Thursday, May 29, 2008

Portrait #10: Middle Easterners at the Deli Counter

Today I was doing more backbending work in a hot stuffy attic. I'm not sure whether it was the dust, or the lifting of heavy boxes, or the fact that I banged my head on rafters so much, but I got very hungry. So I went to the university mini mart for a sandwich. During my college years I'd often bought cheap-but-filling liverwurst sandwiches at this establishment, so it was a fine moment on memory lane.

The guy who took my order was friendly and gracious as he assured me that they had every condiment that I could possibly hope for. I tested him on this, and he lived up to his claim. Then he challenged me to think of a condiment he didn't have, and I confess I failed.

As he was preparing my liverwurst-on-rye, I heard him chatting with the other deli guy in Arabic, so I asked where they were from. The second guy asked which one of them I was asking about, as they were from different countries. I said both. So he told me he is Palestinian and his friend, my chef, is Egyptian. When I said I lived in Syria for several years, the Palestinian asked what my favourite place in Damascus is. But before I could answer, he asked if it's Mt Qasioun... which it is. Then he quizzed me on Damascene foods, and together we teased the Egyptian guy about how everything in Syria is superior to everything in Egypt.

When my sandwich was done, I thanked them and bid them farewell, in Arabic. And they replied in Arabic that I speak well, and seemed to want to start a whole new conversation. Do I speak only a little bit well, or a lot well, they asked. Eventually I made it to the check-out, and when that clerk rang me up, I'm quite sure he undercharged me! - and then he too bid me farewell in Arabic.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Portrait #9: Bikers

Today was Memorial Day in the U.S., and since I've been hanging out in the nation's capital, I found myself right in the centre of Memorial Day festivities. I passed a group of people standing around a flag comemorating something military, I think a veteran in their midst. I was told by my radio not to venture into downtown because of the parade. And I got caught up in a swarm of bikers as I drove on the highway yesterday.

I didn't know that bikers - you know, the guys (and gals) who drive around in packs on their big motorcycles wearing lots of leather and often other flair such as long hair, bandanas and fancy detailing on their bikes - are a big part of Washington's Memorial Day festivities. But after passing one pack of bikers and almost being overtaken by another, when I saw the Pentagon's parking lot full of bikers I began to suspect this was a special biker event. Now I've been told that they go to the cemetery where many veterans are buried, and that they participate in the parade through downtown D.C.

As I passed the first pack of bikers I kept glancing over at the sight. There were about twenty of them, riding in a staggered pattern such that they were all close together but no two bikes right next to each other. Altogether the pack took up the space of a very big truck. Most of them rode alone, but a couple of the bikers had girls hugging along. Several of them were riding with their feet straight out in front of them. At first, I thought they were just leaning back and enjoying the wind on a beautiful spring day, but then I saw that their feet were actually propped against very high footrests. But they still looked quite relax. There was a leader to the pack, and this bike and rider were accessorized all in pink - hot pink.

This particular group didn't drive above the speed limit, though the pack I encountered later was well above the limit. I know because I was determined to stay ahead of them, and that meant I was going much faster than I'd intended! I began to wonder what would happen if a cop were to pull one of them over for any reason. Would he? Or would he be scared of this gang? Because the way they stuck together convinced me that if one of them had to stop, they would ALL stop with him. All twenty bikers in leather would pull over to the shoulder. They wouldn't abandon one of their own.

Monday, May 26, 2008

Portrait #8: Random Guy

I came up to Baltimore today to try to sort through boxes that have been sitting in an attic for seven years now. Had I know seven years ago that after all this time, I still would not be using those books and pans and curtains and halogen lamps, I would have given it all away - or panicked and done something stupid upon realising that my decision to housesit for a sweet lady in the suburbs would somehow lead to a life of floating around the world! But I digress.

Baltimore City is a special place full of all kinds of unique personalities. And this evening, as I rushed from the attic to a friend's graduation bbq, I stopped at a Rite Aid in a typical Baltimore city strip mall, and had a chat with one such character. This store was typical Baltimore in that half the stores in the strip mall were shut down and the Rite Aid was a bit run down... and, as everyone went about their business in their studiously slow way, they deliberately ignored the fact that mine was the only white face to be seen.

The checkout line was moving quite slowly, as was to be expected in a neighbourhood where values such as productivity and efficiency are summarily dismissed, perhaps even as a form of protest against the dominant Americans, the ones who value such things so much. Finally I was next in line when a guy came up to one of the checkout clerks and asked if her till was open. When she said yes, he put his batteries on the counter, but she quickly pointed out that there was a line and he should politely await his turn.

So he came and stood right next to me, not behind me, but next to me. He blurted out an apology for his quasi-queue-jump and I nodded and smiled. Then he disappeared and returned with a box of the same type of cookies I was purchasing and began to make conversation. He was a striking figure: dark features, except for green green eyes. And the tips of his hair were bleached. His skin was in terrible shape, though, rashy and peely. Too much sun? I confess that, since I was in Baltimore City, my first thought was drugs.

He pointed at his box of cookies and said they looked good, but had I tried the new Reeses Pieces cookies? Those were good! I've never heard of them, and so he described them to me by comparing them to a type of girlscout cookie. He said he has a real weakness for sweets, and showed me that he had selected the cookies with milk chocolate chips, which were sweeter - and clearly better - than the semi-sweet chocolate chips in the cookies I had selected. I said I prefer them with less sugar, and he reiterated his love for sweet things, and declared that he's pretty sure he has "the sugar." He's had headaches lately, been thirsty, tired... I said he should watch out about that as it can come back to get him, and he agreed. Then he said it wasn't helped by the fact that he works in construction and is always around asbestos. True, I said. Nor could the fact that he smokes quite a bit be very good, he added. Definitely a problem, I said.

Soon it was my turn to check out. I paid quickly and scurried out, revealing my time-conscious Whiteness for all to see, but not before my new friend called out, "Have a good day!" and I bid him farewell.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Portrait #7: Job Interview

This afternoon, as I sat in a bookstore cafe attempting to convince myself to work on revision (in fact, I still sit here, relieved at a new excuse to put off revision for a few more minutes!), I overheard a job interview taking place at the table behind me.

The interviewer was a young man in his late twenties. The interviewee was an East African-looking woman who appeared to be in her thirties. By the time the interview ended, I decided that immigrants to this fine region really are deserving, and in need, of job-search training.

The manager admitted that he is a new manager and inexperienced in interviews. The applicant admitted that she is in the U.S. to learn English, though she has been working at a restaurant here for six months now. He did most of the talking. She said perhaps a total of fifteen words which were barely audible even though my head was no more than a metre from hers.

He asked her why she wants to work at Barnes and Noble. She replied with one brief sentence that I couldn't really hear.

Then he asked if she was specifically interested in the cafe. She must have nodded, as I heard no answer.

Then he explained that in fact most new employees start in the cafe, for three months or so, before introducing them to books - it's best for all employees to know all the different departments in the store - and, though the cafe is sometimes quiet and slow, on weekends it can get quite busy.

He asked her if she was here in the country to study - to learn English. I think she nodded again.

So he pointed out that because the cafe gets quite busy, her limited language skills could be a problem. On the other hand, he said, she would be doing similar work to what she is currently doing in her restaurant job. Then he told her what the starting salary is, and asked her how it's going (I think he meant her life in general, or her adjustment to America, ?). Without giving her time to reply, at least so far as I could tell, he said that he'd definitely show her application to the other managers and if there was interest, she'd hear from someone in a week or so. Then they got up and parted ways, I believe without even a handshake. I then was able to catch a glimpse of her - petite and a bit bewildered, walking quickly away from her interrogator who wouldn't hear her speak.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Portrait #6: Another Iranian Manager

Today was my day to make dinner for the family, so I went by the local HalalCo Middle Eastern food market to get some groceries. Mostly I was picking up some vegetables for stew and salad, so I went first to search out peas (Bamia in Arabic), either fresh or frozen. Having no luck in the frozen food aisle, I went to the fresh veggies, and found myself standing in the middle of the room looking around aimlessly.

A gentleman wearing a button-down shirt and a cardigan asked me, "Can we help you find anything?"

He wasn't in uniform, nor did he have a nametag, but he acted like he belonged, so I in turn asked him, "Do you have any peas?"

He apologised that they didn't have fresh peas and encouraged me to go back to the frozen foods. So I changed my menu and opted for green beans, then headed off to check out.

The checkout line (queue) had half a dozen people on it and who should be directly in front of me but the same man who had spoken to me! As soon as I placed my groceries, including a bag of frozen green beans, on the counter, he turned to me and asked, very graciously, "Is that what you meant? I'm sorry I misunderstood. We have those in the fresh vegetables!"

"No, no," I assured him. "I was asking about peas, but then I changed my mind and got the green beans. I'd wanted to cook the peas into the rice, but that's ok, I'll make something different."

"Oh, we cook green beans with rice!" he exclaimed, and launched into a bit of a monologue about how they cook green beans with rice. I asked him where he was from, and he said Iran, then explained a bit more about how he half-cooks the rice then mixes the beans, meat and tomato stew in with the rice for the second half. "It's like we cook it twice," he said.

I responded, "Yes, that's how we do peas in Syria, but not green beans. Green beans we cook the same but serve on the side. I didn't know I could do that with beans as well - maybe I'll try that!"

Then he asked me if in Syria we rinse our rice, or soak it before cooking?

Then it was his turn to check out and, for some reason, he asked the clerk to charge him an extra fifty cents.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Portrait #5: Neighbourhood Beat Cop

A portrait a day really is a bit much, isn't it? But I'm not quitting!! This exercise has been great for me in reminding me to really take in the social interactions around me instead of just withdrawing into my own private world.

It was about midnight on Saturday night, and some friends and I were waiting outside a neighbourhood Seven-Eleven store. There was a sign on the store window saying it was the "Neighborhood Community Police Center" or something to that effect. Sure enough, we saw three officers in uniform milling around inside the store.

Presently, two came out. Both had the look of men who hadn't kept up with their daily workouts for quite some time. One was tall and blonde, and the other short and black. The tall blond was chatting with a thirty-something bleached-blonde woman, and their conversation went something like this:

The woman says to the cop, "I'm so glad you're doing this service, and not one of those cops who just wants his donuts."

The cop asks, "Do I seem like the kind of cop who is just out for donuts?"

"You like you've never missed a donut in your life!"

He laughs. "You're lucky you're such a good friend. Otherwise..."

They embrace and both are laughing. Then she says, "It's a good thing I'm not drunk tonight, huh?"

The other cop joins in the laughing and chatting. A moment later, they make way for two very obviously wasted girls who stumble by.

Friday, May 16, 2008

Portrait #4: Manager - Gift Wrapper

My most interesting encounter today has been with another barista but I don't suppose I should portrait two baristas in close succession, so today I will tell about a woman I met last week.

I went to the department store to buy a wedding gift for my friend. It was very fast and easy to pick it out - I was quite impressed with their gift-registry system! And as I was completing the purchase they offered to gift wrap it for me if I wanted. All I had to do was go down to customer service with the gift and the receipt. When I got there, the woman behind the counter was chatting with a younger woman in uniform, so I browsed through the greeting cards as the two women discussed store gossip and something regarding the younger woman's paycheck.

A few minutes later, the customer service representative turned her attention to me. She spoke with a strong accent, as do many people in Northern Virginia, and I never tire of asking where they are from. She is from Iran, but has lived in the U.S. for quite a while. As she carefully and artistically wrapped the gift, she told me that until recently, she never ever wrapped gifts. She always got them wrapped by the store, because she hated the pressure. But now, as a store manager, she has to be at the gift wrap counter anyway. While she could get another employee to do the wrapping, it would be pointless, and she has actually come to enjoy it. It's more practical this way, and she accepts that the responsibility came with the territory of her job. She talked on about her feelings about gift wrapping for several minutes, meanwhile working my gift's decor to perfection. Just as she had made me wait for her conversation with the other employee to end, she now made other customers wait as she gave me and my gift her undivided attention.

Portrait #3: Metro personalities

Today I metroed into the city to apply for a visa, have lunch with a friend, and remind myself of my dislike for stale academic libraries. If I metroed into my job everyday, I would see so many memorable characters every day! The metro is fascinating as we all try to act cool and ignore one another in a confined space... or, in my case, I try to pretend that I'm not watching everyone else. Anyway, some highlights from today:

- This gorgeous little two-year old Asian girl wearing a pristine white dress and white tights, sitting with a full-sized laptop case slung over her neck. The laptop case was about the same size as she was. She was sitting next to a Caucasian woman when I first got on the car, and I wondered if this was an adopted Chinese girl, but at the next stop, the woman got up and said goodbye to an Asian man who then slid in to sit next to the girl. I guess the woman was friends with the girl's father? Anyway, all of us in that metro car were trying hard to not stare at this little girl who was cute as a button, acting all grown-up with her father's computer case, looking out the window, asking her dad questions, etc.

- A young couple got on the train halfway through my trip into town. They got on together and stood next to each other, but during the ride she stared at the ground, away from him. For a few moments I thought maybe he was harassing her, as she seemed to be trying very hard to ignore the fact that a young man was standing right behind her with his face almost in her neck. They didn't say a word to each other, but eventually she did turn around and smile at him. Then, as soon as a seat opened up, she promptly left him standing and crossed the car to take the seat. Though they didn't seem upset in any way, they didn't say a word to each other as far as I could tell for the duration of their ride.

- As I got off the metro this evening and started heading to my car, I walked quickly out of the station and up the stairs into a residential neighbourhood. I heard steps behind me, but thought nothing of it, as I was one of a couple hundred people who had gotten off that particular train. A block or so down, the steps had almost caught up to me. But I heard the footsteps getting off the sidewalk (pavement for you Brits) and walking in the street. I looked over and saw a young man who was dressed relatively professionally but toting a very old-looking backpack (rucksack). Then as soon as he had passed me, he got right back onto the sidewalk (pavement) in front of me. His thoughtfulness in passing me by a distance was not lost on me, and I watched as he walked on ahead. I further observed that, at a point where crossing the street would have saved him several metres walking distance, he stuck to his sidewalk, which meant he took the long way around.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Portrait #2: Barista at my favourite coffee shop

(already on the second day I have failed with my intentions to do daily portraits. Good thing I believe in grace!)

Yesterday, I went back to my favourite coffee shop after a month and a half of travels. What I love so much about this cafe is that it feels like I'm actually in the owner's living room, and random conversations are almost inevitable while there. Sometimes I chat with strangers, and more often I listen to other people - just like if we were all sitting around in a living room. The barista recognised me immediately, mainly as the friend of the girl who asked her lots of questions and left her great tips (she misses you, Laura!), so as she made my delicious iced vanilla coffee, we got to chatting.

I asked her if I remembered correctly that she was moving away soon, and she said that yes, in fact, this coming Sunday will be her last day. She's moving to... Honolulu! Her girlfriend is a nurse and has contracts of no more than six months. Hospitals apparently like to hire these kinds of nurses because, even while paying a higher salary, they save on benefits and other legal technicalities. So nurses like the barista's girlfriend go from one hospital to another, anywhere in the country, every six months. And so it is that on Sunday my favourite barista will quit her coffee shop job, go visit with her family in another state for a week, come back to pack, and then move to Hawaii! I asked her if she was worried about the isolation of living on a small island, and she said that she was a little concerned, but actually a very close friend of hers lives nearby so it will be nice to be near that friend. Also, she has been told that this particular Hawaiian island is a bit less isolated than some of the others. I wish her the best on this new adventure!

Monday, May 12, 2008

Portrait #1: Middle America

Yesterday was Mother's Day, and I took my grandparents out to dinner to celebrate. After all, I'm hardly ever driving distance from them, so I figured it would be appropriate to mark the date as something special. My aunt and uncle and cousin and her husband decided to join us. As the seven of us crowded into our booth at Applebees and started to study our menus, the food arrived for the table across the aisle from us. Three of the four people received their food, and the server apologised to the fourth person, saying his food would be out shortly. He was a man in his thirties or forties and as he talked to the server he waved his arms and gestured so as to make whatever point he was making about his food. I noticed his hands were slightly disfigured and he didn't seem to be speaking very clearly.

Then I noticed the woman across from him, who I took to be his mother. She wore khaki capri pants and a pastel gingham blouse. Sitting very straight and with delicate poise, her head was bowed in prayer. After a minute, the mother looked up and she and the other two members of their party began to eat. I kept glancing back at their table, and saw when the man's steak and fries arrived. Then I tried to not watch as all four of them ate but said little. The server brought them their bill well before they were done their meals, and the mother promptly picked it up. She carefully studied it and then paid. They left as soon as they were done eating.

I wondered why the mother-figure was paying the bill on Mothers Day, considering she was with people the right age to be her children, and my heart went out to her. She sat across from this young man who seemed to be somehow disabled, next to a girl who may have been her daughter. None of the younger ones seemed interested in much but eating their meals, but the woman sat quietly enjoying the company of the people she loved. She prayed even if noone was praying with her, and she treated them all to Applebees for Mother's Day.


I've decided to start a "series" on my blog, in celebration of the diversity of humankind and of the chance encounters that enrich life. Every day, I am going to write a short portrait of someone whose path has crossed mine. Someone interesting, who maybe got me thinking (we all know how much I like that), or who perhaps brightened my day in some way, or who I simply noticed. Together, the people of this world form a portrait, a beautiful picture of God's amazing creation, so I want to remember the portrait I'm seeing. I'm wondering how long I can go marking an encounter with an interesting new person each day.

Thursday, May 8, 2008

a bit of a story

They say writers are very self-conscious about their writing, scared to share for fear of criticism or for fear of failure, or for fear of... something else. I never thought of myself in this way. After all, I write this blog, I write letters all the time, have written more academic papers than I personally think anyone should write (though of course many people make a career of that!). But I have just finished writing a novel, and have actually been rather self-conscious about sharing that with people, so I guess what they say is true. So in the spirit of an open heart, I present you with a small little excerpt from Dreams in the Medina, a coming-of-age tale portraying the dreams and aspirations of young Syrian women... All criticism will be fully welcome.

"Huda, what has happened to our innocence?" Leila asked, instead of answering Huda's question.
"My innocence is gone, gone..."
Leila hesitated before speaking it: "Two years ago?"
"Almost to the day."
"Tell me."
"You really never knew?"
"I knew something, that you had trouble with a professor and that your family was in a tough spot. We all knew that much. But I never knew what happened."
"My life ended that day. I thought it was beginning, but it ended."
Leila had not imagined that this was the direction their conversation would have taken. Had she known, she would have run back to Maha's room and the familiarity of Roxy's problems, she would have ignored her best friend. Worse, pretended she didn't know her, she would have made up any excuse, anything to avoid this. What did the Medina do to her? It taught her to talk about real things. It showed her what it was like to feel, to really feel.
She thought back to a conversation she'd had with Maha earlier that year. Maha was taking an abnormal psychology class as a part of her course, and was explaining all the different ailments to Leila. A lot of the concepts were taught in French or English, because apparently they didn't even exist in Arabic. In Arabic, everyone was just expected to be alright. There was no mental illness in Arabic, and therefore in Syria. They'd talked a bit about that: why it was that this was such a developed concept in Europe and America but not in Syria. Was their country really just a healthier place, or was there some fear about considering that things just might not be perfect? In Leila's family, they all knew there were problems: the odd day of her father's abusiveness towards her mother, the four-month stretch that her sister wouldn't get out of bed, the year that her brother had gone missing - her parents had said he was making money in the Gulf but the whole family had known that they actually had no idea where he was. And Leila considered her family to be quite stable and supportive, especially as she got to know different girls at the Medina. All in all, she was quite well off. Anyway, so the girls talked about Maha's course in abstracts, never about themselves or their own families, but about mutual friends or characters in novels or TV shows.
Maha's lecture notes never gave Syrian examples. All the examples were from Europe or America, quite often from films or books. Such that Maha got the impression the professor was trying to teach about these problems as if to say that they're worth understanding, but they will never be relevant to anyone in the classroom. But one disease had caught Maha's attention and she and Leila had pored over its description together. They had thought of half a dozen girls in the Medina who they suspected had this ailment, and one of them was Roxy. In English, it was called manic-depressive, or bipolar. Maha was responsible for memorising the English names and a list of symptoms. Leila didn't remember all of them, but some had stuck in her memory: unrealistic expectations, reckless behaviour, less sleep needed, easily distracted, dramatic... Then, at another point in time, this person would be: extremely sad, cry a lot, neglecting themselves, too much sleep, withdraw from friends.
But as they'd talked, Leila and Maha had agreed that this was their culture. Sometimes manic: grandiose, reckless, excited. And sometimes depressive: miserable, weeping, withdrawn. But the most common treatment for this disease was a drug which kind of took out the extreme emotions. People with this disease often don't like taking the medication because they stop feeling. Life is a bit less wonderful and a bit less miserable. It's just lived. Syria was, they'd decided, a bipolar country on lithium. And moving to the Medina - leaving the shelter of her family's home - had knocked Leila off the medication. She was now feeling it all, in all its multicoloured glory and, at other times, in all its dark shades of misery. She'd known love and passion and parties and adventure - but she'd also experienced and shared in her friends' experiences of the most acute types of pain imaginable.
That was what the Medina had done to her, and as she sat here, realising she was about to be thrown into Huda's story, she longed for a big burst of that lithium into the Medina. Did all the marvel of the last four years make the pain of the last four days worth it?