What I love most about traveling, is, of course, all the (you already know how this sentence ends). Everybody does it differently. (Insert noun here) comes in different permutations; a humdrum thing like (insert something else here) becomes something completely new when somewhere else. I love that. I love thinking “Oh, that’s how they do that” or “I’ve never seen that before” or “Hey! I’m going to try that at home!”. It’s the best part of going anywhere for me.
For example, Sweden. When confronted with the everyday 7-11 or corner souvenir shop, you are presented with this spectacle …
… which is just one corner of the store. You can then draw very generalized and probably extremely off-base conclusions like, “Oh, Swedes must harbor a devil-may-care attitude (about cavities), fast metabolisms, and act somewhat batshit crazy.” I’m right, right? I mean, we’ve all read Stieg Larsson.
As for Poland, well we all have our little stories, and this is one of them:
First of all, a surprise: Polish food is delicious. Sour cream, dumplings, freaking Polish DILL PICKLES — what’s not to like?! Let people pooh-pooh lard on toast — um, that lard has bay-con bits on it, ok? And it’s topped by a freaking Polish DILL. Who’s laughing now?
So it may be freezing, and the only street food stand you’ve seen for miles around is manned by a dour-faced old lady who obviously has been hiding from you, afraid that you will order something. And she burns your first pierogie on the grill. Who cares? She finally cracks a smile when a band of schoolchildren pass by, making “ching chong” noises at you as you wait for her to lard up your toast. You get your food, and it’s pretty good, and lunch is just around the corner. It’s a good day. Did I mention Polish food is delicious?
Czech food is a different proposition. It’s heavier, not as prone to flights of fancy like herring, or making soup out of fermented rye. There is also street food, though, and thanks to Prague’s many hungry bar patrons, that street food is thriving. There are flat pizza-like dishes, and hot honey wine in the mornings (DO NOT inhale as you sip, or you will regret it), and this:
Sweet and crispy and straight from the, uh, rollers. Best of all, there is Prague ham, which sounds simple, but is so so good — thick haunches of pig, skewered and rotating over an open flame, fat dripping into the fire, juicy hunks hacked off onto a paper plate and festooned with thick slices of rye bread. Eaten standing up next to the clock tower at night, really, it is the best thing in the entire city, a meal that makes you feel like the world is an essentially good place.
But, still. There is nothing like reaching home, finally, after days and days and days of airports and trains and, uh, I guess the word for some of the hotel rooms would be “surprising”? Surprising hotel rooms. There is nothing better than a bowl of snail curry (gaeng kua hoy kom), stir-fried sweet pumpkin shoots (pad pak maew), a tiny beaker of spicy nam prik prik Thai aun (black peppercorn chili dip), some just-boiled duck eggs. A handful of steamed rice. And a tart-spicy “salad” of fried eggs with chilies and coriander (yum kai dao), what food writers think of when they write of Thai food as a “jumble” or “melange” or “cacophony of tastes.” There is no place like home.