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Postcards from a USA misfit

Location: Felipe’s Taqueria, Mt. Auburn Street, Cambridge, MA

There was a period in my life when pico de gallo and a quesadilla were the key to happiness. In fact, it may still be that period. I revisited the site of my college late-night (and early afternoon and mid-day) eating to find out if the magic of Felipe’s quesadillas permeates time.

I did not have my first burrito until I was a 17-year-old freshman in college. Burritos have not caught on as quickly in Greece as tequila has. When I tried to explain to my Greek extended family what those burritos I was eating “in America” were, one of my uncles said: “Ahh, I see now. It’s Mexican souvlaki!”

Six years after that first burrito, in Colombia, I was told I “eat like a gringa.” After watching me navigate a Colombian burrito, my colleague suggested (in mild mortification): “You need to take bigger bites. Eat faster, do not let it all unwrap itself by the time you get to the end. Bite in the middle of it, not delicately around the edges. Do not let the rice drop and do not squeeze too hard because all the sour cream comes out on the other end and you make a mess of yourself. Put extra cilantro between every bite; it makes the rice taste fuller.”

At Felipe’s in June 2011, I am willing to give all this another try.

“Quisiera un burrito, por favor. Sin queso, sin frijoles. Con arroz, salsa, carnitas. Sin maiz.”

The man behind the counter looks up at me in recognition. He is one of the men who wrapped my first burritos seven years ago. I knew it was him when I walk through the door and he knew it was me when I ordered because, really, how many people order burritos without beans, without cheese, without without without?

“Aprendiste Espanol!”, he tells me in amazement of my actually speaking Spanish.

I do not tell him that I was learning Spanish then too, but I had been too shy to ever open my mouth in imperfection. He asks if I am studying here again, I respond that I am a tourist. I almost said “just a tourist”, but there is nothing “just” or “merely” about a return to Harvard Square laden with memories.

I eat on the steps of Widener library, watching parents pushing strollers through Harvard Yard, some of them inevitably entertaining the possibility that their child may one day walk through here “with purpose”, like those people in Crimson sweaters do. Not a single drop of rice escapes from the burrito. Not a leaf of cilantro hits the ground.

Location: A coffeeshop in Davis Square
“I’d like a coffee, please.”
“Right away. What kind of coffee would you like?”
“A sweet coffee.”
“You mean, with sugar?”
“Yes, exactly!”
“Cream or milk with that?”
“Yes! Milk. The frothy kind. Oh… non-fat, too. Or maybe soy!  Do you have soy?”
“We do have soy! …The frothy kind? Do you want a latte? A soy latte?”
“A soy latte sounds perfect.”
“What size? 24, 32 or 36 ounces?”

Tell me who needs 36 ounces of coffee. I did the math in my head, converting ounces to units of measurement I understand, thinking I may be wrong, thinking that it has to be less than a bucket of coffee the size of my head. If I ever need 36 ounces of coffee, please tell me to forget about (organic) (fair-trade) (from Rwanda!) coffee beans and go back to bed.

The barista who rang up my order was very patient with me, but she could not help but display the “oh, girl-whose-first-time-it-is-ordering-a-coffee-beverage-do-you-know-commuters-are-glaring-at-you” look on her face. There were days in the field with rockets exploding or gunshots in the distance or someone following my every step when I thought that every problem in life could be fixed by a milk frother. You know, that tool that makes milk magical.

Away from the surveillance shadows and the rockets and the gunshots, I have forgotten how to function in America. I have forgotten about choice and abundance and the fact that caffeinated beverages with frothy milk are called lattes and they come in different flavors and sizes and that I used to order them, oh, daily when I lived ‘here’ full-time. I am that person at the Metro who gets the growls of everyone behind her because she needs to swipe her Metrocard twice. It took me twenty minutes to figure out how to adjust a thermostat, and figuring it out involved an epiphany about opening a window instead. I learned that such a thing as “frosting shots” exists, for those people who buy cupcakes just for the buttercream on top. I am mesmerized by TVs in taxis (worry not, though, I have been warned not to touch the screen without bathing in Purell. I still know some things.)

Sitting in Havana, Cuba, and drinking a cafecito, I was reading Onward, the book by Starbucks CEO Howard Schulz. I like to think that I fully appreciated the irony of reading about tall, half-caf, soy lattes with sprinkles and a dash of whipped cream in one of the places least reminiscent of America. Four weeks later, hours after the soy latte incident, I touched the hardcover edition in one of the Harvard Square Starbucks, remembering what a print book in English feels like, and slowly recovering the memories of how to function when surrounded by frosting shots and tall vanilla soy lattes.

Location: A generic Starbucks, NYC
I have successfully ordered coffee without exceeding my allocated 12 seconds in line or using the word “frothy.” I am seated next to a mother and her five-year-old son, who is taking sips out of a cup that may not hold 36 ounces of liquid, but is certainly bigger than his head. She is encouraging him to write in his summer journal.

“What can I write about?” he asks.
“Anything, sweetie. You can write about anything you want.”
“Can I write about sitting here with you right now?”
“Yes, of course you can.”
“Why do I need to write about right now in my summer journal?” This kid is twenty years younger than I am and he articulates all my anxiety surrounding the relevance of writing about one’s life better than I do.
“Because it’s practice. You are a very good writer, a great writer! But you avoid writing. Don’t be scared. Write your heart out.”

Advice someone heard at five, and I need to hear at two decades older than that. Thank you, Starbucks, New York, and five-year-old writers with doubts.

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