Some trips are about big moments; they’re filled with nonstop epic sights, dramatic landscapes, architectural wonders, and once-in-a-lifetime experiences. These trips are mind-blowing, exhausting, and often they’re over and done with before you’ve even had a chance to process them.

I recently traveled to Lisbon, Portugal, to visit an old friend and realized that savoring the small moments of everyday life could actually have the biggest impact.

My days in Lisbon were spent doing the usual activities: visiting museums, walking through historic neighborhoods, hunting for street art, listening to traditional fado music through open doorways, and gorging on pastéis de nata.

However, these moments didn’t define my trip. Instead, it was the time spent with my host family in their home — and, more specifically, their kitchen.

Each day, my friend’s mother, Maria Emilia, or “Milu” for short, would carefully set the table for a cereal breakfast, and then diligently cook the lunch and dinner for later that day.

During our meal conversations, Milu would make suggestions for other traditional Portuguese foods I should try and then those dishes would either appear on the table later that day or the next one. I even found myself, a normally unadventurous seafood eater, partaking in, and even enjoying, a local favorite: bacalhau, or codfish.

When each dish was presented and I began eating, Milu asked in Portuguese, “Is it good?” and I would reply, “It’s good!” using the only Portuguese words I knew. We bonded without understanding each other’s languages and she delighted in the fact that I loved her cooking.

Soon, Milu was also teaching me the words for fork (garfo), spoon (colher), and knife (faca), and even verbs like “jiggle” (treme) to refer to Jello, of course. Saying nothing but “treme, treme,” back and forth would lead us to dissolve into fits of giggles.

However, the moments we shared in the kitchen weren’t just limited to eating together. I also watched Milu work as a seamstress at the corner table with her husband nearby and saw how they worked together so fluidly. Milu took so much care and pride in all that she did in the kitchen, from cooking meals and sewing clothing to setting up cloth placemats for breakfast and neatly pinning clothes to dry on the clothesline right outside the window. I savored all of those small moments with her.

Thinking back to my time in Lisbon, it’s not one of the city’s up-and-coming restaurants or a celebrity chef I remember best. Instead, it’s Milu’s everyday kitchen — filled with the aromas of a lovingly prepared meal which hold my fondest and most powerful memories of shared meals and an understanding beyond language barriers. My experience in Lisbon was one-of-a-kind and, because it was so personal, it meant so much more to me. I was able to engage with local culture in a way I couldn’t have if I had stayed in a hotel or ordered from menus in restaurants where I would be just another patron passing through.

At Milu’s kitchen table, I felt like family and that feeling of belonging in a foreign place is truly one of the most special feelings that can be brought about by travel.

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Pei Ketron
Pei Ketron is a San Francisco-based photographer, educator, and speaker. In addition to her work with several local non-profit organizations, she does travel and commercial photography worldwide for clients such as American Express and Mercedes.

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