Wednesday, September 29, 2010

My sidewalk cafés

Going up the stairs of Café des Nattes
Given the choice, I could spend all-day sitting in a sidewalk café, which the francophone prefer to call “café trottoire.”

What makes a city, town or village habitable, to my mind, is its cafés. My belief goes as far back as I can remember. Maybe because I grew up in a sidewalk café, a trademark of the Mediterranean way of living... The right sidewalk café can become a sanctuary where you can sit and drink, eat, think, read, write, chat, meet people and watch the world go by. What else would you want?

Café des Nattes in Sidi Bou Said
When I lived in Tunisia, the idyllic place to be and be seen was the little hilltop village of Sidi Bou Said, some 60 kms out of the capital, Tunis. Tunisia was then the tourism country par excellence. Summer festivals and concerts played at the Carthage amphitheater were renowned. And it is at Sidi Bou, as it is fondly called, that everyone congregated past the afternoon siesta until the wee morning hours.

I took up my first summer job in Sidi Bou at the age of 12, helping out in a boutique. My dad used to drive me there and then pick me up at 10 p.m. On our way home, we would stop in one of the village's small alleyways, where an enterprising baker had set up a coal oven and baked taboun bread, which he sold with a newspaper cone of black olives. I was too young to go out alone at night and had to beg my sister and brother to take me along. That didn't happen often, but when it did, the fun and excitement were thrilling.

Sniffing jasmine..,
When I grew up and started to move around without a chaperone, it was up to Sidi Bou that I went every afternoon. We lived 10 minutes away, and I would walk there to sit at the famous Café des Nattes. It is at the top of the village with stairs where nattes, or mats, were left dangling on both sides. That's where you gathered to be seen and watch people go by. I used to spend all my summer holidays sitting there, sipping mint tea with pine nuts -- aux pignons – and sniffing jasmine. I was so much part of the Café des Nattes that I was pictured there next to the entrance and figured on Sidi Bou Said postcards. Tourists who bought them would come up to me and point it out. I have some of them somewhere and this blog would be more colorful if and when I unearth my trove of pictures.

I think sidewalk cafés were the Twitter and Facebook of times gone by – times when we gathered, met new people, exchanged dreams and ideas, lazed about or listened to The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Johnny Halliday, Edit Piaf, Jacques Brel...

I wonder if it is still the same... I went back to Tunisia in the 1990s, but didn't have time to soak up the atmosphere in the café where I grew up.

In Beirut, I missed my cafés during the civil war because no one risked sitting outdoors. All public places were closed shut most of the time anyway.

But when I relocated to London and settled just off Kings Road in Chelsea, I quickly spotted my sidewalk café of choice. It is called Picasso (and you now know my love for anything related to the great Master!). It is one of the oldest establishments on Kings Road and did not change since it opened. Until of late, the owners’ premise was that "if it isn't broken, why fix it?"

Picasso on the Kings Road
The friendly Italian, Polish and Portuguese staff, all led by Signor Modesto -- who managed the café for some 50 years starting in 1956 -- became friends. I passed by every evening after work to unwind, catch up and savor a cappuccino.

While waiting to migrate (yet again) to Dubai, I wasn't working and spent even more time at Picasso. I went for breakfast -- a cappuccino with toast and Marmite -- and skim through the morning newspapers. I came back in the afternoons, mostly to touch base with the “regulars” -- Roger, Ian, Ramzi, French Peter, Sibel (who introduced me to my favorite author Orhan Pamuk) and several others. Everyone knew us and nodded their greetings whether patrons or passersby. They always expected to see us there.

Picasso was the favorite spot for past and present football stars, chiefly the incomparable George Best, who passed away in 2005. Marianne Faithful, Gary Waldhorn (of the Vicar of Dibley fame), Seal, Eric Clapton (who lived close by), Bono and Jay Kay of Jamiroquai with his funny hats all came to Picasso. Bob Geldof passed by daily for a coffee and tricolore salad when in town. Gordon Ramsay was there at least once a week, on his own or with his son (you can read his review here). And in 2004, Woody Allen used Picasso to shoot a scene for his London-based movie Match Point.

There was never a dull moment at Picasso, and it is one of the few places in London that I miss. But I am told it is now being renovated, so I dread to hear what they will do to it.

With Lynn (@lnlne) at Café Younes in February
When I finally went back to Beirut late last year, a café was the first thing I looked for. At first, I opted for Bread Republic in a small alley along Hamra Street. But on my second visit, I shifted to Café Younes, which quickly became home away from home. I would settle there with my laptop most evenings and rapidly be joined by several friends and tweeps. There is no shortage of sidewalk cafés in Beirut, but Younes suits me just fine.

And it is the sidewalk café that I miss most in Dubai. The weather doesn't help, as between May to October you can't really sit outdoors. A coffee shop in a mall is no match. So I haven't found my niche yet. So is it time to move on? I wonder...

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Cactus Oasis

What's in a fruit, what's in a name?

In the case of the prickly pear or cactus fruit, maybe the first thing that comes to mind is "huh???"

Personally, I wouldn't have thought of this much forgotten exotic fruit had it not been for my daily walk around Jumeira.

Since starting this blog, whatever I come across or whatever I do or think of has in it the seeds of a post. And so it is that while walking a friend's Labrador every evening, I catch sight of something and start writing about it in my head. Most of these sightings and thoughts quickly evaporate but some linger for a while.

I keep making it a point to take a route on my dog walks that takes me past an atypical garden. The majority of villas here in Dubai have extended front gardens and lawns that are typically well maintained and skillfully groomed. The garden that caught my eye does not have a green lawn or well-watered grass or changing seasonal flowers, but a variety of cactus plants growing wildly, in a kind of designed way. I watched the fruits grow and ripen as the days went by, which made me realize that I haven't had cactus fruit or sobbayr in ages.

The beauty of sobbayr is that it makes the grades of a fruit, a vegetable, and a flower with purported medical benefits -- something rare in the botanical kingdom.

It isn't something I would buy in the supermarket, take home, handle with care and gobble alone. Somehow, I have always associated sobbayr with street vendors in pre-war Beirut – specifically between Maarad and Burj.

My recollection is of the street vendors then keeping their sobbayr stock in a cold-water container -- topped by a huge block of ice -- loaded on top of their wooden cart. They would be wearing heavy-duty rubber gloves and holding a sharp knife. On demand, they would pick one sobbayra at a time, place it on a wooden board, cut off the top and the base, peel the sides, push the fruit up with their forefinger and forward with their thumb for you to grab and devour. Skins of the sobbayr you would have eaten would be kept in a pile on the wooden cart until you had had your fill. That’s when the skins were counted and you were asked to pay for the number you had consumed.

A quick recap then -- if you want to go through the exercise at home: wear heavy-duty gloves, soak then wash the cactus pears. Use a sharp knife to slice off the fruits’ top and base by about one centimeter on each end, cut length-wise along the pear's top-base center-line just through the skin. Then, with the knife, use that slit to lever the skin and peel it off the rest of the pear. Et voila!

The cactus pear is sweet and juicy with crunchy seeds inside that you just swallow. It usually breaks after the first bite and you're left with juices running down your chin and your hands ready to be licked. But it is succulent.

Whereas I thought sobbayr was a fruit typical of our Mediterranean and Gulf regions, it turns out that it has been the staple of the Mexican and Central American diet for thousands of years. They even eat the pad of the cactus, which they call the nopa. Apparently it tastes like green beans with the texture of okra.

And no, I haven't adopted these cactus plants!  I see their owner lovingly taking care of her sobbayr oasis, but when I decided to take pictures and write about it, I stopped seeing her. Although I rang the bell of her villa several times, it must have always been when she was out.

Join me for a walk around this cactus garden, and if you haven't tried the fruit, please do... This week's Haiku is dedicated to sobbayr:

Take a walk with me,

Sometimes rough, often sweet... in

A cactus garden

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

"I have a dream"

My first bicycle
I don't know what dreams I have in my sleep. I rarely wake up remembering any. But it is my daydreams that keep me going. Daydreams have the power in them to turn real. You just need to crave for them eagerly and recognize the signals when they come knocking.

My first memories of daydreaming are from Baghdad, when between the ages of four and six my fantasy was to be a blonde and be surrounded by all things yellow. My clothes had to be yellow, I loved sunflowers and I had a few yellow raffia wigs that I wore all the time, except to school. But my hair didn't turn blond and the clothes got smaller, so that daydream evaporated gradually.

I was then going to become an Olympic swimmer and springboard diver. That went well for a while and I still have tiny trophies to prove it, (although I don't remember in which storage box I mothballed them to show you their pictures).

Moving to Tunis, my first dream there was to cycle to school. My mom, Vicky, taught me how to ride my first bicycle. Being a bit clumsy, I kept falling off (and the scars are still there to prove it), especially as I insisted on using only one hand on the handlebars and keeping the other free to carry flowers from our garden to the teacher every morning. The flowers never arrived in good shape.

Then, to my parents’ bewilderment, the fantasies shifted. I wanted to become a nun. That didn't last for long. It developed, through choir singing, to wanting to grow to be an opera singer, a pianist (with scales sessions starting at 6 a.m.) and aspiring to be the new Joan Baez -- hence a guitar and guitar lessons...

The Tunis-La Marsa TGM I'd catch on Saturdays
I'm sure I've forgotten a myriad of daydreams in between, but the next serious one was to be a journalist! Every Saturday (my dad’s off day), I would take the modest train to return home from the Lycée. At the station I would buy Le Monde with my pocket money and during the half-hour journey between Tunis and La Marsa, I'd feel full-grown reading it and envisaging myself covering all the stories therein.

Exam registration
Working towards that vision, on getting my Baccalauréat, I wanted to study Political Sciences, but my dad's aspiration was for me to follow in his footsteps and become a lawyer. So I joined the Faculté de Droit et des Sciences Politiques et Économiques at Tunis University. A year later, we were leaving Tunis and I was sent to the Sorbonne in Paris. But before the start of the new term, there were a few other daydreams to see through. One was to hear The Who performing "Tommy" live in concert in Paris and the second was to hitchhike to Nepal. I did get to see The Who, but my sister Asma intercepted the letter with the meeting arrangements for the trek to Nepal and hid it. I was very disappointed my friends had let me down and she only told me what she had done many years later. So Nepal is still a pipe dream...

Due to an assortment of circumstances, I moved to Beirut and enrolled at the Université St. Joseph (USJ), which closed its doors shortly after because of the civil war. That's when I landed my dream job as a journalist – a job I have kept ever since and that has taken me to such landmarks as Pyongyang in North Korea, the State Department in Washington D.C. and Tiananmen Square in Beijing (but that's another blog post...).
In Beijing's Tiananmen Square
During the 1975-1985 internecine strife in Lebanon, the obsession -- apart from dreaming of water, electricity, and even food supplies at one point -- was of leaving and escaping alive. So it was off to London! In retrospect, maybe I should have stayed put. But what’s the point -- better keep looking forward.

The Vastarids -- the flat in Cannes...
...and its swimming pool

When the cold weather and gray skies in much of Europe start getting to you, the daydreams revolve around the sun. So, on one wet and cold morning in August 2000, I saw a newspaper ad about a flat for sale in Cannes. It was just two lines, but the magic word was "swimming pool." I picked up the phone and a month later I was the proud owner of a flat in the South of France that I had never seen and would only visit once. That time, I was about to fulfill another dream -- of one day owning a Picasso! I was about to buy one of his signature plates from the Madoura Pottery in Vallauris. Again, Asma stepped in and got me a postcard instead (to add to my collection)!

Picasso Original 1963 Madoura Ceramic Plate
But the apartment in Cannes allowed me to get nearer to my roots in the Middle East and the Gulf, serving as a stepping-stone to realize the dream of owning a flat in Dubai. (The thing about property is that it’s always the right time to buy but it's not always the right time to sell and make money -- or at least that’s been my experience!).

Many pies in the sky keep popping up and many will remember me speaking of the "dream job" I recently applied for. Though I never heard back from them, it was fun trying.

That leaves me chasing my never-ending daydream of owning and managing a Mich Bed and Breakfast inn.

For now though, my focus is to realize “a first” at Mich Café. You will read about it of course if it comes through. So I dream on... Light bulbs keep flashing and I always hope that, sooner or later, one of them will stay switched on.