It was raining that night in Cork (as it is in all my recollections of that city) when, somewhere in the Kane building, I first heard tell of Kuno Meyer. Herr Meyer was a 19th century German scholar who for some reason took an avid interest in Celtic languages and devoted much of his energies as a young scholar to their study. He went on later in life to do some things I wasn’t so thrilled about but…I digress. The point is that for any learned foreigner to condescend to study our own somewhat obscure languages was flattery indeed and so I was already endeared to him and his foresight in making a study of us but I think I actually fell in love with him a little on hearing his treatise that,
“the Celts were always quick to take an artistic hint; they avoid the obvious and the commonplace;
the half-said thing to them is dearest”
Whether or not there is a shred of truth to it, I quickly identified with it and it became one of those useless quotes that stuck to my brain “like a wet leaf that clings to the threshold” (another one that I’m fond of), useless in third level exams and of small comfort to my parents and the money spent on my education.
In any case, I liked it! It appealed to my vanity; it made us Celts seem a little more refined, a little more sensitive, a little less crude and a little less barbarous than in other representations.
But is it true? God only knows the lively talk in homes, workplaces and pubs all over Ireland is littered with enough superlatives, exaggeration and hyperbole to rubbish this man’s claims outright but is there not an opposing tendency too? To downplay it all, to skirt around the kernel of truth, to never say exactly what you mean especially in cases where it matters most? Is there not something very tender and precious about the things which exist between us that we do not fully express in words?
In my experience of Ethiopia, I cannot say that the half-said thing is valued here. People here like to S.P.E.L.L. I.T. O.U.T. That gene which encodes an unhealthy sense of mortification in most Irish people is all too conspicuous here in it’s absence and as a result the cringe factor is dangerously high. The majority of Ethiopians I know are polite to a fault but still retain a seemingly incongruous knack to say whatever, whenever to whoever and at no extra cost they will add on details that you never wanted to hear. Some times Ethiopians commit these blunders in their mother tongue and at other times it is their clumsy use of the English language which brings the conversation to a spectacular crescendo. My reaction is usually any one of- cringe- surprise- shock-laughter…I’m beginning to enjoy it actually and admire them for it!
I submit the following anecdotes for your reading pleasure.
1.) The inspiration for this post was my recent return to work after an absence of some weeks. I stuck my head in the door of a colleagues office to signal my return, exchange pleasantries etc. He said, “Oh Ais! You have become very fat! This is very good!” Already laughing I almost shouted at him, “No! This is not very good!” His expression changed swiftly and he took on a grave appearance when he said, “No. You are right. This is not good. Please do not add any more, if you add any more it will be too much. This is optimum”.
That’s me told then!
2.) At a coffee ceremony last week in the neighbours house. A friend of theirs had just come back from Saudi Arabia and was visiting for the week. We were sharing a plate of injera together ahead of the coffee when the women of the house started giving me some more information on her so that we could be better acquainted. The women have never read Bridget Jone’s Diary and so the type of comments they used to introduce her probably wouldn’t have gone down too well at a cocktail party in England but were perfectly acceptable here. “She is to be pitied”, Zenit said, “She has no children.” The woman herself then looked at me as if to see, yes, they are right I am really to be pitied. Then Hadiya added, “Ais, do you see? She eats so little but still she is so fat.”
3.) On campus I bumped into a colleague who had been absent for a number of weeks. I was happy to see him and warmly welcomed him back, asked him about his time away and how he felt about being back. Nothing could have prepared me for his reply, “I did not miss anything about this place except your smile.”
KER-RINGE! At times like these I imagine throwing in the towel and whimpering with relief into the nearest camera, “I’m an Irish person: get me out of here!” before being debriefed by those rascally Ant & Dec and then pampered in a 5* hotel somewhere in Australia. Glass of champagne on hand to ease the burn. However, this is Ethiopia so you just have to get back on the horse and take what the next day brings.
4.) One day I had the pleasure of walking with a female colleague which is quite unusual. We walked with two other male colleagues down the road. We were chatting when one of the men said, “Ais, do you see this huge woman?” referring to the woman I was with. What do you say to that?!!! Everyone laughed for some reason. Not getting much hop from me on that he said to his friend, “Who is stronger, the huge one or the thin one?” Still not rising to him he suggested, “She needs your advice to lose weight.” I practically roared at him, “She is beautiful!” Quick as a whip came the reply, “She will be beautiful when she loses weight!” Hysterical laughter from all around including the woman being insulted.
5.) It was during a training with first year students in the University. It was titled, “Life-skill training” and supposed to aid the young peoples transition to University and adulthood. One of the topics was self-image and self-esteem, the ability to see yourself as others do. My Ethiopian co-facilitator took this quite literally, plucked an unwitting “volunteer” from the crowd and then went on to describe her physically just in case she didn’t know.
“You! Stand up!” He sized her up carefully and said aloud, “You. You are slim. Or probably medium sized. And chocolate colour.”
“Now who is next?”
6.) A lovely German girl visited me in Woldia last year. I took her to the University and made the mistake of leaving her alone in the office for some time. When I came back she explained that someone had passed by the door earlier and said, “Oh, hi Ais” and then, “Oh sorry I thought you were Ais.” She marvelled at how they could have mixed us up as we are so different looking. I ventured to say that they are used to seeing a white girl in the office and maybe to them we don’t look too dissimilar. My counterpart then rather unhelpfully chimed in, “You are somewhat similar but Ais you are thin, and she is…fat?” as if seeking confirmation from me. BOOM!
I am reminded on occasions such as these of “little delicate compliments which are always acceptable to ladies” as Mr. Collins put it. Nobody here has read “Pride and Prejudice” either it seems.
7.) Sitting in my office one day last year and in my defence I was wearing an oversized shirt. A colleague passed by and looked in the door. Forgoing the usual pleasantries, he cut straight to the chase.
“Ah! So! As you become overweighted, you will join us for the runnings?” No hello, no nothing, just -BOOM!- you’re fat. Reeling at having been just labelled as overweight by a practical stranger in my workplace but I was also equally excited at the thought of joining a club for physical exercise!
8.) On returning from a trip to Addis Ababa, I met a colleague on the road. He seemed surprised, looked me up and down and said out of the corner of his mouth in a strange almost creepy way, “You seems attractive. Addis is suitable for you…you become pretty.” I was feeling a bit feisty that day so I perhaps cheekily remarked that maybe I was always pretty and that it was a case of “absence makes the heart grow fonder”.
“No”, he replied.
Fair enough so!
9.) On the way home from work one day, walking down the road with two colleagues. They started a conversation about me. Number one said, “She is thin”, number two disagreed, shaking his head and said “No, she is strong.” Number one replied, “Well I think she is thin.” No need for a lengthy debate as number two finished with, “Then observe her when she’s wearing trousers.” (Just to confirm I was standing with them when they were saying all of this in the third person about me!)
10.) It was at work one day and we went for coffee, three or four of us. While waiting for the coffee to come, one of the group started to regale us with a cautionary tale about promiscuity. The story went that there was a college in Ethiopia and the head of the college was a good man. He particularly looked out for poor students and actively looked for ways to give them an income. One such opportunity presented itself as the Head’s own daughter was failing in her studies and so he asked one male student of meagre means if he would like to tutor her for a fee. The male student agreed and went to meet the girl. My colleague who was telling the story was almost salivating when he went on to tell us that shockingly it soon became clear the girl had no interest in studying at all and she “started rubbing the boy’s sex organ!” At this stage I was almost wetting myself with laughter when he finished the story with, “Her single interest was in reaching climax!”
I’m not sure I ever laughed so much in all my life!!!!!!
11.) One of my colleagues has a bad kidney infection of late and is in quite a bit of discomfort. It’s a delicate issue or at least you might be forgiven for thinking so. His doctor advised him to drink lots of “packed water” (bottled water). Thirst is really a desperate thing but having to drink huge quantities of water is surely almost as bad? After the first few litres the water begins to be somehow unpalatable and this is the predicament my colleague was in, also having trouble “getting rid” of the water. Anyhow, one morning in the office, my colleague was on his fourth litre of “packed water” and with a pained expression on his face, he looked up from his next unhappy mouthful and protested to me in English, “I take this water, but how can I urinate?”