Since my last post, quite a few things have changed for our family. We moved into a new apartment. We found some people to help us make those new digs homier. Maya made varsity track for the javelin. Sarah started work. All good topics for posts to come. But I first want to share a recap of an experience I enjoyed over the weekend thanks to a rather random invitation from a new local friend.
While looking for an apartment, we had a non-Ethiopian broker assist us in tracking down places. We’d most likely have been stymied if that broker didn’t come with a savvy, friendly assistant who is Ethiopian. His name is Wedeweson, but everyone calls him “Wendi.” He wears a LA Dodgers ballcap, which I chose not to bust his chops for (they beat my Milwaukee Brewers in seven games last year for the National League Championship).
As luck would have it last Friday on the way back to our new apartment from the grocery store, we saw Wendi on the street. Given that he’s one a handful of Ethiopians we know in Addis, we nearly tackled him with enthusiasm for the random meeting. He explained that his parents live nearby. Seeing Wendi also gave me the chance to practice the Ethiopian manly one-shoulder hug that comes with a friendly handshake. Women tend to initiate the three-cheek-air-kiss. I’m less comfortable with that one, as of now.
After Sarah asked him about his family and plans for the weekend, Wendi invited us to his son’s birthday on Sunday. Because his son was turning 2-years-old, they decided to share the love by holding it at an orphanage that assists HIV-positive kids. The orphanage is named AHOPE Ethiopia, and Wendi described it as a special place that he supports regularly (a not unique form of community involvement for Ethiopians).
The thing we’ve begun to learn about parties or social engagements or just about any scheduled event here is the generally loose nature of “Ethiopian time.” Say things will begin at 3pm? More likely you’re looking at 4:30. Being an obsessively punctual Westerner, I’m adjusting to this local reality. Slowly. And while I’ve not yet unspooled the parameters of when late is too late here, I’m beginning to understand the need to roll with it.
Nearly an hour later than expected, one of the ubiquitous blue and white indy taxis sent by Wendi picked me up at my apartment building. When I got to AHOPE, he met me at the curb with an enthusiastic one-shoulder bro hug (nailed it!). Wendi led me to the party room. An impressive “Happy Birthday 2” array of metallic balloons were hung behind a sound system and platform with two cakes. A handful of songs played on a loop that wouldn’t really change for the next few hours. I met his parents. An especially precocious boy came and leaned onto me, and we connected as best we could with no shared language other than the anticipation of the party arrayed around us. The manager of the orphanage led me on a tour. I would say that I felt totally at ease, but the amount of energy directly my way was a bit overwhelming. As Wendi later reassured me, if you go to a party with twenty Ethiopians and one white person, the attention tends to be lavished upon that outlier. Everyone knows how tough it can be to show up at a party where you know one person who gets tied up talking to other people. Rather than staring at my watch, I decided to steer into the skid (as we’d say in the upper Midwest).
The arrival of the birthday boy, Lewi, swung the party’s energy into full gear. I took pictures, eventually regretting that I’d not brought my new camera. A huge array of food was put out. After all the kids were served, I was offered a plate heaped high and topped with a square portion of spaghetti looking like a perfect sheet cake rectangle. Wendi’s wife (whose name I’m embarrassed to admit not committing to memory) asked if I needed utensils. I said no thank you and then worked my way through it all. Wendi’s father and another nattily-dressed man sat beside me and lapsed into the international sign language of “this is too much food…but I’ll do my best” and “this is really good…maybe I should have some more.” After we finally finished our plates, Wendi’s brother (same deal…missed his name…I need to get much better with Ethiopian names) went around uncapping bottles of soda like a master. He used one upturned bottle as an opener for the other. I could see that trick being a hit at any honkytonk joint worldwide.
Starting with the kids, Wendi’s brother approached each guest and set down the plastic case of returnable bottles before giving the nod for, “what would you like?”
“Coke,” I replied when my turn arose.
A confident grab by the neck of the bottle. A flip of a Fanta, that served as the opener for my Coke. That distinctive “sssp…” sound as the cap released. Followed by a friendly ricochet of that topper tumbling back into the plastic case of other bottles. I simply must practice that two-bottle trick at home soon.
I settled easily into the universal pleasure of watching young kids and adults sipping from cold bottles of soda as the plates were set aside. The action then folded easily into rounds of pictures of Lewi’s happy extended family, as the looping music mercifully came to an end and the chatter echoed throughout the room. By the time the candles were out and the cake was to be cut, I needed to get rolling.
I didn’t really have an appropriate gift for a 2-year-old, but I did select something for Lewi from the small collection of gifts I brought with me to Addis. Without the paper to properly wrap it, I opted instead for a small paper bag from a honey company that I’d gotten at the ICS “Farmers Market” held last Friday. As I handed over my Lewi’s gift, I explained to Wendi and his wife that the Green Bay Packers are my favorite American football team. In retrospect, a one-size-fits-all knit cap for a team and a sport no one ever watches in the Horn of Africa may have been a poor choice. You wouldn’t have known it from their reaction or the seeming sincerity of their thanks. Or maybe they just noticed the small chocolate bar I’d tucked into the bag, knowing that this “ferenge” might need to somehow stick the landing on an otherwise errant routine.
Wendi called a RIDE for me and we chatted at the front door while more and more of his relatives filtered in and out. One of his nieces brought me a piece of cake to eat as I waited. I snapped a picture of her, just as the blue balloon animal she was twirling popped. Wendi and I made plans for another get together, maybe around the upcoming holidays.
I couldn’t thank them all enough for the generosity and welcome. I was back at our apartment not long after I’d told Maya I would be. It didn’t really matter. We’re now all on Ethiopia time. And it works just fine for me.