Expat life can be an adventure. This tale puts me in Palestine, in the car with my butcher. We’re driving through the Judean desert and I’m wondering what I got myself into. The first part of this story is last week’s post. Here we go:
The road passes through a village. Pale stone houses, a few small shops, a herd of goats. I’m beginning to feel seriously nervous. I’m imagining newspaper headlines: Expat Woman Disappears in Desert. Romance Writer Abducted by Hunky Butcher. That sort of thing.
Then finally Bashir slows down and gestures at a big house clinging to the rocky hillside that drops away from the road.
The door opens before we even get to it. His wife indeed is skinny. She’s wearing jeans and a T-shirt, has a baby girl balanced on her left hip and two little boys clutching her legs. She looks tired, like she’s been working all day, but that must be a wrong impression since she doesn’t have a job (see last weeks’s post).
Bashir introduces us and we shake hands and smile at each other. Her name is Samiira and she has a friendly face and warm brown eyes. I feel bad for her. Here is her husband, bringing this stranger to the front door without a warning. Who knows what a mess the house is. I had little kids once, and I know what my house looked like any given day and it wasn’t pretty.
She steps aside to allow us entry. Bashir wants to show me around. It’s a big place with high ceilings and a dark, gloomy atmosphere, which I’ve come to recognize as typical of many of the older stone houses here. The furniture is old-fashioned and reminds me of the heavy, overstuffed pieces my grandparents used to have. However, the place is neat as a pin, apart from the numerous colorful toys strewn everywhere. I’m in awe.
Bashir opens doors and shows me every room in the house, including the master bedroom, which is a rhapsody in pink. Ruffles and bows and roses bloom on the curtains, the bedspread, the pillows. It looks like a Sears catalog display on steroids. Just imagine all the romance going on in this room.
Bashir beams with pride. Next to him, his wife smiles at me expectantly.
“It’s beautiful,” I lie. Well, did you expect me to tell the truth?
“It’s from New Jersey,” says Bashir, explaining that a family member had brought the bedding back from a trip to America.
“It’s beautiful,” I say once again, “I can tell it comes from New Jersey.”
I’m sorry, but I just couldn’t resist. Not very high-minded of me, but there you have it. (And if you don’t get this, see note below.)
Bashir is suddenly in a hurry. He has a business to run, but he wants the two of us to visit, which we can do after we run him back to the store so Samiira can keep the car to take me home later. We all pile into the tired vehicle and I sit in the back with the two little boys, who are pestering each other the way boys do, paying no attention to me at all.
Back along the desert road to town we go. Amazingly it only takes half as long as going the other way. We drop Bashir off, and Samiira deftly steers the car in the home direction. We’re there in only minutes. On the way we pick up her sister-in-law who’s strolling by the road with her two small ones.
The three of us sit around the kitchen table, drinking soft drinks, while the kids race around in the house, playing and yelling the way healthy kids do everywhere. Both women speak a little English, enough to have a conversation, which is a good thing because my seventeen Arabic words aren’t going to get us very far. We talk about children and cooking, politically and socially safe subjects anywhere in the world. One of the advantages of being a woman when you are a globetrotter is that no matter where you go you can always talk about kids and food with other women if you have a language in common, and sometimes even if you don’t.
Samiira shows me the big pot bubbling away on the stove, tonight’s dinner. It contains stuffed grape leaves and tiny stuffed zucchini simmering in a light, tomato-y broth. This is true home cooking, not often found in restaurants because it is time-consuming to prepare. I have eaten these stuffed delicacies before at a friend’s house and they are delicious, filled with a mixture of rice and lamb and various seasonings. To the uninitiated, however, they might not look very appetizing given that both the stuffed grape leaves and the zucchini have taken on the color of dead seaweed. Then again, people eat that too, in the Far East.
Samiira takes out a plate, fills it with the little bundles and invites me to partake. It’s more food than I eat in two days total and it’s only five o’clock and I had lunch at two. Also, I have a small stomach. I don’t know why, I just do. You hear of these people who’ll eat an entire large pizza with extra cheese all by themselves in one sitting, followed by a quart of chocolate ice cream, straight from the container. I dream of being able to do that. In reality I’d have nowhere to put it, as I have nowhere to put all these greenish cylinders on the plate in front of me now. Bravely I dig in, praying a solution to my problem will magically appear.
It does: A great idea strikes me.
“This is delicious,” I say sincerely, pushing the half-finished plate of food gently to the side, “and I’d like to take the rest with me so my husband can try them too.”
Samiira bobs up from her chair, fishes a plastic container from a cabinet, takes it over to the stove and starts filling it from the pot.
“No, no!” I say hastily, feeling panic rise. “I’ll take the ones left on my plate!”
She waves away this idea. “They are for you, you eat. This is for your husband.”
Well, what can I say? People here are generous and friendly and hospitable, but sometimes that gives you a pain in the stomach.
Later she takes me home in the car and I stagger up the stairs to our apartment and find my mate already home and reading the Herald Tribune. I dump the leg of lamb and Samiira’s plastic container on the coffee table and crash on the sofa, groaning.
“Hi,” he says, lowering the paper. “Where have you been?”
He is not used to my being absent when he returns home from his day of toil. He seems not disturbed by my horizontal position on the sofa, nor the tortured sounds issuing from my throat. He’s probably attributing these to my exaggerating the exhaustion from walking up three short flights of stairs. I’ve been known to do that.
“Visiting the butcher’s wife,” I say. I can barely talk and I clutch my stomach.
“I’m starving,” he announces a few moments later. “What’s for dinner?”
“I don’t want to even think about it,” I say with all the vehemence I’m able to muster in my condition.
He raises his eyebrows. “Would you like to go out to eat?” He’s a generous and accommodating man.
I groan and shake my head. “I never want to eat again for the rest of my life.”
“I see,” he says evenly. He’s the calm sort, and he’s used to my making sweeping statements, impossible promises, and untenable declarations. “So what about me?” he inquires. It’s a practical question, not a complaint. “Shall I make myself a sandwich?”
I point at the plastic container on the table. “There’s your dinner.”
He opens the box, gets up, finds a fork, and eats the whole box of stuffed things one after the other. “This is really good,” he comments. “You should learn how to make these.”
“In my next life,” I say.
Just so you know, I don’t live in Ramallah anymore, but this story is a fun memory. I’m now in France and I’ve found a great butcher, but I don’t think he’ll invite me home and show me his bedroom. Of course, I may be wrong.
Note about New Jersey: It’s one of America’s states, the one just across the river from New York City. It’s often spoken of mockingly, as if it were populated by unsophisticated people. It’s a stereotype, and, sadly, Miss Footloose could not refrain from using it. She apologizes to all the good people in New Jersey.
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