Best Essays of 2021

Ten of our favorites we published this year


As 2021 comes to a close, we’ve been reflecting on the stories we’ve published this year—and hope to publish in 2022. Our guides this year have spanned the globe—from Colombia to Scandinavia, Tehran to California—and we’ve been thrilled to publish both established and emerging authors on the foods, habits, celebrations and challenges that define their homes. Here are 10 of our favorite essays that we published this year—from a young Gabriel García Márquez’s reflections on city life in Bogotá to an Iranian woman’s subtle provocations to her city’s norms of privacy and a Californian author’s attempts to retrace his family history in the breadbasket of the United States.

“The Street: Bogotá, 1960” by Gabriel García Márquez (Stranger’s Guide: Colombia)

In 1960 the Camacho Roldan Bookstore published a series of books under the title Colombia: Country of Cities. The first volume, dedicated to Bogotá, included a vivid portrait of the city from a young and then-unknown reporter, Gabriel García Márquez. This is the first time this piece has been published in translation.
Thus was our city, cloudy and rainy, a mere 500 meters below the perennial snow. There was a central tower with a clock, and a central street whose passers-by, umbrellas perched on their arms, dressed in dark colors, spoke in very low voices and went to bed at eight in the evening. We were, it was said, a million people, who managed in many ways to live. We had our very own way of being joyful: on holidays, we went to mass, rang bells and burned gunpowder in the suburbs. It was the pyrotechnics of happiness.

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“My Sensational Drama Queen” by Julián Delgado Lopera (Stranger’s Guide: Colombia)

The onces are never ready without the uva pasas bread from the local panadería. We all got them from our favorite bakery spot—the one our grandmothers call every other day to deliver Coca-Cola and Marlboros while getting an update on the neighborhood chisme—and the señorita who answers the telephone on the other side recognizes this with a buenas tardes, señora Mayi! How is your mami doing? In our case, Pecos Pan. In our case, puro puro barrio Cedritos.

It is 5PM, and the hijuemadre filo, the intense hunger eating at our insides, is driving the matriarchy seated around the dining table cucu. When the buzzer finally rings, all the tías celebrate, ashing their cigarettes in unison: ay ay por fin! Dígale que suba! Dígale que suba! And after the señorito delivery boy leaves, the apartment swells with the smell of freshly baked bread, chocolatico and campesino cheese. Las onces— the most loved, the most hated, the moment on Saturday afternoons at the abuela’s apartment where we eat guava roscón with our bare hands and brace ourselves to face the Tía Eye. The circle of tías digging nails first into the pandeyucas while disapprovingly reading your disheveled teenage ass. Because you wear bell bottoms with holes in them and they believe it is ay so low class, mija. Because they all have opinions on your outfit that are mumbled as they dip the almojábana in the chocolate, as they fish for the melted campesino cheese with a spoon. Because a niña que se respete, a girl who respects and loves herself, is always punto en blanco. Spotless.

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“Crayfish Culture” by Brett Martin (Stranger’s Guide: Scandinavia)

On a summer day, many years ago, a lone crayfish freezes as Oskar’s and my shadows pass over the water. The creature is about an inch and half long and a shade more copper-red than the bottom of the stream. Oskar, all of four feet tall from bare feet to platinum crew cut, puts a finger to his lips. Slowly, he creeps forward, lowering the butterfly net he’s holding until it just meets its reflection on the clear surface and then quietly slides beneath. The crayfish watches as if hypnotized, worrying its front legs like it’s knitting. When the rim of the net gets within three or four inches, the spell breaks. With a kick of its fat, curved tail, the thing springs to life and propels itself beneath an overhanging rock, leaving only a small puff of gravelly sediment and a disappointed seven-year-old in its wake.

The crayfish is probably feeling pretty good about itself. If it had a better sense of history and the calendar, it might be less cocky. Here in Sweden, it’s approaching 5PM on the first Wednesday in August, which marks the start of a glorious national holiday known as kräftpremiären—the Crayfish Premiere—the kick off to a short but intense season of crustacean consumption. Our friend is hardly out of the woods.

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“Of Time and Water” by Andri Snær Magnason (Stranger’s Guide: Scandinavia)

In the future, glaciers will be an alien phenomenon, rare as a Bengal tiger. Having lived in the time of the white giants will become swaddled in a fairy-tale glow, like having stroked a dragon or handled the eggs of the great auk. Glaciers will certainly be found in the Arctic, Greenland and Antarctica for a few thousand more years, but probably not in the Alps and the Andes; they will disappear in most parts of the Himalayas and Iceland. People will ask, how were glaciers described at the beginning of the 21st century?

I was not as familiar with the glaciers of Iceland as my own grandparents were. I had seen them from afar and gone up to Snæfellsjökull in winter, but winter glaciers are nothing like summer glaciers, and outlet glaciers are quite different from an ice sheet or a minor glacier.

And so I and a small crew planned to cross Skeidarárjökull, in Iceland, one of the major valley glaciers heading south from Vatnajökull. It was the end of July 2012; all the winter snow had melted and all the cracks and shapes in the ice were as clear as they would get. This was actually our second assault on the glacier. A few years earlier, we had headed up there in pouring rain and pitched our tents on a low gravel bed. When we woke up in the morning, pools and springs had formed under the campsite. It was almost as if someone had struck the ground with a magic wand, causing water to well up out of little bulging eyes; people woke drenched in deep puddles, and so we turned back home.

Continue reading in our Scandinavia guide.

 

“Under the Skin of the City” by Arash Sadeghbeigi (Stranger’s Guide: Tehran)

It was 2 a.m. by the time the assistant at the 24-hour clinic held the cat down so the veterinarian could administer the vaccine. Golshan, my wife, had named the animal an hour earlier at the park where we’d gone to eat roasted corn. Jamshid, as this cat was now known, turned out to be a bit of an odd creature from the get go, sneezing in my face every few minutes. I didn’t know what the sneeze was about, and I wasn’t curious enough to care. But it was already too late—Golshan had her heart set on the animal, and here we were. As the stout and kindly vet was finishing up with the shot, Golshan went upstairs to get the starter kit a new cat owner needs. I noticed a stirring in the cat; Jamshid suddenly sprang to its feet and sprinted past me. The object of Jamshid’s wrath turned out to be a white terrier strutting uninvited into the examination room. Behind the dog sashayed its owner, whom I guessed to be, well, a prostitute.

In Tehran, and I suppose other places, the look of a prostitute often has to do with a certain “too-muchness.” This visitor threw down the file that the assistant had made her carry, then sat facing me. She seemed disoriented and reeked of alcohol, her makeup an over-the-top mélange of exaggerated lines and her mustard-colored silk manteau and hijab excessively bright but matching.

Continue reading in our Tehran guide!

 

“Eating in Exile” by Jason Rezaian (Stranger’s Guide: Tehran)

Although our Iranian relatives bemoaned the fact that the sons of the Rezaian family’s local patriarch knew so little about the ways of our fatherland, I’m now convinced that’s precisely why I ended up being the lone member of our large extended Northern California family to make the reverse migration back to the homeland.

Had I spoken the language, I might have known better. I would have understood that, for as poetic and hospitable as Persian and its native speakers can be, sometimes Iranian kindness is not exactly as it appears.

But Iran, just like its most evocative dishes, has a magical allure. I would never call myself a foodie, but there are few things I love more than a good meal. Experiencing new flavors is increasingly what gets me the most excited about traveling to new destinations.

Continue reading in our Tehran guide!

 

“Windows” by Farnaz Haeri (Stranger’s Guide: Tehran)

“Haj khanum says your windows are naked. She has grown boys—she says it’s not proper going without curtains.”

My building’s manager tells me this over the phone and I’m sure he uses the word “naked” on purpose. I’m confused. And angry. In Iran, when you refer to someone as a Haj khanum (the combination of the words Haj and Madam), you are implicitly saying that the woman is religious and has a certain traditional way of looking at the world and, obviously, at my windows.

I live on the third floor of an apartment building in the heart of the city. My windows face north and south: the north side offers a view of Jami Street, and the south overlooks a backyard. The windows facing Jami have curtains. In Tehran, all windows have curtains—firmly drawn curtains. Haj khanum’s issue is with my south-facing, curtainless windows.

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“Inter State” by José Vadi (Stranger’s Guide: California)

I map some points across California that intersected with my grandfather’s history and plot a few trips when I can find time. I fly to Burbank a day before a work conference, rent a car and head toward one of the most well-preserved labor camps of the Dust Bowl era, Arvin Farm Labor Supply Center or Sunset Labor Camp, in Arvin near Bakersfield, just on the other side of the Grapevine, the brutal northbound drive that’s a rite of passage for any Southern Californian. I remember driving it for the first time solo when I was 16, visiting my sister at Cal, driving an automatic Ford Tempo that would stall at stoplights while idling but somehow got me and a friend to and from the 909 and Berkeley before it nearly exploded in Upland, my mother arriving to a southbound plume of smoke wafting over Euclid Avenue, and me smiling at the journey I didn’t die on. On this trip, I decided to go around the Grapevine, through Palmdale and into that high desert mass from Mojave to Barstow that I imagined as a kid, staring at the San Gabriel Valley’s foothills and wondering what exists on the other side of the Angeles National Forest.

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“Immigrant City” by Laleh Khadivi (Stranger’s Guide: California)

Seventeen years before our arrival as a family, my father arrived by sky, by himself, in Los Angeles. As the myth goes, he had only his uncle’s phone number in Palos Verdes, 70 cents in his pocket and a handful of words of English: Hellogood-byenice to meet you—and all the joy in the world. As he tells it, LA—with her sparkling ocean and soft sands, smiling women and fast cars—said, in the ways only a city can: welcome. Charged by the energy of the films he watched in Kermanshah’s only cinema, he extracted himself from the nest of family and the coming knot of revolution to make his way to Los Angeles where, according to the city’s cinematic bible, all character arcs were possible. More so than in those established East Coast cities of old money and pilgrims, LA seemed open to all who had enough swagger to make it work. Heroines, villains, damsels and vice were not the only images blasted from the beam of projectors the world over; change—the great energetic force that encourages a life beyond your inherited station, a notion so dangerous it is banned in so many countries—flowed onto the screen again and again so that when my father landed, he was all but certain his 70 cents would not stay 70 cents forever. The English language would fill his head and mouth, and the smiling girls would do more than smile at him.

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“From Trash Heaps to Park Land” by Alexis C. Madrigal (Stranger’s Guide: California)

Apple Park is perfect. A circle of glass and light, there’s a park inside the circle, complete with sports fields, health care facilities, a pond and fruit trees. The lunchroom is so bright and so white they could film a remake of 2001: A Space Odyssey in it. This may be the very center of the Bay Area that invents new things, making the old things into bricks, trash. What hold does history have on the pure light of innovation?

And yet, even here, every once in a while, someone must throw away a takeout container from the hamburger they snuck past their coworkers. The basic debris of modern life has no place here, but it must have a place. Like other trash in Cupertino, it gets trucked across the Bay to Newby Island, a waste mountain in the very southeast corner of the San Francisco Bay, which serves as the primary landfill for the heart of Silicon Valley, where Google, Intel and a host of would-be and has-been tech concerns have campuses.

Continue reading in our California guide!


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