I hired a driver three mornings per week, just until our car arrives, so that I can take Charlotte to preschool and run errands. Wondessen is a very safe driver; I feel perfectly at ease in his 1987 Corolla. He may not always take the fastest route, but I enjoy seeing different parts of the city and making conversation.
Last week, Charlotte made a request. “Excuse me driver, can you please put on some music?” She is having trouble remembering his name, probably because we’ve also had a dozen other drivers in the past few weeks. He happily put in a CD of Ethiopian Christian rock and proceeded to play the exact same song over and over for the next several days. He mentioned that he liked American music too, specifically Kenny Rogers. But the same song kept playing. I said that I had some old mix CDs in my collection that I’d be happy to give him. He was very excited when I presented a mix labeled “June 2004” in my sister’s handwriting. Having no idea what was on it, I wasn’t sure if he would enjoy it, but Hilary’s taste is eclectic enough that there was bound to be something on there he would like.
Today was another unusually drizzly and dark day. Traffic was light in the morning, and since I had extra time after taking Charlotte to preschool, I invited Gazaw (the gardener / day guard) to join me and Wondessen to go look at flowers for the garden. We listened to the mix–some Dave Matthews Band, Phish, CSNY. It was a bit surreal. On the way to the “good flower area,” Wondessen took us out for coffee at his favorite shop. I was the only ferenji (foreigner) and also the only woman there. It reminded me of so many Roman cafes in the morning, business men lined up at the bar for their espresso. The coffee was the strongest and yet most delicious I’ve ever had.
The good flower area proved disappointing to Gazaw. We stopped at a flower stand and he inspected the scrawny plants, frowning and shaking his head. Suddenly a man in a baseball cap and stylish blazer approached us and spoke to Gazaw in Amharic. Gazaw said we would go with the man to his place where he had better flowers. I got in the car with the three men and trusted that this would be a safe adventure. A few blocks down the main road, we turned onto an unpaved street where we had to get out and walk. Down the winding cobblestone(-ish) street there were no cars; just little houses, tiny fruit stands, donkeys and stray dogs. We arrived at a gate and went inside. This was obviously just the man’s house, where he did indeed have a number of flowering plants. Some of them were quite pretty, and I would have bought them, but Gazaw said no. He said we would go another day, to another “good flower area” outside Addis. We drove back to the first flower stand and bought the few acceptable plants that Gazaw liked. The longest part of our errand came when it was time to pay. We stood in the light rain for about fifteen minutes, just waiting. I had no idea what was going on, but I suppose I am too culture-shocked to question anything these days. Finally, the shop owner produced a receipt. The flowers (and pots) were only about $7, but they took the VAT calculation seriously.
Back in the car, “Let It Be” came on.
“I like this, this is very nice,” Wondessen said.
“Oh, this is the Beatles. It is a great song.”
“The Beatles. British band from the 1960s?” I thought the whole world knew the Beatles.
“Ah, interesting! I have never heard it before.”
The next song was the big hit, however. As the chorus began (“country roads, take me home…”), Wondessen gasped in recognition: “I know this song! I watched soccer on TV, and when Man United was about to win, the crowd sang ‘take me home!’ People were crying, they were so happy.”
For the rest of the ride home, that song was all we heard. My sister’s CD had the Toots & the Maytals cover with a reggae beat. I mentioned that the original was about West Virginia, and Wondessen had lots of questions about West Virginia and Virginia. I went to horse riding camp in West Virginia, but I didn’t think that would translate. “West Virginia has beautiful mountains where you can go hiking, and ride horses, and camp.” Still didn’t translate. “Virginia also has beautiful mountains, but the area where I lived is more urban. Many large companies have offices there: defense companies, technology companies…”
Wondessen: “Ah, like Microsoft?”
“Microsoft is based on the West coast, but yes, they do have a large office in Virginia.”
“I heard a rumor about Bill Gates that he supports the gays. Isn’t he a Christian? How can this be?”
Um. Can we just go back to talking about the Beatles? “For most Americans, it is not really a religious issue, but more of a civil rights issue.”
“But how will there be future generations if gays can marry?”
Um. Seriously? “Well, gay people are a minority. So the most important thing is that they are protected from discrimination.”
Wondessen nodded and said something more about future generations of humans being wiped out. I think we agreed to disagree.
We passed a mosque, all beautiful blue tile. I won’t even get into the conversation that followed. I will say that I’m glad I’ve learned to be diplomatic, over many years of living overseas. It is a real skill to be able to avoid culture clashes while staying true to your own beliefs.