I’m writing to you from the womb of a rainbow-striped hammock strung between ancient olive trees, their trunks knobby and gnarled like an old man’s hands, their branches like upturned palms, overflowing with shards of green.

A breeze ruffles the slender green-silver leaves, with their clusters of olives in twos and threes; here and there olives scatter to the floor.

We’re about as close to the Lebanese border as it gets, on the edges of a little ecological village that’s cut off from the state’s pipelines, running on solar-powered energy, its houses set out sparsely against the rocky hillside.

I had to suspend my paranoia fears about war to come here; when I voiced them aloud to my friend, she stated, half-jokingly, that we’re so close, missiles would pass right above our heads.

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I’m resting in this hammock and thinking about nature and borders and land and isolation and community, in the calm, quiet embrace of this olive grove, traditionally a symbol of peace.

In the background, beyond the soft swaying of the branches, I can hear the noise of the festival. At this distance, the music is soothing and low, the sound of hundreds of people humming along reaching me as a soft murmur. The wind rocks my hammock gently.

My mind turns to schedules: what will we do tomorrow, and what should we make for dinner, and should we have coffee now or in half hour, and should I try writing just a little longer or should I go and sit with the group playing guitar beneath that fig tree?

I try to push it all away; let myself just be.

Inhale. Exhale.

//

Later, when I ask someone what time it is, he looks at me and pauses for a long moment. “It is,” he says. “It just is.”

It’s a hippie festival (if you hadn’t gathered that already), and there’s a lot of deep smiling, a lot of gratuitous touch, a lot of looking deeply into each other’s eyes without looking away.

In the fast-paced city, we pass each other with brief, shooting glances.

How much of myself am I losing in this?

How much of myself am I losing in this tight structuring of time, in this on-demand, consumerist culture, with its instant gratification, always being on, always pushing to the limit; with its onslaught of options, its heady, dazzling plenty?

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The sky fades to dusk, and we set out on a winding walk through the village. We enter a haphazardly gated area, and find ourselves faced with a giant, two-storied home, all of its windows open; the clatter of a family sharing a meal reaching us from a terrace.

A young man approaches us, and inquires where we’re from. He points to the house, and tells us it belongs to his parents, and that it’s where they raised fifteen children. He talks to us about his childhood, and his years in Tel Aviv, and his subsequent return to the village.

Then he takes us to see the house he built with his own hands over the past year. We climb up a few narrow wooden stairs, and he swings open the door, and it’s all one big room, with a large bed propped up against one wall, draped with a mosquito net, a neat kitchen against another, couches in a corner. Large windows are carved into all of the walls, drawing your attention immediately outwards, into a spectatorship of nature.

We continue our walk and the air is crisp and quiet, humming with the sounds of nature, and devoid of that electric, electronic hum of the city. We discuss living close to the land, making do with the basics, versus the luxuries of modern city life, the exhaustion that creeps up on you, the drive to consume that latches onto your skin like leeches and sucks sucks sucks.

We have time to explore our thoughts, and go deep, and finish sentences, without phones ringing, and beeping and chirping and alerting and all-around distracting. We have time to listen. To be present, really present.

It rains on and off during the night, the tap-tap-tapping on the plastic of our tent a surprising lullaby. The first morning we awoke to children’s banter, and, poking our heads out of the tent, found ourselves in the midst of a playground, with children running about and parents stirring oatmeal over a fire. Still full of sleep, we dragged our tent, heavy with sleeping bags and blankets, into another corner of the olive grove. The next night the tent was on a slant, and I kept waking up, my feet brushing against its creased edges. The ground is hard and uneven and full of rocks and thorns, but the sun awakens me gently in the morning with its gradual warming, and when I step out of the tent, I’m surrounded by nature, and it’s nothing short of magical.

On the way back to the city, we stop for breakfast at an American-style diner with faux-leather red booths, and large caricatures of Elvis and Marilyn Monroe on the walls, and we eat pancakes doused in artificial maple syrup.

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Abraco’s Olive Oil Cake

Printed in Bon Appetit, via Alice Gao

On the topic of wanderings, I’ve been feeling nostalgic for New York lately. I’ve heard whispers about Abraco’s olive oil cake from all different sorts of corners of the web, and have been wanting to give it a try. I swapped out the white flour and white sugar for whole rye flour and Demerara sugar- because, I figured, why not? The result was a much darker cake (you can look at Alice’s pictures for comparison), but it was moist, and fluffy and soft. The texture comes close to a classic honey cake- in fact, I’d be interested in trying it as a spin on honey cake- with honey instead of the sugar, and a neutral oil. Also, although the recipe calls for mild olive oil, my olive oil definitely wasn’t- but I went ahead and used it anyways- and the result was a flavor that was pronounced and fruity. Lastly, I used lime zest instead of orange, because it’s what I had on hand. Go ahead and play!

This is one of those cakes that’s so easy to make: you whisk together your dry ingredients in a bowl; then whisk together your wet ingredients; then combine the two, and you’re done! Yet the result is satisfyingly complex and sophisticated, and just the kind of thing to go with coffee.

1 1/2 cups unbleached white flour (I used whole rye flour)

1 cup sugar (I used Demerara)

1/2 tsp baking soda

1/2 tsp baking powder

1/4 tsp coarse kosher salt

2 large eggs

3/4 cup whole milk (I used 3%)

1/2 cup mild-flavored olive oil

2 tsp finely grated orange peel (I used the zest of 2 limes)

Preheat oven to 325F/170C.  Oil and flour a 9x5x3-inch metal loaf pan, or layer with parchment paper.  Whisk the first 5 ingredients together in a large bowl.  In a medium bowl, whisk eggs, milk, olive oil, and orange peel.  Gradually whisk the egg mixture into the dry ingredients.  That’s it! Now just transfer the batter to the prepared pan.

Bake until a tester inserted into the center comes out clean, 45 to 60 minutes (mine was done after 45 minutes).  Place cake, still in its pan, on a rack, and allow to cool for 20 minutes. Enjoy, preferably with coffee!

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