Cooking at Home, Abroad

Cooking at Home, Abroad

Renting Spaces with Kitchens Makes Travel More Affordable and Super Delicious

article and photos by Anna Levy

On the days when my insatiable sense of wanderlust is almost too much to bear, it does my heart good to remember the places I’ve already been; in so doing, I realize just how important food is to the nostalgia I feel for vacations I’ve taken. What surprises me about that is that some of the most memorable meals I’ve had elsewhere have been the ones I’ve made myself.

In the last several years, I’ve had the pleasure of renting a variety of houses, apartments, and rooms in various cities. In every place, I’ve found particular joy in the process of buying and preparing food. Doing so gives me a glimpse of what it would be like to actually live there; having chores that include grocery shopping and washing dishes helps me feel like I really belong. In time, my memories of each rental have become inseparable from the open-air markets I visited, the quirkiness of foreign ovens, and the challenge of translating words to find an ingredient I’m seeking. Whether it’s lemons straight off of the trees in Sicily, bread in London smeared with marmalade, or red snapper fresh from the Gulf Coast, food I’ve prepared has given me a crash course in local culture that is hard to find otherwise.

Take, for example, the flats I’ve rented over the years in Paris. The City of Lights is without question one of my favorite places. When I go, though, I don’t visit all the most celebrated restaurants; more often than not, I instead spend hours at cafés with café crème, espresso, or wine, and then head home for meals. Doing so allows me to visit more often, and that’s a tradeoff I am happy to make.

In the process, though, I’ve come to feel more pseudo-Parisian than I ever could if I stayed in a hotel. I’ll never be a Frenchwoman—sadly!—but I gain a sense of accomplishment when I successfully navigate an outdoor market; a feeling of belonging when I can describe that I’d like to purchase a fromage that is not hard, not soft, but somewhere in the middle; a thrill of delight when I follow locals into the preferred boulangerie and walk out with a baguette of my own, twisting off its top for a quick snack as I head home. Every time I am in Paris, I look forward to stocking the yogurt I adore, which comes in small ceramic pots; strolling aisles devoted to butter, wondering how I could use each type; and occasionally eating a meal of olives, cheese, and wine, sitting in my apartment with the windows open to the sounds of France.

Yet it isn’t just Paris that offers that chance to nestle into the everyday food rituals of a place. Last summer, in the seaside village of Vilassar de Mar, I loved living the Spanish principle that simple foods are often the best. The host left a large jug of olive oil, fresh juices, and directions to the best grocery store. There, I wandered the rows of food labeled in a language I do not speak, completely beguiled by what I found, selecting what caught my eye without much of a plan, often winding up with small tins of fish and chocolate-laden cereals. It was an approach that ushered in early-evening appetizer picnics on the porch, in the warm Mediterranean air, just after siesta and well before late-night dinners out. S

imilarly, on a trip to Edinburgh with my sister-in-law that stretched longer than intended because of an airline strike, we became accustomed to the host’s breakfasts: tea, grainy bread softened by sweet jam, muesli. We had rented only a bedroom in the apartment and thus shared the home with the host herself. The kitchen was marked by a large sign that said “Heaven”—she’d saved it from wreckage when a local restaurant closed. That kitchen gave us the best that travel can offer: sitting down as strangers, sharing a meal, and leaving as friends.

a beautiful kitchen sink with stainless steel counter and white subway tile on the walls

I also have fond memories of a Christmas spent in Copenhagen in one of the coziest apartments I’ve ever found. The host informed my partner and me that most shops would close for December 24th and 25th. We didn’t understand, though, that everything but convenience stores would be closed even on the evening of the 23rd, and so found ourselves scrambling to put together a grocery list in the aisles of the Danish 7-11. The resulting dinner was not fancy or foreign—jarred tomato sauce and boxed pasta, a few anemic vegetables and ice cream for dessert—but we ate it above the quiet city, by candlelight, in an apartment lovingly decorated for the holiday. Taking out the trash afterwards, it felt like we really were home.

The joy of a kitchen when traveling allows for the occasional mishap, too. In Vienna, I was easily persuaded to buy a grip of sauerkraut after the Austrian vendor insisted that I try it; he reached into a waist-high barrel with his bare hands to give me a sample, and my refrigerator was pungent with fermentation for a week afterwards. In Norway, overwhelmed with my efforts to translate the language in real time, I mistakenly brought home strawberry milk instead of the plain option I sought. In frigid Toronto, I learned that finding black-eyed peas for a traditional New Year’s Day dinner was out of the question. And in Spain, my gesticulations and broken attempts at Catalán resulted in the purchase of an inedible fish. In all instances, though, the mistakes themselves became part of traveling’s lore.

Domestically, where the language is my own, I still love eating at home while traveling. In Kauai, for instance, the bare-bones kitchen on a screened-in lanai allowed breakfasts of coffee, papaya, and a soundtrack of tropical birds. Having a kitchen in the summertime in Galveston, Texas meant a freezer stocked full of beloved flavors of Blue Bell ice cream: Rocky Road, Dutch Chocolate, Pecan Pralines ‘n Cream. And when my siblings and I, along with our families, rented a house to share with our dad in New York for a milestone birthday, I found that it didn’t matter that we weren’t in a familiar home; the kitchen remained the heartbeat of our weekend together, allowing space for us to slice still-warm bagels and to light candles atop a cake marked by blue roses.

Dining out can admittedly be one of traveling’s greatest joys. Still, there is also the sweet connection to a place that comes from staying in for meals. As I consider my next trip, I am already excited to find a little place to call home for a week or two. There, I’ll contemplate a world that is not my own, even as I clean up from dinner, even as I stack my own dishes to dry.

Anna Levy writes, cooks, and plans travel of all sorts whenever she can. She lives on the Mendocino Coast with her husband and two dogs.