A Little Bouquet of Culture
June 9, 2017 -- An American living with a family of Ecuadorians in England
You could go to Little Italy and get a keychain with the map of Italy on it.
Or you could go to DaVinci’s Pizzeria in Brooklyn and work 60 years of Italian-American heritage into rounds of pizza dough. You could take pictures of waiters dressed in red bowties, or instead you could stir a simmering pot of sauce made from Italian tomatoes straight off the boat.
You can book a guided walking tour through Travelocity, or listen to family stories as you knead and fold and stretch a “pie.”
Given a choice, I'd go with the second option every time. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t go anywhere without my camera and I basically have “tourist" written across my forehead. What I’m getting at is that there is so much more to every city than what pinterest tells you.
When I moved to New York with my mother a year ago, we were instantly taken under the wings of the Gnerre family in Brooklyn. Mom and I rode a ferry out to the statue of Liberty with cameras in hand, and it was amazing, but having the opportunity to dive into the authenticity of the city's diversity beyond the tourist sites has been one of my favorite adventures.
I've made it back to the USA after spending two months in London, where once again I was blessed with a native surrogate family to teach me the ropes. I shared a bunkbed with Fanny’s (my New York roomie) fifteen-year-old niece, Britney, at her home in East Ham.
Her street is packed with 2-story cottages patched together with Moroccan tiles and flowering trees. Curries simmer in kitchens and spill into the street each evening when the school children have discarded their school uniforms to gather around a soccerball.
Brittany’s mother, Grima, came to London from Ecuador with Brittany's brother Christian, 25, in 1995, two years after her husband had come to find work. Those times weren’t easy for their family along with the many others who faced similar situations.
“Good men cried,” her dad told me over coffee one morning, “I cried.”
Now, however, he manages a cleaning business and Grima has her own beauty salon. I went to my internship the first two days I was in London, where I walked past Big Ben and dipped into the Victoia & Albert Museum, but the third day showed me another side of London that wasn’t in my guidebook.
I had the day off and Grima wanted to show me her salon. My curiosity was piqued. “Its a Latino salon,” she told me on the bus ride there.
She put me to work folding towels in the corner of the 15x15 ft space in a little covered marketplace 10 minutes from their house. There was a Middle Eastern clothing shop spilling into the hallway across from her, with vegetable and meat venders to either side.
I watched as patron after patron, or friend after friend, rather, waltzed into the salon to greet Grima in ecstatic Spanish. Some had hair appointments. Others had a cup of coffee and a list of problems. The latter would take a seat on the wooden bench opposite the register, prop up their feet and just talk.
Grima worked shampoo and wielded curling irons from behind the beauty station while tending to their problems like a priest behind a pulpit.
My Spanish comprehension is nonexistent, but through Grima’s listening nods and her freinds’ bursting smiles at the end of their talks, I came to see that for Grima, it’s more than just a beauty salon.
I left the salon around noon, hitting up the surrounding market so I could do some meal-prepping for the rest of the week. I bought two whole tandoori chickens for about three dollars, and filled my backpack to the max with produce for another six. Yucca, Cucurbita squash, and African Yams looked interesting to me, so I fit them in too. I wanted to bake some bread, so I did my best guesswork to decipher the aribic packaging on the flour and yeast to select what I needed. While I was there I picked up some Bulgar grain and plain Middle Eastern Yogurt to try.
The market workers chatted with me about their countries while I tried to figure out British currency, squinting at each foreign coin before setting it on the counter like an idiot.
Later, I kneaded my questionable bread while Grima’s husband Nelson, the youngest of nine children, told me about their family in Ecuador over his lunch. While the bread was baking and the chicken was cooling for shredding, I got to know Christian’s girlfriend, Jessica, 25.
She is also from Ecuador, but lived most of her life in Spain before moving to London two years ago. She doesn’t speak English, but we both pulled out our smartphones and got to know each other via google translator. We sat at the kitchen table talking and laughing like best friends, sharing photos from our lives across the globe, and snacking on a plate of Spanish sausage.
My bread didn’t rise, and I later discovered that I’d bought heavy rye flour for flatbread instead of whole wheat, but she broke it with me just the same.
I’d planned to attend a service at the famous Westminster’s Abby first chance I got, but the following Sunday I found myself with arms raised high, singing in Grima’s Spanish church in East Ham. Many of the songs were the same words and music as the ones I’d grown up singing, so I was able to sing along in English. It was my first time there, so they asked me to give my name and where I was from, and all welcomed me with smiling eyes. A young woman from across the room grabbed my hand and pulled me over to where she was sitting.
“I want to translate for you!” She said. And she did — She translated a 90-minute sermon start to finish.
I soaked in the feel of the church, familiar in many ways, but also true to the heritage of it’s parishioners. A round stained glass window poured colored light over Britney, as she danced and twirled ribbons with other youth in silver and blue robes at the front of the church. I’d never seen anything like it.
People lingered for hours after the service, congregating over hot dogs and lemonade and sharing community together. There were about sixty people there; everyone seemed to have known each other their entire lives.
In June we celebrated Grima’s birthday.
It was a surprise party, so Nelson and Britney prepared food in the morning, after she had left for work, and Christian, Jessica and I came home early in the afternoon to set up and prepare last-minute dishes. I peeled apples and used a wine bottle to roll out a pie crust. I thought I’d bring a little bit of my own tradition to the party.
Jessica taught me how to make salsa from her country while Christian blew balloons and hung streamers. When Grima walked in, we blew whistles and popped confetti guns and the fiesta music started to play.
Jessica’s mother and Nelson’s sister and family joined us and Nelson fired up the grill. He handed me a plate loaded with enough meat to feed an army. "This is mine?" I asked. He grinned. There was a steak, a chicken leg & thigh, a chicken wing, a pork chop, and a giant sausage. I don’t think I even made a dent.
The earliest stars came out to watch as the dancing begin. The cobblestones were cool on my bare feet and the air was sweet Sangria and citrus. Britney’s cousin, Michael, 21, spun me around and around until I was too dizzy to stand.
“You’re not wearing shoes.” he said.
“You only know that because I keep stepping on your feet!”
I don’t know how long we all danced that night, but it made me understand why eating A LOT was key. We devoured the Apple Pie, and they decided not everything about America is bad.
The summer went on and I continued to learn so much more about London, and the world, than what I was expecting. The inner city is filled with western art and lavish architecture, but the rings around the city are filled with families like the one I had the opportunity to live with. There are hundreds of Middle Eastern and Latino Markets, and a melting pot of culture and heritage that you may not find anywhere else in the world.
Over those two months I was able to cultivate a small bouquet of cultural blooms that I wound’t find in any museum. My Pakistani butcher, who has three kids and a cat, showed me how to prepare lamb neck for stew, my Turkish grocer gave me a list of Turkey’s finest beaches, Grima taught me how to cure a cold with ginger and lemon, and Michael taught me how to Salsa dance.
There were eight of us living in their little house at one point, sharing one bathroom. I remember complaining when I had to share one bathroom with just my mom and brother a few years back. They didn't have all the things that I grew up feeling entitled to. Yet, my host family was one of the hapiest families I've ever met. It was eye-opening.
I was able to look inside my own heart and try to pick out the bits that were so ignorant toward the world and the beautiful people that share it. Before I came, I had so little context and nearly no first hand knowledge of anything outside of American culture. I’d been to the UK before, but only in the areas that I “understood.” I had never been out of my comfort zone or stretched myself to experience more.
The museums, my internship, and the other traveling that I experienced taught me a lot too. It was all stretching, yes. But what stands out to me about my trip to London was my stay in East Ham, where I laid my head to rest each night and where I really learned that no matter how you are raised, or where you are from, there is always so much that is shared and that can be shared.
Love, joy, faith. The things you can build your life around.
I didn’t bring back souvenirs from London. No keychains, no pictures of the queen. Just my little, peppy bouquet of cultural blooms and a heart full for the people I met and came to love so very much.
I'm back in Brooklyn, N.Y., now, where I'm getting ready to move into my adopted Italian-American family's home for my first semester at the Fashion Institute of Technology. They're taking me to a cousin's wedding today -- my first Italian wedding. I'm not in Italy, but I can't wait to experice more of the culture celebrated today and experiance their world off the glossy pages of a guidebook.