26 November 2020

Eating Dread

In Bochum last year, I stayed in a small room in a commuter hotel at the station, the sort of place that I'd been staying when I travelled all that year and the year before. As I imagine the restaurant where we ate breakfast, I can't think if I am remembering the right place, or if I was thinking of the hotel I stayed at in Portsmouth, or Cardiff, or any of the other places I had found myself at various university events. All the commuter breakfasts were the same, really: bread and butter and jam continental spreads that I was always disproportionately excited about. That one in Bochum was truly continental, of course, being that we were on the continent, a smug etymology point I had worked out and kept to myself in case there was a lull in a conversation and I could fit it in as a joke between spoonfuls of German fruit salad shovelled into my mouth, my American ignorance thinking that the thing I just learned is something that no one else has ever known before and would make a clever joke: who among you has thought of the origins of the term 'continental breakfast' this morning.

This was only a year ago, but it was before I myself was British and still actively encouraging myself to think of Britishness as something I would or should never understand. I imagined saying, the concept of the continental breakfast is British — they think everything revolves around them, and everyone at the table would stop and think to themselves, well that's quite a clever point, Stephen, I've never thought of it that way although I have used that term many times

The right moment to say this line never came up. Instead, I had more and more rye toast with jam, and let the conversation fall into why my budget flight was so much more tedious than everyone else's, and why I needed to fly to Frankfurt and no one else did. Surely some mistake had been made. 

Everyone in this country understands why one would need to distinguish, as a place of business, between a full English breakfast and a continental one. We weren't, after all, in a Holiday Inn in Topeka with a pancake machine. Every new thing I learn now is just something that everyone else knows, and my own tacit, experiential knowledge, the knowledge for example of the pancake machine at the Holiday Inn in Topeka, which people in the German commuter hotel might actually be interested in hearing about, is deeply embarrassing knowledge, base and feral and some part of me I'd rather forget. 

That trip, I was drinking beer and eating too much at night, and then running early in the morning, in what I thought was a park when I saw it on Google maps, but what turned out to be a cemetery. The loop around it was something like two or three miles. I remember that there were leaves on the path still, and although it was dark, my eyes would adjust enough that I could see what I needed to see, whatever was or wasn't in front of me.

When I say I was drinking beer, I mean that I was gaining weight. I am always gaining or losing weight. I lie to myself some times and say that I am trying to maintain my weight, but when I weigh myself, I know that's a lie because of how I feel about whatever number is projected back at me. When I was eating pretzels and drinking beer at the airport bar, full of whatever stress I was feeling at the time, I didn't expect that I would come home thinner, even though I guess I was telling myself that I would, because I was still running every morning. It was the sort of weight-gaining lie you tell yourself that you know is a lie, but is plausible enough that you can keep doing whatever it is that you're doing provided you don't think about it too much.

Weight gain at the end of the year over Christmas is an inevitability that I try to put off as late as possible. I am now, with my plans to run my marathon in the Spring, over-concerned with not gaining weight but at the end of my rope with counting every kilo calorie. I can't weigh out everything I eat for the rest of my life, I think, pouring cereal into a bowl on a scale, embarrassed knowing that it will come out at some point that I am a person who does this. The kind of person who chooses one vegan sandwich over another at the university shop because it is 53 kCals less, like that means anything at all. Normal healthy people just eat what they want, I'm told: an attractive, healthy young woman on TikTok goes on and on about intuitive eating and I think, but my intuition is to eat everything, to keep eating until there is nothing left. That's my intuition.

The way to fix one's intuition about eating is to get to the roots of the problem, to think back to your childhood to understand how your feelings about food are linked to all the guilty overeating you did, how ice cream was treat, how pop was a treat, how you started drinking Diet Coke when you were nine or ten, when you first realised you were fat. Yes, of course, it's all there, endless stories about treats and McDonald's collector cups and the American way of life that I can't defend now as a British passport holder and someone who's never going back to it. It's become foreign to me too, I say, feigning ignorance of some attitude I pretend I've overcome, but secretly understand, like the part of me that sees a Chevy Suburban, and thinks, I'll have that, sure.

Now vegan, and bearded, and thinner if not thin, I am trying again to do what this woman on TikTok wants me to do. I agree, weighing bowls of Fruit and Fibre is not healthy, that it's hurting my relationships, that my partner, my wife, can sense the madness of it all, the getting up in the middle of the night to eat a bagel. So I try again to be normal: I eat two pieces of toast with peanut butter and a jam and a cup of coffee and I sit and I think about it — how do I feel. Do I feel full. What even is feeling full. What even is a feeling. 

This year of fallow will end. I crossed the street yesterday on the way to give blood and suddenly wondered whether I would ever use my British passport I was so excited about. There must be commuter hotels in Germany in my future again, or B&Bs in Sweden, where you eat berries for breakfast by candlelight. Surely, I will be in New York again and with it too this intuition will fail at some point and I'll be back to counting almonds. The things you learn about yourself are the things that you already know, anyway. Saying them out loud doesn't change them.