Just two floors down in our apartment building is a Middle Eastern take out restaurant. It’s a tiny corner spot with glass on all sides. When I run by I can see the daily routine: an older guy getting ready to open up: unpacking a huge side of meat and spearing it onto a long metal probe, unpeeling tall stacks of doughy gyros wraps, oiling the huge griddle and chopping mounds of peppers and onions.
He’s a muscular, olive-skinned man with lots of thick dark hair on his head and arms. And he works with two other young men who are possibly related, but I’m not exactly sure. I’ve never once seen a woman behind the counter.
When you enter, there is a lot of gruff barking and instructing, it feels very male and charged with purpose. I have no idea what they are saying. A bit cowed, I end up mumbling and pointing my finger against the glass, just letting the guys throw together whatever they want – does anybody else do that?
For the man it’s a long day of taking orders, smearing the hummus on the pita, smiling, exchanging francs.
Endless cold parsley minced into fragrant tabouleh, pan-fried falafel that has just the right amount of crunch.
When my sister visited we grabbed a few wraps to go as we hustled off for a day in Lucerne. An hour into our train ride we ripped into the wax paper and were delighted. The aroma of the shop wafted from the warm bag, a little bit of exotic for the day. Garlic dripped onto our fingers and there was a special cucumbery sauce slathered inside.
Every day, even in bad weather, there is a line of at least 10 people snaked around the corner. The Swiss people love Im Orient, as it is called. Mac and I joke and say I’m Orient, because what is the Orient that they are referring to, and are they trying to appeal to foreigners like us who aren’t familiar with their homeland?
Occasionally in the late afternoon I see the man sitting at the little table by the window, smoking and chatting with a friend, or sometimes just gazing out at the little park across the street. Sometimes we trade glances, it’s just a small moment but I know he recognizes me as a neighbor.
Day after day, the same routine, practically automated in its precision – the same ingredients put together in a finite number of variations, each of them just a tad different, each one tasting unique even in their sameness.
Does he get bored? Does he wish for more? A place by the ocean? A plane ticket home?
One of the best things about travel is that you have the opportunity to experience the world’s variety of people – every nationality on display – you only have to look around.
And I love to see this foreign man every day, doing his life’s work. He weaves between the other men as they sashay behind the counter, their feet in a dance at once free-form but also choreographed by repetition.
And later, at dusk, I watch as his beefy arms sweep up when everyone has gone home.
I imagine that maybe he and I share a similar rhythm, a daily round, nothing to call adventurous (at least most days) but a good life.
Can you say the same of yours?
I think most of us would be happy with a simple life, simple tasks done without accolade or prestige, but our culture goads us into wanting more.
And what is that, but a longing to fill an emptiness.
And, like everyone else, my life feels like the restaurant owner’s sometimes too, in lock-step with the same grueling routines and in search of fresh inspiration.
But a job, no matter what is, can bring pride. And to feed people and see their pleasure from savoring it must be as honorable a thing to do as any.
And I wonder, is the man satisfied when he closes his eyes before bed at night?
I can’t help but think he must see those falafel wraps being assembled by his own hands automatically in front of his closed eyes, like a movie, over and over, like when you continue to see the highway before you as you lay on the pillow long after you’ve stopped driving after a road trip.
But it seems to me there is a grace to all of it: the greasy steam that puffs against the windows, the slap of the Come In We’re Open sign and ring of the bell against the door. But especially in the rare smile that I hope will be there when I round the corner, out of breath and sweaty from my run.
I’ve started to look forward to it – a small moment in a regular day, but with the extra hint of spices in the air and smiles on the customers’ faces as they make their way down the street and back to work.