Friday, March 07, 2008

The woman in front of the grocery store, the one with the little boy and sometimes with the placid-eyed baby, stretches out her hand again. I shake my head and tell her “peace.” There’s this old woman on one of the side streets at the university – she’s the one I give money to and buy tissue from. I’ve got a reason, see? I’ve picked one person, you know? Sure.

After I pass, she curses me, finally and loudly, this woman who lets the little boy wander in front of cars, who shoves him out in front of her at passersby, who turns up her nose at bread and shoves it in his little hand. She curses my stinginess, whatever I have, whatever reasoning I’ve cooked up.

Suddenly, something makes sense in Egypt.

Everything in the grocery store is stacked so that it could fall at the slightest whiff of movement. This is something that doesn’t make sense. As I pull a bottle of balsamic vinegar off the shelf – a 27 LE bottle, the cost of which could buy the beggar outside 324 pieces of baladi bread – a bottle of cider vinegar crashes to the floor, the liquid soaking my hand.

I go to the meat counter and point to my mess. The man behind the meat counter yells across the store, and soon the security guard, an older manager-type, a cashier in a red and white striped shirt, and a boy in an apron and a pie-shaped hat meet in the aisle. The security and management give me disapproving looks but say nothing as I apologize. The other young men smile and say, “No problem.” Then they all close in around the vinegar and glass shining under the fluorescent lights. They talk and point. The boy laughs. They seem to argue.

I leave the aisle. My hands stink. Five minutes later, I return for olive oil. They’re all still there – talking, laughing, debating. They haven’t decided what to do.

“Irv, clean-up on aisle seven!”

But there isn’t an Irv, see?

It’s so small, but I think of moments like this as evidence of the ways I could never make sense of the culture, of ways that, ultimately, I could not belong in this place.

(Bonus points for identifying the movie reference.)


Anonymous said...

(your mom)love you--

A said...

I knew you would come through, Ma.

Writing Sisu said...

After a year in Korea, I thought I'd figured out the culture. Then I returned, and I began to watch huge amounts of Korean dramas and took Taekwondo and watched World Cup and came to realize I adored Korea, but could never authentically claim to understand the culture.

Also, when I live in a foreign country, I always start fantasizing that I'm going to step off the subway or the bus and see some long lost friend from the States.