How I Built a Life Abroad, Thanks to Banana Bread

updated May 24, 2019
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(Image credit: Lauren Volo)

When I was 23 and newly married, I moved to England with a couple of duffel bags, a few boxes of wedding gifts, and my family’s banana bread recipe. Our marital kitchen was not much bigger than my bedroom closet back in the U.S. The fridge was not dissimilar to what I had in my college dorm, down to the (lack of) freezer space.

Nonetheless, as I waited to hear back about jobs I’d applied for, I bided my time by baking. I tried out kitchen gadgets, roamed the aisles of supermarkets, and came to grips with U.K. metric conversions. And that tiny freezer quickly became an incubator of blackened bananas.

The banana bread recipe was my aunt’s, who passed it along to my mother, who handed it down to me. It was a reminder of home, a familiar treat I could make in my newlywed home so far from my childhood home.

It called for six bananas, which is more than most recipes. The key to moist, cake-like bread is overripe bananas – the blacker and spottier the peels, the better. So, while most people ditched their bananas at the first sign of age, I held on, knowing the sickly sweet smell and softness would turn into something special.

I noticed that people lingered longer when there was cake … baked goods were the common language, the shared currency.

Adjusting to life as an expat in England was tough — and it wasn’t just my closet-sized kitchen. I found Brits, in general, to be private and reserved, especially with strangers or mere acquaintances. Striking up conversations was not as easy as it was in America.

Once I started working, however, I noticed that much of the friendly banter happened around the tea kettle — and that people lingered longer when there was cake. In such an international organization, baked goods were the common language, the shared currency. I saw my “in.”

One day, I set a loaf of homemade banana bread next to the tea station. It worked; colleagues stopped to thank me, to ask for the recipe. They requested more, and offered to donate bananas to the cause.

My banana bread became a talking point and then, a hot commodity. Over tea and bread, I got to know my coworkers and they got to know me. Those tea kettle chats became the foundation of wonderful friendships.

Homemade banana bread was just what houseguests needed when they were up early with jet lag; wrapped in twine, the loaves made lovely housewarming gifts.

I started baking, and freezing, multiple loaves at a time. What I didn’t take to work, I kept as back-up supplies. I found homemade banana bread was just what houseguests needed when they were up early with jet lag; wrapped in twine, the loaves made lovely housewarming gifts. (Although the first time I welcomed a neighbor to our building, he was flabbergasted at the very American idea of a complete stranger knocking on the door, bearing a loaf of bread.)

The bread in muffin form was my go-to treat for moms who could eat with only one hand while they nursed their newborns. And no matter the occasion, the banana bread was the perfect complement to tea — something I was drinking more of than I ever imagined.

Banana bread had become my signature dish.

When I changed jobs, banana bread was mentioned no less than 10 times in my farewell card. My former coworkers lamented a future without it and they hoped my future office mates would realize how lucky they were to be the recipients. I like to think they weren’t just talking about the banana bread.

Soon enough, my penchant for speckled and bruised bananas caught on in the new workplace. Coworkers tipped me off to meeting rooms with abandoned fruit bowls. It was not uncommon to return to my desk to see a banana with a sticky note attached.

We even organized an interoffice banana bread bake-off, complete with an online voting system. (I was declared the winner, but I already felt victorious a hundred times over for finding such an awesome tribe of people.)

In and out of the office, banana bread continued to make appearances — at baby showers, wedding receptions, citizenship parties, and birthday celebrations. The bread was shared in comfort and joy. It was baked with love and hope and, more often than not, with crowd-sourced bananas. It took a village to make the bread, and the bread helped me build that village. I am certain I would not have made such great friends without the help of banana bread.

Breaking (banana) bread with people from all across the map had worked before. I hoped it would work again.

Then, after a decade of living overseas, my husband and I found out we would be relocating to Washington. Although we were moving to my home country, we were going to a state where I knew only a handful of people. And I was heartsick at the idea of starting over, again.

But while I was upset to leave behind the life I’d built, I was buoyed by the fact I had a full and happy life, period. If I could find my way in England, surely I could find my way in the U.S.

I baked a final batch of banana bread with the last of the frozen bananas collected from boardrooms and bag lunches. I ate the bread with my friends in the office, but the lump in my throat made it hard to swallow. The cups of tea helped.

When moving day arrived, I found the amount of luggage had quadrupled since my last transatlantic move. The boxes filled a shipping container and would take months to work their way around the Panama Canal until finally reaching their destination in the Pacific Northwest.

The banana bread recipe, written in my late aunt’s handwriting with my mom’s edits, took a more direct route, tucked safely in my carry-on bag. I had friends to make, coworkers to meet, neighbors to endear. Breaking (banana) bread with people from all across the map had worked before. I hoped it would work again.

And thankfully, this time around, I’d have a much bigger freezer.