Walking on a Dream

An international fling, guided by fantasy and a quest for food

By Mike Pezzullo

“I have an idea!”

I asked her to come to New York for a road trip to Austin, Texas, where I was moving. Her, a quiet yet deliciously adventurous girl from city centre Barcelona, Spain; me, a suburban boy from upstate New York, out of his element.

We’d met just a few days prior at the Costa Rican backpacker hostel I was living and working at in the sleepy seaside Caribbean town of Puerto Viejo de Talamanca, a scant twenty minutes from the Panama border. I had just quit my job a few weeks prior, expediting an often viscously stressful Italian kitchen in the upscale Manhattanite retreat town of Rhinebeck, two hours due north of New York City. My last service was a Saturday night; wildly busy, yet just how I wanted it – to go out with a bang. I punched the last ticket on the pass, broke down the station and was soon after rendered unconscious at the bar around the corner, my beautifully off-kilter team’s idea of a farewell gift to me. Sunday meandered by in a hangover-induced blur as I packed my bag between sessions in front of the toilet; by 6 AM Monday morning I was sitting by the gate at Westchester County Airport awaiting JetBlue Airways B6 0913 with my single carry on backpack as the clock ticked down to my San Jose flight.

I had found the job posting on a website called Workaway about a month before, and to be perfectly honest, was not particularly overloaded with confidence when I left New York that there was going to be anything waiting for me, let alone a real hostel. But after two flights, being dumped outside San Jose city limits by a Tico (the term for a local) cabbie who scammed me out of most of my cash, two bus stations to find anything that was at least going east before day’s end, and then a nighttime hitch-hike in a decrepit pickup truck packed with locals of questionable intentions, a baby and a pizza, I was dropped off in front of my hostel that actually existed in all its legitimate glory.

Once I got situated, I was in charge of working reception and the bar (a loose term used to describe a communal area boasting a mini fridge with one dollar Panamanian beers and two dollar shots of off-label liquor where we partied every night) in exchange for a bed in a shared room behind a rickety screen door. I dug up my years of broken classroom Spanish and spent the days checking in our guests and reading my Lucky Peach magazines, while relentlessly snacking on bowls of pollo frito and platanos fritos, the appallingly cheap fried chicken and plantain chips with a myriad of sauces sold from a stand directly beside our front gate.

With that being said, I became well-acquainted with most of our guests while I manned that desk. Three weeks into my stay, some backpackers had invited me to come out for dinner, just a few doors down from the hostel – it was my night off so I obliged. Six of us from vastly different origins sat around a table at the open air soda (the Tico term for casual spots serving homestyle local cuisine) and feasted for pocket change on spicy chuletas (marinated pork chops), mounds of gallo pinto (Tico rice and beans), crispy patacones (pressed, fried plantains) and refreshing mango smoothies. She sat opposite me and we sneaked glances across the table and it took one meal for me to be enamoured with her Mediterranean olive skin, big, voluptuous, curly black hair and tantalising Spanish accent – not to mention a world of sass-laced attitude that unapologetically flowed like habanero honey from a girl that was at least a head shorter than me (side note: I am not tall).

We spent the weekend together, dancing at the open-air reggaeton clubs amidst cheap beer and chiliguaro as the Caribbean air whispered through; then alone together in the bar at the hostel, hours after I’d broken it down, Empire of the Sun and Nicky Jam playing low on my speaker, providing us rhythm and a soundtrack until the sun threatened to come up. I met her on a Friday and she left on a Sunday, heading north to Tortuguero in the backseat of a rental car someone had offered up, a few hours away though it may as well have been another country.

Three days later I asked her to come to the US, in a wildly courageous, yet ridiculous offer that required her to travel through Costa Rica, return to Spain, and then fly back to North America a few weeks later instead of looking of a job.

“I AM IN!!”, the WhatsApp message that popped up on my phone said.

I was elated – I made the absolute most of my final few weeks in Puerto Viejo and left the new family I’d built at that hostel, a tenacious and soulful group of American, Swedish, Argentinian, German and English globe-trotting volunteers, and made my way back to New York. A few weeks later, just after Thanksgiving she landed in John F. Kennedy International Terminal 1. We packed my little Subaru Impreza hatchback with all my worldly possessions that would fit and hit the road a few days later.

My drive to Austin was originally designed to be practical, fast, and cheap as possible since I was moving, unemployed, and short on funds – it ended up being not one of those things, as we zig-zagged down the East Coast and then west across the gulf states into Texas over the course of more than two weeks. Our first dinner was a Thai degustation at the dimly lit underground restaurant Little Serow in Washington DC, where plate after plate of yum pla muk (squid with cilantro and hearts of palm), laap gai chiang mai (chicken with offals and lanna spices), and si krong muu (pork ribs with mekhong whiskey and dill) hit the table. Intoxicated by calories and Northern Thai spice, we wandered back to our Airbnb through the frozen parks of the Washington Monument and Lincoln Memorial.

We passed through Charlotte, North Carolina for some homestyle chicken and dumplings and buttermilk biscuits with friends, and entered the American South via Charleston, South Carolina where we waited for hours to dine at Sean Brock’s Husk – a celebration of southern heirloom ingredients tucked away on a cobblestone street amongst the rainbow coloured row-houses. We smiled toothily at each other as we took in the sea of dishes between us – crispy skinned Atlantic Snapper with creamy potato-hominy chowder and wilted baby greens; confit duck leg that fell right off the bone, accompanied by sweet potato pancakes and collard greens bathed in hearty pot likker; cast-iron skillets of buttery, smoky cornbread and perfect wood-fired root vegetables tossed with Aji dulce romesco and spiced peanuts.

We scrounged up a few ubiquitous yet moan-inducing buttermilk fried chicken sandwiches in Savannah, Georgia. In Florida, we cooked shrimp and grits with smoky andouille sausage at our Panama City Beach condo, a tactical mistake in the trip as winter in the panhandle was not summery and lovely as I had ignorantly hoped. We sat and ate the rest of the polenta out of the pot while wrapped up in bed with our sweatpants and hoodies as the sun set over the sugar white beach outside our eerily empty vacation complex.

New Orleans was a culinary wonderland. Hot Po’boys, one with chopped beef and pickled peppers, another with creole-mustard slathered ham and pimento cheese, overflowed from buttery rolls. Morning cortados off of Bourbon Street in the French Quarter; later, generously-boozed cocktails to the tune of local jazz bands on Frenchman Street. We trekked down to the famed Turkey and the Wolf for fried bologna-potato chip sandwiches on thick-cut Texas Toast, hot sauce speckled deviled eggs with fried chicken skin, and tacos ‘inauthenticos’ piled high with barbecued hogs’s head cheese and jalapeños, which I didn’t tell her the truth about until after she told me how delicious they were (much to her disdain). Trust was rebuilt after our second stop at Café Du Monde, where we ate piles of pillowy beignets dusted in powdered sugar like snow-capped peaks, dunking them in chicory coffee and hot chocolate late into the night.

On our way out of Louisiana, we scored golden fried globes of gut-busting boudin and cheese at a Billy’s off of I-10, a roadside stop that, to my surprise, had a line that snaked around the building. We had our first little tiff after that stop, a miracle after being in the car together for almost fifteen hundred miles at that point, which was eventually squelched after an hour of silence when she decided she actually did want to try the boudin balls before I spitefully ate them all – you wouldn’t believe what a billiard ball-sized round of fried pork parts and gooey cheese can fix.

Meanwhile, there was a bag of frozen Cajun sausage in my backseat for a man I only knew as Beanhead, the Austin-based friend of a heavily inebriated stranger we met on Frenchman Street the night before that I was now an intermediary delivery service for – a story for another time no doubt.

Across fourteen days and an almost equal number of states, we indulged in food and drink and newfound love. A special, unique varietal of it that can only exist between two lovers, two people that were strangers to each other save for a weekend in Central America, before confining themselves to a comically small packed-out hatchback and heading west for a few thousand miles on the open road. Her, a Spanish girl discovering America; me, a New Yorker discovering my own country; us, discovering each other while we listened to each other’s music, listened to each other’s fears and stories and dreams, the puzzle pieces we put together for each other to paint the pictures of who we were. At times we simply sat in silence, having talked for hours between Spanish and English, my hand in hers as I left the car in fifth gear and cruised down the long, straight stretches of interstate highways that would otherwise have induced mind-numbing boredom without her beside me.

When we finally arrived in Austin, two weeks before Christmas, we knew more about each other than we probably should have in that time, and the day of her departure began to creep up on us, regardless of our efforts to shut it out. We danced at old honky tonk bars like The White Horse, where cold Lone Star beer flowed and country musicians crooned. We waited in line for three hours at Franklin Barbecue, the smoked meat hotspot of the nation, and what I considered to be a quintessential experience for a European (or anyone honestly) in the American South. Slabs of juicy, fatty brisket, fall-of-the-bone racks of pork and beef ribs, mounds of sauced pulled pork and smoked turkey. An acrolein-laden heaven of wood-smoked treasure, the pinnacle of our indulgent cross-country eating adventure.

Seated around the open-kitchen of the Austin establishment Odd Duck for her final night, the tension hit its apex – we both knew what it was.

“I’m just trying not to fall in love with you”, I blurted.

Trying not to fall in love with a girl that loved eating as much as I did, adventuring as much as I did. A girl that listened to me as I listened to her, genuinely and intently. A girl whose flaws and quirks amounted to mine, and were just another piece of the puzzle – infuriating as they could often be, she could float back down and melt me with a single smile, loving while simultaneously apologetic and sinisterly mischievous. Frustratingly affectionate and giddy, then cold and distant, like an emotional lottery – yet for someone like me who craves stability, somehow exotically addictive. Wildly unsustainable with its blatant impermanence, a love blocked by a lack of reality or visa documentation. Obviously it was fueled by weeks of being in close proximity to each other and not wanted to let that go; though who could identify that in the moment? It seemed like ages ago that we were laying in her bunk bed in Puerto Viejo, oblivious to anything that could or would come next – now, I was holding her in the drop-off zone of Austin International for her return flight to Barcelona as her tears soaked into my down jacket. It took all my effort to fight the waterworks that were rapidly forming cracks in the dam behind my own eyes, as she looked up at me with red eyes and that gorgeous untameable hair I loved so much bobbing across her face.

A temporary sharing of hearts and bodies – to bask blindly and boldly in the dark pool of discovery, both within ourselves and in the limitless world around us. We were brave enough to enter despite the looming expiration point and were granted with a trip to be remembered for the duration of our lives, a bit more wise, worldly and free because of it. Who could have thought we’d be embraced at that terminal after an otherwise causal and happenstance encounter a few countries away?

A line from the concluding pages of Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch echoes through my head.

“Can’t good come around sometimes through some strange back doors?”

I like to think we answered that ourselves – we kissed passionately, one final embrace, and she stepped away from my world back into hers. She looked back one last time. I smiled.

An American abroad—publishing caffeine-fueled food and travel stories conjured up in backstreet cafes of the world. Insta: @thecaffeinephilosopher @pezzman_mike

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