The first few minutes after we enter a vacation rental unit we are usually happy, finding unexpected qualities that delight us. "Oh, Tim, look, I had no idea the ceilings were so tall, and check out the lovely view over the tile rooftops," I might chime as he points out the excellent storage and wide hallway, refreshing changes from other establishments we have inhabited in our three years living internationally without a home base.
Apartment manager or owner in tow, we scurry around our new digs, gingerly inspecting mattress and furniture quality, checking bathroom storage, searching for adequate handy electric outlets, and testing the Internet signal with our iPhones. Sometimes our investigation will extend to outdoor spaces. Patios, terraces, or even a small garden, offer a modicum of comfort and at least the opportunity to enjoy fresh air and a peek at the sky. As we progress, the agent drones on about heating/cooling controls, laundry facilities (or lack thereof), security procedures, local transportation and shopping, and the peculiarities associated with the place like keys that must be jiggled or a window that habitually sticks.
We save the scariest part for last. This moment reminds me of those horror movies when the audience collectively thinks, "No, no, don't go into that room!" With trepidation born of experience I approach the dreaded kitchen, our moment of truth. Sometimes, we're rewarded with a space that offers just what we need and Tim, our official travel planner, basks joyfully in my beaming smile. More often than not, there is some anomaly which informs us instantly that our home free life has presented yet another challenge. For instance, twice we discovered that we had misread the apartment listing and rented a place with no oven. Several times we have cooked for many weeks in kitchens which possessed sinks the size that Barbie would find adequate for her minuscule plastic cookware. More than once we have been forced to insist that the owner provided us immediately with a working coffeepot because the former tenant failed to tell him that he had broken the machine; and most European refrigerators are Barbie-sized, too, bearing no resemblance to the behemoths that hulk in almost every American kitchen. This means that food marketing is a daily event, not a weekly marathon as it is in the U.S. Of course, grocery shopping in Paris, Berlin, Florence or London offers its own particular pleasures to this foodie, so I can hardly call the lack of refrigerator space a downside. Besides, it's hard to forget the sour cream at the back of the shelf until it grows penicillin when you've only got two cubic feet of space to begin with.
Flexibility is an invaluable quality for all travelers, and essential to people who live full time in other peoples' spaces. We have learned to adjust to almost any situation and adapt spaces and equipment to our own particular requirements. Who says a coffee cup can't become a container for mascara, eyebrow pencils and lipstick? Ever seen anyone use a coffee filter for a strainer? It works perfectly. Put a small pot into a bigger one full of boiling water and you've got an acceptable double boiler. Clothespins make terrific potato chip bag closers, and a teacup is a great stand-in for a handy salt cellar. A willingness to invent and improvise not only makes our life possible, but it also keeps us on our toes and makes us feel very smart.
We rent most of our apartments through HomeAway.com, and since they are usually meant for short-term vacationers, not for people who stay for months at a time, we can hardly expect them to be set up like full-time home kitchens. We have learned to take along a few things that help us feel more comfortable. When we began our endless journey I packed more tools, but experience has taught me that I can buy a sauté pan with fresh, new, unscarred Teflon, a mixing bowl, or some plastic storage containers for a few dollars in any country, and I can usually improvise easily enough for the rest of the things I need in order to produce simple meals for us. This means that we don't get to have exotic food that would require a big wok or a Moroccan tagine ,but I can deliver an edible chicken breast with some tasty fresh vegetables in almost any kitchen with a burner and a pot.
We take along a lightweight knife sharpener because most rental places do not provide knives that are meant for actual cutting, and hauling them around can cause quite a dust-up on cruise ships and for the TSA folks at airports, who dig around our luggage behind the scenes. I pack my instant-read thermometer which tells me in Fahrenheit when the fowl or meat is done, and we always pack a hand-full of heavy duty ziplock bags, which we reuse until they're completely shot. They are hard to find outside the U.S for some reason. They're handy for corralling all kinds of unrelated detritus that collects anywhere we live and for storing leftovers, too. My daughter gave me a travel spice kit last year, which contained about twenty small aluminum rounds with lids, neatly labeled and filled with a variety of spices. That tin was just what I needed when we had a sudden yen for something requiring a touch of dry mustard or the kick of a little cumin. And that's about it for the equipment I haul. But what to do about recipes?
Menu planning and cooking almost daily, as we do when we're living on the road, can be problematic because hauling cookbooks is impossible. Mark Bittman's How to Cook Anything is invaluable because he organizes his recipes around the ingredients available, not the recipe itself. This is a terrific help when I'm confronted with local provisions like octopus or burnt goat feet, which we saw nicely wrapped for $3.99 a pound in a market the other day. We didn't try them. Some ingredients present no immediate preparation inspiration to me. Thankfully, between my friend Mark and my ever-present guru, the Internet, I can usually manage to put together local ingredients into something edible. And my darling spouse is always up for going out if things just don't work out at all.
Every new Home Sweet Anywhere has its assets and drawbacks, particularly in the kitchen. Currently we are living on Staten Island in an apartment that offers fabulous views of the new World Trade Center, and we love the drama of seeing enormous tankers moving in and out of the harbor day and night. The apartment is spacious and old-fashioned, and the Staten Island Ferry is just a few blocks away, offering us a twenty minute into the hustle of Manhattan and the same twenty minute ride "home" to our peaceful little haven with its high ceilings, tiny private terrace and comfy grandma furnishings. The kitchen is just fine by our Home Sweet Anywhere standards.
It's clean, bright, and offers enough counter and cabinet space to cook comfortably. But of course, as all rental kitchens, it has its quirks. The dishwasher, a portable number that plugs into the faucet, doesn't have quite enough space to open all the way, so I've learned to move plates in flat, then twist to land within the litte plastic coated sprockets; I quickly discovered (a blaring smoke alarm was my first clue) that the exhaust fan does not take smoke away, but just recirculates it; and there is no garbage disposal, which I learned long ago is typical in most parts of the world. A nice little gas stove with peppy burners and a great view of the tankers lumbering past makes up for those little inconveniences, so this cook is settled in and coping just fine. So far the knife sharpener has been put to good use, and my instant-read thermometer saved a chicken from turning to jerky last night. Tomorrow I'll probably buy some soy sauce, break out the Chinese Five Spice and see what I can create.