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.

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