Alas, I have not traveled anywhere since November, and I do not have any travel plans for the foreseeable future. This makes me restless. I have decided I will have to focus on “travelling” in my local community; I will visit and highlight places, events, etc that have a multicultural/international theme.
Last night I visited the Midtown Global Marketplace in Minneapolis with some friends. I love this place! It is an indoor shopping center devoted to the businesses of local merchants from around the world. For more information, click here.
After having margaritas at a Mexican restaurant and buying spices at the Holy Land, a Middle Eastern shop, my friends and I had an amazing dinner at the Rabbit Hole, a Korean restaurant. The last time I was at this place, I had a camel burger at a Somali restaurant. All of this was under one roof, so we did not have to brave the arctic winds.
Did I mention that I love this place?! Below are a few snapshots I took while walking around the marketplace. Minnesotans: I definitely recommend checking this place out if you have not already been there.
It was not until my first trip to Russia, in the summer of 1998, that I realized that shopping for cabbage could be such a harrowing adventure. Learning how to cook schi (traditional Russian cabbage soup) required the development of a tougher psychological hide than my wimpy Midwestern existence had prepared me for.
My initiation into the dangers of shopping began on my first day in Russia. My companion picked me up at the airport and escorted me to central Moscow. Before we even entered the apartment, I asked him if we could first check out the mom and pop grocery store across from his building. Even though I was exhausted from the flight, I was intensely curious about everything Russian. I knew that in this post-Soviet period, Russia was no longer the evil empire it had been in the Reagan years. Still, I was hoping it was still a wee bit wicked, at least enough to make my trip halfway around the world worthwhile. Also, on the practical side, I assumed that I would be shopping at this store frequently, and I was curious to see what kind of goods it contained.
It took a few moments after entering the burrow of a shop for our eyes to adjust to the darkness. We were the only customers. The owner, a burly middle-aged man, stood behind a long counter with his arms crossed. He glared suspiciously at us. Most of the goods were stored on the shelves behind the counter, so browsing was not an option. We stood near the doorway for a few moments while I looked around. Although we were not there for long, maybe only a minute or two, the owner was clearly getting impatient with us.
It wasn’t long before he barked: “Sashamashadashabaryshnikovbrezhnevharascho.”
“Let’s go,” my companion muttered to me, and we turned around and left.
Except for a few words and phrases, I did not speak Russian, so I had no idea what the bark meant. I asked my companion to translate for me, so he did, somewhat reluctantly. If we were not going to buy anything, the burgeoning capitalist had yelled at us, then we should get the fuck out of his store. Apparently the idea that the customer is king had not yet caught on in Russia.
Although I decided not to go back to that shop, I was, on some level, pleased with the encounter. It suggested that perhaps Russia would live up to its scary reputation and that my trip would be worth the fare.
For the rest of my stay, I frequented a shop two or three blocks away, a leftover from the Soviet times. As with the Barker’s shop, all of the goods in this store were placed behind the counters, which were zealously guarded by the clerks, like so many Cerberuses guarding the gates of hell. To buy anything, customers had to ask the clerk to get whatever they wanted for them. And to make the process as inefficient as possible, customers had to stand in separate lines to order each type of food (produce, meats, etc). After a customer ordered the products, the cashier told them how much the food costs. Next, the customers had to move to a separate line so that they could pay the cashier for the food. After paying for the food, customers had to stand in yet another line to show the clerk the receipt and collect the goods. This procedure was then repeated for every category of food. This system not only maximized inefficiency, it also maximized the amount of customer contact with the clerks. Thus, the potential for scary encounters was high.
I remember one day in particular, after having been in Moscow for a few days, when I decided to make shchi (a traditional cabbage soup). First, I stood in the produce line. Given my extremely limited Russian and my frightening experience with the Barker, I was intimidated by the rotund, middle-aged woman behind the counter. I felt a little bit like Dorothy trembling in supplication before the Wizard of Oz.
“Please,” I said in my garbled Russian when it was my turn to order. “Threes carrot and thank you two cabbage.”
The clerk gave me a disapproving look and barked out the price: “yapeeshuperom.”
I did not understand and looked blankly at her.
She repeated the price: “yapeeshuperom.” Seeing me stand there dumbly set her off on a harangue: “Sashamashadasha baryshnikovbrezhnev dvapivapazhaloosta.”
Although this dressing down was not as scary as the Barker’s had been, it was frightening enough to give me a little bit of a thrill. Perhaps this is what it feels like to ski down a steep mountain slope.
“To write, excuse me,” I mumbled, and made writing motions with my hand.
She rolled her eyes, but understood and wrote down the price on a slip and handed it to me.
Grateful for her condescension, I scuttled off to wait in a second line—the cashier’s—to pay for my produce. When it was my turn, I handed the young brunette a fifty-ruble note for my 24.85 ruble purchase. In response, the cashier replied, “Bolshpriviborsch.”
Here we go again, I thought. I knew by now that my blank look would be enough to get her going, and I was right.
“Tchaikovskyrimskykorsikov yapishuperom yanepaneemayonichevo,” she went on, this time in a louder voice. Eventually, the cashier gave up trying to explain anything to me and instead pointed to the 85 cents in the price and held out small coins in her palm. Now I understood that she was expecting me to give her the exact change. I did not have the change, so I simply shook my head and continued to look at her in mute supplication. Finally, with an exaggerated sigh and a rolling of her eyes, she gave up on me and gave me back my change, counting it out slowly and loudly to signal her displeasure.
By this time, I was so intimidated that my adrenaline was starting to climb and my heartbeat was almost in the aerobic zone. I started to understand the appeal of extreme sports. I was frightened, but in a thrilling way. This was getting good. I walked back to the previous counter, eager to claim my hard-won cabbages and carrots. I was puzzled, however, to notice that the lights were off and the produce clerk was no longer there. I looked around the store, confused, wanting to know where my cabbages were. A woman was sweeping the floor. Seeing the confused look on my face, she started in on me. “Dvapivapazhaloosta bolshoischiborscht mishadachadostoevsy!” she yelled.
Wow. Three scoldings within the course of maybe fifteen minutes. Could bungee jumping be better than this? I began to feel my moral fiber toughen. I could get through this adventure and would be the stronger person for it. I noticed that there was nobody left in the store and I realized that the store was closing for lunch.
“Please,” I said to the woman. “Cabbage and carrot?”
“Sashamashadasha baryshnikovbrezhnev” she replied, but went behind the counter and retrieved my package.
Although I still had other purchases to make, I had to leave because the store was closed. As I walked out the door, I was tempted to raise my vegetables over my head in a sign of victory. In the soundtrack to my life, the theme song from Rocky should have been playing.
I had maneuvered the minefields of the evil empire and emerged victorious. This was fun.
As I stayed longer in Moscow, I realized that the denizens of this store were not particularly surly by Russian standards. They were quite ordinary, in fact. Although at first I thought they were yelling at me because I was a foreigner, I realized this was not the case. (In fact, many times, the scolders did not know I was foreign. They simply thought I was a feeble-minded Russian.) Russians will scold anyone. And although any Russian—young, old, male, female–feels entitled to yell at strangers, scolding is the particular specialty of older women—the babushki. It does not matter that the scoldees are strangers, or—like me—might not even understand what our offense is. The important thing for the babushki is to let us know we are wrong. I believe they consider it their civic duty to keep the idiots in line.
They have their jobs cut out for them.
When I told Americans about getting yelled at in Russia, they were appalled. “What a horrible place,” they said. They don’t get it, I thought. At least for me, it was not a horrible experience. In fact, after awhile, I felt a little disappointed if I went out in Russia and did not get scolded. Why is this? Am I a masochist? I don’t think so. Rather, I realize in retrospect that on some level I envy these women their freedom of speech. Living as I do in the land of Minnesota Nice, I am obligated by social custom and the law of capitalism (to always please the customer) to be polite at all times. I could never get away with calling someone a blathering idiot, no matter how blatheringly idiotic he may be.
The older I get, and the more fools and knaves I encounter, the more painful I find the constraints of politeness. I fear that one day I will snap. I will don a Russian scarf, sit in my office and tell whoever comes by what romanovpushkinblinis they really are. I know that if I do this, I will lose my job and the entire capitalist system will come crumbling down. I will become a minion of the new evil empire of Minnesota. It might be kind of fun.
“Sister! My Sister! You must look at my shop!” called the tall, lean proprietor of a woodcarving stall. I smiled at him hesitantly and kept walking, and he started to follow me, carrying several of his carvings along. I was surprised that he left his shop to do so.
“No, Sister, you must come over here,” cried another woodcarver, motioning me to come to his shop containing woodwork looking very similar. “I have the very best prices.” When I kept on walking, he, too, started to follow me, leaving his stall unattended. Both of these young Ghanaian men walked uncomfortably close to me, sometimes touching my arm to shoulder to get my attention. Even though I did not say anything to them, they kept up a constant chatter, touting the superiority of their goods. Although it was a warm, humid day in May, my difficulty breathing had less to do with the weather than with my discomfort at such unwanted physical closeness.
It did not take long before I had four or five men following me around the National Cultural Center, the largest souvenir market in Accra, Ghana. Jumbled together under this vast open air pavilion were various stalls and shops other selling souvenirs ranging from masks to statues to musical instruments to paintings to woodcarvings. I had been looking forward to shopping here. For me, part of the pleasure of travel is to be able to take in the sights, smells and textures of the local culture through their markets. My plan was not only to look, but also to buy some souvenirs. I was quickly realizing that shopping here would reveal unexpected psychological difficulties for me. At home in Minnesota, I was used to fitting into my surroundings to such an extent that I was nearly invisible. As a white American in Ghana, however, invisibility was not an option.
I traveled to Accra, Ghana in May of 2006 to present a paper at the African Literature Association Conference. I am an English professor and although my specialty is American literature, I have read a significant amount of African fiction and I have long been interested in the art and culture of the region. This was my first visit to sub-Saharan Africa, and I was looking forward to making connections with local people. I was certainly meeting many people in this shopping center and we quickly became close—physically close, that is. This was not what I had in mind, though. I was hoping to be seen as an individual, not simply a walking cash machine.
As I walked on, some of the hawkers would drift away, while others would take their place. I stopped at one particular stall to admire the fertility dolls. I picked one up to admire it. I wanted to know more about the origin of these dolls. Which ethnic group were they from? The Ashanti? The Ewe? Or were they widespread among the myriad of peoples making up Ghana? How were they used?
I was about to ask the man tending the shop some of these questions. Before I could do so, though, he said to me, “Because you are my mother, I will give you a special deal.” His mother! Offended, I quickly left the stall. I had gotten used to being everybody’s sister, but I was not ready claim this grown man as my son. I was far too young (in my mind at least) for that.
I moved on to the next stall, which carried a wide variety of traditional African masks. I knew very little about masks, and was afraid of buying one that would bring a curse upon my house. I asked the salesman what the masks meant.
“I am looking for something to bring me good luck,” I said.
“My sister,” he responded. “If you buy these masks you will bring ME good luck.
I laughed at his response. As much as I wanted to bring him good luck, though, I was feeling too overwhelmed by all of the new sensations and the constant attention to continue shopping at this point. Although I had been in the city for less than two hours, I desperately needed some invisible time. I found at least partial refuge in a café bordering the market. As I sat on the shaded porch sipping my Pepsi, I began to breathe easier. There was only a railing separating me from the crowds, but behind it, I felt safer.
I learned later that this market has a reputation for particularly aggressive salesmen. Although my time at the market was perhaps the most extreme experience in terms of numbers of hawkers, I found that any time Westerners stepped out of the protected confines of the five star hotel or tour bus, we were the center of unwanted attention. Intellectually, I perfectly understood that the Ghanaians were desperately poor in comparison to the American middle-class tourists and that they were simply trying to make a living. Because of my academic background, I was acutely aware of the power dynamics between Westerners and formerly colonized peoples. When reading books by African authors, it was very easy for me to identify with the African characters and to feel outraged by the arrogance and unearned privileges of the whites. I learned to despise the colonizers, especially those who led luxurious lives in their white enclaves, completely separate from the African people—except for their servants, of course. I was always on Okonkwo’s side. I was finding, however, that it was easier to make human connections through the books I read than it was with the real people I was meeting.
This became even more clear to me the time I decided to go for a walk along the beach. The narrow strip of sand along the waterfront did not belong to the hotel; it was public property. A tall wrought-iron fence separated the beach from the hotel; the gate was zealously guarded to keep out non-paying guests. I walked on the warm sand, happy to be taking in the breathtaking spectacle of the Atlantic ocean shimmering in the sunlight. I noticed numerous small stands and businesses lining the beach. The proprietors motioned to me to come check out their goods, but for the most part they left me alone physically.
Within a few minutes, however, a tall, muscular young man walked up to me and began following me.
“Hello? How are you? Where are you from?” he asked.
I answered his questions briefly and kept walking. He was not carrying anything to sell, so I was confused by his presence. I did not know what he wanted from me. If he was selling something, I did not know what it was. Surely he was not trying to pick me up; he must have been twenty years younger than me.
He continued to talk about himself and ask questions about me. I thought that my minimal responses and closed body language would be enough to make him go away, but I was wrong. I think of myself as a nice person and did not want to give offense, but I did not know the social codes of the culture. If I told him explicitly to go away would it be taken as a sign of racism? Not knowing how to get rid of him politely, I simply continued to walk. He continued to walk alongside me.
After awhile, we came to a very shallow stream of water. The water came up to my knees, if that. The man motioned for me to get on his back.
“I will carry you across,” he said.
Are you nuts? I thought. You can’t really expect me to hop on your back. Can you?
But I merely replied, “No, thank you,” I said. “I can walk across myself.”
He looked offended. “You think I cannot carry you. You do not know that I am a man.”
I was very aware that he was a man; that was exactly the problem, but I just said, “I am fine” as I slogged through the shallow water.
“Now your feet are wet,” he said sadly, shaking his head, once I made it across the stream.
I continued walking for a few minutes, but then I turned back. I was becoming more and more uncomfortable and wanted to go back to the hotel. When we got back to the main beach, he motioned for me to follow him into a restaurant. Because it was in between meal times, there were no customers in the cool darkness of the building. The man spoke briefly to a woman who was working there. I surmised that this was his restaurant, or at least that he worked here and that his goal was to get me to buy a meal here. If so, it seemed like a lot of work for one customer.
He motioned for me to follow him to the back part of the main room, where he turned on a low faucet for me to wash my feet. This seemed like an odd thing to do, but still eager to avoid offense, I walked to the faucet and took off my sandals. For a moment, I enjoyed the feel of the water on my legs. But then, the man until he bent down and started rubbing my feet, trying to wash them for me. I stiffened and pulled back from the water. What was he doing? I wondered. By this point, my need to get away trumped my need to avoid offense.
“I have to go now,” I said and started to walk away.
“Stay and have some lunch,” he replied. “The food is excellent.”
“No, thank you,” I said. “I really need to get back to the hotel.”
I was not lying. By this point, I was desperate for the psychological safety of the hotel. I hurried up the gentle slope to the hotel gate. As I did so, I was followed by several hawkers selling their paintings. Normally, I would be interested in looking at the paintings and might have purchased one. At this point, however, I needed to get away and was relieved when the hotel guard let me in the gate. When I looked back on the beach, I saw that some of the men were pressed up against the fence, continuing their sales pitch through the bars.
Because I was on one side of the bars and they were on the other, the scene reminded me of a zoo. However, I’m not sure who was on display and who was being watched. Perhaps Western tourists like me were like exotic creatures—like Panda bears, perhaps–best kept behind locked gates.
As I slunk back to the safety of the hotel, I felt simultaneously relieved and disappointed in myself. Surely, it must be possible to make genuine connections with local people. I, however, had failed to do so. Because of the fraught history and massive economic differences, the Ghanaians saw me as a target and I saw them as harassers. Like the colonialists of the past whom I had always despised, I sought refuge from harsh reality in the protected confines of economic privilege.
Part I of Debra’s Excellent Adventures in Palestinian Cooking
While in Bethlehem, I am living in a fully furnished apartment by myself. This is a good situation, except at feeding times. There is no room service to bring me over-priced spaghetti, and no hotel restaurant for my immediate caloric gratification. It seems that I have to do something I’ve only read about in foreign novels: cook for myself. Of course, I shouldn’t exaggerate. I do cook for myself at home. But for me, “cooking for myself” equals “putting frozen food-like product in microwave and pushing button.”
Alas, my kitchen here does not have a microwave. I do not know if this is because it is a mere rental, or if this shocking lack of a basic human necessity is shared by all members of the Palestinian community. In any case, I quickly realized I needed to find another source of cooking heat, unless I wanted to eat raw stray cats for dinner. My landlord pointed out a large white object on top of which were four dark circles covered by dark iron lines in the shape of a star. The side of the object could be opened, and items could be placed inside of it. I thought at first this was some sort of exotic religious contraption used for sacrifices and perhaps the burning of frankincense and myrrh. However, my landlord explained to me that this is called an OVEN and a STOVE. It looks something like this:
He explained that when used properly, the OVEN and STOVE can be an invaluable tool for heating up food. Hmmm. Interesting. I figured it wouldn’t hurt to give it a try.
The next step was to find some food to insert into this contraption. My landlord told me that there is a supermarket only a block away, so finding food would not be a problem. I walked to the market, expecting an equivalent of Kowalksi’s or the Target grocery section, except perhaps with more hummus. However, Supermarket Khleif (pronounced like you are trying to rid your throat of a foreign object) was not exactly the same as the grocery stores at home. First of all, it was much smaller—maybe five aisles instead of 35. I could forgive the size, but I was shocked to learn that everything was in Arabic rather than in English. What are these people thinking?
Well, I figured I would just go to the produce section and grab some stuff from the salad bar. I don’t need language skills for that. Hmmmmm….where is the salad bar? Ummmm, where is the produce? I circled the store several times looking for fresh fruits and vegetables and couldn’t find any. Do they not eat produce in Bethlehem? Is there some religious prohibition against salad? I was perplexed and starting to panic. Well, I would get some protein instead. Where was the dead animal section? I couldn’t see any boneless, skinless, free-range, antibiotic-free chicken breasts anywhere. What exactly do people eat here?
The aisles were full of stuff in packages, but I didn’t know what most of it was, or what to do with it if I did know. It seemed that there was one full aisle of crackers, cookies, candies and other fun stuff. I backed away slowly to avoid temptation. Other aisles contained pure mystery and I started to have dark fantasies about needing to walk the streets of Bethlehem at night, armed with a steak knife, looking for prey to kill simply in order to survive. I would be arrested for terrorism when really I just wanted a nice big salad with chicken breast meat and perhaps some Balsamic Vinaigrette. Then I had the bright idea of frozen food. Frozen dinners are a universal, right? I’d just get a few Lean Cuisines and insert them into the thing called OVEN.
Or not. I could not find any frozen dinners either. In what state of barbarianism do these people live? By this time, I was in a state of pure panic, bordering on tears. Fortunately, I found the refrigerated section and I recognized a few things. That stuff looked like hummus; I grabbed it. That white stuff looked familiar. Could it be yogurt? Good. And look! They had Laughing Cow cheese wedges—truly a universal product. I started to breathe easier. If I could just find some bread, I would have dinner tonight.
Where was the freaking bread? They had to have bread! I decided to ask for help. I went up to the man behind the counter and wished him peace, if God were willing to grant it. He wished the same for me. I searched frantically in my brain’s weak Arabic files for how to say “bread.” My most recent Arabic lessons came to mind instead: Waladee Ta’mal fil umammil motaheeda and Rooseea Balad KaBeer Jiddan.I decided, however, that “My father works at the United Nations” and “Russia is a very big country” would not be helpful at this juncture.
Finally, I remembered the Arabic word for “bread” and I expelled the sound “chubz???” The clerks said, “Na’am” and pointed behind me to a stack of pita bread. I thanked him, bought the bread, hummus and cheese, and made a hasty retreat. Dinner was ready
The Golden Palace Perfume Shop beckons like an enchanted fairytale retreat after the noise and grime of the Cairo streets. We are seated on plump cushioned chairs and offered heavily sweetened tea by our host, Mahmoud. The mirrored walls are lined with glass shelves on which rest hundreds of delicately curved perfume bottles in hues of pale blues, greens and reds. The golden accents shimmering in the mirror overwhelm my senses and I close my eyes to get my bearings. Despite the enchanted feeling of this getaway, however, I am feeling far too wrinkled, frumpy and middle-aged to be a fairytale princess, especially since my hair, face and clothes are covered with a thick layer of sand whipped up by the Egyptian winds. As I sip my tea, I pray that I can make it out of the shop without breaking any of the bottles.
It is March of 2003, just days before President Bush orders the bombs to be dropped on Iraq, and I have chosen to travel to a Muslim country, despite the protests of friends and family. I am here with dozens of scholars from around the world to presentb a paper to the African Literature Association conference in Alexandria. We are spending two days in Cairo as tourists before the conference begins.
After we have had time to sip our tea and get comfortable, Mahmoud brings out the first set of essential oils for us to try. He explains how these oils are made and boasts that they are far more concentrated than, and thus superior to, the perfumes one buys in stores. Certainly, he sniffed, these perfumes are far superior to the bottles sold in barbaric fragrance outposts such as France.
Mahmoud brings around little vials and rubs drops of the oil onto our wrists. I am most impressed with “Secret of the Desert,” a subtle, earthy fragrance. Mahmoud explains to us that this was the perfume Cleopatra favored and which was the key to her success with men.
“Men will be unable to resist your powers if you wear this perfume,” Mahmoud promised us.
“Is that a guarantee?” I asked.
“If it doesn’t work, bring it back and I will personally verify its powers,” he said, winking. Everybody laughed.
Choosing to trust in the wisdom of Cleopatra and the guarantee of Mahmoud, I decide to purchase “Secret of the Desert.” As I wait in line to pay for my purchase, I think about my experiences so far in Egypt. Although I was not scared enough about bombs and potential terrorists to stay away from Egypt, I admit to being uneasy in a Muslim country at this time. So far, the people have been remarkably warm and welcoming, but still, I can’t help but think of the tourists who were murdered a few years back. Despite our constant police escorts, it could easily happen to us.
It is my turn to pay for my purchase. I hand the man behind the counter my credit card. While swiping my plastic, he smiles at me and asks where I am from. I hesitate in my reply. I do not want to say the United States because I feel so horrified about the impending bombs and ashamed to American. I consider lying, maybe claiming Canada or Germany as my home, but that doesn’t feel right.
“Minnesota,” I say.
He looks a little puzzled and responds, “I’ll need to see your identification.”
I hand him my license with trepidation. He places it in his shirt pocket.
Alarms go off in my mind. Why does he need my ID? Is there a problem with my credit card? No, the sale went through without a problem. It must be because he knows I am an infidel from an imperialistic Satanic power-crazed country and therefore I must be punished. I bet he is going to share my driver’s license with his terrorist friends, all of whom are Al-Qaida operatives. They will put me on the hit list of unveiled brazen hussy infidel s who must be stoned to death. My mother was right; I should never have come here.
Then he looks down at the license and said, “No, you are not from Minnesota. You are from heaven.”
For a few moments, I am utterly confused. Why would I be from heaven? Isn’t he the one who will go to heaven for murdering me? I stare at him, speechless.
He is smiling and winking at me.
Then he hands me back my driver’s license, along with a card with his name and phone number written on it.
“Call me,” he says.
Finally, it dawns on my jetlagged brain: he is flirting with me. Cleopatra was right; this perfume really works!
I feel a huge surge of relief. I beam at him with happiness, but not for the reason he is hoping. I am not going to die, at least not today, at least not at the hands of this man. I have been so obsessed with geopolitics that I have lost sight of a basic truth: commerce and seduction will always trump war. Even Cleopatra knew this.