It’s one of the most wonderful things about travelling: meeting people from other places. And this simple, joyful activity, which can open your heart and shake up your mind, is an easy way to “travel at home”.
Recently I met Micheal (yes, that is how he spells it), who runs a Lebanese pizza store in Spotswood, Melbourne. I was admiring his shopfront and my tummy was telling me it was lunchtime, when he practically hauled me inside. Micheal turned out to be quite a character, generous and emotional, who offered stories, advice and jokes to every customer. Not to mention his array of flatbreads, topped with various combinations of herbs, meats and vegetables. In keeping with Micheal’s humorous customer service style, each pizza features an unexpected name, apparently designed to accompany his “cheesy” one-liners.
Micheal talked a-mile-a-minute as he served my lunch. He described his personal philosophies — emphasising honesty and integrity — and he told me a bit about his shift across the world.
Micheal arrived in Melbourne from Lebanon in the late 1960s, having served in the police force there. He and his bride-to-be were seeking a better life but they found living in Australia very difficult to begin with, particularly since neither of them spoke English and they had no friends or family here. Despite this, Micheal and his wife created a life for themselves in Melbourne; they made a family and a succession of small businesses. Tenacity and hard work were the key ingredients to their success, it seems, with the addition of some assistance from kind people along the way.
He thinks Australia is full of opportunities, but notes that this has a dark side that can be especially treacherous for newcomers.
“In Australia, you have freedom, you have a nice country but all the drugs, casino, drinking… It can break your family.”
Culturally, a key difference that Micheal has noticed (and seems keen to change, given his fondness for a chat) is the way that Australians mostly keep to themselves. He thinks it makes for a lonely existence.
“Over there, in Lebanon, you walk down the street, you say hello, people say hello, you know your neighbours. Here, I’ve been in this shop nearly twenty years and I walk here from my car, he walks past, he doesn’t say hello. He knows me! He has a shop just up there, he doesn’t say hello! You finish work, you get in your car, you go home, you feel boring.”
A glance at the photographs and news clippings on the walls of Micheal’s shop make it clear that he still feels very attached to his homeland, in fact he visited only a few months ago. For potential travellers to Lebanon, he recommends Jounieh, a coastal city that sounds like a real party town with a big festival taking place soon.
“If you want to go there, go in June, July, August. Beirut gets hot but just north, in Jounieh, it is good. Lebanon is not flat, you know, it goes like this (he makes a sloping motion). In Jounieh you have hills, the water, the view… ”
If you won’t be heading to Lebanon any time soon, but would like to experience a small taste of it, Micheal suggests visiting him at his shop, Al Nada (which seems to be named after this cultural renaissance). He gets up at crazy-o’clock to make the Lebanese pizzas fresh each morning and there are all sorts of varieties, including vegetarian ones. I was most startled when he served me a cheese-filled one with honey: unexpectedly delicious!
The traditional names for these topped flatbreads, which are breakfast and street food staples in the Middle East, include manakish and man’oushe, and they often use spicy zaatar. Recipes can be found here, here and here; I look forward to making some for my family since they enjoyed Micheal’s so much.
Meanwhile, as Micheal reflects fondly upon his old country of Lebanon, he shows how attached he has become to his new home in Australia.
“I always say Lebanon is my mother and Australia is my father. All my family is here. When I am there… I think of family here.”
My experience with Micheal was a great reminder that talking to someone new is a great way to learn something about another place. But perhaps more importantly is the simple act of making a connection with a person from somewhere else. It’s good for both of you!
Thank you, Micheal.