Shanghai Sun – The Curse of the General; Chapter 42 (Turkish coffee on a Sunday afternoon)

An American Executive travels to China to solve the mystery of funds drainage from the company he works for.

Once in Shanghai, he finds himself tangled into a world of mysticism, into a world of traditions going back hundreds of years, into a world of philosophical meanings meant to close cosmological paths and previously set destinies.

Action, romance, drama, humor, History, Geography and Philosophy – they all come together in an attempt to blend the dynamic western way of life onto the rich Chinese culture and uncanny traditions.

Chapter 42

Turkish coffee on a Sunday afternoon

Ismail showed up followed by two apprentices (apparently) who was each bringing a large tray loaded with goodies; immediately memories from their trip to Anatolia surfaced. Linda remembered their good times in Turkey, the sweets they ate, the fresh fruits from the farmers market, the great dinners they had while watching the crystal clear waters of the Mediterranean Sea. However, Linda couldn’t see the coffee. Shortly, she realized that another helper standing behind the two plate bearers was holding something strange which was releasing a heavenly smell. It was a sort of wooden box which apparently had something burning inside. Soon her wonders were completely shattered when the two boys carrying the plates placed them onto the table and immediately after stepped aside thus making room for the third one to step forward. Linda realized that it was a ritual well planned and studied, a mini show which was probably done for the important guests and most likely had a known significance. The young bearer of the coffee chest stepped back and all three helpers left as quietly and elusively as they came. It was Ismail’s turn to carry on. Slowly he kneeled and started stirring into something. Linda’s curiosity was shown on her face, making their host smile. He made a discreet sign, telling Linda to approach and watch. It was a magic moment: he was making coffee into a large ibrik which was slowly boiling into a bed of fine hot sand. The fire source must’ve been underneath the sand layer as she felt a comforting wave of heat radiating from underneath. The wooden box must’ve been made out of pine tree as the familiar smell of the resinous family was tickling her nostrils. She immediately remembered this coffee making technique, very common in Middle East. Next moment was truly impressive: with a dexterity which betrayed lots of practice during many years of experience, Ismail pulled two wonderfully decorated ceramic cups, placed them in front of his guests and half-filled them up. Then from a little red box found on the fruit plate, he took one little cube of sugar and put it into Linda’s cup. Slowly stirred until a nice, goldish layer of foam covered the entire surface. Then, with a slow and meticulous motion he finished up filling the cup. Again he started stirring very carefully until another layer of foam, thicker than the previous one encompassed the whole surface of the liquid.

-The smell is out of this world, to say the least! Linda was truly sincere with her statement, which made Ismail bow even more and thank again for the visit.

-Allah sizi korusun, Mrs. Parker! It is my pleasure to have you and Mr. Glenworth as my guests. Then, as elusively as his helpers, he disappeared.

It was a moment of deep silence. Ismail’s departure created a difficult moment for sure. However, J.J. realized the awkwardness of the situation and quickly broke the silence:

-What do you think of this table, Linda? He asked the question with a large and candid smile on his face. He knew that he managed to impress Linda by taking her at this unusual place.

-Stunning! I think I remember all these goodies which are placed on this plate, said Linda while pointing at one of the plates.

-Of course you remember. This stuff is very common in Turkey as well as in Middle East. But the Turks took it to a different level of refinement and sophistication. It is called Turkish delight – you know this – or in Turkish is: lokum. It was the preferred desert of many great Sultans including Suleiman the Magnificent. It takes great knowledge to make it and only master confectioners knew all the secrets to make this great dessert. Then, as the time passed by, it became more and more sophisticated when the masters started mixing the gelatin with all sort of nuts or dried fruits. For instance, on this plate we have samples of this famous gelatin mixed with (at this point, J.J. started pointing at each different assortment): pistachios, almonds, hazelnut, walnut, coconut, rose petals, dates, dried apricots and even marshmallows. We do have few samples of “rahat lokum” and you can see that they are plain – no fillings. Master Turkish confectioners are saying that the true art and skill of a confectioner is shown when he makes this product. And the reason is that in this case you do not have the help of the nuts or the fruits to enhance the flavor. You have to completely rely on the gelatin and whatever aromatic essences you are using. For instance, we have these red samples – I am one hundred percent sure they are using rose petals syrup and essence. How about these beautiful yellow ones? You already guessed: they are made with lemon essence…the art is to balance the sweet gelatin with the lemon juice or essence. How about these gorgeous orange ones? Of course they are using oranges or mandarins. And so on…the variances are unlimited. At this point, J.J. stopped and with a voice which transpired knowledge and authority said:

-Let’s have our coffee now. But before we start sipping from this gorgeous looking cups, I suggest we have some fruits: white grapes first, then a couple of slices of orange and we finish with two or three cubes of cantaloupes.

Linda followed J.J.’s advice and started eating the fruits in the exact order mentioned by J.J. The flavor and the taste of these fruits was so different from what they were buying at grocery store…she couldn’t stop smelling the fruits prior to eating them.

J.J. smiled and with the tone of somebody who knows the business said:

-You cannot find them in our grocery stores. This sort of fruit quality would make the price go high and no grocer chain can afford it. Not too many people would buy and they would eventually go bankrupt.

-Still, how does he manage to bring such high quality products into his store? Now I remember (it is almost like yesterday) the smell of the fresh fruits when we were wondering through the fruit markets of Antalya, Aleppo, Jerusalem or Haifa. I could’ve spent the whole day there, just smelling those fruits!

-Of course! They are using sustainable agricultural land management programs and this is the reason why their fruits and vegetables are so tasty. These countries are still preserving their centuries old techniques of farming and the result is obvious: high quality products free of chemicals and additives. I will have to ask Ismail where he is getting his fruits from…in spite of the fact that we’ve been known each other for long time (and I can say that we are good friends), I don’t think he will tell me. J.J. pulled a loud laughter out of his massive frame and in spite of the fact that Linda was into a self-protective mode, she joined in.

-And you two guys are friends?

-Yeap…but business it’s business. No friendship, no feelings are interfering with the way or the decisions you are making when doing business.

Linda startled! “Is this statement directed at me? Is he trying to tell me that the fact he sent John to China and left him hanging it is business as usual? Bastard! I have to be careful now”

J.J. was tasting the fruits one after another one, slowly and methodically. He was leaving the impression that his whole attention was concentrated into getting the most out of the fruit’s flavor. Periodically he was closing his eyes into a gesture of absolute delight while chewing onto small slices or cubes from the tray in front of them. Linda decided to follow and soon her taste buds were indeed feeling the aroma of those fruits while her nostrils were dilating every time she was bringing a slice close to her mouth. “God these fruits are so tasty!”

It didn’t take long before most of the fruits were gone…

-We did a fantastic job! There is not much left! J.J. pulled another big laughter out of his large chest. Now it’s time we taste some lokum. You probably like the filled style, but I strongly recommend you also taste rahat lokum – the simple one – no fillings. I need your opinion.

-I will sure try it out. But for the beginning, I will go for the pistachios filled lokum.

-Great choice. Let me know how you like it…

Linda took a bite out of one of them…instantaneously, she remembered the taste of this dessert they were buying from the vendors directly on the streets of Antalya or Jerusalem. The smell, the taste, the colors and the aromas of those products they tasted many years ago came back with the same intensity as if it was yesterday. So many memories rushed in! A beautiful smile sparkled on her lips, smile which made her whole face shine and glow, glaze and glisten. J.J. was closely watching her reactions…he was too versed and trained into human psychology not to spy on his interlocutor’s state of mind, on her feelings, on her ability to hide all of the above. When Linda realized that J.J. is watching her emotions, she turned into a stone. A blank face replaced that gorgeous smile. From that moment the discussion became a chess game. Each player was actually trying to guess his opponent’s next move, next emotional reaction and next fall back. The conversation turned into a banal chit-chatting in which the answers and the questions were almost mono-syllabic. Few moments of embarrassing silence followed up and J.J. realized that he has to break the ice once again.

-A little time ago, I saw a great smile on your face, Linda…was that a smile of nice memories coming back?

Linda startled and looked at him with an almost hostile state of mind. “Unbelievable! This guy can read minds!” She became frustrated and impatient and for the moment she decided to raise her guard even higher in an attempt to watch between her gloves his next move.

-Linda, why did you pick this particular church for your Sunday Mass?

The question fell like a hammer! Earlier, J.J. answered the same question by saying that he had relatives in the neighborhood. Amazingly, his relatives’ names were Peter and Andrew! Now she was frightened! J.J. was somehow related to the two men which made such a great impression on her, he was relative with Peter who showed up in the church and prayed with her and made her believe that her father re-incarnated into his body…

Every move J.J. was making, put her into a defense mode, asked her to take a step back and pushed her into the corner. It was a situation Linda couldn’t take anymore…she decided to throw all the cards on the table and point blank ask J.J. what he wants, ask him why he asked her to join him for this afternoon coffee into such unusual place? She felt like she was running out of aces, she felt like no more steps backward needed to be taken! She was ready to throw the question out there, when out of nowhere, Ismail showed up; as elusively as he slipped away, he made his way back…

-Is everything ok? Is everything as you had expected? How were the fruits? How about the lokum? I hope the coffee didn’t get cold! Let me fill up the cups…it looks like we need a little work to be done here. Without even getting the permission from the two guests, he poured the coffee from the two cups into a secondary recipient which was immediately picked up by a helper and taken away; then he started stirring into the large ibrik he had on the hot sand. The smell of the freshly brewed coffee encompassed the boot again and the flavors of the roasted beans brought again a sense of calmness, a sense of serenity and forgiveness, a sense of peace and tranquility.

Linda was stunned…”How come he showed up exactly when I wanted to confront J.J.? These two guys are for sure hand in hand! But how do they communicate to each other?” Linda was furious! However, something inside her heart told her to hold back, told her not to ask the questions she was ready to ask…

-Now is the right time to taste the coffee, Linda! We had the fruits, we had some lokum…now the time is perfect to take few sips from this heavenly made liquid.

J.J. picked up his cup and with a sort of: “cheers” gesture, he closed his eyes, slowly sipped from the high quality ceramic cup he had in his hand and then put it back on its little plate on the table while still keeping his eyes closed.

“What a fraud! What a show off!” Linda was not happy at all with the way things were progressing. “I was about to spill the beans, when Ismail showed up all of a sudden! And now, J.J. is keeping his eyes closed, in an attempt to tell me that he wants to enjoy his coffee! This charade has got to stop! Does he think I am a school girl he can twirl around his fingers and do whatever he wants with me?”

Again she wanted to ask J.J. the questions which bothered her…and once again Ismail showed up.

-Do you need anything else? Mrs. Parker, how is the coffee? I wish you are enjoying your stay here, at my humble place.

Linda was perplex! The second time she wanted to take it to J.J., Ismail showed up. It looked to her that he was somehow J.J.’s guardian angel. She was now fuming with frustration, but then she looked at Ismail…his face was transpiring such a genuine, childish happiness; it such a great way to say thank you for visiting…this took all her anger away. His tanned, wrinkled face, coupled with the greatest and kindest smile, made her drop the weapons. There was so much genuine kindness in his smile, there was so much gratitude and appreciation in his words! Linda put her cup down on the plate and looked at her host. His little eyes were radiating with joy and humbleness, with pleasure and happiness. Linda was once again into a puzzled situation…”This is the second time he is preventing me from speaking up, from spilling the beans, from taking it to J.J.; why is this happening? What sort of ties are between him and J.J.? Why is he always showing up when I want to ask J.J. some straight forward questions?” Linda didn’t know anymore how to react. However she remembered an advice from her dad…an advice he gave her long, long time ago: “Linda, when you find yourself at the cross-roads and don’t know which way to go, sit back and listen. If listening is not enough, just let Good Lord make that decision for you”. She smiled again, looked up and in her mind said again: “Thanks Dad! I will let Good Lord make the decision for me; right now I’m stuck…I am serious, dad: I am stuck” She managed to put up a great smile on her face, lifted up the coffee cup and sipped from the dark goldish brown liquid. Then she sipped again, and again…a strange feeling of acceptance and peacefulness encompassed her. The confrontation and adversity perception left her mind, leaving room just for harmony and serenity. She couldn’t explain this metaphoric state of mind, so she decided to let it go, as the advice from her father surfaced up.

J.J. was in a transcendence like type of mode. He was sipping slowly from the cup and then placing it back on the plate while keeping his eyes closed. It was a sort of saying: “don’t disturb me”. Linda complied with this new scenario and decided to enjoy this truly special coffee.

Finally, when they were almost done, J.J. opened his eyes and as loosely as he had his coffee, he invited Linda to have another lokum.

-Now it’s time to finish up…please try the rahat lokum…we have four choices: orange, lemon, rose and mango. Without inviting Linda again, he picked up a mango square. Linda looked at the plate and grabbed a reddish piece. It was a rose flavored rahat lokum. The first bite she had, made her mind travel back to the times of their honey moon travelling…it was literally like smelling a rose from the garden! It was so flavored and the perfume of the roses in blooming came back. It was so tasty and real, it was so genuine and flavorful! “This is out of this world! So delicious and so tasteful!”

Few more minutes went by, time in which both J.J. and Linda enjoyed the sweets they chose. Nobody was saying a word anymore. And it looked like Linda seized from asking the questions she wanted to ask. She leaned back against the comfortable pillows and enjoyed the delicious dessert while sipping from time to time from the coffee she had left into the cup. They systematically avoided each other’s eyes…it was a sort of armistice and gentlemen’s agreement between them: “nobody takes charge anymore”. This situation frustrated Linda, as she wanted more answers from J.J.

But she also realized that he was a heavy weight player, who will not give up anything if he wanted to do so.

-I think it’s time to say thank you to our host…do you want anything else, Linda?

-Everything was fantastic, J.J.! I am good. I guess we can go now.

-Very well. I thank you for a lovely Sunday evening.

-The pleasure was all mine, J.J.! I thank you for introducing me to this great and unusual place.

-Anytime, Linda. Whenever you want to have a good coffee and some great sweets, just drop by Ismail’s coffee house. It’s not that far from your house.

-Absolutely! I will take John here, as soon as he returns.

-I am sure he would like it. Shall we go?

-Yes, please. I thank you again for your invitation.

-Pleasure is all mine.

They stood up and headed for the exit. On their way, Ismail greeted them again:

-Many thanks for visiting my place, Mr. Glenworth and Mrs. Parker!

-Kesinlikle memnun, efendi Ismail!

-Zevk bana ait, Mr. Glenworth. Allah seninle oslun, Mrs. Parker…may Allah be with you, Mrs. Parker

-And with you too, Efendi Ismail!

-Let me show you to the door…Ismail took charge and headed for the exit. Their shoes were waiting for them as well as their coats. Linda was shocked that Ismail never brought a bill…”It looks like J.J. has a running bill here; I guess he can afford it” She felt like giggling, but stopped short from doing so. She didn’t fully understand what the business relationship was between them, so she kept quiet. Once out of the door, J.J. took his hat off and with a slight tilt of his head thanked Linda for a great afternoon.

-The pleasure was mine, J.J. and as I said: I thank you for inviting me to such a lovely and unusual place.

-It was a great pleasure to have you as a companion today, Linda. As always, your grace and style are turning heads.

-Thank you again, J.J. I hope you will enjoy the rest of your weekend.

-You too, Linda.

Both of them started heading for their cars, when J.J. stopped and with a voice as authoritarian and at the same time as protective as it could be, he called Linda:

-Linda!

She stopped and turned around completely puzzled:

-Yes, J.J.! Is there something wrong?

-No Linda…nothing wrong. I just wanted to tell you that I never ever betrayed my friends and I will never ever do it, no matter how dire the situation is for me! I would rather die than leaving a friend hanging. This is all I wanted to say. You have a good night and may Good Lord watch over you.

Within few seconds J.J. got into his car and disappeared. His last sentence made Linda understand that he read all her fears, all her doubts and questions. Now she was scared: “He can read minds! Who is J.J.? Is John right in saying that he is part of the story? Then why he sent John there?” Her mind was now trying to comprehend all the information she has got in the last twenty-four hours…however, J.J.’s last sentence brought her to an ease: “I will never ever betray a friend…”

A smile flourished on her lips…she started the engine and soon she found herself on the freeway. The trees on the side of the road were zooming by. But her mind was still at the conversation she had with John…”J.J. is involved into this China business; the question is: at what extent, at which level? Well, at least he is saying that he will not betray John”

She stepped on the gas pedal and left all the worries behind her. Somehow, she now trusted that John will not be left hanging, as J.J. said. Soon, she pulled into the driveway.

 

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