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Home or Something Like It
From Berlin to Barcelona and what got lost in between
What do we lose when we go searching for more?
By Isabela Vera | Paid subscribers can listen to Isabela read this piece on our podcast.
Then I planned to live forever in a skylit room surrounded by my friends.
—Ben Lerner, Leaving The Atocha Station
I recently moved from Berlin to Barcelona — punctuated by a brief interlude in France — and everything and nothing is the same. I look out my window and see not the skeleton of a naked winter tree surrounded by tiny leaks of grey light but green mountains topped with castles and fresh laundry blowing in the breeze. My dog still spends most of the day sitting on the couch, but he now takes long breaks out on the terrace and I worry about him getting skin cancer. I used to walk up four flights of stairs; now I go up six. In Berlin we grew tomatoes and a few vines, but here I plant okra, jalapeños, zucchini and don’t worry about them withering from the cold. My living room, previously dim even on the brightest of days, explodes with house plants curling their leaves towards the seemingly endless sun streaming through our sliding door. I still try to cycle as much as I can but my beloved six-speed already fell victim to Barcelona’s many sticky fingers, and so I use a bike-share scheme instead.
Like before, I’m mostly at my computer during the day and at night I go out to eat or host friends. If it’s the latter my partner does most of the cooking while I uncork bottles and get the house in order; if it’s the former I scarf down fried artichokes and patatas bravas and usually go home complaining that I don’t feel well. Just like my old life, it feels like much of my new one is fuelled by food and friends, the twin motors of my 30 years on this earth.
I’m in my ninth month here so my closest relationships are that old. I meet a soulmate of a friend in my second week — and on her second day — in town, on a smothering September evening that convinces me of the need to find a flat with air conditioning. We immediately bond over not liking the anchovy-flavoured olives served in every glass of vermouth. It turns out she doesn’t like anchovies at all and accuses me of being a traitor when I admit under duress that I do actually enjoy the real thing.
Serendipitously, one of her childhood best friends also lives here with her girlfriend and the three of them immediately make me feel at home. Come spring, one tells me she wants to pitch FFJ and what lands in my inbox is a gorgeous essay on bitter oranges in her old life and new. It got me thinking about how food connects me to this place, too, but also how it reminds me of what I’ve left behind.
The frenetic pace of moving began to abate in our third month here, and around that time I invite a new friend over for the first time for tea on the terrace. He’s beautiful, with a shaved head and flawless bone structure framed by three dangling earrings, seeming to float into the flat in a mesh shirt and jeans that fit him like a glove. With my tired face and peeling nail polish I feel like something of a goblin in comparison. The only reputable bakery nearby had been out of plain croissants, forcing me to pick up a half-dozen “specials” that look like 18th-century aristocrats, piled ridiculously with icing and Speculoos crumbs. I’m slightly ashamed to serve them.
Chatting nervously, I under-stir his latte, leaving clots of matcha powder thickening at the bottom of his mug. He puts it down after a few delicate sips.
It’s chunky, right? Too chunky. Before he can reply, I grab his mug and hurry back to the kitchen, nearly tripping over the door frame. Through the window, I see him picking carefully at a pastry. Later I see on Instagram that after getting home he put together a flawless squid ink risotto for one.
He gives me a second chance and we go on to share many delicious meals. My partner and I accompany him to his favourite Malaysian restaurant where we spoon creamy laksa into miniature bowls and wolf down sambal nasi goreng, one of the only genuinely spicy dishes we’ve been able to find in the city. We bring more friends to Szechuan hotpot and try Italian fusion in a restaurant the size of a janitor’s closet. He vows to stop making plans with us after we turn up to the umpteenth reservation 15 minutes late, but we continue to eat together week after week. Bursts of giddy camaraderie are punctuated by moments where we lapse into silence or have to ask each other for more background detail than a story can comfortably accommodate. I realize, with some alarm, that I appear now without context, a self in a vacuum; I could become anyone, and nobody would recognize that I’ve changed.
The day before we left Berlin, friends came to hold vigil in our boxed-up apartment, and one gave me a mug inscribed “Schönleinstraße” — the name of the derelict U-Bahn station next to our old flat, the butt of many an internet meme and usually reeking of urine. The mug is now a regular fixture of my morning coffee on the terrace in Barcelona, even though I hated every second I spent in that station, and even every second I spent on that street, with its rotting mattresses, anarchic double-parking, and endless stream of undercover yuppies who looked exactly like me. But I hated it with a strange undercurrent of something that felt a lot like love. Love was hard to detect at the time but I can’t deny it now; it engulfs me whenever I think of our friends, some still there, many now far away.
In the months leading up to our final goodbyes, I fell to pieces over the smallest moments. A bee that had stopped to land on our dying balcony plants, neglected by a friend who sublet our place while we trialled moving away. A superficial argument over the timing of a birthday dinner. I told everyone that I couldn’t wait to leave yet I couldn’t seem to stop crying. Walking home from my last yoga class on the morning we had agreed to host friends for a goodbye lunch, I found myself suddenly unable to take in any air. The letters on my phone keyboard blurred as I collapsed onto a bench and tried to tell a friend where to come get me, overwhelmed by visions of myself arriving five years prior with two suitcases and some big dreams, by the weight of all the people who had become a part of me that I would have to sever myself from, even though the departure had been my decision and I had brought all of this pain upon myself. When we finally left the city, I took photos of the most mundane things — our courtyard, the tree outside our building, the bench a neighbour had built around it — wanting to remember every last detail.
When I think of those details now, I think of silly summer picnics in the park, voices carrying into the musky dusk air, the metallic sweetness of cheap sekt. I think of potlucks with too many people in too small of a space, of travelling to open-air parties in wobbly bicycle convoys, of holding each other through breakups and job dramas and deaths — of being, as a group of young childless immigrants, everything to each other. I think of the early days of the pandemic, when we did a three-month series of micro supper clubs with three friends from two other households, with kitschy themes like Dim Sum Delight and American BBQ. During those meals, life felt perfectly bubble-wrapped, the coziness of the night enveloping us as we stirred our fourth Negronis with the curtains pulled so neighbours wouldn’t see we were technically one body over the lockdown limit. When I go back to visit the perfect dance floors of Berlin nightclubs and dance so hard I detach from my body, I can almost believe those moments still exist, stretched over time, eternal. Behind my lowered eyelids, bodies come flying back to our kitchen table from the various continents they’ve now spread out to and we’re one again, foreign orphans living through moments that seemed profane but I now understand were sacred.
Bodies from that table do come from their various continents, not to our old living room but to our new one. They stay at our flat in Barcelona while we’re away, watering our plants and leaving us Catalan cookbooks, or visit over long weekends, monopolizing our attention for days on end. Even with them on the sofa in the flesh, I find myself scrolling through years of photos on my iPhone, looking at versions of us gone by and commenting on what we ate on this night or discussed on that one. They’re not overly interested in what I’m showing them on the screen, but I’m used to people not sharing my bottomless nostalgia or tendency to fixate on dates and the passing of time. When we all go to bed I stay up sitting up against the pillows and index-finger through more, more, more.
After a decade on the move, sometimes it feels like I could scroll back forever and not get to the end of the memories. In Melbourne, I had the most beautiful group of girlfriends who brought me into their childhood friend group. They roasted chickens and hosted a Hannukah dinner on my behalf and lent me their cousin’s car for an Easter trip and their parents’ camping caravan for Christmas. Back home in Vancouver, lifelong friends are having babies, generously asking them to call me “auntie” on Facetime even though I haven’t seen them in person since a few weeks after they were C-sectioned out of the womb. Former coworkers become Facebook feed fodder, old roommates no more than acquaintances. In the aftermath of leaving a place you always think that, despite the distance, nothing will ever change, but eventually the years and time differences and sheer enormity of life that you’ve missed wear down your bond. I fall asleep on the beach, valuables tucked under my tummy, while a family of American tourists plays nearby, and when I wake up for a second I have no idea where I am.
How many times can you transplant yourself before the capillaries start to leak, the tendons fail to reattach? My partner — dependent on me, a woman, for a large chunk of his social life like so many other straight cis men seem to be — seems to have bounced back from the dislocation quickly. But my wounds still weep, and I worry that others can smell something off, a faint whiff of stagnancy every time my anecdotes relate to a place and time irrelevant to the present moment.
Food and connection, thankfully, act as cauterizers. People are friendlier in this city, warmer than I had gotten used to in Berlin. They’re kind about our clunky Spanish and as-of-yet-non-existent Catalan; when I introduce myself, they laugh gently at my inability to pronounce even my own theoretically Castilian name. I feel at peace on Saturday mornings surrounded by retirees and the overweight chihuahuas they doll up coloured puff jackets, all of us enjoying cafe amb llet in nondescript cafes that smell of the second-hand smoke drifting in through the windows. Our friends, crystallizing into a core group, gather in our living room to share green curry, three-minute Air Fryer pizzas, and spaghettini with record levels of butter, and although I worry each time about our rising voices leaking through the paper-thin walls, these dinners also move me closer to the rhythms of the new city pulsing beneath my feet. Everyday moments feel imbued with communion, something close to soul – and I feel brighter, more alive than I have in years. But some kind of emptiness remains, the kind you might feel when you realize you don’t know how many siblings the person sitting across the table from you has, whether their parents are together, who they lived with in college, which arcane things they love or what memories they most want to forget.
In the spring, my mom visits Barcelona and brings me a cookbook. She goes back home and takes a piece of my heart with her. I cook and cook and cook from the book to pretend she’s still here, to feel like a part of her is making the food with me. A month later, I serve the book’s roast chicken to my grandmother, who comes to visit on what is likely to be her only trip here. She’s started asking me some things twice, a reminder that although the time ahead of me to move here or there feels limitless, an hourglass never remains equal. There is no one place to eat with everyone I love.
In my younger years I felt like I could reinvent myself endlessly, be born again for each new place and career change. But the older I get, the more I realize I am mostly the sum of people who changed me in ways both big and small — people I’ve loved who have loved me back, people who have cooked for me and eaten my (or at least my partner’s) cooking and shared moments in time that are far more remarkable than we perceive when living them. I see these people in every corner of my new life, like ghosts, a realm apart even if most are just a text message away. My next dinner spread, the sprouting seedlings on my terrace, this essay itself — they are all ways of rooting in place while remembering connections I’ve left behind, of writing love letters to people that they won’t receive. But I hope they know that I feel it just the same.
Isabela Vera is a founding editor of Feminist Food Journal.