Here There and Everywhere

Expat wanderer

Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese

Someone in my book club in Qatar mentioned this book, Cutting for Stone, a while back, and I bought it, but it has sat for months on my to-read shelf (LOL, there are actually several, but one with the most important books, and another with the ‘guilty pleasures,’ the ones I am addicted to and save as a reward for good behavior, like vacuuming.)

When a good friend said she was reading it, and that it was good, I decided to move it up in priority, sort of like taking medicine, read a book that is good for you.

Oh WOW.

First, it is a great, absorbing story. Twin boys are born, totally unexpected, to an Indian Catholic nun and an English surgeon, working in Addis Ababa. How they were conceived is a mystery. The mother dies in childbirth, the father flees in horror, the children are born conjoined at the head and must be separated. The boys are adopted by an Indian couple, doctors at the hospital, and are raised with love and happiness.

That’s just the beginning!

I’ve always wanted to go to Ethiopia and Eritrea. I want to visit Lalibela, and some of the oldest Christian churches in the world. When my father was sick, he had a home health aid from Ethiopia, Esaiahs, who told me about the customs in his church, and how Ethiopian Christianity is very close to Judaism, with men and women separated in the church, and eating pork forbidden.

Reading this book, I felt like I had lived there, and I want to go back. The author captures the feelings, the smells, the visuals, the sounds, and if I awoke in a bungalow at the MIssing (Mission) Hospital, I would say “Ah yes! I remember this!”

I kept marking sections of this book that I loved. Here is one:

They parked at Ghosh’s bungalow and walked to the rear or Missing, where the bottlebrush was so laden with flowers that it looked as if it had caught fire. The property edge was marked by the acacias, their flat tops forming a jagged line against the sky. Missing’s far west corner was a promontory looking over a vast valley. That acreage as far as the eye could see belonged to a ras – a duke – who was relative of His Majesty, Haile Selassie.

A brook, hidden by boulders, burbled; sheep grazed under the eye of a boy who sat polishing his teeth with a twig, his staff near by. He squinted at Matron and Ghosh and then waved. Just like in the days of David, he carried a slingshot. It was a goatherd like him, centuries before, who had noticed how frisky his animals became after chewing a particuar red berry. From that serendipitous discovery, the coffee habit and trade spread to Yemen, Amsterdam, the Caribbean, South America, and the world, but it had all begun in Ethiopia, in a field like this.

We live inside the hearts and minds of doctors, some practicing under the worst possible conditions, and learn how they make their decisions and why. Verghese is a compassionate author; while his characters may be flawed, they are forgivable and forgiven.

Another section I loved, the man speaking is Ghosh, the man who adopted the twins with Hema, another doctor:

“My genius was to know long ago that money alone wouldn’t make me happy. Or maybe that’s my excuse for not leaving you a huge fortune! I certainly could have made more money if that had been my goal. But one thing I won’t have is regrets. My VIP patients often regret so many things on their deathbeds. They regret the bitterness they’ll leave in people’s hearts. They realize that no money, no church service, no eulogy, no funeral procession no matter how elaborate, can remove the legacy of a mean spirit.”

Things in Ethiopia get sticky, politically, and one of the twins is forced to flee, implicated in an airplane hijacking only because he was raised with a young woman involved. He is spirited into Eritrea, where he awaits his ride out to Kenya, and he helps the Eritrean rebels when large numbers of wounded are brought into his area. When the time comes to leave, his thoughts will strike a chord in anyone who has ever been an expat:

Two days later I took leave of Solomon. There were dark rings under his eyes and he looked ready to fall over. There was no questioning his purpose or dedication. Solomon said “Go and good luck to you. This isn’t your fight. I’d go if I were in your shoes. Tell the world about us.”

This isn’t your fight. I thought about that as I trekked to the border with two escorts. What did Solomon mean? Did he see me as being on the Ethiopian side, on the side of the occupiers? No, I think he saw me as an expatriate, someone without a stake in this war. Despite being born in the same compound as Genet, despite speaking Amharic like a native, and going to medical school with him, to Solomon I was a ferengi – a foreigner. Perhaps he was right, even though I was loath to admit it. If I were a patriotic Ethiopian, would I not have gone underground and joined the royalists, or others who were trying to topple Sergeant Mengistu? If I cared about my country, shouldn’t I have been willing to die for it?

The book has a lot of observations about coming to America; some of which made me laugh, some which made me groan. Coming back is always a shock to people who have lived abroad for a time, but it is a huge shock to those coming for the first time:

The black suited drivers led their passengers to sleek black cars, but myman led me to a big yellow taxi. In no time we were driving out of Kennedy Airport, heading to the Bronx. We merged at what I thought was a dangerous speed onto a freeway and into the slipstream of racing vehicles. “Marion, jet travel has damaged your eardrums,” I said to myself, because the silence was unreal. In Africa, cars ran not on petrol but on the squawk and blare of their horns. Not so here; the cars were near silent, like a school of fish. All I heard was the whish of rubber on concrete or asphalt.

As I neared the end, I read more slowly, unwilling for this book to end. It is one of the most vivid and moving books I have ever read. AdventureMan has gone online to find the nearest Ethiopian restaurant so we can have some injera and wot.

March 15, 2011 Posted by | Africa, Books, Bureaucracy, Character, Community, Cross Cultural, Cultural, ExPat Life, Family Issues, Fiction, Food, Interconnected, Leadership, Living Conditions, Local Lore, Marriage, Mating Behavior, Political Issues, Social Issues | , | 8 Comments

The Nile: Ethiopian Food in New Orleans

It’s just not fair. There are NO Ethiopian restaurants in Pensacola, but there are two, on the same street, Magazine,  in New Orleans, and not far from one another. We ate at one in late October, when we were in New Orleans for the day getting a new passport, Cafe Abyssinia. We would have gone back, but they were closed for the holidays, and we decided to try the Nile, just up the street.

Oh. We are so glad we did!

 

From the outside:

NileExterior

 

The menu; short, sweet, everything you need.

NileMenu

The interior is light and bright, even on a cloudy day. I loved the high ceilings and the spacious feeling.

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But best of all is the food. We ordered the vegetarian assortment (on the left) and the Doro Wat, a mildly spicy chicken dish, sometimes called the National Dish. I first heard about Doro Wat in Vargese’s Cutting for Stone, and have been ordering it whenever I could. This time, it was just spicy enough (we like spicy). I like the sauce so much, I don’t even care about the chicken, or the hard boiled egg. Just the sauce is so delicious. It is messy, you eat it with the spongy bread, injera, and even if you are very delicate, you usually have a mess. I use a lot of napkins, and even when you wash your hands, hours later you will still smell the spices on your hand (in a good way).

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There is a whole basket of the rolled injera in the upper left corner, as well as more underneath the vegetarian selections and the Doro Wat.

January 1, 2016 Posted by | Adventure, Cooking, Cultural, Eating Out, ExPat Life, Food, Road Trips, Travel | , , , , | 1 Comment

Tucson, and the Great Saguaros, and Zeman’s

On our way to the interstate from Tombstone, we see our first giant Saguaro, one of the reasons we wanted to stop in Tucson. It is awe-inspiring, just growing in someone’s front yard, about two stories high. Did you know that these giant cactus only grow in a very limited environment? Tomorrow, we are going to the Saguaro National Park; we can hardly wait.

Meanwhile, we check in to our very odd Residence Inn. It is near the Tucson airport, and it looks like a resort, but when we go to use the pool, it isn’t even filled, it is being repaired. Repaired? It looks brand new.

It is in an area with a lot of other new looking hotels, near the airport, but while in other places there are usually a lot of restaurants around the airport, in Tucson, there are few, and not ones we care about.

Using our Trip Advisor research, and our Google Maps App, we find Zeman’s. Zeman’s is Ethiopian, and gets great reviews. We love Ethiopian food, and because most of what we order is vegetarian, we also know it is really good for us.

It is an easy drive into the big city, and we find Zeman’s right where it is supposed to be. We are warmly welcomed when we go in, and take a look at the menu.

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They do something we really like; they have a combination where you can order one meat and two vegetables. We ordered two combinations, as did most of the other customers, and it was delicious!

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We really loved the ground beef, which was exotic and spicy, and the collard greens, also exotic and spicy, but with different spices. I always think of Vargese’s Cutting for Stone when I eat Ethiopian food. When I read it, I felt like I had grown up in Ethiopia.

It’s in the university part of town, and most of the customers appeared to be students and faculties who enjoy good eats at reasonable prices. Zeman’s is exactly that. Tucson is blessed to have such a delightful restaurant. I understand there is another Zeman’s and even a third one in the planning. 🙂

April 18, 2015 Posted by | Adventure, Africa, Books, Eating Out, Food, Hotels, Restaurant, Road Trips, Travel | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The ExPat Dilemma

A short while back, I told you about a book I read and loved, Cutting For Stone. You know it is a really good book when, months later, you are still thinking about it.

What I am thinking about today is how the main character writes about when he got to New York, and was homesick for Ethiopia, a country where he was born, but was always an expat. He spoke several Ethiopian dialects, he ate Ethiopian foods, he was affected by Ethiopian politics – but he was never Ethiopian. He was an Indian expat, working in Ethiopia, with Ethiopians, but always an expat.

He is in the US, and is desperately homesick for Ethiopia, and at the same time, he wryly notes that he is homesick for a country-not-his-own.

We’ve been away from Kuwait for two years now, but every now and then I am disoriented, missing Kuwait. It is hot now, for one thing, and it is so hot on some days that it feels like Kuwait. There are times my mind slips, and I am crossing the street near the Afghani shops, heading into the Mubarakiyya.

Today I am working on a new quilt, and I need a purple. I see just the right one, lurking on my purples shelf, and as I unfold it, a note falls out, from my good friend, and it says “(Intlxpatr) With love I dye this for you.”

I never cry, or hardly ever. I’m not crying now. I am in that fragile state where I COULD cry, my throat is a little thick and my eyes are a little watery, and I never saw it coming. It totally caught me by surprise.

I miss my friend. I miss Kuwait. I am home, and yet, I am homesick for a country-not-my-own, and a life I used to have.

July 25, 2011 Posted by | Arts & Handicrafts, Community, Cross Cultural, ExPat Life, Friends & Friendship, Interconnected, Kuwait, Living Conditions, Relationships | 10 Comments

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie: The Thing Around Your Neck

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie has compiled a series of elegant vignettes in her most recent book, The Thing Around Your Neck. I had just read Half of a Yellow Sun, and was still wallowing in stunned admiration, when I heard an interview with the author on BBC, and learned she had written this book, The Thing Around Your Neck.

I loved Half of a Yellow Sun. I loved Purple Hibiscus. I felt I began to understand just a little bit about life in transitional Nigeria, with all the social and political forces blowing to and fro, straining the very fabric of nationhood.

In The Thing Around Your Neck, something else happens. It shares with Cutting for Stone and other books I like the impressions of those who come to live in the USA for the first time.

“Would that the wee wee giftie gi’e us, To see ourselves as others see us . . . ”

I’ve had a lot of experience going to live in foreign countries. One of the things I learned is that most of what I learn the first couple years isn’t much. You learn a lot of things wrong. You filter everything through your own cultural biases; you judge, you interpret, you try to make sense of things that just seem wrong.

I love to watch Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s characters do this in reverse, come to America and make judgements based on their own cultural expectations. I love to see us through these eyes.

Once, many many years ago, we entertained a Nigerian in our home, and when we served dinner, steaks, he looked at his plate and said “This would feed my family for a week.” We kind of laughed. We kind of thought he was exaggerating, or even kidding. We just didn’t know. We had never seen anyone truly hungry, we had always lived in this land of plenty. We had no idea what we didn’t know. We saw only what we knew.

Each story is a gem. Each treats the expat experience, coming here, or the reverse, coming to America and then going back and seeing Nigeria through eyes which have changed.

One story I had read before, in the New Yorker magazine and loved reading again, The Headstrong Historian. It starts with a smart woman, weaving her way among the ways of her people, whose husband’s family wants her husband to take another wife. He doesn’t want to. These two chose each other, and managed to live their lives together as best they could, by their own standards. Her son disappoints her, but her granddaughter – she sees her husband’s brave, courageous spirit in the eyes of her little grand daughter. You’ll have to read the story to find out the rest.

Other stories have to do with newlyweds, with students, with love and marriage and affairs – the full spectrum of human experience, through Nigerian expat eyes. There are settings common from all three books, the college campus at Nsukka, a prison outside of town, small villages outside the city. If you read all her books, you recognize place: “Aha! I’ve been her before, in Purple Hibiscus!” You learn how to bribe the guards so you can bring in food for your imprisoned family member, you learn to keep your eyes down to show respect, you learn how Nigeria smells when the rains come, and how dry and dusty it gets during the harmattan.

I’m just sorry there isn’t another book by this author – yet – that I can read!

I guess these books that I love deal with a theme dear to my heart – that we are culturally blind to so many things, and that as human beings we are more alike than we are different. Short of packing up all our lives and our assumptions and moving to many different countries, the best we can hope for in learning different ways of thinking is for books like these by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, which show us how differently we perceive things, depending on our cultures, and how alike we are in the things that we feel, as human beings.

June 17, 2011 Posted by | Adventure, Africa, Books, Character, Cross Cultural, Cultural, ExPat Life, Family Issues, Political Issues, Values, Women's Issues | , | Leave a comment

Atlanta: Ethiopian Adventure and Macy’s

One last entry from our recent trip, a happy ending to a happy trip. This is how sweet my husband is to me.

We find Pensacola a very comfortable place to be, and have only found two things lacking. There is no Macy’s, and I do like Macy’s. There are no Ethiopian restaurants, (remember, I just read Cutting for Stone) and we like Ethiopian food. We know Atlanta has both, so we plotted our return trip with a just-enough-time-for-Ethiopian-food-and-shopping.

Isn’t life funny and wonderful? We know Atlanta has Ethiopian restaurants – several – because an almost-niece who has worked in Ethiopia lives in Atlanta, and could recommend several. Using the handy iPhone, we found a Marriott Residence Inn hidden away in a quiet neighborhood near Macy’s and not far from the Queen of Sheba. Although the hotel was full, they had a wonderful room for us, with a view of downtown Atlanta:

We found the phone number for the Queen of Sheba, called – and they were open for lunch!

When we got to the plaza where the Queen of Sheba was located, we just laughed. We were back in Kuwait!

And here is what the Queen of Sheba looks like from the outside:

Inside, daytime, the atmosphere is serene:

Nights and weekends, they have jazz and lively evenings:

We ordered the Vegetarian mix, a variety of Ethiopian vegetable/legume based dishes, a variety of tastes and heat, served on Injera, the large, pancake-like bread. When it came, it was beautiful, and it tasted as good as it looked. They gave us a tray of extra injera, and we ate almost all of it!

It was so good. SO good. We decided we would go back for dinner, after shopping. AdventureMan took me to Macy’s, and only called me twice in the hours I was looking and trying on.

Here’s the problem. I have a style, but I am terrified someone is going to recommend me for What Not to Wear, so I try to find a couple little things now and then to update my look. I have a tactic: take armsfull of clothes into the dressing room. Try on quickly. You usually can tell immediately.

Here is what you hear. “No.” “Oh, NO!” “No” “No” “No” “Hmmm, maybe” “no” “Holy Smokes, NO!” “Hmmm, maybe” etc. Then I try on the maybes, and out of twenty or thirty items, I might come out with one or two. Some young styles are just too young, some skirts just too short, some camis just too revealing. I don’t want to be one of those pathetic older women trying to be hot, I just want to look decently attractive, that’s the goal.

Meeting up hours later with AdventureMan (I know, I know, I owe him big time for this) we laugh to discover we are neither of us hungry for dinner. We decide to go back to the hotel, but dinner time comes and we are still so full from lunch that we can’t consider dinner. Even though the dishes were vegetarian, that injera must have swelled in our bellies. We can’t eat another bite!

June 10, 2011 Posted by | Adventure, Aging, Cultural, Eating Out, ExPat Life, Experiment, Family Issues, iPhone, Kuwait, Living Conditions, Pensacola, Road Trips, Shopping | , , | 5 Comments

Dreaming of The “Not-So-Big House”

I’ve been dreaming lately of the house I want in my future. I’ve visited a couple houses in Kuwait lately, houses I liked a lot, with beautiful spaces, intimate dining rooms, a variety of ceiling heights, cozy seating areas that invited conversation and large, light bedrooms that also had seating areas, grown up retreats with Jacuzzi style bathtubs and places to curl up and read, along with a whole lot of closet space.

I told you a while back about a book we were told about, Sarah Susanka’s The Not So Big House Book. The book is about making every part of your house work the way your lifestyle needs it to – cutting out space wasted on impressing other people and maximizing areas of the house where people actually hang out.

As she introduces the book, she talks about how you throw a party and everybody ends up hanging out in the kitchen, that the living rooms we create are not welcoming, and she has good ideas how to make all the spaces in your house more welcoming.

She emphasizes also the use of high quality materials and workmanship.

I know that a little bit of heaven for me is getting up every day and looking out on the Gulf. I know that when I am working, I work facing the same view. It gives me such joy. I might get some of the same satisfaction overlooking a forest with wild animals (I know AdventureMan would love to have that not-so-big house be in Africa! Imagine! You’re sorting through your books and an elephant sticks his trunk in!) or the Puget Sound with the Olympics in the background. I know I am addicted to big windows and watching the weather change.

I need privacy. I don’t want other people looking in my windows.

My best friend has a round dining room table, and my sister, and my Chinese friend tells me those are the best for family “energy.” I want a big round family dining table, in wood, like my sister and like my friend.

I love glass brick, and would love to have it in bathrooms and entries and have walls of it letting light stream into and through my home.

I love glass tile, especially the watery shades of aqua blue and aqua green.

(photo courtesy Bedrock Industries)

I love light wood floors, honey oak, birch, even knotty pine planks I had in an old German house where I once lived. I love the feeling of wood underfoot; it is gentle and forgiving, and so classically good looking.


(Photo courtesy Pennington Hardwoods)

I love second floor loft libraries, overlooking the lower living areas of a house.

Dream along with me.

Think about YOUR house. Now, close your eyes and think about what goes into making a house your very own special hideaway. What makes it special for you? What would you do with your living space if time and energy and money were of no importance?

April 23, 2008 Posted by | Building, Cross Cultural, ExPat Life, Family Issues, Kuwait, Living Conditions, Privacy | 16 Comments

More Mubarakiya Art

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I think this is a total hoot! Along with the Pacific Coast scenery and fish, we have a Swiss Cow, with a bell, and Alpine scenery.

Here is one I love, a genuine Kuwaiti butcher – I love the glasses! Faces and hands are hard to do, and this artist caught his individuality. I wonder if he is still in one of the smaller meat market shops? Also note the bloodstains on the cutting table!

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And here is a treasure, just outside the older section, near the date souk, badly damaged, and someone has strung a power cord across it, but one of the best pieces in the market. Love the colors, and look at the stone entry – the artist truly captured the feeling of stone. Look at the depths in the door and the window, the shadows and highlights. Look at the folds in the men’s thobes. This artist had some training.

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October 28, 2007 Posted by | Adventure, Arts & Handicrafts, Cross Cultural, ExPat Life, Kuwait, Living Conditions, Photos, Public Art, Shopping | , | 6 Comments

Cultures Collide

Maybe “culture clash” is too strong, maybe it’s more like huge continents that kind of bump into each other and send a reverberation through both continents, more a slow grinding than a crash? And maybe, like rough stones tumbling in a barrel, as we rub our rough edges against one another over time, maybe we become smooth, polished gems?

I have a dear friend, one of those friends that when you can grab some time together you never run out of topics, and when they leave, you remember “Oh! I forgot the point of that story was . . . and I never got to it!” or “Oh! she was starting to tell me about the . . .. and then we segued off into something else!” This friend delights my heart; when you see her face, you can see her lively soul in her sparkling eyes.

Those eyes were looking at me in utter puzzlement.

“What do you mean you couldn’t find any celery?” she asked. “Didn’t you go to the grocery store?”

“Yes! I spent hours there! Big mistake, shopping just before Ramadan, me and everyone else in the village.”

“So why didn’t you just buy some celery?” she persisted.

“There wasn’t any celery! It was all gone!” i responded.

“How could it be gone?” she asked, incredulity in her voice, “Don’t they always have celery?”

Something is wrong with this conversation. We look at each other.

“Have you ever been grocery shopping just before Ramadan?” I asked her.

“I never go grocery shopping!” she replied.

(Can you hear those continents grinding?)

I sat down. I looked at her. I believed her; I don’t think this woman is capable of lying, she is innocent and straight-forward.

“You’ve never been grocery shopping?” I asked her, knowing that if she said it, it is true, but trying to figure out how this could even be possible.

“Well, a couple times, like when I was making that pie, but only for a few little things, not like food to feed the family.”

She has staff. They’ve always had staff.

So I explained to her that just before Ramadan, like in western countries just before Christmas, some items just disappear.

“One time, in Tunisia, olive oil disappeared! And eggs! And even tomato sauce, and these are all products made in Tunisia!” I explained. “Here,” I went on, “you know how it is, sometimes even when it is not Ramadan, things will disappear, but when Ramadan is coming, if you know you might need something, you have to plan way in advance. Your Mom probably has taken care of all that. ”

“I don’t think so,” she said, two little tiny worry lines creasing her brow.

“Your Mom doesn’t shop, either?” I asked.

“Not for groceries.” And she’s looking at me like I am from another world.

And I am. This friend is so patient with me, with my little ignorances. When you are a stranger in a strange land, you expect some of the big differences. Like Ramadan, that is a big difference, when the whole country becomes more religious and for a whole month the focus is on God, on fasting during daylight and gathering with family and friends and feasting at night, reading the Qur’an, submitting your sins and begging forgiveness. . .

It’s the little things that catch you up. You kind of assume that everyone lives life a lot like you do, and it can be a real shock to discover that in small, everyday things you take for granted, you do things very differently.

Some of my earliest memories are in the kitchen, cutting dates and prunes to help my Mom make fruit cake. I can remember stirring chocolate pudding as it cooked on the stove, making jello, simple things before I graduated to chopping nuts and onions, etc. And I wrongly assumed this is everyone’s experience.

I know I have shocked my friend, too, sometimes. I asked what I thought was a very simple question once, and watched her face become a mask of horror at the very thought. God bless her for her patience with me!

I bless all my friends today, my Tunisian friends, my Kuwaiti friends, my Saudi friends, my German friends, my French friends, my Qatteri friends – all the friends who have endured my chauvinistic mistakes, assuming all the world thinks as I do. I bless my American friends, because even though we are from the same nation, we, too, are from different areas and different family cultures (tribes!) and we don’t see through the same eyes, our views are colored by the culture through which we observe the world. Today I am thankfully amazed that we manage to get along as well as we do!

September 12, 2007 Posted by | Communication, Community, Cooking, Cross Cultural, ExPat Life, Friends & Friendship, Kuwait, Living Conditions, Ramadan, Relationships, Shopping, Spiritual | 11 Comments