“Practice more European sensuality!”
A conversation with the German-Indian-British author and curator, Priya Basil, about European hospitality and the all-important act of coming together around a kitchen table for a meal.
On October 4th 2020, the Polish city of Wrocław hosted the third instalment of the Europe’s Kitchen programme. Today, as part of the project, there will be a dinner at the harbour, on the Greek island of Chania. The Goethe-Institut’s project, Europe’s Kitchen, is part of the cultural programme of the German Presidency of the Council of the EU. Between August and December, 11 artists from throughout Europe are organising meetings in private and public kitchens in 11 European cities. The German-Indian-British author, Priya Basil, is the curator of this special series of events.
On October 4th, you organized the Polish leg of Europe’s Kitchen in Wrocław. What does Europe taste like?
Really wonderful. Diverse, aromatic and sometimes surprising.
What was on the menu?
Bow-tie pasta with dried mushrooms, lovage and sauerkraut salad with honey dressing and cheese, and totally splendid bread. We did not cook it ourselves. A Polish collective called Food Think Tank did. We based the menu on an online survey I conducted among Poles in their homeland and abroad in Europe weeks before the Europe’s Kitchen event. I asked them: “What does Europe taste like for you? What would be your special ingredient to improve Europe?” Most of the Poles who answered said that if all Europeans would just try Polish bread, they would understand how enriching Poland is for Europe. Therefore the Food Think Tank team baked Polish-style bread using grain varieties from all over Europe.
The dinner was also presented in a special way.
Yes, symbolic ingredients were also part of the composition. We asked students at Wrocław’s art school to interpret our online survey artistically. One student drafted a sort of symbolic juicer that looked like it could distil the essence of all the flavours of Europe. The message: it is up to us to define what Europe tastes like. How attentive are we to how it will taste in the end? How open are we to learn from this process? Another artist created ceramic vases full of cracks. They show how true beauty arises only through mistakes, through the imperfect. Another student shaped cutlery into the form of mouths. The mouths have quite different expressions and stand in conversation with the food – a conversation that becomes richer, the more perspectives it brings together. The art elevates the food to an especially intense emotional experience.
It is up to us to define what Europe tastes like. How attentive are we to how it will taste in the end? How open are we to learn from this process?
The key term for me is “hospitality”, something I wrote a book about last year. Hospitality means more than entertaining guests at home. The term is just as personal as it is political: how do we cooperate with other people? How do countries cooperate? I see hospitality as a method and as a praxis. Someone who is ready to practice hospitality broadens their world view. And insofar as a host brings together different people, that host participates in shaping the world. The French philosopher Jacques Derrida speaks of a “unconditional hospitality”. He advocates an open welcome, one that doesn't plan everything in advance but instead focuses on listening, giving others more space. Thus you can discover much more and let the unexpected happen. With Europe’s Kitchen, we wanted to give this kind of hospitality a space in Europe and make it possible for people to experience what connects us – especially in this pandemic, when our opportunities to come together are limited.
What changes when people come together at the table?
It is very intimate when we are all sitting at a single table. When you eat, all of your senses are engaged. You feel different and you talk differently. Special conversations can arise. I currently see a lack of sensuality in our conversations about Europe and European unity. We speak a lot about economics and politics, but very little about belonging and our feelings. Naturally, the new economic stimulus is incredibly important, but we also need these little engagements where our feeling of European-ness grows. The optimal framework for this is sitting together at a dining table.
I currently see a lack of sensuality in our conversations about Europe and European unity. We also need these little engagements where our feeling of European-ness grows.
Yes, because of the pandemic we needed more spacious rooms. The café at the National Museum in Wrocław was ideal. It was evening and the place was closed. Everyone was a bit excited because usually you can’t be in this wonderful museum outside of the normal opening hours, let alone participate in a candle-lit dinner. That fact alone created a connection between the 14 participants, two of whom received their invitation in a lottery on a social media website. The other guests were specifically invited activists and politically active people. The guests could decide themselves where they wanted to sit and it was possible to swap places over the course of the evening. It was impressive how quickly the conversation got going.
Exactly, about European unity, for example, and about concerns that other European countries want to exit the EU, and about life in general during the pandemic. We were also able to frankly discuss problems. Two LGBTI activists who were among the participants said that they had been insulted on their way to the museum. They said that they felt welcomed and valued in the community around the table however.
You designed the event in Wrocław yourself. At ten other locations in the EU, others are showcasing European cuisine, and in extremely different ways.
That was my goal. I reached out to very different artists. The idea is that they will develop their projects freely. The only requirement: the project has to be about the kitchen and about people in Europe coming together. Many then interpreted the kitchen as a kind of laboratory in which different ingredients are mixed together and something new is created. For the artist Marinella Senatore from Italy, for example, the ingredients are the noises and sounds that the citizens of Ljubljana make in their everyday lives. On 30 October she will serve up a composition of the sounds that were personally collected on the streets of Ljubljana by the project manager of Europe’s Kitchen, Eva-Maria Kleinschwärzer, as a kind of symphony about the city. In Marseille, the Croatian writer, director and performer Ivana Sajko is working together with children to create a play about ways to peacefully coexist. And this weekend, the German artist Mischa Leinkauf is building a table out of driftwood together with students in Chania, Greece. He will invite the city’s residents to a meal at the city’s harbour over three days. He spent 10 days getting everything ready on site. The pandemic has meant that many artists have had more time to devote themselves to their project, and very ambitious works have been created. I am very moved. I have the feeling that people need and appreciate Europe's Kitchen all the more in these times of pandemic.
With all the different approaches what makes hospitality in Europe special for you?
In the political sense: freedom of movement. Nowhere else in the world has a community of states decided since the 20th century that its citizens can move so freely and work elsewhere without having to ask permission from others. This is the kind of hospitality I want to see.
Bread is typically European. I find it a nice image that people all over Europe eat bread. We are somehow connected by this.
This article was first published at eu2020.de on October 10th 2020.