MUNICH — The box was in transit for nearly two months.
Every day, from the end of April until mid-June, Tiffany Schureman, 42, would track the package her mother had sent from Dallas to Athens, where Schureman lives and writes about travel. She has not seen her family in a year, and like many Americans living abroad, she doesn’t expect to for at least several more months because of the pandemic.
Schureman said she cried when she picked up the package, which included a homemade Chex mix that her mother throws together on holidays, a block of Velveeta cheese and a new credit card.
“It wasn’t the stuff,” she said. “It was that it was stuff that my mother had touched.”
In mid-March, the State Department raised its global health advisory to Level 4, recommending that U.S. citizens return home immediately or prepare to stay where they were indefinitely.
Since then, the number of infections in the U.S. has continued to soar, reaching at least 4.7 million, while in many other countries infections have dropped. In Greece, for example, an average of 5 people out of every 100,000 have been infected over the last week. In the United States, that number is 129.
Concerned about health risks, wary of unexpected border closures and canceled flights, or hesitant because their visas are in limbo, many people have put off plans to return to the United States. Which means it could be a while until they are reunited with loved ones and the comforts they associate with home.
This spring, during the lockdown in Munich, I found myself fantasizing about Annie’s Homegrown mac and cheese, a product impossible to find in German grocery stores and prohibitively expensive to ship from the United States. Even if my family did want to spend many times the price of the product in shipping costs, it was likely that I would also have to pay an unspecified amount in customs fees upon delivery.
Not since I arrived in Germany 11 months ago had I craved something so American and so basic. My family is Russian, and my mother is the type who brews her own kombucha, so it’s safe to say I didn’t grow up with powdered cheese in the house.
Still, I associate boxed mac and cheese with my earliest moves toward independence, like living on my own for the first time. Deciding to stay in Germany was that kind of move, and the stress of it demanded boxed mac and cheese.
I should have known to pack some for my flight here. Shelf-stable and distinctly American foods — like Cheetos and chocolate chips — often travel in suitcases from the United States back to other countries where they may be nearly impossible to find.
Lauren Kulwicki, 33, a community engagement specialist from Ohio, has lived in Munich for four years. “I don’t think I’ve had a real chocolate chip cookie since arriving in Germany,” she said. Brown sugar and vanilla extract are grocery store rarities, and the chocolate chips are the wrong shape and have less flavor, she added.
Nicole Trilivas, 37, a freelance travel writer who has lived in London for six years, said that when she is homesick, she finds herself craving Reese’s Peanut Butter Eggs, the kind Hershey’s releases around Easter. “When you choose to eat these kinds of things, you’re bringing up memories from childhood,” she said. “Rather than feeding yourself physically, you’re feeding yourself emotionally.”
When Trilivas is in New York, she usually stocks up on packets of dehydrated ranch dressing — “a barbecue summer staple” that evokes memories of outdoor gatherings with friends and family. Under different circumstances, she would be home now and spending time with her niece, who was born in July.
Over the years, she has learned to substitute polenta for cornmeal and figured out how to make ranch dressing from scratch. Once she even tried to whip up vanilla extract. “I ended up with vanilla-flavored vodka,” said Valentine, a business consultant.
“I miss being able to get a $10 breakfast that’s bigger than my entire face, and really cheap American coffee,” he said. Carrico, a strategy director at an advertising agency, expects to wait until 2021 to see family and visit Orphan Andy’s, a diner in the Castro district in San Francisco where he eats every time he is home.
Though comfort foods helped her adjust to living in Europe when she moved in 2010, Valentine said that she now focuses more on daily-use items, like toiletries. “I’m African American, so I get my hair products at home,” she said. “There’s less choice here and it’s far more expensive.”
Rashi Rohatgi, 35, a novelist who lives in northern Norway, stocks up on Fenty Beauty cosmetics for a similar reason. “The color choices are limited here,” said Rohatgi, who is of South Asian descent.
Other items that Americans abroad often purchase on trips home include over-the-counter medications that are cheaper and easier to buy in bulk than they are in Europe, like Advil or Claritin, and supplements like melatonin and gummy vitamins.
“Europeans understandably don’t think adults need vitamins to be gummy, but I need them to taste like candy,” said Elisabeth Bloxam, 27, the director of programs for the Fulbright Commission in Brussels. After each trip back to Virginia, she has a “mini-CVS pharmacy” in her apartment, Bloxam said.
After 11 years abroad, Rohatgi is well aware of the high cost of living in Norway, where consumer goods are among the most expensive in Europe. As her toddler grows out of his clothes, she thinks about all the hand-me-downs she would normally receive from friends in Pennsylvania. In the absence of visitors, she said, “I have spent about $100 on three pairs of kid pants.”