All it Takes is a Few Words, a Few Bites, and a Willingness to Try

As you can see, I am really focused on promoting peace, love and understanding these days. It’s a reaction to all the political maneuvering going on, a lot of policies being changed that are resulting in putting lives at risk, all because some people (too many) live in fear of what they don’t know, what they don’t understand. Even sadder, they don’t even try to understand. They want to build walls around our country, because they have already built walls around themselves.

I keep searching for ways to break through those walls, and the solution I keep coming back to is simply this: connect with others outside of our own culture and language. Connection can mean something as simple as trying to communicate, even if just with a few words. Trying each other’s food, even if just a few bites. Visiting each other’s countries and homes and workplaces. To stop living exclusively in our own comfort zones and be open to seeing that our way isn’t the only way.

I once dated a guy who wasn’t interested in trying new things. For 25 years he has had the same job, lived in the same house, and has eaten at the same restaurants. One of those restaurants is Thai, which is the closest he’s come to visiting a foreign country. He’s a tea drinker so when he took me to the restaurant I asked if he had ever tried Thai iced tea—tea with sweetened condensed milk. No. He didn’t want to. “Come on, it’s only $2,” I insisted. No. No thanks. He’s progressive and caring and supports immigration rights, but he’s just not that open. But openness is what is needed from each of us, as individuals, to really understand each other, and understanding is what we need in order to make progress toward global harmony. A passport would be good too.

I always remember some friends returning from their vacation in Rome, Italy. They were complaining that the sidewalks weren’t straight. WHAT?! Those sidewalks are one of the main reasons you go to Rome, to walk in the steps of ancient Romans on the very cobblestones they laid centuries ago! They also complained about the food. “We got so tired of eating Italian food and all that pasta that we were thrilled to find a McDonald’s at the train station.” WHAT?! I gained at least 10 pounds in a week after eating my way through Italy—oh, the cannelloni! The calzone! The prosciutto! The cappuccino! The gelato! I couldn’t get enough of it. I wish my friends—along with another certain Big Mac-obsessed individual—could open up their worldview and have more appreciation—more acceptance—for life outside of America. To vivere la differenza.

One of the reasons this is on my mind is because I’m not in the USA right now. I’m in Mexico.

Parked at the grocery store.

Last night I was in a grocery store, standing in the coffee section, trying to read the labels and figure out what kind to buy. (I have a coffee pot in my casita.) A large man pushed his way into the section and I stepped back to make room for him. He was clearly on a mission. He was older, weathered from the sun, with gray hair and a jowled face and, from his skin tone, I figured he was Mexican. He was homing in on a brand called La Finca so I asked him in my bad Spanish if it was good. He answered me in broken English, with a French accent—so I started chatting with him in my bad French, and tried to help him find the La Finca espresso beans he was looking for.

Speaking of farms…

I made my coffee in the morning—Café La Finca’s Europeo blend, grown in Chiapas—and I thought of the man in the grocery store. (I also thought of Doug, because La Finca means The Farm. How perfect is that!)

In the afternoon, I finally left my casita for a break after a particularly productive day of writing (I’m making progress on my book!) and rode my rusty rented beach cruiser to the fruit stand a few blocks away.

As I looked around at the produce, not recognizing half the ripe and wrinkly-skinned stuff in there, I had a hard time figuring what to buy—and how to pay for it. (The conversion of dollars to pesos still confuses me.) Finally, when the woman at the cash register had a break in customers, I asked her some questions—in Spanish.

Do you have Oaxaca cheese? Can I buy a small amount, just enough for one person? I will buy it later—what time do you close? What are these juices? What is the white one? The green one? Which one is mango?

She had a slight but constant scowl on her face as I asked one pregunta after another. She was short and barrel chested with black hair that she had tried to dye orange (black hair isn’t easy to color!) and she was wearing a plaid apron or pinafore, I’m not sure which. But she was definitely someone whose bad side you didn’t want to be on.

When I finally paid for a bottle of fresh mango juice I thanked her for her patience with my terrible español. “I’m trying to learn,” I told her, “poquito a poquito.” Oh how I wish our American schools placed an importance on learning other languages, and starting from an early age like they do in Europe.

I smiled extra hard to emphasize my apology—and my embarrassment. And then—que milagro!—she smiled back and said, “Sí, poquito a poquito.”

Her smile melted my heart like butter left out in the Caribbean sun.

When I went outside to unlock my bike, a couple of gringos were walking in. In front was a white-haired woman with sunburnt cheeks as red and round as the tomatoes on display, and behind her was her husband. I recognized him! It was the man from the grocery store. I blurted out—in French—“La Finca café était très bon.” The coffee was very good. My français is as limited as my español, but it didn’t matter because his face lit up in happy surprise.

If I do come back for 2 months, I’ll be in the classroom!

He’s from Québec, he said, not France. And he comes to Mexico for two months every winter. (Which explains why his skin is as brown as a Mexican’s.) “I don’t want to go back to that cold weather,” he said.

“I know! Same here. Next year I want to come back for two months,” I replied.

I finished unlocking my bike and as I tucked my mango juice and bike lock into the bike basket, he pointed to the rusty chain, thick with corrosion from the salty moist air, and asked, “Is that working okay for you?”

Oui,” I said. “Ça va bien. And, anyway, I don’t mind, because I’m in Mexico, it’s sunny, and I’m wearing flip-flops!”

As I pedaled away I waved and said, “Hasta luego!” See you soon. And if it keeps going like this, I probably will.  (And, by the way, the fruit stand closes at 6:30 and I did go back for the cheese.)

My point is that all it takes is a little openness, a little courage and humility—okay, maybe more than a little. But who cares if you don’t know very many words and don’t even correctly pronounce the ones you do know? The fact that you even try is so appreciated. (Think of this the next time someone makes an effort to speak to you in English when it’s not their native language and commend them for their courage.) A few words can go a long way in making a connection and making someone smile. And a smile is the most basic, universal language of life, the first step across the bridge of understanding.

If we all just opened up a little to try to understand each other—to stumble over a few foreign words, to drink the Thai iced tea, to eat the fettuccine, to walk a mile in each other’s shoes—even if on crooked cobblestone sidewalks—the world could be a more peaceful, happier place.

World Piece Recap — 2/3 of the way through

I’m two-thirds of the way through my 3-month World Piece journey and I finally have a moment to update my blog. I had every intention of posting here regularly but the trip got away from me and there was never enough time, energy or Internet connections. I have, however, managed to post on my Facebook business page nearly every day — a lot of photos and captions to help you follow along with my travels. You don’t have to be signed up for FB to see the posts. If you are not signed up for FB you will be able to read everything but just won’t be able to add your comments. If you are following me already, please know I read all the comments and I appreciate them so much. Here is the link: www.facebook.com/TheWorldNeedsMorePie

Here is a recap my journey so far. I have had some ups and downs, but overall the trip has been exceptionally positive.

New Zealand was so beautiful, but was so cold! It’s winter in the Southern Hemisphere. I lived in my down jacket, wearing long underwear underneath my bib overalls, wrapped in the wool prayer shawl made by my host Grace Bower that was the impetus for traveling there in the first place. We put a lot of miles on Grace’s Nissan station wagon, and visited the Yummy Fruit apple orchard in Hawke’s Bay, made pies from the apples they donated in a pie class for 20 at a local college’s culinary school, and saw a lot of stunning untrammeled landscape. Soaking in NZ’s hot springs and drinking endless cups of “flat white” helped warm the bones.

Australia was all positive — I spent time with and made pie with very dear old friends, Kate Hayward and Foong Broecker, gave a presentation to the Sydney International Women’s Club, met former prime minister John Howard (my dad’s name too!) at a luncheon celebrating the 800th anniversary of the Magna Carta, and got to bottle feed a baby kangaroo. And I sampled a lot of Aussie’s meat pies, some with mashed peas and potatoes on top. Talk about comfort food!  But it was in the friendships — new and old — where the real comfort was found.

In Bangkok, I had a cold for the first 4 days but I bounced back quickly (I credit the fresh fruit and healthy Thai diet for helping speed up my recovery), but after that I pushed full-steam ahead making 75 pies for the American Embassy’s 4th of July party. In order to accomplish that I moved into the pastry kitchen at the Grand Hyatt Erawan where I baked side by side with the Thai staff and came away with some very good friendships. They spoke Thai and I spoke English but we spoke the same language through our baking and our smiles.

India was a big challenge for me. They say you either love it or you hate it. I didn’t love and didn’t hate it, I just didn’t understand it. I did not experience a bad stomach like I had expected, but I cried every single day, which I had NOT expected. I don’t know why it was so challenging…I don’t think it was the poverty as much as it was the grime and garbage. If cleanliness is next to godliness then I wonder why this place is deemed so holy. I did, however, fling myself headlong into it. I taught two pie classes at the Four Seasons Hotel Mumbai that were such a big hit they requested I teach a third. Instead of teaching another class I spent that day, courtesy of the lovely Deepa Krishnan of Mumbai Magic, touring India’s largest slum. I was impressed with the industriousness and work ethic there. These people are not hanging around, they are working 10-hour days and making money!  “Don’t call it a slum,” I was told. “It’s a neighborhood.” That was one part of India I actually understood.

After India, I was in Lebanon, in Beirut, a place the American government has placed on the  “do not travel there” list. Alas, I went, because I had an incredible host, cookbook author Barbara Abjeni Massaad. I stayed with her and her family (husband, 3 teenage kids, 2 dogs and 2 cats) in their  apartment. There was evidence of the war, now past, with ongoing effort to ward off any future uprisings. There are barricades, road blocks, military check points, and sandbags surrounding various places and numerous abandoned buildings. Still, it felt safe — except for the driving. There are almost no stoplights so each intersection or onramp is a free-for-all, which was very unnerving.

Barbara took me to a Syrian refugee camp about an hour from Beirut, toward the Syrian border. Talk about not heeding the “do not travel there” warning! We delivered 12 homemade apple pies (that took me 9 hours to bake in a 90-degree kitchen) to people living in tents. I am sorry to say our effort didn’t feel as noble as it sounds. There was tension in the camp and a fight was just breaking out in the very spot we were headed to, where friend’s of Barbara’s lived. (She spent two years visiting the camp, building up trust and relationships, and then photographing the people for a humanitarian aid project and soon-to-be-published cookbook called SOUP FOR SYRIA. You can pre-order it here. We had to leave the camp so there was no time to tell the story of the symbolism of the pie, and how we wanted to promote peace. But we can only hope that that little taste of comfort will lift the spirits of a few. You can never really know what impact you’re making. It’s a lesson in trust, humility, gratitude and so many other things.

One of the refugee families we visited was educated and had been successful in Syria. This family of 11 is trying to use their skills, both creative and business, to make a difference. The eldest son, Wissam, was a third-year mechanical engineering student when they had to flee their homeland. He is now a budding filmmaker, documenting peace efforts in the camp. I was very moved by this video he showed us. In Arabic these kids are saying, “We miss peace. We want peace.”

Who knows if the pies had a direct effect, but it was pie that led us to this filmmaker and his message, and by sharing this it keeps the effort moving forward. So it all matters.

I arrived in Greece, my shortest leg of the trip, with a traveler’s “bug.” I won’t go into the gory details about my compromised health, but sadly, I slept the entire five days I was in Athens. I finally saw a doctor, got on an antibiotic, and tried to change my flight so I could stay longer and make up for the lost days. If you’ve ever been to Greece in August you will know that the airline practically laughed in my face. There were no seats available for 2, even 3 weeks out. There was no outward sign of the country’s financial crisis with this summer tourism season in full swing. And happily the media’s fear-mongering about tourists getting mugged didn’t keep travelers away. I had to stick with my schedule and fly onward, to Europe. I will just have to return to Greece another time. In fact, I loved the teeny tiny bit of it I glimpsed — seeing the islands from the plane, the landscape out the window of the airport train, and the historic streets around my bed & breakfast near the Acropolis—enough to know it warrants its own separate trip. I mean, this was the birthplace of pie and I was too sick to even eat one bite! So yeah, returning is a must.

On July 29, I landed in Frankfurt, Germany and made a beeline for Bern, Switzerland. Medieval Bern at the foot of the Alps is the first city in Europe I ever visited — when I was 22 — and no sooner did I arrive that summer I made some friends with two sisters, Eve and Uschi. Fast forward 31 years, we have been friends so long we are more like family. I was so depleted from being sick I tempted to bail on the rest of my World Piece journey and head back early to the US. Instead, the cure was coming to Bern. Old friends in a gentle, peaceful place (sheep are grazing right out my window and I can hear their neck bells tinkling like music) combined with vitamin C (as in chocolate!), I am in an ideal place for replenishing my reserves.

I fly back to the US on August 27 and I still have a few countries to visit— and a lot more pie to make and taste—before I head home. So keep following along (on Facebook).

I wasn’t sure when going into this project if I would have enough material to write a book about my journey, but I am now convinced that I do. There are many threads that connect the stories, the people and the places. It has all the elements of “the hero’s journey” and all the plot points that fall right into place of a three-act structure — as if it was planned that way. It wasn’t! I will likely be spending the fall back in Iowa where I plan to buckle down and write about the experience while it is still fresh and raw. But I have to get through the rest of the trip first!

Thanks for checking in.
Love,
Beth