Monday, September 1, 2008

Somewhere over the Atlantic


I was in flight and already had new material for writing:

Already two new friends. Boy, did I get lucky in seatmates!

Flying Los Angeles to Chicago I was sitting between two gentlemen, one of whom is a German named Marc. Marc works for an non-governmental organization (NGO) headquartered in Bogota, Colombia. It has been forming new curricula for the various regions of Colombia. He used to be a consultant until he said that he couldn't stand the requirements of the job anymore. We talked about the merits of non-profit work and he told me about a certain prize given / offered to African leaders who leave their country in better shape than it was in when they came to power. Apparently the President of Mozambique received such an award.

I ramble.

Marc and I were both connecting to a flight to Frankfurt, Germany, so we got to grab lunch together from some mediocre Chinese food place in O'Hare. I volunteered him to help me find my way through the airport in Frankfurt, since he speaks German and all.

My seatmate on the Chicag0-->Germany flight was really fun to sit next to. It turned out that she was from Alexandria, Egypt. At that point I could hardly wait to speak more Arabic. There were lots of misunderstandings and some laughing. She kept trying to use sign language to explain abstract concepts.

I think she's asking me how long I'm going to be in Egypt so I say, "August through December."
She raises her eyebrows and says something exclamatory. Then she thinks harder and says, "birthday" and pointed at me.
"Oh!" I say, "October."
"Octopus," she says.
"October," I say in Arabic.
"Octopus," she says again, nodding.

Now she starts saying something about fish.
I must've looked confused because she draws a fish on the sticky note pad that I had pulled out for our translation game.

"Okay, fish..." I say
She nods, "Fish: March."
"Fish in March?" I ask.
She nods vigorously, apparently thinking that I must be putting two and two together by now. She must think I'm so slow on the uptake.

Now she says, "Kharoof: April."
She points to an Arabic-English phrasebook I'd been consulting. I look up "kharoof" and it's "sheep."
"Sheep in April?" I offer. Again the vigorous head nodding.
Then she says "fish" again, makes a face and chomping / gnashing teeth noises.
"Biting?" I guess, which gets nothing.
"Octopus," she says.
"Octopus in October?" I venture.
"YES!!! Yes!"
She's so proud of me even though I'm not sure what I just learned.

"Fish in March, sheep in April, and octopus in October," I conclude.
She approves and I come to terms with the fact that I've won at the game, but I have no idea what we were playing.

Most of the plane ride was that way.

And bless her, she kept talking to me, each time as patient as ever. And she kept offering me food.

I had fallen asleep and missed the all-holy pretzel packet and drink. So when I woke, Hannah (as her name turned out to be), directly handed her bag of pretzels over to me. There was no arguing-- she was insistent that I take it. Then she patted my hand (She did a lot of that type of thing, actually: maternal reassurances. She had no reservations about touching my hair or face either).

Again, when we got our drinks, I ordered tomato juice and she, Coke. I had just finished my tomato juice when she pours me an extra cup of her Coke.
I tried to say "No, it's okay," but there didn't seem adequate sign language for me to communicate "I feel badly taking all your food, especially since I don't know you."

So she kept sharing. I tried to share my bag of sweets with her and she smiled and shook her head. I was trying to remember how she had gotten me to take food even after I said "no," but I didn't want to force her to take some crummy candy that she didn't want.

She was very convincing. She even got me sharing her tiny, 1/2 teaspoon packet of butter spread.

When all was said and done, she gave me her telephone number, invited me to visit her in Alexandria, and at some point had managed to communicate that I look exactly like her son's first wife.

Or something.

When my Egyptian Arabic gets better I'll have to call and find out.


farpst5 said...

Oh my gosh! I nearly cried from laughing in my office, Caitlin! I was thinking the Octopus-October, Fish -March game may have been a version of the Arabic Astrological signs! Love the story!

Anonymous said...

Wow Caitlin, sometimes I wish I could explain the Arab mindset and these weird things we do, but I'll just defer the game as an Egyptian past time. i have no knowledge of Octopus October games.

Alexandria is beautiful, I hear. Have fun, and please take tons of pix when its Eid!

Anonymous said...

Definitely something astrological. Pisces is fish and part of February and Aries is sheep/ram and part of March. October is Libra and Scorpio which are scales and a scorpion, so I am not sure on that one. :D