Today, I had a moment. One of those little ones that get to you when you least expect it. They hit you, and then you spend hours going over them in your head.
I was on the train, heading to work and reading Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential on my eReader. I came to a passage, read through it, and then couldn’t read any more. I had to put my book down and stare aimlessly out of the window, my mind everywhere but my Amsterdam-bound intercity train.
At first, I didn’t have the nerve. I wandered Roppongi’s early morning streets, tortured by the delicious smells emanating from the many businessmen’s noodle shops, intimidated by the crowds. Japanese salarymen sat cheek-to-jowl, happily slurping down bowls of soba. I didn’t want to stare. I didn’t want to offend. I was acutely aware of how freakish and un-Japanese I looked… The prospect of pushing aside the banner to one of those places, sliding back the door and stepping inside, then squeezing on to a stool at a packed counter and trying to figure out how and what to order was a little frightening. One couldn’t enter a place, change one’s mind and then creep away… I just couldn’t handle it. God help me, I settled for Starbucks.
It was a simple little paragraph, but to quote Mean Girls, it hit me like a big yellow schoolbus. Oh, how those words rang true. If only I had previously read that Anthony Bourdain settled for a Starbucks on his first international foodie foray, I may have saved myself some self-inflicted pain over the years.
I remember my first time. Just like Bourdain, I was in Japan. I sort of knew the food and the language, so when I look back, I had a bit of an advantage. At the time though, I felt like the only foreigner walking the streets of Tokyo, alone in my quest some simple gyoza, teriyaki and maybe even an Asahi if I was lucky. I must have walked the streets near my suburban hostel for about an hour, passing at least a couple of dozen cosy little restaurants. I paused outside some of them, looked at the menus at a few of them and considered walking into a couple.
But I just couldn’t do it. I mean, what would they think of me? What was I supposed to do? How was I supposed to order? What if they gave me whale? What if they got in that flustery, worried state that the Japanese are often prone to do? I didn’t want to embarrass them! Hell, I didn’t want to embarrass myself!
For a moment, I considered heading to the 7-Eleven. Earlier that day, I’d seen that they offered a range of bento boxes and even hot meals; surely I could just grab one and eat it later at my leisure.
But that’s what I had done at lunchtime.
So, looking back, I think what I did was mentally slap myself. I was in Japan, dammit, and I couldn’t eat out of 7-Elevens and Family Marts for a week. Exasperated, I spied yet another salaryman noodle shop that looked relatively warm and inviting – in fact, its windows were visibly steamed up – and I pushed my way through the plastic and curtains before I lost my nerve.
My worst fears were realised. As soon I walked in, I was met with a shrill ‘irrashaimaseeeee!‘ from the chef. I learnt something very important that night in that little salaryman restaurant; it is impossible to sneak unnoticed into a Japanese restaurant. Or shop. Or hotel. Someone – or, in all likelihood, more than one – will always scream ‘welcome’ at the exact moment your big toe enters the premises.
I took a seat at the counter, my heart still beating unnaturally fast due to the shock of the welcome. I was one of a dozen or so seated around the chef, and the only woman. Despite the very public announcement of my arrival, nobody looked up from their bowls. Slurp, slurp, slurp they went, loudly and… well, wetly.
A glass of iced water was plonked down in front of me almost immediately, along with the worn menu. I had no idea what to order. The menu wasn’t a famous picture one, and everything was in complicated kanji script, which had always been one of my weaknesses. I decided to take a risk and just assumed that they’d have gyoza, some sort of teriyaki and an Asahi. And that’s what I ordered, in my halting Japanese.
‘Un,’ replied the chef after I pronounced gyoza, his lips not even moving. ‘Un,’ he continued when I stumbled over my order of tori teriyaki. Then I asked for an Asahi. ‘Uun!’ he barked back, and turned around. Oops. No beer, I figured.
He spun back around within a millisecond. Slamming the glass down, he snapped, ‘Kirin dake!’
Kirin beer it was going to be, then.
I’ve always remembered my first time. Not only was it my first experience of eating alone overseas, it was my first experience of eating alone full stop. I’d never gone to a restaurant by myself; sushi on my lunch break at the shopping centre foodcourt was about it. My fears really weren’t about the food. Nope, they were most definitely about me.
I’d like to say that I’ve turned a complete 180 since my tiptoeing into the world of salaryman restaurants seven years ago. But that’s not true. Sure, I now claim that I could quite happily survive solely on street food and have got the whole pointing technique down pat, but I’ve walked past thousands of restaurants over the years, dismissing them for a variety of reasons:
- Too touristy;
- Too local;
- Too blokey;
- Too empty;
- Too full;
- Too dodgy-looking;
- Too expensive-looking;
- Boring menu;
- Scary menu;
- Unintelligible menu…
And the list goes on.
But the thing is, whenever I think of visiting a new place for the first time – the foreign-ness, the uneasiness, the excitement and the feeling of freedom – I think of those first tentative steps into discovering a foreign cuisine. It’s the accidental ordering of forty dumplings in Beijing, the four course lunch in a random neighbourhood of Milan and the steak frites (with a fried egg on top) at seven in the morning in Lisbon. At each of those places, I experienced that millisecond of total freak out, where you can’t second-guess yourself and leave, but you don’t know what the hell you’re doing.
So you push forward. You have to.
So now, many hours later, I am still thinking of Bourdain’s words. I’m always trying to pinpoint why I travel and what part of travelling I treasure the most. This morning I started wondering, is it this? But it doesn’t make sense – how can I love something so much that I spend thousands of dollars and just as much time in pursuing it, only to freak out at the last minute and question my wisdom in the first place?
I’m an historian, not a psychologist. I’m not going to spend too much time analysing myself. What I do know is that last night, Paul and I booked flights to visit a country – wait, an entire continent – that I’ve never stepped foot in before. And I’m already daydreaming about where we’ll be attaining our first meal.