Tell it on a mountain: Homesick for home cooking

By Rachel Slajda

This is the fourth in a biweekly series following the journey of a Northeastern student studying abroad in Perugia, Italy.

I am the rock-paper-scissors champion of Perugia.

In an Olympic tournament a couple weeks ago, I took home the gold – 30 euros and five free drinks at one of the Irish pubs in town.

Not to brag or anything.

The victory is one of the highlights of the past two weeks, which have seen little sun and plenty of rain. My fake-Burberry galoshes, which inspired a British professor to exclaim, “Those are the best Wellies I’ve ever seen!” sprung a leak and I spent a few stubborn days walking around with my left foot sodden.

But I’m used to the bad weather. Growing up in Connecticut and living in Boston made me familiar with cursing the sky, and the weather just makes me think of home.

I have now recognized my bouts of homesickness as mostly restlessness. No matter where I am, Someplace Else sounds better. It manifests itself mostly in long, intense discussions about food. I mourn the lack of Mexican food and am comforted by the other American students missing the food of other cultures and of their own families.

My roommate’s parents came to visit from New Orleans last week, cooking us a big meal of chicken and mashed potatoes. We joyfully feasted on the comfort food and talked about our Thanksgiving and Christmas spreads back home.

You’d think the Italian cooking would be good enough for us, especially judging by that ever-growing pinch of fat around my belly.

Fortunately, I got a taste of home – not my home, but a home – when I went to Gent, a small and beautiful university town in Belgium filled with bicycles and canals. I stayed with the van Dammes, a family with whom my mother lived when she spent her senior year of high school abroad. I’d heard about them all through childhood. When my mother told them I was coming to Italy, they offered to show me around.

I stayed with Astrid, her husband Najib and their 14-year-old daughter, Marta, and I met two of the other sisters and their mother. They showed me around Gent, Brussels and Brugge and fed me big meals around a family table full of family conversation.

I couldn’t understand the words – they spoke Flemmish and French to each other, English to me – but the way they spoke and laughed and teased was familiar. I realized that I had never gone so long without seeing my family for a weekend.

Belgium is famous for its chocolate, its french fries (no stop at Wendy’s will ever measure up) and its beer. And they take their beer seriously. When Najib and I first got to the house, he offered me a choice from their varied selection.

He poured my Leffe Blonde into a Leffe glass. Later, he poured my Trappist beer into a Trappist glass; my Du Demon into a Du Demon glass. It’s in poor taste, he told me, to do it any other way.

Najib quickly became one of my favorite people. When he picked me up, our conversation began tentatively with questions. One of my questions as we left the parking lot was “Are you from Belgium?”

“No, I’m from Iraq.”

Cue awkward pause.

I was thinking to myself, “So how ’bout that whole my-country-invading-your-country thing?”

But I learned, through several long conversations about America and Europe, education, racism, socialism and journalism, that he certainly didn’t hold my origins against me.

We didn’t really talk about the war, though. He left Iraq when he was my age and traveled for 30 or so years, and our talks about the world rid me, at least temporarily, of that handicapping homesickness. They reminded me that I’m here to meet people I could never meet in the States, to talk and to learn.

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