A Recipe for Starting Again
by Nadia Henderson
Here’s how the starting again begins: rescheduled flights, non-goodbyes, plans strung together with our last shreds of hope. When we arrive in Sweden, on a plane so empty they had to redistribute luggage to allow it to fly, it’s the end of March; somewhere between winter and spring, darkness and light. The nights are long and quiet in the house we’ve bought; I sleep in my mother’s wool jumper and wait for ghosts to make themselves known.
I’m prepared for the snow that keeps falling through April and May, but not for the bureaucratic mess that comes with moving abroad. I’m made up of travel adaptors and unanswered emails, on-hold music and cancelled direct debits. There are rules I’m not yet aware of, customs to which I am far from accustomed. Jobless, now, I write through pandemic anxiety, cut through the guilt of my freedom one sentence at a time.
I don’t yet know how to play with my words, nor can I: make small talk with the supermarket staff; recall our post code from memory; attend my own cervical screening unchaperoned; decipher the categories on the IKEA website; tell the time. So, instead, I bake.
“I bend the spines of cookbooks we’re gifted for Christmas, smudge their pages with batter-licked fingers. I type every word into Google Translate and hope for the best.”
I can’t follow recipes either: none of the measurements make sense and the instructions may as well have been written by Jim Henson’s Swedish Chef. The odds are stacked against me; there’s no Hollywood Handshake on the cards. But here’s something I can try. Flour-dusted surface and mixing bowl ready, fresh yeast somehow acquired, I attempt cinnamon buns: tricky and time-intensive, but easier than reading the local newspaper. The first batch is dry: too much flour in the dough. The second, almost a write-off: I forget to add sugar and have to unroll them to sprinkle it in. But the kitchen smells cardamom sweet, and no bun goes to waste.
I learn the rules of the house. When at last the ice melts, I rake last autumn’s leaves into piles. I organise a literal mountain of firewood into neat stacks. I spend hours pulling up weeds, only to watch them double overnight. I wait for bananas to ripen in the pantry and bake them into a loaf. I’m Alice B. Toklas, writing with every pinch of salt and drop of chickpea water. I’m Tita de la Garza, tears in the batter. Summer readies the rhubarb and I strip its strange skin away, fold it into a sponge.
I strain against the structure of my new life. I take my husband’s passport to my ID card appointment at the tax office over an hour’s drive away. Mere weeks after receiving it, I have to replace my Swedish bank card because I’ve forgotten the pin. In September, I harvest the apples from the tiny tree in our garden. I fail to properly cut away the cores, making my applesauce filmy, and the less said about the pastry I attempt for the pie, the better.
The starting again continues. I learn to conjugate verbs and finally cancel my English phone contract. I learn my ID card number by heart and cry after I manage to say it in full to collect my own mail at the post office. I learn the words for ‘mix until well combined’ and ‘whisk until light and airy.’ I learn to make carrot cake with walnuts and a white-chocolate frosting that could lift ancient curses, settle generational feuds. I make mince pies from scratch for a taste of home and the pastry turns out fine.
I bend the spines of cookbooks we’re gifted for Christmas, smudge their pages with batter-licked fingers. I type every word into Google Translate and hope for the best. I make grand plans for snickerdoodle cookies, Swedish Semla buns and one day, maybe, sausage rolls. I tweak the recipe for starting again; fiddle with timings, swap butter for oil, mix when I should be whisking, knead when I should be folding. I might get it right. I might make a mess. Either way: I’m playing.