Posted by: Natalie | February 18, 2011

Of Food, Friends and Freedom

At the end of my second university year, oh way back many more years than I wish, I took a trip. Along with my intrepid travellers, Claire and Stuart, we spent a month with our backpacks, tents and train tickets hopping around Western Europe. It is still to this day one of the best experiences of my life. The best of company was married with an almost indestructible feeling of freedom, the belief and anticipation that we could go anywhere on a whim – within the confines of the rail ticket and the departing flight 31 days later however, but you get the idea!

Claire, Me and Stuart, picnicking just outside Salzburg, Austria, after pretending to be Maria Von Trapp. The view from here was spectacular, nothing but mountains and blue skies. Incredible.

We saw so much and walked so very far; we weathered some of the most terrific storms I have ever encountered; swam in a sunshiny pool on the edge of Austria’s mountains; climbed the Eiffel Tower, the Colosseum, and too many monuments to count; took our own little piece of the Berlin Wall; toured Italy’s ice cream offerings (Florence won with 10/10 for me!); dodged defecating seagulls in Luxembourg; ate Chinese food with a Major General; saw Van Gogh’s Sunflowers and Starry Night; happened upon Amsterdam’s more exotic cultures; Giggled like children at Brussels’ own Mannenken Pis; got shouted at by unacceptably angry French park attendants for daring to sit sleep on the grass; Got lost in Le Havre looking for the D-Day landings (GCSE and A’Level History apparently failed us); became a perch for pigeons in St Mark’s square; woke up to the sun rising over Monaco; danced waltzes in the dark; repeatedly bailed Stuart out off a leaking tent with only a flannel; froze and shivered whilst camping in Switzerland’s frost and hail; took midnight trains to unknown places; and inevitably ran out of time.

Steve and I are plotting our own little trip for later in the year, nothing so grand as this and certainly not for as long, but possibly heading to Berlin for a few days. The mulling of ideas had me reminiscing and I found myself suggesting places I had visited nearly ten years past. I dug through my cupboard and pulled out the album containing my memories and in a flash they came flooding back in a wave of scents and smells and thunder storms. Being all grown up these days, I rarely see my two travelling companions; marriage, babies, lives and loves get in between, but it never once lessens just how much I think of them and the fondness of our month sleeping pretty damn rough.

On the fourth time of turning the album’s pages, I messaged Claire and made her reminisce along with me (for as long as my phone credit held out). While we commented back and forth on our various remembrances, Claire pointed something out to me – they almost all surrounded food! I had never thought of this, but it is true. I can just about remember the activities and direction we took, the places and people we encountered, but it is definitely the food memories which hold the strongest weight! Either this is a sorry affair for the cultural delights of Europe or that we really did experience some of the most spectacular culinary offerings of our continent. I am afraid I know what the answer is.

Understandably, we were on a budget – hence camping rather than hostelling, but having seen horrific hostel-based murder films since, I am pleased with our choice! For the vast majority of days we survived with merely Stuart’s tiny pen knife, a jar of jam and a recently purchased loaf of bread. For dinner we might be a little more adventurous and stretch to some of Netto’s finest local cheese. Not only did I lose a LOT of weight doing this, but it also meant that we could afford ourselves little luxuries here and there, a few stubby bottle of Belgian beer for example, or a discount bottle of Italian wine with a pizza. Being a little stingy in places meant that we could delight ourselves with true cultural delicacies – oh, if you ever encounter a fizzy drink by the name of Chino, avoid like the plague or run the risk of becoming bubonic.

Still a favourite photo of me - its possibly the only one of me ever with an actual tan, but my that pretzel was amazing. Strangely I felt quite sick after eating it, which I did in one sitting on this curb in Salzburg. There was also the sounds of church bells ringing and a nearby Oktoberfest band flooding into the square. A beautiful day.

Belgium offered up the most heavenly, fresh cooked waffles smothered in hot chocolate sauce from a little place called Papillions. Italy allowed us a pizza along with that afore mentioned ice cream survey. In Austria not only did we go crazy and have a MacDonalds (you have no idea how good they taste after several weeks of bread and jam!) but I indulged in a giant pretzel covered in dark chocolate and hazelnuts (I am starting to see a running theme nearly in my indulgences). Germany, aside from the delights of Bockwurst and Bratwurst, included actual restaurant meals of Chinese and steak. Despite all these delicious moments, it is still the sticky jam fingers which I remember the most.

It is a strange thing how my memory works. In so many cases, it is not an action of experience which comes to mind first, it is a smell or taste or sensation. Thinking back over moments which stand out prominent in my mind, it is not necessarily just those of which I have photographic proof, but those which I can connect with one of these senses. Through the past months of poorliness that so many of my friends have encountered, the same flash of memory keeps coming to the fore; the taste and consistency of butterscotch Angel Delight and the hard prickle of a well-washed towel against my face as it covered my childhood pillows.

This is just an example but there are so many tastes and smells that can transport me in an instant to a specific time or place, somewhere in my past whether happy or sad. I know that the smell of baking cakes will always fly me to my Grandma’s farmhouse pantry, licking the bowl clean after a heavy afternoon of cooking. Ginger does that too as I imagine the Yorkshire Parkin being spread thick with Stork margarine. The scent of Bold washing powder takes me back to long summer evenings, playing outside only to return home to a freshly made bed, the sheets fresh with the smell of a summer afternoon hanging on the line. Hot buttered toast invariably retrieves the feeling of walking home from school in torrential rain to be greeted by this treat before an open fire with cocoa. These are not grand or fanciful memories, but the memories connected with food are almost always good ones, happy ones, of people and places I wish I could experience again.

I think it is truly wonderful that I can be taken back to this summer of freedom and friendship in a flash, with something so humble as a jam sandwich.

Feeling a little peckish now . . . .



  1. I wish I could do that too, with friends. Lucky you .

  2. Perhaps I am a little biased, but this is a beautifully written blog and certainly raised a smile (and a little tear in my eye) on this hard-working afternoon in the office.

    I often think back of the excitement of this trip, arriving in a new place almost every day and having to work out where to camp, what to do, what to see, how to get around… but you’re right, one of my strongest memories is those bloody jam sandwiches and the joy we felt every time we managed to muster up enough money for a culinary treat that wasn’t jam! We must have done this trip on a real shoe-string because jam really doesn’t cost that much!

    Favourite memory? Not sure, there are so many… but that campsite in Brussels with beer, baguettes and chocolate waffles was heaven! x

    • I always think of Brussels, that little vicarage garden which just happened to look out onto the European Parliament! So strange. But I think the best camp site was definitely Pisa, after those horrible nights in Rouen, a couple of night trains and no washing, to arrive in warm Pisa with REAL showers and washing machines!! Bliss doesn’t come closer!! I think I was just happy to be dry and clean at that point. The pizza also helped – I think that was our first warm meal! When I win the lottery on Saturday, we’ll do it again but maybe with a few more home comforts!


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