Friday, June 15, 2012

It's Watermelon Season!

Watermelon is hands-down my favorite fruit. It has been since I was a kid. I remember summers spent in New Jersey, picking up a melon at the local farmer's stand, slicing it into large juicy pieces and then spitting the slippery black seeds at my sisters. A trick I learned from my uncles after having their seeds land on my shirtless back since I spent most summers in nothing but swim trunks and an occasional pair of flip flops when large stretches of molten hot asphalt needed crossing.

I was surprised at how little I actually knew about watermelon since it had been my favorite for so long. For one, it's considered a berry. I learned this from my Ukrainian coworker whose Russian schooling is in fact proving to be "the best in the world." Two, the plant had it's origins in southern Africa. And thirdly, China is the world's leader in watermelon production. The last two facts I found on Wikipedia being "schooled" by my coworker. I as usual needed a second opinion.

There is one thing that I do know about watermelons and I've known it since I've known watermelons - summer is watermelon season. Just my luck it's summertime!

If you walk or drive around Amman, you'll undoubtedly run into a fruit stand. They seem to be everywhere with huge "berries" warming in the summer sun and lucky me, there's one right next door to my favorite local bakery.

I've had a jonesing for watermelon for the past few days and I finally made some time after work to walk down to the shop and pick one out . Yup, I thumped on it to see if it sounded hollow. That's the only way I know of how to pick a watermelon.  Thumping, and making sure it's one of the largest in the bunch. I had my melon weighed and paid the four and a half JD (Jordanian Dinars) for it.

I then walked my melon home.

I would not recommend that last part. Watermelons are sweet and delicious but they are oddly shaped and awkward to carry. Especially when they weigh 12 kilos. I broke the strap to my satchel in my effort to carry this huge dessert home but I did eventually make it home at which time I promptly passed out instead of enjoying the fruits of my labor. (Do you think the first person to coin that term was also referring to watermelon?)

Putting off my feast till the morning did however allow me to have some fun with my camera. It also gave me the opportunity to chill the behemoth in the fridge - sun warmed and chilled are both great ways to enjoy this fruit but given the choice I'd have mine close to frozen. My friend Mo excitedly asked me in the morning, "Are we gonna cut the big green one?"

Arabs enjoy watermelon as much if not more than I do. They have also added many ways to enjoy this fruit and eat it at every opportunity. Take notes America: I've been impressed to see it enjoyed as an after dinner desert; fresh fruit instead of a processed dessert - very impressed. It's also served as an appetizer with fried cheese which was delicious - the hot, stringy, cheese made for a perfect salty combination to the sweet, chilled, crunch of the watermelon. I later tried watermelon with the same cheese without it being fried - not as good but I can see the appeal. The un-fried version of the cheese was just a little too salty for my taste. Fresh watermelon juice - yes please - awesome!

I love Amman! It's the bees' knees and those knees are covered in sticky watermelon juice as are my fingers and cheeks after devouring half the melon in one sitting.

On to more adventures in Jordan!

Hahaha, I laughed at these pictures. I was trying to get one to look like Rene Magritte's "Son of Man" painting. I think I needed a little more practice with the timing. 

The Bread Shop

I am a huge fan of the "mom and pop." This concept has largely lost it's flavor and value in the states as we've big-boxed every kind of shop and created cookie cutter strip malls across the states. This is of course a generalization but for the the majority of America today most purchases are done via one-stop shops that have everything from bread and veggies to hair dryers and picture frames.

I miss specialty shops in the states basically because they're special. A bakery is great because they make the best breads, cookies, cakes and other delicious treats fresh from the oven. Bakeries however suck at giving me a slice of meat. For that I would go to a butcher. I have never been able to find a baked good baked in a Stop and Shop "bakery" as tasty or fresh as one found in a stand-alone bakery owned by Mr. and Mrs. Franzonelli. (I don't actually know a Mr. and Mrs. Franzonelli, but I believe you get the point.)

Still a crowd at 2 a.m.
Thankfully, the Middle East, or at least Amman, still cultivates the stand-alone. And oh how they stand alone! Our first visit will be to the local bakery because I'm hungry and bread is filling.

This bakery stands on a corner right down the street from our studio in Swefieh. I'm pretty sure the place is open 24 hours as I've been there at 2 in the morning and it had a steady flow of customers. If I knew more Arabic I'd ask but I'll just go with an assumption at this point and maybe show up randomly at 4 or 5 to test the theory.
Buttery smooth cookies!

The best aspect of the bakery is of course the wonderful array of flavors to be had from its variety of products. However a close second would have to be the different aromas wafting through the air in and just outside the shop. There are sickly sweet smells when walking past the fresh Kinafi; smooth vanilla  from pretzel shaped cookies; the smell of poppy, sesame, and other seeds I'm not quite familiar with aerate the right side of the shop; and even a familiar smell of tomato past comes from a rack of Arab style pizzas.

Almost burnt myself.
I especially enjoy walking through the aisles of baked goods when the bakers have brought out a fresh rack of breads. The warmth radiating off of the old, warn racks reminds me of burning myself as a kid when I couldn't wait to get at the bread or muffins my mum would make. I know for a fact that she'd make a daily visit to this place not only to pick up a few items, but also to get some ideas to try in her own oven.

Warm, flat and slightly chewy
The prices is this place are incredibly reasonable The first thing I bought from this place was a large pita-like flat bread which I used like an edible spoon  for some locally make hummus. Each bread is about a foot in diameter and costs around 10 cents. A few bakers stand in the back of the bakery in front of large stacks of this bread and weigh it out for customers. I still buy mine by the quantity, talata or arba (3 or 4), but all the locals just come in and ask for a given weight - in kilograms of course.

Most items in the bakery are priced by weight but there are specialty items priced by the unit - things like Tiramisu, individual cheesecakes, or fist-sized macaroons. The huge macaroons lie in heaps on top of cookie sheets and beckon to me with their crisp, shiny finish. They're lacquered mounds of chewy coconut goodness that cost me only 35 cents and maybe a salsa or two on the dance floor.

I haven't tried everything from here yet but I have every intention of doing just that before I leave. If you ever find yourself in Amman for a visit make sure you stop at the nearest bakery. Like Chip and Dale floating through the air to a freshly baked stack of hotcakes - just follow your nose.
Flaky stuffed crusts!

Mounds of deliciousness!
Variety of sweets.
Fancy desserts in the desert.
Bread, bread, bread, bread.

Friday, June 8, 2012

The Dead Sea Comes Alive

Today I took a trip to the Dead Sea. The lowest point on Earth. I went with two goals in mind. 1 - Float in the super-saturated-salty water. 2 - Avoid being burnt to a crisp by the intense desert sun. (Being supremely white I usually have a problem with overexposure.) I met my two goals but thankfully my expectations were blown out of the dead water and I got way more out of the trip than what I had sought.

On the way to the Dead Sea... my first Camel sighting!!! I spotted a few on the side of the road just outside of Amman. However as the journey continued, I found out where they had all been hiding - where all things go when they want to get away for a good time - the beach! At an increasing interval a lone camel would be lying on the sidewalk along the road to the sea. My friend and constant tour guide told me that they were there for tourists to ride or to take pictures with. (I'm sorry but there are times when I still don't know how to avoid ending a sentence without a preposition) The camel's owners were simply out of site seeking shade beneath some tree or in a nearby hut. Made me wonder how far I could get if I just jumped on the back of one quickly and tried to make off with him; little mid-East camel jacking for a fun side-adventure. My friend didn't let me stop.

Apparently it's a law that you can't swim in the Dead Sea except for in designated areas. My understanding is that it has to do with the propriety of bathing in public. Thus, to swim in the sea you must pay to enter one of the waterfront resorts or hotels and use their designated areas. I confirmed first hand though, that you wouldn't want to take a dip unless you had a shower immediately present. The amount of salt and other minerals in the water is so intense that your skin starts to burn slightly after being in the water for too long.

The best way to experience the swim in the sea is to first coat yourself in a layer of Dead Sea mud. The mud has loads of minerals that are apparently great for your skin and the gritty texture reminded me of an exfoliating scrub. Some people would actually just rub themselves up with the mud and then rinse off. But who would want to miss out on the float test?

Float test indeed! I love water and I love swimming and floating in it. My skin and bones though pretty much just sink in pools and lakes. I do much better in the ocean and I've had the fun opportunity of try out my buoyancy in the Great Salt Lake. However that all pales in comparison to feeling like a human bobber after wading into the super saturated waters of the Dead Sea.

Ever notice the wavy lines in water after you've dissolved a ton of sugar into it? That's what you get when you disturb the Dead's waters and because there really aren't any waves lapping the rocks of the shore, you're the only thing that would make any noise or ripples in the water.  It was a little strange to see. Otherwise though, it was crystal clear and a beautiful blue-green color. It didn't have a noticeable salty smell but then again I had just rubbed mud from the sea floor all over myself so I may have been numb to the smell by that time. The water was actually slippery to touch and you come out feeling like you've been doused in a nice olive oil. Lets keep track of what senses I've covered now- sight, sound, smell, and touch.

Should I keep with the science theme? Yup, I tasted it! Bad mistake! Bad mistake! I should have left science back in grade school. "Oh it burns!" That's a movie quote I just don't know which one. But it did in fact burn. I'm guessing from the sheer amount of salt. It also tasted extremely bitter. Is it bases that taste bitter? My conclusion - the Dead Sea is a base, one that is totally fun to float in but not for too long or your skin may start to fall off. I didn't stay long enough to find out. At the start of this adventure I had set that goal of protecting my skin after all.

So that was my dead sea experience. However there was way more to this day than just the water. There was in fact dancing and that's how the Dead Sea trip started! See... the whole point for my friends to take the trip down to the sea was to go to a party. Mine was the sea itself but who's going to pass up on a party?

I wish I had a video crew with me because we could have filmed Arabs on Spring Break for MTV. It was a private promotion party for Amstel. I'm not sure why they needed to have a promotional party because it's been the only beer I've found on tap in this country but nonetheless here we were in the middle of the desert, next to the deadest body of water on earth, truly coming alive and celebrating life.

Music is a must to make any party a success. The better the music, the better the party. And where there is music, there is dancing, especially when encouraged in such a way by the beverages of the host. Nothing about this dancing was textbook and I'm not sure any of it could actually be taught in a class. However the beauty of dance is that it is supposed to be a fluid expression of your reaction to a sound or feeling. That's exactly what this was and it's often what is lost or overlooked when trying to teach or learn how to dance.

I believe too often the I've lost site of the purpose of dance when trying to get a student to learn a box step or get them to use proper footwork in a "three and feather." Those things are definitely useful in building a set of tools which in the end can free a person to express themselves more clearly. Much like a child learning words to express that they are upset rather than just screaming their fool head off. However if the purpose - to express a feeling - is lost in learning steps or techniques, then I've lost the heart and soul of dance and probably the heart and soul of the student dancer.

I hope that I can always be uber-buoyant in life, always rising back to the surface if I ever begin to slip below. While I continue teaching, I'll attempt to always remember the true purpose of dance and if I do start to forget, maybe a bitter taste in my mouth will be all the reminder I need to return to the surface of things.

I'm not sure of what a blog length should be but this does seem rather long. I think I'll try for something shorter here forward. Any feedback would be appreciated.


Every adventure begins with expectations: preconceived notions of the unknown. I make sure to always have mine before I set out. Before I left CT I had a clear picture of what I was going to run into on my adventure into the Middle East. I had never stepped foot one into this part of the world but I knew exactly what was going on! Its like the hypothesis at the start of a science experiment. Based on your careful observations of the world around you - stories from friends, research on the internet, movies and television - you create a vivid picture in your mind of what's to come.

The great part about expectations and hypotheses is that they more often than not get completely blown out of the water (with the exception of grade school science experiments which aren't so much experiments in science as they are elaborate art projects - cool! purple lava!). But that's the whole reason for an adventure in the first place! Not to recreate someone else's experience or to prove what you've had in our head is true, but to have your mind totally blown away by a new experience and have that memory burned into your mind for all eternity. Plus you get some way cooler facebook updates than "going to the mall."

My expectations of Jordan were probably pretty standard: third-world, not going to be able to communicate with anyone nor read the road signs, weird food and camels, loads of camels! I love being wrong! Well except when it comes to camels, I really wish there were more camels.

Along with not seeing a single camel to date I have also been really surprised by how Amman is so westernized. I honestly haven't had that much of a problem getting around or eating. We'll get to the food later because it honestly needs its own library of entries, but I haven't had issues getting the food which is the point here; I believe I've put on ten pounds since getting here. Basically, the majority of people here speak passable English if not fluent. Surprisingly however, the people you'd expect to be able to speak English the best - Taxi drivers - probably have the lowest likelihood in my experience of being able to communicate with you. I've really had to work on my Italian over here - lots of hand gestures and talking way to loud for being that close to someone.
Along with English being spoken by most folks and signs having, at a minimum, understandable translations, the Americanization of Amman is pretty surprising. Of course I expected to see McDonald's and Burger King. However, the surprising thing is the amount of other American chains I've seen - Popey's, Chilli's, Applebees, even Fudruckers. I have made it a point though to not eat at an American chain unless feeling extremely homesick. So far, no burgers for me.

Because English is so prevalent I also haven't had any major language barrier hang-ups while teaching dance lessons. It would have been better had I come from the south though. I have had to work on slowing down everything I say. Blank stares usually mean I've gone a mile  minute for far too long or that I've used some colloquial phrase that doesn't quite translate. For instance I've been saying goodbye to everyone for three weeks with "have a good one" and one of the students finally asked me, "A good one of what?" I felt like I was in the Smores scene from The Sandlot.

I'm sure the longer I'm here, the more I'll be surprised and pleased with how faulty my vision of Amman and the rest of the Middle East had been. Still looking forward to new experiences and fun opportunities to dance.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012


Life is an adventure. So is dancing. Don't believe me? Try this: step out onto a crowded dance floor. Wait, stop. I already forgot something - where's the girl? Start there! Go ask a girl to dance - knees week, palms sweating, heart pounding in your ears? Same feeling you get standing on the edge of the Grand Canyon staring out into space, hoping against everything that the earth you're standing on doesn't suddenly give way.

Dancing alone - definitely an adventure! Walk into your local supermarket, bank or even at the coffee station at work; strap on a set of headphones and bust a move to your favorite tunes. No?!? Why not? Not a big enough rush for you?

Dancing is definitely an adventure that enriches life and strengthens the fabric of your soul. I've heard many of my mentors say that, "Everyone has rhythm. Everyone who has a heart beat has a rhythm. Dancing is your way of letting that rhythm come out of you and greet the world."

I've allowed dancing to take a hold of me and I now find myself half way around the world teaching ballroom dance to individuals I may never have gotten a chance to know otherwise. I love adventures and I love dancing. The fact that I'm now setting out on adventures because of dancing is truly unbelievable to me. I've been blessed.

I was asked by some students I had the opportunity to teach back in CT to share with them the adventure I am now on and I am happy to do so. I'll try to be as real as possible and share the ins and outs of living abroad in Jordan. I'll also make every attempt I can to discuss dancing, music, food, and the other things that enrich the lives we lead.

I hope you enjoy the blog and give dancing a try if you haven't yet; I believe it will truly change your life!