NPR's David Greene on His Wife's Fascinating New Restaurant
The Morning Edition host reported from Tunisia and Libya while rebels toppled Qaddafi. Now he's reliving that time—the good parts, that is—at a remarkable new restaurant.
Most mornings my alarm goes off at 2:45. That's the drill, so I can make it to NPR's studios in time to host our newsmagazine Morning Edition. I roll over in bed and often—sadly—I am alone. My wife, Rose Previte, is still two floors beneath our apartment in the restaurant she owns and runs, cleaning, counting money and locking up.
It's not exactly a textbook marriage, if there is such a thing. It is the manifestation of our dreams—mine to travel the world as a journalist, Rose's to open a restaurant and bar that serves as a place where our Washington, DC, neighbors can gather to taste the flavors of the world. Rose and I at least get a chance to kiss and say good morning—in her case, good night. She sometimes climbs the stairs to our apartment as I descend into the empty, quiet restaurant to wait for my taxi. I often look around the dining room with such pride, knowing the hours and passion and tears that Rose put into pulling this off.
The restaurant is called Compass Rose—her name, with a travel theme—and the specialty is international street food. Most dishes trigger a memory for me. Our honeymoon in Argentina. The vacation to Sicily after we got engaged. Walking the streets of Tbilisi together, stopping at street vendors for the decadent bread khachapuri so many times, I swore Georgian sulguni cheese was seeping from my pores.
During the three years I was based in Moscow as NPR's correspondent, Rose sacrificed beyond belief—this woman with Mediterranean blood (she's Sicilian-Lebanese) gave up her career in public policy to move to a frigid country where she could not legally work. She made the best of it by traveling around the former Soviet Union, around Europe and Asia and the Middle East, often with me. While tasting street food everywhere she went, her dream of owning a restaurant began to blossom. Rose believes street food is the great equalizer—it brings together people of all ages, from all walks of life, rich and poor. She wanted Compass Rose to embody that spirit of community. And it does.
Her restaurant holds deep meaning for me as well, perhaps of a different sort. Often during those three years based in Moscow, I was dispatched to conflict zones. The experience sometimes ended up being about a lot more than war. For instance, I celebrated my 34th birthday in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, a teeming Central Asian city that had descended into chaos in the spring of 2010. A bloody coup drove the president from power. Armed gangs of looters roamed the streets at night, firing guns into the air.
As a radio journalist, it was my job to capture whatever sounds I could, so I had my microphone—a "shotgun"-style mic, 16 inches long, narrow and black—pointing out my window. The phone suddenly rang, startling me.
"Mr. Greene, this is the front desk," the clerk said. "Our security guard outside is asking if you would please stop putting that thing out your window and please turn off your lights and close the curtains. We worry those people out there think you have a gun, and you are drawing problems for us."
I obliged, embarrassed and shaken.
Minutes later came a knock at my door. I was relieved that it was Sergei, my NPR colleague and translator. He was holding two mini bottles of vodka and a bran muffin in plastic packaging from his minibar. I hadn't realized the time was just past midnight on April 9.
"David, I know it's not much," Sergei said in his thick Russian accent. "But we need to celebrate." He sang "Happy Birthday" to me. We sat on the edge of my bed, sipping our vodka and taking turns tearing off chunks of stale muffin. It was the worst birthday cake ever—and the most memorable.
Being in a conflict zone, it seems, heightens your awareness of everything—not just what you see and hear but also what you taste. Even mundane routines are vivid because of the context. I can't tell you who I was with or how I celebrated many of my 37 other birthdays. The 34th is etched in my memory: Sergei, vodka and bran.
A year after being in Kyrgyzstan, I was dispatched from my post in Moscow to cover the Arab Spring. In Libya, fighting had erupted between Muammar al-Qaddafi's government forces and a scrappy rebel force. Thousands of displaced people were pouring across the border into refugee camps in Tunisia. That would be my first stop. As I packed up my gear in my apartment in Moscow, I spoke with one of NPR's foreign editors in Washington, a journalist who had covered many conflicts. "Greene, when you're in Tunisia," he said, "you gotta eat the brik. Trust me." I had no idea what he was talking about, and, frankly, local cuisine was pretty low on my priority list as I prepared to head for a war zone.
Arriving at the Tunisian border zone with Jim Wildman, a veteran producer and friend who had flown in from Washington, I was stunned by the conditions in one camp. It was a windy, dusty wasteland the size of four or five football fields, as I described it on the air, with thousands of people living and sleeping on blankets, wandering aimlessly, playing dominoes, gnawing on chunks of bread, helpless and confused.
Sitting cross-legged on one blanket was an Egyptian lawyer named Anwar who had been working inside Libya. Like most everyone else, he fled the violence and was forced to hand over his money and cell phone to Libyan border guards before crossing. He opened his beaten-up passport to the photo page to prove to us that he was usually well dressed and clean-shaven. "No shower, no bathroom, very cold," he said of his conditions now. "I am not man. I feel I am not man."
And here lies one of the surreal discomforts of reporting in a place like this. After hearing Anwar's story, and the stories of so many desperate people, we could drive away, thinking about where we might stop to eat. Guilty as I feel to mention it, we were starved after a long day of reporting.
In the evening, we found a restaurant with Tunisian classics. They served grilled chicken skewers, tender and perfectly flavored with Mediterranean spices. And they had brik. Our server explained that brik is a warm, flaky, savory pastry, made with a thin dough wrapped in a triangular shape around a filling and fried, not unlike a samosa. The filling could be meat, cheese or tuna, along with an egg and the chile paste harissa.
Over dinner, my colleague and I discussed our biggest challenge ahead: getting inside Libya. Another NPR team was in eastern Libya covering the rebel charge toward the capital, Tripoli. The Qaddafi government, still in charge in Tripoli, had been letting a small number of foreign reporters into that city, but it took patience and a visa. After two weeks in Tunisia—almost-daily visits to the border, planning sessions over brik—Jim and I got word that our visas were approved, but only if we flew to a consulate in Casablanca to retrieve them. The upside of this colossal detour was getting a few days of rest and a quick visit with Rose, who flew to meet us.
I was eager to tell Rose everything about Tunisia—the painful situation at the border but also the inspiring stories of Tunisians, who seemed to be on a slow but steady path to a democratic future. I told Rose about the beautiful landscape: the sparkling waters of the Mediterranean, the roads lined with olive groves, the sprawling deserts that glow at sunset and served as George Lucas's inspiration for Star Wars' fictional Tatooine. And I told Rose about brik. Getting a few days to catch up with my wife was more important than I realized, as Jim and I were about to begin two intense, claustrophobic weeks.
After landing in Tripoli, we were immediately corralled by government officials and escorted to the now-infamous Rixos hotel, where international journalists were mostly confined. Severe restrictions on our movements made it difficult to cover the unfolding story, but we did our best. A few days after we arrived, NATO began its bombing campaign to force Qaddafi from power. I stood on the hotel roof, using a satellite link to go on the air live. "This anti-aircraft fire, it seems in the vicinity of Muammar Qaddafi's large, sprawling military compound, which is just maybe less than a kilometer from our hotel," I said. "So it is possible that the Libyan military is putting on a display to, you know, send a message: 'Don't come near this compound.' We're not sure. But a lot of noise here over Tripoli, again, for the second night in a row."
Our most frightening experience came the night government officials suddenly arrived at the hotel, loaded us onto buses and took us to Qaddafi's compound for a tour. Word spread among us that NATO was planning to strike the compound that night; we wondered whether the government, in a desperate move, was using Western journalists as human shields. Every moment we spent on that compound was fraught. Whether NATO heard about our presence and called off the strike or the rumors were false, we made it safely back to the Rixos.
For journalists, the center of life was the hotel's vast dining hall, where we would pass hours eating, drinking tea and plotting how to evade government minders. The buffet was the same every day: pickled and fresh vegetables, hummus and tahini, bland grilled meat. Alcohol was smuggled in by journalists, but I rarely partook. The combination of nerves, no booze and the healthy-if-boring buffet had one upside: I lost 17 pounds on this assignment. At every meal, hotel staff watched us closely, making us wonder if they were government agents in disguise. On our final day in Libya, we realized they likely were.
Having been told by our editors that they were sending a new reporting team in, Jim and I were scheduled to be driven in government vans two hours west of Tripoli and dropped at the Tunisian border. As we were checking out of the hotel, a commotion erupted over in the dining room. A woman who had rushed into the hotel began screaming that she had been raped and beaten by a militia loyal to Qaddafi. Some of the restaurant servers, in their hotel uniforms, snatched knives from the dining-room tables and used them to corral her and ward off journalists who were trying to protect her. Still screaming, the woman was dragged from the hotel.
Jim and I were told that if we wanted to leave the country, we had to board the vans outside, which we did. We felt our first sense of relief—ironically—walking into a familiar border camp, dragging our suitcases to the exact spot where we had interviewed refugees a few weeks earlier. After calling our wives, we made our way to the first café we could find. I ordered brik. Nothing ever tasted better.
Now, on those mornings when I find myself standing in the darkness at Compass Rose, waiting for my taxi and looking at a menu on the host stand in the glow of my iPhone, I'm flooded by powerful memories. I think about eating lamb with Rose in Lebanon, a country that has preserved its culture in the midst of endless conflict. I think about khachapuri, a source of pride in a country, Georgia, still healing from Soviet times. And I think about Tunisia, but also Libya, Egypt and Syria, Arab Spring countries, all with rich traditions—food, music, art—that will hopefully sustain them through this transition. And I think about what my wife has given to me and to her customers: a chance to taste delicious food and discover the meaning behind it.
David Greene is cohost of NPR's Morning Edition. He is NPR's former Moscow bureau chief and has spent more than a decade covering politics and events from the White House and abroad.