Italians always eat outside, I thought, sitting on the communal benches at Hyde Park, sweaty from running a couple of laps around the lake, balancing my warm computer on my knees. A group of six elderly friends sat sharing olives and cheese, singing to one another in Italian. They weren’t really singing, but you know what I mean. They all seemed jolly. A graveyard of walking frames and walking sticks leaned on one another at the end of the table, like a modern art installation.
Of course, Italians can’t always eat outside. Sometimes it’s raining. But, I smile when my bland, easy expectations are met.
British girls always wear too much makeup, and their skirts are too short. And they always come to Malaga, I thought, when I was in Malaga, in not so short a skirt. I sniffed, ready to walk right past any Poms without saying a word. “Hey, want a sip of my drink?” one said. “Sure,” I replied. The drink wasn’t roofied, and I chatted and danced together with made up British gals all night. One fixed my mascara in the bathroom, and after a few drinks they told me my skirt was tucked into my underwear after I walked out of the toilet. They were quite lovely, for skanky girls.
Latino men are just always sleazy, I thought, in Argentina. Always wolf-whistling and muttering sweet nothings in Spanish, smacking their lips at my bare, white legs. We went to a nightclub and a few hovered around, trying to get any female, with a face, to dance. I rebuffed them, with my nose in the air, and danced my own horrible Melbourne-house-party dance. Swaying out of time with the music and jerking each alternate knee up, closer to my chest, at odd intervals when I was expecting the bass. A suitor took my hand to save me the embarrassment and danced me long and slow, to the music, so I stuck out less. Poor giant, intrusive gringa. The man might have kissed me then, when our hips had locked just so, and we were figure-eighting through the air. “Gracias,” he said, wet and comely in my eardrum, like an invitation. Then he kissed me on both cheeks and went back to his beautiful girlfriend, enveloping her with pythonic finality.
It’s funny how all Sri Lankans eat with their hands, I thought, wondering how to tackle my rice and curry with short, fat fingers. It was the first plate I’d ordered, from a swanky beach side restaurant, in Tangalle. There was a storm brewing and I sat at a white washed table on the sand, lit by a solemn bamboo lantern. As the waitress placed my curry down, I cursed having run out of hand sanitizer the week before. She came back minutes later with a fork and spoon. I didn’t want to embarrass myself by eating with my hands, and worried about what I might catch if I did. The curries weren’t spicy, but they weren’t exactly not. They were a complex breed of herbs and flavours that I’d never before known and knew I couldn’t replicate again. The plate was piled high and I ate it carefully, even though there was no one watching. When I came home, a friend offered to cook me Sri Lankan curry and string hoppers, to test out the recipes she’d make at a cooking class a few years earlier. I joined her and five friends for dinner in the courtyard of her Clifton Hill house. I brought a full bodied Chardonnay from my favourite winery in Margaret River, and a light Rioja, for those that way inclined. It was a casual, candlelit meal. The candles made pretty shadows over my friend’s new Gorman tablecloth. “When I was in Sri Lanka,” I announced, “I ate with my hands. The Sri Lankans say it’s the only way to mix the spices from the different curries properly to get just the right flavour”. Showing off, I massaged the curry and hoppers together between my fingers and lifted it to my mouth, even though I never did so in Sri Lanka. I spilled it all over my brand new dress.
“Everyone in Cambodia is always trying to rip you off,” said a group Irish people I’d met at a restaurant in Chiang Mai. “You have to bargain the most forcefully there,” they said. “I mean, Angkor Wat and all that is beautiful, but the Cambodians will do anything to get a couple of bucks out of you, watch out,” they said. “Don’t even think about donating or visiting an orphanage, it’s all just a scam, I mean how many orphanages can there be in one country?” they said. So I kept my wits about me in Phnom Penh. I fought for every last dollar, and made a tuk tuk driver take me to 10 hotels before I found one at the right price. I bargained the driver down too, to $1 for the whole ride around town. I was exhausted. The next morning, I went looking down the ‘hardware street’. It was beside a market. A girl working at a stall ran up to me and gave me three miniature bananas, giggled, and ran off before I could say thank you. I found a shop that said they could drill a hole in a coin I’d found, so I could put it on a necklace as a present for my friend. The shop owner’s daughter came downstairs and asked if we could chat a little so she could practice her English. “I want to go to university,” she said. And I told her I was sure she would, because her English was very good. After her father drilled a hole in my coin, they asked if I’d like to stay for lunch. I sat down beside the rest of the family in the centre of the shop. The girl’s mother brought a plate of pork trotters, another of cabbage, and gave us each a bowl of rice. We drank a green chlorophyll drink. “It’s good for the skin,” said the mother. The meat was tender and covered in ginger sauce. I ate until I was full. “How much for the coin?” I asked. “Nothing,” said the father, “a gift”.
“I always fall for Germans,” I told my new friends. “Something about them, I love how direct they are. None of them take my shit, but they love me for it anyway. They’re good travellers, and attentive boyfriends. They’re kind, without being showy. Once they know you, and like you, they’ll have your back. I hear that accent and something just changes inside me, I already like them without knowing why”. My friends laughed at me. “Germans? They’re just so practical… and punctual.. and planned. They’re so BORING”. “Well that used to be the way,” I said. “But not anymore. I’m going to angle for more romantic, flippant types. Like maybe Austrians”.