I have always wanted to be one of those people, on gliding swiftly through the sliding glass doors into some minimalist, chilly airport hall after a long flight, who find their name printed on a square of white cardboard, held up for all the world to see by some elegantly dressed professional driver. Printed, not hand-written. VIP.
No longer one of the anonymous army of world travelers shuttled through so many airports like cattle, trying to figure out strange and foreign signs and incomprehensible rules and guards, pushing our way through the long lines, glancing at our wristwatches in panic or desperately searching over heads for the nearest ladies’ room, I have always wanted to be expected, waited for, treated as if the entire city were there to welcome me.
I stepped out into the steamy heat of a Middle Eastern evening, slung one of my two heavy carry-ons over my shoulder, hoisted the other to my already bruised knee and carefully descended the steps until I reached the tarmac, slightly stunned to be standing in the Sultanate of Oman. The oddly elegant airport terminal stood illuminated and pale against the inky sky, traditional arches and domes gracing the façade creating a warm welcome. Little did I realize, but once inside the terminal, as I stood dazed amid the crowd swirling around me, pushing towards the visa and passport desks with confusion washed across their faces, as I glanced across the line of robed and turbaned men huddled at the top of the steps that yes, my name… was indeed printed on a perfectly cut square of white, the bold black shapes pressing up against each other in a futile attempt to place each and every letter of my full name on that card. Yes, I finally saw my name held up above the crowd. And there I was, a VIP.
I was immediately swept off to a luxurious private lounge where I was gently relieved of my passport and directed to a snug arrangement of armchairs and low tables, encouraged to make myself comfortable while someone else handled my entry into Oman. After watching several minutes of American Wrestlemania with Arabic subtitles – cultural paradox to the extreme - I was hurried through the cordoned off areas of passport and customs, my suitcases scooped up and loaded onto a trolley and, after being greeted by my host Cathy, I found myself settled into the back of a plush Town Car and off we glided silently into the night towards the beautiful Al Bustan Palace Hotel.
Staring wide-eyed from the car window, I watched as two, three, four McDonald’s flashed by, their golden arches brightly lit oases in the night. As we zipped down the highway and left the airport behind, more of those familiar, now-universal signs streaked by: Burger King, Subway, even the red and white barber’s pole screaming Friday’s in massive letters, one after the next. Yet as I shook my head in dismay, rather disturbed to find these oh so American icons blotting the otherwise culturally pristine landscape, suddenly the majestic dome, a gorgeous beacon ablaze under her lattice robe, and the beautiful minaret of the Grand Mosque came into sight, reminding me that this is no ordinary stretch of airport highway. Although American fast food, the graceful swirls of Arabic script ribbon across the buildings which alternate with the cool white arches, shimmering silver doorways and mosaic crowns of blues and golds aglow announce a more traditional world.
I am in Oman.
But let’s back up a couple of weeks.
After a busy, tiring, fabulous weekend in New Orleans, I flew down to Florida for a few weeks of R & R with my mom and my son. Planning on doing nothing more than crashing on the sofa in front of bad American television and seeing some old friends, little did I expect to receive an e-mail inviting me to fly to Oman and speak at an evening event of the Young Presidents’ Organization. A mere two weeks to decide, plan, rearrange my tickets and write a speech, I had little time to look into, consider, accept and acclimate to the idea that I was actually going to be in Oman and speaking to a group of non-food bloggers. Used to the ways of thinking and the ways of the world of those to whom I had previously spoken and with whom I had so often shared my passions, I had no concept of the YPO members’ expectations or mindset. I would be floating upstream without a paddle. I wrote and rewrote, all too aware that I may very well burn and crash… all the while the words just flowed out of my brain and through my fingertips: food and culture, traditions and the why’s of those traditions, how to instill a sense of cultural identity into a generation gone global, children inundated with and confused by too many cultures. Food….stories….mealtime….culture….self.
I arrived in Muscat as in a trance, stunned and awed by the invitation, the voyage and the dreamlike city blooming up from the dessert like strings of oases against a magical backdrop of mountains. After a wondrous night’s sleep and a breakfast overlooking the stunning hotel garden of palms and the infinity pool reaching out into the calm waters of the Gulf, I joined Cathy, the education chair and the day chair of the chapter YPO for lunch. Greeted by two gentlemen in traditional dress – pristine white robe with that smart tassel at the neck and a small, beautifully embroidered cap on their heads, I wondered what would I possibly have to talk about. This is where the cultural differences stood out and made me pause… can one be as casual and chatty anywhere in the world and with anyone? Well, with food and culture as a common interest and bond, the conversation went off as deliciously as the meal: these were two of the most well-traveled men I have ever met, self-proclaimed foodies and passionate about wine and travel, they were as fascinated about cooking, eating and culture as I was. After describing the Iranian menu they had selected for us to taste at lunch, they continued to explain the evolution of Omani cuisine – traditional Middle Eastern foods touched by Lebanon, India, Africa and the Far East. We went on to discuss much of what my speaking topic was all about – the gestures of cuisine and language and how we teach our children growing up in a world of cultural mish-mash and globalization. Their passion and friendliness put me at ease and I realized that maybe, just maybe my talk would indeed touch this crowd. Cathy and I ended the afternoon with a stroll through the souk and a cappuccino and a slice of cake on a hotel terrace overlooking the water, surrounded by mountains.
The following evening was my talk. The entire day was devoted to rewriting, practicing and preparing… not easy for a Nervous Nelly such as I. As much as I love speaking about topics that I am so passionate about and sharing what I have learned with others, I still get excruciatingly jittery! But the evening went off without a hitch. The group – about 45 members and spouses attended the event, their biggest turnout of any event so far – was perfect! A nicer, happier, more fun group of people I have yet to meet. They came up and introduced themselves and chattered away happily, putting me at ease and making me laugh. Such an interesting group of Omani and expats, most of mixed culture or mixed marriages themselves, we had so much in common. I spoke… not sure I conquered but I saw heads nodding in agreement along with smiles of understanding while I talked and questions followed. Many came up to me telling me that I had hit home, had given them so much to think about and explained why they unconsciously always served certain foods or connected with food the way they did. Whew… the talk over and we passed onto dinner.
The restaurant’s French chef prepared the perfect meal for an event on Food & Culture: he created a tasting menu – entrées, soup, mains and desserts – by selecting one specialty, one traditional dish from the culture of each YPO chapter group member. It was amazing, brilliant and his preparations were impeccable and so delicious. What an experience! Dinner was followed by drinks and conversation out on the terrace, the end to a wonderful evening.
The following day, Cathy took me to visit the Grand Mosque, awe-inspiring, gorgeous, regal. Ablaze in the bright sunshine and searing heat, white Indian sandstone shaped into squares and rectangles, arches opening up onto long marbled hallways surrounding peaceful, green squares of gardens. Shoes carefully tucked away into cubbyholes and scarf wrapped around our hair, we silently entered the main prayer hall stunning in what seems to be miles of cut tile in turquoise and cerulean, gold and jade, intricate floral patterns intertwining with Quranic verses. The prayer carpet, mostly covered during public visiting hours, is a masterpiece of hand-woven, hand-knotted classical tapestry and design, the second largest single piece carpet in the world. A chandelier of magnificent proportions dazzles, dripping diamonds of light and colors.
A better description comes from the Ministry of Information:
We wandered in and out and through the peaceful alleys and gardens until the heat of a Middle Eastern afternoon became more than we could bear. So, cold drinks in hand, off we zipped in Cathy’s little sports car to another beachside resort for a wonderful Omani/Lebanese lunch. A few hours later, I found myself back once more in an airport… As magnificent as was Muscat, the little that I saw and experienced, I found the Oman International airport rather typical of a third world country, bare halls and rather rudimentary security measures to say the least. And finally snuggled into my seat aboard my KLM flight, which would take me back to Amsterdam and then finally home and into the long-waiting arms of JP, I closed my eyes, breathless, still barely believing what I had just lived.
An experience like this comes but rarely – though I hope that this is far from the last – and although I wished that I had had much longer to discover this amazing country and her people, I learned so much about people in general, about how food and culture excite passion in so many and that we all have such strong emotions when it comes to our own cuisine even in our enthusiasm to discover new ones. No matter the culture, no matter our background, no matter our traditions, food brings us together, a passion so many of us share and the desire to hold onto and transmit our own culture to our children, share it with family and friends is inherent in each of us.