Let’s Eat Together

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Nighthawks by Edward Hopper. 1942

No red carpet when I come into your restaurant.

I eat alone frequently. I’m often on the phone while doing so. My headset is on so you don’t even know whether I am talking to you or not.

I eat at weird hours. Your schedule matters little to me.

I’ll stomp in thirty seconds after you open with blatant disregard for your pre-coffee drowsiness, I’ll swoop back in ten minutes before you close.

I look forward to eating weird things in strange places. Yet, I can be a finicky brat giving your serving spoon a long once-over if it’s a little dull.

The right side of my jaw makes a loud audible click when I bite down. People look over.

I ask for a re-fill on my water at least five times usually.

I ask a whole lot of questions.

I interrupt your answers with bad jokes.

Then I repeat the questions again. Obnoxious.

I eat half of this, a quarter of that, ask for more bread, confide in you that none of it was great and then ask you to box it all.

I ask what your Signature item is.

I always ask you what makes the Special special.

I follow that up with a specific request for the Top 5 most popular items.

Then I ask you what the chefs eat. They know best, I explain.

Serving staff can lose patience quickly. I’m exhausting.

I usually lose them early. The goal is to get back in their good graces sometime before we’re through. Send them off to the kitchen happy.

My manners are good, but I would not know what fork works if given the Titanic tableware Buzzfeed quiz.

Eating out is a phenomenon. Eating together is a phenomenon.

I have always been curious about it. In music, in movies, in art… people get jazzed about going out to chow.

All over the world, families and friends look forward to breaking bread in the environs an entrepreneur has selected for their best grub to be slapped onto some wholesale trays and plates. The goal of a restaurant should be to offer hospitality and nourishment. Community, even. It’s a place for connection.

When I hear stories of African-American athletes in the civil rights era, it particularly stings me when they share stories of not being allowed to eat with their white teammates. I simply think that each person deserves the right to eat at any food spot as long as they are respectful and not breaking the law. I have acted the fool in more bistros, cafes, diners, restaurants, inns, taverns and speakeasies than I can recall and I can’t remember ever being asked to leave. Well, there was one time I was asked to leave The Brixton but I understood because I had just seen somebody in an identical Court Jester Halloween costume to mine destroy a whole lot of their property. They also asked me once I was already kind of on my way out so I took it as a suggestion more than a rights violation.

I am concerned by this trend (Has happened twice now, is that a trend?) of public figures being asked to leave restaurants in Washington DC because their fellow diners disapprove of their work. Even if they were not asked, just making them feel like they would be better off leaving is disturbing. It is a slope-ery slip. I completely understand that there is important debate happening currently in America and in the world. I understand that as people, it’s important to be vocal, to be involved, and to be cognizant of all that is going on.

That said, what is the goal? Isn’t it to be better? 

If I am upset with somebody and I imply they are not being empathetic, that they are being cruel in the execution of their job – how is it excusable for me to spot them in public and shame them or their family? How can you excuse making them so uncomfortable in public that they have to leave before finishing a meal? Isn’t that hypocritical? Even if it isn’t, it brings nothing good.

This is certainly not a comparison. I’m not here to compare one wrong to others. I am from a country of in-your-face poverty and have closely followed immigration for twenty years. Those are problems and debates I do not have enough information to dissect but I empathize on a personal level with those on the border, now and previously.

What I know about this is this: Americans should not be going down the road of  Democrat Diners and Republican Restaurants. If you celebrated those two women getting pressured to leave their respective eateries – just imagine it happened to you or Michelle Obama. It easily could. How far are we from having people with red hats being asked to leave restaurants? How far are we from other restaurants saying you can’t come in without a red hat?

Are we as a society going to strive to only eat with people who we agree with on everything?

If any kitchen out there doesn’t want to see a certain mouth again, just give them crap food with molasses service, that time honored tradition has steered away many an unwanted visitor.

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April 5th, 2015

Izmir, Turkey

Had the most costly dinner of my trip so far. Adana kebab. Great meat. Clean taste. First proper sit-down meal and it was fresh as can be. Was advised “Go into any place with a crowd” but it was so late, it was a drizzle, all the places were empty and their waiters were standing in each lane trying their best to usher the last few tourist bucks of the night their way. This one guy spoke English and told me he had the best kebabs so I followed him. How did he know I wanted kebabs? He and his uncle wound up keeping the place open for me. He was only nineteen years old but he spoke some of the best English I had heard in Turkiye. After we shut the place down, they invited me to a “FIFA Bar” where buddies drank beer and played Fifa on a massive wall. Eager to destroy them, I tagged along and it turned into a great night despite never actually playing a game. 

What is most memorable now is at 3AM we were drinking on the street boisterously, there were about eight of us and I kept asking questions.

Where you from?

Where you now?

How did I get here? 

Where you going?

Where do you want to go?

The thing I remember is that nobody there lived where they said they wanted to. But some of us lived where the others wanted to be.

The conversation landed on an upcoming election.  The beer goggles cleared suddenly and one of the boys started kind of needling my buddy, and suddenly these two twenty-ish kids were very intensely and loudly debating each other on this quiet street. As people left one by one, including the bald and mustachioed bar owner, we sat in his outdoor patio with 1 more pitcher of Efes as sunrise and the sounds of birds came calling. 

I asked the two what they had been arguing about. My buddy told me in his smooth broken English while his friend peppered me with some jabs of English he retrieved from parts unknown. That’ll happen when you want to win an argument. I do not know how accurate the history/geography specifics are but what they shared can be paraphrased as this: My buddy was born in Izmir, a few dozen kilometers away. His friend was born across a border within hours of Turkey. He had personally crossed a border at some point in his early childhood at risk to him and his parents. That was done for survival. In the upcoming election, my buddy supported a candidate that would close the borders completely, as my buddy and family obviously wanted for their own safety. His friend only wanted that candidate specifically to lose the election, because he wondered about his future, and he still had people dear to him on the other side who wanted to cross into Turkey, who wanted to survive.

One friend exclaimed to the other at one point: “You would vote for my death?” 

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On the train the next day, I thought, if these two can have some beers and debate a subject that hits this close to home with passion and jokes, then I should strive to be able to have a civil conversation with anyone about anything.

I hope their friendship survives.

Footprints

April 2nd, 2015

I stepped off my flight from Istanbul to Izmir with my schoolbag, a startling sense of excitement and three days to see this part of the country. All I had been told was that the people of this region were very attractive. I can confirm that now. I descended the escalator off the tarmac and into the airport and my nose was immediately smelling smells it had never smelled in an airport before. These Turks had a fully stocked professional florist’s right there, black escalator stairs ending in a mass of flowers of all colours and fragrances. It was a very strong first impression.

I was spending the day in Izmir before taking the train to Selcuk. Izmir is the third largest city in Turkey. It appeared more industrial, there were no tourists and people were genuinely surprised to see me almost everywhere despite there being a lot of people around almost always. I walked all along the bay in downtown Izmir, following a path past waterfront hotels and restaurants and bars all in soft pastel tones, like San Francisco on a post card long before Instagram filters.

I walked for five or six hours from an old bazaar with nothing but food and clothes, through a modern business area where I relaxed in a posh hotel lobby and put my bag down thankfully. I walked out of there and went down a side street full of kiosks all selling little trinkets. I found one man half asleep and all he sold were turkish artists interpretations of Hollywood movie posters. Framed. I would have purchased dozens if I could have but left happily with a Back to the Future and a Batman Begins that I added to my list of things to not forget somewhere.

I bought a delicious chocolate bar, Turkey has the best assortment of convenience store counter chocolate bars that I have come across in my life. They are clearly of a higher quality than American candy bars.

I listened to my short but sweet Turkish Gold playlist for hours and steadily walked in a drizzle that I frequently prayed wouldn’t turn into a rain. The preciousness of time is amplified even more while traveling, we are clearly at the mercy of the weather gods then, those powerful few known as weathermen in America. These were the sort of deep thoughts l had while listening to Paul McCartney channel his days in Africa.

All I need is a pint a day, if I ever get out of here, if we ever get out of here

I stopped and had a delicious coffee on a side street from an old man. We both smiled a lot and fumbled around trying to talk but neither of us communicated a single thing successfully. Well, actually, when I left he knew I liked the coffee and Izmir, and I knew I liked the coffee and Izmir. I paid him with a single coin.

Soon I was in the station. It was much seedier at night. Drug addicts and tough guys were popping up from buildings I had assumed were shuttered and boarded up. I found my platform and boarded my train and as I got within a few feet of my seat, my feet and knee ached. Maybe it was my imagination.

I found my hostel at 1am after sleuthing around the tiny village of Selcuk for the good part of an hour. I was greeted by somebody who made zero effort to pretend that I had not just completely woken him up. He showed me to my room and I fell asleep, exhausted.

I could hear loud noises. I heard them half-asleep and then they became louder. Now I was awake and could hear the sound moving. I lay there in my bed, under the covers and realized a damn bird was flying around my bedroom. I was alone in the room so I had to get up at some point, adult me lectured sleeping me sternly. I ran to the front door, hit the light, looked up at the ceiling and there is a huge bat flying around. I hightail it down to the front desk and wake up the guy for the second time that night.

He’s looking at the bat in disbelief. He’s asking me if I brought it. I’m looking at him in disbelief. I’m telling him no and that I’m not fluent in the language he’s speaking. I’m only guessing what you’re saying, dude. His plan is to throw the complimentary notepad from my desk up at the bat which is now stationary (pun intended) on the ceiling. Incredibly his plan works and works very quickly. I had resigned myself to sitting exhausted and watching him throw a stack of paper at a bat for at least the next thirty minutes but he grazed that flying rodent on his fifth attempt. It flew out the window and I closed it. We carefully inspected the room for more bats. There were none. He assured me this was not normal. He asked me if I would mention the bat on TripAdvisor.

The next morning, I woke up and ate breakfast. I guess everyone did.

I did not want to take a bus to Ephesus. From the Batcave, it was a 70 minute walk through the countryside so I elected to walk. I first passed cows and sheep and lambs aplenty on plots of farmland. There was a nice clearly designed path to walk alongside the road to Ephesus. That path was empty for many minutes at a time, but I did pass some interesting folks – some schoolboys, some old men, and a young woman exercising. She was really pushing herself through a demanding workout on the parallel bars at a kid’s playground. I saw some college-aged guys on a motorcycle and took one of my favorite photos of the trip. I was asked for a cigarette by somebody. I disappointed him and he too, did not hide it.

I had downloaded a Rick Steves podcast which was a walking tour of Ephesus. If you walked in and timed pressing Play correctly, you had a English tour guide in your ear for free. Directions, history, little facts and jokes. It was fascinating. They said that supposedly Julius Caesar or Cleopatra actually walked down that same narrow rock path. Following in Caesar’s footsteps felt amazing, Efes felt like a truly historic place, could easily imagine how this little place captured the attention of the world in 10,000 B.C.

I left there and walked back to Selcuk. I wanted a haircut. It was late, but Selcuk must be the barber capital of that state. Every lane has two or three salons or barbershops. I walked into an empty one. A very soft spoken gentleman named Salih gave me an immaculate cut. He even burned rogue hairs off my ears with a flaming Q-tip (Pun intended – you should be listening to A Tribe Called Quest). Most restaurants had closed. The village is so small, there must be about six square blocks in the tourist section, but there must be hundreds of restaurants. I was fortunate enough to not only have the best meal of my trip that night but to also become friends with my waiter. We talked about Syria, regional politics, Turkish basketball league, futbol and his plans for finishing college. We closed the restaurant and met with one of his friends for beers at a nearby pub. We then met their friends. Everybody wanted to be somewhere else. Guys who lived in Selcuk wanted to live an hour away in Izmir and those guys wanted to live in Istanbul. And those guys in London. And those guys just hoped the rain would hold off, like it had in Turkey today.

We shot the shit early into the morning and I drank too many beers. I was hungover the next day sitting in the courtyard eating my hardboiled eggs, papaya, berries and apple.

 

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Grand Bazaar’s Young Hustlers

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My very first morning in Istanbul, March of 2015, I went walking out of my hostel door with my carefully selected playlist blasting in my ears.

My only mission was to enjoy the music, look around, maybe take some photos and to exchange some dollars for Turkish Lira or “Tee Ells, mate” as one Sydney-sider at my hostel had corrected me. Following only a trail of currency exchange bureaus that seemed to each offer a more favorable rate than the last, I wound up at a side gate of Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar. I walked around the inside and got tired of it quickly since I didn’t plan on buying anything. Still, I do have to say I was impressed by how much Hindi every random Turk threw my way. Stiller, I was much happier circling the bazaar from the outside and taking photos of the people who worked there running to and fro, people of all ages both male and female. I saw one young boy running through a market street while a shopkeeper chased him angrily until the grey-haired man grew tired and cursed behind him. Where was I – Agrabah? Despite the Artful Dodgers, I also saw plenty of shopkeepers offering prospective customers fresh bread and hot tea. I found a mosque on the edge of the market to one of it’s countless sides and laid back there for a while. Many a man came out to wash his feet. Not a woman did. I thought to wash mine but suddenly noticed a quiet removed stairwell snaking up behind the mosque. If it led me to the roof, I’d be able to peer directly into the market through it’s open roof so I was excited to get up there and take some photos.DSC_0486.DSC_0588DSC_0593DSC_0485DSC_0615

The bad news was there was no vantage point. The good news was the “Street Rat” Aladdin-wannabe I had seen being chased earlier was up here now and wrestling some kid older than him. Let’s call him Jafar. When I asked them why they were fighting, after the bigger kid had won, he held up his hand triumphantly with a cigarette in it, and lit it. Everybody smokes in Turkey. Hell, I guess everybody smokes everywhere else. Everywhere European anyway. I did not know they started smoking in Fight Clubs. Travel teaches. “Street Rat” asked me to buy some Tops. Now, I love Tops and have since many schoolboy trips in India to tiny shops without names to get them. I asked Aladdin how much. He offered me 2 for 20, I said 3 for 10, we agreed on 3 for 15 if he let me take a bunch of photos. He agreed to this caveat only if he got Final Cut and I delivered the photos to him via email so he could make them his Facebook profile. This kid was born in 2005. No sooner did I give him the money, the formerly victorious Jafar offered me a much better deal. DUDE, where were you two minutes ago? I took their photos as the familiar sting of regret came over me as I walked away from the mosque curious how much those two jokers had paid for their Tops. They had seemed too pleased with themselves.

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I walked past a familiar face on my walk home after the currency exchange. I asked him “How much for a Top?”. He answered “2 Turkish Lira” while his eyes angrily surveyed the busy market streets for the two dodgy kids who kept stealing his Tops.

Gotta steal to eat, gotta eat to live, tell you all about it when I have the time…

Future Keyser Soze

Future Criminal Mastermind Keyser Soze