Apparently this week there were lots of Brazilian carnaval parties in London. I say ‘apparently’ because, though I was invited to a number of them, I was forced to stay home sick this weekend. So unfortunately for you all, I don’t have any cool photos of awesome celebrations and sweaty samba. I mean, the best I could do would be to steal a photo of my Brazilian friend in her carnaval outfit (complete with a fake tattoo that reads “Daddy’s”), but since she helped me out so much getting settled here, I’d prefer to stay in her good graces.
And really, carnaval in London just isn’t the same. All those Brazilians, trying to have a good time, partying and drinking… but really wishing they were somewhere else. Kind of sad, really. I know the feeling. I spent carnaval of 2006 in Rio de Janeiro and it was amazing. I think all expats feel this way. There are certain things that can never really be properly replicated outside a country’s borders. Celebrations and traditions are difficult to imitate.
In my last post I mentioned the frustration that comes from not being able to find specific types of ingredients. This can be one of the most difficult aspects of expat life, as food is such a crucial part of cultural identity. Also, let's face it, I am a little bit obsessed with food. I mean, the second I finish a meal, I start wondering what I'll eat for my next. But I don't think this longing for specific tastes and smells is confined to the expat community. It can occur upon moving to another part of the same country (I used to bemoan the loss of these when I moved to the Maritimes for university), and even upon taking a vacation and tasting something so authentic and delicious you can never go back to your "fake" version at home.
This will lead you to say smug traveller things like, "sandwiches, pah! I ate the best sandwich of my life in France and all it had on it was butter, ham and cheese... it's all in the ingredients. These just don't compare," and "You haven't had a real mojito until you've had one in Havana... oh wait, sorry Michael, I forgot you can't go to Cuba." And trust me, once you've had crème fraiche, you can never, ever go back to sour cream.
But sometimes expats have a hard time explaining why they crave the foods they do. Sometimes they just have a hard time explaining food from their country, even if they don't crave it. Like last week, when my coworker discovered a food she'd never seen before. Now, keep in mind I work for a French company that employs mostly French nationals, and other suave continental Europeans.
Coworker 1: "Hey, can someone tell me how you would market pasta in a can?"
Coworker 2: "Pasta in a can? But, why would you put pasta in a can? Is it already cooked pasta?"
Coworker 1: "Yes, it's like ravioli in sauce... in a can."
Coworker 2: "But there are fresher, ready made pastas with sauces you can buy. Who would you sell it to?"
Me: "Oh, yeah. Pasta in a can. This is probably going to mean nothing to you, but it's like Chef Boyardee! You know... no? Right. That means nothing to you. Okay, well it's sort of like Kraft Dinner."
Coworker 1: "Like what?"
Me: "Kraft Dinner, pasta in a box, with powder cheese, and you make the sauce using milk and... I just realised how disgusting this all sounds."
(Coworkers share a look that plainly says 'remind me not to try Canadian food')
Me: "Anyway, it's probably a lot cheaper than fresh pasta, so you market it to teenagers, students, and overstressed low-income parents of picky eaters."
Coworker 2: "The same demographic that buys wine in a tetrapack!"
Me: "Um... wine in a tetrapack isn't always THAT bad..."
At this point I probably lost all credibility. I might as well start waxing poetic about disgusting Tim Horton's coffee. There's even a store that sells Timmy ho's on Haymarket Street. Why? Presumably so Canadian tourists (and those working at the Embassy just down the road) can get their fix. Smug traveller food cravings are strange things indeed. Ah, look at the time! I've got to get to the Asian market before it closes so I can get the ingredients to make Vietnamese pho soup. But you know... you haven't tasted real pho until you've been to Vietnam.