I remember one of my first evenings in my friend Aicha’s home. She’d invited a small group over and they all stared at me curiously—this pale American, pale eyes, pale hair, wearing her blue muluffa awkwardly. Americans were a rarity in Nouakchott then, and they had plenty of questions for me. I had questions for them, too, and Aicha smiled and brought tea and did her best to introduce me, her new friend, to the world of Mauritanian culture.
That was years ago and half the globe away. But I have never forgotten the kindness with which she helped me enter her world.
There were times, especially the first few years living in Africa, when homesickness would rise in waves. I would worry about my mother. I would miss bookstores and supermarkets and coffee shops. I would look out my windows at the dun, tan, and beige shades of the world, the brazen sky, the strange colours and textures of my new home, and I would long for the greens and greys of Oregon. There were times when I was sick of being stared at as I walked down the street, sick of being cheated in the market, sick of my students arguing with me and my superiors not taking my side, and I would long for a place where everyday life wasn’t so hard. Ironically, the best way to deal with this kind of homesickness is not what you might think. It’s not hunkering inside under a fan with a cup of iced coffee and a good book, although sometimes that’s what you need. But the best way to deal with how alien my new home felt was to get out into it, enjoy its oddities. The best way was to go visit Aicha’s family, or the Moh. Sayeed family, or Hyati or Zainab or Selma. The best thing to do was to get out of the house.
And so now, thinking of that, I decide to take my new Iraqi friend Susi to Starbucks.* Last week, when I was visiting her, she mentioned how much she misses her family. Her sisters, living in Bagdad, are still dealing with war in their every day life. I ask about her mother. “If she was still alive, we wouldn’t have left, no matter what,” she tells me. Her father died when she was a child.
How do Americans treat their friends? What is the best way I can bring her into this culture? I think. And the answer seems obvious. So I call her up and invite her. “Have you ever been to Starbucks?” I ask her, and she says no. I get out the personalized gift card my wonderful sister-in-law sent me for Christmas (which has a drawing of a curly-haired woman with a book in one hand and a cup of coffee in the other) and I pick Susi up at her apartment. Both of our kids are in school still.
We have a nice time. The Starbucks is quite busy, as all of them always, always are. We sit at the counter at first, on hard wooden stools, but soon enough two cushy armchairs open up, with a view out a plate-glass window at people walking by. It’s a cold, crisp day, the sky pale blue, Mount Hood visible in the distance enrobed with snow.
Susi tells me she doesn’t like coffee and avoids caffeine in general. We look at the teas, and she is excited at the word “chai,” which is also the Iraqi word for tea. They make it with cardamom or cinnamon though, and as I read off the ingredients of the Tazo version she tells me she doesn’t like ginger. So she orders a green tea, and I have a chai latte, because I’ve never had one and I want to try it. It’s good although a little too sweet for me. She adds sugar to her tea and claims to enjoy it; she drinks the whole large cup while we sit and chat. Afterwards we wander a nearby sort of mall, and continue chatting. We discuss children, life in Iraq, life in Morocco, husbands, tax structures. Then I drop her off at her apartment and head home across the city.
It’s a small thing, just like the evening at Aicha’s was. And yet, as I know from my own experience, it’s small things like this that can help make a foreign place begin to feel a little more like a place where you might want to be.
*Susi isn’t her real name. Actually, Aicha is not Aicha’s real name either. I like to have my friends’ permission before mentioning them by name on the internet, and without it, I am either vague or I make up a name. I’m hoping my burgeoning friendship with Susi will continue to develop, so I’m giving her an actual name so we don’t all get too confused.