021 – Bira effellegallo
Most nights I was extremely tired and not good for much so I went to bed early. I liked the early nights. It meant I got a good night’s sleep and I was woken gently by the sun peeping through the cracks of the shutters, shutters which, again for reasons unclear, Zebachew insisted I close tightly each night. I never knew if these things on which they insisted so strongly were meant for my comfort or theirs. If I knew that I could have decided whether I would be safe in resisting them.
Dawn arrived punctually around 5:30 a.m. and I got into the bathroom around 6:00. I’d been shaving every second or third day and this day was a shaving day. I know I shaved badly. The mirror was smoky, and the light dim, the water cold and my hand and body shivering.
Most mornings before I was done people were already knocking on the door of my ‘only you’ bathroom. I hadn’t been in the family area early in the morning yet so I didn’t know what their morning routine was. I didn’t know if people washed with soap and water, brushed their teeth or shaved on a daily or weekly basis or what. I did hear some of the women taking a shower in the afternoon when it was warmer. I suspected only a nutty ferenji like me would strip down and take an ice cold shower in the 6:00 a.m. cold. I’m a veteran of the cold shower and honestly didn’t mind it. I’d prefer hot of course but don’t mind cold if that’s all there is. I probably would have showered, washed my hair and shaved every morning despite the cold except I’d have felt guilty about taking so much time when other people needed to use, what I was beginning to suspect was not only the ‘only you’ bathroom but the only bathroom period. They talked about another bathroom, but if it existed it was well hidden.
The sun was out, which was good because I’d promised another picture taking session. There were three tiny waitresses who seemed to work odd hours and they missed the first two sessions. They were young girls and dressed for effect and I suspected they would really treasure a nice portrait.
My pictures of Sisay had gotten back to the aunt and owner, Tirunesh, and she too had expressed an interest in having her picture taken.
A tiny little incident illustrates some of the strange emotions I’d had to deal with. I’d noticed Zebachew’s little sister at the top of the cement stairs at the back of the hotel. She was bent over her feet and trying to wrap a piece of cloth around her big toe. As I watched, a big red patch blossomed on the outside of the cloth. She’d obviously cut her toe and by the blood flow it wasn’t just a tiny knick.
My first thought of course was to help her. I was nothing if not prepared and I had a first aid kit that could form the basis of a small hospital. I had bandaids of all sizes, the elastoplast kind, and they would be ideal because they adhered even when wet.
But I didn’t help right away. My wishes carried so much weight that I rushed into situations at my own peril. I knew that if I involved myself in this situation I would be in complete charge of it. She and her family would do whatever I told them. And was I totally sure that I knew best? Perhaps they had real bandaids but preferred this cloth. There could be a hundred reasons I didn’t know about why this cloth was better suited to this injury.
Of course if it were my toe I would wash the wound, dry it, disinfect it and bandage it. I’d seen infected wounds on the streets in Addis and they weren’t pretty nor something to be trifled with. But I didn’t know if I dared do all that. Wouldn’t she be frightened of this ferenji and all his iodine and tubes of Polysporin? And I was afraid that by helping I would give the impression that I knew what I was doing when in reality I was just this guy with a bunch of bandaids. Perhaps they intended to take her to a doctor and if I got involved maybe they’d abandon that plan. I just couldn’t be sure of anything.
And finally, I’d been on the receiving end of so much self-criticism by the Ethiopians and praise for the West that I would have felt weird rushing in to the rescue. “Here comes the white man. Here comes the ferenji. Everyone stand back.” I never thought a simple bandaid would become something so complicated.
In the end I went to my room and got out my first aid kit. But when I opened it up I hesitated again. It was a big kit in a beautiful red zippered pouch and folded open in a cascading array of pockets and compartments. It just seemed so arrogant and smug. Finally I picked out some bandaids, but when I went outside she was gone.
The story has a happy ending, however, because a few minutes later she came limping back with a small bandaid in her hand. It was a cheap plastic one that obviously wouldn’t stick. Nor was it big enough. This was a more natural opening for me to offer one of my larger and better ones.
Ironically, things went exactly as I predicted. She wouldn’t take the bandaid and apply it herself. She wouldn’t pick out an appropriate size and shape. Neither would Zebachew nor her mother. I was left to unwrap the cloth, examine the wound, clean and disinfect it and bandage it. It wasn’t deep, but it was large. It looked like she’d slammed her toe on cement and it had ripped the skin off. It bled freely and given a choice I would have done a more elaborate job of dressing it, but everything was so awkward and she so uncomfortable I simply put on a large elastoplast and made sure it was secure. When I was done she ran off and flung her bloodsoaked rag into the back yard.
To sit for a couple of hours and write in a journal was like a drug for me. Without it I was off-balance for the entire day. But sometimes that kind of space was hard to find. The tables at the Tiru Gondar were at first a kind of sanctuary from the assaults of the street. But as I became more and more a part of the regular social scene it was assumed I always wanted company. Writing was no protection. They simply plucked the pen from my hand and examined it. My walkman barrier fell just as easily to their friendly assault. The ear phones would be deftly taken out of my ears and inserted into theirs. The Alem Bunna coffee shop was a good bet, but I could never entirely depend on getting my full quota of morning quiet time. It sometimes filled up and I would have to give up my table. More often I was engaged in conversation by the other patrons. I needed a sign on my forehead that indicated my office hours. When the words were safely on paper and I was ready for the day I could light up the sign: “The Ferenji is in.”
For some reason a private room like my hotel room didn’t work as well. I needed life around me. But I had to make some adjustments and I started my days in my room at my little table. When my quiet tank was half full then it was safe to move on to a public spot. My situation reminded me of a scene from the first “Poltergeist” movie. The family approaches the closed door of the bedroom that’s particularly haunted. The hallway is perfectly quiet and secure. Then they open the door and a blast of noise and light hits them. Inside the room a hundred objects are spinning around and dancing crazily. They slam the door quickly in shock. My room was like that except in reverse.
Inside it was quiet and calm. But just outside it I could sense the chaotic life of the Tiru Gondar. Zebachew, Sisay and Tadele were crouched out there like puppies waiting to pounce the moment I showed my face. That morning I made it to the end of the hall and stepped outside before I was spotted. Tadele came loping around the corner on his long limbs, hand outstretched, eyes bright, teeth glittering. We greeted each other in a mixed up tumble of English and Amharic. Play billiardo? Go here? Go there?
He tumbled around me in excitement, knowing I was headed off to the Alem Bunna for some quiet time but reluctant to let me go, at least not without a fight. I spent most of my days at the Tiru Gondar talking with the family and I enjoyed it, but I really needed to charge my batteries first.
I felt I was making some real progress in my study of Amharic. It’s a semitic language, related to Hebrew, Arabic and Assyrian. In certain ways it’s a simple language, straightforward like using cement building blocks. You place the main words in your sentence without ceremony. Literal translations into English make it sound like a bludgeoning language: “I coffee want.” But that’s not a proper understanding of Amharic. The building blocks once laid are then embellished and decorated. Suffices, prefixes and little flourishes are laid on layer after layer to indicate person, time, mood and degree of politeness. Many words such as personal pronouns, articles and auxilliary verbs are dispensed with. All these shades of meaning are contained in the word itself like fluting around a column. I’d only been in Ethiopia a week yet I got the sense I could separate mood and meaning in words and sentences even if I didn’t understand them. Here is the word, the noun, the cement block, and all around it are shimmering colours and fluttering wings giving it life. Sometimes the prefix syllables are so long and complicated they just breeze past them leaving you with just a taste on your tongue.
Pronounciation took effort but didn’t present any insurmountable problems. Amharic uses many glottal stops, which we don’t have in English and these are a challenge when you just sit there and try to speak the word like it’s an English word. But if you stop looking for the literal meaning and go for the feeling instead it comes more naturally.
No one who hasn’t tried to learn another language like this can possibly understand how tiring it can be. After two hours your head feels like it is going to explode. You keep shying away from the fact that these slow, painful and embarrassing conversations are the only way to really learn. I wanted to believe I could sit down with books in private, work hard, learn the language and then emerge to have proper conversations. But I knew that was just a myth. I didn’t want to believe it, but it’s true that the only way to ever speak Amharic properly is to speak it badly for a long time. I didn’t want to believe it because I hate making mistakes.
An ally in this fight as everyone knows is alcohol. Not a lot, but just enough to dull the inhibitions and stimulate your impulse to laugh as you can more easily join in the gales of glee you provoke with your childish stammerings.
Most mornings and evenings I spent some time in the bar with a phrasebook studying basic Amharic and using the Tiru Gondar family as guinea pigs. I’d been practicing Amharic so much that sometimes when I went to use it for real everyone thought I was still practicing.
“And bira effellegallo,” I say to Tadale. (I want a beer.)
“Very good,” says Tadele, but he makes no move to draw me a draft.
“Bira effellegallo,” I say again.
“Ah, pronounciation good,” he replies and smiles at me.
“Bira effellegallo,” a third time while pointing dramatically at the beer tap.
“You want beer?” Tadele asks.
“Eshi,” I say with relief. (yes)
While enjoying my beer a well-dressed young couple came in with an older man and sat near me. Not much later the young man was sitting beside me and introduced himself. His name was Seeyun and I understood him to be one of the family. It was my mistake though. Good friends were often referred to as brothers, sisters and one of the family.
The beer was starting to work on my linguistic inhibitions and when Tirunesh, the regal owner of the Tiru Gondar, arrived and shook everyone’s hand I also shook her hand and said, “Tirunesh, dehna nesh?” (How are you, Tirunesh?)
It was of course far too familiar a way to address her and will go down in Tiru Gondar history.
Seeyun was well sloshed and laughed uproariously. He explained to me what I’d done and he demonstrated the proper way to address someone of Tirunesh’s status. He spoke a long and very polite and respectful sentence while bowing his head and clasping her hand in both of his. Then he switched back to the English.
“But now, forever, I say ‘Tirunesh, dehna nesh?'”
He never tired of this joke and it was repeated throughout the evening. Tirunesh for her part was a good sport and she patted my leg reassuringly each time the laughter erupted anew.
The conversation inevitably found its way to the topic of Ethiopian hospitality and generosity as opposed to the selfish ways of the West. Every Ethiopian had a story to tell of some strange behaviour by a ferenji. Seeyun told how he once saw 4 Germans at a restaurant. When the bill came they divided it up amongst themselves. This was strange enough, but one man paid 5 cents more and the other German said, and Seeyun will never forget this sentence or moment, ‘I owe you five cents.’
“I owe you 5 cents,” shouted Seeyun. “Can you you believe it? 5 cents!”
Seeyun thought I wouldn’t believe him and turned to his wife and friend for confirmation. I believed him of course and I tried to explain to him that we often say such things in the West without really intending to pay the 5 cents. It was just our way of acknowledging the difference in sums.
I also wanted to defend the custom of splitting the check, but I knew it was hopeless. In fact, as he told the story of the four Germans I reflected how nice it would be to have dinner and split the check as opposed to the murky, unclear situation I always faced in Ethiopia.
I could also have pointed out to Seeyun that this hospitality and generosity was not as selfless as he might like to think. The generosity was often forced on you and became almost abusive in tone. The giver generally made a tremendous show and added to his status the more he berated the givee to accept the beer or food.
Seeyun was an illustration in point as he kept getting me more and more beer long after I’d had too much. He forced me to accept it with outrageous speeches about how refusing would be an insult to Ethiopia. He shouted across the room to the waitresses to make sure that everyone knew of his generosity.
Then, to his dismay, the older man quietly went to the cashier and paid the whole bill because he was ready to go. Seeyun drew my attention to this generosity and even elicited the exact sum from him.
“50 birr he paid. 50 birr.”
But now having lost all the status he had been building up he went back to work and forced another beer on me. And to my secret glee he worked on the older man for about 5 minutes eventually wearing him down and forcing him to accept a beer, which he made sure he paid for. They fought so bitterly over this, even pushing and shoving, I thought they would start throwing punches.
If Seeyun would have stopped shouting for two minutes I might have explained to him that I agreed with him that there was room in this world for all our different customs. But I couldn’t see total selfishness in our Western habits nor total selflessness in Ethiopia’s. For myself, being Western, I would have been quite comfortable if we’d each bought a round, quietly, without grandstanding. What Seeyun would never acknowledge was that under Ethiopian hospitality lurked a not so subtle power struggle.