Back in California: Where is My Life Going?

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I feel like I have more headspace while in sunny SoCal. The 10-hour time difference gives me enough quiet minutes to get my to-do list in order while dadboss is snoring in another hemisphere. I don’t have many friends left here so there are less temptations and I’m not a tourist so there’s no major itinerary to follow besides work-related supplier visits. Books and sunshine are my main distractions. However, having so many tete-a-tetes with your own tete makes the content all the more daunting. This self-reflection, this attempt to answer the everlasting question of should I stay or should I go, this search for the cure of stunted adulthood – it can be overwhelming when you’re one year away from that 4-year reevaluation that just so happens to fall on my 30th year of life.

I love being here and it’s not just for the donuts. I love that my thoughts have room to expand like a soap bubble and pop when they’re done. There is no annoying toddler in the form of Lebanese inconveniences coming in to poke the bubble forcing its premature death. To be fair, that may have more to do with the distance from daily life than it does with the California weather and temperament.

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Am I the only one that thinks, okay, I’ll figure this all out when I’m away for a few weeks? As if being detached from your own reality will give you clarity to work out the kinks in your life plan. You look back at home and think, is this where you want to be/are you maximizing your potential/are you meeting the right person/is this it for me/are you okay with it if it is? It would be wonderful if the answers to those questions came in black & white but it feels like gray comes in more than 50 shades. I’m sorry I used that. Won’t happen again.

When I’m away, Beirut is on my mind and when I’m home, I’m looking abroad. Not in the grass-is-greener way but in the am-I-settling way. Being young and untethered, restless and ambitious, hungry and responsible. All these adjectives lead to one: conflicted.

“Small goals.” After a talk with a friend in London who recently had a break from life to figure out life, he said it. Small goals will take some of the pressure off. Baby steps toward moving forward on a personal level so you feel that even if you’re not on the express train, you’re still not stagnant.

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And it’s about the little things. Reading in the backyard. Getting just the right amount of milk in your coffee. Finding that Yeezus shirt on Amazon. Tacos & dancing nights with your homies. Maybe the future needs to stay in the future since we all don’t know what’s ahead, how to get there, or even where we need to go. Or maybe I’m still jet lagged and a reflection session will hit me in the afternoon. At this point, all I can hope for is another good coffee and a good book to go with it.

Catalonian Traditions, Turkish Snowstorms, and Lebanese Warmth

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Coincidence brought me back to Barcelona around the same time that I had departed last November. I found the city just as I had left it, minus a few notches in temperature but just about the same number of pigeons.

Going somewhere familiar is unlike vacationing in an undiscovered destination. I guiltlessly slept in and spent afternoons in cafes. I finished a book. It was, for once, a break where I disconnected from home and was present in real time. I still worked from my trusty overweight laptop but I was mentally distant enough; my thoughts had room to expand and float above me before they popped in thin air.

Being in Catalonia at the end of the year means you learn about the seasonal traditions. First, there was Tio. Then, on New Year’s Eve, you have to eat 12 green grapes when the clock strikes 12. One grape per chime of the clock, one grape per month of the year. You also have to wear red undies for good luck? Some say they have to be a gift, others say you have to gift them before daybreak. I’m still digging up the origin story on this because I fear it’s the De Beers’ solitaire of undergarments, not that that stopped me. After 2016, I’ll take any source of luck for the calendar ahead.

Tortell de Reis (like our Galette des Rois) appears on January 6th for Three Kings Day. It contains two surprises baked into the pastry: a small king figurine and a bean. The person who gets the slice with the king gets to wear a paper crown and the person who gets the bean has to pay for the cake. They’re also granted good luck if they keep the bean in their wallet all year. I had already paid for the cake AND the bean was in my slice. It’s like it knew.

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Whenever I encounter Arabs abroad, there is an immediate sense of familiarity. You’d think that once you’re out of the country, you’d make it a point to meet people of different backgrounds but I understand why we flock to each other when setting up shop overseas. When I come across a Syrian, Jordanian, Egyptian, and, of course to an even greater degree, Lebanese, I feel an unspoken understanding. As Rankoussi, my glass-blower friend in Rome, said to me with a grin,“you are also from there,” after revealing he was from Damascus.

The unexpected “unlucky” 72-hour layover in the Radisson Blu near Sabiha Airport opened my eyes to a quality of our people that I am reminded of whenever I leave: warmth. 

I left Spain decked out in thermal Nike running gear (that I didn’t run in) and boots (to avoid adding the extra weigh to my suitcase). Thank you red underwear and bean for knowing more than I did. Besides the literal warmth my lucky outfit provided, there was a figurative one that came from being stranded in a Turkish blizzard with 3 Lebanese guys who were also flying back to BEY from sunny Barcelona.

Although I may not ever see my stranded brothers of Istanbul again, I am grateful that I had some company while stuck in a frozen village. Plus, chasing down taxis in a snowstorm would’ve been a nightmare solo. These absurd yet instant friendships where you are trading stories on a hotel couch drinking minibar wine, the kind that may evaporate as soon as you part ways, never to see each other again, was still comforting in a situation where you would normally feel entirely alone. It’s bittersweet how this only happens when we’re away from home. When abroad, I don’t get the same warmth from my fellow Americans in airport terminals or Starbucks lines but, when I’m here in Lebanon, I don’t get it from my fellow Lebanese either. When at home, we don’t mix outside of our known circles.

We have to be removed. We have to be foreigners together against the world to feel like we can do that, to feel like we’re the same.

3 Meals in NYC – 2016 Edition

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Back in 2014, I spent a quick 5 minutes in NYC and wrote about my 3 main food stops – one of which has since closed permanently. After spending a week in 2015 and another in 2016, here’s an updated list of 3 meals to enjoy if you ever visit the home of 8.4 million.

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Hillstone for Campfire Ribs
My friend took me here in 2015, it was the first meal I had upon revisiting in 2016, and I will be back for sure. There is a fear that a restaurant will not be as good as you remember it, leaving you heartbroken because you romanticized a memory of saucy ribs, shoestring fries, and coleslaw. Not at Hillstone. They were better the second time around and I still couldn’t finish them. Mom helped.

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Photo Credit: @blacktapnyc

Black Tap for Burgers & Shakes
Pearl from legymonline tagged me in a gram of their crazy “milkshakes.” One afternoon, mom & I were wandering around Soho and ended up near Black Tap so we mozied over to the spot for a volcano of fat. Fifteen minute wait. She had a burger while I had a spicy margarita with onion rings. We split the top of a milkshake. It’s all we could get down considering they’re a mountain range of deliciousness. Bonus points for the 90s R&B playlists.

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Gotham West Market
Located in Hell’s Kitchen, GWM has a couple of offerings all housed in a food hall. From Indie Fresh to Choza Taqueria, the variety is there along with a chill vibe that’s perfect for hanging out with friends. It’s what you wish your high school cafeteria was like. It also has a bike shop inside. No, I did not see Wilson Fisk anywhere.


Honorable Mentions:
OBVIOUSLY, a pastrami sandwich on rye from Katz on the LES. The line you see above is not tourist hype, it is worth the wait, the $19.95, and Meg Ryan’s reaction was because of this sandwich. Also, Smorgasburg in Brooklyn, Untitled at the Whitney in the Meatpacking District at the end of the High Line, and pre-packaged food at the Food Emporium for when you need takeout so you can go back to your hotel room and binge watch Luke Cage.

My Top 5 Spots in Rome

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Although two weeks is longer than a typical trip to one European city, I don’t think you can ever truly experience a destination without living there or having a local show you where the real hidden gems are. I do intense research before heading somewhere new so I can find venues beyond the standard tourist traps but I also try to get lost so I can find my own recommendations. The below are the spots I would’ve lived in were I to ever become a resident of Rome.

La Proscuitteria Trevi for Casual Charcuterie 
Danielle from Beirutista sent me to this meat haven tucked in behind the Fontana di Trevi. After waiting in line next to a La Dolce Vita poster with Sylvia wielding a T-bone in the air, we got a teeny table in the back of a butcher-turned-wine bar for a wooden slab of cold cuts, cheese, a basket of bread, and Chianti red wine. Let’s just say that this meal was not one that would’ve been approved by my dietician but let’s also say that I don’t regret being a rebel for one second. For 20Euros each, we had plenty to feast on and extras to take home for snacking on later.

Bead Shop Rome for Murano Glass Jewelry and Souvenirs
Rankoussi, shop owner and artisan, is a Syrian glass blower specializing in the Phoenician and Murano glass craft. He gives workshops and does in-store demos every Tuesday but gave my friend & I a quick show and made a mini blue eye. I’m guessing this had a lot to do with me asking where he was from and him replying, “I am from the Middle East and you are also from there.” International wasta FTW. Rankoussi gave us a brief history lesson of his work, told us the origin story of certain beads and their cultural significance, and took selfies with us in his technicolor wonderland.

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Sant’Eustachio Il Caffe for Cappuccino and Chocolate Covered Coffee Beans
Fun fact: there is no Starbucks in Rome. But who needs it when, across from the Sant Eustachio church and behind the Pantheon, this cafe from the thirties serves all the caffeine-lovers favorites. Urbanista does a good job here in Lebanon but cappuccinos will never be the same after Rome. Sant Eustachio’s grand cappuccinos set me back 2.90 Euros each visit. They’re pricier than other little vendors but, in comparison to the hotel’s watered down black American, I happily paid it. Maybe it’s because they mix it with water from an ancient aqueduct – how very Roman. The workshop faculty suggested their chocolate covered coffee beans which are delectable and come in bright yellow packages with a stag in their branding so naturally I adored them as mini gifts for my peeps back home.

Barnum Cafe for an Espresso/Prosecco-Filled Remote Office
I’ve never been smitten with a cafe. I spent a couple of days working at a communal table that had an old bourbon bottle centerpiece filled with lavender. The bartenders were friendly and warmed up to my friend & I because we were singing along to all the great tunes from the early 2000s. I had wondered if I had finally found the place where my iPod Classic disappeared to, then we get a Vanilla Ice dedication, and I’m thinking, “Ah shit, I’m never leaving. I am moving to Rome for a coffee shop.” They have a no computers after 7:30pm rule though because it morphs into a bar, which is fine because I’d get a good 3 hours of work done beforehand as my espresso would transition into Prosecco. Order the tiramisu, it comes in a coffee mug topped with glazed hazelnuts.

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Osteria da Fortunata for Fresh Pasta in Campo di Fiori
Nonnas make the pasta right there near the tables so you know you’re not getting any of that stiff packaged stuff being sold on every corner. I’m not a pasta fan but when it’s fresh, it has a completely different texture on the palate. The cacio e pepe (cheese and pepper) plate was the only serving of pasta I ordered during my entire two weeks and it’s all I needed. Take that mac & cheese.

Honorable Mention: If you’re at Barnum and still need to work post 7:30pm, you can walk over to Circus which is another work-friendly cafe. There’s lots of teeny boppers hanging out and music gets loud but they don’t mind if you don’t. And the waiter has a human Gus Gus-from-Cinderella quality to him so you can’t help but smile. They’re open till 2am.

El-Tanein Diet Week #47 and #48

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View from the Borghese Gardens

I spent these two weeks in Rome and, upon return, learned that I dropped a kilo. Given all the gelato and cheese, I was not expecting that whatsoever. But I will say that I did not indulge to the max which changes travel as an overall experience. I tend to adore the foodtourism aspect of a new city but I want to stick to this new lifestyle choice of smaller portions.

Workout Tally

– 3 early morning runs around Rome

Outdoor Activity

I had no access to a gym but I made sure to get a couple of runs in before my workshop classes. I had been told that exploring a city while everyone’s still asleep as the sun rises is the best way to see it but I didn’t believe it until this trip. I felt like Rome was mine, even if just for 20 min before the eager tourists started to line up. How often do you get to see the Trevi or the Pantheon deserted in daylight?

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Best Meal(s) of the Week(s)

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A wooden slab of cold cuts and cheese with red wine.

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Cacio e pepe fresh pasta.

More on these two meals will be posted in my Rome Top 5 coming soon.

Other Highlights

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Meeting Arabs abroad and blending in with the Italians: We are everywhere. And we know how to spot each other. I’d feel all warm and fuzzy inside when I’d find a fellow Arab and trade stories as to why they’re in Rome. What was even better was being able to blend in like an Italian and be ignored by street vendors/avoid tourist treatment.

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Letterpress Workshop: Old school typesetting and layouts. The time and work that used to go into book production and print design makes you realize how easy we have it now with our Adobe, Kindles, and iPads.

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Two weeks with no 3G and I’m in love with Rome: Usually, getting a sim card is one of the first things I do upon landing in another country. This time, after spending my first day without it, I decided to forego constant connection and wing it. I would use Google maps to find a main destination and depend on my own sense of direction to find my way back after closing the app. Looking up instead of at texts or work emails allowed me to reconnect with my surroundings. Nasri’s latest captures what I felt in Rome. I should schedule when to be online anywhere, not just when away. If I was to cheat on Beirut, it would be with other Mediterranean cities. Barcelona. Rome. Akh. I love this sea’s people.

Workout Track(s) of the Week(s)

These tracks helped me stay up late working on a presentation for the workshop. I hadn’t done that since my uni days so that was a fun throwback. Not sure if my hotel neighbors thought so unless they had their own PJ parties to Chris Brown.

Cheese of the Week(s)

I made a trip out to Eataly Roma, the largest branch of the chain. This older man, after laughing at himself for speaking Italian to me while I remained clueless, was offering samples of cheese from his cow and ship (sheep). That ship makes great cheese and held me over on my late nights when I avoided searching for pizza.

The Last Afternoon in Roma

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First published on SVA blog on June 14th, 2016 under the title “Rome Day 14: Tangible Memories.”

“An orgy of goodness” is what Steven Heller called our final presentations which were a mix of tangible memories of Rome in the form of reinvented intricately illustrated postcards, a bracelet of Italian female role models donned the Sorelle Sante (Sacred Sisters), and of course, a typeface or two. All were deemed marketable entrepreneurial endeavors which is not a small feat given the timeframe we had to cook up something fresh and exciting. 


As we dispersed for what was most people’s last afternoon in Rome, I felt the need to jam-pack as much of the city in the few hours before our farewell dinner. A couple more gifts here and there, but mostly I wanted to walk the streets and take it all in – this place that had me enamored so quickly because it reminded me so much of home. I didn’t even mind that locals would seem utterly confused as to why I couldn’t understand Italian; I was flattered that they thought I was one of them. I passed by the same streets, dropped by Roscioli, snapped some photos of the places I felt I would frequent on the regular if I was ever a Roman resident. I was creating a memory palace for my next walk down memory lane. Sorry, too much Sherlock. And I did manage to see St. Valentine’s skull at Santa Maria. It was too far away to inspect which wasn’t a great loss considering those tiled floors. Those alone are worth the trek. If you don’t have time for the Vatican, go to this little church. It’s what most beautiful places of worship are: understated and underrated.

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Our farewell dinner was all things Italian meaning food, wine, and good company. We swapped stories and plans for the weeks ahead. It didn’t feel like we were going anywhere; it felt like a regular Saturday night with friends that continued at our dorm’s common room (the hotel lobby) as we polished off the bottles of wine and Prosecco left from our working nights before.

But alas, we said our goodbyes and now we’re all on different ends of the earth. Luckily, we’re all just a text or a call away thanks to SVA.

Vatican Floors, Coffee Beans, and Penis Pasta

First published on the SVA blog on June 10th, 2016 under the title “Finding the Meanings of Rome”

It may come as a surprise to most but there is a part of visiting the Vatican that no one ever told me to pay attention to. While the crowds of multinationals were staring up at the works of Raphael and Michaelangelo, I was staring at my feet admiring the intricate tile work that runs throughout the museum halls. Strangely, after walking through room upon room, your mind stops processing the paintings. That, and I’m not very patient with slow-paced tourists who stop dead in their tracks at random. Perhaps this is why I had my head down with my eyes on the ground as I weaved to make my way to the Sistine Chapel. It seems, even when I got there, I was still fixated on the tiles rather than the gods above me. The ones in the Chapel particularly resemble Louise Fili’s Instagram posts of the Basilica di Santa Maria in Cosmedin, a church I hope to see before my flight home on Sunday. Apparently, St. Valentine’s skull lies there too.

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Our time in Rome has suddenly evaporated with just hours to go before our presentation of our projects tomorrow. While working in a hip cafe of the Eternal City, it’s hard not to feel like we’ve taken up residence here; it’s the same routine I have in Beirut except I’m only here for another 48 hours. Barnum Cafe’s bartender waves goodbye as his shift ends because some of us have become regulars, sitting at the large table surrounded by pencil shavings and tracing paper. In my three consecutive days at this table, I’ve met an American food blogger, an Egyptian who inquired about my Arabic sketches, and, of course, the bartender who dedicated his early-2000 songs to us after we kept bobbing our heads to the lyrics that took us back to high school. Camping out there, the transition from espresso to Prosecco is easy as pie as the place morphs into a pub post 7:30 pm when computers are no longer allowed.

And in the midst of doing all this prep, many of us try to find souvenirs for our peeps back home – ones that aren’t tacky or typical. I’ve opted for chocolate covered coffee beans from Sant’Eustachio II Caffe, sugary fruit gummies from Moriondo e Gariglio, and some leather-bound notebooks. And yes, penis-shaped pasta for my more mature friends.

As Lita Talarico, SVA MFA co-chair, said, “in Paris, everything comes at you but, in Rome, you have to dig a little deeper” alluding to how the city is one of layers where there’s more to discover beyond the burnt orange facades, beyond centro storico. Fourteen days and I haven’t even scratched the surface. Besides the fact that I’ve been doing laundry in my hotel sink, I’m not quite ready to go just yet so that only means one thing: I need to come back.