We left our hotel room and followed the wide street with remnants of the former Berlin Wall. I could see the tall spikes protruding the air accompanied by large signs with photos of the past. The apartment buildings around us were new, modern, none of the windows looked out to a divided city. There were lights in some of them, others were half-finished and seemed deserted, like the street. I was sure that the nearby restaurant would already be closed. A few cars idled by, as we pulled the collars and readjusted our caps to shield ourselves from the cold windy evening. Nothing was as we had planned.
The trip to Berlin
It was our first evening in Berlin and until the very last moment, we had questioned our decision to come at all because our flight was out of Venice airport. At a time when all the world news already began and ended with the report on the spread of the new coronavirus in Italy. For two weeks we had followed it with great interest, weighing the pros and cons of going through with the weekend getaway that was meant to mark my 40th birthday. In the end, we had decided to go. I am not sure why, but possibly because at that time we still didn’t know how much worse it was going to get nor were we aware how serious it truly was.
The atmosphere in Venice was unlike anything we had seen. We’ve flown out of Marco Polo airport often and it was always crowded and loud. Excessively so. At the beginning of March, the airport was painfully deserted and silent. I dreaded sitting down, let alone indulging in the cup of the famous Italian cappuccino. I regretted our decision to take the trip that was about unwinding and having fun but I was obsessing over how many times should I wash my hands.
The arrival in Berlin was equally unsettling because there was no sign of the impending doom we had experienced in Venice. Everything was normal, or not, I no longer knew. The airport was crowded with people pushing and shoving in all directions and I kept moving away, standing to the side and trying not to touch anything.
We boarded a bus and as it moved further from the airport the crowds began to thin and all the adrenaline and anxiety slowly ebbed away. That’s when I realised how hungry I was. With so much commotion I had forgotten to eat that day. We dropped the bags in the hotel room and went in search of food. I had done my research and there was a list of things we wanted to try. At that moment the list was gone and the only goal was that the restaurant was close to the hotel and still open.
The first meal
We rushed through the glass door but once inside the typical Vietnamese restaurant with an overabundance of bamboo wood and soft traditional music in the background we stood by the entrance, hesitant. We looked at each other, wondering if perhaps we had arrived too late to be served. It was well past ten and the only two occupied tables had the guests scrapping the reminders of their meal.
As I opened my mouth to ask the hostess if we could still get any food, I was preparing myself for a regretful no. It would be the right ending of a terrible day. Instead she nodded and took us to a secluded table by the window. Swiftly we were handed the menus and our ordered beer arrived moments later. My noodles with shrimp and my husband’s yellow curry soon followed.
Now I am not sure if it was the best drinks and food we had ever tasted, then it certainly felt that way. What had impressed me? I don’t think it had anything to do with the food itself, though I would be doing them a disservice if I didn’t mention it was good. But if I had this same meal back at home, I wouldn’t still be thinking about it months later. It wouldn’t have made me remember all the first meals I’ve had abroad.
An overture to an adventure
There’s something special in arriving into a foreign country, an unknown place, where I feel a bit out of my depths, uncertain. That first meal thus represents more than just a way to satisfy my hunger, it gives me a sense of comfort and reassurance that everything will be alright.
In prehistoric times you had to master your surroundings to be able to catch food and be sated. Travel awakens that primitive feeling in me. Not that I go around cities chasing animals but I do remember every first meal I ate when first arriving in a new place. It’s always an overture, a welcome before I am ready to delve deeper and explore further.
A special meal at home
It’s different at home. I can’t tell Monday’s lunch from Wednesday’s. To remember it, it would have to be truly exceptional. Until we got back home from Berlin and Slovenia announced the pandemic, closed schools, restaurants, and cafes, everything.
We went to the shops and were greeted by empty shelves where until yesterday there was plenty. We had to look around to buy meat, fruits, vegetables almost like the hunters and gatherers of the times past. I can recant every single item we purchased. I recall every single meal we ate the first week. And just like that first meal abroad, these were far from perfect.
But I could taste the welcome to a new reality, could feel the proverbial pat on my back easing my uncertainty.
At the beginning that’s all I needed, but as time went by, I was ready to explore, to let the food transport me to the places we weren’t able to visit, since the lockdown. Just like in Berlin, when after that first meal we had gone on and tried the food the city was famous for such as the currywurst and the Berliner pastry. At home gradually the chicken soup, mashed potatoes, and pasta, were replaced with chili con carne, chicken Korma and Chinese takeaway.
I’ve learned that the perfect meal has little to do with the impeccable technique and expensive ingredients. Because food is not just for sating our physiological needs of hunger, the role of food in our lives is much bigger, from comforting to inciting. It’s how well it answers what you need at that exact moment.
Like many things in life the meals we enjoy the most are about what we make out of given circumstances.