by Libby Collier
As I continue to discover new places, traveling or moving from one to another, I find myself thinking about first impressions. From my time abroad, I can remember my initial reaction to the winding, steep roads and vast landscape of Wellington, New Zealand; it felt, at first, complicated and inaccessible. But within the first couple of weeks, I was using shortcuts to get to class and had at least four different running routes.
After five months, on my way back to the airport in a cab, my body swayed in harmony with the now familiar curves of the road. We passed by Westpac Stadium, where I saw my first rugby game, and Fidel’s Café, where I was served coffee in a small bowl instead of a cup.
First impressions of places are just initial responses to new environments, waiting for associations to transform them into something familiar.
In July, I traveled to Denver for the first annual Slow Food Nations weekend of events. Throughout the weekend, there were countless tastings, markets, workshops, and seminars around food. This also happened to be my first time in Colorado, so it was an opportunity to discover a new place, new food, and catch up with old friends from college all at once.
I expected to be surrounded by snow-topped mountains when I landed at the airport, but was surprised to see mostly flat land, with just shadows of mountain ranges in the distance. I tried to get a feel for the area as my friends and I went to get breakfast the following morning. Denver felt large in size, even spacious, with a noticeable lack of morning commuters. Despite the absence of people on the street, there was still a wait for a table for breakfast. While we waited, groups of people drank mimosas outside in the pleasantly dry heat, discussing weekend plans, while others sat on the curb, soaking up the sun.
On Friday evening, I attended the Colorado-Made Block Party. I entered the gated area to see a crowd of people buzzing about the selection of edible art on their plates. Food tents framed the outdoor space with strings of Edison lights serving as the ceiling. I was overwhelmed with choices, as groups broke their conversation to offer recommendations to people passing by. Purple chips rested in brown paper trays, blanketed with a goat cheese sauce. Smoked Colorado beet tartare was topped with farro and “umeboshi apricot tapenade.” Short lines seemed to move quickly at every table, strangers becoming friends by the time they reached the front. It seemed like the event was a gathering of friends rather than food-curious locals and tourists like myself.
There was one table that remained popular throughout the night. I wound up chatting with the man in front of me in line, who was from Oregon. The wait was worth it, he said: this was his third time in line. I approached the table to see clear cups full of ice. A man stood behind the wooden counter, pouring an assortment of liquids into a cocktail shaker. He shook, then poured a pale pink concoction onto the ice and placed a piece of thin-shaved watermelon on top, along with a few leaves of sage.
The man then began a new mixture, a honey-colored drink, finished with a grilled peach and a sprig of rosemary. Then he introduced the two drinks, vibrant against the dark green of his apron: the first was gin and watermelon; the second, a whiskey-peach cocktail. He spoke proudly of his recipes and answered questions about his relationship with food, his restaurant down the street, and his family in Denver. He had no problem repeating himself to the new faces that kept appearing, and moved seamlessly into more intimate conversation with those who returned for a second or third time. Tall tables scattered around the space encouraged people of different ages and professions to mingle and chat while enjoying their food and drinks.
Later on in the evening, my friends took me to one of their favorite restaurants near their neighborhood. I walked in and was immediately asked if I was a Collier. I have two older sisters and an older brother, and my sisters and I are often mistaken for each other, but I hadn’t expected to be recognized here. I turned to see four men I realized I knew. They were friends of my older sister, whom I had met at her graduation from Bates College, over four years ago. It was one of those small-world moments that brightens your day. At the restaurant, I recognized faces from the Slow Food Nation events and the block party.
Later that weekend, my friends and I stopped to get a cup of coffee downtown. We sat at a table near a window in the small café. I looked up just in time to see the man who created the popular cocktails at the block party walk by the window and into his restaurant. Denver began to feel like a smaller, warmer, more intimate place.
Later on that day, I was looking out a bigger window as I sat at gate B17, waiting to board my flight back to the east coast. The mountain ranges were no longer a far off silhouette of blue and purple, but close, cozy, familiar.