Until recently, I really never thought of exile as having anything to do with me. To speak of exile brings up visions of Napoleon Bonaparte languishing on Elba (later St. Helena) or Leonardo da Vinci doodling in the Château du Clos Lucé, near Amboise, France, yearning for his native Italy. Or the sad case today of so many people fleeing violence and danger happening around the world. Exile takes different forms under different circumstances.
A more thorough definition could be as follows.
There’s the outright political form of exile, as in the case with Napoleon and Leonardo. Banishment comes to mind in their situations. And then there’s self-exile, or fuga, as occurred with The Lost Generation in Paris in the 1920s. In between these two states of being, things get a little less black and white, taking on the murky hues of a grey mouse’s rumpled fur.
Another state of exile exists within cultures, when some people see their neighbors and colleagues as “The Other,” leaving them with the sense of being exiled, left out, and not belonging even in their own country or culture.
When it comes to exile, many expatriates, or expats, usually fall into the category of voluntary, or self, exile. Fuga. And that’s how I lived my life, for many years.
An exile of a sorts.
And there’s one place where exiles feel at home: the kitchen.
A kitchen in Puebla, Mexico became my first kitchen in exile.
How I came to that small space – about 6 feet wide and 8 feet in length – would require more words than I care to write at the moment. Suffice it to say that I needed a place to live while I attended classes for a semester at La Universidad de las Américas in Cholula, Mexico. And since the apartment I settled into came without a single stick of furniture, not even in the kitchen, where the only fixture was a cement sink and a gas hook-up for a stove, I went to the market and bought a two-burner gas cooker, among other such paraphernalia as the ubiquitous blue enameled cookware I saw on every street vendor’s stovetop. Cheap, durable, and practical.
I also bought a rustic table made of pine for my countertop and a metal hutch painted white for the few blue plastic dishes I hauled back in two string bags to the apartment. A dull knife and a few bowls, and I was ready to take my place at the stove.
Except I failed to understand how hard it would be to feed myself despite my culinary skills, which were not bad. After all, I’d been cooking daily since I turned ten and my mother shanghaied me to cook family dinners nearly every night as she worked toward her Ph.D. Throw in the fact that I obviously could not afford a refrigerator and would need to shop every day for food. Time simply didn’t allow for that with my class schedule and bus trips to Cholula from Puebla and back.
The solution? I ate at a friend’s house.
I always sat near the end of the table, Pablo on my left, Pechugo across from me, Mr. Pérez ensconced – plump and grumpy – at the head of the table, his withered left arm daily reminding us all of his brush with fate, the day rebels hacked off his arm with a machete when he was eight years old and impaled his father on a large maguey cactus, leaving him to bleed to death. Or so the story went. Mr. Pérez disapproved of me. He made his dislike quite clear sometimes. But he sure liked the $80 I gave him to buy the most run-down station wagon I’d ever seen, more rust showing than the robin’s egg blue paint of the fenders. After several prayers, a quart or two of oil, and a few kicks to the bald tires, as well as some serious tinkering under the hood, the darn thing ran. That was enough for him. I guess he decided we’d even things up, the food I ate versus the thrill he got from owning a car.
Meanwhile, diminutive Mrs. Pérez darted in and out of her dim cinderblock-walled kitchen, where her Indian maid patted out tortillas in the corner and plunked them down on the glowing comal. Every day we began with a thick soup swimming with fried vermicelli, garlic, and grated tomatoes. Then came steaming tortillas, garlicky red beans, and a fresh green salad more like coleslaw than not, and sometimes meat – usually pork – cooked in a piquant chile sauce, usually red. On other days, a steaming casserole of chicken chilaquiles emerged from that smoky little kitchen, too. Or maybe there’d be fried chicken, tough, the only edible piece the breast, ironically the piece that’d given Pechugo his name, “pechuga” being the Spanish word for “breast.”
Sadly, Montezuma’s revenge plagued me the entire time I lived in Puebla, much to Mrs. Pérez’s dismay. I now attribute that to the pork tacos árabes I loved to eat in the centro, thanks to the al pastor method of cooking the meat on a revolving spit, unfortunately a hot bed of opportunity for nasty proliferating bacteria.
Pablo’s mother graciously welcomed me to her table every day for six months, bewildered by me, I am sure, a free-spirited American girl walking out with her son, no chaperone in sight, all this taking place in a time when old Mexican social customs were rapidly dying. Half Chinese, thanks to her father who came from Canton in the early 1900s to work on the railroads, Mrs. Perez represented a different demographic in Mexico, that of immigrants. I now view her hospitality toward me as a sign of the openness born of being an outsider, embracing yet another outsider.
In a way, both of us exiles.