Monday, April 6, 2009

Portrait #81: Dignity... ish

I met her a month ago at a Women's Day celebration. She came in an hour late, to catch the refreshments and socialising part of the meeting. She walked straight up to the woman seated next to me and squeezed herself in between the two of us.

Immediately, I smelled stale cigarettes on her breath. Then as she greeted her friend, I made out the distinct voice of a lifelong chain smoker. Deep, raspy.

She chatted a bit with her friend, before her friend pointed her attention to me and introduced me. She greeted me warmly and spoke in Albanian. Once my three sentences in Albanian had exhausted themselves, she switched to English, which may not have been much, but which demonstrated much more linguistic skill than that professed by most of the other women in the room.

So this skinny, dark-haired woman, with a perennial cigarette between her fingers and the brightest bluest eyes I've ever seen, took me under her wing. She introduced me to all the other young women and teenage girls - apparently she's taken all them under her wing as well. She got all us chics doing some Albanian folk dancing, chatting, and snacking. It was lovely.

I didn't see her again after that 8 March celebration, not until yesterday. Yesterday, I was sitting in the church at the beginning of the sermon, catching all the Albanian and only 1 out of 10 words from the English translation being whispered at us three rows back. Then she walked in and sat right in front of me. I recognised her dark hair, her skinny figure, the stale cigarette smell.

But this time, I also noticed her clothes. On a warm spring morning, she was wearing a long-sleeved knit sweater under a fleece vest. Her skirt was black-turned-gray made of sweatshirt material, with a few rips. She was shod in old lace-up hiking style boots - under her skirt. Sitting right behind her, I could see that her hair was dyed and styled, but nonetheless dirty, uncombed, and of a rough texture. And she smelled homeless: like her clothes, body, hair, everything, hadn't seen soap for a very long time.

But I remembered her as the social queen of the young women! The one who was friendly and confident, and who spoke good English. Who greeted everyone with kisses and kind words and was not intimidated by girls half her age. How could this woman who looked like the poorest, most longsuffering woman in the room, be a leader? As I struggled to pay attention to the Albanian sermon, I wondered whether she was reasonably well-off and poorly educated, or if she was in fact struggling to feed herself on a daily basis. I marvelled at a church which allowed her to participate fully, doing the part of a social butterfly, even though visually and olifactorally she didn't make a great impression.

After the church meeting ended, she turned and greeted me, immediately recognising me from the month before. She asked why she hadn't seen me all month. Then after a bit more socialising with other people in the room, she invited me back to her house. Fitting the impression she'd given me at church, I wasn't surprised to see that it had a huge rubbish-littered yard with two big dogs. It was only half-built, with the top floor nothing but a shell of brick blocks. But her door was new and sturdy. She didn't invite me into her house, instead she suggested we enjoy the beautiful weather outside. We drank Turkish coffee and chatted.

She brought her 9-year old son to meet me. He played outside with the dogs and climbed the wall that divided their property with the next house over. When he wanted a biscuit, he asked his mother to feed it to him because his hands were dirty after playing with the dogs. To me, that somehow said it all.

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