions can’t be picked up from eating at a few restaurants on your way through a country. It takes going to grocery stores, talking to people, paying attention. If we could stay in Bed and Breakfasts that would be ideal (cost rules that out, we’ll need a kitchen).
So—breakfast. The rituals around it, the place in a culture, the traditional foods, the community at the table (or counter), the idiosyncratic utensils (we have egg coddlers and waffle irons and grapefruit spoons—what will we discover?).
A world of breakfast. I may well be completely alone in this, but I’d not only love to experience that frame, I’d love to read about it (am I alone in this? Please tell me if I am, I have time to change my mind and think more mainstream and crowd-pleasing!).
Food is, as you may have guessed, my weakness, so I’ll be looking to take a cooking class everywhere we go. It’s something I’ve been thinking about since I wrote “The Road Taken”. Lisa, one of the contributors, said that one of the ways they saved money is that rather than spending money on souvenirs, they spent it on cooking classes at each of their destinations. This allowed her family (four teenage daughters!) to save money on going out to eat, because they knew how to use the market to their advantage. Also, those lessons meant that once they returned home, they could recreate meals that transported them to that special chapter in their lives—their global backpacking year. We took cooking classes in Thailand and Vietnam and it’s true that those were highlights of our trip. It’s engaging to have an activity to do together.
While I was mulling breakfast, I was reading in David McAninch’s fine book “Duck Season” (oh yes, Gascony is now on our list) about apéro, or the French custom that sounds awfully close to our aperitivo hour—the early evening ritual of bringing together light food, drinks, and friends. The word even sounds like my favorite aperitivo, the Aperol spritz. I’d love to explore how different cultures open an evening, but I suspect it’s just a European thing? It feels like a ritual that would only flourish where people had plenty of time and money and space. When we were in Asia, one of the things I found challenging was how hurried the meals seemed to be. I like my meals loooooooooong. But it makes sense, right—the whole atmosphere was more hurry scurry, who would have time to sit down and put together a plate of nibbles to enjoy with a long view?
Now, it’s perfectly possible that I just missed it. I was a tourist without a guide. There are no doubt subtleties that escaped me as I struggled just to be understood with my hands because the language was so impossible no amount of training helped me communicate that I wanted a coffee (in a coffee shop, where you’d think they would have enough context to understand—that’s how hard the language was). So I’ll keep my eye out for cross-cultural variations on the theme of cocktail hour, but I suspect that can’t be a theme unless we stick to historically wealthy countries, which I don’t want to do.
I asked the family what they would want for a theme. Keith wasn’t into the idea, though when I mentioned his theme could be distilled liquors, he did suddenly realize the advantages of such a construct.
I suspect whether it’s explicit or not, he’ll also be checking out the coffee situation every single place we go.
Siena said “art” but I think she means that she wants to make art everywhere, rather than she wants to explore the art of each region. I feel certain that exploration will happen though, she is an ardent admirer of art as well as a practitioner. But right now she is so besotted with the idea of a whole year to make art she can’t see past that. She’s going to turn her Instagram page into a kind of blog when she’s traveling. She has an art account already (@Belljnj, in case you are interested), and will either use that one or her social one as a kind of blog. Because, she informs me, no one has blogs anymore.
She may be right, but I’m keeping mine! It’s been satisfying to bring this one back to life. I started Il Bel Centro seven years ago, I feel like such a different person, a different mother, and a different writer. I’m loving being back in the game.
Gabe’s theme will really just be homeschooling. He and Keith will do math together, but he and I will dig into the culture and history of places and then read and write a ton. He’s considering keeping a blog, himself. Hopefully, Siena’s anti-blog message won’t trickle down to Gabe. I’d love to turn his blog into a book and have it as a compendium to mine.
So those are our thoughts!
How about you? If you were to embark on a global travel adventure, would you want a theme or do you think it would limit you? If you would want one, what would it be?
Where have you had your favorite breakfast? I want to hear all about it! If you don’t tell me, I’ll just sit here and wonder.
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