My Brief Stint With the CIA

A Hollywood movie was released in 1998 called Sliding Doors. It’s a romantic comedy in which the plot alternates between story lines depending on whether the female character jumps through a closing subway door and catches the train or misses it entirely.  

The concept of “sliding doors” is life’s trajectory. Even mundane moments of decision-making can alter future outcomes. We all think about what might have been if we had chosen differently in our lives.

I wonder if we sometimes pass through sliding doors completely unaware. When what we are doing is different than what we think it is. When someone else chooses for us.

It helps to have an active imagination.

For example, I could have been recruited as a CIA operative earlier in life, making a conscious choice to jump through that door. But it didn’t happen that way. Instead, the CIA found me.

In the early 1990’s, I was married and raising two young children with a husband working in Nicosia, Cyprus.  We had a friend I will call “John”. His job was with the “State Department” in the U.S. Embassy. We assumed he was part of the CIA desk because he made extensive trips throughout the Middle East, Europe and North Africa. Also, he never talked about his work.

John was a foodie before the term was common in popular culture. He relished good food and wine, and was knowledgeable about both. When he wasn’t out of town gathering information and following leads, he enjoyed long lunches at his favorite Italian restaurant, La Romantica. The owners knew him well. They were cued to his wine preferences and shared what was fresh on the menu. He always reserved the same corner table.

As John often entertained visitors, he began inviting me to join his lunch gatherings. I had no idea who any of the guests were, met them only once, never saw them again. It was always new people from different countries and cultures. At first, I thought I was rounding out the table for some good food and conversation with a friend and his clients.

I can talk to just about anyone in a social setting, even people I don’t know, by asking a question that leads to a further question. “Tell me about…” followed up with  “And what about…?” A slight nod and unwavering eye contact helps people go on and on with their stories. 

As a conversational skill, the focus is on the talker. Begin with one searching question, followed by the next, and then another.  Sometimes people share more than intended. Perhaps John knew I naturally asked a lot of questions. What I noticed about him was that he hardly said anything at all. He just listened. 

Oh, he ordered bottles of wine for the table, joked with the chef and his wife and made recommendations about food. Otherwise, he quietly took in what people were saying, what they were telling me.

After several lunches, I began to wonder if I was gathering info for his professional files instead of being a good guest chatting up sophisticated visitors. The thought escalated after my husband asked, “Do you ever wonder why John invites you to lunch with people you don’t know?”

Eventually the lunch crowd thinned and the restaurant emptied, but our table remained intact. There was no mention of needing to vacate the space. This should have been my cue to excuse myself so John and his guests could get down to “real business.” If non-verbal cues were signaled, I missed them.

Instead, I busied myself a different way. Over the course of four, and sometimes five-hour lunches, I became familiar with Romantica’s owners who invited me into the kitchen for a mini-cooking lesson. With hindsight, Signor and Signora “Romantica” were probably in on the gig, too. Allowing John some professional space in the front of the house while they tried to beef up my cooking skills in the back of the house.

I have often said that I am not a natural born cook. Eating well is important, but I love when someone else is in charge of the preparation of a good meal. Still, I learned two memorable recipes from my post-lunch lessons.

The first was how to make a fresh tomato sauce from the beautiful, deep red, Cypriot tomatoes. It begins with removing the skins by dropping them into boiling water. After de-skinning, it is basically a stir-fry for about 20 minutes with olive oil, garlic, salt and pepper, fresh basil leaves added at the end. The eye-closing-wonderful-taste of this simple sauce, with any pasta, has everything to do with tomatoes grown in ancient soil, ripened in blazing hot Mediterranean sun. I found it difficult to replicate elsewhere.

The second thing I learned was how to prepare my favorite order at Romantica; spaghetti aglio, olio e peperoncino. This became one of my comfort foods–spaghetti with garlic, oil, and red pepper flakes. It’s a fast prep made as easily for dining solo as for a crowd. 

If the afternoon wore on toward 4:00 or 5:00PM, my husband and John’s wife would show up, their working day ended. They wondered why lunch had stretched into the apéro hour, but sat down as John ordered a final round of wine before we all headed home.

What they didn’t realize was that I had completed another assignment of covert information gathering as a CIA volunteer.

Well, anyway, all imagining aside, what those lunches provided was a set of skills that served me for the rest of our years overseas. With insightful questions, I learned to navigate, and [mostly] enjoy, large social gatherings where I didn’t know anyone.

I’m not wild about stand-up cocktail parties, shoulder-to-shoulder receptions, huge galas, or fancy dancing balls. But we participated in all of these during 31 years overseas. Many times. Gearing up for such events was less formidable when I realized I didn’t have to talk to every person or “work the whole room” as my husband did naturally and very well.

My tactic was to zero in on one or two people for meaningful conversation. Time flew by in a satisfying way and felt better spent without idle mingling and wishing to kick off high-heeled shoes. Thus, my brief interrogation stint with the CIA had a positive afterlife.

Life’s opportunities come and go. Whether we decide to enter a door as it opens, or miss it and choose the next–there is always an experience or an unexpected something that follows.  

Overseas living was a sliding door of opportunity for us. The courage to jump [blindly] was necessary only once.  With the next international job and the next, we understood that our family unit would remain tight and our collection of memorable stories would continue to grow.

However, I still wonder about one sliding door, many years ago, which briefly opened for me personally. Riding horses in my 20’s, I was offered a job as an exercise rider for thoroughbreds. It required travel flexibility and hinted of excitement, risk, adventure.

Now there’s another story to imagine…

SPAGHETTI AGLIO, OLIO E PEPERONCINO

Ingredients:

  • 1 lb. spaghetti
  • 1/3 C. good olive oil
  • 8 garlic cloves, minced
  • ½-1 tsp. red pepper flakes
  • ½-1 C. flat-leaf parsley, coarsely chopped
  • 1 C. freshly grated Parmesan cheese
only 6 ingredients: red pepper, olive oil, parsley, garlic, parmesan and spaghetti

Preparation:

  • Cook spaghetti in boiling salted water until al dente. Reserve ½ C. pasta water.
  • Heat olive oil in large saucepan. 
  • Sauté red pepper flakes with garlic until garlic just begins to brown.
  • Stir in the reserved pasta water.
  • Add the cooked spaghetti and heat through, mixing all together.
  • Sprinkle with parsley and Parmesan.
  • Serve immediately.
  • Use additional parsley and Parmesan as garnish.
  • If you don’t like spice, leave out the pepper flakes and you have spaghetti aglio e olio.
comfort food garnished with extra cheese and parsley
or a whole meal with spinach salad, wine, and candles

Addendum:

Some Italian lineages say never use Parmesan on any pasta dish with an oil base. Parmesan is for tomato sauces. Signora Romantica was of that tradition. But we love Parmesan, changed her way of doing things, and made it our own addition.

Other stories of friends and adventures in Cyprus [with recipes, too]:  

Fabio Meets Brownies Cocaine

Hellenic Halloumi

13 thoughts on “My Brief Stint With the CIA

  1. Absolutely love it! Great story telling and ‘imagining’. I can picture you conversing at that table and watching and learning from ‘Signora Romantica’ in her kitchen.

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  2. What a fabulous story, Wendy! I met one of those state department guys one time—a breed to themselves, for sure—but never felt I was part of the game.
    Hope we’ll be able to catch up this spring.

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  3. I, too, have sliding doors literally in every closet in my new apartment in Minneapolis. It took some getting used to when trying to locate belongings when I first moved in. I have put to use your suggestions on conversation starters at early morning breakfasts with a group of early risers sometimes with hilarious results. What a lovely way to start the day…laughing!

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  4. Wow!!! I don’t remember this story !! You never shared these lunch stories with me when we were sitting at your kitchen table every morning in nicosia!! Inquiring minds have to know!! Did I know “John”??? I do remember Romantica and the yummy spaghetti dishes for sure! Another great post, my dear friend. Miss you!!❤️❤️ So glad and grateful that you walked through my sliding door!!

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  5. Good story telling! Yes, many sliding doors….I have often wondered about life’s turns, ups and downs and how things might be different if other paths had been taken. The trick is to not dwell on what might have been.

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  6. Wendy, what a great story to tell. Thank you. I will have to try your comfort food. Sounds not too complicated and delicious. Happy 2020 to you and Mark and many more adventures with more stories to tell.

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  7. Wendy, I thoroughly enjoyed your intriguing plot. You have such a unique talent of ending a story while offering a delectable meal. Sending our love, Diane and Dan.

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  8. Well done! Again! I have often wondered about the “sliding doors” of my life. It’s nice to read the “Sliding Doors” of your life. And you have surely become an expect at asking those leading questions– as one who has been on the receiving end of such questioning from you!

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