Being in a culture that is ever so subtly different from your own presents an interesting situation. The problem is that things are so similar on the surface to your own cultural environment – same language (or samish), similar food, similar clothing styles, etc. – that you forget they are, in reality, markedly different. You get lulled into the sensation that you understand the rhythm, you know what is happening, you know the next move. But you don’t. Your expectations of reality are slightly out of time. Reality takes unexpected turns that throw you off. And so, at every shop counter, every bus doorway, every innocent conversation on every street corner – the opportunity is ripe for making a fool of yourself.
Take the other day. I went to the post office with the intention of mailing some postcards. It seemed a simple, straight-forward enough task that I thought myself in safe waters. I found the shop with the big red sign outside – “Post Office” – ah, there it is! – and walked in, the door tinkling behind me.
But once inside, it looked very much unlike a post office. Before me were shelves of candy bars, chips, miscellaneous things like lighter fluid and paper plates, cigarettes, coolers stocked with soft drinks. I surely was in a convenience shop. I must have taken the wrong door by mistake. So out I went back into the street, door tinkling again, but sure enough, there was no mistaking it, that was the door that went with the sign. So, I took a deep breath, and I walked back in, grasping my postcards. I headed for the counter, where a teenage girl was chewing gum and twirling her hair.
“Excuse me, “ I said, trying very hard not to sound too blatantly American, “I’d like to send these please.” She rolled her eyes and pointed to the left, “you’ll need to go there,” she said. I looked to where she was pointing: about 3 feet from where I stood was a second till with a sign hanging over it reading “Post Office.” So I walked over and stood there, thinking perhaps she had to put on her post office hat before switching registers. I waited while she rang up several people, holding onto my postcards and trying to look casual. When the last customer had gone, I tried to catch her eye. It didn’t work, so I cleared my throat. She looked over and saw me: amusement, disbelief and annoyance playing simultaneously over her expression. “Yeah,” she said, chewing her gum loudly, “I said go to the back, didn’t I.” The didn’t I wasn’t a question.
I made my way towards the back of the store, and there, like Narnia emerging through the rows of crisp packets and tinned beans: a bright red sign reading “post office” and a long line (err queue) of people waiting with brown parcels and letters tucked under their arms. I breathed a long sigh of relief and joined the queue.
After what felt a very long time, I was at the front of the line. A voice came over a loud speaker, “Window number four please.” I stepped forward and walked to what I thought was window number four. Strangely, there was no one there. I looked to either side of me, thinking I had perhaps gotten the wrong one. A customer was being helped to my left; to my right was what seemed to be a curtained photo booth. There were no other windows that I could see. So I looked straight ahead and waited, thinking someone would emerge shortly. They did not.
“Window number four please.” The voice was slightly less polite this time, tinged with flat note of impatience. The woman behind me tapped me on the shoulder, a panicked look in her eye. “You’re at the wrong window, love.” Well obviously, yes. What I really needed to know was, which was the right window? It couldn’t be the window next to me: there was a customer there. The only possibility was the photo booth. I carefully drew back the curtain wondering what sort of curiosity I would find behind it. But there was only a photo booth inside. I peaked around the other side of the photo booth. There was only a wall.
“Window number four, please.” The voice was downright venomous now. There was nothing else for it. I turned around, thinking to just walk out, fumbling in my purse and trying to appear that I had forgotten something that was absolutely necessary and this entire time I had just been looking for it. Ten people were staring at me, expressions on their faces that spoke of real anguish and unadulterated contempt. Collectively, they all pointed – ten arms and ten pointed fingers – behind a wall that I hadn’t noticed before. I walked around the wall, and there, lo and behold, were five more windows.
I walked up to window number four burning with embarrassment and held out my postcards to the woman. She stamped them and handed me my change. “There,” she said soothingly. “Now you can go get your photo taken.” The woman at the next window stifled a laugh and became very pre-occupied with her shoe. I walked out, back through the aisles of pork skins and chewing gum, past the girl at the counter who was still twirling her hair, through the tinkling door and out into the cool rain.
But things are different when I escape from the town. When there is no one to witness me but the wind in the trees and the gulls circling over head, I feel at last like I belong. I feel I am part of this place. So when I head out the gate onto the street, more often then not, I find myself heading out of town. We’ve been going to pick blackberries the past few nights – they are prolific here right now and I marvel at the sensation of harvesting something that I harvested in Vermont nearly a month ago. And as they say here, they must all be picked before the 29th, Michaelmas day, when the Devil takes possession of them. I’m getting as many as I can before then – demonic blackberries are all I need.
A delicious tea time treat packed with autumnal flavours. If you can't find hazelnut meal, you can make it yourself quite easily by pulsing about a cup or so of hazelnuts in a coffee grinder or food processor until broken down into a fairly fine meal. I like the skins left on as well, as I think they add an extra nuttiness to the cakes.
- 70g unsalted organic butter
- 70g dark chocolate, broken into pieces
- 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
- 150g hazelnut meal
- 50g whole wheat pastry flour or brown rice flour
- 100g unrefined organic cane sugar
- 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
- 1/2 teaspoon sea salt
- 2 egg whites
- 1.5 cups blackberries
- Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F (180 degrees C). Grease a muffin tin.
- Melt the butter in a small saucepan over low heat. Once melted, continue to heat, stirring occasionally, until the butter just begins to brown and takes on a delicious nutty smell. Let cool for several minutes and then add the chocolate and vanilla, stirring to combine.
- In a bowl, combine the hazelnut meal, flour, sugar, cinnamon and salt and stir well to combine.
- In a small bowl, beat your eggwhites until they begin to foam and then add to the flour mixture, working quickly. Add the butter-chocolate mixture and stir to combine, then add the blackberries and fold them into the dough - not to worry if some of them get crushed a bit in the process.
- Divide between 8 muffin tins and pop in the oven for about 20 minutes, or until a knife inserted into the centre comes out clean.