Saturday, February 28, 2009

Portrait #73: When pity made him a bad salesman

He had a guaranteed sale, and a good chance of repeat business. I made it utterly clear to him that I loved his stuff and was going to purchase something. I just couldn't make up my mind because I wanted two blouses but could only afford to buy one. It is my understanding that a good salesman would let me make up my mind, give me a bit of discount so that I'd leave feeling good about myself, then encourage me to come back for the other one when I got my next paycheck.

Not this guy. When I asked him which one he recommended I buy, he started out alright, offering me a discount on the more expensive of the two blouses. But then it seems that his pity for this girl from Brazil who couldn't really afford to buy two blouses grew too intense, because he decided to just give me the second one for free - and stuck with his promise to give a discount on the first.

It's his own fault, really. He told me he's the owner/manager of the little shop that sells imported fashions from Turkey. The tags and prices are all in Turkish and Turkish Lira, and little stickers on the hangers report the prices in Euro. The clothes seem to be of a nice quality, though the sizing is a bit funky.

It's a one-room shop at the end of a strip mall hidden down the stairs from a major thoroughfare but the layout of the shop is such that he has no storefront window: his mannequins all sit out on the sidewalk by the shop door. Nor does he have a proper changing room, so he's put a heavy curtain in the archway behind his desk. Behind the curtain there is a little back room that serves as the entryway to the tiny restroom, and as the changing room.

The back room has hooks for hanging things, and a stool, and for some reason a pair of slippers at the ready. But there's no mirror.

I was the only customer in the shop, so he gestured to the curtain and the back room and followed me as far as his desk, where he sat down and resumed a chat on MSN. So I was a mere metre from him as I tried on the clothing, being as quiet and discreet as I could. This didn't last long, though, because what point is there trying on clothes if you can't see how they look? I poked my head out the curtain and asked for a mirror, and he pointed to the front of the shop. So I traipsed up to the shop's only mirror, across from the main entrance, and checked out the wares. Four times I made the trip back and forth modeling his merchandise.

He kept chatting on MSN as I did this, but he acknowledged me quite politely each time I walked past him, to the mirror, back to the changing room, then again to the mirror, then back to the changing room, this time plodding across his shop in my socks, the next time with my coat on as I checked out a pair of jeans.

After seeing how fantastic his wares looked on me, how could he not give in to the emotions raging in his heart? I maintain that it's his own fault he gave me the blouse for free.

Friday, February 27, 2009

Scenario #22: Where's the McDonalds?

Have you heard Thomas Friedman's theory about McDonalds? He argues that if two countries have McDonalds, they'll never go to war against each other. And this theory indirectly suggests that countries that get along will either have McDonalds (like the U.S. and the UK) or will not have McDonalds (like Syria and Iran). But the idea is that global economics trump conflict. If money is to be made in peacetime, then fighting isn't worth it.

So what does it mean when a country is cut off from the global economy, when a nation full of people who are enchanted by McDonalds doesn't get a McDonalds? Should the fact that Kosovo doesn't have a McDonalds lead me to be concerned that war will shortly be breaking out here?

One thing is for sure: there are people in Kosovo who would like to have a local McDonalds available to them. I have passed a number of trucks with the golden arches painted on the back. And I have already seen two Qebaptore's (Kebab houses) named McDonalds. Kosovo is enamored by McDonalds, is actively - nay, desperately, courting Ronald and his arches.

This is not surprising to me, since there are possibly more American flags and billboards of Bill Clinton here than there are in D.C.

So I've taken to asking people this question: "Where's the McDonalds?" The most common answer I'm getting is that McDonalds franchising rules require that they be functioning in a sovereign nation, and since until February 2008 Kosovo was not a sovereign nation, they weren't eligible for Mickie Dees. Kosovo has been sovereign for a year now, but from what I can gather, bids to open Ronald's franchise have been going on since last April. At least 800 Kosovar businessmen are vying for the privilege. But there's still no sign of any authentic big yellow "M's" being raised in Prishtina.

Today I heard another interesting explanation. Apparently Belgrade in Serbia is full of McDonalds, and McDonalds' corporate man in charge of the Balkans is Serbian, and Serbia and Kosovo are not on good terms. He has reportedly said that if a McDonalds is opened in Kosovo, he'll shut down all the franchises in Serbia. After all, if Kosovo has McDonalds, Serbia and Kosovo can't be enemies anymore! So, as long as the population of Serbia is five times that of Kosovo, the corporate empire will profit more from McDonalds in Belgrade than it will from McDonalds in Prishtina.

McDonalds is a symbol. It's a symbol of America, of ties to the "West", of capitalism, of a modern lifestyle, of a lifestyle revolving around comfort and convenience. To have McDonalds is to pay tribute to all these things... and to some extent, to the U.S.A., where it all began. It's also a symbol of being a player in the global market.

I have yet to find in Kosovo any of the big food chains: no KFC, Burger King or Hardees. There aren't any of the big supermarkets like Carrefour, much less an Ikea. In my last blog I mentioned the notable absence of the big oil companies and their petrol stations. There's no HSBC, as far as I can tell, and it's meant to be "the world's local bank." I haven't yet come across any original DVDs or CD's, only copies. Nor is there any Starbucks on the horizon. (On the upside, though, I can get Coke here, and there is a small, albeit horridly overpriced, Mac store.)

If Friedman was right, until McDonalds is opened here, I wonder how stable we can hope this country to be. Ironic, then, that McDonalds is unlikely to open here until they decide it's stable. Will this country ever get a break?

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Scenario #21: Opening a petrol station

Today I went out for a lovely day "in the field." We visited a field office, beneficiaries of the microfinance institute I'm working with, and met with someone who works in another town. I wish every day of work could entail driving the mountain roads, meandering through villages and eating seriously delicious kebabs.

During our many hours in the car, I started entertaining myself by taking note of all the petrol stations. My fascination with petrol stations was sparked by a comment made by my coworker as we were leaving the city. As he drove, he told me that Kosovo has more petrol stations than two or three of the neighbouring countries combined. The market for petrol stations is way beyond saturated. "People here are not smart," he said. "They don't think of the market needs. They know someone else has a petrol station and see that his business is successful and his family has enough to live on, so they decide to open also. They don't think."

After he said that, I started to pay attention. Sure enough, there were easily as many petrol stations as supermarkets/minimarkets - one or two per village on average. And probably more petrol stations than hair salons.

Not only that, but there were no big chains. No Exxon, no BP, to Mobil. Each petrol station was individually and privately owned. Some were run-down and neglected, tiny establishments with one or two pumps. Others were big and fancy-looking. Some were connected to minimarkets, others to car mechanics, others to restaurants, and yet others to motels.

I started writing down the names of the petrol stations we drove by, but soon I got tired of all the scribbling. During a stretch lasting about 45 minutes, covering 4-5 villages and one larger town, I took note of:
Elita petrol, Zena/petrol, Fetoshi, D-Jupa, Edovan Petrol, Klora Petrol, Shehu, Kosova Petrol, Nasradini, Rexhepi minimart, B. Burimi, Fams.D. petrol, D-Jupa (look! a repeat!), Fatoni, Drini, Pashthiku, Burini, Korabr petrol. There were also two that didn't have names but which were brightly painted in the design of the Kosovo flag. And there were two that were so battered-looking that I couldn't make out a name.

This thriving market of petrol stations was for me yet another chapter in my fascination with the way this country feels so economically neglected. I've never been somewhere so enchanted with the US and EU, so eager to participate in the global market, yet so devoid of any of the big names of international commerce - where is the Shell? Why didn't Texaco set up a chain here? Instead, we've got hundreds upon hundreds of small Kosovar entrepreneurs doing their thing, some well and others not so well. I've never lived anywhere before where the petrol stations were nothing more than a family business. I wonder who supplies their oil...

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Globalisation: what soap operas have to say

I'm not the soap opera kind of a chic. But I do make exception for the odd Brazilian "novela". They are the best specimen of TV that Brazil has to offer, and whenever I'm back in Brazil I like to watch the "Novela das Oito" (the prime time event of Brazilian TV) as a way of "matando saudades" (a Portuguese saying which refers to the way we like to do things that give us a sense of longing, of homesickness. For example, when in England, I like to go for long walks in the rain to "matar saudades" of how I used to have to walk long distances on rainy days to get to my classes at uni).

Novelas are a cross between miniseries, serlialised films, and soap operas. The average novela runs for about six months, six days a week, one hour a day. They are very often based on quality Brazilian literature, but in order to drag the story on for six months, the screenwriters add loads of detail and sappy romance. The acting is good the first time around, but the same actors play roughly the same characters in novel after novela. Some novelas are pretty much pure soap opera: heavy on the sappy romance and light on everything else.

Other novelas are rather impressive cultural critique. When I was in Brazil last year, I watched a week of a novela in which one sister was on trial for killing her husband, and the other sister was actually the guilty one, but everyone was on the guilty sister's side because as a child she had been the more docile one. Or something like that. I can't remember the story now, but anyway, it was creative grounds for an interesting social critique.

"O Clone" came out about five years ago. It's unusual for novelas: it takes place half in Brazil, and half in Morocco, and half the characters are conservative Muslims while the others are extremely secular Brazilians. Since I was living in the Middle East at the time, I was intrigued by a Brazilian attempt at portraiting Arab-Muslim culture. I was on holiday when "O Clone" was running, so I got to watch a week of it, and was amused by the Brazilian romanicization of Arab culture. Unfortunately, after a week, I went back to the Middle East - you know, the real one, not the Brazilian TV version.

Now I'm in Kosovo. I'd heard rumours that Brazilian soap operas were popular in the countries of the former Soviet-communist bloc. My Armenian roommates used to recount to me the stories of my TV viewing childhood, but in Russian. I'd heard rumours, but I'd never seen it.

Well, now I'm seeing it. About four Brazilian novelas air daily here, all in Portuguese with Albanian subtitles. A new running of "O Clone" just started on Monday! So this week's lesson in globalisation: go to Kosovo, a country buried deep in the Balkans in Eastern Europe, to watch a novela created in my childhood home, in my second heart language of Portuguese. And, as icing on the cake, the story is all about Arab culture, in which I've spent most of my adult life.

Oh, no, the real icing on the cake is this: I'm now planning to watch "O Clone" every evening and take notes on the subtitles as I watch, so watching the Brazilian novela about Arabs will be my daily Albanian language lesson!

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Portrait #72: Socks

Yesterday I was taken out on a field trip to visit youth clubs. These clubs teach skills for peace and reconciliation and good citizenship to adolescents, and are based in schools in various villages in the country.

I was picked up at the office in downtown Prishtina, were there was a thin layer of snow coating the earth from the night before. But as we drove out of the city, the world became more and more white. By the time we got to the villages, I was surrounded by snowy hillsides, trees frosted with fluffy white bundles, houses that were entirely white except for the smoky spot around the chimney. The snow was still coming down lightly, and it was breathtakingly lovely.

The first school we visited had a very long driveway, up a hill off the main road. My host asked me if I minded walking up the hill. I replied that normally I wouldn't, but I didn't actually have winter shoes, so if the vehicle could make it up, that'd be great. We were in a big Toyota 4x4, so I felt our odds were good. Unfortunately, though, the tires of the 4x4 SUV hadn't been replaced for years, so he attempted the hill but didn't make it more than half a dozen metres before we first stopped, then started sliding backwards.

He apologetically went ahead and parked at the bottom of the hill. I said not to worry, and followed him up the hill, walking carefully to avoid tufts of snow pouring into my summer shoes (which, fortunately, are waterproof). We got to the school and visited with some students and the director, then headed back down. As is often the case, the trek down was harder than up. My host slipped once. I was walking too carefully to slip, but my feet were pretty much soaking wet and frightfully cold by the time we got to the bottom of the hill.

Then we drove to the next school, a journey which also entailed a slightly treacherous descent down an icy dirt road. We made it just fine, though, and were welcomed warmly in the school foyer. The heating was barely on in the building, though, giving me great compassion for the students who study all day wearing their coats!

But the school director met us at the door and ushered us up to his office, where coffee was promptly prepared. Then my host exchanged a flurry of Albanian with the director and the teacher who made our coffee. Money was exchanged, and I couldn't help but hope that they were going to bring us lunch.

But it wasn't lunch. First, a space heater was produced and set up against a wall. A chair was placed in front of the space heater, and I was instructed to sit facing the wall and the heater. For the next half hour, I had to turn around to see my host, and turn to the side to see the director chatting on MSN. But I was warm. My trouser legs defrosted. At their encouragement, I removed my shoes and set them by the heater to dry. I tried to get the socks to dry, but that was slow going.

Then after another fifteen minutes, the teacher popped his head into the office and extended his hand. There was a pair of black socks, still in the packaging, in his hand, along with some change that he gave to my host. He'd sent a kid out to buy me a pair of brand new, clean, dry socks! At that moment, I was so touched and so grateful - and I vowed to myself never to even hint of complaining about wet feet in the snow again for as long as I'm in Kosovo!

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Scenario #20: Fireworks

It was, beyond a doubt, the most impressive display of fireworks I've ever seen. Lots of colours, variety, booming, shapes, sprinklers, designs. To be fair, there wasn't quite as generous a serving of those things as there are at your average 4th of July display in Washington, or at an Olympics opening ceremony. But I have never in my life been half as enthralled by fireworks as I was by Kosovo's independence day celebration last night.

What made these fireworks the most impressive I've ever seen was that they were a full-body experience. They were being set off from three different points in the city centre, and I found myself standing right in the middle. I looked one way and I saw Prishtina's premiere five-star hotel setting the backdrop to purple, blue, yellow and white... sparklies, shpritzers, boomers and those fireworks that go zooooooooooooooooooo-splat. You know the ones. Then I turned around and saw the reflection of the fireworks in the windows of the OSCE building - but not the hotel ones. In the windows I was watching the dancing lights of the fireworks display taking off from the centre square, from next to the stage where there had been live concerts all day. This display was comprised mostly of the simple white and yellow types, but it went on for a good hour without tiring. Then I whirled around again and, between two buildings, I could see the rear of the sportscentre, where the most multicoloured display of all was rockin' the town. They were so low that the arena stood higher than many of the fireworks. It was like I was facing them at eye-level: red, yellow, blue, purple, orange, green and white lights blasted off right in front of my face. Everywhere I stood I could see lights, and usually two sets of lights at a time. I wasn't watching fireworks, I was living them!

I had a few brief passing thoughts about health and safety, but decided that this is what fireworks were meant to be, and that we in the West may have lost the point when we started watching them high in the air, kilometres away, on TV.

As I'm getting to know people here in Kosovo, I'm realising that memories of war are incredibly fresh for many people. They've told me about having to evacuate their homes, seeing their neighbours' houses bombed, watching on the day NATO started bombing their city, and trying to avoid the fighting between different military forces in their villages. They can describe the weapons used and they seem to be masters of identifying the uniforms of all the different troops at a glance.

I don't know if larger-than-life fireworks like I experienced last night are the standard in this part of the world, but I couldn't help but wonder at a nation full of people, whose formative years were spent hearing booming sounds that were meant for evil, now choosing to surround themselves by the same sounds in celebration. At one point last summer in Syria, there were fireworks and firecrackers going off for two days straight in commemoration of a Christian holiday. My Iraqi friends told me they were very disturbed whenever they heard the firecrackers go off, because they were mentally transported back to the war they'd fled in Iraq, and I felt sympathy for them. But these people in Kosovo didn't shy away from fireworks, instead it seems they redefined them.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Portrait #71: The cable guys

On Saturday, two young men knocked on my door at 11:00 a.m. They were two hours early, but they eventually explained to me that they were trying to finish their day as quickly because it was Valentine's Day and as soon as they were done their work for their day, they could go home.

They hesitated at the door when I beckoned them in. They were both taking their shoes off, but extremely slowly, as if they didn't particularly want to remove their shoes. I pointed at the end of the corridor and my shoes there, near the entrance to the living area, and said, "At the end of the hall is fine." They looked up, then back at their half-shod feet, then back at the end of the corridor again. Finally, they walked in, out of the cold, proceeded to the end of the hall where they politely removed their shoes, and entered my flat.

I showed them into the living room where the television is. They found the remote and started fiddling. Finally, one asked me, in a surprised tone: "No Cable TV?" I replied that that's what they had come to install, wasn't it? That and Internet. (I digress here: to those of you who know me well, can you believe I have my own flat and have cable TV in my flat?! What's happening to me???) Well, they grunted and started tugging at wires and cables. I went back to my work, since I was on a deadline, and they disappeared.

For the next fifteen minutes, as I typed away, I could hear them rummaging around in the garden behind my flat. I assume the landlord showed them around. The landlord's son (at least I think that's who it is) seemed to pop in and out of the flat several times throughout the hour the cable guys were there.

Wires all sorted out, one guy started to configure my computer with the necessary cable internet settings. As he worked, they told me why they were eager to finish quickly on the holiday, but they laughed me off when I asked them if they had big plans for Valentine's Day. Then I apologised for not offering them tea or coffee, because I didn't have anything good enough to offer them. They both looked at me, with big, wide, childlike eyes. They said it was fine, but their eyes told me otherwise.

Then they asked me what I'm doing here. I told them I work for an international NGO, and they got animated. What do I do? How long have I worked there? What types of projects does the NGO do? When they realised I'm recently arrived and that it's a small office, the questions stopped coming and one of them said, "Oh... because we were hoping you could get us a job there."

I apologised that I didn't yet have any connections of value and couldn't help them, and then I asked him why he was looking for a job if he was already working. He said that what they make is too little, he's always looking for something better. This is too little to live on. So I asked him how much he makes, if he was willing to share that information. He told me to guess. I pulled a figure out of my head: 300 Euro. He exclaimed, "For 300 Euro, I'd-- I'd--" I couldn't tell whether I'd guessed high or low, but obviously it was WAY OFF, right? Well, turns out his salary is 200 Euro a month. He was quick to point out that this is a job that requires technical skills, as well as English knowledge. And his friend had recently worked abroad, in Germany, but this was the best they could do.

They laughed and joked with me as they finished the settings. We had to sit around for a while while we waited for my internet account to be activated, but they didn't mind at all. They taught me a few words in Albanian and showed me my new TV channels, making sure I knew where BBC and CNN were, as well as the two English entertainment channels - and, of course, Fashion TV.

And then it was working and they were on their way to their undisclosed Valentines Day plans. I apologised again as they left for my poor hospitality and they waved me off as they put their shoes on and trudged down the hallway into the cold.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Happy first birthday!

Tomorrow, the 17th of February 2009, marks Kosovo's first birthday - it's their first-ever Independence Day celebration.

Walking around the streets of Prishtina today felt like Damascus on the last day of Ramadan, or any given American mall on Christmas Eve. People scurrying around, getting last bits of shopping in... cars madly racing somewhere... families and friends huddling together in the cold... some stores and restaurants bustling while other stores and restaurants closed early.

And on every street corner, there were vendors out selling flags. The three flags on offer were: the new Kosovo flag, the Albanian flag, and the American flag. Yup, the stars and strips of the U.S.A. There were flags that had all three on one piece of fabric, box sets with the Kosovo and Albanian flags on little poles, and my favourite: the Kosovo flag somehow drawn into a section of the American flag.

It's been fun getting to know people who are about to celebrate their first Independence Day but aren't sure what that will look like. Here have been some of the plans they've shared with me:

- "Well, last year, when they declared independence, there were live bands playing all day in the city centre, and they had huge stalls out where they were serving people food, Kosovo national dishes, for free. I don't think they'll do that again tomorrow, but they might. I think I'll wander over there and check it out."

- "We have a day off! I'm going to rest at home. What else would I do?"

- "Do we have only Tuesday off, or is Monday also a national holiday? No one has been able to tell me so far. So I guess I'll go to work on Monday." (In the end, at least in our office, they decided this morning to make Monday a half-day. People seemed happy, but it occurred to me that it was a bit of a pity that people came back to the city after weekends in their villages for only a half-day of work.)

- "They've been announcing a schedule of events on TV but I haven't paid attention. At some time tomorrow I'll take my little daughter to the city centre and we'll see what's happening. I think there will be live music."

- "I never go out, but this is our independence day. We should do something. Do you want to go bowling with us?"

- "I have a friend whose cousin is DJing a party. I guess I should go to that. I think there will be lots going on, but I couldn't really tell you what."

- "I'm picking out an outfit in the colours of our new flag - not the old one. So that's blue, yellow and white. I couldn't remember what the colours were, though. I knew there was blue and yellow, but it was my niece who told me there's also white in the flag. At least I'll have blue and yellow, and maybe I'll find something white to wear also."

People here are quite excited and feeling very patriotic, but my general impression is that they don't know how to be patriotic. Except for buying flags. Lots and lots of flags. They're hanging from balconies, waving off of car antennas, draped on people's backs.

After work today, I told people, "Happy Independence Day!" They smiled, and I wondered if it was the first time anyone had ever said that to them.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Kosovo!

Those of you who follow me on twitter or the like probably realise I've been posting about Kenya even though I left Kenya on Tuesday. I've had computer problems so have been running behind... because now I'm in Kosovo! And expect to be here for four entire months. That's some kind of a record for me. My first impression has been positive, and I've already met so many characters I want to start portraiting. So starting tomorrow, portraits and scenarios of Kosovo...

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Portrait #70: The Rasta Silverware Jewellery Guys

We got to know a small slice of the Nairobi art scene the other day when we met up with the Rasta Silverware Jewellery Guys. We went to buy some of said silverware jewellery, and found ourselves in their workshop - or it might have been someone's home, I'm not sure - surrounded by beaded jewellery, cords and wires, copper doodads, the Washington D.C. metro map, paintings and other bits of artwork, some random books, and pile after pile of silverware.

These guys travel around the world, both physically and via E-bay, to find old forks and spoons that they then purchase and re-shape to make jewellery. There were bracelets made of bent-up forks, with each tong turned in a unique direction. There were bracelets made of spoons cut in half, bent into half-moons, then re-fashioned using bits of wire. There were necklaces made of spoon tops and spoon bottoms. There were pendants made of forks bent in half, the bend being the hole through which the wire of cord could be threaded. And there were all kinds of different rings made from bits of forks and spoons. Plus, there were earring projects started but not yet completed. There must have been 500 or more pieces of silverware in the flat, some still whole, others already fashioned into jewellery, and yet others in process.

As we fingered our way through the selection - which was gorgeous and certainly not cheap - we chatted with the two guys. The guy who looked to be in charge had short dreads, partly graying, with a goatee. He wore a black t-shirt and black trousers, and had a few of his rings on his fingers.

His friend had extremely long dreads, but only about five thick ones. He wore patchwork jeans and a black t-shirt. Every single one of this fingers had a silverware ring on it, he wore one of the bracelets on one hand, and there were two pendants around his neck, one of a bent fork and the other an enormous brass cross. Enormous meaning easily two hand lengths in height. He was one of those people it's hard not to stare at.

They didn't seem to mind us being in their space at all. They had us sit on the one lumpy sofa, and chatted as they pulled out more and more bracelets and rings for us to look at. When they learned I used to live in Baltimore, the first guy waxed elegant about everything Baltimore: the drug problem and the abandoned houses, the famous people who have lived there in the past, the neighbourhood which he both loves and hates (Fells Point, for you Baltimoreans present). He studied at the Maryland Institute College of Art, so Baltimore's a home for him. When he learned I taught public school there, he made the appropriate expression of shock - plus a little.

Then it came out that I'm moving to Kosovo. The second guy has been there before, right before the war broke out there - 12 years ago or so. What was he doing there? Just travelling around. What's it like? A shithole, he said. Everyone's miserable and drinks a lot. Then he and his friend laughed so heartily and joyfully that I found myself not even minding the statement he'd made about my new residence.

They joked and chatted about this and that. It was one of those conversations that jumps from topic to topic, that carries itself with minimal stress. They could talk about everything and did. They talked about Kenya's art scene and showed us some gorgeous paintings they had just obtained. They said they had to look hard to find the good stuff, though, and invited us to visit their gallery someday. It's just outside of the city.

The one joke I remember clearly was when the topic of airport security came up. The first guy said he hates them, they are just terrible - and they do no good. He was grinning as he said this, so he didn't seem too bothered by their awfulness. As illustration, he pointed to his friend. He said, "Now take my friend here. When he goes through airport security, he's going to beep, right?" Remember, the guy has an enormous ring on each finger, the biggest cross I'd ever seen around his neck, plus some! "But they get suspicious. They make him take it all off." His friend stands up and starts pointing to his different items of jewellery. "Then they ask him if he's carrying a weapon of some sort, and he says, 'No, I'm just a peace-loving Rastafarian.' But they're not convinced so they make him keep taking things off and keep taking things off. Isn't it obvious he's got a lot of jewellery? Every time... Let the poor guy through. Then, at the same time, someone else is getting through with God knows what and they don't care!" He was laughing as he said this and his friend was, too. Reading what I've just written, it doesn't look like such a funny joke - but they thought it was funny and enjoyed it, which made it absolutely hilarious to me.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Portrait #69: Matatu!

I love public transportation, especially when it's flexible and keeps moving, getting me to my destination without too much heeing and hawing. Nairobi's matatus were definitely my kind of public transportation.

- Most of them are vans, holding 10-15 passengers, depending on the layout. I think this is the perfect size for a public transport. Small enough for there to be lots of them and thus regular service, but big enough to still feel somewhat anonymous when riding them.

- The first thing I noticed upon arriving in Nairobi was that so many people walk so much! I'm a big fan of pedestrians and being a pedestrian. For the most part, though, when people in Nairobi walk, they seem to walk rather slowly. And there is an overall sense of patience in the air. However, matatus MOVE. They drive fast. In addition, besides the driver, there's always another person working the matatu whose job is to collect fares, but more importantly to herd people on and off the vans as quickly as possible. I have a nice solid bruise on my leg as evidence of this, when I didn't make it into my seat quickly enough and the herder slammed the door on my leg.

- They hold just the right number of people per seats. Apparently this is a new rule - they used to be ridiculously crowded. But now if there are 13 seats on the matatu there are 13 passengers. The vans are usually full or almost full, as the herders really do do their job well. So while it's tight, it's reasonably comfortable.

What more could I ask for in public transport?

But besides being supremely practical, I found matatus to be quite fun to ride, for a few different reasons:

- As a girl who has lived in the Middle East for so long, I was just thrilled to discover that women regularly sit in the front of matatus. Watching us weaving between cars as we leave them in the dust, and observing this and that on the roads we're passing, are great sources of amusement.

- The highlight of matatus, beyond the shadow of a doubt, are the musical themes. Some play no music, but many blast it out. One matatu I rode had R&B blasting so loud I was bouncing higher than the van itself. I was totally dancing along in my front seat. Then my friend, who was sitting in the back, tapped my shoulder to tell me that I was really missing out by sitting in the front. Directly above my head was a TV screen showing the video clips. So the back passengers were getting the full-bodied entertainment. The next day, I rode a matatu whose theme was reggae music. Again, it so loud that bouncing was inevitable and conversations were futile. (This was made more amusing by the fact that a very friendly young woman next to me was having an intense conversation with me but I couldn't hear a word she was saying, so she just kept on talking!) The musical theme that most intrigued me, though, was Gospel. Several matatus have all their windows taped over with pictures of gospel singers and other adverts for gospel music. One had a larger-than-life poster of T.D. Jakes on its back window. Sadly, I never got to ride a gospel matatu.

- Matatus are apparently what makes traffic interesting for cars, taxis and pedestrians. They lead all innovations such as creating new lanes in a backup, they have perfected the weave and the art of cutting across other vehicles, and they are apparently very frequently involved in accidents. From what my friends in Nairobi tell me, I get the impression traffic would be rather tame (boring?) without matatus.

- There have been different points in recent history during which matatus are required to have seatbelts, speed boxes and other such safety mechanisms. And there have been other points in history during which they are not required to do all those same things. What this means, apparently, is that some matatu herders are very strict with where people sit and how, and others are more lenient. Sometimes matatus get pulled over for what may seem to the rest of us as no reason (such as because the person in the back row wasn't wearing a seatbelt) and disputes have broken out between police officers and the matatu's occupants. I haven't had the chance to see one of those interactions, but it sounds fun!

- Only once on a matatu ride did I identify other white people (besides my friend) on the van. While Nairobi is overridden with foreigners, the matatus remain mostly unscathed. So as the only "wuzungus" on the matatu, we enjoyed lots of stares and a handful of friendly-curious conversations. On one ride, the herder and the driver and a passenger or two kept looking at us and talking about us in Swahili. They seemed slightly suspicious and extremely amused. But when we got to our stop, the driver didn't stop, so my friend banged on the ceiling to catch the herder's attention. He looked back at us, we made it clear we were wanting off, and he shouted, for the entire van to hear, "xxxxx fjrwpr WUZUNGU rpwqrpwrw xxxxx!!!" We interpreted that to mean "the wuzungus want to get off!" and alighted, laughing: them at us and us at them.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Scenario #19: A different kind of logic

The other morning I called a taxi to come pick me up at the house where I was staying. My friend gave him the directions to get there and asked him to arrive at 9:00. Around 9:00 he called to say he was stuck in traffic but would arrive shortly. Ten minutes later he called asking me to repeat the directions. Was it near Sarit Centre? I said it wasn't far from there, but was even closer to St. Mark's church. In fact, it's on the same street as the church, but at the other end. He said he'd be there soon. Ten more minutes and he called to say he was at the church. I said, great, now just drive to the end of the street and that's where I am. He told me he didn't want to do that because he'd already been driving around in circles for the past twenty minutes. He didn't want to get lost again: couldn't I just come meet him at the church? Well, it's the same road, but it's a good five minute walk from one end of the road to the other, so I asked him to just come to the end of the street. He wouldn't do it.

Finally, I was able to convince him by having the guard speak to him in Swahili, so there must have been some linguistic miscommunication going on, but I found myself still baffled at the fact that he'd come so far but then refused to drive down the street - the same street as he was already on!

In the last few weeks, it seems that the talk of Nairobi has been two recent fires. Several people told me the tale of these fires, and felt they illustrated the same disconnect I sensed in my interaction with George the taxi driver.

The first story is of a supermarket in the city centre. A fire broke out in the store while it was open, with several dozen shoppers inside. As the story goes, the managers were worried that in the chaos pilferers would find their way in and the store's stock would be looted. So they locked the doors. The 40+ people inside all perished, presumably along with the store's inventory.

The second fire apparently could have easily been avoided. As the story goes, there was an accident and an oil tanker was overturned. Somehow in the process, not only did all the oil spill out, but it was concentrated in one area, so the oil ran knee-deep. When people saw this happening, those who had bottles, cans or other containers rushed to the scene to get a bit of oil for themselves. Others called friends and loved once, telling them about the river of oil and instructing them to come at once with cans! Others apparently actually went home to get containers and came back. The police caught on quickly enough and set up a barrier. They didn't stop the looting, but they did try to establish some type of organisation to the process. Did they charge entry? Or did they just limit the number of people who could wade in oil and fill bottles at any one time? Either way, someone who was not admitted got upset and started protesting the abuse of power, and then got irritated at the mad rush of people around him. He pulled out a match and threatened to light it. But apparently the flammable fumes were so thick in the air that the match gently knocked against something, which then set the whole thing off. He died, the cop he was arguing with died, and all the looters died.

The kicker came with some of the reports presented in the Kenyan media. A story like this makes good television, of course. So they interviewed survivors and average citizens, several of whom said that, even though all the looters died in the fire, if there another oil tanker overturned tomorrow, they'd be right there back in the oil river with their bottles!

The logic behind these decisions eludes me. I suspect there is a logic justifying the taxi driver's last-minute resistance, the store managers' preference to lose stock and people to fire than just stock to looters, and the looters' willingness to risk their lives for a coke bottle's worth of oil. Is it desperation or frustration that drives them? Are they trying to make a statement? Is there a value system that is simply quite different from my own? I've met people who argued for each of these explanations, but I am not yet satisfied, I want to learn this new logic!

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Portrait #68: Kenya's Gaucho

Last night we went for a celebratory dinner (I have a job!!!!!!! The impossible may have actually happened!) at my restaurant of choice. It's called Fogo Gaucho, and it's a typically Brazilian steakhouse (churrascaria). We call these places "rodízio" which means "rotation" because the entire meal consists of sitting at one's seat waiting for the waiters to circulate through the room with enormous skewers of different cuts of meat. Fogo Gaucho, for example, has more than a dozen cuts: five or six beef cuts, chicken, pork sausage and beef sausage, pork roast, prawns, crocodile, etc. etc. In addition, there's an extensive salad bar. It's pretty much heaven for someone who likes eating.

So when we were talking about going out for a fun meal, I didn't hesitate to enthuse about the idea of going to Fogo Gaucho. And it was good. It's been so long since I've been to a churrascaria, and was I was needing to stock up on my systemic meat reserves!

Partway through the meal, Fogo Gaucho's owner came over to greet us. He was dressed in typical "gaucho" clothing. Gauchos are basically Brazilian cowboys. They ride bulls and herd cattle. And they are the mastermind behind churrascarias. There is little room for disputing that the absolutely best meat in the world comes through gauchos (there's a bit of dispute whether Brazilian or Argentian gauchos do it better, though!). Gauchos wear super baggy knee-length trousers that gather tightly at the bottom, enormous belts, bandanas tied around their necks and shirts with a flair. All servers at churrascarias generally dress up as Gauchos. At Fogo Gaucho, even the owner himself dressed as a Gaucho, which is unusual, but was quite charming!

He's really made it in life, a rag to riches story. As a young man he moved to Sao Paulo from the south (where he probably was a real-life gaucho) to work as a server in a churrascaria in the big city. After five years doing that, he started travelling a bit and ended up opening up his own churrascaria. And let me tell you, his churrascaria has the best picanha (my favourite cut of beef) I have ever tasted!

The thing is... I'm not in Brazil. I'm not sure I could be any further away from Brazil. I'm in Nairobi, Kenya! So, picture this young man raised on a cattle ranch in a village in the south of Brazil, who then worked for five years as a server in a restaurant in the city. One day he picked up and travelled to Africa, all the way around the world, and opened his own restaurant here! I doubt he's educated past high school, if that. He seemed rather shy and quiet, and yet attentive to his staff of Kenyan fake-gauchos (all dressed up in the proper garb, of course! This was slightly amusing to me as most real gauchos are blond, and of course the Kenyan gauchos were far from blond). He's lived in Kenya for three years, isn't married, and has co-owned this restaurant chain (there are two of them!) for two years. He likes living here, is happy with his business, and figures Kenya will be his home for the rest of his life.

I love it when my worlds meet, and am just flabbergasted that the best picanha I've ever tasted (or at least among the best) is in Nairobi, Kenya!

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Portrait #67: Giggly Betty

Apparently I came all the way to Africa to do medical exams! I've decided that spending hours in a doctors' office is a great way to experience a country. Sitting in a waiting room with the other patients, watching the children who are bored to death playing together, seeing the queue for the key to the bathroom, wading through forms and receipts and coming up with enough cash to pay for a ridiculously extensive battery of lab work. That's obviously not Kenya's fault (it's for two U.S.-based organisations), but Kenyan doctor's office staff have laughed with me over the length of the list of blood tests.

The secretary took me through to the laboratory at the back of the office to set up my bloodwork. There are two rooms: the lab in the back, and the little room where they take the blood. As we walked in, the secretary walked through to the back room, but a short smily woman in a blue labcoat stopped me and pointed me to the smaller room. There was a black hard-backed chair nestled between a desk and a wall, and she pointed for me to sit there.

I backed myself up into the small space and took a seat. When I looked up, the woman was now leaning against the door with a huge grin on her face. Her hair was chin-length, a very round cut - like that cut little boys used to get where their mums just threw a bowl over their heads and cut. Her hair was very carefully styled, though, with little curls at the bottom, and a speck of blond highlights. She smiled at me.

So I said, "How are you?"
She giggled. "I'm ok. How are you?"
"I'm good!"
"How long have you been in Kenya?"
"Oh, this is my first week. But I'm loving it!"
"Really?" Laugh. Then she said something to the intent of that I'm very welcome. I asked her her name and she said it's Petrolina, but I can call her Betty. She didn't ask my name.
She was being so smily and friendly that I asked her: "Are you from Nairobi?"
"No." And she waved her arm far far to the right, indicating where her family's home is from. She said it's not far, but she also said it's like five or six hours drive away.
So I asked her how often she goes back.
"No. Don't go home much."
"Don't you miss your family?"
"They live near."
"Oh, so do you live with them?"
"No, I live alone."
"How long have you lived here?"
"Ten years."
"Are you married?"
"No." Major giggles.
The giggles inspired me. "Why not?"
She chuckled a bit more and murmured something about family.
So I narrowed my eyes and said, still smiling, "Did you love someone?"
She doubled over laughing. Literally, her whole body was bent as she tittered and chortled. She glanced up at me and burst out laughing again.
FInally, I apologised and said she didn't have to say. She just nodded her head and giggled some more.

Right then, the secretary came back and took me away again. I ran into Betty again twenty minutes later in the checkout queue of the supermarket, downstairs in the same building. She got a huge grin and nodded enthusiastically when she saw me. Then she went back to her groceries and left. When I saw her the next day - and the next - she greeted me warmly, gestured for me to sit in the narrow seat, then disappeared.

Monday, February 9, 2009

Portrait #66: Pole Pole: That's Peeeeeee..... Oooooo...... eLLLL...... Eee......

I learned three interesting things from the taxi driver who brought me into Nairobi from the airport:
1. Fuel (pronounced "foil") shortages are common here
2. roughly twenty words in Kiswahili
3. That patience and chill-ness are real virtues here

He couldn't have been older than twenty-two. He's born and bred in Nairobi, but recently moved out of his parents' place. He has loads of siblings and except for one married sister and another sibling or two, they still live at home. He personally thought it was time to strike it out on his own. They were driving him crazy. Plus, he wants to be ready for whenever he meets that special someone. He's only renting but hopes to buy eventually. Besides driving the taxi, he also has a used-clothing business. He sells clothing from all over the world, but mostly Europe. He hopes to make enough soon to, you know, meet that special someone.

He told me all this as we cruised up the highway from the airport into Nairobi, then circled the neighbourhood a bit more in search of a petrol station that had petrol. "No one has any foil! I've already been to five stations before I picked you," he said. "We need foil." I peeked at his gas gauge: below empty. I wasn't in a rush, so figured it was a chance for me to see a bit of the town, but I also figured a brief prayer wouldn't hurt either.

It was four gas stations later that we finally found our gas. I asked him why noone had any gas and he said he doesn't know, this happens sometimes. I later asked some other taxi drivers and local friends about that question, and no one could give me a really clear answer. The best, most detailed and confident-sounding, story entailed corruption and siphoning of fuel to re-sell it, leaving the country's oil reserves empty. Apparently, even though there are private petrol station companies, the oil supply is centralised, so there you go.

My taxi driver didn't have an answer at all for me, he just gave me a tour of gas stations as we sought out our foil.

Once that was taken care of and off his mind, he became very friendly. He was excited to know that this was my first time in Kenya and eager to make a good impression. I told him that I'd already learned about five words in Kiswahili, which greatly met with his approval. He decided I needed the tour of the town and that I needed to learn Swahili. And learn it right. He had me get out my notebook and start taking notes. Gari means car, so he said, "You say, Geeeeee (pause) Aaaaaaa (pause, by which time I had already written it out phonetically), ARrrrrrrr (pause), I." For the twenty minutes that remained of the drive, he taught me several more words, spelling each one out a couple of times, with as much precision as one could ever desire:
Kesho = tomorrow
Nakupenda = I love you (so I can say it to my mother, he informed me)
Nipe Maji = Give me water
Nataka Kujisaidia = Where's the wc?
Ni Rafiki Yangu = my friend
Pole Pole = Slowly, slowly

At this point, he took a break to pull over on the side of a road overlooking the city. We were on a hill, so there was a nice view of the Nairobi skyline, of which he was quite proud. Then he pointed to the park directly below us where there was a small amphitheatre. "And this is where Barack Obama spoke when he came to visit!" he informed me animatedly. It wasn't a very big ampitheatre, so I asked, "Really? How many people came?" His reply: "Oh, that was back when he was only a senator! NOW he wouldn't speak here. There's a much bigger park where he WILL speak." I asked him how he liked Obama. My taxi driver likes Obama very much, and is very proud of him.

Back to the vocabulary. Pole Pole was the central point of our lesson. It's apparently a phrase used frequently, to tell people to calm down, to be patient, to go slow. We have a similar phrase in Arabic (shway shway) so it worked for me, but he used the rest of his lesson to teach me other common phrases with the same theme:
Hakuna Matata = No problems/worries
Hakuna Haraka = There's no rush
Mambo ni Pole Pole = Calm down, that's the way things are (rough translation)
And some others that I didn't write down correctly.

He said that people often complain about the traffic in Nairobi, so these are the phrases that he uses in response to people's complaints. Sure, traffic's bad, but no worries!

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Portrait #65: The spice guy

I fell in love with Nicosia's city centre market. A bus parking area was overtaken every Wednesday by several dozen fruits and vegetable stalls, as well as a few stands of people selling bread, olives, sausages, spices, nuts, and the like. Their produce was fresh and delicious and their prices reasonable - by Cyprus standards, that is. I loved going and wandering through the eye-feast of colourful produce, and purchasing wholesome healthy fruits and veggies. My favourite produce this January was the pears. I bought kilos and kilos of pears. Oh, and the avocados! They were generally not-yet ripe when I bought them, but I'd buy a bunch and take them home to ripe over the next several days. Yummy. You may not agree with me, but I personally think avocados and pears make a great combination in salads. Oh, delish!

Anyway, on one trip to the market, I went with a shopping list of foods we needed to make tapas that week. We were in charge of appetisers for a progressive dinner for 25 people and, being the types who don't really know how to turn down a challenge, my friend and I got into our minds that the appetisers should be a selection of Spanish tapas. If you weren't already aware of this, let me make clear now: Tapas are labour-intensive. Very much so. Yet great fun and, again, delish!

Back to the Wednesday market, where I was purchasing all the fresh produce needs for our tapas extravaganza. I found all the veggies without too much trouble: tomatoes, mushrooms, onions, garlic, and more. The last two things on my list, however, were herbs: basil and rosemary. I didn't find any of those goods at the vegetable or fruit stalls, so was about to give up and opt for procuring them at the big supermarket the next day when I chanced across a spice and herbs guy. He was eating his lunch, but he had two dozen buckets of different spices and dried herbs out on display.

Now, I only know one word in Greek, and that word is not the word for "basil" nor is it the word of "rosemary." And the shopkeepers at the market didn't generally speak English. I tried English with the herbs&spices guy, but it did no good. So I, smiling and acting as friendly as possible, started sniffing through his spices. How else do you identify spices? The only thing I know to do is sniff away. So I picked up the bags of dried herbs and took a wiff. I took the lids off the buckets and stuck my head in to smell. I know, a bit intrepid, but how else was I to communicate that I was after basil and rosemary? I tried to smile at him in between each inhale, to make my intentions clear.

Well, he was not happy. I'm not sure if I was turning away other customers by exploring his wares with such impunity, or if he just didn't want to feel pulled away from his lunch. Regardless, he stared at me with disgust for a while, then finally left his food to follow me. He started shouting in Greek. I responded by smiling more, shrugging and repeating in English, "Basil?", "Rosemary?" Then I kept exploring. So he ratched the shouting up a notch. I was beginning to despair from my quest, when he finally apparently remembered a phrase in English: "Don't touch!" Now it was clear what he wanted. He uttered those words, then emitted a loud grunt and a sigh, waved his right hand broadly in the air, and marched back to his stool and his lunch.

So we didn't get our herbs at the market after all. We went to the big Western-style supermarket the next day. I guess the trend toward uniform westernisation scored another point after all.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Profile #64: The shopkeeper downstairs

Right downstairs and across the alleyway from the flat where I stayed in Cyprus was a corner store, the kind of supermarket found on every third street corner throughout the Middle East. Combine that with weekly trips to the fruit and veggie market and occasional forays to the butchers, and all your household needs can be met. We usually drove to the big supermarket to do our shopping, but when I just needed to stock up on a thing or two, I was grateful for the store downstairs.

I went to the store half a dozen times in a month. One day I went twice. Once I went to change the gas bottles. A few times for an emergency bottle of milk. The shopkeeper didn't speak more than five words of English, which was four words more than I could speak in Greek. But I'm sure he came to recognise me. I often managed to stop in right during his lunch hour, during which he sat at a little foldable table next to the self with the paper towels and canned sauces. Sometimes he was chatting with friends, but he was usually alone.

He was gray-haired, somewhat tall and somewhat heavyset: a quiet gruff guy. Never smiled at me, and always spoke Greek to me even though he knew I couldn't understand. Not that I was any better - I must confess I spoke English to him even though he made no indication whatsoever that he understood me! So I came to the conclusion that he begrudged my lack of linguistic sensitivity: gruff + greek-only = doesn't like me.

Since I kept going back, he slowly warmed to me, to the extent that he eventually started at least trying to tell me prices in English. It was a gesture I appreciated, even through my sense of guilt that it should have been me expanding my portfolio of attempts at Greek. But I did never get a smile out of him.

On my very last visit to the shop downstairs, the day before I left, a woman met me in the store. I assume it was the regular guy's wife. She more than made up for him in smiles and attempts at communicating in English. I decided they must be a compatible couple. And, believe it or not, she charged a full 30 cents less for my milk than her husband had charged the day before.

Monday, February 2, 2009

I didn't portrait Cyprus.

The last five weeks of my life were spent on a lovely Mediterranean island. I stayed with friends who live there and got to know their friends. I explored some, but for the most part I just fell into their routine: going to the coffeeshops and clubs that they like going to, attending church and other meetings with them, exercising with them every morning. It was great to be able to adapt to life in a new place so quickly!

But towards the end of my time there, I realised that I hadn't yet written a single portrait of anyone I'd met in Cyprus! And when I wanted to start up again the discipline of noticing people and writing about them, I couldn't think of anyone I'd met lately who was worth portraiting. What was my problem, how'd I get so off my game?

It certainly wasn't that I was hiding in some cocoon and not meeting anyone! In a very short period of time, I made so many new friends who became very dear to me. I immersed myself in church activities and got to know several people that way. I had the chance to have interesting conversations with people from at least a dozen countries. And yet, why didn't I feel any of them were worth describing, remembering through words?

Well, here's what I think happened: Zero to Sixty in five seconds.

Portraits are for me about chance encounters. People (or situations) I encountered that I want to remember, but will have forgotten by day's end because they were random blips on my day. The person sitting across from me on the tube who did or said something interesting, the friendly shopkeeper, the person I met through work whose story impacted me but whom I'll never see again. In my five weeks in Cyprus, I didn't have any chance encounters.

The people I met were friends of some description by conversation's end. In a few seconds they went from strangers to people I could claim to know, and would probably be seeing again soon.

In addition, I realised that with essentially only one exception, I didn't actually meet any Cypriots. All of these new friends were foreigners living on the island. I've never stayed somewhere so long and learned so little of the language, and I've definitely never stayed anywhere so long without actually meeting anyone from that place! These two facts are probably closely connected: it would have been hard to strike up a conversation with the girl who sold me stamps at the post office when our only means of communication were her limited English and typing numbers into a calculator to show the other person what we want to say.

So I came away from Cyprus with the impression that it is a very segregated country. There are two separate communities, and the points of real contact between those two communities are few. There are the Cypriots, the people who call Cyprus home. And there's everyone else - a significant number of people! It's an unusual form of segregation, though, because the Cypriots are everywhere, and it is after all their country. So us foreigners rent our homes from Cypriots, may be employed by Cypriots, buy our fruits at the market from Cypriots. As foreigners, we are mostly consumers: our salaries come from abroad, or else we're self-funded students or volunteers. But because the number of foreigners in Cyprus is so large, instead of attaching ourselves to Cypriot culture as I've done in other countries where I've lived, we just did our own thing.

And did it well, I must say! We became good friends and did fun things together. The fantastically diverse community of expatriates in Cyprus welcomed me with open arms, even though they knew I wasn't around to stay - they were too friendly to be chance encounters. They shared tips with me about where to go for good coffee, where to buy clothes, where to find a shop in which I could get some documents printed. In other countries, I would have asked a local these questions, but in Cyprus, the expatriate community was so strong that it was a local community of sorts in its own right.

Meanwhile, I came to respect Cyprus and Cypriots for putting up with us. Though most Cypriots I encountered only spoke Greek fluently, they didn't bat an eye at trying to use their limited English to communicate with me. They didn't have to do that for me. They were patient with me when I didn't know how things worked. Well, ok, only patient for a few seconds. (A couple of times I was trying to get directions from someone, but we couldn't communicate, so after my second 'I don't understand' they just shut down and pointed in an obviously random direction to get rid of me.) But still. They allow us to live in their country, to hang out in their coffeeshops and on their streets, to live in their neighbourhoods.

I was grateful for the expatriate community I joined and wouldn't have had it any other way. But if I were moving to Cyprus more long-term, would I do the same? I don't know. I like to think I'd start to learn Greek and join some club or attend some church or something where I'd make Cypriot friends. But I've heard that most foreigners who move there have that intention at first but give up. Life is too fulfilling in the expatriate community to waste any effort trying to bridge the segregation gap. And everyone seems pretty much content with the way things are. Sure, it drove me nuts that I couldn't chat with the shopkeepers, but maybe I would get used to it.

Nonetheless, I have come up with two portraits of people I encountered during my five weeks in Cyprus. I'll post them tomorrow and the day after.