I devoured my French ham and cheese dinner crepe like a starving refugee as my husband inhaled his Japanese noodle dish. I certainly wasn’t actually starving, but we were starving for the tastes of home.
We’d been living in Panama for a year and a half, and this was my husband’s first visit back to the US in a year. We had arrived in LA the afternoon before for a week-long visit with our son and daughter-in-law. The first thing they told us on arrival was, “We’re taking you to Santa Monica for dinner. There’s a food court overlooking the ocean where you can get lots of different types of food so we thought you’d like that.”
Were they ever right! We buzzed around that food court like kids in a candy store. Italian! Japanese! French crepes! American hot dogs and hamburgers! More, more more! My husband opted for Japanese, and I dived into the crepes.Looking out over the Pacific Ocean, we stuffed ourselves shamelessly while enjoying our first in-person conversation with the kids in nearly 18 months.
The next day they had to work, so we were on our own. We ate breakfast at the apartment, then went exploring. At lunchtime, we found ourselves in Porto’s, a wonderful pastry and sandwich shop in downtown Glendale, CA.
I had breakfasted late and wasn’t terribly hungry, but my early-bird husband ordered a pastrami sandwich and a salad. I treated myself to a pastry, then snapped a picture of the remains, and posted it to Facebook for our expat friends back in Panama to see. It amazes me how important food has become to us since we left the US. Our longest list for our month-long trip wasn’t places to go or people to see, it was places to eat.
And eat we did! We ate ourselves silly in three states from California to the East Coast, and across 1280 nautical miles of ocean (that’s 1,472.998 miles) during our three-day repositioning cruise from Miami to Colon, Panama.
We’re not unique.
Food is more than simple nourishment. It’s freighted down with emotional baggage – we express warmth, comfort and family traditions in our food. Food is friendship, and love, and caring, and nurturing.
When we’re in Panama, we enjoy our forays into Panamanian cuisine, but it’s our own that still sings to us. We try to prepare our favorite dishes, with varying degrees of success, in our Las Tablas home, because we often can’t find the ingredients.
Ethnic cuisines adapt to the countries they’re being cooked in, so a Chinese meal in France is very different from the “same” meal in New York or in Panama.
Expats get all excited when someone locates a particular product that’s hard to find here. We call each other to report our findings. “Guess what, Bill found Cherry Dr. Pepper at the Super 99. He left a couple of six-packs for you, better get down there right away!” (I loathe Dr. Pepper, in all flavors, but my husband loves it.) “We’re going into Panama City next Wednesday, is there anything you want at Riba Smith?” (the high-end grocery store with the largest selection of imported products). “I’m at Rey and they have that flaked coconut you wanted for your pie recipe. Do you want me to pick you up a bag?”
After shopping in grocery stores here for more than a year, when we walked into a Publix (a chain that originated in Florida) a couple weeks ago, we both stopped dead in the doorway. The vast selection completely overwhelmed us.
Our trip included a week in LA, a week in Atlanta and two weeks in Orlando. We traveled back to Panama on a Royal Caribbean repositioning cruise, so we had three full days at sea to gorge ourselves even more.
Here’s a small sampling of our indulgences, almost all of which are impossible to find here:
• French toast
• English muffins
• Omelets with vegetables like mushrooms
• Hash browns
• Real cream or half and half in the coffee
• Turkey sandwiches
• Pastrami sandwiches
• Reuben sandwiches
• Good salads of mixed greens – salads here are iceberg lettuce with maybe a slice of tomato and onion, with vinegar as the only dressing.
We ate at some of our favorite chain restaurants, like Olive Garden, TGI Friday and Red Lobster. Mostly, though, we chose local restaurants. We indulged in Chinese, Indian, Japanese, French, Italian, Mexican, and American pub fare. We enjoyed home-cooked meals in a variety of styles at friends’ houses.
Every chance I had, I ordered turkey – I love it, but it’s very hard to find here. I also ordered lamb whenever I could, as I’ve not seen it here at all.
My husband likes craft beers and interesting wines. He sampled lots of different brews and vintages including some home brews made by his brother and our son.
Oh, the desserts … We’ve pretty much given up on restaurant desserts here, except for the occasional flan. Back in the US, we were chowing down on pastries, cakes, cookies, pies, ice cream and candy. I love York Peppermint Patties, but I’ve never seen them here. I also love Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups, which we’ve found here very rarely. I got both. I also ordered some gourmet chocolates from my favorite chocolatier anywhere, a little Vermont company called Lake Champlain Chocolates.
Each of us probably gained at least 10 pounds during the month.
Why am I telling you all this?
I’m not proud that I made a total pig of myself, or gained weight eating vast quantities of inappropriate foods. But if you’re an expat, or thinking about expatriating, realize that food will become more important to you abroad than when you live in your home country. If you’re British, you’ll miss kippers and marmite. If you’re French you’ll miss – well, probably everything. If you’re Russian, you’ll miss borscht.
Some foods don’t translate well. When I think of Black Forest Cake, for example, I salivate over a moist, mouth-watering concoction of chocolate and cherry. Friends who’ve lived in Germany tell me the “real” version is dry and unappetizing to their American palates.
Besides the food itself is all the emotional freight that comes with it. A lot of bonding takes place when you break bread with family or friends, but what happens when it’s not breaking bread but sharing mate in Argentina? How do you, as an expat, establish meaningful rituals and relationships around food?
We’ve had the pleasure of joining Panamanian friends for meals, and it’s always fun and interesting. Sometimes it feels like a minefield as well – am I showing good manners according to their customs? I don’t know. I can describe the experience in lots of ways, but “relaxing” isn’t one of them. I’m hoping time will solve that.
And what about gifts of food? Traditionally here, friends and neighbors share a particular dish on New Year’s Eve. When we spent last New Year’s with Panamanian friends there was a steady stream of people stopping by to give covered dishes and share what our friends had made.
Do we need to learn to make it? Should we have a supply on hand this New Year’s to hand out to our neighbors? Inquiring minds want to know …
For now, though, I’m still enjoying the memory of all that eating over the last month.
What’s the first food you’ll want to eat when you visit your home country? Whatever it is, let me be the first to wish you bon appetite, buen provecho, or enjoy your meal!
by Susanna Perkins.
Susanna always wanted to experience life in another culture – she just never imagined it would become the “sensible” option. Believing that, when life hands you lemons you learn to juggle, she found herself with an entire crate full of citrus following the financial meltdown in the US. She started tossing fruit around and ended up, with her husband and three small dogs, in Las Tablas, Panama. With a more-or-less reliable internet connection she works as a freelance writer and shares her expat insights and experiences on her website, Future Expats Forum, and teaches non-technical people about WordPress at WordPress Building Blocks
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