“So, chary and excited/As a thrush linked on a hawk”

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In the big lead up to the big trip, the neighbours never lost a chance, whether late at night or early in the morning, to bemoan the fact that my family were only to spend five days of their holiday in Woldia. Such a travesty, it seems, has never been known in the town, at least in modern times.

Because we had “so little” time there, we had to hit the ground running. Arriving late on Christmas Eve to the Lal, I phoned to say that we had all arrived safely and we were permitted little time to settle before we were summoned to the compound for the first of the coffee ceremonies.

In the hotel room, I looked on with tenderness as my family stealed themselves as best they could against the more unsavoury and unknown offerings of the Woldia evening and ventured out down the road in the direction of Gondar Ber, my neighbourhood. Watching the four of them there in front of me thousands of miles away from home, it was a strange but not an unpleasant feeling, as if my two worlds had somehow merged together in some kind of cosmic collision or other. Not an unpleasant feeling at all in fact.

The Healy cavalcade made its way down the road in two bajajs and I was a bundle of nervous excitement. Who will be there to greet them? Will they have to eat the local food? Will the neighbours be too nervous to spend any time with them? These unanswered questions and the accompanying butterflies in my tummy, reminiscent for me of the feeling you’d get when introducing your boyfriend to the family for the first time. I smiled at this thought as we neared the compound but interestingly found it hard to say whom I was introducing to whom.

And if I was nervous, there was no way of knowing what state of disarray the compound was in. I do know that plenty of loving preparations had been made. In the preceding weeks, they were at pains to find out what my father would eat, mistakenly assuming that my sisters would eat anything. I thought of the many foods common to Ethiopia and Ireland and wondered which of them they would bastardise the least. I settled on potatoes. This lead to the mass preparation of “croissants” as the neighbours inappropriately called them, potatoes covered in pastry to you and me. These “croissants” (which my father would in turn also inappropriately re-christen “sausages”) were probably the reason why nobody got gastro-enteritis in Woldia.

That first evening the women hurried in and out of my house bothering themselves that we had enough to eat and drink before scuttling out again if for no other reason than to break the unbearable nervous tension. In these intervals, there were hurried whispers both outside in the courtyard and inside in the house. We will never understand what it was like for them to have us here and so what their discourse would have been remains a mystery but I can tell you for us it went something like this:

“Aisling, please, I honestly can’t eat any more”…“Dad, how are gettin on with that?”…“Give me another one them sausages”…“Give me that, I’ll eat yours”…“It’s not too bad”…“That’s actually tasty”…“Which one is which?”…“Well, I have no idea who any of them are”…“Who’s the little one?”…“Here, eat mine too”…“I can’t drink this thing!”…“How can you actually like it?”…“Pour all the talle into my glass”…“Quickly! They’re coming back!!!!” and so on.

I should also mention that the neighbours had devised a scheme whereby all five Healys would sleep on the concrete floor in my sitting room in order that we could talk and enjoy each other’s company. When I timidly ventured that perhaps it might be more comfortable for them to stay in a hotel, the response came, as quick as a whip, “That is not possible”. I gestured helplessly to my father. “No problem, he will sleep on a separate mat”.

In fact, they were perfectly correct. Staying in the same room together and being able to chat and mess and laugh was exactly what we wanted to do but we would choose to do this in the relative comfort of the hotel rather than the relative discomfort of my house. There we enjoyed a luke-warm trickle of water from the shower in the evenings, a proper bed with a duvet and quality family time. I’m not sure how we got away with this in the end but we did get away with it and so spent the time in Woldia in between the hotel and the compound. Making our way down through the unpaved back streets during the week, I greeted the people of the neighbourhood, proudly introducing my family who had come from a foreign country to visit us all.

Me: “Hello! This is my father and these are my three sisters!”

“Are you sure?!” came the standard Ethio-English reply.

Yes, quite sure, thank you 🙂

The boy children were especially excited to see ” SEAMUS!!!!!!!!” who they had hilariously mistaken as star of the small screen, the wrestler Sheamus, that they love so well here in Ethiopia.

My father?

My father?

Imagine their disappointment!

I had thought Christmas Day in Woldia would be a non-event but I was proved wrong. In fact, I spent much of that morning weeping like a child at all the thoughtful and unexpected presents from my friends and family in Ireland which now adorn my house. Later in the morning we went back to the compound and we all really enjoyed feeling like Father Christmas giving out the various gifts to my Ethiopian family. We gathered with the other volunteers for Christmas dinner at the Lal later in the day. The highlight of the meal possibly being the soggy margarita “pizza” Shelley had. All Broe inhabitants who may be reading this blog, please assure Kit the lack of three kinds of spuds was keenly felt by all.

When I look back on this time, I remember all the things and all the people I have to be grateful for in my life. In the mornings the Healy girls inevitably slept on, while Dad and me bonded on excursions to the town, the bank, the “supermarket”, the hardware shop, the bicycle shop, doing odd jobs and bodge jobs around the house. It was all so easy in his company. It was during one of these DIY projects that my hapless younger sister Niamh almost met her untimely end. Already having been put in a rather precarious position, standing on top of the back of a chair while holding onto the corrugated iron door for balance to change a lightbulb 3 metres from the ground when she suffered an electric shock so bad that she needed to go and lie down after it. Sorry Niamhy!!! xxxx

On the Thursday of that week, we went to the University, scene of so much of my unhappiness in this country. However, my counterpart had arranged a coffee ceremony with all the managers in the University and the candidates on the HDP course who I had been yapping away to about my families visit for the past three months to the point that I think they were as excited as I was at the prospect of the trip. I was so excited to introduce them all to each other!

As there were too many Healy’s for one bajaj, the first mishap of the afternoon occurred. The three sisters went in one direction and myself and my father went the other, ending up at gates approximately 4 kilometres away from each other on an unpaved road with no way to contact each other as the girls had no working phone with them. About an hour later, we were finally reunited, where the girls were being entertained by their captor, self-styled “dormitore” (person in charge of dormitories). We met my counterpart and discovered that in fact no coffee ceremony had been arranged. Quietly seething with rage, I lead my family around the campus myself, the campus that nobody could be bothered to welcome them to after they had travelled 3,000 miles, at Christmas, the campus which was my raison d’etre for being so far away from my family and friends. It was an ugly feeling and probably quite irrational but there you have it, that’s me, warts and all.

Looking back on it all, the few days in Woldia couldn’t really have went any better. I wanted my family to see how I lived and initiate them into the life here and it was a typical Woldia experience in many ways; fit to burst with a surfeit of unwanted, bizarre food and drink, several disappointments and misunderstandings, joy, happiness, togetherness, extreme kindness and generosity, some uncomfortable times and many cultural faux pas.

There were protestations in the compound at the unfairness of our premature departure and imploring pleas for us to stay for just one more day but we weighed up the odds and decided to get the hell outa dodge.

Stay tuned for “What the Healys did next!” 🙂

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