Tuesday, March 31, 2009

The Third Addis Herald


In this Issue:
Carnivores and Vegetarians for a Peaceful Thanksgiving
A Very Thriller Christmas
Trekking For Wimps
Everyone Speaks Frisian Eventually
Why (WHY) Must There Be Single Men Here? (The Perspective of a Single Woman on the Frontline)

Merry Christmas from Africa!

It was a busy and good one here. A friend spent Christmas Eve at my house and the next morning we went to a luncheon with a group of embassy people (who, sadly, aren't much fun). Then another friend met me (rescued me) at the same restaurant and he and I got a cab to spend the rest of the afternoon and evening with our regular Sunday night group (the medical team who adopted me in late September). That was a blast. This family's house is the only place I get to have three little kids climb on me for hours. The six or seven adults had fun, too. We exchanged a few gifts, ate take-out Mexican food (we had our more civilized dinner earlier in December before someone left), played games, talked, and laughed a lot. As the doctor was driving us home that night, I thought Thank you, God, for providing a family here. Time with all of these people is special.

I don't have enough time (or energy) to write "deep" stuff in this issue. There have been several cultural problems that I'd just as soon forget during the holidays. This country is a mess. I continue to work through these things and will write about them eventually. But consider December the "People" section of The Addis Herald. I'll bring you up to speed on some of my social scene here. (I hope even this will offer snapshots of life in Ethiopia).

And I keep meaning to try to upload pictures someday, but it is a painful process on dial-up …

Note: Names have been changed or avoided altogether through nicknames to protect the guilty. Newsletters circulate enough to make me nervous …

Carnivores and Vegetarians for a Peaceful Thanksgiving
No Tofurkeys were carved during the course of Addis Thanksgiving 2007. (And almost all of the expatriates rejoiced.) Early Thanksgiving afternoon, the Sunday night group of more traditional carnivores gathered as usual at the home of a tiny Southern woman who does things with stuffing and chicken that I didn't know were possible. Dinner was delicious, and apparently, Southern Living does more than hide dusty coffee tables after all. Then, just two hours after the first meal, four of us from this group rolled ourselves into a taxi to go to our vegetarian friend Jamie's feast, which was just as tasty and even more expansive. All I had to bring was wine. Just two bottles of South African wine, and *poof* all the cooking and prep was done for me. (This is a very good thing since I still haven't truly figured out my oven or cooking at this altitude.) Jamie invited 20 other people from all over the planet, so it was an international Thanksgiving with Austrians, Swiss, Indians (dot not feather), Canadians and Ethiopians. Even more fun.

A note on Jamie, by the way: She's a native New Yorker who's working on a Ph.D. and employed by Bill Clinton (truly). Her world is so different from mine that ours is probably not a friendship found in nature. In fact, sometimes I chuckle and think our friendship is somewhat analogous to Hillary Clinton and the Church Lady suddenly becoming buddy-buddy and hanging out over coffee at Starbucks twice a week. She works in public health, so her bathroom's theme, for example, is condoms. Condoms, condoms everywhere (and I love it). My bathroom's theme, if it even has one, is rubber duck.

But we enjoy each other and hey, she's a fantastic cook. (The woman can do things with a pumpkin. A pumpkin.) We talk and laugh a lot despite our different backgrounds. She still razzes me mercilessly about Liberty, though. She has a hard time picturing me in a Fundamentalist environment even though I feel like Miss Prim in comparison.

At least Falwell gives people an in to lovingly tease me (well, it's usually in love …). I razz her about several choice things, too.

A Very Thriller Christmas
I just saw on "Nightline" (which I watch at 7 a.m., by the way) that there is actually a "Star Wars Holiday Special." Thirty years later, George Lucas still cringes about making it (it's on YouTube if you want to help solidify his shame). The first 10 minutes of the two-hour program is just Wookie chirping as Chewbacca and his family decorate the tree for "Life Day"--apparently, Jesus is not in space. Then Bea Arthur (!) waltzes into the living room to dance and sing a Life Day carol with one of the Wookie children. Things deteriorate even further after that, not that things weren't already shot beyond all hope as it was.

About five minutes of our Sunday night group's Christmas tree decorating night felt something like this three weeks ago. Surreal. Campy. Frightening. Like watching a train wreck and feeling guilty for staring.

It seemed innocuous enough at first. Microbiologist Dude (oh yes, he is still part of my world …) plays viola, and Attorney Guy plays violin. They were playing classical music and Christmas carols after dinner. They are the two funniest human beings in Africa (e.g., Microbiologist Dude is author of the yet unpublished "TB Songbook"), so I knew something was up when Attorney Guy got a glint in his eye and tipped his bow toward Micro Dude. Suddenly, after "Oh Come, Oh Come Emmanuel" they began to play "Billie Jean." During the first few notes I wasn't sure what was happening. Our "Little House on the Prairie" evening was morphing into a bad parody of the 1980's.

They played the whole song (the whole song) with mostly straight faces. It was one of the best things I've seen all year. I guess you'd have to know and enjoy these two to fully appreciate the humor, but I laughed so hard my temples hurt. Attorney Guy's eyes exuded wit, and Microbiologist Dude danced a little as he played. I've forgotten most of the other songs they performed, but I vividly remember "classical" Michael Jackson searing into my brain for the rest of my life. It was so ridiculous it was great. The next evening Microbiologist Dude went to Baltimore for two and a half months, so this is a nice, albeit scary, memory of him until he comes back.

Trekking For Wimps
My friend Alice is a Fulbright professor who is teaching journalism law in Addis until July. She's 20 years older than I am, but we hang out quite a bit and enjoy each other. She's been to 100 countries over the years and is still up for more. During dinner the other night we started comparing our schedules and discovered we both have at least a month off in February and March. She grinned and said, "How would you like to go to South Africa with me?" I practically spat out my fish kebob (or, actually, kabub, according to the "English" menu) with glee. "YES. Let's do it." So the next half hour was devoted to planning a potential five-week trek through South Africa, Botswana, Namibia, Zambia, Lesotho, Swaziland, Mozambique, and possibly Kenya.

The problem, however, is that I am a wimp and she, though tiny, is Iron Woman. As we talked, I realized she is planning to backpack, take bird baths, use questionable transportation, and hike a LOT with just two shirts and a pair of pants. I am a city girl who enjoys walking on and admiring asphalt at least twice a day (and I have admired exotic asphalts in New York, London, Vienna, Beijing, Hong Kong, Tokyo, Bangkok, etc., etc.). I'm not sure I can handle her flavor of adventure or obliviousness to body odor and dirt, but I need to at least think and pray about it. We are suckers for collecting visas, and our passports have thick amendments that scream to be completely filled. The trip could be all talk, but even talk is fun. We shall see. It would be good to spend the time with her.

Besides this, my Austrian and Ethiopian friends (yes, they come interestingly grouped) and I are thinking about a trip to Israel during the summer—hot, but probably worth it. Again, we shall see what happens. The beauty of living in Ethiopia is that many of the exotic locations most people would like to see are fairly close, and airfare is reasonable. Between us all, we also have a million contacts we could stay with or get advice from.

Life here is so international it's almost ludicrous. I wish you could experience it, too. It changes your worldview in drastic and interesting ways. I'll try to scratch the surface on this next month.

Everyone Speaks Frisian Eventually
I love my Dutch colleagues Truus ("Troosh") and her husband, Jan ("Yawn," though he's hardly boring). I would be stark raving mad if I weren't going through the insanity at school with them. They live just 20 feet away, so we usually chat every day and have a cup of coffee two or three times a week to debrief, laugh, gripe, or just talk about life. Gentle Jan's commands for feisty Truus and me: 1) Never be surprised. 2) Enjoy everything. 3) Do not hit anyone. Ever.

Though Jan is much calmer about the university's goings-on than Truus and I, he still has his moments. His favorite technique for handling cultural frustration is speaking Frisian to those he is especially ticked off with. "It's amazing," he says, "how many Ethiopians speak Frisian when my tone gets just firm enough." He also "practices" Frisian with one of our guards, who doesn't speak a single word of English but seems to believe we will magically understand his incessant Amharic chatter. Sometimes Jan sits on his porch and reads books out loud in Dutch or Frisian while the guard leans against the railing, nodding and looking at Jan intently as if he understands every word.

Truus is funny, too. This morning I had music blaring while I was in the shower. Still, I vaguely heard pounding on my front door. To me, pounding means an emergency, so I jumped for a towel and hurried to investigate. It was just Truus, who was startled by my wet hair and pink wrapping. Still, she laughed and said as she navigated around my toothbrush, "We're leaving this morning. I'm going to kiss you now." She planted one on my cheek without poking her eye out. Impressive.

Truus and Jan are here for only another month and a half after they come back from their two-week holiday. When they leave, I will be in the compound and at the school alone, and that won't be nearly as much fun. We'll celebrate Jan's 64th birthday next month, and I'm looking forward to that. I'm not, however, looking forward to being by myself at home.

Why (WHY) Must There Be Single Men Here? (The Perspective of a Single Woman on the Frontline)
Other than being around to carry heavy things, walk me home at night, make me laugh until I hurt, and teach me about football (i.e., soccer—I have a hard time calling it soccer now), what good are single men in Ethiopia??! (You will notice the prepositional phrase "in Ethiopia" protects me from the ire of single men elsewhere.) They are maddening. But to be fair, I should rephrase this. One of them is maddening. And his being in Baltimore just makes it worse.

I've about had it.

First, it might help you to have some background on life here:

No matter the gender combination, many friendships in Addis are often accelerated. We already have so much in common that we're able to do what I call "emotional shorthand." We automatically assume (and are rarely wrong) that foreigners who live here are strong-minded, adventurous, type A, intelligent, and unconventional, so we approach most relationships from this foundational perspective. We also know we have limited time together and that we are each other's comfort zones and emotional support while we're here. Consequently, there's no point in a hesitant "new friend status" when we could be discussing deeper things and learning more from each other. This is especially true of strong Christians from the same denominational background, which all of us in the Sunday night group are. Jamie jokes that she's "easy" now because she shares in three weeks what most people take six months to express. (It's true. I've been through it with her and am still recovering. ;-) ) This might sound unhealthy or odd to some, but it's life in Addis. It is what it is. If you haven't been through it, you might be wary, but it's fascinating to watch and experience.

So. Microbiologist Dude. We met in late September and within three days we'd had lunch and talked for four hours without coming up for air. Within three weeks he'd called me a good friend and was commenting on how well we click. Within six weeks we'd logged impressive conversation and laughter time in groups and by ourselves as we'd discussed any number of topics. I really enjoyed him while remaining as cautious as I could be—remember, I'm seven years older and, scientist that he is, he is entirely oblivious to the ways of women. (What was God thinking when He put this guy in my path? What? What?!!)

Before he went back to Baltimore, we parted on a difficult note at the airport. (I'll spare you the details. Thank me later.) Now we type around the "elephant in the room" if we e-mail. But Jamie told me something interesting before she went home for Christmas last week. She said he'd asked if he could mail a Christmas present to her sister's house, and asked if Jamie would bring it back to me. Then she smirked and added, "He didn't buy anyone else a present, Meredith."

He doesn't know I know. But he's brilliant and mischievous—a deadly combination—so he might be torturing me since he might think it's telegraph, telephone, teleJamie. She won't be back until mid January. I have to sit on this quietly until then. I think sitting on a thumbtack until 2009 would be more comfortable. This "present" could be good or it could be bad based on our egregiously awkward parting words.

Even at our ages and with all our life experience, we are still 16 years old when it comes to the opposite sex. I'm sorry. Does this ever change? (Please say yes even if you're lying to me.) He'll be back in February. If things are awkward between us, it will be painful for the whole Sunday night group. If you pray, this is one I'd ask for help with. Really. (I'd bet two million bucks he's prayed about it, too.)

Welcome to my world. If you wanna live vicariously or watch a reenactment of your adolescence, I'm your girl right now. People ask what's going on, I tell them (perhaps too much in this case, but hey. It lets you know how to pray.) Such is life here.

Till next month. May you and yours be warm while you eat too much, visit with family you haven't seen for most of the year, and open presents. Part of me wishes I were with you. Then I remember how long the flight to Africa was, and I realize I am just fine here.

Love (and Happy New Year),


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