It’s not every day two perfect strangers invite you into their home for an evening of wining and dining, but that is exactly what happened to me.
I was travelling across Cardiff to interview Vicki Edmunds and her niece Lauren Jones who have begun a joint venture called Eat With a Local. The project is, at its simplest, a social networking site on which people can volunteer to cook for others from different cultures, ages and backgrounds.
Despite myself, I had reservations. “Eating with a local is all good and well,” I thought, “but can people really be bothered to socialise with strangers for one-off evenings.”
It quickly became apparent that my cynicism was horribly misplaced. Safely inside Lauren’s University halls with a glassful of wine and a plate of Vicki’s own chicken curry, naan and rice laid in front of me (“It’s been in the family for twenty years,” she said), I asked them where the idea had come from.
“Whenever I have travelled anywhere,” Vicki said, “the most memorable experiences I have had have always revolved around meeting people that are native to wherever I am, and I’ve found the best way to do that is share a meal together.”
The inspiration for Eat with A Local came from such an encounter. Talking about an experience in Fiji, Vicki said:
“I didn’t really enjoy it for much of the week. The place was like a picture postcard but I was stuck in a hotel for almost the whole time. I knew there was this whole island to go and explore and for some reason I wasn’t doing it.
“Then, on one of the last days, we went to the other side of the island on a trip and this Fijian woman somehow managed to cook a meal for the six of us using a single frying pan, and we sat round on our knees and ate it together. It was wonderful.”
My hosts were passionate about travelling and relating to the world around them, and felt strongly against the guidebook, tourist-trail form of backpacking that is so easy to fall into.
Eat With a Local would offer a way out of this. By signing up people across the world, the objective is to have a member in every city of every country willing to take in a traveller and give them a taste of authentic, local cooking and an insight into the realities of their culture.
“I don’t think there is a better way to really meet someone and get a sense of them than over a plate of food,” Vicki said.
She hopes Eat With a Local will allow people to build relationships across borders of culture, age and space. “If this takes off,” she said, “I think it could make a difference to a lot of people.”
For now, “if” is the operative word. The program is in its gestation period. The website Vicki has developed is just a few weeks old and only a score of people have signed up as members so far. Already, though, members range from Cardiff and Bridgend to Warsaw, Melbourne and Tokyo.
Vicki’s next trip is to Vietnam next month. From my own experiences, I told her the place would suit her.
When arriving in Hanoi, Vietnam, last summer, I had to cross the Cau Thang Long bridge. An old guy on the bus told me with impeccable English how, during the war, the American’s had bombed the bridge every day for years in the hope it would disrupt the steady stream of supplies being sent from the city to the North Vietnamese army. Every night, without fail, the people of Hanoi repaired the bridge enough to get supplies out before the bombers, like clockwork, returned again.
As I got to know the city, the story seemed to embody the Vietnamese approach to life.
On my first evening, I committed a serious faux pas. Weaving my way through a jostling pavement in Hanoi’s old quarter, I walked over a rug that everyone else seemed to be avoiding. A volley of irritated cries accompanied my swift departure.
After a few days of acclimatization, I realized I’d trodden all over the Vietnamese equivalent of a dining table during someone’s evening meal.
One quickly realises that in Vietnam, as in many third world countries, people share stuff. Every evening, the air is thick with chatter as people come from their home to share their food, drink rice wine and tell each other about their day.
George Orwell writes in Being British:
“A British man’s home is his castle.”
In comparison to the Vietnamese, our culture is built on the notion of privacy, ownership and possession. For all our strengths and attributes, we are not a sociable society and we suffer from chronic mistrust.
When my prospects would likely have consisted of takeaway chow mein and the TV, Eat With A Local provided me with a warm evening of flowing conversation and shared anecdotes. I faced the Cardiff evening with my belly full of home cooking, embarrassed by my English restraint, reminiscing about Hanoi, and glad I’d eaten with a local.