Since any idiot can compile a traditional “Best of 2011” list (see below), I’ve decided to take the road less traveled and recount a few occasions over the last year that were of personal import to me. In a year that featured, amongst other things, the completion of a masters in community something or other and the acquisition of my first driver’s license, these moments occupy distinct emotional territory primarily because they were shared with people whom I cherish. And so, without further ado, here they are:
I had the privilege of hosting two teenage Canadian boys at my home in Israel at the beginning of their post high school “college-be-damned-for-now” tour of the world. The Canadians in question were and, in fact, still are Bryn and Jackson. Prior to arriving at Ben Gurion airport in Israel, they had spent a few days in London roughing it at some sort of hostel. I could tell they were properly in the nomadic mindset when one of the first questions Bryn asked me when he saw me was “Do you have a shower?” The next weeks were spent touring around Israel, eating far too much pita bread, and participating in other cultural rites like watching episodes of The (British) Office, Extras, and Curb Your Enthusiasm.
One weekend, we traveled by bus and then hitchhiked to the north of Israel. After deciding to hike our way down to the Sea one Sunday afternoon, the boys and I proceeded to…um…hike our way down. Charting our own course through various patches of vegetation (which, incidentally, probably involved no small amount of trespassing), we eventually stumbled upon a flock of sheep and a shepherd. Though the shepherd’s name was not Moses and though he hadn’t recently seen any sort of burning bush, it was still quite biblical an experience, what with all this materializing on the hills of the Galilee. And so we did what any normal person would do under the circumstances. We hung out with the shepherd, a weathered 70 year old Arab man from Jaffa, and I put my broken Hebrew to use whilst the boys inadvertently scared the sheep away after trying to feed them grass.
Having first met Nick and Naomi (aka Nomes) at a Russian restaurant in Hong Kong where we donned fur coats and took pictures in a freezer room whilst drinking shots of vodka, I should have known they’d be nothing but trouble for years to come. This past Easter, I met Nick and Nomes in Istanbul (my favorite city in the world thus far) for a few days before the three of us traveled to Israel for a week of r&r. Though the many minarets and mosques which decorate Istanbul’s landscape are a sight to behold, and while there are a innumerable cultural spectacles such as The Blue Mosque and The Ayasofia to take in, the fact that none of these things have edible components is a serious drawback. Luckily, a Turkish friend remedied the situation by introducing me to an exquisite baklava shop – Karaköy Güllüoğlu – and after rendez-vous’ing with Nick and Nomes in Sultanahmet, we decided to make a beeline for the baklava.
Situated a few minutes from the Bosphorous in an area called Karaköy, Karaköy Güllüoğlu opened its doors in 1949 and was Istanbul’s first baklava shop. When the three of us arrived, we perused the varieties of baklava before settling on some of the traditional classics including baklava with pistachios and baklava with walnuts. And there, sitting together on elevated seats around a small table, we feasted on the best baklava in the world, in the best city in the world. It was a Kodak Karaköy moment. Strangely, when we asked the owners where the freezer room was and when we could expect the fur coats, they hurriedly escorted us outside the premises.
Less Talk, More Rock
There’s an adventurous being somewhere inside me and every so often he makes a cameo to get higher viewer ratings. I foolishly asked my friend John to be the best man at my wedding, and there was no shortage of drama when he dressed me in drag for my bachelor’s party and paraded me along the Tel Aviv promenade whilst my “friends” laughed their nether regions off. For reasons which defy the rules of logic, I was thrilled when he told me he was coming to visit us in Israel earlier this year. On the way home from the airport, the two of us were discussing possible hijinks and Petra came up. And so, right there and then, we decided that in the next few days we would drive nearly four hours south, cross the border to Jordan, and somehow make our way to Petra. Not bad, eh?
It would have been sensible to reserve a room somewhere in Jordan or to at least google possibilities for accommodation. However, the adventurous being inside me said “nah” to these sensibilities and more importantly, managed to convince the cautious being inside John that reservations and googling were “lame.” We weren’t even entirely sure where the border crossing was but thankfully the prominent road signs helped. As a holder of an Indian passport, I have the great fortune of having to get a visa for every country I visit, prior to arrival. Jordan was different. They welcomed Indians and all of us could happily get a visa on arrival, like we were all Gandhi or something (though he probably had visa troubles too). After the Jordan border security man stamped John’s (Canadian) passport, he looked at me and said “Sorry, you can’t enter.” The adventurous being inside me rose up and said in no uncertain terms “But I checked a website.” I was getting fed up with the advice of this being and was considering permanently retiring him from his career. At this point, the security man said “Just kidding” and proceeded to stamp my passport. I don’t know if part of the job description for a Jordanian border security post includes amateur skills in comedy, but I didn’t dare dilly dally long enough to make a thorough inquiry.
John and I eventually arrived in Aqaba and overheard some people talking about a cheap hotel called “Al Khouli.” We soon found out that “cheap” not only referred to price, but to the overall decor and furnishings of the place. Particular highlights included empty bottles of alcohol in the drawers, a shower which had lost the ability to drain water, and a toilet seat which was placed conveniently beside the toilet. Undaunted, John and I roamed the lazy streets of Aqaba, enjoyed an excellent Jordanian meal, and then decided (once more on the impulsive advice of you know who) to go snorkeling in The Red Sea. It was all fun and games, but we had come to see Petra and so the next day, we hired a taxi and were entertained by a driver whose favorite phrase was “Welcome, Mr. Suhail.”
As we walked through the sandstone caverns of Petra, I was replaying images that I had from Indiana Jones and thinking that surely what I was about to see couldn’t be that amazing. And then suddenly, it appears. Al Khazneh or “The Treasury” confronts you when you least expect and its façade, hewn directly into a massive sandstone cliff, is absolutely awesome. So awesome in fact that I literally stood gaping at it with my mouth open like a fool. It was at that moment that I decided to sign a permanent contract with the starlet inside me, with the proviso that I’d never have to do drag again.
I’m a sucker for people who get excited about stuff. Greta and Zach showed immense promise as the addendum to a great many of their sentences often featured the phrase “It’s the best ever.” I had the privilege of living across the street from them this summer when visiting Richmond. And as is customary, the subject of great pies came up in casual conversation. “We know this place called Ipanema – it’s a vegan restaurant with amazing pies. It’s the best ever,” they said. As soon as the word “pie” was mentioned, I was already game for the excursion. The last four words made the entire thing a matter of responsibility. There was no way I was going to do any sort of disservice to a pie with so preeminent a status. We piled into the car one evening and headed over to Ipanema Cafe. The place has a very down to earth and indie vibe, which I loved. We each ordered a slice of the mixed berry cobbler with a scoop of vanilla ice cream and I tried to maintain polite conversation while we waited for the goods to arrive. When our orders finally arrived, I took a bite and there it was – that moment of pure existential clarity. So this is what pie was created for. I was so very tempted to order another slice, but since everyone seemed satisfied with their one slice, I played it cool and said “Oh yeah, I’m totally stuffed.” But mark my words Ipanema, I shall return. And as for your pie, Greta and Zach were right.
The Man in Black
In university, I had a professor who often spoke of devotional cinema – think Ozu or Bresson – and of the holy moment. Such a moment occurs when you find a mysterious joie de vivre and dare I say holiness in the mundane. Although I can’t fully articulate what this looks like, I suppose it feels like hope; you’ll know what I mean if you’ve experienced it.
Once at home, I watched a trailer for the Coen brothers film True Grit, and what struck me most was the song that accompanied it. The song featured a gruff voice singing “God’s gonna cut you down.” Being the ignoramus that I am, I had no idea that the voice belonged to one Johnny Cash. Truth be told, I didn’t even know much of his music. Thanks to the Coen brothers, I started reading about Cash and about the series of Rick Rubin-produced American Recordings. After hearing a few songs and being struck deeply by the soul and power of these sparse recordings (often featuring Cash’s voice and guitar alone), I bought American V: A Hundred Highways. “God’s gonna cut you down” is the second song on the album.
That evening, I sat on the couch in my lamp-lit living room and listened to the album from start to finish while Johnny sang his heart out to me. In more ways than one, American V proved to be a soundtrack for me over the last year. But that night, when I listened to music “in the old highway of love,” the house was filled with hope.
Best Films (That I Watched for the First Time in) 2011
01. Of Gods and Men
02. Seven Chances
03. Get Low
04. The Wrestler
05. The Burning Plain
06. The King’s Speech
07. Tree of Life
08. Inside Job
10. Blue Valentine
Best Albums (That I Bought in Non-Digital Format in) 2011
01. The Beach Boys “Pet Sounds”
02. Fleet Foxes “Helplessness Blues”
03. The Antlers “Burst Apart”
04. Bon Iver “Bon Iver”
05. M83 “Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming”
06. Real Estate “Days”
07. Glasser “Ring”
08. Kate Bush “50 Words for Snow”
09. Deerhunter “Microcastle/Weird Era Cont.”
10. Johnny Cash “American V: A Hundred Highways”