Slice of Home

Last weekend I had the pleasure of reuniting with old friends and introducing a German to the culinary joys of a typical American Thanksgiving. The top hits were, predictably, pecan pie, pumpkin pie, turkey with cranberries, and stuffing. Green beans, mashed potatoes, sweet potato pie, and bread rolls filled the rest of the table and I heard about more desserts than I was able to glimpse before they were gone. Wine, beer, and Glühwein flowed (we are in Germany, after all), and discussion of the World Cup replaced that of Bowl games. This was a context that just made sense to me and I belonged right there.

The atmosphere was warm, relaxed, and utterly welcoming, bringing the Yiddish word heimish to mind. This word comes from heim or home, and is used to describe the familiar or homey feeling of a place. Heim is also a German word and making this connection reminded me of the Dutch word gezellig, used to describe everything cozy from a physical environment to the feeling of an evening with friends or seeing each other again after a long absence. Gezellig is one of those “untranslatable” words into English and, as I understand it, has a far deeper meaning than its German cousin, gesellig, which refers to the sociability of individuals.

What I enjoyed about the evening was not only watching the reaction to the first tastes of the aforementioned traditional dishes, but also soaking in the atmosphere in which about thirty people, only some of whom knew each other, made themselves at home in a home set up exactly for that. When too many of us were crowded into the kitchen (which is not large enough to accommodate a table and chairs), people moved first to the dining room where they stood or settled into chairs pushed back against the walls, and then to the long picnic tables on the enclosed porch. Acting on a need for a drinks table, more space for desserts, or a different location for the plates required a request for help from the closest person and then the space was modified. Heimish indeed.

I spent the vast majority of my time in the kitchen, my preferred place to be in large gatherings, chatting to whomever came in to drop off an empty plate, fill a glass with Glühwein, ask for another spoon, or check the progress of the stuffed, and unhurried, turkey. The guests came from all over the world and had lived all over the world, and we cheerfully exchanged backgrounds over the common ground question: What is your connections to the hosts? I saw some people for the first time when they were gathering their coats to leave and some names stuck as quickly as others disappeared from my working memory. I didn’t always realize whose partner was whose and found myself in multiple conversations about food in Singapore.

Something that I really like about Thanksgiving is that people are always so appreciative of having somewhere to go and people to celebrate with. For those who grew up with a big American Thanksgiving, introduced to my family during our first year living in the States, this is the time of year when being together is critical. It is a holiday centred on food and harvest, a holiday where we gather to enjoy one another’s company as the days get shorter, darker, colder. Thanksgiving is a time to come together and to remember that communing around food is something that all humans have in common, that harvest and the seasons are a product of the turning of the Earth. I have found that a Thanksgiving amongst strangers does not stay one among strangers for long, and that everyone is there for the same reason: We are all just humans looking to eat, drink, and gather.

I am thankful for being part of the day and I am thankful, especially, for the lovely people who were in the kitchen with me.

Weimar, Germany – November 2022

Up at Night

It took me a long time to fall asleep the other night and I knew exactly why. I was spinning scenarios in my head of conversations that hadn’t occurred but could occur (although in daylight, it seems far more likely that they would not occur) and how I would feel should that come to pass. I could have listed a variety of negative emotions to describe my mental state that night, including disappointed, frustrated, or sad, but the emotion I kept returning to was fear.

And I realized that the reason I was afraid, the reason I was experiencing the negative emotions of fear, disappointment, frustration, and sadness, was because I had run into something that mattered.

And I took comfort in this thought because we are not bothered by things that don’t matter to us. We do not lie awake at night overthinking, mulling over, fretting about what is meaningless. Rather, we find ourselves troubled precisely because we care. If we didn’t, there would be nothing to think about. Coming to this realization calmed me enough that I fell asleep.

I’d be more bothered, I think, if the thoughts had floated into my mind without my noticing. That would mean there was no depth, no substance, no weight to any of it. And while I don’t need to lie awake to know that something matters to me, while I have practiced enough meditation to know how to recognize a thought and its sensations and then (still with a good deal of effort) set it to rest, the experience was nevertheless a nice affirmation that I haven’t lost track of what I would like my world to hold.

I don’t want to say that experiencing negative emotions is a positive thing, and I don’t want to dismiss the persistent sadness and hopelessness that characterize depression, for example. However, I do want to reframe what it might mean, for instance, to experience stress before an exam or job interview, to deeply miss someone, to feel an ache because a chapter of our lives has ended. Feeling this way means that something important is at stake or has been part of our experience. Life without emotional valence would be hollow indeed.

If the world were nothing but sunshine, I wonder if we’d stop seeing it after a while. And if it were only dark clouds, perhaps we’d stop looking for that break of sunshine. We need the whole spectrum, I think, to appreciate what it is that we have before us and what it is that matters to us. It’s not pleasant to lie awake and ruminate, but I’d gladly take the rumination over not having cared deeply at all.

Plitvice Lakes National Park, Croatia – October 2022

Travel Guide: Dubrovnik

My parents and I started our trip to Croatia with two nights in Zagreb, after which came three nights in Split. Dubrovnik was our final stop and as before, we reached our destination in the dark. But the trip leading to Dubrovnik was full of colour and anticipation.

We decided to take the scenic route along the coast, which was breathtaking. I am forever lost in the majesty of cliffs that drop off into sea, the islands in the distance, the colours of the water and sky, the villages that appear and then, just as suddenly, are gone.

The drive was indeed stunning, but we also decided to stop and explore. Our first stop was Biokovo Nature Park, essentially a nature preserve comprising of the mountains along the coast. I’d read that the best way to see the park is to drive up the road (be ready for serpentines and some negotiation with other drivers), ride an e-bike, or take a guided walk. Now having been there, I’m not sure where a guided walk would have gone as we didn’t see any paths. Rather, we pulled off the road at a point wide enough for a couple of cars and my mum and I spent some minutes scrambling up rocks.

Back in the car, we followed the road to the Skywalk, which seemed to be the primary attraction. The Skywalk is exactly what it sounds like – a glass bridge where you can walk above the cliffs and stand at the edge of the world.

After lunch at the only restaurant, which was frequented by horses and a mule in addition to the patrons at tables outside, we drove to Baćina Lakes, which is easier said than done. It was only with the aid of several blogs, several maps, and sheer dumb luck that we found a) the lakes and b)somewhere to park. This is the type of adventure that comes from travelling outside of high season when the campgrounds and kayak rentals, from which it would be easy to get directions, are closed. I’d read about beaches and a cycling/walking trail circling the seven lakes, but as Baćina Lakes was off the coastal road, it wasn’t immediately obvious where we were or where we needed to be. In the end, after a brief attempt at visiting the tourist information centre in the nearby city of Ploče, the address of which led us to an abandoned bus depot, we put Peračko Blato Beach into the GPS because I found it listed on a blog and there we were! Another car, a camper, and a few people sunning themselves at a tiny beach heralded our arrival. More importantly, we had reached an are with very well-marked walking trails that clearly went around beautiful lakes.

There were signs detailing information about the flora and fauna and the air smelled like spring. We saw pomegranate and olive trees and a wide variety of plants and flowers, as well as a snake and a jaw containing rather a lot of teeth. Considering we were following a black dog with a wagging tail who had come to greet us at the car and proceeded to walk in front of us for the entirety of our time at Baćina Lakes, we gave the skull a wide berth.

Throughout the day, we’d seen whole families spreading blankets underneath trees on the sides of the road and picking olives. We pulled over to do the same, which is when we learned that olives are not like apples and you cannot simply eat what you pull off a tree. After that, we left the olive trees to the locals, who clearly knew what they were doing.

Our last stop of the day was at a rest area that specialized in wine tastings. We didn’t stay for long, nor did we taste any wine, but remained for long enough to sit silently and stare out at the view.

Night comes fast at this time of year and Dubrovnik was quiet when we arrived.

The following day was our only day to explore, and the weather was glorious. Warm bordering on hot with bright blue skies and a breeze that came out from the harbour. I had one intention for Dubrovnik and that was to walk on the city walls, which are a UNESCO World Heritage site. When I paused to think about just how old these walls were, I had to wonder about anything we build today. Will anything last like the walls have lasted? Wherever possible, I like to visit the highest point in a city and look down. It makes me feel tiny, just like standing in a forest and looking up.

Dubrovnik is beautiful and we spent some time in the afternoon just strolling around. There are tiers of stairs all over the old town and each leads to another street or alley, stone buildings on top of stone staircases. As elsewhere in Croatia, Dubrovnik is also host to many well-behaved stray cats. We passed a small market and I bought some flavoured salt from the town of Ston, which we had passed on our drive.

Later in the afternoon, my dad and I took the cable car to the top of Srd Hill, from which you can look out to Dubrovnik, the surrounding mountains, and neighbouring Montenegro.

We spent some time on the walking paths, as well, and were lucky enough to watch a herd of sheep as they dutifully followed their shepherd.

Early the following morning, well before sunrise, we were off to the airport. My only expectations of Croatia came from what I’d heard from my siblings and friends who had visited – that it’s beautiful, that the people are wonderful and helpful, that it’s calm and relaxing and easy to explore. All I can add, I think, is that Croatia exemplifies strength – the strength to create, to survive, and to rebuild. It was a real pleasure to be there.

Photos, travels, musings, and ideas on education by someone trying to make the world a better and more peaceful place