There is No Substitute for Basil: A Re-entry Reflection


Today’s guest post is an unusual spin on re-entry.  Stefanie DeLeo reflects on re-entry several years after returning home from a stint in the Peace Corps in South Africa.  As a professional writer, I’m sure you’ll especially enjoy her take on why there is no substitute for basil and how that is associated with re-entry! I sure did – and it wasn’t even because she is my “little cousin!”

It’s a Tuesday night in Manhattan.  As I drank a glass of wine, chatting with celebrity restaurateur, Donatella Arpaia, at her Chelsea restaurant, it’s surreal to believe that 6 years ago this very month, I was packing my suitcase for a two and a half year stint in rural South Africa with the Peace Corps.  That juxtaposition of worlds is jarringly always with me.  And so even though it was 3am where she lives, I just had to send a text to one of my dearest friends in South Africa, in what’s left of my Afrikaans: “Ek eet die beste pizza!  Onthou wanneer ons pizza probeer het om te maak??”  In English: “I am eating the best pizza!  Remember when we tried to make pizza??”  The only frame of reference my friend had for where I was at that very moment was something she’d seen in a Hollywood movie.  Suddenly, my life in South Africa simultaneously seemed to be both a million miles away and yet somehow closer than ever.

Eating that perfect slice of pizza in NYC, with a chic restaurateur for company, took me right back to Africa and all of those attempts it took me to create the “perfect pizza” using only ingredients available to me in the middle of the Kalahari Desert.  Villagers watched, amused, as I pretended to host my own third world cooking show, and I was making a pizza come hell or high water.  Mixing trial and error batches of flour, cornmeal and water – that I fetched myself from a pump outside – to create the ideal pizza dough kept me occupied in what could otherwise be a slow pace of life that side of the Equator.   I hunted high and low in the Kalahari for a decent tomato as well as anything, and I mean ANYTHING that tasted like basil!!

Before I even left for the Peace Corps, I was given pamphlets about “re-entry” and “reverse culture shock.”  As if coming back home would be harder than moving overseas.  For the record, moving home was simple compared to moving to Africa!  So what, then, is “re-entry” for me?  At first, re-entry meant looking left instead of right when crossing the street, to avoid getting hit by cars, since in America we drive on the right.  But that part was easy.  After all, I’d lived in America for 29 years and only lived in South Africa for two and a half years.  So looking left, picking up the pace and losing the British vocabulary took all of a few weeks to shed.

The question of re-entry then is why, four years after my return, do I still think about re-entry?  Moving to Africa has its obvious and very abrupt culture shock.  Moving home did not.  Instead, the re-entry process has been a longer, more gradual process that has lasted, and will likely last, for years, if not forever.  After all, going there was temporary.  Coming home feels permanent.  In South Africa, I knew America would be with me again.  In America, except for a brief visit back, South Africa is with me only in spirit and in memory.

Another part of re-entry that takes years to reconcile is the feeling of being “here” but knowing that the “there” is always present.  When in South Africa, I was very prepared to always feel neither “here” nor “there.”  After all, I was the foreigner in their country who spoke with an accent – the very fingerprint of foreignness.  There were many, many moments living in Africa, when it could often feel isolating to be the only person with a concept of what, prior to then, had been my entire life.

While intertwined in a Tuesday “girls’ night out” on 8th Ave, the first person in the world I wanted to text was my South African friend.  Six years ago, eating that pizza would have taken me back to my summers in Italy.  But this time, it took me to the Kalahari Desert, where I used an old soda bottle as a rolling pin for pizza dough and some green thing growing in my yard, which upon discovering wasn’t poisonous, sort of tasted like basil.  It didn’t, really.  Let’s be real, there is no substitute for basil.

Looking around the restaurant of my “home culture,” I suddenly had that same feeling of being neither “here” nor “there.”  Though I didn’t actually survey the crowd, I would bet that I was likely the only person there who had lived in rural Africa for two and a half years.  As foreign as Manhattan was to my friends over “there” I suddenly realized that Africa was now the “over there.”

As the evening melting into night, I pulled back my hair – which had been done to look nice but not actually reveal how much effort went into it.  I wore an outfit that took way too long to decide on for a Tuesday night and, I talked with other successful New York women about my life as a working playwright, author and teacher.  You know, the normal stuff we talk about when a group of people go out for a good time.  Allow me to set the stage of an African Tuesday night “nightlife” in the Kalahari.

First off, it’s Tuesday night in Africa.  So in honor the occasion, I’ll do my make-up (translation: wash the desert dirt off my face).  I’ll also do my hair (translation: put hair in ponytail).  So as always, I was trying to use my cellphone as a modem to get a dial-up internet connection.  We had no electricity that week, mind you, so I walked 7 kilometers to the nearest outlet and charged my laptop.  Then, I spent 7 hours downloading the newest episode re-cap of The Next Iron Chef.  Seven hours to download the 3 minute RE-CAP, not even the whole episode!  I watched Chef Eric Greenspan making something with grasshoppers and had to laugh, because let’s face it, in Africa, that isn’t an unusual ingredient.  I watched Chef Amanda Freitag, who had become my culinary hero, make some beer stew.  That’s right.  Stew from beer.  Is it clear now why the words “culinary hero” are at play?  While watching Chef Freitag, I had an epiphany, “beer is an ingredient we have here!!!”  I then found some old women in the village who were brewing up their own beer (felt very 1920s bootleg-ish).  I found someone selling produce on the street and gathered my veggies.  My host family had been hunting, so I had fresh meat.  As for spices, well, I picked some green thing in the backyard, fed it to the dog to make sure it was safe to eat.  The dog survived, and so I decided this green leafy thing kind of tasted like a faux herb (not even close).  Take that, Manhattan!

How is that for a Tuesday night bar story?  While it’s an amusing account of what my life once was, it truly feels like another life, somehow unconnected to this one.  My Peace Corps stories make an appearance at very calculated times and places.  Part of re-entry means reading social cues and knowing when the stories would be a welcome add-on to a conversation, and when it would leave people wondering why on earth Africa girl was invited out to play.

And so for me, that is what re-entry is.  It’s feeling, and actually being, perfectly adapted back into my home culture, but knowing that my mind can, and will, transition seamlessly into another.  I know that my stories from Africa will make a great book one day, but that its oral stories are better kept short and edited for mass consumption.  And so, as I dream of that brick oven pizza, I get to reminisce twice.  The thought of brick oven pizza conjures up a need for a night out at Donatella on 8th, but it also means remembering how many failed pizzas I tried to make with nonsensical ingredients.  And, for the record, a tomato is rarely fresh in the Kalahari, and a stone oven built out of things you found in the desert may or may not actually be safe.  And there is no substitute for basil.


About the Author: Stefanie DeLeo is a published playwright/author and middle school Social Studies/Drama teacher.  From July 2007 through November 2009 she lived and worked as a Peace Corps Volunteer in rural South Africa.  She has a Master’s Degree from NYU in Educational Theatre. She can be followed on twitter @stefaniedeleo and liked on Facebook.