If you ever need to figure out what you really want to do with your life... If you really want to search your soul and see yourself for who you truly, actually are, spend a winter in Russia. I spent three winters in Russia, and I can now tell you all the good, bad, and ugly about myself. Because of those years, I realized that the restaurant I was always going to open "later" needed to be opened now. That was in 2012 after returning to DC from Moscow, where my husband David and I had been living while he was a foreign correspondent for National Public Radio, covering Russia and the former Soviet Union from 2009-2012.
Moscow didn't quite agree with my Mediterranean-loving self. I was raised by a Lebanese-American mother and a Sicilian-American father in a small Ohio farm town—so nothing about Moscow was familiar. On its face, hospitality was only granted to those who passed a rigorous, Soviet-style personality test and the people were as cold as the weather. I arrived there knowing no Russian. I had never read a single Russian novel. My parents saw Anna Karenina on their first date (in the movie theater), and that was the extent of my Russian knowledge.
I quickly realized my free-spirited belief that I would surely find a job in this foreign land was hopeless. The expected way for me to spend my time was with the American Women's Organization where I was charged with organizing the annual Christmas arts and crafts festival. Not exactly where I planned to be days after my 30th birthday and after working hard for a master's degree in public policy and just starting out a promising career in local government.
So I traveled. To get away from the cold and to avoid the fact that I couldn't work. And, most importantly, because it's my greatest love. The silver lining of living in Moscow was it was incredibly easy to leave—there are so many cheap flights to other places that weren’t Moscow. Thirty countries in three years! Many street kabobs, bowls of plov, pierogis, and shots of vodka later, I knew I had to bring the stories of our crazy travels to a communal space where people share food, drinks, and their feelings.
David eventually asked if we could go back to DC, where he became one of the three hosts of NPR's Morning Edition. And I got the guts to ask an old boss of mine about how to start a business. I had worked for Mike Schuster for seven years at a bar that was first known as Polotiki but became the Penn Avenue Pour House, where I had waited tables and bartended. It's where I met my husband—I was his server during many Sundays of watching Steelers football games. And it’s also where I made many lifelong friends.
Food has been in my blood for as long as I can remember. I had grown up cooking with my mom, who catered hundreds of events with Lebanese food during my childhood. I can make tabouli for 300 at a moment's notice. And I spent most Saturday mornings with my dad, who ran us around to fairs and festivals making the family's secret recipe for Italian sausage sandwiches. These were my first experiences with street food.
Previte Family Values: Street food is clearly in my blood.
At the heart of their teachings—painful as those Saturday morning wake-up calls were—was that food means love. It means making someone feel welcome in your home (or at your sausage stand). It brings people together around something very familiar, regardless of how different they may be.
So Compass Rose and the beautiful people who fill it are all part of a lifelong love affair with food, travel, and people. Opening Compass Rose was the hardest, scariest thing I've ever done, but I couldn't be happier about how it turned it. Most of all, I'm thankful for the crazy path that led me here (Russia, you drove me nuts, but you're fascinating and an amazing teacher).
Living in Moscow taught me that I like escaping Russia, South Korean dumplings, and getting caught in the rain.
I hope you enjoy hearing more about our many adventures on WanderCrust.