She was more conspicuous than she realised. All blonde hair, ghost face and Lonely Planet, poorly hidden on her lap. But she was open and unafraid. That would serve her well in this city. Where your fate was written all over your face and how you carried yourself. She would do better than the others. With their wide lenses and incessant shooting. As intrusive as cannon fire. Inviting trouble, loss and a day spent in corrupt police offices fighting for a report. They get reimbursed by travel insurance anyway.
She wasn’t one of those. But still, she still wasn’t one of us. She averted her eyes and smothered the waitresses with long rounded vowels and exaggerated deference. As if apologising for her other-ness and inability to speak our language. God Bless her. The waitresses were confused. I thought of walking over and gently translating for her. To save everyone in the mess and play hero. But it was too obvious. And I liked watching her neurosis escalate. She was now trying to communicate in sign language that she didn’t eat meat. The waitress feigned comprehension. They were both adorable.
“BAYANA TUUUUU” she tried… butchering the Amharic term for fasting food. And it was Thursday. It was not a fasting day so she wouldn’t be getting that. More nodding. More loud, extrapolated vowels. Toothy smiles. They would leave it at that and see what would happen. Exhausted from explaining and understanding. Admitting defeat, while still hoping for the best.
I live here, in Addis Ababa. And I like drinking my beer at the Itegue Taitu hotel. It’s the oldest hotel in Addis, so the Lonely Planet will tell you. What a fascinating and terrifying book! I love to watch the Faranjis who, engrossed in its pages, slam the book shut as soon as you go near them - guarding it with zeal. Witnessing the depth of their devotion to this monstrosity, I bought one myself. It is generally wrong. But no Faranji will hear otherwise.
I drink my beer here because I harbour a small obsession with the faranjis. And this is one of their havens. They search of the ‘regal charm’ and ‘old world glamour’ the lonely planet suggests one might find at the Taitu. Although it's nothing more than old. The owner doesn't spend any money to renovate it because the faranjis come anyway, spending their dollars because “it’s just soooo cheap!” Maybe I like the fact that its breaking too. Everything is mortal.
She keeps smiling with the vacant abandon of an imbecile. At the ornate cornices (yellowed with smoke). The grand piano (dusty up close, and out of order for the last 20 years). And maybe a special twinge of wow-Ethiopia. I’m hereeeee Mum…. I made it. Instinctively she reaches for her iphone. Searching for wifi. There’s wifi - you can see her features expand with surprise. She motions to the waitress, preparing to battle for the password. No connection (I could save her the trouble). But she’s magical to watch. Bewitching, despite her predictability. The way that, by virtue of trying so very hard to fit in, she’s sticking out. Sweetly. Reluctantly. Hopelessly.
Her shiro and injera come out… She’s inspecting the meal. She does everything in slow motion. Batting eyelids in sheer wonder. Carefully removing the black ceramic lid from the soup bowl. Patting the spongey injera and feeling it recoil with glee. Spooning the soup in to her mouth (a huge faux pas she is unaware of). The waitress comes to save her the embarrassment and spoons the soup in the centre of her injera (at least she hasn’t pleaded for a knife and fork yet). She rips her first slice and proceeds to slop in around the soup before opening her mouth as wide as possible, and trying to lob the dripping wet mess into her mouth. Some lands on her chin. She looks around self consciously hoping no one noticed. I look away. She hasn’t noticed me yet. After a few more poorly aimed shots of dripping injera and I have to intervene. She’s eyeing me now anyway. As they always do.
The faranjis find my Abyssinian features exotic. My hair falls in tight, neat ringlets. My skin is caramel. My arms are hairless. Teeth white. Clean. Clear complexion and a wardrobe of crisp white shirts. And I speak English with a perfect American accent c/o Jay Z.
I walk decisively over to her table and deftly scoop up the injera and shiro with my right hand, asking, "Can I show you how to eat it?" Fear and a twinge of revulsion flash in her eyes. She’s calculating the likelihood that she has food on her face (there’s some in her hair).
“I mean firstly, do you mind if I sit down?” She’s silent. I stand awkwardly with a hand full of her food. Do I want money or to marry her? Am I safe (she wonders)? “Sh-sure” she stammers and quickly brushes a napkin over her face.
She’s tentative. She doesn’t want me to touch her food but she doesn’t know how to politely say no.
“Ummmm ok,” she gives in. A diligent tourist. Try new things. Never say no. She eats the injera from my fingers, without licking them (another faux pas I expected her to break). She chews bashfully. Giggling flirtatiously. That was easy.
Injera is the soul of every meal. It’s the plate and spoon. It’s the whole point. I dip it gently into the still bubbling shiro sauce. Fold in once. Fold it again. And offer it to her. She tries to take it with her hand. “No, no just eat it.”
“It’s a very intimate thing, you know, for you to feed me”, she says. “It’s not in Ethiopia”, I reassure her. And I’m not lying. But she rolls her eyes anyway. “Trust me, go look it up in your Faranji Bible, ok?” I snap with them sometimes. These pretty girls with pockets full of money and heads full of shit. Heads that find it so terribly difficult to step outside into the real world. The world that most of us live in.
She’s startled. I have to play it better than this. I can’t let it all unravel this quickly. Straightening up and pulling myself together I say playfully, “let’s have a beer together, I want to get to know you, you seem like an interesting person”. She smiles. She’s saying no but she means yes. “I have to get the bus to Harar tomorrow at 5am! I should go to bed, I mean, I’m going to bed”.
I’m constantly amazed by the ease with which women can be (a) read and (b) convinced in to bed.
“C’mon!” I plead gently, calculatedly. “It’s your first night in Addis, you’re beautiful, we’re in the finest hotel in the city & I’m going to buy you a beer. I want to” I smile at her. Seeing past her flimsy resolve. She can’t resist. She doesn’t answer but I order two Dashen brews in Amharic before she knows what’s happening. When it’s in front of her she won’t leave.
They come and she smiles shyly. “Cheers”, I say. The glasses clink, victory. And she says how seductive Ahmaric is (heard it before). “How do you roll your R’s like that?” she asks, slack-faced and ignorant. “The real question is how can you not roll your R’s like that…?” Honestly, trying to teach her even the simplest words is debilitating. Moving on. Moving on. More beer.
We went outside to smoke. I smoked. She watched and had a puff, coughing like a schoolgirl. It was quite cute, and I felt a little affection for her coming on in that moment. A little something more than the desire to persuade and conquer. Her eyes watered and she bloomed pink with embarrassment. I offered her the beer. She half gulped and laughed. I smiled and pushed some loose strands of hair behind her ear. She let me. Things were rolling along on their usual course. It was any wonder I still got a thrill from it to be honest. Tourist - reluctant - succumbs to my exotic abyssinian advances. I’m the fantasy they pretend not to have.
There’s something she doesn’t know and I won’t tell her. That I’m married. And I have a child. That my wife knows I go out like this and court faranjis because - despite all the fairytales this girl has heard about our country - we’re all trying to get out. Marry well here means marry foreign. Sometimes, arm in arm on the street with my latest conquest, people spit and tell me I’m sacrificing my culture for the white woman. I’m not.
I’m sacrificing my culture for a shot at the white woman’s life.