“Owning our story can be hard but not nearly as difficult as spending our lives running from it. Embracing our vulnerabilities is risky but not nearly as dangerous as giving up on love and belonging and joy—the experiences that make us the most vulnerable. Only when we are brave enough to explore the darkness will we discover the infinite power of our light.”
― Brené Brown
“I cannot eat this”, I said. “There is nothing edible here.”
He sighed, though making every effort to hide it from me.
We walked back to the car in silence, me fighting hot and heavy tears.
“We’ll find something”, he reassured me, as we continued our drive through the hot tuscan sun.
It had been a short visit by his parents, a week at most.
Our niece and nephew had been staying with us, too, to enjoy their grandparents to the fullest.
In his father’s true fashion, all of a sudden, the man longed to go back home. No time to waste waiting for a coach nor an airplane, show your girlfriend your island, boy, won’t you?
So we went on my first road trip to Croatia, the first of many more to come, though I wasn’t yet aware.
We left shortly after midnight, the boy and his parents each eating a slice of bread before we took off, an effort to keep their tired bodies awake, a concept I didn’t want to understand.
The first time on a route with someone who has gone down the very same path uncountable times before, who knows it by heart as much as the lines on their palms, is its very own adventure at best.
For the better we know something, the more we forget someone else might not, the more we rely on the false concept of our knowledge being the kind of all-round wisdom engraved into every person’s mind.
As I sat in the car, my fellow travellers around me knew at every point where they were, felt the timeline, were at home on this road.
To me it was like flying through darkness and light, having travelled mostly by train throughout my life, faintly aware of the Swiss-Italian border, up to the heavily-travelled circles around Milano.
But from there onward I was left in the limbo state of the unknown, asking frequently about the trip, receiving answers I could not process, for I didn’t know what was ahead nor what was behind.
“We’ll stop in Rijeka, where you’ll see the sea for the first time”, I was promised. And so we did, overlooking the sea in the faint morning sun, before my father-in-law-to-be raced our car over the motorway, down onto the coastal road, a million curves weaving along the deep blue water.
Our lunchtime halt was a small shack, a bored waitress behind the counter, cheap plastic tables sporting fake flowers in ugly vases.
We ordered goulash, four plates of it, which was not heated right, served on overcooked egg noodles. I tried my best at eating the dish, but the textured proved to be too much to handle, so I tried the salad instead.
Dressed in vinegar essence, improperly washed, no. I felt tears welling up, tears of discomfort and hunger, of anxiety and uncertainty, my head spinning in despair.
I ate a handful of tomatoes and a slice of sourdough in front of the car, leftovers we had hurriedly packed into a box before leaving our home.
“It’s probably a government-issued work program” they said. “Not all Croatian food is this bad”, they promised.
When we arrived, a long trip and a ferry ride behind us, my head hurt so badly I could barely see, let alone eat. So I went to bed, falling into a long and deep dreamless sleep, though one without providing much rest.
We headed back up north, barely 48 hours later, leaving late afternoon to drive throughout the night.
Our plan was to go home via Tuscany instead of northern Italy, it was a vain and vapid reason, an outlet mall with decent prices.
Too tired to shop, stiff from a few hours of sleep in the car, we ate parmesan shavings and saltines out in the sun after making a few reluctant purchases.
The road ahead of us was long and tiring, an endless interplay of dusty tunnels and ancient bridges, each daring its passer with aching cracks and peeling concrete. We got hungry after lunch, having waited behind a car accident for hours, not understanding a single word in the Italian traffic report.
We were worried about the fuel, so we only switched on the air conditioning intermittently, leaving it off for as long as we could handle in the blistering heat.
Hungry from the prolonged trip, tired from the heat, stopping at every service area possible, each filled with dull panini and cheap cookies; the stale smell of bad food, forbidden smoking and cheap perfume hanging in the air. It was then and there that my refusal to eat a limp bun filled with greasy cheese manifested itself in the reaction of a stubborn toddler, minus the screaming, though I felt like screaming deep down my insides.
It is rare that I would write such words in the same sentence, but finally finding a roadside stop with a McDonalds was a true revelation to me right there, right then. A relief from an endless row of cheap chain restaurants and sleazy figures sending stolen glances towards the waitresses’ low-cut blouse, from places that made me feel uncomfortable in my skin, places I was too afraid to face.
Craving fresh food, I ordered three side salads, receiving crunchy leaves with dressing I expected to come as some variation of “creamy” in a pouch, something I would throw away, unused, too much fear surrounding. Though was pleasantly surprised upon finding the tiniest bottles of aceto balsamico and olive oil.
It is no secret that, even in fine restaurants in Southern Europe you’ll be asked to dress your own salad, but doing the same in a fast food restaurant was a truly fascinating experience.
It is, to this day, one of my favourite practices during summer, despite having grown in terms of my palate, been brave in my experiences with food, and continue to be so every single day.
I’ll plate up an interesting combination of fresh produce and let everyone at the table decide how much they feel like acid, what amount of oil they prefer, the saltiness they crave.
This salad is no different. It is simple, almost too simple to call it a recipe, but it is the perfect poster child to illustrate my point.
The fennel is crunchy with a distinct flavor, the olives and oranges adding interest. Roughly chopped arugula adds a certain depth, some bite, a bitterness offsetting the more sweet and soft tastes of the other ingredients.
Serve it with the best olive oil you can find, no need to be shy with how much you add to your plate, a decent white wine vinegar, flaky sea salt and black pepper in a mill.
Fennel and olives is one of my favourite Provence-inspired combinations, and this salad is certainly no exception.
I have since made a much better friendship with Croatian food, with food in general, with road-tripping through Italy, with eating something that has actual calories – but a salad with olive oil and vinegar on the side? It will forever be one of my most cherished ways to celebrate summer, in memoriam of where I used to be, never to be forgotten, for it has shaped who I am today in uncountable ways.
Fennel Orange Salad with Olives and Arugula
- 3 medium fennel bulbs greens removed and cut into shavings
- 2 medium oranges filleted, then cut into bite-sized pieces
- 2/3 cup green olives pitted and torn into pieces
- 3 generous handfuls arugula roughly cut if desired
- olive oil, white wine or champagne vinegar, flaky sea salt, freshly cracked black pepper to serve
- Arrange all salad ingredients on plates. Serve with the dressing ingredients table side, allowing each diner to make their own dressing.