Elvira Estephan

I’ve always loved hearing other people’s stories. I love to hear about small and inconsequential experiences. It gives you insight into a life you may have never touched.

Elvia Estephan

I want to use this time to talk about an old woman in Lebanon named Elvira Estephan.   Elvira lived in Samer’s building in Ain El Remmaneh.   I only met Elvira one time, and she was utterly uninterested in me.   It was the first time I went to Beirut, and she stopped by to say hello to him. Elvira was a low-level grifter and eccentric in an almost Sophia Petrillo way.    She never had kids, and her neighbors mostly forgot about her by the end of her life. She will likely disappear into obscurity.  That’s probably the reason I am spending this time writing about her.  Here are the stories that I know.

Elvira had one functioning eye.   The other stopped working due to some sort of childhood infection.   As she aged, she started to lose sight in the other eye.   That never stopped her from driving, and by all reports, she got behind the wheel while blind for quite a few years.   She even got in a car accident with Samer’s mom, but it was obviously the other driver’s fault.

Elvira worked as a nurse without any training and had no bedside manner.  She sutured injured people during the Lebanese civil war.    She once drew blood from Samer’s dad for a test and was so rough she left his entire arm bruised.   She gave Samer a model human skull when he was in medical school studying anatomy.   No one asked where it came from, though most assumed she stole it from the hospital she worked in.

Samer’s family did not curse, but Elvira was prolific in it.  Samer learned all his Arabic curse words from her.  Once she used, Kess Ikhtak, which scandalized Samer’s uncle so much he stopped talking to her.  Though, her favorite curse was manyook, which is basically “fuck.”

She did not cook for herself and made her rounds in the building during the lunch hour, stopping in to say hello right when the food was served.  Obviously, an invitation was immediately extended.   Typically, she would open with “so and so, didn’t even offer me lunch when I visited.  Imagine!”  Samer’s mom would debrief the visit with the other neighbors and quickly learn that Elvira had indeed received an invitation, accepted it, and enjoyed lunch before arriving at Samer’s house for a second lunch.

One story that I even struggle to comprehend has to do with a long time con she ran to not pay her water bill.  To explain it, we need to understand how utilities are handled in Lebanon.  For some reason, changing the person’s name on a bill is very complicated.   So, imagine this: a new building is created, and you are the first person to live in it.   You’ll need to set up a utility bill.   You live there for a few years and then decide to sell your apartment and move away.   It is easier for the person who buys your apartment to keep paying the utility bill under your name than it is to change it to their name.  When paying the bill, the second owner will use the address but may even use the original owner’s name.  This is maddening to me, but that is me being very American-centric.

On to the story.  Samer’s family has lived in their apartment since the 1960s.   Before they moved in, Elvira and her brother lived in it but moved to an apartment on a lower floor.  Elvira will live in that apartment for rest of her life. This meant that Samer’s family paid their water bill under Elvira’s brother’s name for about 60 years.  (That is crazy to think about, but it is no big deal to anyone in Lebanon.)   Somewhere in 2019, the water company found out that Elvira had stopped paying her water bill.   They threatened to cut her water off. Always up for running a scam, Elvira contacted Samer’s mom to get the bill the Badr’s had been paying under Elvira’s brother’s name.  Elvira planned to say, “your records are wrong, and my brother’s account has been consistently paid for ages.” Hoping the water company staff would not realize she was were living in an apartment with a water bill under a different name. Samer’s mom didn’t help out with this con, but it was never resolved, as far as I know.

She worked her entire life and was frugal (stingy, to be honest) beyond measure.   Samer reports she did have some family and left the city in the summer to spend time with them. A family story about Elvira was that she randomly dialed numbers from her phone and talked to people who picked up on the other end.

Elvira’s victimless shittiness did have a sour note in the last few years.   She had a maid, who probably functioned like a homecare worker, who she abused. There is nothing to laugh at here, but I only mention it because it ostracized her in the building. Lebanon is rife with domestic worker abuse.  Samer’s mom had functionally moved away to her mountain apartment by this time, and his remaining family didn’t talk to her much after the abuse accusations.

The last story I know about her is that she contracted COVID-19 in the fall of 2020, and folks saw her getting into a taxi without a mask around the same time.   Going where, no one knows. Elvira died in December 2020 from COVID-19 related issues.   She was over 80 years old at the time.

Random memory from my time in Ecuador

I was watching old Conan clips today and for some reason, the one at the end of this post made me think of a memory from my time in Ecuador. I was a school teacher for 2 school years, which means you see foreign teachers come and go during that time. Many work on 2-3 year contract. During my second year a newer teacher told me they heard about me during their recruitment interview.

A lot of times there are international teaching recruitment fairs where teachers meet with with representatives from international private schools. My school had been to one to meet some teachers during my first year.

“Oh really? What’d they say?” I asked.

“It’s funny, they said you’re the elementary teacher that talks to students like they are adults.”

“What? Really? Seriously?”

“Totally and I just saw you do that, which made me think of it. I hadn’t remembered it until now.”

I always liked the fact that was my reputation and I thought it was funny that behavior stood out to the school administration. It was a totally unintentional approach to working with kids, but I never really saw the point in talking down to them. I’m not a teacher these days, so it’s probably not a long term strategy for success as a school teacher.

Any ways, I thought about it today when I saw Conan jamming with these kids for a bit.

My recipe for coquille de pain dukkah.

I made a savory roll this week and Sam enjoyed it enough he suggest I write the recipe down for the future. I named it coquille de pain dukkah. Why? Because baked goods always sound nicer when said in french. I decided to make this recipe to use up a spice blend I bought in Amman, Jordan over a year ago. The spice blend is called dukkah or duqqa. The internet says it’s Egyptian. I used this cinnamon roll recipe as the inspiration.

Ingredients:

  • 260 g of all purpose whole wheat flour.
  • 130 g of corn flour
  • 1 egg
  • 2 tsp of salt
  • 180 grams of milk
  • 1 tsp sugar
  • 57 g of butter
  • 1 tsp of year
  • 1/2 cup of of dukkah made into a paste with a little olive oil
  • Manchego cheese
  • 1 Tbsp of cornmeal

Make the dough

  1. Into a bowl add the yeast and sugar to the slightly above room temperature milk. Let it sit for 10 minutes in order to awaken the yeast. Afterward, add the softened butter, salt and egg and mix together.
  2. Combine the flours and cornmeal and add this dry mixture to your wet ingredients. Mix together to form a shaggy mass of dough.
  3. Knead the dough until it forms a smooth dough. Maybe 5 or 6 minutes. The dough will feel sticky, but just keep kneading.
  4. Shape the dough it into a ball let the dough rest on the counter for a few minutes minutes.

Fill the bread

  1. Roll the dough into a 18 x 15-inch rectangle; about a 1/4 inch thick.
  2. Spread your duqqa paste across the dough. Please do not add too much oil. Once I had a layer across the dough I shredded manchego cheese lightly on top of the duqqa mixture.
  3. Roll the dough into a cylinder and please do not to roll it tightly. It should be snug, but not tight.
  4. Slice the cylinder of dough into 12 portions. I used a serrated knife.
  5. Transfer to a greased baking pan.

Proof the Rolls

  1. Cover the pan loosely with plastic wrap and allow the rolls to rise for about 50 to 60 minutes. 

Bake

  1. Before baking add a touch of finishing salt to the top of each roll and then bake them @ 350 F for 22-25 minutes.

I’ve enjoyed these rolls this week with a little bit of butter, cheese, or even harissa. It’s a nice small, yet hearty, lunch.

A Road Trip in the time of COVID-19

We decided to take a summer road trip since we have missed all of the trips we’d planned for 2020. COVID-19 has everyone’s ability to travel and visit others completely unpredictable, so I thought I would take the opportunity when I could. We put the bikes on our car, said goodbye to our cat, and hit the road.

Harpers Ferry

We stopped in the town of Harpers Ferry for lunch and a little bit of exploring. We found a parking space on the street near Hamilton’s Tavern, so we decided to get lunch there. I thought it was expensive and not terribly impressive. $10 for 3 deviled eggs halves felt like actual robbery. I would skip it.

I did find a plaque dedicated to John Brown and the other warriors who set out to start a revolution to free slaves in America. It was above a trash can and covered by a bush. A real-world metaphor about how we understand slavery and those who rose against it: out of sight and mind unless you are looking for it.

We left Harpers Ferry to make our way to Wheeling to spend the night. The drive was beautiful. I have no idea where it was, but we stopped at a rest stop on the Maryland-Pennsylvania border and enjoyed a glorious view of the Cumberland Gap.

Roadside Barbecue 

When we were driving through Harpers Ferry, we spotted a barbecue joint and drove past it. We regretted missing it after the mediocre lunch in town. On our way to Wheeling, WV, we spotted The Stone House Restaurant in Farmington, PA. This place had a big barbecue set up with lots of outdoor seating, so we thought we’d try it out.

We parked, got out of the car, and quickly realized only one other person was wearing a mask in an outdoor restaurant of 35 people. We should have got back in the car but thought that we would be safe at a picnic table away from everyone.

Neither of us was very hungry, so we thought that we’d split their famous hog fries. A mess of french fries with barbecue pork and cheese. We approached the counter and this exchange happened:

Me: Order of the hog fries.

Stone House barbecue guy: You’re going to have to speak up. I can’t hear you with that GODDAMN mask! (Loud, assertive, and clearly trying to make a point, but cowardly enough to not make eye contact)

Me: (Very loud & trying for eye contact) 1 hog fry, 1 Coors light, and 1 grapefruit white claw.

Stone House barbecue guy: (eyes on register) That it?

Me: Absolutely nothing else.

This was our first confrontation with someone who was hostile about mask-wearing. My sister told me to expect that when I got to Ohio, but I was shocked by the “goddamn mask.” I don’t love wearing it, but it is not that big of an inconvenience.

Review: The barbecue was good, if not a touch too sweet for me. The cheese was melted wiz and was gross. A handful of shredded cheddar that the meat could melt would be better. I have no memory of the fries. No need to get this dish, it’s merely a gimmick. I’d pass this place.

The Palace of Gold

One of these things I wanted to see on our trip to Ohio was the Palace of Gold in New Vrindaban, West Virginia, near Moundsville. New Vrindaban is a Hare Krishna community in West Virginia, founded in 1968. Kirtanananda Swami started it and turned it into a cult. He seems like a pretty bad guy from my limited research. The podcast American Scandal has an 8 episode series that covers a lot of this story. Either way, the community is on the mend and trying to return to its glory days.

Visiting the Palace of Gold is weird in the best possible way. You drive through a West Virginia holler to find a Hindu temple on top of a hill. I was personally thinking, “How in the fuck did this happen?” Aesthetically, it does not seem out place. The entire complex lends itself to lush greenery and rural stillness. I was confused, curious, and a bit in awe of the whole scene. There is a vegetarian restaurant on the premise. We each had samosa, and Sam ordered a mango lassi that cloyingly sweet.

On our walk to the palace, we met a woman from NYC. She had come to New Vrindaban for the summer. She suggested we check out the rose garden. Once we got to the temple, we could not take a tour of it that day. We explored the grounds and took the advice to explore the rose garden. It’s lovely.

When we entered the palace, we met to 2 white working-class men repairing part of the palace listening to the scripture from the Bhagavad Gita while they painted. They were not in robes or anything like that, just standard work gear. Here lies a second scene that my brain struggled to compute. New Vrindaban pushed me a lot to consider my assumptions and expectations versus reality. I appreciated it.

Ohio

After the temple, we made our way to northwest Ohio to visit my family. My parents’ quarantine project was to clean out their big two-story farmhouse. It’s incredible how much they cleared out. My things are reduced to cargo trunk at the foot of a bed.

One day, Sam and I did a 25-mile bike ride from my parents’ house to my sister’s house. It was a smooth ride, but it got boring after 15 miles. It was one long country road that I’ve driven countless times in the past. I was surprised to notice patches of trees, river access points, or the genuine tranquility of the waving fields that I hadn’t before. There was a meditative quality to the entire ride, but the monotony of seeing a cornfield, a soybean field, and another cornfield started to wear on me after a while, so I was happy to be finished with it.

We ordered dinner from a fantastic taco place in Bryan called Taco’s Nacho’s (Yes, I know they missed great names like Nacho Taco or Not Yo Taco.) They are delicious authentic Mexican tacos. The lengua tacos with onion, cilantro, and their hot sauce are great. If you are in Bryan, Ohio, I highly recommend grabbing some food from this restaurant.

One day we stopped by a few farmers’ markets. I wanted to hit up a stand called Garden Thyme that makes homemade mustard and jams. I think they are outstanding, and I grabbed a couple of different mustards to take home. I also spotted a book stand. A local historian named Jim Mollenkopf was selling books he’d written about the Great Black Swamp. When I flipped through one of the books, I spotted the story of Laura Smith Haviland, an abolitionist who has a statue honoring her in Adrian, MI. These are the civil war era people that should be getting statues.

We also stopped by the Bryan Farmers’ market, but the lack of masks was a real turn off. We had planned to stop into Kora Brew House to fill a few growlers, but no one was wearing a mask. We decided it wasn’t worth the risk and headed home. On the way, we saw a group of 3 or 4 locals with signs on the corner taking action in support of the Movement for Black Lives. It was excellent seeing activists in a town that is 94% white, in which 58% of locals voted for Trump in 2016, standing in public, making it known that black lives matter.

One bit of fun I had while I was visiting was magnet fishing. Well, I thought it was going to be a lot more fun than it was. I’ve watched a ton of videos on youtube showing off people who wish creeks and ponds for metal objects using a magnet. I bought a magnet and rope and sent it to Ohio. I fished all over Holly & Spencer’s lake and only picked up a fishhook. Magnet fishing fail. Spencer soother my disappointment with a great whiskey called Eagle Rare, and we got to see others we know in the area.

We had a fun time while we were in Ohio. We spent a lot of time swimming and relaxing. Samer had us sleeping in the 40+ foot camper my parents own instead of my room, which was actually very comfortable.

Dearborn, MI

Whenever we visit northwest, we try to stop in Dearborn, MI. This is the center for Arab immigrants in the United States. We ate at Malek Al-Kabob for lunch. They had a great outdoor space where we could eat while feeling safe. We were distanced from others, and the waitress wore a face shield. This was the best meal I had on the trip. We ordered a kabob sampler with a bunch of different grilled food on abed of rice. It was spiced well, charred, and really delicious. This place gets a huge recommendation from me. I loved it. Of course, we ended with a trip to Shatila Bakery for kanafeh, seven boxes of baklava, and a 24 spinach and cheese pies for later.

Final Thoughts

I am glad we took this trip to see my family. It was an excellent way to see people, be safe, and have a change of scenery. We did not meander on our way home and just did the 9-hour drive straight through. This trip showed us why the USA is failing in response to COVID-19. People are not just anti-mask; they are still asking if the disease is real. It’s sad and frustrating. With no national leadership, coordinated approach, or collective agreement on what needs to be don, the virus will continue to rage on, and we’ll all see each other much less.

Juneteenth 2020

On Friday, I went to a Black Lives Matter action in center city Philadelphia.  I found it on sixnineteen.orgMaurice Mitchell spoke at a staff meeting and suggested to check out that site.  That guy is brilliant and has an analysis of our current moment that is incredibly compelling.  Follow him and read what he has to say.

I’ve been hesitant about attending any demonstrations, because of COVID-19.   I was relieved to find out that almost everyone was masked, and people were really trying to social distance. I’ve been to a lot of actions over the years, but I have to give use props to the organizers of this one.

We stopped traffic at 15th, and JFK Boulevard and the organizers asked us to lay on our stomachs with our arms behind our back.  They told us we would be there for 8 minutes and 46 seconds, and if we thought it would be uncomfortable, they said it would “but not as uncomfortable as having someone kneel on your neck during it.” Photo #14 of this gallery shows you what we were doing.

Everyone (including myself) laid on the ground in silence.   At the corresponding times, the organizers would quote George Floyd in a bullhorn.   It was incredibly powerful. Lying on hot filthy pavement with nothing but my own mind, hearing “Momma!” and “Momma! I’m through,” brought tears to my eyes.

We stood up and marched on to the art museum.  While one of the organizers was speaking, he said, “Remember, this movement is about love. Let’s take a minute and turn to the person next to you and tell them you love them.  Now turn to the person on your other side and tell them you love them.” It was sweet, earnest, and genuine. I’ve not been to many labor actions where we told our neighbors that we loved them.

I didn’t learn about Juneteenth until I was in my 20s, and the first time I celebrated it was 2013, I happen to be in DC for work, and my office was hosting a Juneteenth chili cook-off.  I remember thinking, “is this a DC thing?” I didn’t know anyone in Philadelphia that celebrated it.  I am so happy this holiday is becoming something that more people know about. Hopefully, white people use that day to carry some burden in the fight for racial justice so others can take a moment to celebrate emancipation.