In to the Steppe

Tea cups have replaced pialas in many Kazkah households. A consequence of Sovietification. But the tradition of drinking tea is steeped well and deep. After breakfast. Before dinner. Some times an extensive affair with zhent (a millet flour sweet made in Karaganda region), halva and Tashkent melon. On occasion a passing interaction with a stranger – like the early morning in Otrar we shared a tea with our taxi driver. It was a tea shop equivalent of a drive through – a small kiosk serving only lepyoshki and tea from greasy pots. The brew was weak. S., my friend, said it was not something that would be served in her mother’s house. But it’s hardly about the tea. It’s always about the story. The driver was a bulky man with a thick neck and a buzz cut. He spoke to S in Kazakh as most people in the south do, and told me in Russian that he had a cousin who had married a Latvian woman. Mostly he just gulped the scolding hot tea and tore at the lepyoshka with his fat fingers. A pleasant morning was dawning as the aroma of freshly frying dough hung in the air and our driver rattled on in sweet curls periodically pierced by sharp consonants.

We had been traveling for over seventeen hours by train from Almaty to Turkistan. It was hot and the intertwining smells of pancakes, dumplings and sweat were pulsating through out the train car. With the windows cracked, blue curtains waving, warm gusts of steppe air come rushing in for a brief moment of reprieve. To the South, separated only by a low range of mountains, is Kyrgyzstan. To the north – the infinite flatness of the steppe. It waves and sprawls in many shades of beige, at times interrupted by a thin line of water or an odd patch of grass or tuft of dull green brush. The landscape is constant. And then when you least expect it, as if a mirage in the desert, emerges an early dusk light show in the form of a power plant. Seemingly isolated, with no city or village to power, it hums in the dusty ether of the steppe as if under a shroud of secrecy.

DSC_1032

The steppe

DSC_1046
DSC_1056

blue curtains

DSC_1066

grain processing plan somewhere on the steppe

DSC_1067
DSC_1088

train at dusk

DSC_1104

rising dust

When we did pass by a town or a village, the platform was thick with middle aged women selling manti and plov out of baby carriages and young men with wheelbarrows carting around watermelons. The train economy is vibrant. It is not constrained to the stops. Wide girthed women in colorful floral prints parade up and down the narrow train corridors with heavy heaps of robes and dresses in their arms peeking into compartments in search of women in need of retail therapy. They are not the sweet and smiling Samarkand dry fruit shop keepers. Although not offensive, their manner is abrasive and straightforward. You are either buying or you are in their way.

DSC_1073

goodies for sale

DSC_1076
DSC_1080

active train economy – sale of dresses and robes

It was still dark when we arrived in Turkistan. A gaggle of young girls in unusually high spirits for such an early morning trotted off the train along with us. We asked if they would be interested in splitting a taxi to Otrar. They kindly refused, but it wasn’t long before we found our driver and were on our way.

As we left the town behind us, the bright red ball of the sun erupted over the steppe, infusing the cracked earth with a rose hue. The road was impressively good for such a far off place. S. made the comment to the driver. He noted that the president had come to Turkistan a few years ago. The road was fixed for his reception. For miles there were no signs of human life -just this well maintained road and heards of horses and flocks of sheep stood as symbols of human civilizations.

DSC_1114

sunrise over the steppe

DSC_1122

Before going to Otrar the driver took us to the mausoleum of Arystan Bab a religious mystic and according to legend, the recipient of Mohammed’s persimmons. S. and I covered our heads and took off our shoes. Inside we were greeted by a holy man of sorts who led us in prayer and looked dismayed when we failed to produced even a pittance of a donation, as we had left our money in the car. It was the mausoleum that followed that brought a mystical feeling of calm. Dedicated to a relative unknown and with a façade of a hastily built soviet era shed it was nothing to look at from the outside. Inside, the floors were covered in green carpets and like in the last place, a holy man kneeled by the side of the tomb. Again we stooped and raised our palms upwards. Tilting my gaze to the ceiling I found the mausoleum’s primary residents – a pair of tiny birds one quietly perched in a recess of the domed ceiling and the second restlessly spinning in circles. While the two creatures danced, the early morning light streamed in and the holy man’s heavily accented Arabic prayer flooded the room, a beautiful peace saturated the air. For an ephemeral moment we were frozen in the desolate steppe, on the edge of an extinct city, in a structure of a bygone era, forgotten by the world.

DSC_1127

mausoleum of Arystan Bab

Archeological excavations in Otrar had begun in Soviet times. And although some signs of a former metropolis have begun to emerge, to this day it is not fully uncovered. Otrar, once a prosperous city on the Silk Road and home to the famed Eastern philosopher Abu-Nasr Al Farabi, was the beginning of the Genghis Khan invasion of Central Asia. With its defensive walls destroyed (along with the rest of the city) in the 13th century, unprotected and unprepared for visitors, the city lays elevated on a slight mound. There is little that boast of the town’s former glories, or current significance, but an old sign back from 1962.

DSC_1144

Otrar archeological findings

DSC_1148

Otrar

We return to Turkistan for the primary reason of the pilgrimage – the mausoleum of Khoja Ahmed Yasawi, a Turkic poet and Sufi mystic. Sitting behind a lush rose garden, a deceivingly simple front entrance leads the way to uncover a proto-Gaudian honey comb ceiling. The inside is full of small rooms of various functions – prayer chambers, libraries, writing rooms. The real mesmerizing prints are left for the back of the exterior. Here a coral green fluted dome peeks over the varied shades of blue mosaics while a larger pale blue dome sits imposingly at the very center, its grandeur only slightly rained in by wooden scaffolding. The structure’s beauty is modest, subdued, imperfect. To look at in in whole, from far away, one is left lukewarm, but to get acquainted with its parts, the pieces hiding in the shadows, one is warmed and satiated.

DSC_1171

mausoleum of Khoja Ahmed Yasawi

DSC_1186

inside mausoleum of Khoja Ahmed Yasawi

DSC_1178 DSC_1203
DSC_1207

beautiful mosaics of Khoja Ahmed Yasawi mausoleum

DSC_1210

It is now past midday and the heat is overwhelming. Walking down the street we are coughing in the dust and wishing for a speedy return to the train station.

The train ride back seems shorter. Our roommates this time are two middle aged women from Shymkent, who openly scold us for speaking in Russian rather than in Kazakh. The air seems cooler.

Back in Almaty we sit for the last tea. S. and her sisters have left – running after their children, dipping out of the house to run errands. I’m alone with their mother. Until now we had said only the most necessary formalities to each other. Welcome. Thank you for dinner. Feel at home. But now with three or four cups behind us she tells me about the letters her late husband while they were still dating. He had always begun with another man’s words – those of the Kazakh poet Abay or that other wordsmith – Marx. She had saved them all. She laughed at the thought of her own frivolous responses. The sprightly words of a young girl. She tells me that her mother had made a promise to his dying mum that she would take care of her son-in-law to be. She said she didn’t know this until he had passed away. For years she didn’t understand why her mother at times of marital discord, would defend her husband rather than her own flesh and blood. She is a happy woman to have those letters. She is a happy woman to have her mother’s promise. I am lucky to have shared in her tea.

Advertisements

Kyiv Spring

I was told that it has been snowing religiously every Sunday. And so this Palm Sunday (or Pussy Willow Sunday, as its known around here) was no different. Around four in the evening thick gobs of wet snow fell from the gray sky.

Since the time I left at the end of a hot and reckless summer, Ukraine settled in to cold and rigid schedule of recession. In August, as the sun beat down hard, the fields were thick with sunflowers, Yanukovich’s loot was safely rounded up at the National Art Gallery and one dollar cost about 13 hryvnia, it seemed like trouble was still miles away.

IMG_2289

Young mother pushing stroller under the warm summer sun at the Soviet era Kyiv Expo Center

IMG_2251

sunflower fields

IMG_2363

Yanukovich portraits taken from his home palatial home in Mezhygoria

IMG_2334

Yanukovich gaudy time pieces displayed at the Ukrainian National Gallery of Art in August

 

Now the reality is closing shops and bankrupt banks, increase in crime and lawlessness, cuts in pensions and social benefits, dying soldiers and homeless refugees. The Ukrainian economy is project to shrink close to 8% in 2015. The $17.5 billion IMF bailout has stalled under a slew of conditions. Support from the West has been meager and slow to come. In fact China may put the West to shame with a proposed project of a $15 billion loan to build social housing (surely with bargain basement pricing and trade mark quality) that would almost match the IMF’s offer (http://www.jamestown.org/programs/edm/single/?tx_ttnews%5Btt_news%5D=43740&cHash=e6cb2fd34b5fe5b45207046561df1ce2#.VSRdVVqR9UQ).

image-25

closed men’s wear shop in the background

image-24

one of the bankrupt banks

The new government has been trying, but in the eyes of many, especially those suffering hardest, failing. Fresh faces and new ideas have brought some hope. As a means to overcome corruption by appointing minister with out local connections, the government has three foreigners with a Lithuanian as minister of economy Georgian as minister of health and an American as minister of minister (http://businessweekme.com/Bloomberg/newsmid/190/newsid/520#cnttop). Other new ideas such as supplementing government official salaries with donor aid money to make bribe taking less attractive are growing. But old habits are dying hard. Poroshenko before coming in to office promised to sell his chocolate empire – Roshen. Although he has now been booted off of the Ukrainian Forbes 100 Richest List (perhaps in part because of the disruptions of the Roshen Russia operations: http://www.rferl.org/content/ukraine-russia-roshen-factory-surrounded-poroshenko/26932003.html), he has not sold his share in the company.

And all of this hangs heavily against the semi-frozen battle in the East. Although after the February ceasefire and the fight for Debaltseva, media has been relatively quiet, low-intensity fire is exchanged on a regular basis. Rumors of the next round are thick.

Speaking to friends and acquaintances, I perceived a mixed sense of trepidation and hope. For some it’s manageable. For others skepticism is the only way to protect one self.

Spring has been slow to come to Ukraine. For the old ladies selling Palm Sunday Pussy Willows for 10 hryvnia ($0.43) near the steps of St. Volodymyr’s Cathedral, Ukraine’s political and economic resurrection must seem like a miracle of biblical proportions. For now, let’s pray for thaw.

IMG_3080

pussy willows on sale near Volodymyrsk’s Cathedral on Palm Sunday

image-23

pussy willows being blessed in Volodymyrsk’s Cathedral

A non sequitur

A homecoming of sorts – after more than a year away, a visit to the US.

A quick pit stop in New York before getting down south for a real juicy, fat dripping, artery clogging, slice of Americana.

New York is just a quick cab, pardon me, – creatively over priced – Uber, ride. As all the latest fads (and true originals) whizz around you – all you need to do is open your mouth and your wallet. Of course there are undeniable classic and priceless moments – a night stroll through Washington Square in the light fog of gently burning marijuana leaves, mazing through the domino and mahjong ant hill that is Columbus Park…

But all of that is just an otherworldly experience when compared to the rest of the country.

We are talking MEGA Church Country!

We are talking Next Level Church Country! No, seriously, Next Level Church is a real place and one of it’s core philosophy’s, as the experience director in an introductory video on their website explains, is to bring your coffee and doughnuts in to their auditoriums, where you can be move by God just as powerfully by video teachings as by in person services (http://nextlevelchurch.com/whattoexpect). But nothing can match the electric – reality TV/game show atmosphere that you can have for “Your Big Day” of a baptism: as hundreds of parishioners watch clapping, singing, praying – you get dunked in a massive kiddie pool – and the pastor coming via a live video feed (perhaps while administering another baptism somewhere else?) – cheers you on! (http://nextlevelchurch.com/baptismvideosplantation) Oh what a cool moment!

And once you’ve had your helping of sugary carbs and holy water rides, you can move on to a feast of blatant display of political affiliations. Like at the office of an unnamed dermatologist – who has created a framed display of thank you letters from Republican senators and governors thanking her for her contributions. I assume these are monetary contributions and not ones to society for removing age spots and warts?

Oh America… how I’ve missed your fervently commercialized and politically laced dogmatism!!! Until next time!!!

P.S. And nobody punctures the sordid ether with moments of poetic clarity like America…https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VUD0mXUZeyA

Afterthoughts on Women’s Day

 

Image

Women’s Day Eve: men lined up to buy flowers

Although, the actual day is March 8th, today many countries in the post-Soviet space are enjoying a day off to celebrate International Women’s Day. The Soviet Union adapted the day for their own purposes, following the October Revolution, and later in 1965 made it an official holiday to commemorate women’s contribution to communism. The traditions and celebrations have undoubtedly changed through out the years, especially since the fall of the Soviet Union, but the basic ritual of ‘flowers for women’ remains. The sentiment behind it? Up for debate.

In Ukraine, Women’s Day finds it self at an interesting political cross roads this year. Many people, especially from Western Ukraine see it as a Soviet vestige they would love to do away with and giving more of a spot light to Mother’s day. In fact some cities and communities this year have agreed to put aside any money intended for flowers or candy and instead contribute to a fund that will support families affected by the recent events in EuroMaidan.

On a personal note, Friday, at work, there was a formal celebration which included wine, champagne, pies, flowers…most importantly men toasting to our beauty, youth and how our presence makes them better men. Now I personally don’t have any problems with free food and booze…but I do kind of get annoyed when patronized. Rather than toasting our intelligence, achievements and abilities we were admired for all our fleeting qualities.

On the one hand I couldn’t believe that anyone would find such male pandering acceptable. But then on the other hand I spent the weekend with my friend M. who was visiting from Odessa, listening to her thoughts on womanhood. I should proceed with the fact that M. is one of the most independent, brave and adventurous people that I know – she has travelled across America by motorcycle with a stranger, worked in Alaska gutting salmon, climbed the Ural mountains…just to mention a few of her feats. And at age 26 still doesn’t have a boyfriend, never mind a husband, which is a true rarity in Ukraine. 

But when asked about what it means to be a woman with out a pause she introduced the binary argument that she is nothing with out a man. That despite her being capable of doing things on her own, she wanted the comfort of knowing that there was a big strong man that could do it for her. I tried to understand her point of view as best I could, but would always come back to the same conclusion – but if that was the thought of every woman, wouldn’t then men be really getting the short end of the stick? Knowing that they are not necessarily valued and needed as human beings, as equal partners and friends, but rather as tools to do things for women?

My mind preoccupied with the distressing thoughts of the fate of men and the fate of Women’s Day in Ukraine, I finished off March 8th by fixing the hinge of the kitchen cabinet door. No man necessary.  

Domestic Abuse and Home Invasion

Image

Ukraine finally managed to kick out the authoritarian husband who had been stealing, cheating and slapping her around for years. The golden haired maiden came to find out he had been keeping secret a gilded mansion and rather than spending money on her, he was lavishing several mistresses – Switzerland, Austria…you know, sophisticated European ladies.  Good riddance!

But she didn’t get much of a break from domestic abuse, before getting a nasty knock from the brute upstairs neighbor.  He weaseled his way in to her place, unnoticed, through the back door. He said he wants to protect her, to stick around until her situation “normalizes”.  And now he’s occupied her balcony – smoking, flexing his muscles, show off his arms, drinking and inviting a few thousand of his closest friends.  He tells her the kids like him, as they cower in the corner mortified. 

And now the neighbors down the road have noticed all the trouble Ukraine has gotten in. And they scream and they shout at the brute to leave her alone, but little does Ukraine know that those screams are but feigned emotion. For these are the cries of the courtesans of the brute, same loose moral ladies of the night which have been spoiled by the ex. They have long grown addicted to the riches bestowed to them by the rugged men on the East, and they are not willing to risk losing it all.

 As the brute tightens his grip…Ukraine lays her fallen children to rest. 

Image

flowers on KreshchatikImage

Image

flowers on Grushevsgovo

Image

trail of flowers on Institutska street

Image

barricade of flowers on Institutska

Image

flags of support

Image

art for peace

 

 

The Day After Or The Eye of the Storm

After an uneasy, yet relatively peaceful night, Kyiv awoke to a spring like morning. The sun emerged from the haze and one could hear birds chirping on the live broadcast from Maidan from which I have not been able to tare myself away for the past three days.

As the people on Maidan were slowly waking for their shift or drifting off to sleep after a long night of uncertainty, news was slowly starting to trickle. The negotiations among EU representatives, Yanukovich and the opposition were ending. At first there was no conclusion. Then there was.  List of demands for Yanukovich were increasing through out the day.  The constitution of 2004, returning parliamentary government and decreasing presidential power, was restored. Many of the president’s ministers were dismissed. Law providing for Tymoshenko to be released passed. One key element is missing – impeachment of Yanukovich.

By early evening, as the people of Maidan were cleaning up the battle scene, bringing in supplies for the survivors, paying their last respects to the fallen and continuing a cautious watch over the barricades for a possible return of Berkut, there was a sense that a restless ether was settling over the crowd.  The leaders of the opposition came back with their heads hung low and their hands still warm with Yanukovich’s handshake. Was a battle so hard and protracted, with so many lives lost, fought for nothing? Was the joker king, the puppet of Moscow, the thief of the country’s chests and souls, not going to be dethroned? Ukraine waits with bated breath for tomorrow’s dawn with hope it will bring justice and peace.

Clean up begins

Clean up begins

Cossack drum of war still beats

Cossack drum of war still beats

Myhailovsky Sabor turned field hospital

Myhailovsky Sabor turned field hospital

donated blankets at Myhailovsky

donated blankets at Myhailovsky

flowers for the fallen

flowers for the fallen

weapons used against Maidan

weapons used against Maidan

keeping watch over the barricades on Grushevskogo street

keeping watch over the barricades on Grushevskogo street

weapons of war soon to be replaced by tools of clean up

people of Maidan are extremely clean and organized

people of Maidan are extremely clean and organized

bullet hit a beam of restaurant near by

bullet hit a beam of restaurant near by

new barricades erected over night

new barricades erected over night

brooms of Maidan

brooms of Maidan

Maidan at the hour of Rada vote on 2004 constitution

Maidan at the hour of Rada vote on 2004 constitution

Maidan

Maidan

Yesterday and Today in Kyiv, Ukraine

Yesterday protests spilled out from Maidan to the main streets of Kyiv.  When the Party of Region’s (Yanukovich’s party) refused to vote on returning the constitution to 2004 standards (minimizing the president’s powers) in addition to the imminent disbursal of the second tranche of Russia’s loan, demonstrators marched towards Verhovnaya Rada (parliament building). Protesters met with Berkut (special police) in Mariinski Park (sandwiched in between Arsenalna Metro and Rada). The demonstrators – Pravy Sector (right wing group), students, old men and women, quickly mobilized to erect barricades.  Rada was left untouched, but Party of Region’s head quarters were set on fire among other things.

All pictures below taken February 18, around 1pm

Image

random act of violence – unidentified culprit

Image

blood on the street

Image

Mariinksi Park: men carrying bench for barricades

Image

Molotov in hand

Image

Mariinksi Park: Fire in No Man’s Land

Image

Mariinksi Park: Berkut/Party of Regions/Titushki front line

Fighting continued in to the night with threats from the government of a ‘clean up’ if the protestors would not leave on their own.  The protestors were forced to retreat to Maidan. Overnight the Professional Union Building (on the corner of Maidan) was set on fire. Sound grenades and fireworks  were heard far from the center. Twenty five lives were lost.

Currently the stand-off is on Maidan, with only a few meters between the protesters and Berkut. Black smoke billows from the ProfUnion building and occasional Molotov cocktails. People of Kiev and from surrounding areas (as well as far away areas, like L’viv, that can make it in to the city) are coming in droves – their hands full of food, medicine and water. Others are carrying supplies for the arsenal – tires, gas tanks and rocks. The old and the young are hard at work dismantling the brick pavement – used as weapons as well as barricades.

All pictures below taken February 19 around 3pm:

Image

Maidan: ProfUnion Building still smoking

Image

Maidan: filling the arsenal – tires, bricks

Image

medical supplies

Image

bricks neatly stacked and ready to go

Image

people coming with supplies

Image

they are coming!

Image

united at work, no union necessary

Image

As night falls, the threat of violence increases as the government tends to attack at night. Another sleepless night awaits the people of Ukraine.

New Normal

On weekends Kreshchatik always had a carnival feel to it.  The street used to be closed for car traffic on Sundays and it would fill with street performers of all sorts – teenage break dancers, musicians playing old timey Soviet music, people wondering around dressed in odd animal costumes (often falling out of character to take a cigarette break).

Image

Dragon taking a cigarette break

Now every Sunday at noon Ukrainians meet on Maidan for a prayer, the national anthem and another day of protest.  People gather from all parts of the city and country and mill around collecting pamphlets and stickers, on occasion stopping to listen to the speeches or examine the newly discovered artifacts – bullets and other weapons used against protestors – already organized, labeled and placed in a glass covered case, perhaps receiving better treatment than some museum pieces.  Of course the big point of attraction is a side street Grushevskogo, the scene of the most recent violent riots. Walking down the soot and mud laden Grushevskogo Street, looking around the still smoldering battlefront, it is hard to believe how far we have come from the care free days of summer.

Image

Maidan artifacts – bullets used against protestors

Image

Grushevskogo street battle front

Image

clothes drive for Maidan

Image

battle relics of Grushevskogo

 

And now to add to our winter blues, we are worried sick about the economy. After watching the heart-stopping fall of the hryvnia against the dollar, everyone took a quick breath when the Central Bank introduced currency controls last Friday.  The Central Bank restricted foreign currency purchases by individuals and banned  buying FX to invest outside of the country or repay foreign debts early. In addition the bank has imposed a six-day waiting period on anyone purchasing foreign currency. This brought back the hryvnia  from last Friday’s low of UAH8.82/$ to a high of UAH8.52/$ on Monday. But with less than a week the market exchange rate is back to UAH8.82/$. Work days have been punctured with mad rushes to the bank to exploit this artificial and temporary strengthening of the currency. We begin to wonder if the banks, which are still reeling from the crisis of 2008, are strong enough to take another beating.  Is it safe to keep our deposits in these banks? So far we are not standing in line, but all it takes is a few loose words. After all Fitch has already started a rumor … CCC. You don’t have to be an expert on bank ratings – a C is not a good grade!

 

But despite this Valentine’s day being in the era of new normal, when you can’t buy your lover a box of Esfero chocolates, because it’s on the list of Maidan’s boycotted goods (the company which produces the good is a member of Yanukovich’s Party of Regions) and you can’t afford Rocher because imports are getting ungodly expensive, the streets are filled with completely normal images of sappiness. Young men crowding around a street flower vendor, girls in the metro on the mile long escalators putting on last dabs of make up and spritzes of perfume as they ready themselves for their dates.

Image

boycott list with Cheburashka looking over

Image

Esfero chocolates – No.1 on the boycott list!

And the best one, which melted my bitter heart – the metro supervisor girl, which sits in a glass box at the bottom of the escalator, clad in a uniform of a long blue coat with big golden buttons, head topped with a red pillbox hat, getting picked up from her post by her boyfriend, a milicioner (policeman), with a gift of a single rose and a Kyivski tort (Kiev cake http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kiev_cake) – made by Roshen and NOT on the boycott list!

Image

Kiev Cake!

 

Baptism by Ice, Water and Fire

January 19th has always been a very important day on my calendar. Mostly due to the fact that it’s my half birthday and in the past I had celebrated it with a great relish, which my real day of birth has never enjoyed.

Now the 19th will also have a few additional items listed in its Wikipedia article. For one, it was the day when Kyiv actually erupted in fire.  A small, isolated bus set on fire, but never the less – fire! The Euro Maidan protests, which had been lulled in to a holiday stupor, came back blazing, when on Friday the government hurriedly, with a quick show of hands, passed severe anti protests laws. Some of the provisions included:

-A ban on the unauthorized installation of tents, stages or amplifiers in public places

-Provision to arrest protesters wearing masks or helmets

-A ban on protests involving more than five vehicles in convoy

-Hefty fines or jail for breaches of law

So on Sunday the streets were filled with masked and helmeted protestors. Some radical fringe groups were battling with the police near the parliament building: the rioters were throwing Molotov cocktails at the police, while they were returning the attacks with rubber bullets. A bus was set on fire. Scores were injured.

In the midst of all this, there were some acts of normalcy being carried out on the banks of the Dnieper River by observers of Epiphany (Julian calendar) as they plunged in to the questionable waters of the Dnieper to commemorate Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan River.

I heard about this event just the day before from my co-worker as we were driving from a ridiculous 8am tennis game. I was falling in and out of consciousness in the back seat, along with his three children, when he mentioned that he was planning to partake in this lunacy. I laughed and wobbled back to my apartment along the slippery pavement covered with fresh snow, for two more hours of the sweetest sleep I’ve ever had.

Later that night, at a party, I saw K. She passingly mentioned she would like to participate in this icy & wet nightmare and had been preparing all year by taking cold showers.  Disappointingly she did not have the proper company to go with. I offered to come support and take pictures.  But within a few minutes in to our conversation, as if ruffied by her introspective gaze and pensive tone, I volunteered to participate along side her!

The next morning I woke up and amazingly I hadn’t changed my mind. After a half day of intensive preparation – walking around the apartment clad in only a bathing suit, beating my chest and chanting ‘mind over body’ – I was ready!

Ceremony

Ceremony

fireworks?!

fireworks?!

During the half hour of ceremonies performed by the Orthodox priests in -8 degrees Celsius weather, I was a little fearful I was going to abort the mission, but I persevered and we headed towards the river. While K. was trying to figure out the best way to approach the water and change after wards, I was undressed and ready to go. In the most ungraceful way possible – I ran in, took a quick dip up to my neck, and ran out screaming and waving my hands, as if I had just seen a three headed shark. It was bloody cold! Didn’t help that upon exiting the water, on the bank I was greeted with a carpet of ice.

Observing from a safe distance

Observing from a safe distance

yes...I kept the hat on

yes…I kept the hat on

Later as we were warming up at Katyusha’s (Ukrainian food chain restaurant) by covertly pouring Lithuanian liquor in to our teacups, I still wasn’t sure why I had done it. Some sort of half birthday, half mid-life, half-revolution crisis.

Foodie Promised Land

A few days ago, I came back from a trip to Israel – huffing and puffing, cursing at the teenagers working at the Ben Gurion International Airport (nobody seemed to be beyond age 25). After the full three hour gauntlet of misery elbowing Russian tourist while trying to stand my ground in line as they tried to sneakily pass me from all sides, being shuffled from one security line to another, I was almost starting to forget the reason that I came.  And that reason, why of course, was – FOOD!

Starved for a satisfying culinary experience where the food is not laden with salt, marinated in oil or brined in sugar, we hardly even noticed when we slipped out of sight seeing mode and left all the other parts of the country –  ancient, holy, political– behind, for we had found our foodie promised land. Mark and I spent a week in thick tahini haze, wondering the streets of Tel Aviv, Jaffa, Jerusalem and Haifa trying to find the next restaurant or café to get our Middle Eastern-Mediterranean fix. Here, like nowhere before, our taste buds were seeing fireworks and spinning in psychedelic circles as we devoured the freshest, most intriguing and yet incredibly simple and clean flavors we had tasted to date.

Image

Puaa eggplant salad

Image

humus shop in Carmel Market

Image

Carmel Market, Tel Aviv

Image

cafe in Florentin

Image

Old Man and the Sea

We left a little piece of ourselves in the pit of each lemon soaked olive we ate at the Jerusalem market. We shed a tear of joy with every bite of moist falafel we took at Falafel Haznekim in the Wadi Nisnas neighborhood in Haifa. We almost licked out the plates at Puaa, a retro styled restaurant in the middle of Jaffa’s flea market, where we drifted from a fluffy eggplant and tomato salad to a cloud of sumac infused rice and lentils with walnuts and a side of yogurt. We roared with satiated laughter at Shabbat while we ate the thick hummus and greedily liked our fingers of the remnants of juice from Jaffa oranges we got at the souq in Akko, an Arab town, in the north of the country. Like children we gorged ourselves on the sweet and moist rosewater cake we found on a late night stroll in a small baklava store in Haifa. And like addicts we came back again and again to the Old Man and the Sea on the Jaffa port. With its twenty small plates of salads, which qualify as appetizers, ranging from tahini drenched cauliflower to silken smooth hummus to lightly fermented beets and carrots drizzled with sesame oil and its unquestionably fresh seafood it satisfied our deepest culinary desires.

Image

Akko souq pomegranate juice stand

Image

Jerusalem market olive stand

Image

halva at Jerusalem market

With all this eating we had little time for much of anything else. We did manage to squeeze in the Western Wall, Dead Sea, Masada and a few other places, but those were footnotes in our grand and unabashed Tour de Food. Mostly, in between meals and when we weren’t cleansing our pallets with a strong espresso at one of the numerous hipster establishments at the gentrified neighborhoods of Florentin or Neveh Tzedek, we were busy crossing off places that we had previously ranked as good food travel – Barcelona out the window, France – one big X across the entire country, New York- not even close.  Because here unlike any other country or city which we had visited, we could go to any restaurant, café, market stall or street food vendor and leave completely satisfied, regretting only that our stomachs were too small.

When it was all said and eaten…we waddled out of the country a few pounds happier, even though I think I might have lost a few of them at the airport battling with security.  But never mind, as the last drops of honey from the baklava I brought home are quickly melting, I’m very well reminded it was worth it.