Food memories

It’s 1987, summer holiday, the start of six weeks of endless days under the French sun. My brother and I, and my parents are leaving the house at 4AM in our brown Volkswagen Jetta. The trunk is filled with a gigantic tent, two suitcases we share, a badminton set, a cassette player with tapes of our favourite fairy tales and a jar of peanut butter.

For the first 12 years of my life every summer holiday took place by us driving to Normandy, stay there for some time, then drive to the Pyrénées-Atlantiques, and stay there some more time. We had these awesome friends in Normandy, and we would spend lots of time in their big garden. The men would roast gigantic pieces of meat on the barbecue. We would drink red wine mixed with water, which was totally fine for kids back then, and chips were considered a perfect alternative to potatoes. Lunch was a three-course hot meal, and dinner was a five-course hot meal, dinner started at 10PM. For dessert there was always a cake, most of the time there were three different options, and my parents allowed us to have them all. It was like a kids heaven.

Especially, since this was slightly different from our Dutch dinners at home which consisted of potatoes, veggies and meat, followed by custard. Every day, 7 days a week, at 6PM. So that we could be in bed by 7PM, 7:30PM in the weekends. Chips where only allowed on Sunday afternoon, cakes where for birthdays, we did not have a barbecue, and water was the only drink available at dinner. So yes, to sum it up, we loved summer holidays. Not just for the food, the company was amazing as well. Good food, happy people, valuable memories.

After this week of eating like a princess and playing outside in the sun, we would move more south towards the mountains and the coast. My parents would always tell us they so much loved the way French meals are prepared so they would try to maintain the same way of eating. After putting up the tent we would go to the local bakery, get some baguette, and fill it with…the Dutch beloved peanut butter that we brought from home.

My parents were strong believers of the phrase: When in France, do as the French. They took this pretty far by telling us to not speak Dutch loudly in public places. “No one needs to know we are Dutch”, was one of the things my brother and I heard more than once. Looking back, as if they could not tell by our super blond hair, faces shining from sunscreen, camera always ready, and our matching summer heads. We must have looked like a textbook Dutch family from a mile away.

Back to miscommunication. See, telling kids to not be loud, becomes a challenge when they get excited. Like me, over French ice cream. I mean, at home we had vanilla, chocolate and strawberry flavours. In France they had cassis, mango and way better tasting vanilla. Whenever I saw an ice cream stand, which during summer holidays in France would be absolutely everywhere, I would run, laugh, dance, and most times eventually cry over this ice cream. Which my parents, how unfair, only bought us once a day. Long story short, this is my first vivid memory of cultural differences. I mean, now in 2018, no food is too ‘foreign’ for us. The average supermarket sells 30.000 products, in the ‘80’s this was 8000. Besides that, look at the Korean barbecues, falafel shops and West African restaurants we now see everywhere. In the ‘80’s ‘Chinese’ food was the most exotic food you could find. I’m putting this between quotations, because it wasn’t even real Chinese food, it was mostly the Dutch idea of what Chinese food would be like.

Food might just be the ideal starting point for any type of communication between cultures. I mean, at the moment half of my weekly groceries come from the Dutch supermarket. The other half comes from the Middle Eastern shop, they have a better butcher and inexpensive mint for my beloved mint tea. Mint tea, that I started to love in 2002 when I lived across the street from Bazar “for all your North African and Middle Eastern food experiences”, still one of my favourite places. It’s not just that, this month UNHCR is organising its third annual refugee food festival, where restaurants open their kitchens for refugee chefs. What an amazing way to start a dialogue. What an amazing way to get to know each other. No better way to start a conversation than over tasty food.

This story might start to relate more to cultural awareness than to intercultural miscommunication, but the line here is thin. Creating cross cultural awareness through meals, I love the idea. As a kid, I understood that when in France, different rules applied. I understood that the different foods, games and bedtimes applied to me while in France. I understood that when we were physically there. I mean, it totally worked in my benefit as a kid. Staying up late, eating cakes, delicious ice creams. I totally did not understand though why, since we all seem to love the French way so much, it did not just continue to be this great when we were back home in the Netherlands. Why back to the potatoes, veggies, meat and custard, if we could have chocolate mousse, lemon pie, pate and all of these other delicious foods?

Part of it probably was the availability of those foods in the Netherlands. Although my parents use to stack up on French foods until literally nothing else would fit in the car. Just imagine my brother and I surrounded by cans of mackerel in mustard, herbs de Provence, and bottles of calvados to take back with us to the Netherlands.

The idea of understanding others through meals is something that I so much appreciate, whether it is to discover the local cuisine of our next holiday destination. Or to welcome and get to know newbie Dutchies. Food connects. Food creates memories.

My parents explained to us, that the culture back at home in the Netherlands was different. We had a 30-minute lunch break, not 2 hours. We also had after school activities, which made an afternoon nap impossible, which made us sleep early in the evening, and therefore did not leave room for a French style dinner at 10PM. With some alterations and an open mind lots seems possible though. We now all buy the famous herbs de Provence in the local supermarket. What’s not to say the same will happen over time with Iraqi kibbeh, Omani cardamom kahwa, and Jamaican bread fruits? As long as we keep the conversation open, it’s better to solve miscommunication than to prevent trying new things in order to avoid miscommunication. Just like the baguette with peanut butter, maybe some kick ass combinations between different cultures will appear. I mean, it’s 30 years later and I still love my peanut butter baguette.