Food Journal no. 3, The Usual Haul

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The nearest grocery is about half an hour away, on foot. Gerlingen, a small town just on the other side of the forest surrounding Schloss Solitude, has a Lidl on one of its main streets, and a much larger Real, not much further (although I have yet to set foot in it). Because a trip into the city by bus usually sets you back by at least 5 euros, I usually opt for the long often idyllic but always dull trek into Gerlingen on days when I just need certain essentials.

I can safely say that one of the things that sets living in a country like Germany apart from, say, the Philippines is how healthy food is easily available at every market sector. This is easily contested in places like the US, which characterize some of their smaller, less wealthy areas as food deserts, but I have yet to come across a German town where this is the case (then again, I am in Baden-Wurttemberg, which [again] is one of the wealthiest regions in an already very wealthy country).

There is a little bit of shame in buying everything from a discount grocery, like Lidl–something that tells people you don’t take your diet seriously and are willing to subsist on substandard produce and possibly unethical supply chains. My inner snob sometimes causes me to spit the name out half-jokingly when responding to questions like “Where do you get your herbs?”

“Oh you know,” blink, apologetic smile, “Lidl.”

I don’t know yet if these feelings come from expecting more of myself or not wanting to disappoint my peers. Coming down from a space like the Akademie, which is supposedly housing forerunners in intellectual labor, only to acquire all the necessary provisions at…a discount store? What is wrong with me? Are we not supposed to be leading the way in terms of consumption practices and does this not begin with simple everyday acts, i.e. changing the way we eat and which producers we choose to support?

I wish it was as simple as making the wiser, kinder choice when one has the means, but is it even necessary to frame these decisions in such a complex manner when the truth of the matter is “I’m really just hungry, dammit.” Also, I’m too cheap to take the bus. What more with paying 3 euros for a bag of onions that could be had for 80 cents at the nearer grocery?

Take into account that other, not so kind aspect of acquiring provisions: the fact of having to hike through a forest just to get them. That means having to hike back, groceries in tow. I once had fantasies of living in Europe meaning wine in the cupboard and a consistent selection of fresh fruit and cheeses. The reality of this is when everything you acquire is packed not into the trunk or the backseat of a car, not even into a bike basket, but onto your shoulders, you not only choose to shop based on proximity, but based on weight.

This means, when choosing between wine and milk, milk wins. I’m anemic, so between eggs and fruit (if we are going for similarities in weight and care in handling), the eggs win. Same goes for choosing between leafy greens and starchy vegetables or root crops.

It’s boring, but coming to these decisions has made up a sizable chunk of my time in residency at the Schloss, most of which involves not just producing research, but producing a life in a foreign country. On my worst days, I will whine and complain endlessly about not having been productive, about having let another day pass without getting any work done.

“What about going to the grocery? What about feeding yourself?” several residents have asked. “Is that not work?”

It is, and throwing it under the lens of working in a setting as absurd as Solitude, under circumstances as exceptional as a fully-funded residency casts a harsh light on what gets credited or discredited under capitalism. Without exception, we all know what we’re doing here as artists. We all had a project or some form of research to propose, and we have been given space to practice it. The odd thing about the Akademie though is that we are not under any pressure to produce it – the pressure comes with having been given this much time and this kind of space, but there is also the pressure of coexisting with others in the same situation.

“Imagine if you had to ask me for food,” joked one fellow.

“I would wither into nothingness,” said another.

Knowing how to live without depending on others becomes magnified. On some days, I am the one asking a neighbor for cooking oil; on others, someone is knocking at my door for onions or tea. I have two months to go here, but the clearest takeaway about it is that regardless of the bizarre utopian idyll of this castle in the woods, there is no way we would survive without each other.

Food Journal, no. 2: Five Kinds of Pudding from my Filipino Aunties

I did not think I had it in me to party for five hours straight. But I also haven’t experienced being away from my friends, family, and everything familiar for more than a decade.

Dragging my tired body from the Stuttgart Central Station–after a birthday party in Baden-Baden that meant taking a morning train to Mannheim which then connected to Karlsruhe, and then back again–I texted Wiam about our own little potluck at the Schloss. “Is the dinner still happening? I have four kinds of pudding from my Filipino aunties.”

It was cancelled, she said, on account of “collective Sunday lethargy…but four kinds of pudding from my Filipino Aunties sounds like it should be the title of a story or a memoir.”

I had been a little shy about taking food home from the party, not wanting to be fussed over by strangers. But this is what it is, or what it is becoming, to be working with Filipina women who have developed a reputation across the diaspora for providing this specific type of labor – that of care. Eventuallly, Madencia, 71 years old, born and raised in Tondo before coming to Germany as a domestic helper in 1982, noticed me and introduced herself.

“Do you have any food to take back with you?” came after the usual opening of, “What’s your name?” and “Where in the Philippines are you from?”

“You can’t not take something home,” she said, gesturing to a table piled high with desserts, before ambling back to the kitchen to find me a container. I follow her there and stop her as she’s asking for a massive aluminum baking tray. “That’s too much!” I tell her in Filipino, and take a paper bowl from a stack in the corner of the room. Madencia gets two more and insists there is no need to be shy before leading me back to the dessert table and filling the bowls with not four as I had thought, but actually five kinds of pudding: cassava cake, maja blanca, kalamay, something sweet potato or yucca based, and biko.

Two weeks earlier, I met with the women from LuViMin e.V. after contacting their president, Lourdes Pfisterer. They had their annual meeting at the Burgersaal Rathaus in Herbolzheim, Neudenau, a small town of 600 about an hour away from Stuttgart, which is one of the Baden Wurttemberg region’s largest cities. Expecting to find my way to the meeting on my own, I began walking from the station in search of something to keep me occupied for the next hour, when I saw a woman waving to me from a parked car. “Alice?” she asked, before giving me a hug and telling me to get in the car.

“We’ll go home first to leave your things,” she said in Filipino, “and then we’ll eat.”

Even if we are living in one of Germany’s wealthiest regions, Lourdes and her family live in a modest home. It has a one car garage, service areas where laundry and housekeeping materials are kept, a kitchen, a small dining and living area where family and friends gather, and the bedrooms. She shows me where I will be staying for the night before I come down for what could be merienda or lunch.

“Is it okay if I take a photo?” I ask her, about the first Filipino meal I would be having in close to two months. She laughs and offers me more of the ginataang kalabasa and rice. “Magkamatis ka na lang,” she says, taking a roma tomato from a package and slicing it into wedges for me to have on the side. I want to ask for fish sauce, but am overwhelmed and my shyness has gotten the better of me again.

Like Madencia, Lourdes came to live in Germany in the 1980s, before the country became part of the EU and before any of the Draconian measures designed to fortify borders came into place.  “All you needed was a passport,” she told me the next day, when I asked about how she first came to Germany.

On that afternoon though, within an hour of meeting me, she tells me to feel at home, finds me a pair of slippers, and offers me a seat at the kitchen table. A few more women arrive: Alice Z, Divina S, and her sister, Christina C. They don’t eat, but they sit with me. And that is how it usually begins, I am told. This is how we find each other.

Earlier this week, in Pforzheim, with Chuchi and Regina of the Philippinisch-Deutscher Verein Nordschwarzwald, I ask how they began to organize as a group, and later, a community. Chuchi laughed, “Oh you know, sometimes we do this,” she says, miming a hand taking a needle and thread through fabric, “Sometime someone needs a siopao recipe.”

It is Chuchi who tells me about the party in Baden-Baden where I meet Madencia and the  rest of the women from the Phil-Deutscher Verein. Chuchi is after all the first one I reached out to and one of a few to reply. She picks me up from the station in Karlsruhe that Sunday morning, and we go and pick up two more of her friends before picking up a lechon and heading to the party. The car is filled with chatter in both German and Bisaya, as Chuchi and her friends are all from the south of the Philippines where Tagalog is rarely if ever spoken. This changes at the party, where women from all regions show up to greet Klaus a happy birthday. His wife, Lita, is from Capas, Tarlac, and for that day she was our host.

Aside from the dessert table, Lita has prepared a massive spread in the kitchen. There is kare-kare, curried ox tripe with steamed vegetables, sitting on the stove; several kinds of noodle dishes, salads made with ampalaya (bitter melon) and pickled mangoes, an assortment of grilled meats and fish, and huge bowl full of shrimp. The women are lively–and they are all women, as very few husbands are present. At Pforzheim, Chuchi had told me about how the wives took these moments of togetherness very seriously. Their husbands just had to support them.

On the way back to the station, relying on the Navi app, Chuchi and her friends notice we’ve gone in what seems like a massive circle. She laughs. “There are many ways to get to Rome,” she says while smiling at me. Thanks to her, I make it to the station in time to catch another train to Mannheim, from where I catch another connection back to Stuttgart, where I can dwell in the comfort that I will soon return to the Philippines and its familiar tastes. For them though, home is a meal shared with each other.  I put my five kinds of pudding away, and go to sleep, exhausted but with a heart full of hope and stomach full of carbs.

I am not a woodland creature

But I’m trying.

I go for what I think are “long walks in the woods,” but these are only long when I’m with company. If it’s just me, I’m in and out in less than half an hour–unless I hit a parking lot. The forest has a parking lot for all the  car owners who want to take long walks in the woods. The problem is I keep on somehow finding myself in the parking lot as if this is where I belong.

The other problem is: it kind of is. I am comforted by the sound of passing cars and oncoming traffic, of rubber on asphalt. I need the white noise–actually, the clatter and bang–of the city to soothe my senses. This should change in the coming months, seeing as it’s already been two and not much has happened. I might still get shocked when I repatriate, but who even knows. I miss Manila everyday, but it’s also nice to be so close to so much of this nothing and everything.

Since I was little, I’ve had a completely irrational fear of trees that is connected to my trypophobia. Show me a lotus pod and I will freak the fuck out. Show me oddly textured bark and I will probably be able to make out a face and that face is SCREAMING IN AGONY. I took this deep-seated fear with me when I moved to the castle in the forest. It followed me to Gerlingen, a small town 40 minutes away on foot, through paved roads and well-lit stairways.

A 20-minute alternative to this long route was presented by Google one evening, and I took it, not knowing it would mean walking through THE FUCKING FOREST. Sure enough, my GPS conked out somewhere down the nonexistent road, but I tried to soldier on for another ten minutes. Ten minutes in and I felt the trees and their faces looking at me. It was dark. I was alone. It had just rained. It was not a good time to be lost, terrified, and unsure of the obstructions along the way, so of course I turned back and effectively turned what should have been at most a 40-minute walk into an hour long trek.

Germans have a special relationship with the forest, though. This I learned from my friend, Florian, who I ran into on the way back from that first trip. Unlike me, with my need for clear objectives and human traffic on the way to and from anywhere, Florian was just wandering aimlessly after having not left his studio for almost a week. To him, here was the forest, an institution in itself worth protecting, and also a space of immense privilege. “How lucky we are to be able to enjoy nature,” the forest seemed to say to him–and to Germans in general.

There was outrage when humanity began to encroach upon this precious greenery, and there were concrete actions in place to try to save it–both from us and from itself. While here, I’ve learned that most of the logs I see on the sides of the road (because of course there is an actual paved road running through these German forests) were felled to preempt disaster rather than to harvest their innards, as a reminder that even the natural world is a controlled space. Which is strange, but it makes sense in terms of living in harmony. What is it, after all, to fell a few trees for the benefit of the forest–and the people who walk through it.

That was supposed to be a joke. But I really don’t know. What do I know about the forest.

 

 

Food Journal, no. 1: Hot Sauce in my bag, swag

Sriracha Mini, 12,99 on Amazon.de. Not including shipping. LOL.
I’m more of a Cholula person, but I just discovered that this is a thing that exists and I am coveting so hard that it’s brought tears to my eyes.

Camus told me about paying 12 euros for a bottle of Silver Swan soy sauce in Barcelona. Liana shared a sad recollection of seeing bottles of bagoong at a shop in Aarhus that had become crusty with mold from neglect. Another friend brought up the homesickness tax, which is not only the added hit we take to our wallets, in the painstaking effort to recreate familiar flavors, but the time we spend just tracking down those tastes.

In my first weekend at Stuttgart, I found out that 1) the closest grocery is a 15-minute bus ride away on top of the fact that 2) the bus only arrives every hour, and never after 11 pm and 3) groceries are closed on Sundays. Pretty much everything in Stuttgart is closed on Sundays, except for a handful of little diners here and there and the large museums (the stadtmuseum in Gerlingen, oddly enough, is only open on Sundays).

That first Sunday, having gotten sick of what little I had managed to squirrel away during my first grocery run, I ducked into a Chinese diner off Rotebuhlplatz and ordered a plate of noodles that would have been comforting had they not been too salty. Spring onions and bokchoy were replaced with broccoli florets, red peppers and huge, coarsely chopped chunks of onion interrupting the overwhelming amount of soy sauce that was also oddly tinged with…curry. I would have ordered a drink to break up all that salt, but one Tsingtao cost 2,50, and I did still have enough Chinese in me to hold back, knowing this cost far less elsewhere–elsewhere being the other side of the globe.

At my first dinner with all the fellows from the Akademie, Wiam, a writer from Cairo asked if I cook. “I love cooking,” I answered, and went on to talk about the joys of things like a curry left to stew for hours, then allowed to sit for the rest of the day, or congee topped with fried tofu dished out on a rainy day.

I usually enjoy traveling, and my favorite part is always that first trip to the grocery, where I get to see the small, ordinary things that make up one’s everyday existence. I like comparing the prices of produce, seeing which condiments get entire aisles to themselves and which ones get tucked into some obscure corner. Food is probably the most concrete thing that ties you to home, flavor allowing you to relive certain comforts, but all that feels oddly reduced to the abstract once you try to describe it.

“You should make those things then,” Wiam tells me over that same dinner (which, for the vegetarians, was a confusing interpretation of an “oriental” noodle dish, consisting of impossibly dense egg noodles cooked in coconut milk, topped with broccoli florets [broccoli is super cheap in Germany], fried tempeh, a swizzle of peanut sauce, and some kind of fruit that may or may not have been maracuja) and I’ve been trying. Some days I would wake up just thinking about tastes, like the taste of ginger scallion noodles, then I would scour the city looking for these things.

When I finally made it to the Asian Supermarket off Rotebuhlplatz, it saddened me to find it was probably the saddest place in all of Stuttgart, full of empty shelves, dim fluorescent lighting, and overpriced supplies. A bottle of soju, usually less than a hundred pesos, went for 4,99 euros here.

At Edeka, a large supermarket chain, I silently congratulate myself for figuring out how to weigh my own produce while buying a massive knob of ginger–only to find a couple of hours later, that German ginger (ingwer) doesn’t taste like anything, and I’m left with a pot of salabat that tastes like boiled turnip water.

“The organic stores carry the smaller, tastier ginger,” says David, who lives across the hall. I make a mental note of this, as well as the premium I’d have to pay for organic ginger, and decide it’s bullshit.  I was already kicking myself for paying 2,20 euros for a bundle of leeks! Was ginger really necessary? Would Ginger tea, at least a good ginger tea, like soju, have to wait?

I have a growing list of these things that “have to wait”, which is really just food I miss and did not realize was such a huge staple of my diet until I accepted that I would have to go 5 months without it. That list now includes bun cha, congee, tantanmen at Wabi-Sabi, and pretty much any fried noodle dish that should not have broccoli (because I’m pretty sure that if I order Pad Thai here, it will come with a heaping of broccoli and I will flip the table over in rage. Then feel very bad because food here is expensive).

I try not to complain to my peers about it. Every place, after all, has its own food culture which we need to respect. The food culture in Stuttgart, from what I gather at least, consists of doner kebabs and expensive but underwhelming things.

Over the past couple of weeks though, several things happened: some of the fellows started wrapping up their fellowships and leaving the castle. Along with leaving came the usual festivities–shared dinners, drinks, farewell speeches–and in that collective moment–groceries. Half-empty bottles of olive oil, unopened yogurt canisters, jars of spices appeared in shopping bags at the Akademie cafeteria. “Take whatever you like,” they said. And over these left-behind staples of everyday life, we would go from being an Akademie to being a household. This was, after all, what it should have meant to live together and coexist, with conversations that went from “I have…” as in “I have this amazing dashi,” to “Would you like some?”

Most of my anxiety, at the beginning of my stay, had to do with the state of my kitchen cabinets. And while it seemed smart to make do with less, it also made it difficult to make a home of this new space.

Birthing Pains

Marionne Contreras
This Hole Feels Womb-like
Vinyl on Vinyl
16 February 2019

At the heart of Marionne Contreras’s practice are the poetic underpinnings of the familial. In her first solo, A Collection of Bruises, Curses, Baby Teeth, she presented installations and assemblages that evoked memories and emotions which would otherwise escape artistic expression. Relying largely on found objects, she left it to the viewer to weave a story within a seemingly disparate, often eclectic, but never cluttered web of paraphernalia. Despite its quirks, Contreras shows care and respect in the arrangement of her objects—an arrangement that made it difficult to distinguish the found from the produced—considerate of the guest or the reader, engaging but not imposing in her desire to tell a tale that has at its heart, the complexity of codependence – of being someone (or something) to someone else.

There is continuity but not repetition in the greenhouse of This Hole Feels Womb-like. From the guarded intimacy ofBruises, Curses, this time Contreras tackles the contradiction of nurturing growth in confinement. Through a greenhouse that never receives sunlight, a space that is wild, yet controlled, Contreras not only presents beauty as an end in itself, but describes the futility in attempting its creation. She writes, “[E]very replication is always an ‘almost’ and never ‘is’”

Amidst arguments that humanity is enacting its own catastrophic self-destruction, to grow a garden has become recognized as a radical act, with urban dwellers creating their own little pockets of green within the otherwise blighted city. Contreras however insists on the deeply personal narrative of the work, framing it from the perspective of a woman and her continuing search for safety and comfort.

“I always say I want to go back to my mother whenever things go out of hand or when I’m lonely or when I’m outside surrounded by lots of people, but I don’t mean I want to go visit her, I really mean go back into her, where I came from.”

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Installation view courtesy of the artist

Austrian psychoanalyst, Sigmund Freud, wrote about this drive to return to the mother and its ties to the cessation of existence as Thanatos, or the death drive. Yet, it feels almost too simplistic to reference Freud in the face of this complexity that does more than illustrate or even evoke a retreat from the real. There are contradictions in this structure: the cement that weighs the fabric down while propping it up, the softness of the framework that is meant to hold everything together. Maybe it is only by comfortably inhabiting these contradictions that we can better understand this world that holds us.