The Ramadan calendar tucked into the menu was the first clue. Perhaps I should have been more alert, but we were so grateful to find a place to eat that it hadn't occurred to me to wonder why this lone coffee shop on the outskirts of London was still serving at one in the morning.
Now it all made sense. I looked around. The few other tables were filled with Middle Eastern men, eating and talking quietly among themselves, socializing after the Ramadan fast.
Why did this matter?
We are Americans and this was last November at the height of the bombing of Afghanistan. I had no idea, of course, how these men felt about the war and about Americans. If they harbored strong anti-American sentiments, my teenage sons and I could be in peril. I trusted that legendary Middle Eastern hospitality would protect us while we were in the restaurant but what about our walk back to the hotel when it was even later?
Now acutely alert to our surroundings, I watched my kids and noted their dress and speech. They exuded the enthusiasm typical of American teenagers, a vigor that none of them ever seem to suppress. Not even a neon "USA" affixed to their foreheads could have made them appear more American. They seemed to be oblivious to our circumstances. Rather sophisticated, raised on diversity, they saw nothing around them as out of the ordinary even at this extraordinary time.
Ironically, we had taken this trip to escape the politics of world events. We live in New York. The events of Sept. 11 seared our consciousness. If only for a few days, I wanted to escape the smoke from the smoldering fires of ground zero. I wanted my kids to step aside from the high school where not every parent had come home that day. Not even our home provided complete sanctuary. Our television still received only one station, a constant reminder that the transmission towers had been on top of the World Trade Center and it was gone. But now, by accident, we had plunged ourselves into the midst.
Glancing at the men at the nearby tables, I had no idea what they were saying. I couldn't identify what countries they might be from or which language they were speaking. The sounds were familiar. I knew it was a language I hear spoken in New York, but I didn't understand it. How typically American of me. I wondered if they were commenting on our presence. I realized that they were glancing at my sons and at me, but our eyes never met.
Our only protection seemed to be friendship. As our waiter approached the table, I asked sincere questions about the food and commented on the wide variety of Mediterranean dishes served. He said that much of it was Greek, though his family is Afghan. He explained the Ramadan calendar and seemed surprised that we were familiar with the holiday. He noted that we were Americans and asked where we were from. His eyes widened when I answered "New York." He exhaled a gentle "Ahhh...."
He returned with our order and we plunged in, explaining how hungry we were since it was well past dinner time at home. Tearing off pieces of pita, we scooped up fresh hummus and munched on vegetables and wonderfully bitter black olives. The waiter lingered and confided that his fiancée was in school in New York. I wondered if he was concerned for her safety or if talking with New Yorkers simply made him feel closer to her.
Pulling out a camera, I asked if we could take his photo, but he had a better idea. Turning to a nearby table, he enlisted another patron to serve as photographer as we all posed together, smiling, arms draped over one another's shoulders. With the moment preserved on film, he returned to work and we to our dinner.
After a half hour, our new friend returned to the table with a plate of fresh pita. Explaining that it was time for us to be getting back to our hotel, I asked if we might take the bread with us. My sons eagerly agreed telling him that it was the best pita they had ever eaten. Our request was met with a smile.
As the three of us zipped jackets and gathered belongings, I walked to the counter to pay our bill and collect the bread. I waited a moment while the young man gave directions to a kitchen hand in the familiar but incomprehensible language. Turning to me he switched to perfect English and told me that they were not only packing up the warm pita, but also other food for us to take. He explained carefully that he had not charged us for these items. These were a gift to us.
For a moment I just stared at the floor. I wasn't quite sure what to say and I didn't really trust my voice. Then, with measured words, I thanked him and explained that, when we entered, I didn't know if Americans would be welcome in the restaurant. I told him that we appreciated how graciously we had been treated and how much we appreciated his gift.
With a strong voice, he pointed to the blackness beyond the window and said, "What happens out there ... that is politics. What happens in here," pointing to the bright, colorful restaurant, "this is real life. You will always be welcome here. Come. Meet my father. He owns this restaurant."
He led the three of us to a corner table where a large, imposing man sat alone. Dressed in traditional clothes, the gentleman watched us approach with keen eyes that seemed to take in every detail.
"Father, I would like you to meet our new American friends. They are from New York. I have told them that they are always welcome here."
With the slightest of smiles, the gentleman nodded his head and confirmed his son's remarks. We told him how much we enjoyed the food, but the few pleasantries seemed inadequate. Our smiles and our silence said so much more.
The kids and I said goodbye and headed out into the darkness for the walk back to the hotel. Holding our gift, I could feel the warmth of the fresh bread.