This is postcard three of four of a non-fiction summer reads food series I’m sharing. Postcard #1 was Bosanska Kafa in Bosnia, Postcard #2 was Tanglad in the Philippines. Today’s postcard is from Wales.
Some places enchant you right away. It starts when I step off the train at a rural station (someone’s garage that happens to be sitting by the tracks—slap a sign on it and call it a station) and a silver Mercedes comes speeding up to greet me. The woman who opens the door has a wily smile and a salt-and-pepper pixie cut with streaks of red that match her Oxblood shoes. This is Nancy (the retired war correspondent) picking up me (the inexperienced intern over at the CBC in London) to spend the night at her lavender farm in Wales.
Our connection is the friend-of-a-friend type, and I’m counting my lucky stars that I have friends and colleagues and mentors in places that connected me to her. I’m meeting Nancy en route to Bosnia, where I’ve never been, where she spent many years as a video journalist during the Bosnian War. If it still needs to be stated outright, Nancy is, by far, cooler than me.
We roar down the packed-dirt road in her Mercedes, quilted patches of farmland zooming by, until we come to her farmhouse, a pastoral Valhalla. She tells me not to photograph the lavender as it’s not in season. We’re in the rainy doldrums of late spring and the lavender blooms really only come into their own in summer.
I tell Nancy I want to learn more about Bosnia. I do want to learn, but I’ve been so busy living life: I’ve bought the books, but have barely cracked their spines yet. I’m hoping to soak up enough knowledge from Nancy that when I land fresh-faced in Bosnia, I don’t fall face-first in the mud.
In the same no-nonsense way that she backs up a ride-on mower, Nancy spends the evening teaching me how to play backgammon. A rite of passage.
“This is what’ll really help you out in Bosnia. I can’t count the number of games of backgammon I played. You’ll see the old guys set up with their tables in streets outside the cafés.” And indeed, a few weeks later, I do.
Nancy and her husband serve me a glorious supper. Rich, local, and cooked at home. The crowning memory is a thick, creamy, homespun rhubarb ice cream—ivory white with flecks of pink running through it. It languishes on the tongue. It makes me want to stay in Wales, write poetry, and possibly become a ghost in Nancy’s house. Not a bad place to haunt if you’re so inclined.
Her husband teaches at Oxford. Was also there during the Bosnian War. He explains how in the early ’90s (when I was going to bed wearing matching Minnie Mouse nighties with my sister), “We’d fly into Sarajevo. The plane would descend in tight circles like this”—he outlines a descending tornado in the air with his hand—“to avoid the snipers hidden in the hills. We were flying in to trade knowledge with the university there.” And that might be the most romantic thing I’ve ever heard. Their home is full of books and root vegetables in a way that makes me feel like I’m in a cozy dream.
At night, the bedroom is quiet and completely dark in a way that you only get in the countryside. So silent it’s almost scary. When I walk to the bathroom in the middle of the night, I can hear every old wooden board under my feet creak, and I feel like I’m alerting every predator for miles. The local police will probably show up because I’m so impossibly loud in this otherwise tranquil place. A bird rustles outside the window. A lamb cries in the distance.
I creep back into bed and stare up at the ceiling, my eyes wide open, then close them. It’s so dark I can’t tell the difference between open and closed. All I see is solid black.
In the morning rain, lambs dawdle through mossy old-growth forests where trees with labyrinthine limbs reach up to the sky as if drinking the rain.
I’m treated to more delicious food for breakfast, and after I walk around the farm a bit more, Nancy drives me back to the garage-cum-station. I have the feeling that I’m on the cusp of something, that my stopover here is a kind of way station. A quiet, liminal space for contemplation. I thank Nancy again, then watch as she disappears down the road. The ground rumbles. The train approaches. Onwards to the next station.
Anyone who’s ever had the curiosity to host a traveller for the night, even if it’s out of nothing more than the same urge that leads you to leave food on your doorstep for stray cats. Just to see who’ll come wandering by, with nothing more to be gained than an evening’s company.
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