A Sun-Dried Soliloquy
I’ve been on more airplanes in the past year than I have in my entire life. As an Adobe Creative Resident, I spent 22 weekends away from home. Now, as I attempt to reorganize my apartment in the tail-end of the residency, I can trace my year in mementos alone: the last few packs of leftover unsalted pretzels buried in the back of the pantry; a basin of crumpled ticket stubs still pooled at the bottom of my backpack; a once sparse drawer of stationary now riddled with miscellaneous “Hilton” and “Marriott” pads and pens.
Intangibly, I can trace the year through a new group of friends: a seven-person creative cohort forever bonded through our shared experiences from Portland to Berlin. I’d also like to think that, amid the near monthly cross-country trips, I’ve learned to implement some of the [much needed] California calm into my mindset as well.
Perhaps the most notable impact from all of this travel, however, has been its unveiling of a trait of that I’ve failed to recognize in myself up until now: I am a creature of habit.
As someone who considers themselves creative-minded, I’ve often veered away from such a seemingly monotonous way of living. Though I like to plan to a certain extent, I leave room for impulse, whether it be in selecting what TV show to watch, choosing an outfit, or crafting a vacation itinerary. I tend to avoid repeating experiences, so far as detouring from a familiar route on-foot to cross new territory regardless of the added distance and time. When it comes to food, I’ve been more unsuccessful than not with attempts to meal-prep, an internal struggle weighing the pay-offs between convenience and stability versus the mundane. Especially with food, I steer away from this sameness—this blandness that inevitably comes with upholding such strict repetition.
That is, of course, until flying changed everything.
We first met on my initial flight from New York to San Francisco last March. Split into four even quadrants, I couldn’t help but connect its rigid boundaries to the state lines 32,000 feet below. In the upper left (Utah), four pale, fluffy—yet chewy—pita triangles, smushed tightly into a corner to be kept within their confines. Directly below (Arizona), a remarkably large serving of almonds, one large brown cube stacked equally tall and wide. In the bottom right (New Mexico), an oily mix of grains, corn, and edamame, curiously colder than its neighboring counterparts. And above (Colorado), a heap of sun-dried tomato hummus so rich in color, so overpowering in tartness, it is only logical that its ingredient list alone takes up the majority of the back of the box.
The meal leaves a lot to be desired, but as one of the cheaper and healthier options onboard, it was through consuming the mezze sampler on any of these coast to coast United Airlines flights that I began to establish some semblance of a routine.
This particular case might’ve started out of convenience [if not necessity], but it took me some time to figure out that I was creating similar eating habits across the majority of my travels. Combing through my expenses, I can now connect the dots that I ate at pretty much the same breakfast place every morning while on bimonthly trips to San Francisco. For dinners, the same two or three spots, frequented in such a distinct traffic pattern that would only unveil pure symmetry if drawn out on a map. In airports, I would dart around the same terminals just to get my pre-flight coffee (or glass of wine, pending departure time) from certain places. Even back home in New York, I found myself shying away from the trendy and new, instead sticking to fail-proof neighborhood favorites for everything from bodegas to takeout to groceries.
Where was the guy who, after trying out a new restaurant, would make a point only to return in a new season, if only to introduce someone else to the experience? How did I develop a dependency on the familiar, altogether avoiding the thrill of the unknown?
In a year spent living out of a suitcase nearly more than out of my apartment, I can identify a few factors at play. Between trips, I was only back in New York City for about two weeks at a time (three becoming a personal record). These short stints made for small pockets of time where unpacking from one destination and repacking for the next replaced any sense of a sedentary lifestyle. As time at home became increasingly finite, I sought comfort in whatever familiarity I could find amid such erraticism. I’ve waxed poetic before on these ideas in food nostalgia, and would be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge their influence on the rationale behind these newfound routines.
But what happens when you realize that, while the places and things you might be revisiting are constant, you yourself are a variable?
One of my favorite trips this year came in the dead of winter at the end of January. Due to a a forced hiatus from the program, I found myself heading north to Montreal for a few days in an effort to reclaim some “me” time. I invited my close friend Tamara to tag along in the off-chance she’d want to make the trek in from Boston. There was something alluring about exploring a place in its off-season, our own playground to roam free without the usual flock of tourists stuffing up the cafes and clogging the streets. The last time both of us were in Montreal was for an overnight field trip with our French class when we were thirteen. At the time, Canada was exotic. For some, this was the first time out of the country. For most, it was as close to a taste of Europe that we would ever have without crossing the Atlantic. We sauntered down the cobblestone streets of Old Montreal in large hoards, breaking off only to pop into a shop, practicing our rudimentary understanding of the French language that rolled off our bright green and blue tongues, stained from the slushy stand that seemed to always be parked outside of our hotel.
Tamara and I both had our first encounter with poutine on this trip, a Québécois national treasure in the form of french fries and cheese curds submerged in a glorious bath of gravy. As something that should arguably not be consumed too far outside of the province, we ate this dish as often as we could over these few short days (when, luckily, as teenagers we had no problem doing so). Through this shared indulgence, an inkling of a lifelong friendship became clear. We worked through one aluminum tin at a time, our plastic forks digging through the rich golds and browns as we chatted aimlessly about our preoccupations at the time (who was sitting next to who on the bus, what high school would be like, and if we should both find a university in Montreal to attend after). And so, fourteen years later, it only made sense we found ourselves right back at the place where it all began, with a similar mission to eat as much poutine as our now slightly matured bodies would allow.
It was during one of these outings that we realized we had been there before all those years ago. As we settled into a table neighboring to the one we occupied on our first visit (it was taken), I was compelled to mentally compare the two scenarios, our current conversations clearly echoing that of the past. Though we now have both lived through those transformative teenage years, we were now confronted by new uncertainties that come in the face of full-fledged adulthood. In this moment, as we peeled back the lid on our second poutine of that day, a burst of steam enticing us with a warm welcome to dig in, it dawned on me: it was possible, after all, to find excitement in habit. Through this stability, it becomes easier to identify the differences, an opportune time to pause and evaluate these contrasts.
So let’s go back to the mezze sampler.
Habitually ordering this meal became an effective tool for self-evaluation in the context of the residency throughout the course of the year. Whether I was scraping at the last of the hummus with excess almonds or stomaching one last cold spoonful of wet grains, I found a weird solace in the humble feast, pinpointing my progress with “Hungry Boy” between each bite. (Besides, what else is there to do in the air after you have worked your way through all of the worthwhile season in-flight entertainment offerings?)
I just got back from my last residency trip to California a few weeks ago, where I ordered the mezze sampler one last time. I had to catch myself from questioning the stewardess upon its delivery, where it became quickly apparent that they had tweaked the menu item. No longer restrained to a grid, a subdued falafel and hummus combination replaced the once excessive helping of almonds and radioactive tomato flavoring. The salad has been “upgraded” as well, the corn and edamame now even more colorful with red onion, kale, peppers and roasted tomatoes thrown into the mix.
I’m not going to drag out a forced metaphor relating the changes in the dish to the changes in my year (perhaps a sign of growth in and of itself in comparison to my first essay). And yet, I can’t help but feel a bit sentimental over this seemingly fateful shift.
Just as things feel like they’re beginning to take shape, the residency is coming to an end. Now, more than ever, it seems like a year of unlimited time, resources, and support that the program allows would be especially instrumental in helping solidify the direction of my career. But perhaps this in and of itself is a sign that I have gone through enough change over the last twelve months—a sign that it’s exactly the right time to be done. So much that happens within this time that it is only natural to still feel the impact of the program long after it has ended, simultaneously processing residual growing pains while attempting to reclaim a spot in the “real” world. And I believe that embracing these new habits will assist in grappling with such adjustments, as much as it did while in the program and as much as it did even before.
I don’t know the next time I will come across the mezze sampler, and whether it will be on a flight for work or of my own accord. I don’t know if the dish will have been altered again, or where I’ll be headed, or even where I’ll be coming from. I don’t know exactly what I’ll have to self-evaluate, or how things will have shifted since the last time I consumed the dish.
But I can’t wait to find out.