People Who Pull the Magic Out of You

I knew when I met you an adventure was going to happen. –Winnie-the-Pooh

The important relationships in my life are best explained by this: Stick with people who pull the magic out of you and not the madness. These are the people who fill in my gaps with their strengths. They have characteristics I love and want to absorb when we are together. They are the ones with whom I am always comfortable.

I have written about my overseas friend, Janmarie in an earlier story, Hellenic Halloumi. We saw each other almost every day for the three years we overlapped while living in Nicosia, Cyprus. She came to my kitchen table on weekday mornings for coffee and conversation after dropping off her children at the International School.

In 1993, our family moved from Cyprus to Taiwan and the daily connection was left behind. It was before email and international phone calls were common so we lost touch with the changes in each other’s lives. In 2018, our last year living overseas, Janmarie was in Beirut, Lebanon while I was in Paris. She urged me to visit her before leaving Europe. I didn’t hesitate to say “yes”.

Friends are the family you choose.Jess C. Scott

In an overseas lifestyle, friendships tend to be intense and become surrogate family on holidays, vacations, and for celebrations.

My mother visited us the first Christmas we lived in Taiwan. We had just arrived a few months earlier. She was surprised by the closeness and quality of friendships we had already established. She said that we were at a depth of relationship and caring about people we had known for only months that could take years to develop at home.

Having lived in Singapore and Cyprus before, we knew that filling in the details of our home away from home started with the people who came into our lives by chance…and shared geography.

Janmarie met me at the airport in Beirut. We slipped into easy conversation on the way to her apartment as if it had been 25 minutes instead of 25 years. She told me how important it was to her that I made the effort to come to her home, how much it honored her, and our friendship.

A true friend is one you can go extended periods without seeing or talking to, yet the moment you are back in touch it’s like no time has passed at all.Ellie Wade

Janmarie’s plan was to immerse me in the beauty and culture of Lebanon. Generosity and freshly prepared food are hallmarks of Lebanese hospitality.  After we arrived at her apartment, the dining room table was laid with an array of dishes made in preparation of my visit.

Because I had watched Janmarie feed her family in Cyprus, I knew the importance and love that goes into making nourishing and delicious food followed by sitting  à la table en famille in Lebanese/American households. An abundant table with my friend’s vivacious spirit was the perfect beginning.

at janmarie’s table

Janmarie introduced me to Marti, an American of Lebanese heritage who grew up in Kansas and now lives upstairs. She is a scholar and an intellectual, studying the Quran with a private teacher, working her way through reading and reciting all of the holy prayers in Arabic. Marti became a new friend because of an old friend. We connected right away.

The three of us took a day trip outside Beirut to the beautiful Shouf Mountains and the picturesque village of Deir el-Qamar [Monastery of the Moon], which is a UNESCO World Heritage site. Along the way we stopped for coffee and a typical pastry snack, ka’ak [Arabic for cake]. It was savory rather than sweet–a ring shaped bread “purse” filled with cheese and covered in sesame seeds. At lunchtime we dined al fresco, under trees overhanging a restaurant patio, with freshly prepared traditional dishes to share.

My favorite cultural experience was the “Hubbly Bubbly” ritual. This is a tall water pipe that sits on the floor and is used for vaporizing flavored tobacco. It is available in every bar, restaurant or café. Janmarie chose a mint/lemon flavor for me. Not a smoker by habit, but there was enjoyment in relaxing with friends and making big puffs of smoke from an aromatic hookah in the midst of others doing the same. When in Lebanon, do as…

hubbly bubbly time

We spoke about the Cyprus years when our children were young and life had a different framework. But we shifted seamlessly to exchanging stories of experiences, perspectives and beliefs that define who we are today. It’s an important quality for ongoing friendships–each person capable of keeping the relationship moving forward, while savoring shared times from the past.

The day before I left, I asked Janmarie to cook one of my favorite Lebanese dishes, Mujadarah. She taught me to make it years ago when my cooking specialized in one-dish meals for the family. Mujadarah is a lentil/rice casserole smothered in fried onions. I probably served it alone because it is flavorful and filling. The version she made for me was finished with a lemon-y dressed cabbage salad over the top. I finally learned to make a complete one dish meal, salad included!

pounding garlic for salad dressing

There are reasons, perhaps subconscious, as to why we want to return to certain friendships. And why others remain at a distance. There are people in our lives where any amount of time spent with them is just right, and exactly what we need. We swoop into their orbit because they pull out our better selves, even our best selves. And when a friend knows the joy in your company that you feel in theirs…then the magic is complete.

…And let there be no purpose in friendship save the deepening of the spirit. –Kahlil Gibran, “On Friendship”


raw ingredients for mujadarah
ingredients for cabbage salad

MUJADARAH WITH CABBAGE SALAD-Serves 4 

  • 1 C. dry lentils
  • ¾ C. dry rice
  • Cook the lentils and rice separately. [Leftover rice works great.] Mix cooked ingredients together in a decorative bowl. Season to taste with salt and olive oil.
  • Cut two onions into thin slices. Deep fry onions in oil until crispy and brown. [You can also use less oil and sauté onions very slowly until caramelized.]
  • Smother the top of the lentil/rice combo with cooked onions.  
cabbage salad

Cabbage salad:

  • 2 C. finely sliced cabbage
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced [or probably more]
  • ¼ C. olive oil
  • ¼ C. freshly squeezed lemon juice [or more]. Can use vinegar, but lemon is so right for this
  • ½ t. salt
  • Pomegranate seeds [not optional as they add color and zing.]
  • Optional: 2 T fresh or 1 T. dried mint, also green onions

The Dressing:

  • Pound garlic and salt in mortar and pestle.
  • Add lemon juice [or vinegar] and olive oil.
  • Whisk together and pour over cabbage. 
  • Toss. Refrigerate 1 hour or so to blend flavors.
  • Adjust seasonings.

To Serve:

Place Mujadarah on a plate. Top with cabbage salad. Salad must be crunchy because the cabbage rules!Janmarie

dinner with candles and wine at home

Hellenic Halloumi

For three years, in the early 1990s, we lived on the island of Cyprus in the eastern Mediterranean Sea. The capital, Nicosia, was divided in half by the Turkish invasion of 1974. After the conflict, U.N. troops kept peace along a border called The Green Line. This line divided the entire island between the Turkish occupied northern section and the Greek populated land to the south. We lived on the Greek Cypriot side of Nicosia. Although you could still see bullet holes in certain places, the old part of the city was very charming—vine covered walls, stone terraced tavernas, shops of pottery, pewter, and hand made lace, narrow cobbled lanes with flowers spilling out of pots.

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nicosia old town

We lived on the ground floor of a small apartment building adjacent to the International School of Cyprus [ISC], as it was called in those years. The kitchen and living room had glass doors that opened onto a large terrazzo-tiled terrace bordered by a white iron railing. It was overhung with willow branches from an enormous tree growing out of the garden of the Greek restaurant on the hillside just below.

In warm weather, sounds of clinking glassware and cutlery drifted upward as tables were set for dinner on the patio. We befriended the owner and sometimes he beckoned us to join him for a late night glass of wine. When the last diners departed, we tiptoed down the stone stairs between our terrace and his restaurant to have a drink and conversation under candle lanterns in the willow tree.

I met Janmarie during our first year in Cyprus. Her four children attended ISC. After dropping them off in the morning, she was at my kitchen table for coffee by 8:30AM. Every day. We became good friends over those visits, talking easily about many things.

Sometimes morning coffee conversations merged into lunchtime hunger. When this happened, particularly in the wintertime, Janmarie would say, “Let’s go for some Halloumi.” We headed downtown to the old part of the city.

Halloumi is a cheese that originated in Cyprus centuries ago. Traditionally it came from sheep’s milk, is pure white, shaped in semi-solid blocks and packed in salty brine. Once relieved of it’s packaging and drained, it looks anemic and unappetizing.  The subtlety of this cheese is that it transforms into something special by grilling it to a golden color.

On the streets of old-town Nicosia, hot off the grill, layered on Panini bread with tomato and cucumber slices, then grilled again in a sandwich press, halloumi was more than a hand held snack. It was the taste of salt from the sea mixed with creamy chewiness and warmth, in sharp contrast to the cold air in which we sat.

On a wintery day in a Cypriot taverna, that sandwich reminded me of ancient history beneath the cobblestones–9000 years of island invasions and conquerors, Greek mythology, Roman ruins, and archeological digs. In our own time, it was a reminder of spring picnics in fields of red poppies, smooth-stoned beaches, and tile-roofed houses of old stone overlooking the sea. All told, grilled halloumi is the remembrance of a specific time and place, nourishing food, and my friend.

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Kourion Roman Amphitheater used for ISC graduation
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stones on Pissouri beach

When we lived in Cyprus, halloumi was a local product only, made and consumed on the island. Later, we lived in Taiwan, Germany and France and halloumi was forgotten.

Then one day, in a Greek delicatessen on our Parisian market street, I spied bricks of that briny cheese. The global market had caught up. Taste and memory were about to be rekindled.

There are different ways to prepare and enjoy halloumi. The easiest way is to slice it ¼ inch thick and fry in a little bit of good olive oil. When nicely browned on both sides, it is the start of a great sandwich using pita bread or a tortilla wrap. Layer in tomatoes, cucumbers, red onions, spinach or leafy lettuce.

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brown over medium heat
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add spinach, tomatoes, cucumbers, red onion
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As a snack or hors d’oeuvre, halloumi can be prepared a little differently. Cut into cubes and brown on all sides in a small amount of olive oil. When golden, place in a bowl, drizzle with a bit more oil and sprinkle with red pepper flakes. Pass out the toothpicks and eat it right away. You can make tapas with olives and fresh crudités, or enjoy the salty creaminess on its own.

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cube
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fry in olive oil
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add red pepper flakes and serve

Although I can eat halloumi cheese anywhere in the world these days, I cherish most these three things–a Mediterranean island steeped in ancient history, the camaraderie of a great friend, and a hot-off-the-grill halloumi sandwich on a cold winter day.