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Lunch in London, Dinner in Zurich, Breakfast in Jaffa

When I started this blog, I picked the name “The Road Warrior”, which according to the Oxford English Dictionary is: “a person who travels frequently as part of their job and does much work while travelling”. Yep, that’s me.

This is, however, a fairly bland explanation of what it is really like to spend a good chunk of your life living out of a suitcase. Consequently, I know quite a few frequent travellers who have created their own “metrics” in an effort to more accurately describe the essence of being a Road Warrior.

For some, their Road Warrior status is conferred by visiting more than a certain number of countries each year. For others, it means taking more than a certain number of flights each week, spending more than a certain number of days outside of their home country each year, or spending so many days outside of their home country each year that they become a tax resident of nowhere (I particularly like this last one, and without wanting to tip-off the revenue authorities, let’s just say that my place of residence for tax purposes has long since ceased to be a major concern in my life ….).

You might often hear frequent flyers say something like: “if it is Monday [or name any day of week], then this must be Shanghai [or name any city you choose]”. As best I can tell, the origin of this phrase is a 1969 film, “If it is Tuesday, this must be Belgium”, in which a group of American travellers dash through seven European countries in 18 days. Modern day Road Warriors, however, can go one step further, because the speed of travel now allows multiple countries to be visited in the same day. I recently read “Breakfast in Paris, Lunch in Rome, Dinner in London”, a book in which the author, a well-known photo-journalist, describes his life on the road, and suggests that his ultimate Road Warrior experience was to have three consecutive meals in three different countries.

Maybe it is the combination of two of my passions – food and travel – but the idea of “three meals in three countries” struck a chord with me. I began wondering whether I had ever achieved this particular form of hat-trick.

On several occasions I have left China, spent a few hours in Hong Kong, and then continued on to Singapore all in the same day, having a meal in each place. But these are hardly that different from each other; Hong Kong is technically at least still China; and the meals I had in each were pretty much the same Asian fare. So I don’t think that this really rates as three different meals in three different countries.

There have been a few occasions when, while travelling from Australia (normally dinner) to Europe (normally breakfast), I had a meal in a third country along the way. Given the timing of these ultra long-haul flights and the impact on the body clock, I’m not sure the middle meal could really be considered as lunch; and anyway, meals while transiting in an airport certainly don’t count. And once, many years ago while backpacking, I think I drove from France (breakfast) into Luxembourg (site-seeing and lunch) and then continued over into Germany (dinner), but again, this doesn’t seem to me to be an especially Road Warrior worthy achievement.

Scouring my travelling past, I realised that finding three differentiated dining experiences, one after the other, in three culturally diverse countries, was a lot harder that I had initially assumed it would be. Perhaps this was like the Mile High Club (see my previous post Up in the Air): slightly mythical, and talked about far more often than actually achieved. Or at least I thought so until two weeks ago, when I had a genuine Three Meals, Three Cities experience, while travelling from London to Tel Aviv via Zurich.

A Pub Lunch – Fish and Chips; London

I had checked out of my London hotel first thing, and after a few morning meetings, I was walking back to the hotel to collect my bags. I didn’t feel like eating at the airport, so I decided to have an early lunch, even though it was only around 11.45am.

As luck would have it, just then I was walking past a traditional looking pub, with one of those “two-barrelled” names that only English pubs seem to have – the Wheel and Barrow, the Slug and Lettuce, The Pig and Olive; that sort of thing.

On the pavement was a signboard advertising “Traditional British Fare”, and just below that, it said: “Best Fish and Chips in London”. A brave call indeed, given that there is nothing more quintessentially English than “fish and chips”, and every pub in London offers its own variation.

Inside, the pub was dark and gloomy, and because it was early I was the only person in the place. A Polish waitress took my order (it seems that every person in the service industry in London these days is either a Polish migrant or an Australian back-backer), and a few minutes later returned with a truly gargantuan-sized platter of fish and chips. Each piece of fish (there were three) was cased in a crisp-fried batter that was oily but not greasy, and on the side was a mountain of fat-cut salted chips, which I proceeded to drown in malt vinegar.

Size aside, this particular rendition of fish and chips turned out to be so completely delicious that I ate the whole gigantic pile. Then, for the next four hours, I wished that perhaps I hadn’t tucked in with quite so much gusto, as I relived the experience, again and again: first in the taxi to Heathrow airport, then as I went through customs and security, and finally for the entire duration of my flight to Zurich. I can now report from first-hand experience, in case you had any doubt, that a massive portion of oil and carbs is not the most ideal of pre-flight meals…..

Dinner on Wheels – Sausages and Bread; Zurich

I was in England for two weeks of meetings, in the middle of which was the Jubilee Celebration for Queen Elizabeth. As a result, both the Monday and Tuesday of the second week in London were going to be public holidays, and I discovered that by the Friday before, the City of London would be virtually empty as people either made a five-day weekend out of things, or headed home to prepare for their Jubilee street parties. I decided therefore, at the last-minute, to take advantage of the long-weekend and visit my parents, who live in Israel. Only, on account of the mass exodus from London, every direct flight from London to Tel Aviv was fully booked.

The best I could find on short notice was to fly to Zurich in the early afternoon, and then connect to a late night flight to Israel, with a very long layover in Zurich between the two. Previously I have only ever been to Zurich in the winter time when the city is covered in snow and is fairy-tale beautiful. But, it is also mind-numbingly cold and the sun sets at around 4.30pm in the winter months, which is hardly conducive to happy tourist activities. So I decided I could use the lengthy break in Zurich to see something of the city in the springtime, with warmish weather and the sun shining until after 9pm. Plus, I was also able to organise a last-minute work-related meeting with a contact at one of the Swiss investment banks, giving me even more of an excuse to make a trip from the airport into the city centre.

The meeting I had arranged was non-eventful and brief, which left me with over six hours to wander around and explore the city. I walked down the famous Bahnhofstras; trams running up and down the street, flanked by imperial looking buildings that discreetly house the wealth of the world. At the end of the street I came to Lake Zurich, and I paused for a while to deliberate on whether to take one of the various themed boat cruises on offer – a rather bizarre assortment being Women Only, Sunset and Champagne, or Gay. Seeing that I’m straight, male, and don’t drink, none of these really worked for me, and so I instead continued my walk, through the Old Town of Zurich which proved to be a delightful collection of cobbled streets, spired churches and classic Swiss looking buildings.

At around 6pm I found myself back near the lake, and noticed a crowd of people milling around what looked to be a caravan parked by the side of the road with a tent over the top. On closer inspection, it turned out to be just that: a Silver 1950s style Airstream, which had been converted into a take-away sausage joint, called Sternen Grill. I later read that this is a Zurich icon, and serves up the city’s best Kalbsbratwurst mit Gold Bürli (grilled veal sausage with a bread roll). I figured it must be good, because a single sausage with a bun of crusty bread cost over seven dollars, and yet there was a queue of about thirty people lined up waiting their turn.

It was better than good. It was sensational, and I wound up having three sausages (although after the first, I skipped the bun). They were grilled to perfection, with an outer skin that was slightly charred and which literally crunched as I bit into the sausage, followed immediately by a mouthful of warm, juicy, meaty goodness. The only accompaniment on offer was mustard, hot enough to go straight up my nose, but mild enough to remain oddly pleasant.

Under the tent covering there were a number of high round tables at which you could stand to eat your bratwurst, and the nearby public benches were also overflowing with a motley assortment of sausage-munchers. I sat on a bench, and was joined by a father with two young children. Alongside us stood three men in business suits, a teenage couple, and a number of lone-eaters, like me. We were all united in that moment through the simple joy of eating what, after all, was essentially little more than an extraordinarily good hotdog. Everyone was smiling and having a good time. I may have been alone, but it was one of the most wonderfully communal meals I have ever had.

An Early Breakfast – Bourekas and Mint Tea; Jaffa

I landed in Tel Aviv at 3am. I was met at the airport by Shimon – a taxi-driver who for many years has been my driver whenever in Israel. He knows me and my entire family, never fails to ask “so, how’s business?”, always has new photos of his grandchildren to show me, and knows exactly where my parents and almost every one of my many Israeli aunts, uncles and cousins live.

On this particular occasion, I was pleasantly surprised to find that not only was Shimon at the airport to greet me, but his wife was as well. The two had been out dancing that evening, and rather than take his wife home before coming to the airport, they had just stayed out dancing a few extra hours, and then come to the airport together.

As we got in the cab, without me saying a word, Shimon asked: “so, first we got to Jaffa?” I nodded and said: “of course”, although I felt bad, because it was, after all, three in the morning, Shimon’s wife was yawning in the front seat of the cab, and Jaffa is completely the opposite direction to where my parents live. But what could I do? – from years of collecting me at the airport, Shimon knows that I have an addiction to sahleb, a custard-like drink made from the root of the sahleb plant, served hot and sprinkled with cinnamon and sugar and crushed nuts. It is generally only available in Israel and neighbouring Mediterranean countries (and I don’t get to Syria and Lebanon all that often). So on arrival in Israel, sahleb is always one of the first thing I seek out, and in the wee hours of the morning, the only place to get it is at the bakeries in and around the old town of Jaffa, that open early to begin serving up their baked goodies, fresh from the oven.

Twenty-five minutes later we were seated at a plastic table on the sidewalk outside a small, hole-in-the-wall bakery in a back-street of Jaffa. This particular bakery has been operating since Shimon was a boy, and specialises in bourekas: filled filo pastry parcels, similar to those found in Greece and Turkey, available with a mouth-watering array of stuffings like spinach and feta, potato, mushroom, or hard cheese.

And then, tragedy: no sahleb. The owner of the bakery told me that he only makes sahleb in the winter months. I was crest-fallen, but the aroma of fresh-baked bourekas, pulled from the oven and served straight from the simple metal trays in which they were baked, was so overwhelmingly good that we decided to stay anyway. I ordered a boureka of the plain cheese variety. The baker cut a slit in it lengthwise, and then stuffed it with a roughly chopped hard-boiled egg that had been cooked for hours until it was brown. It was kind of like a freshly-baked warm boureka and egg sandwich which, at 4am in the morning after a long flight, was the taste equivalent of dying and going to heaven.

Seeing how heart-broken I was at the lack of sahleb in his establishment, my new baker friend tried to make amends by fixing me the next best thing to drink: “te im nana” – black tea with fresh mint and lots of sugar, a Moroccan staple and a perfect accompaniment to bourekas. There was nothing fancy or delicate about his mint tea. It came in a tall clear-glass tumbler, and had what looked to be half a bunch of mint leaves crammed into it so tightly that you almost had to suck the sugary, minty tea out from between the forest of mint leaves.

And so at 4am in the morning, there I was, a sahleb addicted Australian-Israeli, recently arrived in Israel less than two hours before, sitting outdoors at a small plastic table in a back street of Jaffa, chatting with Shimon the taxi-driver, his wife, and the bakery owner. All the while munching a fresh-baked boureka and sipping strong mint tea. It doesn’t get much better than that.

It occurred to me that morning, as I watched the first light of day begin to tinge the night sky, that in one day I had rather unexpectedly taken an impromptu culinary tour of my “roots”.

In London for lunch, I had scoffed down fish and chips in a classic pub setting. Having lived virtually my entire life in English-speaking, former British colonial outposts – South Africa, Australia, Singapore – I have come to realise that for better or worse, culturally I am in large measure one of her Majesty’s subjects. And even though being of Israeli-Australian-South-African-Moroccan-Lithuanian extract I don’t have a British bone in my body, I regard fish and chips – possibly the most traditional of British foods – as being “my food” as much as it is the Queen’s. I guess that’s what it means to be a card-carrying member of the British Empire.

In Zurich for dinner, I had feasted on classic mittel-European fare – sausages and bread and mustard. A close enough proxy for the heavy, starchy peasant fare of Eastern Europe, the simple foods of Poland and Lithuania and Germany that I grew up with in my grandmother’s kitchen. This is food that doesn’t just fill my belly: each mouthful fills me with a sense of warmth and comfort; each bite transports me back in time to my childhood.

And in Jaffa for early breakfast, I had enjoyed still-warm-from-the-oven bourekas, a glass of steaming mint tea on the side. Surrounded by a spontaneous grouping of people, it was a uniquely Israeli experience, but rooted in culinary traditions brought to Israel by successive waves of Jewish refugees and migrants from across the Mediterranean and the Arab world. Like my father’s family that arrived in Israel from Morocco in the early 1950s, with little more than the clothes on their back and a deeply engrained sense of culture and heritage that stretched back 800 years.

So in travelling from London to Tel Aviv via Zurich that day, it seems that not only did I manage to have three very unique and consecutive meals in three different countries, but the experience turned out to be profoundly meaningful for me as well.

The Road Warrior life can sometimes have its shining moments.

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