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Tuesday, 27 September 2011

Fly on the Wall

Man takes the first bottle; second, takes the man. -- Japanese saying.
East is East and West is West…
By Don Merlot
[Writers Clearinghouse News Service]
I've been experiencing food and wine in major global markets since 1968. Civilization in the west, I learned, had moved from East to West. But I've experienced the movement of food and wine (drink, really) from West to East -– from the New World to the Old World -- as I learned my cultural evolution.
Certainly every time I encountered a new culture, I found local hosts offering me the best the country could offer. Each country that had a vineyard and a spokesperson said their country had the best wine and the best food in the world. There was a feeling that food grown locally and prepared by expert cooks was undeniably the best. Each region and country had a special drink that would marry the food; and in the spirit of learning about a new culture, I was given and shared with my hosts fabulous repasts and beverages. I was perfecting the art of being a novitiate to proven experiences. On my first visit to the Middle East, I was given a multiple of diverse dishes.
I remembered rule No. 1: Spend two weeks in a foreign land and you can write a book; spend two months and you can write ten pages; and spend two years and you will become confused and cannot write anything. When I became confused by the differences in the new cultures, I knew I was becoming a good student. My visit to the Middle East was a total break from the western culture that had nurtured me. Everything was new: food and drink, thoughts and spiritual views.
Rule No. 2 was focus on the differences. On my journey to the Middle East I had fortified myself with Greek food and wine and was prepared for a sabbatical on western culinary delicacies. In Piraeus, I had done the bouzouki -- and broken many plates: consuming Rodytis, Metaxa, Ouzo, Kalamaraki, and Saganaki.... This was the cradle of Democracy, yet history had already left Middle Eastern prints in the food. I had no idea what was in store for me.
By visiting the Greece first, it was apparent that the East/West history had left its mark. I love coffee, and was told that when I ordered the local (in Athenian) coffee I should say Byzantium coffee and not Turkish coffee. So right away I had to put up and antennae that would help me remain politically correct as I crossed into the East. The one that always struck me was the English conversation that said Venetian blinds (that of Italian city state) and in Spanish Persianas (Persians blinds) are the same thing, but in Spanish they're Persian because the Turkish influence of the Moros.
By the time I arrived, the poetry of wine by Omar Khayyam is no longer cherished and long gone. On our way to Kuwait city from Athens we had two bottles of Johnny Walker Black label and would share this with Mr. Al-Rumahi and his bother-in-law in private. They were carefully wrapped in our big suit cases. Protected by clothing so they would not break upon impact with other hard items.
Our host met us as we descended from the flight, and we made a beeline around customs. Had immigration stamp out entry visas. Picked up out bags, and we were taken to a beautiful hotel where we showered and changed.
Westerners from Europe and the USA can drink alcohol in their hotel rooms, and therefore we shared a bottle with out hosts. (There were four of us). Then suddenly, we were off to a private banquet that had been prepared for us at Mr. Al-Rumahi’s home by his chef. Unlike most business banquets, this one only had two guests. Mark and I were both from the same supplier company, and both appreciative of the multi-million dollar business that we did in Kuwait with Mr. Al-Rumahi.
We entered his mansion and met his family. His wife and three daughters. No son. So poor Mr. Al-Rumahi could not use the formality of Abu ('Father of'). The meeting was quite jovial. The main living room was excellent. We were shown into a Western dining room that sat 40 people; two at ends and 19 on each side. Mr. Al-Rumahi sat at the end and we sat next to him and the other spaces remained open.
He started the dinner by saying he hoped we liked the meal; it was a Middle East feast.
The Mezze started with more small dishes I could imagine. The Lebanese Mezze is a Middle East spread; the cross roads of East and West, and in Lebanon tempered by a splash of French. Bayreuth is called the Riviera of the East. Some of these dishes are my favorites: Tabbouleh, hummus, babbaganoush, Kifte, olives, olive oil, pita, pilaf, Shish kebabs, lamb and rice, vegetables, roasted chicken, fish. As a beverage we were served apple juice and Perrier water -- better known as 'Saudi Champagne.'
This dinner had every Middle East delicacy. On our best behavior we cleaned our plates. We enjoyed the Turkish style coffee. We were quite satisfied.
As the last plate was cleared, Mr. Mr. Al-Rumahi smiled and said he had been worried that we would not like Middle Eastern food, and so he had prepared another dinner -- a European feast for us. It literally went from one end of the table to the other end. We then consumed a five-course meal that was presented to us. It was a formal English meal. Roast Beef, Yorkshire pudding, potato croquettes, vegetables, soups, salad and desserts. And Saudi Champagne. And English tea and American coffee.
We had to do this one 'for the Gipper,' and Mark and I could not move for hours.
It was afternoon prayers, and we were taken back to the hotel and left alone. It was a wonderful welcome and really warned us about expectations: Ours and the local distributors. There is no question that you have to know yourself and your customer.
Believe it or not, we were invited out to dinner that night to a very posh French restaurant. The meal was pre-planned and was quiet and quite European. We smiled and worked our way through it. Saudi Champagne was the hit.
One of the most bizarre parts of my travels was a trip from Saudi Arabia to Bahrain. It involved a 20-minute flight, and we were connecting to a flight to Dubai. We had to be at the airport at 0430 hours, and we were on a 0630 flight under the label of Gulf Air, a Saudi airline. All the crew were English. Of course, The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is dry with huge penalties for breaking the law, so we had purged any alcohol out of our suitcases before arriving. The plane was full. Saudi first class was first to board, followed by first class families. Then Saudi and Muslim men were shown economy class, followed by Saudi women and children.
We were traveling economy and were eager to get our boarding passes and passports which the airline ticket agent had taken at check-in. Eventually Americans and Europeans were allowed in to the departure lounge, and all suddenly a big whicker tray with all the passports appears and all was were thrown on to the middle of the floor. Everyone scrambled for their passport: it was chaos. Once we found our passports, we went to the ticket agent who had the boarding passes.
As I left the hall to board the plane, I noticed a continued brawl of men fighting over the passports -- workers, mainly Filipinos, Pakistanis and Sudanese. Once on the plane, we were strapped in and the attendants were dressed as Ali Babba’s harem concubines. Once the plane was locked, the plane taxied for take off. Once we were airborne, an attendant came down the aisles with a cart with stacks of six packs of beer and gave each Saudi male a six pack. By the time we landed, 20 minutes later, the six packs were empty, and the men had changed from their Saudi dress to western suits and ties.
The minute they descended from the plane the men rushed into the airport bar -– which looked like an English pub, and ordered whiskey by the bottle. The men then made a connection on Gulf Air to London. In a period of 25 minutes the men went from one culture to another. Only those traveling on Gulf Air were involved. This was one of the most amazing events I had ever seen.

(Don Merlot is Ron Alonzo and he lives in Louisiana).