Food and the World – Family, Hospitality, Friendship Across National Boundaries through Food – by Cassie Mahlberg. The North Star Reports: Global Citizenship and Digital Literacy, at NorthStarReports.org and facebook.com/NorthStarReports
[Fresh salad, plate of couscous with fried onions. First meal I cooked in Oslo]
I left for my vacation in Germany on the 16th of July. I was terrified of the fact that I would be leaving the only home I’ve ever known for a total of five months for a study abroad trip, which made the vacation part a little difficult at first. I planned to arrive in Berlin and spend a few days there, but my friend Mohammad was awaiting me in the city of Schwerin. After just one night, I got on a bus for 3 hours to go meet him. I told him to expect that I would be exhausted after the 8 hour plane ride the day before and then the bus trip, but I seemed to have plenty of energy when I arrived. I was ready to walk around and see the city again after two years away.
I was surprised when we got to Marienplatz, which is essentially the center of the city, because it was so much busier than I remembered. It was lively and full of people, walking, shopping, commuting to work or home. Two years ago the city was much quieter. Two years ago, most of the refugee population was still in the camps waiting to be “processed” (I hate this term because of the inherent dehumanization attached when used in this manner, thus the quotation marks). But now, after two years of advancement in the integration process, the city is active, bright, and diverse. To put this into perspective, I use my hometown of Duluth as a comparison. Duluth and Schwerin are similar in size and actually happen to be international sister-cities. Duluth has a population of about 86,000. Schwerin has about 10,000 more people than that. Walking in Duluth, one can see the nordic and scandinavian roots in many of the faces. In Schwerin, I imagine one could have seen the same European roots everywhere for most of its existence; while Duluth remains mostly ethnically white, the same cannot be said about Schwerin. I am unable to go into greater demographic details due to the laws in Germany, but in plain sight, this is a different city.
I wasn’t sure what to expect after that first day because things were changing and I needed time to explore. I walked many kilometers in the following weeks. Staying with Mohammad was interesting for me, because his flat was so small in comparison to what I’m used to and he doesn’t cook. He never learned, so if he wants a real meal, he typically goes to visit his friends who I soon met. I was overwhelmed meeting Mohammad’s friends. Cultural and linguistic differences made the first few meetings a bit challenging for me, even just learning their names was an actual task. Mohammad and his other friends are Syrian refugees who are now living, studying, and working in Schwerin. Arabic is their first language and is the origin of their names. Navigating the mixture of Arabic, German, and English was a total mess for me for the first week, but the language I could easily understand was food. I think the first time I gathered with the big group of Mohammad’s friends, there was some homemade pizza on the table and I was still shy about taking any. After being told that I should go ahead and eat it many times, I finally did and it was fantastic. I was very uncomfortable at first with the notion of others taking care of me and always offering me food and drink, but it is such an important cultural connection that I am glad to now understand.
When I was first discussing my trip to Germany with Mohammad, he said that it was culturally significant that I should stay with him and not in a hotel. In Syria, if someone needs a roof over their head and you have that available, it is shameful not to offer this to them. I’ve concluded that they have similar values with food after 3 weeks of people chanting at each other to take more food when the plates had leftovers. I also realized that when someone offers tea or coffee, it is best to take some with a smile whether you really want it or not because it makes them feel better to know you are fully taken care of. After spending a week and a half with Mohammad at his flat and bouncing back and forth to others for dinner, I ended up going to stay with my new friends Rahaf and Yousef (they had a spare bedroom and I didn’t feel like as much of a burden as when I was using Mohammad’s bed and he was sleeping on his couch).
[After dinner tea time. My favorite meal with my new found family in Schwerin]
At Rahaf’s flat, there is plenty of room to host a gathering so a bunch of people can get together to cook and eat. Everyone cooks together, and those who don’t cook tend to do the clean up afterward. I was in the kitchen watching how they worked and looking at the spice cupboard and trying to figure out what these traditional Syrian foods were. A lot of rice, sometimes chickpeas or chicken, sometimes grape leaves (which I really don’t like, but luckily they’re nice enough not to blame me for that), and sometimes yogurt to pair with particular dishes. We had fresh salads with lettuce, tomatoes, cucumbers, and a bit of vinegar and oil. We also ate a lot of sandwiches which is more of a German thing, but that’s a sign of integration, right? Crossing cultural food boundaries and trying new things, adopting some and keeping some traditions is a good way of bonding with different groups of people. My favorite meal took place at our friend Rama’s flat. Her place was very small, but we made it cozy. Rahaf had just gotten two of her wisdom teeth removed and she wasn’t feeling very well (I brought her mango ice cream which is one of her favorites), but Rama was still cooking dinner that night. She made a rice with kabsa spice (something I had never heard of) which is probably my new favorite food, and a Syrian version of a meatloaf. They use onion and tomato similar to the way my mom makes it, but they use various spices and prepare it on a sheet pan rather than in a loaf, they also used beef to make it, but said traditionally they would use lamb but it is too expensive in Germany. It was probably my favorite meal because it reminded me of something I like to eat at home, but also because I was really becoming a part of this family they’ve created together. Rama commented later on my time in Germany saying that I integrated well into their group.
Despite the differences in our backgrounds, cultures, and languages, I was able to become a part of a family in Schwerin that I never expected. I had planned to leave after two weeks to return to Berlin and spend time in hostels, but I couldn’t bring myself to leave them until two days before my flight to Oslo and even then, they wouldn’t let me stay in a hotel. Instead they insisted I stay with Yousef’s best friend Sam in Berlin for the two nights I would be there. He took me to a Syrian restaurant where I had the best Shawarma (oversimplified, they are basically grilled chicken wraps) ever.
On the 9th of August I had to board my flight out of Berlin to head to Oslo to start my semester. I cried. I didn’t know what I was going to do without this family I had created for myself or the foods I had grown so accustomed to eating with them. I searched Google to make sure there was an Arabic food market in Oslo (I think I might have gotten on the next flight back to my friends if I hadn’t found one) and I asked Rama what spice she used to make the rice. After 5 days of feeling really miserable (Oslo is already cold and wet and it’s only August) and trying to transition into this different culture with yet another new language, I finally got to go to the Arabic market. I bought some rice and I bought the kabsa spice blend. I cooked myself a real dinner for the first time since I’d arrived and I felt a bit more at home, having the flavor of the family I’ve left in Schwerin.
Cassie serves as the NSR’s special correspondent.
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20 responses to “Food and the World – Family, Hospitality, Friendship Across National Boundaries through Food – by Cassie Mahlberg. The North Star Reports: Global Citizenship and Digital Literacy, at NorthStarReports.org and facebook.com/NorthStarReports”
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Cassie, thank you for sharing your experience with us! We currently live in a world/ society where immigrants do not receive fair treatment, and are often disregarded of their basic needs. Your story shares the humanity that they embody. My hometown of St. Cloud, MN has the largest Somali refugee population in the United States. From first grade to my graduation, I’ve witnessed all types of reactions, ranging from kindness and understanding to intolerance and racism. My next door neighbors were Somali, and my family and I agree that they are the best neighbors we have ever lived next too. Similar to you, they constantly make us food when there is somethings going on in our household. Your story resonates with me and I wish everyone could share such an experience.
This was such a genuine article, and it’s so cool that you became so connected to a foreign culture and cuisine. I’ve never tried Arabic food, but the way you describe it sounds amazing. Food can connect human beings in such a unique way, and food is definitely a way to show your love for someone. You should definitely post any Arabic recipies you find and like! I would love to hear more about your experiences abroad in the future!
It was so amazing to read about how hospitable your Syrian friends were. Hospitality being one of our core values at CSS, I think it is beautiful how they welcomed you into their homes with no questions asked. The notion that everyone should be fed, housed, and taken care of is a very simple one. Yet, here in the United States, it is something we often see lacking. Driving home from work the other evening, I passed a bus stop. Laying across the bench covered up in just a white sheet was a homeless man or woman, hunkering down for the night. As I drove passed, part of me felt very unsettled, as no one should have to live that way. But now after reading your article I think even more deeply about this person, alone at night on the side of the road. Did they get dinner that evening? Did they really have no friends or family to welcome them in, that the bus stop bench was their only option? This greatly saddens me, as I know this is the case for far too many people around the world. I think it would make such a difference if everyone had the same caring values as your Syrian friends. A warm dish or a roof over your head is a pretty simple concept, yet so many people across the world do not have those two things due to many various reasons. I think we should all take some advice from your Syrian friends, and take care of one another. It is so simple yet important in these times. Thank you so much for sharing your story, I greatly enjoyed reading about your experience.
I think that it is really interesting that a community or town can change so fast. For example the author said that they could barely recognize the place anymore and it had only been two years. I also thought that the way they had to make sure that everyone was taken care of was really cool. I think this was cool because I feel like that is a totally different culture than mine. Mine is more of a first come first serve or do not take to much. Them making sure that everyone has more than enough seems like a great idea to me. I thought that it was interesting with the you should make sure that the person has a roof over their head and shouldn’t be staying in a hotel if you have room at your house was interesting. I think it shows how much of these cultures take care of each other. I think that is it a good idea as the other said before to integrate all of the cultures together although I could see where this could go wrong because all of the differences in these cultures. Overall, I thought this was an intriguing article that made me think further in on my own culture and the cultures around me.
Hope you are enjoying your semester abroad and you are taking the chance of exploring different foods. There are a few things that caught my attention. First off, I like the fact that you compared Schwerin to Duluth. One thing you point out is the lack of diversity here at Duluth, which is not the case for Schwerin. It makes me wonder has the demographics recently changed due to the migration of refugees and migrants or has been a process of newcomers slowly moving in? On the other hand, how is the accessibility of food for individuals who may be new to Schwerin, for instance, your friend Mohammed? On another note, you mention rituals and foodways with your friends or in general. The idea that one cannot refuse tea or coffee. Today in globalization class we talked a little bit about foodways. The idea that to some people an empty plate would be a gesture for more food whereas for others is communicates the action of being done eating. Overall, I am excited to read more about your adventures and also learn more about foodways from the rest of my classmates. Thank you so much for sharing.
Cassie, your story really resonated with me because I experienced something similar during my own study abroad experience. While over in Ireland, I traveled to London by myself, and ended up staying with my mom’s cousin one of the nights I was there. The hospitality that she and her husband showed me was so comforting and reminded me of home. I remember getting on a train to go to the airport and being so sad that I was leaving them. They were a little piece of familiarity in a place so overwhelming. I hope you have a wonderful time studying in Oslo, and eat some meals that remind you of your friends while you’re there too 🙂
Thank you for your article! I found myself relating to your experience in so many ways. I have traveled abroad numerous times and it is extremely overwhelming. Just like you, finding comfort in food is something that really helps me. When traveling, I think it’s important to try as hard as you can to completely immerse yourself in the culture. Your story was interesting to me because you blended so many different cultures into one experience! My most recent travel experience was to Israel this summer. I absolutely fell in love with the food and miss it every day. Since I came home I started making my favorite dishes myself as well!
I loved this article! I have studied German since I was a freshman in high school and I have also been to Germany twice now. I have heard a lot about the refugee crisis in Europe and particularly how that is affecting Germany with Angela Merkel’s open border policy. I was in there in the summer of 2017 and then again this past summer and with just the two-year difference I noticed, just like you, the increase of diversity within the country. What I really enjoyed about your article is that you were able to experience it on a much more personal level than I was. It is amazing that you were able to find such a great group of friends where everyone has such different backgrounds. Thank you so much for sharing!
Cassie, thank you for your story. It made me think of my friend named Jonas from Berlin. I met him in high school, probably 9th grade. He came to the U.S. to study and graduate before going back home. He was on my ski team for a couple years. When you mentioned how you felt you had made a family in Germany and did not want to leave it, that is how Jonas felt too. It was a hard goodbye because everyone became so close. Your story reminded me of him and the good memories my team had back then. 🙂
Cassie, thank you for sharing this wonderful article! Your descriptions of the home & family you created with friends and friends of friends in Schwerin, as well as all of the food you enjoyed was so vivid, I found myself wanting to try the food, especially the meatloaf you described. For some, meatloaf is unappealing but it is one of my favorite foods if it was made by my mom or sister! You wrote that you cried when you flew from Berlin to Oslo–I can only imagine how difficult it was to have to readjust to a new location and language yet again. I hope you have a great semester in Oslo and am so glad you were able to find an Arabic market there!
This is such an enjoyable read.
It is so nice that you were able to make the connections that you did while in Germany. It is evident in your writing how much of an impact that your experiences with your friends in Germany had on you. It is amazing to think about how people can bond with one another in spite of barriers, such as speaking different languages. Your post really helps show how people can come together and enjoy one another’s company regardless of where they come from. Thank you for sharing your experience!
I was so moved by your post. Reading it reminded me of a mission trip I did in Mexico where families would just welcome us into their homes to share a meal. The beauty of people coming together is so mesmerizing, and it is beautiful to see cultures value and practice hospitality and community with others. Those trips and those memories in which the people who you may have just met make you feel like you’ve created a family are the most heartwarming, and memorable experiences. They are filled with love, light, and tradition. And it is also from moments like those that we grow as people ourselves. We see different ways of living, and different ways to practice values. We then bring them with us wherever we go, and continue to share it with others.
Wow! That is a touching story, so awesome you were able to have that experience! It is really unique that you were able to stay with a Syrian family in Germany. Not only would you be able to experience two cultures, but see how this Syrian family is adapting to life in Germany. As you said yourself, there were a lot of sandwiches, were is a traditionally German food, not Syrian. It was also neat to observe your own adaption to certain social, Syrian customs. The ability to accept their hospitality seemed to get easier for you over time. I’m happy you were able to find kabsa, and remember the good times with your friends. Thank you for sharing!
Your article really moved me and gave me a sense of the hospitality that some other cultures have to offer. A quote that I could easily connect with was fairly early in your writing where you state, “I also realized that when someone offers tea or coffee, it is best to take some with a smile whether you really want it or not because it makes them feel better to know you are fully taken care of.” This has how it has always been with my own family. My ancestors come mainly from Finland and Germany, but if they offer you something, even if you don’t want it, you take it just so you acknowledge their generosity. It is mostly my grandparents who get really pushy with this notion, and it is just because they want you to be taken care of. This ought to be a really special feeling for you, knowing that you are welcome into this family that you have just met. Hospitality is one of our core values at CSS and you can see how this value is just as important in other places and cultures across the world. Making someone feel welcome is an easy gesture to begin to build a trusting relationship.
In your article, food is literally what made you family with your friends in Schwerin. This is a feeling of acceptance that I am sure you will never forget, and that you will keep with you if you are ever in an instance like this again. Family doesn’t always have to be blood. Sometimes it is just a warm welcome and a hot meal.
Thanks for sharing!
Thank you for sharing your story. It’s really cool that people you only knew for a night became friends over something simple as food. I feel as Americans we could learn to be more open minded to new flavors as well as new people. When we are travelling abroad we should all endeavor to be good representatives like you were. Hospitality like what you experienced is something that is always a welcome sight in a far away place, especially when you don’t speak the language.
Cassie, your story of cultural understanding is outstanding! How you can relate and embrace others differences through food is remarkable. Food is one of the topics all humans can relate to, where there is food there is understanding among people. Do you think the hospitality you were shown could be the same for individuals traveling to America? How is your experience in Germany going to affect your future encounters with new and different cultures?
Thank you so much for sharing this story it is so interesting to hear that you got to experience such an array of cultures while traveling abroad. When I began reading this I assumed it would be an article on German dishes but to see that the refugee population is so prominent in German society, with implementations of arabic markets and traditional foods is so interesting to me. You are very lucky to have these friends that gave such great hospitality in a place of which you aren’t too familiar. Thanks again for sharing.
Wow what an incredible article! I absolutely love how heart warming and real you got while writing this. It really shows through your writing. I love that you said the language you could understand was food because as we talk about in Proffessor Liangs class, everything is a text to read. Whether it be art or writing and I think this perfectly applies here. Who knew food could get any better
Thank you for sharing your beautiful experience! I have never had the experience of traveling and staying with someone there. I bet it was truly amazing experience. Food brings people together in incredible ways. I hope to have an experience like this one day!