American Cheese

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My grandma eats American cheese sandwiches on white bread for lunch and wakes up at five am to drive her lime-green Volkswagen bug to the gym seven days a week. She is the type who could drive a person crazy. Too honest. Overly opinionated. Inflexible. Irrational. Impossible to argue with because it's her way or she will rant at you until you give up, nod your head, and say okay.

She called me on my twenty-sixth birthday, and made it clear I was not the only one who had been contemplating the status of my life as of late. In the first three minutes of the conversation she must have said, “I feel . . ." at least a dozen times. She seemed to be bursting with as many questions and feelings as me.

The summer I turned twenty-six, I wiled away my mornings scrubbing pots and pans and making avocado toast for tourists in the kitchen of a coffee shop in the Adirondacks. And spent my afternoons hiking mountains, swimming in the lake, and most of all wondering: what next? I had been traveling for over a year and recently returned from four months spent working on farms in Italy, where I drank way too much wine, ate everything in sight, and decided not to think about the future at all in order to enjoy the moment.

Upon returning home—supposedly for good—I found myself possessed of an unnervingly indecisive yearning for stability and adventure. One minute I'd be tired of having friends who I never saw spread out all over the place, no kitchen of my own, no job I wanted to keep, no garden, no roots, no life. The next minute I'd be all clenched muscles and beating heart. Inside I was pulling out my hair and shaking my fists at the sky, over the sudden shift, over the thought of choosing a place in which to stay still, abandoning all the unexplored corners of the world, the people I might meet there, the languages I might learn there, and the food I might eat there. And so in my mind I was tortured like this, and the days went on as I pondered: stability, adventure, stability, adventure, stability, adventure . . .

My grandma let me know that I should stay in the United States because my family missed me when I was gone. She felt it must be very frustrating to always be bouncing around from one job to the next with no consistency or career. When she was my age it wasn't even a possibility to travel like I had, she claimed. "Forget the olives, get a job already," she said, laughing. She was referring to my stint picking olives in Tuscany the previous fall. Although she had heard about my travels, it couldn’t be more clear that she didn’t understand what I’d experienced. She hadn’t seen the view of the village from the hillside olive grove, as the sun disappeared beyond the ancient structures that made up the town beyond the rose lined fences of the farm. She hadn’t heard the sheep bells ringing in the distance as we headed down the hill with aching muscles and a truck full of olives. She hadn’t tasted the meal Giovanna had waiting for us—the lamb and fava beans, homemade pasta, fresh cheese produced on the farm, all drizzled with the bright green, freshly pressed olio

I could have quoted Pico Iyer, and told her “. . . anybody who travels knows that you’re not really doing so in order to move around—you’re travelling in order to be moved.” I could have admitted that, yes, I was frustrated. That sometimes I felt like I was losing my mind. And by that, I mean, my sense of self that was previously grounded and grateful, excited by an overabundance of possibilities, and fully content with where I was. Before I quit my job, packed up my belongings and moved out of the city, nothing made me happier than lounging in my hammock on my day off with a cup of tea and a book. I had jobs I loved, working with under-served urban populations, did yoga everyday to combat stress, found actual real-life joy in being totally alone, and was so disciplined I fit months worth of my household trash into a quart-sized mason jar in an effort to reduce my carbon footprint. I remember having it totally together, so together that I saved up enough of what little money I made to set out on an adventure to see more of the world and learn how to produce food while doing it via WWOOF (a program that sets up workers with hosts to perform work on organic farms in exchange for room and board).

And then, there I was that summer—mission accomplished—but unable to sit still, unsure if I should keep moving, feeling I should find my place in the world but unwilling to decide what to do or where to go. I didn’t tell my Grandma this, because I’ve long considered her a lost cause. I didn’t have any answers for her when she called me on my birthday. “Yes, okay, I don't know, we'll see,” I replied, laughing along, although, for me, returning to Italy for another olive harvest was not necessarily a joke.

In fact, this conversation with my grandma, on my birthday, could have been the moment I decided I would quit the miserable kitchen job I had taken—to allow me time to figure out what I wanted to do and where I wanted to settle—and once again commence traveling from farm to farm, working for free.

Or maybe, the moment was really when I went to get my haircut near my parent’s house on a visit home. There’s nothing like a trip to a New Jersey hair salon to make you feel a need to leave the country and head out into the countryside.

The lady getting her hair washed next to me was regaling the whole place with stories from a recent trip to Vegas. She sat next to an unpleasant man on the plane over. She fell on her head in Vegas, after a night of drinking, and got a concussion. The meal on the plane ride home was fabulous. Lentils. And she ordered a couple glasses of wine. As she talked, I tried to imagine what her meals usually consisted of if she could consider any sort of airplane food fabulous.

“I called my mom and she’s giving me a hard time about drinking,” the lady said. “But, come on. I’m fifty-five years old. If I can’t get drunk, who can?”

She left the salon with her hair wet, after booking another appointment for two weeks later, and I was left wondering what she had even had done there, and why you would possibly need to go to a hair salon every two weeks.

I hadn’t had a haircut in a year. When I told my hairdresser that I dn’t own a hair dryer, she said, “But what do you do when you go out?” I reiterated that I let my hair air dry all the time.

The receptionist’s lips looked like they were made out of plastic. I watched her through the mirror as my hairdresser brushed the knots out of my hair. She was telling everyone that she had bought cornbread mix at Trader Joe’s to make later that night. She and her boyfriend were going to pick up take-out, then eat cornbread. After further questioning about what kind of food was being ordered, it was revealed that she thought cornbread was a dessert, like pound cake—as she put it, something you eat with strawberries and a glass of wine.

The receptionist soon moved on from cornbread mix and started discussing a friend who was nervous about a date she was going on. “She’s setting up her friend with a blind guy,” my hairdresser explained to me. “I don’t know why she’s so nervous,” she said. “She doesn’t even need to wear heels. She can just put on a cute romper and call it a day.”

The receptionist came to stand behind us, so we could look at each other in the mirror. “He’s not blind. He was born with something wrong with his eyes, so he can’t drive. But he still studied, went to college, got a good job, makes a lot of money.” She counted his accomplishments on her fingers as she listed them off.  “I know that money isn’t everything . . . but it is everything.” She repeated this last joke several times, pursing her lips and nodding her head.

 

Although I dream of it endlessly, traveling indefinitely is not all fun and games. Most of the grandmothers (and hairdressers, for that matter) I know would be horrified by some of the places I‘ve slept, the lengths I went through to get to a place to sleep, and the trust I placed in strangers. Carrying heavy backpacks, we walked up hills and across fields, over streams, through cities, and next to highways. One time we couch surfed with a member of the U.S. army, stationed in Sicily. He took us paddle boarding to an island in the ocean after dark and brought a couple bottles of wine. On the way home, the winds and waves picked up. We flipped over with all our clothes on and thought to ourselves, this is how people die. Another night a friend let us borrow his tent. When we went to set it up we realized there were no poles. We had to sleep outside on the ground, in the cold. We were startled out of our fitful sleeps by the sounds of cinghiale (wild boar) snorting all around.

 

I originally quit my job because I wanted to see more of the world, live outside the city, and learn how to produce food. Since then, I’ve lived on a large-scale vegetable farm, a biodynamic farm, a Pecorino farm, and small family homesteads. I’ve harvested grapes in Provence and olives in Tuscany. I’ve learned how to plant and harvest vegetables, milk cows and sheep, how to use a chainsaw, split wood, build stone walls, make compost, and speak Italian. I’ve seen chicks hatch and lambs born. I’ve slaughtered a duck, fed pigs, and scavenged for mushrooms. I’ve learned how to roll pici, how to identify chestnut trees, how to harvest walnuts, and how to prune olive trees. I've seen how olive oil is pressed, where wine ferments, and helped make cheese. I’ve eaten vegetables straight out of the dirt and drank milk straight from the udder. I would rather eat my own face than eat an American cheese sandwich. 

I’ve done some things I shouldn't have done and didn't do some things I should have. I wouldn’t change anything. One night I slept outside in the cold, with cinghiale snorting all around. We will laugh about this story for the rest of our lives. 

There would be far fewer worthwhile stories in the world, if we all stayed home and only did things my grandmother would approve of. I will never regret deciding to hit the road. My grandma might tell you that, ultimately, it ruined my life, and sometimes I might agree with her. But here’s one thing she will never understand: having good stories to share and fresh food to eat is enough to survive on. 

 

Contributor

Elise Silverstein is an aspiring farmer and emerging writer. She graduated from SUNY Geneseo with a degree in creative writing, and is now working on a biodynamic farm in Vermont.