Last summer, as we prepared for our move to Addis, I wrote to our social sponsor to ask if she would like us to bring her anything from the United States. “A hunk of cheese,” she said. My heart sank a little bit. I guess I’d been fooling myself, thinking that our lives would not be so different in Ethiopia than they were in South Africa. Cheese? She needs us to bring cheese? Where in the world were were going?
And then I was confused about how to bring cheese all the way there. Wouldn’t it spoil during the 24 hours of travel? Sara explained that we could freeze it ahead of time, and that it would (hopefully) arrive still cold in Addis. “You might want to bring butter as well,” she suggested.
I made a trip to Harris Teeter and bought about $75 worth of cheese. Cheddar, Monterey Jack, Parmesan, Swiss. Although we had plenty of room in our suitcases, I decided butter was not a priority. I read that the local butter was fine. We don’t need fancy American butter, I thought.
On the day of our flight, in our rush to get our dog and two girls ready and everything loaded into two separate taxis, we forgot the cheese sitting in the freezer of our room at the Residence Inn. Someone in the next few days probably opened up that freezer and wondered at the people who could have left such a huge pile of cheese behind. In my defense, it was Dan’s job to remember the cheese.
Since we were planning to stop in Rome for several weeks on our way to Addis, I decided that we’d have another chance to buy our cheese. Cheddar was impossible to find in Rome, but the variety of delicious Italian cheeses more than made up for that. I collected them in my parents’ freezer over the course of our stay there, as I discovered my favorite brands and regional specialities.
You can probably guess what happened next. In my rush to get my girls packed and ready for our trip without Dan, I forgot the cheese. My parents undoubtedly enjoyed their frozen cheese supply for months to come, but I arrived in Addis empty-handed.
It’s not that you can’t buy cheese in Addis, but it’s very expensive. I’ve never seen American Cheddar in the supermarket there; Kenyan Cheddar is available but it’s NOT CHEDDAR. You can buy different kinds of Italian imported cheeses, like mozzarella and parmesan, for ridiculous prices. And the local gouda cheese is fine. Bland, but at the same time smells like a farm, but we’re used to it. As for butter, Sara was sort of right about that. When I can find imported butter I buy it in bulk, despite the high price. The local butter (when available) is fine for cooking and baking, but if I want a slab of butter on my toast, I need the imported stuff.
When I was a kid, we only had access to the local markets in Cairo. We didn’t have commissary privileges or food shipments like most of the other Americans did. We were real expats then. Whenever I hear expats complaining about local food options, I think, wimps. My family was proud of our ability to live in Egypt for several years without the constant support of the Embassy, or a Maadi Club membership, or air conditioning in our car. But I distinctly remember the sharpness of the local cheese when our housekeeper made cheesy béchamel sauce with it, and spreading Lurpak butter on my toast in Cairo. Maybe it’s easier to go without the comforts of home when you can have, at the very least, your comfort foods.
This week I went over to Meijers to buy cheese (and butter) one more time. It’s sitting in my parents’ freezer here in Michigan, waiting for us to forget it once again. But I’m ready this time. Now I understand the situation. I know that if I forget this cheese, it might be months before I can find an overpriced block of expired frozen Kraft cheddar in the back of the commissary freezer. Yes, I know I’m a wimp. I’m spoiled. But at least now I am aware of my limitations, including my intense love of cheese.