The breeze of these winter days, I can feel it slipping into my skin. The wind is sighing in a winter sky and the streets are busy as usual with people going about their day. The birds that came are gone again. The silence reins the skies yet the cacophony of a busy city fills the air. With all the painted images of a winter scene in the heart of Beirut comes the smell of roasted chestnuts in the air. It’s that time of the year where the street vendors stand on the side of the roads selling Kastana (roasted chestnuts).
His knife is poised and ready. He approaches the easy ones first; the nicely shaped ones, which are flat at the bottom and round on top. Only then moving on to the misfits, the oddly shaped ones. He plunges his little knife into their shells scoring them. With his fingers stained with the ink of the chestnuts’ blood, he aligns them one next to the other, cut side down, as they rub shoulders on a little metal grill. He roasts them until the shell peels back and begin to scorch and the meat starts to turn golden, turning it on the other side to make sure it’s nice and roasted on all sides.
As he holds a little carton and moves his hands quickly to give the fire a quick, the crackle of the fire pops and does little sparkles in the air, I hold myself a little closer so I could feel the warmth of the fire. His face starts changing shapes as the shadow of the fire contours his features. It’s all about balance, allowing enough air in, whilst making sure heat is contained as well. The sweet smell of the chestnuts starts fleeing through their skin. He hold the metal tongs, picking them one at a time and dropping them quickly into a small paper bag. A smile and few Lebanese pounds are exchanged with a “shoukran” (thank you) from my part and a “sahtein” (twice the health) from his.
The rhythm of my feet, as I take them out once my fingers can handle their heat and eat them on the way, slows down as I struggle to remove them from their shells. As I take them into my hands, my fingers closing around their warmth, I pull it apart and put it in my mouth. Warm, sweet, delicious, nutty, and dry, I wonder how long the winter days will last, hoping that this man will stand there struck in time for eternity while I enjoy this little city sight that fills my heart and body with warmth.
And in a few years, on a proper winter days when we’ll have free evenings with our kids. It’ll rain, and we will decide to spend the free time together. We’ll watch a movie, or something. And I’d buy sweet roasted chestnuts on my way back home and we’ll eat them as a family together in the warmth of our little nest, knowing that my Beirut can offer me a little bit of warmth on its gloomier days.