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travelwakeup

A lady wearing a striped green apron and a forced smile set down a plate in front of me. As the plate made contact with the hard surface of the table, the poached egg slid slightly across the surface of the toast. I held my breath, hoping that the egg, now off-center, would remain intact. It did. I stared down at my plate and felt relieved—not only because of the egg but because I was about to eat a real English breakfast—the kind of breakfast that I most enjoy. I had been living in Italy for nearly two months, and while the idea of eating biscuits (frollini) or croissants (cornetti) slathered in Nutella initially seemed to be the breakfast I had always dreamed of as a child but was never allowed to eat, the novelty of the sugary Italian morning meal quickly wore off.

Before beginning to eat, I surveyed my plate, out of both anticipation and suspicion that my expectations would be unfulfilled. I had asked for kipper, not knowing what it was but saw now that it was a peachy-colored smoked fish resembling canned sardines. It did not look particularly appetizing, sprawled limply across the plate in a little pool of amber-speckled oil, but I was willing to believe that it tasted better than it looked. The egg I had ordered was poached in a mold, and it looked like a flattened flowerpot. Its uniform white gleam and strange shape gave it an artificial appearance, and it sat, perched like a top hat, on a piece of toast whose crusts were cut off in such a way that it no longer resembled bread, but rather, one of those square brown napkins made from recycled paper.

To my left sat a small silver rack holding four triangular halves of wheat toast, crusts still intact. I could tell by the gradation of tans and browns how well each slice had been toasted; toast, though ordinary, is by no means simple. My thoughts began to flutter into a daydream about the perfect slice of thick toast, browned to perfection, crunchy on the outside and soft on the inside, when a chirpy voice interrupted my reverie: “Good morning!”

I looked up and saw that a middle-aged woman with a haircut, bobbed to feign volume—I could tell it was thinning—was hanging her black windbreaker jacket onto the chair directly across from me, about to sit down. I was tempted to pretend that I did not speak English and continue on with my breakfast. Instead, the ounce of perfunctory courtesy that my mother had instilled in me prompted me to look up and contort my lips into a small and tight-lipped smile.

“Good morning,” I replied, my voice many tones less chirpy than hers. As much as I desired solitude, I still hoped that she would not be able to detect the insincerity in my voice.

Immediately, I began with my first tactic to avoid conversation: preoccupy myself with another activity or at least appear to be preoccupied. I grabbed a small container of orange marmalade from the ceramic tub sitting in the center of the table. I peeled it open slowly and set it down to my right. I raised my eyes slightly to see if she was going to continue her attempt at conversation. She had not yet sat down, so I quickly grabbed another small container—this time lemon marmalade—and began opening that one as well. After I set that one down and was reaching for the strawberry jam, I heard her voice and knew by the tone of it that she was going to try to have a real conversation with me. After weeks of traveling around Europe, I knew her type: the friendly, single traveler who oscillated between being content to sightsee freely and secretly desiring companionship. I knew this because I was one of them, though my pursuit of companionship did not include early morning conversations in its repertoire. Trying to be sympathetic while still feeling irritated that this woman had put a damper in my perfectly arranged breakfast, I answered her questions dutifully—telling her why I was in London, where I was studying, where I was from in the United States, and what I was going to do in London. Every now and then, I would sneak a glance down at my plate, feeling slightly anxious that my eggs, toast, and kipper were growing colder by the second. I tried to multitask, mindlessly spreading my marmalades and jams onto the toast halves, but it was difficult to respond in full sentences without actually listening to what the woman was saying.

In the middle of our conversation, as the woman was prattling on about her daughter’s exciting adventures in the Peace Corps, a dour-looking woman with short grey hair sat down at our table. She nodded as if to say hello, but her tight-lipped smile revealed her insincerity. The woman I had been talking to—the chirpy one—welcomed her lovingly to the table, extending the same warm greetings to her as she had to me. The dour woman responded curtly, got up from the table, and returned with plain yogurt and a small bowl of cornflakes—which I judged to be a meager breakfast fitting for a woman of meager affection. As I sat at this small table, in the company of two older women with whom I was exchanging words for the first time, it suddenly dawned on me how completely blind I had been. So focused on enjoying my food and on manicuring the perfect breakfast experience, I had lost sight of why I was in this small bed and breakfast, at this table, with kipper, eggs, and toast, in the first place: to know and to love a foreign land and to accept graciously the encounters and moments that I stumbled across along the way—the first of which, this morning, was my exchange with the chirpy woman. I did not want to be the dour woman, with her yogurt and her cornflakes. I wanted to be the smiling, warm girl enjoying a hearty breakfast, and I had to remind myself, in that moment, that no one enjoys a hearty breakfast alone.

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By this point, my toast had turned rubbery from the cold air, and it was smeared carelessly with a smorgasbord of colors and flavors, but I ate it anyway, with my top-hat egg and peachy kipper, washing everything down with a large cup of Earl Grey tea—and everything tasted just as I had hoped it would taste: savory, agreeable, and altogether comforting.