Travelling immediately creates a personal vulnerability that dislodges us from our familiar and comfortable space. Disorientation must be an accepted item on the packing list to carry as international and cultural borders are crossed. Having navigated overnight bus rides and long walks through new cities with directions scribbled on scraps of napkins, I learned how to sustain myself from the most basic personal care, like brushing my teeth or a hot shower. When access to our typical nourishment is unavailable, well-being requires resourcefulness, adaptability, and the alchemy of gratitude for what has been discovered instead of feeling only the hunger of what is missed.
I am not a nationalist, and I stand beside my critical evaluation of systemic race, class, and gender oppression in the United States; however, social analysis aside, I totally loved returning to Chicago from three months in Central Europe and the Balkans, to bask in a Panera Bread with free WIFI and blasting heat, savoring a tomato soup bread bowl and a large, whip cream covered hot chocolate. While travelling, I missed access to whatever quantity and quality of food I desired, and felt physically hungrier in the Balkans than at other point in my near memory. I am a very open minded person, and will try almost any type of food. Only once in my travels have I declined a food offering. In Poland in 2017, I was not mentally able to eat pig lard spread on a piece of bread.
Regardless of my flexibility, I have definitely been hungry on my various travels. I think a few factors contributed to this. First, I travel on a tight budget and in some cities I have had a difficult time finding food that was not served at an upscale restaurant. Second, since I stay in hostels, I was limited to where I could cook and store food purchased at a market. Many of the refrigerators were packed beyond capacity with old, rotting food. At few times, food that I had purchased and labelled with my name was eaten. Once, food that I had bought and prepared for my long day of travel was ruined when a bowl of cheese water spilled on it. Keeping food at the hostels was nearly impossible. Finally, as my journey moved beyond the one month milestone, I began to miss diversity in my diet, and at times wanted to eat no more bread, no more young cheese, no more yogurt, but maybe an avocado, arugula salad, or a baked sweet potato. I do not consider myself a picky eater, but I know what I like to eat, and I definitely appreciate the large quantities of food available in the US.
Bratislava was one city where I had a difficult time finding affordable food. Bratislava uses the Euro, so I was already at a financial disadvantage. Also, I was only staying for one night before heading south to Ljubljana, so I did not want to purchase more than one meal. I arrived in Bratislava already quite hungry, having traveled a long day from Budapest, and walked to my hostel from the bus terminal which was about 45 minutes while carrying my pack. Although the Bratislava city center is a beautiful and historically preserved ancient walled castle grounds, the assumption is that tourists show up with Euros falling out of their pockets, ready to eat, drink, and party. I checked menus at perhaps 15 establishments before accepting that the prepared food was out of my reach.
Fortunately, I found a small market near my hostel, and bought a supply of food for dinner with a snack to eat on the bus ride to Slovenia. The snack was pretzel stick with hummus. For dinner, I ate rich berry yogurt, a green juice blend, and a mystery salad that turned out to be white fish, black olives, celery, and oily mayonnaise. I also purchased a carbonated water flavored with pear, cucumber, and mint. The entire buffet cost about $12 in Euro, or $16 in USD, after international transaction fees.
I discovered burek in Split, Croatia, and lived off of the flaky bread stuffed with spinach and cheese for the three days I stayed there. Split is a city with many tourists arriving daily from the cruise ships, and every restaurant is dramatically over-priced to reflect the market. I met other travellers who had ventured through Split, and they agreed that food was difficult. One Australian couple admitted to having spent about $50 Australian dollars on a couple of poorly crafted burritos, and they jokingly confessed that it was so far their worst purchasing decision along their year journeying around the world. The burek became my go-to food. The spinach and cheese, or the sour cherry, option each cost about 15 kuna each, or about $2.50. Three burek supplemented with some fruit like apricots, pear, or plums would get me through the day.
Sarajevo was where I ate the best. My guest house sat at the top of a steep hill, and a marketplace was at the base. It was an easy 15 minute walk. Also, I had private access to a refrigerator and cooking unit. I was able to store food and prepare it for the five days I stayed. I stocked up on fruit, cheese, yogurt, sausage, nuts, chocolate, packets of cappuccino, bread, and a lightly alcoholic (2.5%) carbonated grapefruit and mint beverage. During my entire time in Sarajevo, I spent about 75 marks on food in total, which is about $47 USD, and a little less than $10 per day.
Speaking of alcohol, I sampled two different types of local liquor. Hungary offers palinka, a fruit brandy made from fruit mash like plums, apricot, berries, and pears. In Bosnia, I tried a drink called raki, which was like moonshine and the distiller boasted that his was the only one around made from pine needles. I can’t say that I particularly enjoyed either liquor, but sometimes I find myself searching the corner store for a forgotten bottle of Palina.
What is the point of travel if it doesn’t change us or challenge us? For my 35th birthday in Prague, I ate a roasted rabbit. If someone offered me rabbit in the US, I’d politely decline. Somehow, while watching the pedestrians traverse the steep stairs through the Jewish quarter in the City of 100 Spires, I felt like a wild hare of a bed of greens with a side of buttery mashed potatoes was the ONLY appropriate food to eat. It was delicious.