From the teacher’s lounge window of the university I worked at in Armenia, a mountain was visible. It wasn’t a huge mountain, but it was tall enough to be raked over by snow while the valley I lived in was still verdant and warm. I looked at this mountain for about three weeks before deciding to climb it.
After I made the decision, my first day off I packed a lunch and set off in the direction of the peak. As I passed through villages and pastures, I lost sight of the peak now and again, but every time the view was unobstructed I could see the white corona of the mountain almost blending it with the blue-white autumn sky.
The mountain was called Vardablur or Rose Hill.
As I climbed up the goat paths and rocky screes toward Vardablur, I reminisced about the various things I missed about America to pass the time. I thought about the cities I had lived in and the people I had known. I thought about the road trips I had taken and the way the Sonora desert looks in the twilight. I thought about the cold and humid Redwood forests in Northern California and the dusky smell of white pine fires in the Ozarks. I thought about Lake Michigan’s frozen waves and the reflection they distorted of Chicago’s skyline and about oxidized verandas leaning drunkenly over Bourbon Street, but mostly, I thought about the food.
As I hiked over dusty shale, cropped grassy swales and loamy depressions, I thought about the creature comforts I associate with home. The walk was so long and so quiet that I nearly began to hallucinate, almost seeing these objects of my acute desire. I imagined I was walking toward a table that represented the apogee of my alimentary desires. I pictured San Francisco Mission-style burritos, freshly-delivered pizzas with that still hot-in-the-box smell. I tasted fried tofu, mounds of fries, Soul Vegetarian of Chicago’s Protein Tidbits, Seva of Ann Arbor’s orange cake, Del Taco, Vietnamese sandwiches, Pra Ram with extra peanut sauce, my mom’s cinnamon rolls, all of Maggie Mudd’s nine flavors of coconut milk ice cream, ice-cold cans of Tecate beer and fresh-roasted coffee beans, finely ground and steeped into a viscous espresso.
I was still discovering myself in a different country and adjusting life there at that time. My fantasy almost got the best of me and by the time I reached the top of Vardablur, I had a difficult time really caring about the amazing view, the incredibly fresh air and the complete stillness. All I could think about was what I was going to buy when I got back to town. About the only things I could buy were stale sugar wafers and warm apricot juice, but I managed to fantasize about these a little, not without some remorse that I was selling myself short after the sumptuous banquet I had created in my mind.
When I got back home with my wafers and juice, my host family scolded me for having been gone so long. It was nine o’clock at night. I had been gone thirteen hours and I had spent most of it thinking about food.
After climbing Vardablur food became my most ardent connection to America. When I moved into my own apartment, I spent a good portion of every day off trying to recreate the familiar and comfortable food I missed so much. Eventually, I discovered many Armenian dishes I liked—zhingalov hots (fresh-baked bread stuffed with sautéed greens, zhareet (home fries, golden and crispy on the outside, almost mashed potato-like on the inside), Georgian puri bread, banjar (sautéed greens and onion) and, of course, the priozhki in its infinite varieties—but my appetite wasn’t so easily sated and I continued to dream and to create.
On one of our meandering walks, Paige and I once shared this fantasy. It was a beautiful summer day, and I was taking her to see a fresh water spring in a neighboring village. About half-way to our destination, we started talking about how our day would be different if we were back home in Austin and San Francisco. We didn’t get very far in the conversation before we started talking about Mexican restaurants. For the rest of the walk, we babbled about warm, floury tortillas on hot, brightly-colored plates; milky, green avocados; peppers sweet and spicy; icy, citric margaritas and the nearly-forgotten flavor combination of sweet and spicy in mole. We rhapsodized until we got back to town and then we stopped into a café and had a few Kilikia beers and fell silent, both of us thinking about the things we missed that we hadn’t mentioned, namely, the people we’d like to have that meal with and the things we’d like to say to them and how it would be different than it was before, how this time, we’d know enough to say the right things and there wouldn’t be any awkward silences or hushed arguing. It would be so wonderful that nothing could ruin it and our happiness would be infectious; the whole restaurant would feel it.
Food wasn’t all I thought about. During the day, especially before meals, when I got that faraway look, I was usually thinking about some kind of meal, the crinkle of a Taco Bell wrapper or the sound of my mom’s kitchen with its continuously crackling frying onions and talk radio static, but after I went home and ate and the moon began to rise over the mountains, I sat by the window and replayed my memories. Looking out my kitchen window, I watched scenes of my past stir into action. The people I had loved, and the people I thought I loved spoke to me, reminded me of things I had said and did. I talked to them. I told them of my accomplishments. I told them about what I struggled with and why, and I pleaded with them not to forget me. “I still think about you every day,” I told them. “How is it possible that you still haven’t answered my e-mail from last month? And why don’t you ever call? My mom does it all the time. It can’t be that hard.” I took relics from my suitcase and wallet and turned them over in my hands: the receipt from the last cup of coffee I bought with my parents before we said good bye in the airport, a picture of Mikey and I lying on our backs on an ice skating rink and a phone card I bought to make one last phone call from JFK. I paid twenty dollars for it and only got to use it for a few minutes before they announced our flight. I was never able to make it work in Armenia.
There was also the map. After my first year, a volunteer who was going home gifted me a huge map of the United States. I put it up in my kitchen, right next to the window. At night, when I wasn’t out walking and playing with stray dogs, I hardly left the kitchen. I smoked countless cigarettes and turned from the window to the map and back again. On the map I looked at the places I knew and the ones I didn’t. Looking down on the places I knew was like looking down on the people that lived in them. I saw past the clouds and the balmy street lights and looked into windows. I plopped down on familiar couches, went to familiar rooms, I said good night and sometimes, I even imagined tucking my friends and family in for the night, while I did so, I mumbled endearments in my quiet kitchen soaked with moon light and felt tears come to my eyes.There were times when I felt like I would never see these people again.
When I wasn’t being sensitive and lachrymose, I sought out the places on the map that looked remote and beautiful. Mobile, Alabama consistently snagged my gaze with its imagined swamps and gabled white houses slowly drawing themselves up in curtains of wisteria. I looked over the small border towns like Nogales and Brownsville and imagined Las Cruces to be all white-washed adobe rising from a plaza major. There were a few rain-shadowed and fern-covered places I sought out by the Puget Sound and my attention even walked along the banks of Lake Superior, where I imagined great birch forests running into cobalt and frost-scarred waters. I imagined the winter light, like a gleam on burnished metal spreading out over the cold waters and sinking there and then my attention would break and I’d be back in my kitchen, with the moon and the mountains before my window.
After thirty months, my plane out of Dublin dropped down over Michigan, just west of Detroit. I saw the map that had been on my kitchen wall come to life. In grey clusters, I saw the towns, Flint, Saginaw, Midland, Ann Arbor, Jackson, Grand Rapids until they were blotted out by the slate blue of Lake Michigan. My lips moved unconsciously as I passed over my home state. I mumbled like a penitent greeting everyone, knowing that this time, what I was looking down at were not lines on a map, but actual roads that led to actual homes and that the people I loved were, at that moment living down there. I was home.
Almost immediately, I began to live my fantasies. My first night back in the country, I ate two burritos one after the other. It was the only time in my life that I’ve understood the concept of spiritual hunger. After I had eaten the first, I was completely full, but something else in me cried out for another. It was nothing visceral, but rather like the result of all those dreams on all those long, dusty walks that were finally being realized. Something in me cried out for more, as something else in me began to weep. To anyone walking by, I was just another guy in the taqueria having a late dinner. Sometimes, I walk by restaurants and wonder how many people eating in there are weeping on the inside while they eat. It probably isn’t very many, but I like to imagine it is. Even the drabbest places look inviting and warm this way and I find myself wanting to sit down and eat amongst all the profoundly happy people I have populated the restaurant with.
After Chicago, I went home and ate at home for six weeks. I went for long walks and stopped off at every other convenience store, buying all the junk food I hadn’t seen in over two years, things I didn’t even like before became new obsessions of mine. One example was the ginger ale Vernor’s that had once zoomed into my recollection with startling clarity while I had been staring out the window in Armenia one night. I don’t know where it had come from, but after I remembered it, I thought about drinking Vernor’s on a daily basis until I returned to the states was finally able to go out and buy a can of it. After that first can, I must’ve bought one nearly once a week for several months. Before I had left the country, I never really even liked the stuff.
I ate and drank and talked and saw as much as I possibly could. On my way back to California, I was able to visit many of the places I had seen on the map and make them real. I walked around Mobile trying to memorize as much of it as I could so that the next time I left the country I could look at it on the map and know what I was looking it. While Mobile was almost as beautiful as I had imagined, it other places like Las Cruces were complete suburban disappointments and after I got back to California, I noticed that even the food didn’t taste as magical. I still had some great meals and ate at some fondly remembered restaurants, but there was no more internal weeping. The spiritual hunger was fulfilled and now I was only eating to satisfy my hunger. It wasn’t disappointing. You could say that everything just became normal again. And then it moved from normal to mundane and then I started looking at the map again, not the American map, but the world map. I started walking around with thoughts of Myanmar and Uruguay gradually developing in my mind like Polaroids. I gave Montevideo cobblestone streets and I started to walk them in the evenings. I heard old wooden doors squeaking open and the sibilant pronunciation of Rioplantanese Spanish. These thoughts began to carry me away. I stopped eating out so much and spent more time in front of the map. I looked out from my doorway at night, listening to the boorish yelling of drunken college students and felt bored and detached. Most of the time, I scarcely noticed the food I ate.
Just before the one-year anniversary of my return to America, I bought a one-way ticket to Argentina. I stayed there until I started to see my loved ones in the map on the wall, began staring out the window for long periods of time and imagined conversations. I knew it was over when one day I found myself fantasizing about eating at Taco Bell. At that point, my girlfriend and I decided it was time to go back home, at least until the veneer wore off again.
I know now that the veneer will wear off every time, that nothing, no matter how much it has been missed will taste amazing forever, but it’s nice to live without the creature comforts, if only to discover how much they really mean. The cycle of longing and reconciliation is something with which we all live only we have healthy or unhealthy relationships with it. When both aspects are equally enjoyable, that is a kind of peace. When denial and indulgence rank evenly how can we ever miss anything again?
One day, everyone I have ever loved will sit down in a menagerie of the most beautiful places I have ever seen and we will eat all that food they we have ever missed. This won’t be in heaven. It will be here. It will be memories.