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From Amman to Tokyo, Reflecting on a Year of Change
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COVID DIARIES — DEC. 8, 2020

From Amman to Tokyo, Reflecting on a Year of Change

In this entry of Covid Diaries, Leen Al Zaben, a culinary consultant, writer and photographer from Amman, Jordan, shares her experience with finding respite while quarantining in Tokyo with her family.

Words By Leen Al Zaben

Editor’s Note:  In an effort to provide context through first-person experiences as the situation evolves, we present Covid Diaries: an ongoing series in which food business workers from the front lines of the Covid-19 pandemic share their experiences and insights as the industry continues to adapt. 

November 10, 2020

I’m sitting in a secluded cabin, in the midst of a forest in the foothills of Mount Karamatsu in northeast Japan. I came here with my husband and daughter for a week of respite away from the hectic bustle of Tokyo. I’ve just prepared a pot of Genmaicha, green tea with popped brown rice kernels; bits of it swirl in the pot, the water a light, murky green speckled with brown. I am looking out a window into a forest bursting with oranges, reds, yellows and greens and reflecting on this year. A part of me can’t believe it’s already autumn, another part is overwhelmed by how much has happened and how much the world has changed—how much I have changed. I can’t remember the last time I saw this many colors in nature. I also can’t remember the last time I felt this peaceful.

The coronavirus numbers are down and Japan is doing well compared to the rest of the world, but despite that, the fear of the virus clings to us: invisible, unwanted, omnipresent. I needed to take a break from the fear and the bad news. I missed taking in a deep breath of fresh air. But mostly, I craved respite.

Quarantine came at a time when I was experiencing much instability in my life. Just before the coronavirus broke out, we were planning to spend a few months in Japan. My husband was already in Tokyo, but I was still in Amman. My daughter and I had two options: stay with my parents in Jordan and wait the virus out, or take the last flight out of Amman and be together as a family in Japan. 

Looking back now, it’s striking to think that we were all under the impression that this would be but a short period of time to weather. Had we not opted for the latter option, our lives would be so different today. At the time, I was still battling the tail end of a two-and-half-year bout of postpartum depression, feeling much better than I did months prior, but still not entirely past it. Before becoming a mother, everyone said motherhood would change me, and I believed that this was the change they meant. I was never one to subscribe to such notions; but that’s the thing with depression, you’re not you. 

Then came quarantine. I was terrified of the virus and worried about my family, in a new city where almost no one speaks English, living in a tiny hotel room with a toddler, from which quick grocery runs for basic items would take three hours as I laboriously tried to decipher every label with the help of Google translate. But still, the gloomy fog that once hung over my head was gone. I had energy. I had drive. I was at peace. 

I found so much peace in lockdown that I wondered why I had lived my life the way I did before. Where had I been going? What had I been doing? Who had I been seeing? I no longer cared about what I was missing.

I was spending time in the kitchen, and not just for survival. I was cooking and baking; previously, I’d only wished I had the time for those experiments. I’ve been working in the food space for over a decade, writing, photographing, cooking and baking. But for some reason, I feel I never really put myself or my work out there. It felt unnatural, and I always experienced some form of imposter syndrome. But as lockdowns and quarantines were implemented and adopted around the globe, messages from friends started to come in asking me for my bread recipe. My response was always the same: these weren’t recipes so much as they were techniques, and I even offered video calls to go over these methods.

After my cousin, who was hosting wellness workshops online, asked if I would consider teaching her followers about flour, bread and baking, I was reluctant and nervous, but agreed. I wanted to give something back to the universe, at a time when many people were at their lowest. We decided that the workshops would be free of charge. I wanted to share the feeling of invincibility that I experienced when I baked my first loaf of bread. After the workshop, I was euphoric; I knew it was something I wanted to continue. 

This massive shift in the world gave me the confidence to push boundaries that I wasn’t comfortable even approaching before. I now teach on a regular basis, workshops on baking, Middle Eastern cuisine, fermentation, cooking with botanical elements, and more via live video sessions. I also donate a portion of proceeds from all sessions to a cause about which I’m passionate. 

The quarantine trapped us all, but for me, it was a way out. And for that I’m so grateful. 

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