Thursday, December 08, 2005

East meets West

Last night, I had the distinct pleasure of having dinner with Baghdad Treasure, a distinguished journalist and fellow blogger who is visiting the United States from Baghdad.

We'd planned this dinner from about a month ago. I knew when Baghdad Treasure was coming and that he was going to be in town in New York for about a week, so we had planned that when he was here we'd meet up for dinner.

Now, doing dinner in Manhattan at a nice restaurant is not something you do on a whim. You have to put some planning into it, or you're going to get screwed.....

The first tricky part of going for dinner in New York is securing reservations at a good restaurant - and since I knew Baghdad Treasure was coming from a long way away, and this was his first time here, I really wanted to take him to a very good one. Of course, part of the reason I'd planned our dinner for a Wednesday was I knew I could get something - you want dinner in a good restaurant on a Saturday, you may need a reservation booked days or even weeks in advance. My first pick was Peter Luger, a famous steakhouse in Brooklyn. I called around noon, but they were booked solid. So, my next pick was Ruth's Chris Steakhouse in Midtown - I called them up and got lucky: they had an opening, and we had our reservation.

The second tricky part was figuring out where to meet. I was driving a car, and in the heart of New York, you can't exactly pull over and park on the curb in rush hour (unless you relish the thought of watching your car leave on the back of a tow truck). Fortunately, Baghdad Treasure had acquired himself a cellphone and I was able to coordinate with him from my car, and was able to pull over on 7th Avenue and pick him up.

I'd never met Baghdad Treasure in person before, and it was a bit new for him too: I was only the second blogger he'd met, the first was my friend Hassan in Baghdad. The first thing I realized was that Baghdad Treasure shared one thing in common with me: the love of talking. Given my way, I'd tend to monopolize on a conversation, but with Baghdad Treasure around, I would never have this opportunity - he likes to talk too. And, over the next six hours we talked and talked and talked and neither of us wanted to shut up.

We drove near Central Park and through Times Square and I parked my car in a garage on 51st Street and walked over to Ruth's Chris Steakhouse - one of my favorite restaurants. We waited in the bar area and ordered drinks (apple martini for me, Heineken for Baghdad Treasure) and stood there talking about the situation in Iraq and his experiences in New York. After we were brought to our table, we continued our conversation over a meal of filet mignon, asparagus with hollandaise sauce, and a very nice bottle of 2001 vintage Chateauneuf du Pape.

I wonder what the waiter and some of the folks around us were thinking if they overheard us and some of the conversations we were having. We talked about the difference between an "insurgent" and a "terrorist" (and that there seem to be a lot more of the latter than the former these days), and about blogs and comments and some of the posts he'd written or I'd written. We talked about the Iraqi economy and where I think its possibilities are, about what it's like to be a journalist in Baghdad, and about all sorts of other things (my background, his background, how he became a journalist, how I got into blogging, etc.).

After Ruth's Chris, we walked over to Times Square and Baghdad Treasure looked around marveling at the bright lights, and took a number of pictures, then stopped in at a souvenir store and bought several miniature Statue of Liberty replicas, keychains, mantle plates, and other souvenirs to give his friends and family when he gets back to Baghdad.

After leaving the souvenir shop, we got my car, and I took Baghdad Treasure for a circuit tour around the island of Manhattan: we drove down the West Side Highway through Chelsea and past Ground Zero (the location the World Trade Center used to stand). Baghdad Treasure was very interested to see Ground Zero and took out his camera to take a picture of the big empty pit with a green fence around it as we drove past. Then I continued through Battery Park, across the Brooklyn Bridge, up Flatbush Avenue in Brooklyn and across the Manhattan Bridge back to Manhattan, through Chinatown, then up FDR Drive and Harlem River Drive past the United Nations and Yankee Stadium, then cut through Washington Heights to the Henry Hudson Parkway, past the George Washington Bridge, then back down to the Upper West Side where I dropped him off at the apartment he was staying at in town.

It can be a lot of fun taking a guy like Baghdad Treasure, who's never been to the US before, on a tour like that: watching the amazed look on his face as he gazed at the lights in Times Square, or his attentive interest in seeing places like Ground Zero or Central Park or the Brooklyn Bridge was amazing. For me, I am so used to driving past these places, they are just ordinary to me, but having Baghdad Treasure with me was rather like allowing me to see them for the first time again.

Perhaps the biggest laugh of the evening was when we were driving down 5th Avenue before dinner: Baghdad Treasure spotted this sign (at left) on the side of the street and started laughing and said you'd never see this sign in Iraq. Apparently, when you translate it into Arabic, it means something quite different: still threatening, but to the point of being funny.