From my vantage point on the 43rd floor of One Oxford Center, a panorama of the city of Pittsburgh unfolds from my office window. The Allegheny, Ohio, and Monongahela Rivers meet at “The Point,” an urban park with a fountain which designates where the three waters meet. A train in the distance slowly ambles past Station Square and it seems to go on for miles. Being the new person at work means I am in many ways back to the beginning of my long twenty-two-year career in retail banking. Even a welcome career change comes with many stressors; I don’t know what I don’t know. I’m dependent on unfamiliar colleagues to show me the way, and for the first time in many years, I wait for guidance on my next steps.
The view of the outside world from the high-rise offers a stunning cityscape, but the interior office is bland, with white painted walls, ultra-modern stainless-steel desks, and black padded office chairs. The decor is sterile; no artwork or photographs on the walls, only mounted dry erase boards with black markers and erasers and the fake smiles of a model family on a corporate poster.
My new colleague Craig has invited me to lunch. He is fit, attractive, and young enough to be my son. His green eyes are warm and earnest. His smile offers an innocent sweetness. I’m grateful for the friendly gesture. He says to meet him in front of his office where he’ll take me to “this great place across the street, someplace kind of different.” The elevator, sleek and steel, whisks me down at lightning speed. It reminds of the scene from Stanley Kubrik’s “2001: A Space Odyssey” when Dr. Heywood Ford takes a stylish transporter with a lounge interior to the space station on the moon. Outside, the natural light is welcome after a morning of the overly bright glare of fluorescent bulbs punctuated by their perpetual hum. I follow Craig into a Venezuelan diner called Arepittas. The bright yellow sign with paintings of corn cobs still half cocooned in their husks promises “Venezuelan Street Food.”
Craig doesn’t know me and has no idea what this has done for my day and for my spirit. Arepittas is a Venezuelan diner specializing in arepas, my favorite food from what once was home: Venezuela.
The country of my birth is on the brink of collapse. My cousin Evangelina posts videos on social media almost daily of protests outside her window, reposts news stories that cry out to the rest of the world, ayuadame! In one of her recent updates, it is nighttime, and even in the dark resolution I can make out the thousands of people thronged in the streets with their signs. I tell Craig that I’m from Venezuela and he couldn’t have picked a better place.
I order an arepa with chicken, avocado, cilantro, and guasacaca sauce (a green tomato and garlic salsa.) An arepa is a dense cornbread made from masa flour, served split and stuffed with savory or sweet fillings. It is my favorite food, and a taste of home. I don’t expect that this will be as good as the ones my mother and grandmother make, but it is everything I want it to be. The arepa is golden brown with a crunchy crust. The shredded chicken is tangy and garlicky, fragrant like the familiar perfume of a loved one. The avocado is bursting green, as colorful as a vase of nosegays. The satisfying crackle as the food gives way to my teeth fills my mouth with heritage, tradition, culture, and Latina pride. An ache springs tears to my eyes as I think of my homeland teetering on the edge of utter devastation.
“Oh wow,” I say. “This is so delicious it’s making me homesick. Thanks for inviting me. How did you find this place?”
“An app. Or maybe Facebook?” He shrugs and laughs. “I never had Venezuelan food before this place and now I’m totally hooked.”
I post a picture of my lunch on Facebook with a note saying, “My new office is across the street from a Venezuelan food stand! I’m having arepas!” Many of my friends know what this means to me and more than 60 “likes” pop up in the next hour. One of my friends, April, asks me in the comments, “What’s an arepa?” My usual answer to this question is that an arepa is a dense, fried cornbread made from ground maize and that the usual stuffing is some kind of spicy meat with avocado or cheese. Sometimes I joke that it’s like a Venezuelan taco to help give context.
An arepa is the longing for something familiar in my new corporate landscape. An arepa is my small prayer against the political corruption that is destroying my country and threatening my loved ones left behind. An arepa is my small act of defiance against the tyranny of Nicolas Maduro as his greed threatens to upturn our homeland. An arepa is a twinge of guilt as I start to settle into my new work environment while everything in Venezuela shifts in turmoil and unrest. An arepa is a memory of Abuelita in her vibrant flowered dress slapping the dough between her hands before lowering it into a skillet of olive oil. An arepa is a phone call with my Mom when I tell her I’m feeling a little overwhelmed by all this change but that I’ll figure it out. An arepa is a balm for my wounds. An arepa is a step towards home.
About the Author:
Janette Schafer is a freelance writer, nature photographer, full-time banker and part-time rock singer living in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Her writing and photographs have appeared in numerous publications. A collection of her poetry titled “Something Here Will Grow” will be published by Main Street Rag in 2020. She is the Artistic Director and Founder of Beautiful Cadaver Project Pittsburgh.