My Penguin Classics copy of Ovid’s Metamorphoses is an unnerving affair. People turn into plants and animals, they sprout leaves and grow scales. Things don’t end well: in one gruesome passage, which I perhaps read at too tender an age, an avid hunter is turned into a deer and torn apart by his own dogs. The cause is, invariably, divine whim. Not so much the hubris of Ancient Greece, but the random accident of the American horror film. The heroes cross a line they never knew was there. For a Roman such as Ovid, the moral was clear: change is for the worst.
The past year felt like a painful metamorphosis, a once-in-a-lifetime change. Interestingly though, the reasons people give for this always seem to say more about the person than the event: the pandemic as a Rorschach test. Like the ancients, we need a narrative, a justification, even if it is just a cosmic whim.
Change and Identity
Yet, most of the time at least, I feel optimistic. Maybe it is apathy sharpening into denial, a year under the hammer of unreal headlines can do that to a person, after all. Or maybe it is the onset of summer, a subconscious certainty that there will be sun and sea, lazy afternoons with a book and mellow nights with Assyrtiko. Whatever the reason, I try to think of what will come as a new beginning. Yes, a lot has happened, and untangling it will take time. But a metamorphosis also brings opportunity. If old certainties no longer hold, then everything can change: a mind, a life, the world.
No, worry not, I am not on a revolutionary pulpit. I have no answers for the important things for you – I am not even sure I have any for me. I will be here to talk about the things immediately after those. Yes, underneath it all we all share the same human identity, the same fundamentals. But what makes us human is also that, while fundamentally the same, we are not identical. As in so many other things, the past year brought this into stark relief. What gives each of us solace, the condiments that turn existing into living are diffrent for everyone. My ‘condiments’ are the things I want to talk about.
Magical and mundane
I am thinking of travelling, which I long took for granted. If I think of the biggest change in my lifetime, I don’t think of the internet, but of how flights went from magical to mundane, the real Jet Age. The first time I set foot on foreign soil, at twelve years of age, it really felt like I was changing worlds; by thirty-two, it felt like I was changing shirts. After the stasis, I feel ready to rediscover the enchantment of a different place. But I also want to put last year’s experience to good use, become a better, more mindful traveller. Travelling is a privilege, and I never want to let it slip back into the everyday.
And I am thinking of food. Its endless capacity to delight and amaze, how disparate ingredients metamorphose into something cosy or exciting, comfortingly familiar or seductively exotic. How it signals a pause or change in the day, brings families together, and forms a protective wall that separates the hours that belong to others from the hours that belong to you. As work saturated every sense of personal space and time this past year, food was the one thing that warded it off. In the new era that will start, this is a change I intend to keep.
But most of all, I think about wine, so simple, yet so complex. I don’t think I’ll ever stop being amazed by the depth of meaning with which we infuse the fermented juice of grapes, a carrier of aroma, taste, feeling, memory, history, and culture. How we perceive it as a living thing, always metamorphosising in bottle. And how there is no act that feels more celebratory than popping a cork. It always feels like the start of something, a new beginning, be it of a life, a year, a relationship, a career, or something as trivial, and as important, as a meal.