Book Review: Cocktail Hour Under the Tree of Forgetfulness

cocktailhourunderthetreeofforgetfulnessCocktail Hour Under the Tree of Forgetfulness Five Starsis Alexandra Fuller’s second book covering her family’s experience in east Africa. The first, Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight, which her mother describes as an Awful Book, tells the story from her perspective. In Cocktail Hour Under the Tree of Forgetfulness, she expands the story to include her grandparents so that the story is told more from her parents’ point of view, even more so from her mother’s point of view.

It covers her mother’s Scottish ancestry; her grandparents’ move from Scotland to Kenya and back to Scotland; her father’s adventures in Canada, Montserrat, and Barbados before he landed in Kenya where within two weeks he met Nicola Huntingford and decided to stay. It covers the Mau Mau rebellion; Ian Smith’s Universal Declaration of Independence of Rhodesia from Britain and the world-wide economic embargo that followed; the Bush War which the nationalists refer to as the Second Chimurenga, the Shona word for rebellion, and which fostered the creation of the Zimbabwe African People’s Union (ZAPU), the Zimbabwe African National Union (ZANU), the Zimbabwe African National Liberation Army (ZANLA), the Mozambique Liberation Army (FRELIMO), and the Mozambican National Resistance (RENAMO); and the eventual independence and majority rule of Zimbabwe.  It is a quick history lesson on a painful and shameful period in Africa. But it is much more.

The real story in the book is the love story: the love between Tim and Nicola Fuller; the love of Tim and Nicola Fuller for their children; the love of Alexandra for both her parents; the love of all of them, but especially Nicola Fuller, for Africa, though not always the Africa that exists; and most of all it is a story of the love of life illustrated through an independent spirit that kept her parents moving forward, looking for the next challenge in spite of losing children, jobs, farms, and wars.  Alexandra Fuller tells this love story so compellingly, so engagingly, so compassionately for not only her family but also for the native Africans around them. Her introduction to her family made me feel as though she was welcoming me into it. And I felt honored to get to know them all.

  • Print Length: 258 pages
  • Publisher: Penguin Books; Reprint edition (August 23, 2011)
  • Publication Date: August 23, 2011
  • Genre: History, Biographies and Memoirs

Z is for Zambia

White Rhino by SarahDepper, on Flickr

I never wanted to go to Africa. I was sure of it. That is, until I went to Yemen, another place I never wanted to go.

But a good reason to go to Yemen came along. And I am so very pleased. I enjoyed Yemen so much more than I had expected (Y is for Yemen) that I realized I needed to give more consideration to other places I thought I didn’t want to go. Africa came immediately to mind.

I planned to retire from the Foreign Service once I had completed 20 years. Everything about the system was geared to encourage Foreign Service employees to leave after 20 years, except for the few who managed to be promoted into the Senior Foreign Service. I didn’t expect to reach that level, so I planned my life assuming I would retire in 2005.

In 2003, I actively sought as my final assignment an opportunity to see as much of Africa as possible in what I assumed would be my final two years: roving management officer. For my last two years, I would serve temporarily in whatever management positions the Bureau of African Affairs felt were most important to fill when the gap between leaving and arriving employees was long or when vacancies occurred unexpectedly, due to illness or other emergencies.

Plans have a way of being interrupted, especially when living overseas. Instead of spending two years in Africa as a roving management officer, I was only there for nine months. And that meant I only experienced three countries: Madagascar (A is for Antananarivo), Eritrea (E is for Eritrea; K is for Keren), and Zambia.

My stay in Zambia was the shortest: three weeks. Far too short. So I’m “extending” it through reading.

Zambia is the setting for a number of memoirs. Here’s one I just finished. Watch for my review of it soon. (A preview–I gave it five stars.)

(From Goodreads.com) “In Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight, Alexandra Fuller remembers her African childhood with candor and sensitivity. Though it is a diary of an unruly life in an often inhospitable place, it is suffused with Fuller’s endearing ability to find laughter, even when there is little to celebrate. Fuller’s debut is unsentimental and unflinching but always captivating. In wry and sometimes hilarious prose, she stares down disaster and looks back with rage and love at the life of an extraordinary family in an extraordinary time.”

The following are now on my “Want to Read” list:

(from Goodreads.com) “When former journalist Adeline Loh could no longer endure the brain-deadening routine of work, she did what any sensible person would do: flee Malaysia with a paranoid vegetarian named Chan and go ambling in the lion-infested wilderness of southern Africa. However, upon arriving in Zambia, the bush virgins realised nothing from the Animal Planet documentaries had prepared them for survival in the savannah. With baboons, hippopotamuses and buffaloes conspiring to tear them into pieces, our addled heroines rattled along crater-pocked tracks, canoed through the crocodile-infested Zambezi River, flew over Victoria Falls on a little tricycle with wings, stalked incestuous rhinoceroses and peed amidst thorny shrubbery. And in more life-preserving moments, they pondered antimalarial druggies, sleazy hunters and muscle-bound native women while hoping to achieve their main goal—not to get eaten alive!

“In Peeing in the Bush, Loh recounts in candid prose her fun and engaging misadventures in Zambia with a rich mix of anecdotes, commentary and deft description.”

This one is in my hands, written by the same author as the one just finished so I am looking forward to starting it.

(from Goodreads.com) “When Alexandra Bo Fuller was in Zambia a few years ago visiting her parents, she asked her father about a nearby banana farmer who was known as being a tough bugger. Her father’s response was a warning to steer clear of him: Curiosity scribbled the cat, he told her. Nonetheless, Fuller began her strange friendship with the man she calls K, a white African and veteran of the Rhodesian War. A man of contradictions, K is battle-scarred and work-weathered, a born-again Christian and given to weeping for the failure of his romantic life and the burden of his memories. Driven by K’s memories of the war, they decide to enter the heart of darkness in the most literal way, by traveling from Zambia through Zimbabwe and Mozambique to visit the scenes of the war and to meet other veterans. The result is a remarkably unbiased and unsentimental glimpse of life in Africa.”

(from Goodreads.com) “It is 1972 and James and Katrina Martin set off for a well earned month of vacation from Zambia to South Africa and England. They return to find that James is to be offered an opportunity to start a new mine away from the Zambian Copperbelt, an opportunity that he takes. They travel to the Mtuga operation which is located just off the Great North Road in the Mkushi district of Zambia. The mine is sited on old workings from the 1920’s and is being re-opened as a surface mine. The Mkushi District is better known for its tobacco and maize farms and in the late 1970’s for the camps of the Zimbabwe People’s Revolutionary Army (ZIPRA), an organization that they will encounter a few times.

“Life is complicated when the Rhodesians close the border with Zambia and Zambia retaliates, potentially stranding all their new mining machinery outside the country. They must formulate a plan to get everything to the mine and the operation started on time and to budget. Things are further complicated by corporate politics and rivalries that create problems along the way.

“Although now married for almost three years, James and Katrina continue to discover each other and their romance and desire for one another is as strong as ever. They take every opportunity they can to be away and alone together in the more remote parts of Zambia.”

(from Goodreads.com) “1898, Tsavo River Kenya, the British Empire employs native workers to build a railroad. Construction comes to a violent halt when two maneless lions devour 140 workers in an extended feeding frenzy that would make headlines and history all over the world. Caputo’s Ghosts of Tsavo is a new quest for truth about the origins of these near-mythical animals and how they became predators of human flesh.”

You may recognize the lions as the titular characters in the 1995 movie, The Ghost and the Darkness. For the original book on which the fictionalized movie was based, see The Man-Eaters of Tsavo.

And there is also fiction.

(from Goodreads.com) “In A Cowrie of Hope Binwell Sinyangwe captures the rhythms of a people whose poverty has not diminished their dignity, where hope can only be accompanied by small acts of courage, and where friendship has not lost its value.”

Y is for Yemen

There is only one rule when driving in Yemen–basic rule #1–whoever is in front has the right-of-way. Rear-view and side-view mirrors are optional. Most Western men just can’t give up the driving habits of home, choosing instead to be driven crazy by the behavior of every Yemeni driver.

I, on the other hand, adjusted my driving habits, abandoning the need for my car to march within the lane markings. I rejoiced over the resulting un-choreographed dance other drivers and I performed on the streets of Sana’a. I have always preferred dancing over marching.

I drove every day during my year at the US embassy in Sana’a. All American staff except the ambassador lived a 20- to 45-minute drive from work.

Those who chose the direct route could usually make the trip in 20 minutes. But I enjoyed extending my trips by taking very seriously the suggestions from the Bureau of Diplomatic Security. I varied both my departure time and my route.

I made a game of it. No one could predict my route to work because I didn’t decide which way to go until I turned out of my driveway in the morning.

Here were the rules of my game. At each intersection,

  • If the first car I saw was black, I turned left;
  • If the first car I saw was white, I turned right;
  • If the first car I saw was any other color, I went straight ahead;
  • If the intersection was a T-junction, I made a turn in the same direction as my last turn.

Because Sana’a’s road system consists of concentric ring roads, it didn’t matter how I started out each morning; eventually I would end up on one of the ring roads and that meant that eventually I would end up at the embassy.Once I reached a ring road, I made my way to the embassy directly. Sometimes it took 20 minutes; sometimes it took an hour.

My two-door, Toyota RAV-4 had the tightest turning radius of any car I have ever driven. I never worried about getting stuck when my game took me down a sand and rock track at the end of a paved road. If continuing straight ahead didn’t look feasible, I turned around and headed back.

The RAV-4 was so small I could even take it down streets in the Old City, streets so narrow traffic could only go one way at a time. Of course, cars were not expected on them so no signs indicating the preferred direction could be found.

Late afternoon one day in Ramadan, when everyone in the Old City marketplace was doing last-minute shopping before sunset marked the time for breaking the day-long fast, I ended up on such a road, facing another car. A Yemeni man gently pressed in the side view mirrors of my car to narrow its silhouette slightly and then directed both me and the other driver to move inch by inch, sometimes backing up, sometimes moving forward, until we passed one another with only millimeters separating us. His directing task complete, the Yemeni man turned away from me and continued down the street on foot.

One morning I noticed a black car behind me. I was half way to the office, still following my rules, when I realized the car behind me had made each turn after me. I picked up my radio and called into the embassy to report that I thought someone was following me. After a delay of about a minute, the Defense Attache came on the radio to assure me that the car was from the Yemeni Interior Ministry and was there for my protection.

Apparently the Ministry of Interior had been following each of us to work for months, but that was the only time I noticed. I never decided whether that was reassuring.

Since I never left the embassy for home at the same time any two days in a row, I was already unpredictable. I chose one of three routes home and usually stayed on that path until I got home.

But one evening I was distracted–I had to attend a representational event later but didn’t want to. As I made my way into a traffic circle, a truck on my left brushed up against my car. I pulled over and parked right away, but the truck driver kept going. I must have been quite a sight as I got out of my car and ran down the street in my stylish, but oh so short, dress and high heels yelling at the driver and slapping the side of his trust to get him to stop. I considered him to have been driving recklessly and wanted to be sure there was a report of the accident.

Once he stopped, I called the embassy’s roving security patrol on the radio. They called the police. Within a few minutes both the embassy guards and the two policemen arrived.

If I ever had doubts about basic rule #1, that accident banished them. The first question the policeman asked was whether I was in front of the truck or the truck was in front of me.

W is for Weehawken

It was the summer that changed my life–1968. I spent it in New Jersey where I shared a house in Union City with seven other young women, all college students, while we volunteered in an interdenominational arts/crafts/recreation program for elementary school-aged children. The church where I volunteered was in Weehawken, just a few blocks away from the house where we stayed.

Pastor Hank Dierck showed us the place in Weehawken that provided the best views of Manhattan, probably right where the photographer stood when the above photo was taken. It was also where Aaron Burr, the sitting Vice President, shot Alexander Hamilton, former Secretary of the Treasury, in a duel in 1804. Both men had been involved in duels in the past, but by then dueling was illegal in both New York and New Jersey. Hamilton died the next day in Manhattan. Burr was charged with murder in both New Jersey and New York. Burr was either acquitted or the charges were dropped. The rivalry between the two men arose from disputes in a number of elections going back to 1791. Let us be thankful dueling is no longer legal in any of the United States.

About 50 college students, most of us from the midwest, took part in the summer program. The organizers provided us with a week of orientation to the area which included suggested recreation and arts activities for the children. Most of the 50 volunteers were assigned to work in Jersey City churches where the majority of the children were African American. But those of us in Union City and Weehawken had a completely different mix of children. Most of ours were the children of Cuban immigrants.

I was shocked by the amount of litter I saw on the streets in Weehawken, even in the residential areas. So I devised an arts project I hoped would help the children realize they shouldn’t litter. First I made two copies of a list of things I knew they could find on the street that I felt should be tossed into waste baskets or garbage cans. I broke my class of 8- and 9-year-olds into two groups. We went outside, and I gave each group one copy of the list and a large paper bag. I sent one group east from the church and the other south so they wouldn’t be searching for the items in the same places. Once they had found and picked up each of the items on the list and bought them back in the paper bag, we went back inside to talk about how easy it was to find everything.

One boy told me it wasn’t easy. “I had to go all the way to the corner to get the gum wrapper,” he said.

I then asked them to draw a picture of their homes. When they were done, I told them they should glue at least one of the items from the bag to their pictures, in front of their houses. One boy must have figured out what I wanted. He said he didn’t want to mess up his picture, so he drew a waste basket to one side of the picture and glued his piece of litter into it.

Seven weeks after arriving in New Jersey, I flew back to Minnesota with tears in my eyes. Those seven weeks had changed me. When I left Minnesota, I had been looking forward to entering my junior year at Concordia College where I was majoring in German and minoring in Russian. I knew I wanted to travel, even live, overseas, and I thought being able to speak foreign languages would make that possible. But in the summer of 1968 I met a group of people, the parents of the children in my class, who needed to learn English as their second language. And I realized I didn’t need to study another language–I already knew one that was foreign to others: English.

Once back in college, I changed my major to English. I stuck with my Russian minor because I didn’t have time to change that, too. My German courses filled the number of credits I could devote to electives. And I set out to take every English course that wasn’t dedicated to literature. Because I wanted to teach the language–how to understand it, how to speak it, how to read it, and how to write it.

It took me a few years to complete my goal of learning how to teach English as a second or foreign language. Seven years later, in 1975, I was ready for that foreign living experience. I set out then for Iran, the first of 10 foreign countries I would live and work in before I retired.

U is for United Arab Emirates

We moved to the United Arab Emirates in 1996. Abu Dhabi was my second Foreign Service assignment in the Middle East, and my third living experience in the region.

When Ramadan came around our first year in Abu Dhabi, I thought I knew what it was all about, having lived more than two years in Iran and then two in Qatar. I already knew that I hadn’t learned much about the month in Iran, however, because not all restaurants closed during the day; they just pulled down the shades so that those fasting wouldn’t have to see those who weren’t. But in Qatar, all restaurants, except those in the big hotels, closed until sundown, which was announced by a canon being shot off along the corniche. Ramadan, therefore, was a dreary place for most of us in Doha. We all looked forward to its end.

The restaurants in Abu Dhabi remained closed during the day during Ramadan, but it didn’t seem like the dismal month I recalled in Doha. The local employees talked about Ramadan with joy. Instead of focusing on all those hours when they couldn’t eat, they celebrated the dishes that were most often served only during Ramadan and being together with family and friends each evening. I began to think of Ramadan more as a month-long Thanksgiving celebration than a burden and inconvenience to have to get through.

Our first Abu Dhabi Ramadan, we were invited to many evening iftar, or breaking of the fast, meals hosted by my contacts at the embassy. This was no different from my experiences in Qatar. But perhaps because the traditions were more familiar I learned more of what I hadn’t known before. One example: the food that was prepared for these large fast-breaking meals was also distributed to those in the city who didn’t have the means to provide such lavish meals for their families. With the wealth of the country being so well-known, it was a surprise for me to learn that not every Emirati was so self-sufficient. But everyone in the country had the opportunity to join in the evening meals of Ramadan.

But the main reason for the shift in my thinking came during our second Ramadan in Abu Dhabi. One afternoon, Huda, the wife of one of the local employees who worked for me, Mackawee, called me at work to tell me not to cook anything that evening because she planned to bring a typical Yemeni Ramadan meal for Alex and me. I was surprised and pleased, especially because I couldn’t think of anything that I had done to deserve such treatment. I appreciated Mackawee, but I don’t think that I treated him with any more respect or regard than my predecessors. But Huda decided to share the joy of the holiday with us. She brought a number of typical Yemeni foods, explained what each was, and then left us to enjoy the meal so that she could spend the evening with her husband.

The following year, our last in Abu Dhabi, I brought up the idea of hosting an iftar at the embassy to a number of the women who worked there. We agreed it would be an excellent way to encourage more of a community feeling among the employees and their families, so we started by making a list of the foods we each thought of as typical Ramadan food.

I was surprised to learn that what was typical on the Arabian peninsula wasn’t necessarily typical in Jordan or Egypt or Lebanon, countries represented by some of the women who organized the meal. So coming up with the menu was not so simple. We agreed that the meal must begin with fruit juice and dates, the items the most devout ate first to regain their strength after which they would pray and return for the rest of the meal. For the meal, we had lamb and rice and stuffed vegetables and salads and many other items I can no longer remember. For dessert, I contributed the other item I always thought of as typical of Ramadan, Oum Ali–an Egyptian dessert, the richest bread pudding in the world.

Most of us had to prepare the food at home and bring it back to the embassy to assemble the table. Just before sundown, the local employees began to return, with their families. As we saw the gathering numbers, we had a moment of panic that we wouldn’t have enough food. But we had more than enough.

Once everyone who had returned to the embassy compound had eaten, we brought plates of food to those who never seemed to get away from their desks. And we brought plates to the Marine on duty as well as the Marines whose home was one of the adjacent buildings. And still there was food left over, so we brought plates to the police guards who were on duty outside the embassy compound walls.

As we cleaned up after the meal, I learned that several of the women who had helped with the meal had never before participated in hosting an iftar meal because while they were Arabs from Jordan, Lebanon, or Egypt, they were Christians. The entire event was more of an adventure than I had thought.

Two years later, I was in Yemen and the beginning of Ramadan coincided with Thanksgiving that year. Since the Muslim calendar is lunar, it is 11 or 12 days short of the solar calendar. Ramadan and all other Muslim holidays occur earlier in the solar calendar in successive years. The coincidence of Thanksgiving with what I had come to think of as a month of Thanksgivings prompted me to mention how we observed Ramadan in Abu Dhabi my last year.

As soon as I mentioned it, my secretary Sumayya suggested the local employees should host a similar iftar meal in Yemen.  She brought the idea to the local employee association. They agreed. And within a week, we had plans for a Yemeni-American Iftar-Thanksgiving event on a Thursday (Gulf Saturday) evening. The local staff set up Bedouin-style tents on the grounds of the embassy compound and brought in big pillows to line the interior of the tents for casual lounging while we ate. The Americans brought foods we thought of as typical for Thanksgiving and the Yemenis brought food they typically ate for Ramadan.

No one went away hungry.

T is for Transnistria

Transnistria, a sliver of land at the eastern border of Moldova, right next to the Ukraine, wanted to be part of Russia, not Moldova, when the former Soviet Union broke apart in 1992. Refusing to assimilate into Moldova, Transnistria continued to use the Russian ruble even after Russia had issued new rubles and stopped accepting the old-style currency as legal tender. The Transnistrians added a postage stamp to the Russian rubles to indicate they were their currency.

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russian troops have been present in Transnistria. While my husband Alex and I were in Moldova, from 1992 until 1994, General Alexander Lebed was in command of the Russian 14th Guards Army in Moldova which was involved in skirmishes in Transnistria and another semi-autonomous region, Gaugazia.

The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) has had a presence in Moldova since the early 1990s, charged with facilitating a negotiated settlement between Moldova and Transnistria. At the time we were in Moldova, the ambassador from the OSCE to Moldova was a Canadian. One weekend, he, his wife, one of his local staff, Oksana, the U.S. Ambassador to Moldova, Mary Pendleton, Alex, and I set off for a relaxing few days in Odessa, on the Black Sea coast of the Ukraine. We left Friday afternoon in two cars, the OSCE ambassador, his wife and Oksana in one, Ambassador Pendleton, Alex, and I in the other. The OSCE ambassador’s car was in the lead since Oksana was to be our translator for the trip. She was to explain to the guards at the Transnistrian “border,” which the U.S. government did not recognize, why we needed to be given speedy and unimpeded passage through Transnistria to the Ukraine.

Oksana had been a university student in Odessa and she was very eager to show us what Odessa had to offer.  Her initial responsibility, getting us through the Transnistrian border, was not a problem as Ambassador Pendleton was waved through without having to stop. Once we reached Odessa, we checked in at a private sanitarium at the edge of the city. The name conjured up visions of patients with tuberculosis or schizophrenia, but Oksana explained it was a place that offered a relaxing and calming setting and was very desirable for weekend stays.

We didn’t spend much time there. That evening we headed for a meal at a restaurant overlooking the coastline and beach. The restaurant was full of very well-dressed, cosmopolitan young couples, some of whom looked as though they had just walked out of a stylish European casino.  There was music and dancing, although we chose to remain spectators as the fashionably dressed couples filled the dance floor.

The next day we toured several museums, many of them with a strong military slant. We also went to see the Potemkin stairs, originally 200 steps leading from the city situated on a high steppe plateau to the harbor. That evening we went to a concert where one of the most noticeable acknowledgements of the change in the government was the hole in the flag on the stage curtain where the hammer and sickle had been. After the concert, Oksana suggested we go to a hotel that was well known for its entertainment at the bar.  As she had done at nearly every other stop, she recommended that we not park directly in front of the location we intended to spend our time. Instead, she had the OSCE ambassador drive around the corner from the hotel where she located two parking spots so that the two cars would be parked one in front of the other. It may have been that desire that the two cars remain close to one another than led her to make the recommendation. We didn’t ask; we just wondered.

The next morning, Sunday and our last day in Odessa, Oksana recommended we have breakfast at a famous downtown restaurant before we headed a short distance out of town to see another Ukrainian Black Sea site. At this location, there were plenty of parking spaces directly in front of the restaurant, including on a very wide sidewalk where others parked their cars. But instead, Oksana again took us around the corner to park the two cars out of sight, and we then walked back to the restaurant. At the end of the meal, we walked back to the corner. It was immediately obvious that something was wrong. There was only one car on the street, Ambassador Pendleton’s Honda. The OSCE ambassador’s Lada was missing. Instead of spending a short time at the other site after which we planned to travel back through Transnistria, arriving at the border while it was still daylight, we ended up back at the restaurant where we had had breakfast and Oksana called the police.

Gasoline was in very short supply in all of the former Soviet Union at that time, so when Oksana got through to the police, she was asked to arrange to pick up a policeman who would investigate the missing vehicle. Ambassador Pendleton, the OSCE ambassador, and Oksana headed out to pick up the policeman, leaving the OSCE ambassador’s wife, Alex, and me behind.

Once the policeman was on site, he seemed optimistic that they would be able to find the ambassador’s car. He recommended that we just wait. In the meantime, Ambassador Pendleton, the OSCE ambassador, Oksana and the policeman made a few other stops to file reports and investigate options.

By 3 p.m., Ambassador Pendleton was concerned that if we didn’t leave soon, we would arrive at the Transnistrian border at dusk. She did not want to  confront the informal Transnistrian militia at any disadvantage, so she began to press for the six of us squeezing ourselves into her car so that we could return. Oksana assured her that she could get us past the border without a problem, so waiting a little longer would be fine.

So we waited. By 5 p.m., Ambassador Pendleton decided waiting any longer was out of the question. She insisted that the six of us get into her car and head back. But Oksana and the OSCE ambassador were unwilling to give up. Instead of getting into Ambassador Pendleton’s car, they agreed that the four of us–Ambassador Pendleton, Mrs. OSCE Ambassador, Alex, and I–should head back to Moldova while they waited in town until the car could be located. Oksana gave Ambassador Pendleton directions for what she called a short-cut so that we would get to the border more quickly.

The four of us left, now minus the only Russian speaker among us, and headed for the border as the sun sank lower and lower. By the time we reached the border, daylight was nearly gone and we realized that the guards there, most of them very young men without any identifiable uniforms, had been standing in the sun while drinking all afternoon. When the car stopped, the guard who approached the ambassador stumbled as he walked towards the driver side window. His rifle was slung over his shoulder, but the other guards were holding their rifles by the barrels, resting the butts on the ground, like walking sticks.

The guard insisted the ambassador get out of the car. She tried to speak with him in Romanian, but that didn’t work. He motioned for her to go to the back of the car and then he pointed to the trunk, indicating he wanted her to open it. She did. But when he started opening the suitcases in the trunk she pushed his hands out of the way and told him he didn’t have any right to inspect anything in her car because we were all diplomats and her car had diplomatic plates on it. She closed the trunk, got back into the car, put it in gear and drove off. The rest of us slunk down into the seats so our heads were below the level of the back window, expecting the worst.

It took a few minutes before we all exhaled.

Originally published in The Guilded Pen, Third Edition, the Anthology of the San Diego Writers/Editors Guild.

R is for Romania

I learned I had been selected for a Fulbright grant to teach English in Romania just weeks before I expected to leave Iran in July of 1977. And I was astonished that a friend was able to find a Teach-Yourself-Romanian book in Tehran so I could get a head start on the language.

It was difficult to figure out just how to pronounce Romanian words and phrases, having no audio sources. Some of the phrases didn’t look too difficult. For example, bună ziua, good afternoon, had only four syllables and more vowels than consonants. I figured it should sound something like “BOON-a ZI-wa.” Likewise bună seara, good evening, looked manageable as BOON-a se-YAR-a. But the Romanian equivalent of good morning had a lot more syllables and nearly as high a vowel to consonant ratio: bună dimineaţa. I understood that little tail under the “t” was pronounced as two English sounds: ts. Thus good morning in Romanian was BOON-a dee-meen-ee-YATS-ah, a mouthful for a non-morning person like myself.

But when I got to the pronouns, I just wasn’t sure I could believe the book. I thought it might be a version of Romanian spoken by those of several generations ago. Who ever heard of a personal pronoun having more syllables than the noun it represented?

English pronouns are all short: I, you, he, she, it, we, they. Not a multisyllabic one among them. But the Teach-Yourself-Romanian book said the Romanian equivalent of the plural (and “formal” or polite form) of you was Dumneavoastră. That is six syllables! And the single, informal form of you wasn’t much shorter, Dumneata, four syllables. I just couldn’t believe that Romanians waste that much effort and time on the personal pronoun, you.

On the plane from Frankfurt to Bucharest, I met someone who had at least heard Romanian spoken by those living in Bucharest at that time. I decided to test out my theory by asking her to tell me how to say good morning, good evening, and good afternoon as a benchmark of my interpretation of the sounds. She confirmed that I had figured out how to say those phrases fine.

Then I asked her about the pronouns, starting with the ones I wasn’t amazed at: I is eu (which sounds a lot like the Spanish equivalent, yo), we is noi, he is el, she is ea, all of them short. So I fully expected my semi-native informant to give me short versions of the singular and plural you. But she didn’t. She confirmed what the book said, Dumneavoastră was the polite form of you. But the familiar, singular form was often shortened to ta, although Romanian has many cases so the spelling varies, depending on whether it is the subject or object in a sentence.

So I learned to roll Dumneavoastră off my tongue when addressing strangers. After all, there was no point becoming too familiar too quickly.