It’s hard for me to believe that my semester abroad is already halfway over. After this week of classes, we have a week off for “reading week,” which signifies the start of the last five weeks of classes—time to get serious about final papers! Currently, I’m going through a bizarre mix of emotions that comes from feeling like I’ve been somewhere for a long time when it really hasn’t been that long at all.
Thankfully, I feel like recovered from the overwhelming nature of my first couple of weeks in London. In addition to the stress of acclimating myself to a new culture and surroundings, I now realize that most of my anxiety came from an internal need to see and do everything. Obviously, London—with its smorgasbord of activities, museums, and historical sites—cannot be explored in-depth in a lifetime, let alone in a couple of months. My mindset steadily evolved during beginning of the semester, until I came to terms with the fact that I couldn’t be everywhere at once. I overcame my self-induced paralysis by realizing that they key to getting the most out of my experience in London was to find a specific angle with which to approach the city. And, by pure chance, I did.
I have always had a deep, personal connection with food. Growing up, I had learned that food is more than just sustenance; it’s a ritual, an excuse for people to gather together and enjoy each other’s company, as well as what’s been prepared. That connection is something that I didn’t realize that I’d lost over the last couple of years; at Vassar, people don’t really go to the Deece because they want to, but because they have to. The social aspect is still very much present, but to me, it just doesn’t feel the same. So when a local theater, The Albany, advertised free cookery courses (as they are known in the UK), I figured I had nothing to lose by going—and they most certainly paid off.
From September to November of this year, The Albany has run a festival solely concerned with the proliferation of food and love. Funded by the London government, the food festival celebrates international food, as well the diverse mix of cultures concentrated in the surrounding area of Deptford. Thus far, I have attended cookery classes in Philippine, Ethiopian, and West African cuisine. The West African course was most certainly my favorite so far. Not only did we get to make and eat traditional recipes of groundnut stew (a delicious combination of tomatoes, peanut butter, and chicken) and egusi (a vegetarian chickpea dish with fresh spinach and spices), but we also went on a culinary tour of the high street adjacent to the theater. Organized with the intention of familiarizing us with West African and Caribbean produce, we were also introduced to the owners of shops—an experience quite absent from the interactions that take place at a local Stop and Shop. Without glass fronts and with their wares essentially exposed to the elements, I was initially scared off from buying anything due to my FDA-influenced perceptions on how food should be stored. But now, I definitely feel more inclined to get out my comfort zone and experiment with a jackfruit or some callaloo. Shopping at these independently owned supermarkets will not only make me feel good about supporting local businesses, but will also provide a much more personal experience than one can get at a Sainsbury’s or a Tesco.
Food has worked its way into my academics in London, as well. For our seminar with American Studies professor Lisa Brawley, we meet with Silvio Palladino, a performance artist who often utilizes food as a medium. Our meeting entailed engaging a stranger and asking them to share a food-related story, as well as being partnered with another Vassar student and performing a series of activities to make us comfortable with one another, the most notable of which was making the other person a sandwich without knowledge of their preferences and subsequently feeding it to them with our hands. This definitely took the intimacy of eating to an entirely different level. It was uncomfortable at first, but I actually ended up really enjoying it. Not many people can say that they’ve been fed an entire sandwich for an art project!
I don’t think that the rediscovery of my love for food would have been possible anywhere but in London. I know that it sounds terribly cliché, but London really does have something for everyone, as long as they are willing to venture out of their comfort zone and embrace what the city has to offer. Had my time in London spanned longer than three months, I think that I would have been too comfortable and inevitably let these opportunities slip away. Instead, I found them at my own pace, and rather than trying to control them, I am welcoming them with open arms.