The Summer Tunisia was Meant to Have

imagePeople say the way to happiness is gratitude. But sometimes what stands in the way of gratitude is feeling like I don’t deserve all the good in my life. Not in a self-hatred sense but in that I just compare myself to those less fortunate. And I wonder how it is fair that equally good-hearted people are not as lucky.

Tim and I lived in London for three years and that is where we started our married life so for our wedding anniversary, we went back to England to celebrate. On our way from the beautiful Lake District, we turned on BBC radio in time to hear of a terrorist attack on tourists in Tunisia, a famous destination for Europeans. The attack was on two of the most popular beach resorts in the area. Tourists were enjoying the beautiful day on the beach in the mid-summer high season when a gunman started shooting, taking 38 lives 30 of which were British at a hotel in Sousse. This happened just three months after 21 tourists were attacked by gunmen at the Bardo National Museum in the capital city of Tunis.

There are enough accidents and illnesses that can make this world a sad place but what makes it cruel is how you could be enjoying a family vacation on the Meditarean or praying in your church in South Carolina one minute and get shot with so much hatred and lack of purpose the next. Both times so defenseless and harmless that it all seems so pointless. What does this prove?

In the taxi en route to the airport at the end of our trip, we saw a “visit Tunisia” advertisement on the push-up seat in front of us. l love to travel, especially to exotic places I have never been. I could picture Tim and I a few months prior while we lived in London seeing that ad and adding Tunisia to our bucket list of places to visit before we move back to America. Unfortunately, the number of foreign visitors to Tunisia has dropped by 20 percent following the terror attacks this summer.

I could see us being there around the time of our wedding anniversary. I could also imagine that incident happening in Lebanon, from where I am originally and to where I dream of bringing Tim every single summer, pending stability in the country.

What scares me the most is not the fear that could have been us, but it is how much I relate to all of those people laying on the beach that day. How much they must have been enjoying the sunshine on their face they’d been craving after a rainy British summer. How long they probably saved up for their annual family holiday. How delicious that pina colada must have tasted and how warm the ocean must have felt. How they probably took smiling, glowing selfies moments before that happened. How lucky they must have felt.

I have a lot for which to be thankful – I am healthy. I have a loving husband, a supportive family, great friends, financially stable with the ability to do what I love. But I guess I’ve always been afraid of the high highs and the low lows and I feel most comfortable when I’m happy but not so lucky that the luck may run out.

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Lebanon: A Country of Contradictions

imageHow to give Lebanon a voice? There is so much depth here… I don’t know which angle to take to explain it. You can look at Lebanon from the surface and call it fun. You can look at the parts destroyed by the war and call it poor. You can look at the army check points and call it scary. You can look at the scenery and call it beautiful. You can look at the people and call them generous… you can look at others and call them greedy. My biased perspective will be the one of a Christian Lebanese girl in her late twenties.

This country is a country of contradictions, where you’ll find a Christian woman in a string thong bikini next to a Muslim woman fully covered up, where you’ll find the glitz and glamour of south beach, FL next to the slums of Mumbai, India, where you’ll find a night life comparable to Ibiza, ES where the liquor flows and the beat doesn’t stop, next to a community whose religion forbids them to even drink.

It seems to me the reason the night life is so fun is because people don’t know when peace will turn into war, so they make the most noise of the quiet time they have.

I saw a mosque next to a church and concluded that Christians and Muslims were finally living jointly – the source of so much fighting in the country – but then I saw the difference between Muslim and Christian neighborhoods and I don’t think i can say that. I searched for my grandfather’s tomb, a generous man who I never met but miss dearly, and found him laying in an area of the cemetery accompanied by 4 other Christian tombs amongst 100’s of Muslim names. It dawned on me that Lebanese Christians have been the minority for many years… The only Christian group in the Middle East… And if I didn’t give my grandfather a voice, who would? In a few years, Muslim tombs would multiply even more and how could I be convinced that they wouldn’t take over his?

The Phoenicians, who are now known as Lebanese, are credited with inventing the alphabet. The people of language – who have a word for everything – seem to be silent outside of Lebanon. If you listen to a conversation in Arabic, you get the sense of the culture, one of faith and belief, where there are five different ways to say god willing. “Bookra,” or tomorrow, means anything from the next day to the next year, as if this non-committal tribute to tomorrow would ensure that there will in fact be a tomorrow. The language is so polite and beautiful that it makes me want to learn it. Since my family and I left when I was 3 months old to escape the war – I never learned how to speak it. But I understand it… Every nuance, every emotion. I just feel it. They’re passionate, expressive beings so you can get everything you need to know about a conversation by listening to the sound it makes.

On my last night here, I cried. I cried for the injustice this country has been through. I cried for the fact that it would still be my home if it wasn’t for war. I cried for those that gave me sweets to try for free even though they barely have enough to bring to their families, or the woman I watched make Man’oushe, or the cab driver who charged me whatever I wanted to pay. I cried for my family. Scared for their lives, they were ripped out of their roots, left to look for somewhere else to plant the life they once had… Most are still searching. I cried because everyone is a cousin or a best friend… And after only 10 days, I was really going to miss them. I cried for those left behind. My Mother’s uncle who became my grandfather as soon as mine passed, in whose eyes I saw how long it had been, and how long it will probably be again until we see each other. A man who gave up everything for us, and everything for his country, who has bullet holes that can be seen on the side of his building, at which he looks every morning to be reminded to be thankful for what he has. A man who will never leave his home and will sleep in his own bed every night… Shallah.
There are Muslim prayers being chanted on speakers outside his balcony. Two, three different mosques chanting louder than the other at sundown. How could something so beautiful be the cause of so much hate? I don’t think I’ll ever understand.

The man sitting across from me in the Beirut airport is talking about Kansas City. How beautifully random? I’ve moved around a lot so the likelihood of my worlds crossing is high but of all combinations that they could have crossed, this is the least likely. He is asking his Arabic friend if there are a lot of Lebanese in Kansas, and in true Middle Eastern fashion – where every question has a yes – he’s finding a way to convince him that there are. I’ve lived in Kansas City and there is Lebanese in my blood and heart but not my tongue, so can say that is not true. I’m going back now… to New York City, where you should speak fast if you have anything to say. Where you should make sure you’re factually correct before you say it. Where there is an allocated 15-minute window for everything in the day… Couldn’t be more different. Couldn’t have found a more estranged home away from home.

Wine and Dine

I must be feeling homesick because I ended up spending my only night in Milan taking a cooking class in a woman’s kitchen, which reminded me of watching my Mom (and aggressively taking notes) as she cooked Lebanese cuisine. Aurora, who used to be a chef for many years and has recently started giving private cooking lessons, runs Cook and Dine through her own home – what a treat!

The booking was a little shady so after submitting the payment of only 50 Euros, I immediately called to reserve a time slot (and to ensure it was legitimate). I was instantly comforted by the welcoming voice on the other side of the phone. The only question was wine or beer and the only rule was to arrive at 6pm as the pumpkin for the ravioli stuffing would be pre-baking in the oven.

My flight into Linate was delayed and I landed at 5:20pm. Skipping the drop off at the hotel, I went directly to her home – hand luggage, sweaty and all – to arrive promptly at 6:00. She is centrally located, conveniently only four subway stops away from Duomo.

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After buzzing the door, I entered into a quaint community of typical Italian houses with laundry hanging and neighbors chatting across their balconies. I went up the four flights of stairs (note to self: best to leave the luggage behind next time) but was then greeted by Aurora and her husband with a choice of refreshing Proseco or Iced Tea.

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The smell of baking pumpkin that filled her home and the plate of salami with crackers that awaited on the kitchen table made me wonder: Is it ok to dine before we cook? She placed a Cook and Dine apron around my neck and the intimate class of only three amateur cooks began.

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We started by making the dough for the profiteroles so they could bake while we made the rest. We then made the stuffing for the ravioli to which the baking pumpkin would be added, flavored with Mostarda (a sweet and sour apricot with cherries condiment) and lots of nutmeg. We moved on to the fun part: home-made pasta! Aurora disclosed her rule of thumb: for every 100 grams of 0.0 flour, use 1 egg. We saved a ball of dough for the gnocco fritto, which we would later fill with lard and fry.

Gnocco fritto with Parma ham

We flattened the pasta by hand with a roller and then used a machine as it is near impossible to get it down to a few centimeters by hand. We cut one rectangular piece, added a small ball of the pumpkin stuffing to fill each ravioli, used a paintbrush dipped in water to wet the corners, folded the dough over, pressed down to get rid of the air and cut it into squares.

Ravioli from Modena

We used the machine to shred the rest of the dough into spaghetti for the carbonara, which was later boiled in bacon fat with a slightly cooked egg added at the end.

Spaghetti Carbonara

Separately, we caramelized the onions and cooked cubed eggplant on a skillet. We added black and green olives, freshly chopped tomatoes and raisins (yes, you read right) to create a healthy medley of Mediterranean vegetables.

Caponata from Sicily

When we were done cooking, Aurora invited us to freshen up and go sit down at the dinner table in their living room. We were asked for our choice of red or white wine and waited anxiously for the dishes we created.

The gnocco fritto was served separately from the parma ham for us to create our own bites of goodness. The ravioli was served with sage. By the time we were served the spaghetti, we were stuffed and were taking a breather. “You eat when the pasta is ready, not when you are ready,” Aurora explained. We began eating immediately. The caponata was served as the fourth course, not as the side I would have expected it to be.

I was so full I couldn’t even fit an olive in my mouth when Aurora arrived with the desert pyramid. “You don’t always have room for desert, but you always have room for profiteroles,” she said as she placed the plate in front of us. And she was right! They were served covered with chocolate and powdered sugar but thankfully the cream filling was not too sweet.

Profiteroles

Our meal lasted well into 10:30pm and just when I was afraid we may have overstayed our welcome, Aurora appeared from the kitchen with certificates of completion rolled with a bow.

Throughout the evening, her husband took photos for us, judged the shape of the ravioli, served the wine and cleaned up after us. It appears that not only is Aurora a wonderful cook but she also seems to have created the perfect recipe for a good marriage: put him to work but wine and dine him in return.

One More Toy

I instantly felt fabulous walking the beach of Pampelonne, around the bend from St. Tropez. I could envision gazillionaires sipping Belver Bears Belvedere in a beach club. Those same gazillionaires would come in via yacht from St. Tropez and be escorted by shuttle boats from their floating mansions to the beach club.

Instead, we walked up barefoot carrying a change of clothes in a plastic bag from the Radisson Blu and went from club to club asking – in French, proudly – how much it costs to rent a beach chair. Mind you it was 3pm on a Monday in May -22 Euros per chair in the second row and 26 Euros in the first row – towels not included. We lived large and took the first row – even though no one else was there.

It quickly occurred to me that however serene and secluded, this wasn’t the type of beach you come to unprepared. I wished the onesie from Target I was wearing could suddenly turn into Chanel. But as the beach bar tender reminded us – we weren’t from there. If we were, we wouldn’t be asking the price in the first place.

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When we headed back to St. Tropez, the glitz on one side almost blinded me while the beauty on the other took my breath away. The main street is lined with yachts whose owners have paid good money to reserve space in one of the world’s most sought-after parking spots. Owners and five of their closest, best-looking, friends, stand on the back porch as their yacht pulls in. Tourists wait, point, whisper and take pictures as if watching zoo animals. We were feet away yet no one interacted with them. They were just there to look pretty.

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At the end of the main street though is where the land ends, meeting the golf of St. Tropez. There, surrounded by only water and the Citadel, I felt hints of the unassuming fishing village it was once and the charming people that occupied it.

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A town where servers, dressed as fishermen, let you pick the table, even if it is the only one not already made up for dinner. Once you’re seated , you eat moules frites and sip on rose while watching the sun fade, casting a magnificent light over the old town and its harbor.

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But once that meal is over, you’re reminded that this is now the place that draws billionaires, the place where one fellow calls his hundred million dollar yacht, “One More Toy.”

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Cannes before the Storm

There was something eery but also almost A-lister-y to be in the city of the Cannes Film Festival the week before the big event. Have you ever shown up to a party early and the hosts are trying to convince you it’s going to be a great time? I never have – shown up to anything early for that matter – but I imagine it feels loser-ish and elitist all at the same time.

We were there for the fussing, hyping and anticipation of the service industry, who were readying for the difficult requests that would come in just 10 days, such as Angelina Jolie asking for a cold glass of ice water. Given Europe serves just about any beverage at room temperature, that requires quite a bit of preparation.

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But of course this being us, it was completely unplanned. I happened to have a meeting in Nice on a Tuesday and Monday was a UK Bank Holiday so we naturally took advantage of the weekend.

We flew from London to Nice, rented a car and drove the 25 minutes to Cannes. We had imagined we would stay one night and continue on the Côte d’Azur but the Radisson Blu, where we stayed on accumulated points, welcomed our arrival, which must have been a nice distraction and somewhere to put their nervous energy. We were upgraded to ocean view and given free access to the spa, which rivaled the one at Canyon Ranch, a hard feat: http://www.canyonranch.com/miamibeach. The rock-star treatment and “Le 360 & Panoramic Rooftop Terrace,” were enough to convince us to stay three nights.

We didn’t have to look far for a beach as the one across the street was gorgeous.

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And while I couldn’t wait to check out the glitz and glam of St. Tropez, the yachts in Cannes weren’t bad either.

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Bonus: what happens when you’re all dressed up at a 5-star restaurant the week before the Cannes Film Festival? The owner stops by to ask whether she can tag a photo of you on the restaurant’s Facebook page.

“Please arrange royalties with my agent. Merci!”

Chasing Swans

Tim had to renew his visa, which meant not traveling outside of the UK until it was returned and gave us the opportunity to do just that. Our friends had recommended the Cotswolds and particularly the Old Swan & Minster Mill, an adorable English country house hotel and inn along the River Windrush that was not only pet-friendly, but considered dogs to be elite guests. Tim made driving a manual with the left hand on the other side of the road look easy and we drove the two hours from London, with a dog sleeping in the back seat.

We adopted Nutella from Vermont and two days later, drove the six-hour drive to Brooklyn while she slept sitting up on my lap with her face snuggled right below my chin. This has caused two things to occur: me to become utterly obsessed with cuddling her, and her to be an excellent car passenger. When we arrived, Nutella got a warmer welcome in the lobby than we did followed by “room service,” a full bowl of organic dog food. Even though the dog bed provided was way too small for her, she slept well knowing this was going to be the best weekend of her life.

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Meanwhile, Tim and I had dinner in the Old Swan’s living room referred to as “gastro-pub” cuisine, which was the finest food and the most quaint pub I’ve seen.The next morning, we used our spa vouchers from booking through Secret Escapes treating ourselves to aromatherapy massages followed by a breakfast buffet of locally grown produce to prepare for a choice of three hikes: a “short,” “medium” and “long” walk. We opted for the medium walk, which was a nine-mile walk from Minster Lovell through sheep fields and the town of Swinbrook to the adorable village of Burford.

As we turned left into the first field, something awoke within Nutella that neither she, nor us, knew existed: what a Labrador mixed with a German short-haired pointer is innately bred to do. Ponds lined the field causing her to lift her right leg and point her tail enough to signal where birds were hiding. The Labrador in her would emerge just in time to run toward the birds, not catching them, but scaring them enough that they would fly up.

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From field to field, we walked – surrounded by openness and fresh air. The only noise was our footsteps and the occasional gun shot of hunters. The fields were separated by intricate gates and Tim would responsibly look ahead before letting Nutella run free. Nutella is somewhat trained “off-leash” (known here in the UK as “off-lead,” which is comforting that I’m not the only one that gets led when dog-walking. When you live with a 6’6 man and want to name your dog Nutella, the dog has to be at least 60 lbs.). She won’t run away and will come back eventually but only when she feels like it or is done eating horse poop (yes, this has occurred. More than once).

There was a pond on the left that would for sure attract her attention but she was already covered in mud so a little fresh water would do us all some good. We let her go, both keeping a close eye on the pond below the small hill. A few minutes went by, enough for me to catch up, and no sign of Nutella. As we walked toward the pond, there was a sighting: about 100 sheep parting ways on the top of the hill and one most-excited-she’s-ever-been crazy black dog circling around them. “New friends!”

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Tim was worried for the sheep. I was worried for Nutella (well, not so worried that I didn’t have time to pull out my iPhone to catch this on video). Soon enough, the peacefulness of endless farmland quickly deteriorated into one tall man and a short girl sprinting with echoes of our screams across the fields of the English countryside, “Nutella!.. Nutella!.. Nutella!” I would have liked to hear the farmer’s thoughts when he came out with a shot gun: kill the dog who is threatening my sheep, my livelihood or kill the two crazy Americans in dire need of chocolate-hazelnut spread.

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We had barely caught our breath when we arrived at the next gate. Nutella couldn’t have been more proud of herself. She was dog smiling and tail wagging. If she was human, the conversation would have been high pitched with excitement. The prawn collar went around her neck – the equivalent of grounding. Tim held on to her leash as he maneuvered around a tiny gate he could barely fit into but the mud got the best of him. As he slipped, he could feel Nutella’s leash slip through his fingers. I always seem to trail behind those two.

There she sat: a beautiful swan, making her Queen proud. In England, all swans are the property of the Queen. It is a felony to harm a swan, which comes with a high fine or even imprisonment. Have you ever seen a swan try to fly? It is like a 747 preparing for take-off. Slow and steady. And in came Nutella: fast and flaky. The swan waddled into a run before  slowly raising off the ground and Nutella, running full speed ahead with her eyes laser focused above, neglected to see the drop ahead and flew into the river below. One moment you saw her. The next you didn’t. My heart stopped and I turned the video off.  Sure enough, she emerged from the river slightly startled but tail wagging. If there’s one thing she loves more than birds, it’s water!

When we reached Swinbrook, yellow flowers lured us into the town. As we approached, an old woman mumbled something to us. I laughed even though I didn’t hear what she said – I hoped it was meant to be funny. On our way out of the town, that same woman gave it another try. This time, we stopped. As she struggled to remember the name of the nearby town she was trying to recommend, I wished the  Swan Inn (what is it with swans around here?) up the road would just swallow me. All I wanted was a warm seat and a cold beer. When we finally sat down, they were done serving lunch so we put in our order – a beer for Tim and a coffee with Baileys for me. Nutella laid at our feet, seizuring with uncontrollable leg kicks which continued throughout that entire night. Enough so that I purchased data to look on WebMD pet and make sure she was going to be ok. Doctor’s orders: “You have to be your dog’s off switch. It doesn’t have that on its own.”

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The next day, we took her on the “short” walk called “The Great Cotswold Ramble” following a path known as ‘Wardens Way’ for about 2.5 miles, which goes from Upper Slaughter through Lower Slaughter and ends at Bourton-on-the-Water. We passed sheep fields again but knew better this time and kept Nutella on the leash. This was wise because these fields were littered with lambs wobbling at a few days old like Nutella did when she was just a puppy.

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Beyond the field was the small town of Lower Slaughter, a postcard village on the water where a plaque announced Prince Charles and Lady Diana visited in 1981. We had cream tea along the river while Nutella whined. She had had enough fun.

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On the ride home, Nutella dreamt of chasing swans… forever running, forever trying and never, ever giving up.

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