I wrote this entire post already, once, and it was all wretched, depressing. Which is fine, because I was depressed, at the time. But now it’s been so long since it all happened that I can see it in a new way, a bumpy ending to my trip, like when a plane lands and bounces a bit, and you think ah, back on solid ground. I wrote about choosing London as my next stop because I had this rock and roll fantasy, and then arriving and basically being smacked in the face with the culture of wealth that enveloped the city and displaced said rock and roll. I wrote about my first steps back in a big city, so familiar but so foreign after six months of traveling - the rushing swell of people commuting, sweating, so angry, so anonymous, and me with my suitcase, my backpack, and wearing the other half of my clothes, sweating, angry, overwhelmed by the winding tunnels and bad signage - somewhere like India, or New Zealand, or even Florence, someone would have noticed the look on my face, that I was obviously confused, needed help, and offered to give me a hand, I didn't even know that I had grown to expect this kind of camaraderie, something that had actually been really hard to get used to as a New Yorker. I wrote about falling back into my harried city step, disconnecting from my surroundings and assuming the worst of everyone and collapsing into myself in the cold, real winter, shoulders hunched and eyes suspicious. It scared me, how, like it was nothing, my newly-adopted Italian sense of ease could slip away. I wrote about getting pummeled with a blizzard and holing up in my flat watching all the BBC channels. I wrote about running out of money, losing my sense of mission, and deciding to go home.
I didn’t write about meeting up with my old friend, how we went out to dinner and tried ox heart and laughed so much, how she took me out to Sunday roast with her gang, and walking in the park with dogs, and let me complain about how the London municipal system didn’t seem to know how to salt and shovel a sidewalk. This omission from my original post is important. Aside from the fact that there must be a breaking point for wallowing in smug melancholy - a level at which it gets overplayed, unnecessary, detrimental to having a good time - a point at which you are holding yourself back, essentially…I had been alone, very alone, yes, for five months - but I had actually had a ton of help, which I really didn't tell you about, because I was unable to see it through my fog of depression and my determination to BE FINE BY MYSELF as a knee-jerk reaction to the heartbreak that started all of this to begin with. Nevertheless, I received a lot of help, and love, which I half-realized in the Gatwick tube station, like I said above, and then fully realized as I finished this post the first time. I never mentioned, for example, how my roommate from my food tour in Sri Lanka, a stranger, welcomed me into her home in New Zealand months later, showed me the sea, the rocks, the mountains, drove me to the farm I decided to volunteer at, picked me back up when I realized I couldn't hack it, and let me stay with her even longer while I agonized over the direction of my life, comforting me with earl grey and fish and chips and the selfless love of a mother. I didn't mention the people living next door to me in Wellington (you know, where I was staying for free, thanks to the generosity of the father I'd never met of a friend I made in India), who pointed out their favorite wildlife and weird sculptures and bought me lunch and let me siphon their WiFi through the apartment wall. I took a yoga class once and the instructor invited me to Christmas dinner at her place with her friends, and I cooked for them. I was standing on a street corner and a dad from New York came up to me and said, “You’re from New York, aren’t you?” and brought me to a Malaysian restaurant with him and his wife and their traveling companions. My AirBnb host in Florence took me hiking in the hilly city limits with his beautiful dog, and told me where to get my hair cut and where to buy natural beauty products. A guy I met in pizza-making class told me I could borrow his camera for the day when I was trying to decide if I should trade in my hulky DSLR for a mirrorless, and a girl I met on a truffle-hunting expedition graciously joined me for dinner when I decided I HAD TO try bistecca fiorentina, the famous delicacy of Florence, a steak cut so large it must be shared by two people.
I replay these kindnesses in my head, I smile away: the unexpected social punctuations of months spent all by myself. I dwell on feeling alone, often, because I have no romantic partner, but in reality, people shared their lives with me over and over again. I didn't even have to ask. The doors opened for me because I was there to walk through them. That's the natural propelling of human connection, one of the only reasons we’re alive that I’m entirely sure of.
This is easy to see now, and it's beautiful. It wasn't easy to see then. Back in London, this particularly amazing guy I had met traveling, who had expressed no interest in me other than platonic friendship, emailed me an invite to come hang out with him in his home country in March. And I considered it - somehow stretching my funds another month, waiting around, until I could go to him and try to convince him to have romantic feelings about me. I plotted: lose a little weight, maybe get a facial, somehow become a completely different person. It all felt awfully familiar. Like bookends on my trip, Hannah, one more time: here's an unavailable man - will you upend to another country for him? I wanted to. I was going to. But then I didn't. It felt absolutely imperative that I not do it. This is how my travel narrative differs from, say, Eat Pray Love (that old standby that all soul-searching solo travel is measured against). It doesn't end in the arms of a man. The audience doesn't get to breathe a big sigh of relief, she had her heart broken but she found love in the end! No, she was alone in the end. She went home.
I felt deep, deep guilt and shame living with my parents again, looking for a job, like I owed them a debt I couldn’t ever pay off, because I was an almost 30-year-old bum child. I was afraid I had completely regressed. Is there a word for when you pity yourself and hate yourself at the same time? There was no point to me. This whole part, my two months back home in New York, was so agonizingly sad I didn’t really want to or know how to write about it. How do I talk about those two months? I’ve never wanted to truly end my life as much as I did then. It wasn’t because of anyone else, men, my parents, everyone who’s never loved me and everyone who has. It was because I was so fucking lost. I boosted myself up, I dreamt up lives I could lead, so many different ways I could be happy in the future, only ever far in the future, and I tore each one down, I was so fucking lost. I was convinced that there was a way to live and work, soul-satisfied, quietly, honestly. That every day could feel like actual living and not just a monotonous stream of catchphrases and trends and hives and climate-control and headlines and self-flagellation and money misery and anxiety and distrust and racing and waking up with the thought “ugh”. I knew that I could be confident in truth and not make the world a worse place (and perhaps even make it a better place). I knew that there were strong people out there already doing this, living unconventionally, following no established trajectory. I knew that, at least for me, making and spending lots of money was not as important as having a low-stress life.
I knew all of these things but had no idea what could fulfill them. My friends already had partners and houses and babies and careers. I went to interviews for jobs I thought I would love - a trial shift at a bakery, a mock rooftop farm tour, a food business incubator - and didn’t love them. I thought desperately about the two applications I had yet to hear back from: a job as an assistant innkeeper at a tiny inn in the Catskills that was looking to bring a food-lover on board, and an article pitch to a food website. Two shots in the dark - I had no hospitality experience apart from waitressing, and no published work at all. Everything is a shot in the dark when you switch careers. I needed an opportunity, an opening, one glowing star in the black sky. I visualized the two people on the other end of those emails, feeling a tiny pull, a mysterious inkling, a whisper in one ear: maybe I should give this girl a chance. In my mind I begged for their help, I prayed to them as chance-giving gods. An hour later, I got two emails back. The food website was interested in my article, and the inn was interested in me.
I wasn’t allowed to tear this down. I had actually asked for this and gotten it. I rented a car, nervously drove up to the Catskills - I hadn’t driven in many years. It was deep, deep in the woods. It was quiet, and it was almost spring. I told my story, I didn’t hold back. I wanted this job, this life, to be different, I wanted it to be right, so I put everything out there: this is me, this is what you’ll get, can you dig it? I was offered the position on the spot – with two weeks to buy a car that would get me through the next savage winter, and find a place to live in the middle of nowhere. I accepted.
Another bookend. Like my original plan to move to the wilderness with a guy I loved, work at a guesthouse farm and cook – I would be moving to the wilderness, to work at an inn, and cook – but alone. I couldn’t help but think this might be the better way, after all. And that I wouldn't be alone, not really.
Makes 15-20 cookies
Mandelbread is similar to biscotti - a big, dry, dunkable cookie - but with a little extra oil. This was originally my grandma’s recipe. She used to make big batches of mandelbread and store them in a white plastic bucket in the fridge. I recommend you do the same - when the mandelbread are cold, the chocolate chips are extra crunchy…and they just taste better, I don’t know what it is. I always wanted to rework my grandma’s recipe and replace the white flour and white sugar, and when I started working at the inn, mandelbread seemed like the perfect thing to offer to guests along with their coffee in the morning, so I finally did it. This recipe is dedicated to my family, the real reason I will never ever be alone.
2 large eggs
1 tbsp ground flaxseed
1 tbsp water
150g (1 cup) coconut sugar
210g (1 cup) extra virgin olive oil
3g (1/2 tsp) fine sea salt
Zest of two oranges (I like Cara Cara)
1/4 tsp vanilla
157g almond meal
323g whole wheat pastry flour
10g (2 tsp) baking powder
12 oz (1 bag) dark chocolate chips
Preheat oven to 300°F. In a large bowl, whisk 2 eggs with ground flaxseed and water. Let sit for 10 minutes.
Add the coconut sugar, olive oil, sea salt, orange zest and vanilla. Whisk to combine.
Add the almond meal, whole wheat pastry flour and baking powder. Stir until just combined. Fold in the chocolate chips.
Transfer the dough to a lined baking sheet, divide in half, and shape into 2 flat loaves with slightly tapered edges (see below picture).
Bake loaves for 30 minutes. Take them out of the oven and let cool until no longer hot to the touch, 5-10 minutes. Cut the loaves horizontally (straight across) at one-inch intervals, and rotate each piece 90 degrees so it is lying on one of the sides that has just been cut. Bake for another 25 minutes, and then let cool for 5. Flip the cookies so they are lying on the other cut side. Bake for 10 minutes, lower the oven temperature to 250°F, and bake for another 10 minutes. Let cool.
These cookies will keep for months stored in a white plastic bucket in the fridge.