What a wonderful surprise I received last week, homemade ‘bugnes’ (pronounced: “bewnye”, a beignet-style french donut)! Our downstairs neighbor rang (who owns the village grocery store) and brought one of my favorite things, that’s right, the bugnes. I don’t think I’ve met a Southerner yet who didn’t have an overactive sugar gland. My mother told me that when she was pregnant with me, she always craved donuts and sent my dad out on several sleepy-eyed mornings to curtail her cravings for the deep-fried dandies, so naturally, I blame her for nurturing my sugar addiction (mom, if your reading, you know I still love you).
You may be thinking, what do banana bread and bugnes have in common besides both being desserts? Nothing, except the story I’m about to tell you. If you’re from the US, you already know that banana bread is an American classic, but in my parents’ household, it boarders on iconic status! My dad would say, “Momma, I wish I had a dollar for every banana bread you’ve made and I’ve eaten.” Every time my mom asked my dad what he wanted for dessert, he would always say, yep, you’ve guessed it–banana bread. Truth is, I wasn’t much of a cook until just a few years ago, because when you grow up with a great Southern cook in the family, ‘you’ve got a hard row to hoe’ (‘Southern-ese’ for big shoes to fill). So instead, I became a stellar sous chef and dishwasher–voilà. I hear your wheels turning, do you know where this is heading? With so much change hitting you from all sides trying to adjust as an expat, we often default to our comfort zones. In my case, my default mechanism was the one thing that didn’t need translation, food.
If someone makes you something, they like and appreciate you or they wouldn’t have done it. The gift of food says it all. So I wondered, what can I do to show my appreciation for helping me feel welcome, tolerating my abuse of their language and meeting every question with a preemptive head nod and two second delay before responding in my best pigeon French? I know, I’ll bake them a banana bread! Curious how what makes us feel comfortable, becomes something you then want to share with others. In my case, when I was at my most vulnerable, I wanted to share a happy memory from my childhood in the form of banana bread.
So, never having made a banana bread in my life and after a few failed attempts (with tweaking the recipe from American measure to metric), I was finally ready to make deliveries! And with a big American smile and a good dollop of nervousness, off I went rounding the village like some ‘half-baked’ St. Nicolas! I gave everyone between La Poste (post office) and the boulanger (baker), a banana bread. And without having to say much, let them know I genuinely appreciated their help at a time when I needed it most. I told them that it was a special dessert from the US, particularly in my family. They were all so shocked and excited, that it was touching. I found myself having to say, “De rien” (you’re welcome) very quickly and scoot out before the unexpected welling of emotion became obvious. Believe it or not, I’m not a crier, but the expat experience will pull emotions that are buried inside you, by awakening your joys but also your hidden pains. I guess that day, the emotion of being away from home, family and all things familiar (even though I’m 43 years old), hearkens back to our childhoods to that place of comfort we could all run to, whether it was our parents (if you’re the lucky ones), our favorite stuffed animal or imaginary friend. We all need to feel comforted when facing the vast unknown, just as we did as children and that never changes no matter how old or wise, we think we’ve become.
In making each delivery, it felt great to see their eyes light up as some asked, “Pourquoi (why)?” I just simply responded, “pour votre patience avec moi (for your patience with me) and skirted away before the water works began. As mentioned at the beginning of this post, in receiving baked goods from my neighbor, I now know that on some level, they like and accept me, no matter how awkward I feel. Even though I am still very different from people in my village, France and Europe as a whole, in the end, what a comfort it is to know that some things are still universal. Food is a tie that binds us all and making something from the heart and sharing it, is the universal language of caring. Bon appétit, ya’ll.