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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