Tavern Joys

Friday night was one of those epic nights that make me happy I do what I do.

I went in search of a Turkish Cypriot meyhane, a sort of tavern restaurant, that I’d read about. As always, I got lost, but this time I stumbled on the place accidentally as if on purpose. It was early for dinner and I was the only diner in the place. My waiter suggested a bottle of raki. I poured a healthy dram into the glass, added water, then ice – the proper raki preparation I learned in Istanbul on my honeymoon.

I don’t know if the place had a menu, but I was never offered one. The dishes just started appearing: Chunky hummus with smoked paprika. Almonds. Fava beans, both marinated and pureed. Thin slices of salty beef pasturma. Yogurt tzatziki. Pickled celery. Fatty dried lamb. Three kinds of cheese. They arrived rapidly, and as the raki began to dull my mathematics I started to lose count. I do remember that grilled quail was my main course and fresh watermelon was for dessert.

By the time my coffee arrived, a group of men had collected at a table with the owner. They brought over some strawberries for me to try. Then some fresh almonds in green fuzzy jackets. Then they refilled my raki. Then they just decided that I might as well join them.

The raki kept coming, and we all watched a Turkish Superleague soccer game on the television. Afterwards I excused myself to leave, but the men refused. They said I could not go until I’d tried the macaroni that the chef was preparing. This did not sound so exciting, especially for someone of Italian descent. One man must have read my unimpressed face because he said. “This place is famous for its macaroni. It is not cooked in water.”

This was intriguing. “What is it cooked in?”

“Grouse stock.”

I returned to my seat.

Someone filled my raki again. And again. Then a woman joined us. One of the men who was deaf – and perhaps mentally ‘slow’ – had a crush on her and gave her a pink scented candle with Valentine hearts glitter-glued all over it. She was gracious, but not seduced. (She was also, according to one man, a fascist.) Another two men arrived: one a Turkish Cypriot journalist, the other a young man from Abkhazia who played soccer for a local team and only spoke Russian. The grouse macaroni, when it arrived, was dressed with shredded cheese and dried mint, and was rich like no other pasta I’ve ever had.

It was two in the morning by the time I left the restaurant. Someone drove me back to my hotel, but I don’t remember who. Maybe it was the waiter. I do remember that the owner would not accept any money from me. He just kissed my cheeks and walked me to the door.

A real writer would have take the opportunity to get some ‘work’ done. He would have asked the men about the Turkish Cypriot problem, found out if they’d ever crossed to the other side, and scribbled down their comments in his notebook. I didn’t do any of this. My notebook never left my pocket. Someday I might regret this, but sometimes, I think, you just have to surrender.

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