Saturday, March 7, 2015

A Sense of Place - Karen

This month we Prosers talking about a sense of place.

One of the more interesting things about traveling, particularly in this day and age, is being able to see and get a sense of places where people live in other parts of the world. Thanks to the magic of airbnb and trip advisor and the like, my family has stayed in a thatched-roof miller’s cottage on the banks of a river in Ireland, an old coachhouse/waystation in North Wales, a roomy flat in the center of Paris, and this summer we’ll stay in an apartment on the east coast of Scotland.

Each of these places gives to me, the writer, a chance to consider the small details of daily life somewhere completely other than my home. This works even though I don’t tend to write fantasy or even anything I can set in Ireland or Paris (perhaps I need to find a way to do that!) Most of my novels are set in space, in or on spaceships or space stations or on other planets entirely. Really, in seeing how others live I’m trying to integrate into my own subconscious the small details that might be different and noticeable. Because the small details that are different and noticeable to me in Paris might be similar to small details a character would notice are different in her new apartment on a space station in geosynchronous orbit around Earth or Jupiter. Might be the same as how a person living on a moon base has to adjust how she cooks because the utensils are different.

In Ireland, our first international trip in a decade, having stayed US-bound when the children were young, I woke up first in my family, desperately in need of coffee. We were in the miller’s cottage right on the banks of the King River just south of Kilkenny City in a small town. A two-pub town. We love how Ireland measures town size by # of pubs. A two-pub town was so small there was only one tiny convenience store and nowhere to buy pre-brewed coffee. That’s right, not a Starbucks in sight, thank heavens.

The cottage was picture-perfect adorable, completely with wood burning fireplace and resident kitty, Felicity, who jumped into our window the first night and promptly curled up at the foot of the bed my daughter was sleeping in.

But that next morning while the rest of the family slept off jetlag, I was up and coffee was a moral imperative. There were coffee grounds and mugs, a jar of sugar, the works, but the only way to make the coffee was a contraption I knew in theory was a French press, but had zero – absolutely zero – idea of how to operate.

I wandered around the small kitchen looking for other clues to its use. There was an electric teakettle. A measuring scoop in the coffee bin. Nothing else coffee-related that I could see.

Remembering that one of the reasons we booked this particular quaint little cottage was it’s internet connection, I googled French press coffee and sat in a 200 year old cottage and watched a video of an Italian guy making coffee.

From that moment on, I became a French Press convert. And I’ll never forget that moment of panic, my need for coffee significant and my ability to turn the grounds in front of me into actual coffee limited by my lack of knowledge of how to use a kitchen implement that was clearly everyday to the people who lived here, but foreign to me.

The best part was, everywhere we went after that we saw and used French presses to make our coffee. We were served French press coffee in restaurants, found French presses of all sizes in other flats we rented. This has only continued as we traveled to England, Wales, and France itself. Kind of hilarious when you think about it, to a European, it was the most basic way to make coffee, but in my Keurig-filled suburban life, I just hadn’t encountered one before.

I can assure you I’ve become a complete French press convert, in case you were worried. All my coffee at home is made via French press. I pick out grounds with a care previously exercised for only the finest wines and fresh produce. I have several French press pots, each working slightly differently and each appropriate for a different kind of coffee.

There are other things we’ve learned in traveling to other places. Like how washcloths just aren’t a part of every household’s linen supply. The whole duvet thing in Europe (which, for the record, I love.) The idea of a toilet being in a whole different room from the rest of the “washing up” elements we consider typical of a bathroom. In one flat, the toilet wasn’t just separate from the shower, it was on a completely different floor! We have a growing collection of street and informational signs that are meant to convey things like how to avoid poking your eye out or plummeting to your death. But my lesson about the most basic of morning rituals has stuck with me.

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