Monday, January 17, 2005

Doh! Looks like it's time to water the blog again. Speaking of water, if you stopped by Tulip Cafe last Wednesday evening, I do apologize for the inconvenience. We were closed, reason being there was no water coming out of the taps, and I don't know if you've ever tried but it's pretty goddamn difficult running a restaurant without any water.

So I gave everybody a mini-holiday. Walking from the restaurant to the tram stop, I passed our chef. He'd already gotten wind of the situation.

"What's going on, chef?!" he says. (Yes, he calls me chef, even though he's the chef. Never mind that.)

"Well, there's no water, so we closed."


This guy is half Turkish and half Bulgarian, and he grew up in Varna, on the Black Sea, so it's not like he's a total stranger to shoddy infrastructure or anything. Yet having worked stints in kitchens in various European cities (Istanbul, Paris, Frankfurt, to name a few) he's currently convinced -- perhaps not entirely without reason -- that Czechs are the laziest and cheapest collection of creatures on the face of the planet, and that most problems in the Czech Republic can be blamed on that simple fact. (Now calm down. I said "perhaps." Besides, if I were ever to endorse this sweeping judgment, I'd explicitly exempt computer programmers and network administrators.)

Just to tell you another little story: In early December our mixer broke. It's a pretty simple device -- just your basic kitchen food processor, yet vital for numerous important functions of the kitchen, like making salsa, hummus and even large batches of salad dressing. Thing is, the mixer itself didn't break -- just the plastic container that holds the stuff you're mixing. Smashed to pieces. So we called the Braun service center and told them the model number and asked if they had the spare part. They said sure, no problem, it'll be 180 crowns and the part will be available in two weeks.

"Two weeks?! FUCKING CZECHS, MAN!"

That was early December. Guess what? Yes, that's what. We're now in the second half of January and they still haven't come up this spare part. Next week, they say. Every week they say next week. If I hadn't been so bloody naive in December, we could have bought a new mixer, because we were relatively flush with cash back then. This month we're broke. The company is called PH Servis, the country is called the Czech Republic, and the continent is called Europe.

So, no couscous dressing? Need a mixer! Chunks in the hummus? Need a mixer!

A minor tangent from that last thought: Hummus is supposed to be a traditional Middle Eastern staple, no? So then how'd they make it before food processors? Morter and pestle? Sheesh! Special at Tulip in January -- authentic peasant hummus, with big wholesome chunks of chick pea.

The restaurant business is always a total bomb in January, everywhere around the world. I don't mean that in the Czech way, as in "To je bomba!" I mean it's a catastrophe. It stands to reason that people are broke from Christmas shopping and tired from holiday socializing, but there's truly something cosmic about this phenomenon, as though everyone's fasting for Ramadan. I was joking around about this with a friend of mine who runs a local fast-food sandwich shop. He's facing the same thing. "Time to start selling inventory," he said. I agreed. Thing is, neither of us were really joking.


So I'm planning a hippie-trail trip to India, commencing perhaps in April, passing through Turkey, Iran and Pakistan. I only just now learned that we've already declared war on Iran. Wonder how that'll work out.

Also, if the Syrian authorities go along with it, I'd like to visit this site, which is related to my dabbling interest in all things Hittite. There's a pretty interesting story there.

Tell Aushariye, an ancient fortress currently being excavated by Danish archealogists near where the Euphrates crosses the Turkish-Syrian border, is thought to be the site of ancient Pitru. It's close to the ruins of ancient Carchemish, a major Hittite city which hasn't been excavated since before World War I, as it sadly lies within the demilitarized border zone.

Pitru itself is traditionally thought to be the same as Pethor, a city named in the the Old Testament as the home of the early quasi-prophet Balaam. Balaam (pronounced bah-LAME) is notable for being the first known non-Isrealite to have conversations with the deity later known to the rest of us as God.

"He sent messengers therefore unto Balaam the son of Beor to Pethor, which is by the river of the land of the children of his people, to call him..."

Balaam, if you've read Numbers, is also the dude with the talking donkey. Here's what he'd look like if he were a Lego figure -- sort of a Darth Vader without the mask. There's a bit of theological controversy over Balaam, because it's hard to tell whether the Bible is trying to paint him as a good guy or a bad guy. He obeys Yahweh's orders not to curse the Israelites, yet he later dies fighting them.

One thing is pretty certain: We now know that a figure named Balaam did in fact exist in the ancient Near East -- i.e., the author of Numbers didn't just make him up -- he had a pretty major following, and he preached impending chaos and disorder. Read:

Our understanding of this non-Hebrew prophet has been enriched in recent years by a remarkable inscription that was unearthed in 1967 in archeological excavations at the Deir 'Alla site in Jordan, not far from the scene of Balaam's activities in the book of Numbers. The text in question, which was probably composed around 700 B.C.E., was written in Aramaic (or Ammonite) on plaster slabs that might have formed part of a sanctuary or cultic monument. From it we learn of the existence, some six hundered years after Balaam's lifetime, of a religious movement that continued to revere Balaam as its great prophet and spiritual mentor.
It was definitely the same guy -- Balaam son of Beor of Pethor. And now the Danes are finally digging up his reputed birthplace! Don't get me wrong -- it's not like I expect them to dig up a plaque on a wall saying "Balaam lived here." But it seems significant nonetheless.

Anyway, if these plans sound a little half-baked, that's because they are. But they are definitely in the oven, and if anybody has any tips or personal contacts from this part of the world which they'd like to share, by all means.


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