At the consulate

20170804_101136While I was on the 15th floor of an office building in downtown Chicago, my siblings were lounging in a plaza across the street, discussing how I had been strong and calm before my appointment. “But when she comes out, she will collapse.”

They were right. Of course they were. They had watched me meticulously gathering my paperwork over the last several months. I had read everything once, twice, a dozen times. They had seen me bend over backwards to satisfy the requirements of a Spanish residence visa.

Fifteen stories up in the one-room Spanish consulate, I watched two other applicants turned away due to unsatisfactory paperwork. Would I be next? I had tried so hard, but had I missed something? They called my name.

I was so nervous that I couldn’t even read the tidy sticky notes that I had stuck to my paper-clipped and stapled stacks of paper.

“Application form?” The accented voice was muted through the glass window.

I slid the form through the slot. Why didn’t they have personal interview rooms instead of making us feel like paroled prisoners requesting our belongings?

“Letter of invitation?”

Another man approached and looked over my interviewer’s shoulder. They discussed something in great length and jotted some notes on my application form. I stood, breathless until nearly purple. Was something wrong? Didn’t I have the right papers?

The second man asked me a few questions with an alarmingly furrowed brow. I deflated. But it was okay. I would have to start over with some of it. But at least I could go home now. I could just climb in that shiny elevator and disappear.

But the man said, “Okay, I trust you. I will try to get it to you in time.”

I wasn’t sure what he was “trusting” me about. The answers to the questions he had asked were on the papers in front of him. But I didn’t ask him to explain himself. Prolonging our talk felt risky.

“Proof of insurance?”

I slid my translated insurance letter through the slot. The list went on until I had handed over every one of my documents. There were no complaints, no outbursts, no declarations that I hadn’t gathered the correct things.

The interviewer gave me a curious glance as I packed up my things. Perhaps he was analyzing how I would survive in Europe. But I didn’t care because gliding down 15 floors in a polished elevator was my red carpet.

Now the waiting would begin, and with it came the possibility of a rejected application. But for today, I could be done!

That is why I collapsed when I saw my siblings waiting for me in the plaza. And then we went to Giordano’s for celebratory deep dish pizza.20170804_133735

Do you want to know the apricot tree?- Part 3

The uneven cobblestone streets wound down into the old medina. It was my last big shopping trip before I left the country. I wasn’t going to rush. Not many people were out today- was it a holiday? Who cared?

I had already bought a neat little set of tea glasses and stopped to chat with the rug seller who invited me into his shop whenever I strolled by. Then I paused in front of a shop to look for a piece of jewelry someone had asked me to look for. Earrings with a ship anchors on them.

“Can I help you?” The idle shopkeeper was suddenly at attention.

“Yes, do you have… do you have… Do you have earrings with-” How in the world was I going to describe an anchor?

“Yes! Here are the earrings! I have this kind, and this kind-” His hands flew as he pointed out his worthy merchandise. “Do you want camels? I have camel earrings!”

“No. I want… I want earrings with something from a ship. Something they throw into the water.”

He covered his confusion by pointing out more undesired sets.

Then I spotted a keychain with a ship anchor. “There! I want earrings with this! What is this?”

He shrugged and grinned. “Something from a ship that they throw into the water.”

I rolled my eyes, but he urged me into his shop to look at other things. After a quick glance around, I was ready to go.

But he had spotted the set of tea glasses sticking out of the cloth bag I had draped over my arm. “Are those colored?”

“No. They’re just normal.”

Uninvited, he pulled them out of my bag. Carefully, he opened the box and seeing the set of shining but very normal glasses, he said reverently, “They’re nice.”

I agreed as I took the box back from him.

He was still staring at the box as I replaced it my shopping bag. “How much did you pay for them?”

The moment I had been waiting for had sneaked up and caught me unaware. Almost. But not quite.

“Do you want to know the apricot tree and who planted her?” I didn’t say the words loudly; I was too preoccupied with saying them correctly. But they hit their mark.

The storekeeper took a step backward before bursting into hearty laughter. It was several moments before he was able to respond. “You are not a foreigner. You are a North African! You speak North African!”

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Do you want to know the apricot tree?- Part 2

There was coffee with milk, mint tea, several types of bread, cookies, brownies, chocolate pastries, hard-boiled eggs with salt and cumin, strawberries…

We three roommates beamed at each other across the table. We had pulled off a luscious North African tea time. Our two guests were relaxed and carried on a lilting conversation that didn’t seem to notice our limited vocabulary.

“Eat! Eat!” We urged as we refilled coffee glasses and set plates of food in front of them.

The topic turned to people who ask too many questions. I shared my story with the woman at the store. Our guests burst into laughter, amused at how annoyed I still was, days later.

“What should I say when people ask me that?” I hollered over their laughter. My teacher had taught me the phrase, “Is it your market?” but I had only ever heard sassy children use that with each other. It hardly seemed appropriate to be so blunt with another adult.

Still laughing, one of the ladies said, “Do you want to know the apricot tree and who planted her?”

Captivated, we asked her to repeat the phrase over and over. As foreigners, we probably got more than our fair share of nosy questions. Having a bit of good-natured ammunition would be refreshing. Our guests assured us that no one would take offense at such a remark, but they would get the hint to get their nose out of of your business.

We practiced the awkward words and intonation until our pronunciation was acceptable by North African standards.

And I filed that helpful tidbit in my mind for easy access.

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Do you want to know the apricot tree?- Part 1

Just a quick trip to the store and I would be back in a jiffy. Humming, I pranced down the flights of stairs and onto the street that baked in the warm March sun.

“Peace be upon you,” I greeted the storekeeper.

“And upon you.”

A woman was in front of me at the counter. She turned to me with an intrusive stare. “Is she English?” she addressed the storekeeper.

“No, I’m American.” I answered for myself and then looked away to avoid further questions.

Some North African women could smell evasion. They went around, rooting out people who dared to hide anything from them. Her eyebrows lifted. “You speak Arabic?”

“Yes. I live here.”

“How much do you pay for rent?”

Really? All I need is two eggs. I bit back a smart reply that would probably be effective. It would also probably be rude. So I cleared my throat and tried to dance around the question. “I live with two other girls.”

The storekeeper was smirking. I could feel it more than I saw it. But despite our months of trust-building and extraordinary civility, he refused to come to my rescue. Then again, maybe I had rescued him.

The woman hung on like an un-oiled tick. “But how much do you pay?”

Aspirated, I gave her an amount.

She gasped. “What? All of you pay that together?”

A gusty sigh escaped before I could stop it. “Noooo. Each of us pays that amount.” I had yet to acquire the linguistic ability to defend myself and my private information around women like her.

“Oh.” She glanced at the ceiling as she did some quick math. “That’s not very much.”

Glad you think so. Now, could you please finish?

When she had vanished, carrying with her the essence of satisfied control, I stepped up the counter, deflated. “Eggs.”

“How many?” The store keeper was still smirking.

“Just two.”

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Transitioning with olives

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All I wanted to do was buy olives. It was the perfect idea to reward myself with a short walk to the store between secretarial tasks. The weather was full of gentle Mediterranean breezes and I loved walking. Then why was I suddenly anxious?

What should I wear? Some of my clothes were stored in boxes. Others were stashed in suitcases, ready to make the final leg of the journey to the States. Somehow the outfit I had on no longer matched. The shades of blue were all wrong.

“Tricia,” I reasoned with myself. “This outfit was perfectly fine before.” But not now. Not in Europe. Not in public. I changed and then changed back when the second option felt even worse.

How do I say olive in Spanish? Olive? No, that’s French. Zitun? That’s Arabic. Why can’t I remember my Spanish anymore? Should I take my own bag or do stores give out plastic bags? I can’t remember. What were they doing the last time I was here? Where did I even put my shopping bags?

Why is this so hard?

I didn’t want to take that short walk anymore. Every decision looked big. Nothing was familiar. I battled my anxiety all the way to the store. I felt everyone’s eyes on me. Am I even walking down the right street? Why is that car stopping for me? Thank you, sir! No, don’t wave at him; you’ll look even more like a stupid foreigner. You’re in Europe now.

Transition. Have I exaggerated my trip to the store? Yes. But the exaggeration was in reality, not in what I just wrote. It sounds ridiculous to say that I almost panicked at the thought of buying olives. But transition is hard because nothing is familiar. Everything requires extra thought and effort. No matter how insignificant, every decision feels big.

I am not the only one who feels the pressure of transition. Maybe everyone else I know can confidently buy olives, but there are different responses to transition. And there are different types of transition. Do you know of someone whose spouse has passed away? Someone who has lost a dear friendship? Someone who has moved to a different community?

Maybe it’s you. Maybe you’re feeling a bit like me right now, or worse. Whether it is you or someone else, give that person time to grieve and transition. Remember that we are not alone. There are others who understand… especially the “man of sorrows” who was “acquainted with grief” (Is. 53:3).

Djellaba shopping

We were supposed to be going djellaba shopping. Aisha had volunteered to help me when she found out I wanted to buy a traditional dress. I had agreed to meet her at her house, knowing well what would happen.

I was right. After an hour or so, when lunch was cleaned up and everyone was dressed, we moseyed out to a shop that happened to be closed. So we spent another half hour sitting on her mother’s couch and chatting over cups of thick coffee as someone dozed under a wool blanket across the room.

We entered a tiny shop that sold mostly pajamas. They did have a few djellabas, however. The tailor made me try them on and was disheartened when they all ended before my wrists and above my ankles.

So he took my measurements and told me to pick out a fabric. Aisha negotiated the price alone. When we walked away, she squealed. “That is the local price. You would not get a price like that. If I wasn’t with you, people would take advantage of you.” I didn’t doubt it.

She still had my money in her pocket and waving the scrap of fabric the tailor had snipped off for us, she insisted that we find a headscarf and traditional shoes to match my new outfit.

In that neighborhood there was such a camaraderie of poverty- a people that hovered just above the grime of life, but hovered together. Still, admonitions came to “hold your sack in front of you, not behind you!” Indeed, a lady in front of us paused when she realized that she no longer had her wallet.

But I was so watched that I couldn’t imagine how anyone could have stolen anything from me without someone else noticing. People swarmed around us, bumped into us, gawked at us.

A shopkeeper motioned to me while addressing Aisha. “Is she a Muslim?”
“No.”
“Not yet.” He eyed me. “Why aren’t you a Muslim?”
Taken off-guard, I straightened. “Why do I need to be?”
“She prays!” Aisha inserted, intent on protecting my religious freedom.
“Who is she?”
“My sister.”
“You’re short and she’s tall. How can you be sisters?”
I cleared my throat. “She is like our mother and I am like our father.”
Then Aisha and I giggled together, and the shopkeeper gave an irritated but irrepressible grin.

Another lady stopped us and Aisha proudly told her that I was getting a djellaba made by a local tailor.
“Is she a Muslim?”
“No.”
“Does she pray?”
“Yes.”
“Does she fast?”
“Yes, she fasts.”
“Well then, what does it matter what she is?”
I spoke up then, but the lady was more interested in the fact that I was speaking her dialect than in what I had to say. And she walked away, still convinced that my good deeds gave me a good shot at paradise.

The sundown prayer call sounded. Aisha kissed me goodbye and tucked me into a taxi, even while insisting that I stay for tea.

I stared out the window at the sunset on the way home, pensive and full. It was one of those days that I would like to store in my pocket and pull out when I get lonesome for these people.IMG_9308

Aisha- part 4

She lost her job. Just when things had been going well. Just when little by little she had been saving up to furnish the tiny salon. She had talked of buying an oven. She had talked of the circumcision party she wanted to hold for her son in April. Now that was gone. There were no more dreams because there was no more money.

Her husband was working a little, she explained, but she never saw the money.

“It goes for cigarettes and coffee with his friends at the coffee shop.”
“Praise God he doesn’t use your money for that!” I reminded her. But I still hurt for her.

Eventually she found work two days a week. Enough to survive, but not enough to live.

It seemed that every time I entered her home, there was a storm brewing between mother and daughter. Today was no exception.

When I had reached Aisha’s house, things were calm. We sat in the salon, talking and watching Bollywood. God’s grace bridged the language deficit. We talked about life, about marriage, about her children, about her job hunt.

Her daughter, Soukaina, disappeared to be with her friends. A long time later, Aisha hollered across the rooftops of that tiny, sunken neighborhood: “Soukaina! Soukaidsc00383na!” Soukaina emerged from her friend’s house and soon thereafter two young men followed.

To a mother with no education, a girl’s purity and family honor are the only things worth living for. There is no other option. And with her husband generally absent, Aisha is the guardian of her daughter and, essentially, the family honor.

I just wanted to hide. I had already had an encounter on the street with a man who left my blood boiling in his wake. And upon arrival to Aisha’s neighborhood, I had an argument with the taxi driver whether or not it was safe for me to walk the ½ block from the taxi stand to Aisha’s house. I didn’t want to get involved in anything else, for goodness’ sake!

Aisha offered me a way out: to go with her to buy sweets for the afternoon tea.

But God said, “Stay here with Soukaina.”

So I stayed and listened to the 16-year-old, heart-broken side of the story. Then I touched her hot and teary face and wondered what kind of life lay ahead of this girl. What opportunities did she have? What opportunities would she have?

My own heart felt achy for the women of the family, even as we sipped syrupy tea and I made boats, airplanes, and trains out of each bite of cookie for Aisha’s 2-year-old son.

Aisha walked me to the taxis, telling me again and again how “dear” I am to the family.

I responded with the appropriate reciprocal response, but I really meant it. Aisha will always be dear to me. As we turned out of the neighborhood, the evening sky came into view with bright pinks and oranges. It was so breathtaking I started to cry from the bittersweet mingling of Aisha’s pain and God’s faithfulness.