“What gives value to travel is fear. It is the fact that, at a certain moment, when we are so far from our own country … we are seized by a vague fear, and the instinctive desire to go back to the protection of old habits. This is the most obvious benefit of travel. At that moment we are feverish but also porous, so that the slightest touch makes us quiver to the depths of our being. … This is why we should not say that we travel for pleasure. There is no pleasure in traveling, and I look upon it as an occasion for spiritual testing. … Pleasure takes us away from ourselves in the same way that distraction, in Pascal’s use of the word, takes us away from God. Travel, which is like a greater and graver science, brings us back to ourselves.” —Albert Camus, Notebooks
I miss my cookbooks—though there wouldn’t be much point in having them here. Our kitchen has only a few staples (salt, pepper, olive oil), and we don’t want to spend money stocking the cupboard, so we make do with what we’ve got. Leftovers reheated or enhanced, take-out (sebou) soups and lasagnas, simple pasta sauces, a roast chicken. Today it’s cabbage soup, inspired in part by an old New Yorker article I began reading over breakfast. As I downed the day’s portion of muesli and yogurt and read about traditional Russian cuisine—pickled cabbage and smoked meats—I began concocting a soup in my mind. Such is culinary life in a country with a short growing season and long winter.
Something as simple as the evening meal returns me to myself—I love to cook—even as it takes me away from the familiar. (When’s the last time I made anything with kielbasa, or klobasa, as it’s called here?)
Even the act of buying fish the other night came close to Camus’s spiritual test. Trying in my non-Czech to tell the woman at Tesco that I wanted two pieces of salmon, I felt the language-bearing regions of my mind running through their circuits, scanning the possibilities: duecenti grammi? docientos gramos? zwei Stück? dos trozos … ? I finally shrugged and began pointing as the woman moved her knife back and forth across the fish’s flesh. At last the knife paused just where I wanted it—
Ano! I cried happily. Ano!! Yes!!