Coming home after a series of summer adventures can be a mixed blessing. After your first jaunt, you may experience any of several rude awakenings. The rudest might be that you can no longer meander just a couple of blocks from your hotel room to the Cafe Du Monde in New Orleans' French Quarter, at any hour of the day or night (yes, that is what I said: any hour, 24/7) for delicious coffee and fat, hot fried beignets. Each one is heaped with a mountain of powdered sugar that invariably leaves its tell-tale traces of chalky white on whatever you're wearing -- unless you're smart, like G, or maybe just male, and can take off your shirt, and eat your after-drinking, after-clubbing, wee-hours beignets wearing only a white undergarment (which some less polite folk might refer to as a wife-beater. Not to worry -- much stranger attire was seen at the Cafe du Monde, as well as at other French Quarter hang-outs).
You can, however, come home with the ingredients for beignets and chicory coffee, and take them up to your elderly father's house, and call some other family members or friends and tell them to come over, because you're making New Orleans-style beignets and coffee. You can't do that when you're down there; you can only make that happen once you're home. Back home, you can take people the pralines that you bought them in the French Market, and watch them smile as they bite into brown sugar made creamy, studded with pecans. You can bring home a huge jar of olive salad from Central Grocery, and divide it up into smaller jars to bring to all your friends, so that you and they can make something resembling a muffaletta, and remember the muffalettas you ate (as well as the gumbo and the crawfish, oyster and catfish po' boys, the jambalaya and the boudin and the red beans 'n' rice and the best fried chicken ever...). You can open your journal and remember Jackson Square and the Cathedral, Faulkner's house and Molly's At The Market, all the places you went during the French Quarter Writing Marathon. You can revise your fiction piece and your memoir piece and send them into the anthology that your new friends and colleagues in Louisiana are going to publish.
When you return from the second (or actually the third, if we count the June trip to Santa Fe) journey of your summer odyssey, you may be hit with the wistful realization that you can't go into your backyard and see a riot of nasturtiums and tiny Italian blue plums climbing over your fence, because you don't have nasturtiums or plum trees or a fence, or for that matter, a backyard.
Then again, there's the joy of having brought a kilo or so of those very blue plums home from Berkeley (where your friend Pat does have those very nasturtiums, plums, fence and yard -- and in fact has just invited you to build a house there and move right in) and you can use them, along with a couple of Meyer lemons (nicked from the neighbor's yard while helping feed the dogs) to make jam in your very own kitchen.
It may then, however, occur to you that you're no longer at the spa in Calistoga, and that you and your heart's true love are actually not climbing into the double Jacuzzi that came with your room. You may wander around your NYC apartment, hot and muggy as it never seems to be in the Bay Area, and say "Where is my Jacuzzi for two? Where did I put that? Did I forget to bring it home with me?"
At some point you're unpacking, separating out the laundry from the dry-cleaning, digging out the jars of June Taylor jam you bought for gifts, getting ready to refinish with oil and salt the cast iron pans you found at a thrift store and lugged home on the plane. But then it hits you once again, and you realize that you're not driving up a heart-stopping hairpin-turn mountain road in Sonoma, to arrive at an old ranch on the mountain top, the sight of which causes you to look at each other and immediately say "Drop City!" It's owned by the last of the hippies, who raises kiwis in the old vineyard and takes them down to homeless shelters in Berkeley. But as for you, you're no longer picking the extraordinarily sweet blackberries that grow wild all over the place, and later going for a swim in the bathing-suit-optional pool poised on the side of the mountain, where all you can see around you makes it seem as if you're swimming directly in the midst of more mountains and cliffsides and trees and sky, just as nature made you. You won't, a little bit later, be changing back into clothes in Jack London's old hunting lodge and looking out at a plateau where the Mayacamas held their healing ceremonies for millenia. You can't go up to the splintery deck and grill halibut and sausages and steak, watching as the sun descends in glorious colorwash, bats start to fly overhead and a night hung with more stars than you've seen for at least a year spreads itself over Cloud Mountain.
You're back in NY, which means that you are not in the kitchen of your friend, the brilliant, beautiful and erudite Betty, at her home in San Francisco's Mission, where she's making chiles rellenos for you along with fresh rice and beans, while heating tortillas on her comal. Later you won't all go get the most luscious ice-cream at Mitchell's, as you've done every night that you've spent in the Mission, your newest, favoritest neighborhood anywhere. The flavors at Mitchell's are unusual and vivid, and the ice-cream is not too sweet. If you're there (which, sadly, you are not), you can taste the rich cream underneath the cantaloupe or black walnut or Mexican chocolate. And they chocolate-dip hard ice-cream, something you've only seen on soft-ice-cream trucks. (The chiles rellenos, by the way, will turn out to be one of G's favorite meals of the vacation, far outstripping his opinion of the glorious dinner at Chez Panisse Cafe, which ended in a sumptuous Frog Hollow nectarine tart with mascarpone ice-cream.)
Mournfully, you are not, at this moment, piling in the car with Betty and her kids, gorgeous Alma and adorable Martín, to go eat Salvadoran pupusas at La Santaneca, along with an amazing side of beans, sweet fried plaintains and crema -- an unbeatable combination. Instead you're thinking about whether or not you can find a really good pupuseria in Washington Heights, one that will be as good as Santaneca. And although there are lots of Mexican restaurants in your New York neighborhood, they don't really have the same kind of tacos and quesadillas and strawberry agua fresca that you found at La Taqueria or El Farolito (G's other favorite meals of the trip). You're not zipping over to Tartine for another of their fabulous gougères, or because you just have to try that coconut cream tart with chocolate and caramel, or because hey! It's 4:00! The bread is probably coming out of the oven!
Nor are you walking in the Marin Headlands, marvelling at the fact that you can drive 20 minutes from the Mission and be hiking in the wilderness, surrounded by fog, climbing rock cliffs, the Bay crashing at your feet, no-one around -- and 10 minutes after that, you can be eating pizza and salad in the sunshine of Sausalito.
You're not having lunch at downtown in Berkeley with your colleague/friend Elyse, devouring oysters and fried olives, cauliflower soup and duck-and-plum salad. Nor are you eating your last delicious lunch of the trip at Ristorante Fabrizio in Larkspur, where, hosted by your pal Lea and her darling parents and extremely cute nephews, you shared amazing salmon-and-snow-pea risotto, fresh basil gnocchi lighter than little cloudlets, and berry and pear sorbets redolent of summer's perfume.
But you're home. The pleasure of your own bed, with the fresh plump new pillows you got just before you went away, is not so easily dismissed. Your books, your things, and your own true love are here at home with you. Your friends are clamoring for chick-dates before the school year begins in earnest. And of course, there is your kitchen, the place where you turn Pat's plums into jam, the source of the good food you can make with summer produce. You feel the joy of making meals instead of ordering them. You can choose ingredients to combine, think about seasoning, decide what will be on your plates tonight and tomorrow morning. The novelty of it is actually quite thrilling; shopping and cooking feel like luxuries after so many restaurant meals. And although it's not as large or lavish as the indescribable Ferry Plaza Farmers' Market, it will be good to get back to the Greenmarket.
It's true, you're dreaming a little every now and then of moving into Pat's backyard, since tomorrow she and her kids, Daniel and Laura, will probably eat lunch right around the corner at Vik's Chaat House. Maybe she'll have one of those giant masala dosas, huge and crisp and stuffed with delectably spiced potatoes. But you won't have one -- not tomorrow, anyway.
At the very least, you're considering the idea of apartment/house swapping next summer. Pat says she and the kids could do two weeks in New York, and so does Betty. Let's see, that makes a solid month in the Bay Area. I think you can handle it.
With much love to Betty, Pat, Elyse, Lea, Fat Dog, Richard L., The Southeastern Louisiana Writing Project, and everyone else who hosted us in ways large and small this summer. Special thanks to Sam, Molly and Derrick for recommendations.