You probably already know that there is a margarita cocktail and a margherita pizza. But before I studied abroad in Europe, I had no idea that ordering myself a salty, limey, tequila-y beverage might actually yield a plate-sized cheesy, doughy meal. Call me an ignorant American; I don’t deny that I was (and still often am) one.
Ingrid Anders understands, and in her debut novel “Earth to Kat Vespucci” (iUniverse), Anders’ title character makes all the mistakes in the book (except for the margarita mix-up) on her first trip abroad. Kat Vespucci is a senior at Rutgers University when she runs from heartbreak by signing up for a year abroad in Berlin, Germany. The school year marks her first time abroad, and the mishaps start as soon as Kat leaves the airport and attempts to buy a pass for the train: Kat is confronted by not only the different ways in which transport operates outside the US (you mean you buy a ticket, but no one checks it?), but also an often-befuddling European bureaucracy.
Other topics Anders covers include such light-hearted ones as water-saving showers, country-wide Sunday store closures, sexual freedom (yes, fellow Americans, we are just a little bit repressed), the difference between pepperoni and peperoni, and many European males’ lack of macho-ness (is her roommate gay? A metrosexual? Or simply European?).But there’s also the stereotypical stuff that often gives Americans abroad a bad name — our lack of geographical knowledge (at her first school dinner, Kat hides a map of Europe on her lap under the table in order to place where all her European classmates are from), our lack of political and historical knowledge of anything outside our own country, and often a lack of knowledge regarding America’s role in world politics — and the way the rest of the world views us.
The book is in no way anti-American, and I don’t want to give that impression at all. Rather, Anders skillfully and humorously navigates a sheltered young woman’s eye-opening experience abroad. Fortunately., Europe is a tame introduction to the “rest” of the world, and Kat is a curious and intelligent explorer. Anyone who took their first trip abroad as an adult will likely identify with many of her bumblings, and with this character, Anders shows herself to be a promising new novelist.
A friend of mine thought after a long holiday celebrating food and feasting for days would slow down my appetite and for a second I did too, until I walked into the Ethiopian spot she had been talking about on our ride from the airport to my hotel. The only thing is I hadn’t eaten much during my travels my earlier that day, so by the time we made it to Makeda I felt like a lion who’d gone months without a meal. As we walked in and through the restaurant I saw the cutest set-up of African chairs and tables in the bar/lounge and several great pieces of art hanging from the wall. Before I even caught sight of the menu, I knew Makeda had flavor. Our hostess seated us in the main dining area towards the back, but close enough for me to look into the bar area. It was empty and quiet at the time of our arrival, but my friend states Makeda is the place to be on Friday nights when there is live music and lots going on. I tried to imagine handsome couples sitting together starring into the others eyes and digging into their delicious dishes with their hands. Passion being exchanged between each bite taken from the meal and love secrets being exchanged with each whisper across… Using my imagination started making me hungrier so I stopped to look at the menu and get some real food action going at the table.
To start I ordered Zaalouk, a diced pan fried eggplant in virgin olive oil with a blend of garlic, ginger, chopped parsley and cumin with a hint of lemon. It was too spicy according to my friend, but that only meant more for me and less for her. I gobbled down all the egg plant on my own after she sampled two. I thought it was well-seasoned and the right kick-off for any dinner. The main course followed shortly after I devoured the appetizer and what my waitress sat in front of me was by no means a small portion. The plate was filled with a hefty amount of everything I had ordered. My plate consisted of the following: Assa Tibs, marinated filet of Cape Hadie seasoned with fresh herbs, sautéed in Shiba wine with African salsa; and from the veggie menu Atakilt Wat and Ful with Ethiopian bread. I don’t recall breathing much as I wrapped my food into the bread almost taco-style and inhaled it off my plate. I was in an Ethiopian food lotus land. What had taken me so long to dine like this before? I’ve longed to visit the country for centuries almost, yet I’d never even taken the simple pleasure of eating out at an Ethiopian restaurant with so many past opportunities! Sometimes I don’t even understand myself or how I managed to finish the evening off with a serving of vanilla gelato, but I don’t question these things too long.
Although it was my first time eating Ethiopian cuisine, I’m going to highly recommend you go if you’ve never been. If you have by chance please share your thoughts.
Makeda Ethiopian Restaurant is located at 338 George Street, News Brunswick, NJ 08901. Ph. 732.545.5115. Meals range from $13-36.