Ethiopian Identity / Family / Immigrant Life / Writing and Reading

Memory Lane

Today, in commemoration of  Austrian National Day which also happens to be when, twenty years ago, I unsuspectingly stepped aboard this vehicule de transport

and set off an adventure beyond my wildest imaginations – one that continues to this day – I offer up this little attempt at immortality which I penned thirteen years into said adventure.

LEAVING HOME

Night.

I set the alarm and go to sleep.

To bed a temporary worker tonight.

(Skilled worker, thankyouverymuch.)

To bed a permanent resident tomorrow.

Leaving home,

as it turns out,

was not the tragedy

I had made it out to be after all.

Later that night.

I make a trip to the bathroom.

Leaving home

turned out

to not have been

the great tragedy

I had made it out to be.

Still later that night.

I turn in my sleep.

Leaving home

was not

a great tragedy

after all.

 

Morning. The big day.

The alarm rings.

As it turns out,

leaving home was not the tragedy of mythic…

Ring!

… proportions

Ring! Ring!

that you had made it out to be.

 

Leaving home

was a great tragedy.

I hit snooze.

Leaving home,

as it turns out,

was a great tragedy.

Ring! Ring! Ring!

SNOOZE

Leaving home

turned out to be

a tragedy

of mythic proportions.

Ring! Ring! Ring! Ring!

 

I turn it off and stretch.

After all,

leaving home was a great tragedy.

I get up and head to the bathroom.

Leaving home has turned out to be

the great tragedy of mythic proportions

I had sensed it was all along.

I wash my face at the sink.

For one thing,

the time before the leaving is a blur.

Twelve years of oblivion.

That time is, at best, a guess.

As is the misremembering of it,

in a tongue inappropriate for the purpose.

I brush my teeth.

To beautifully and clearly express that experience of leaving

requires that the experience have been beautiful and clear.

I rinse my mouth.

The episode having been strange and remaining so,

it is thus that the expression of it manifests itself.

I dry my face.

Is it the same experience you are describing

when the language you are using to describe it

was not a language you had

at the time you were having that experience?

(We haven’t forgotten the low of that first C + mark in English

…despite the high of winning the spelling bee in the same year.)

I do a zit-scan.

The leaving of language and the coming home of time.

Enough!

I undress.

Enough of this!

This pseudo-thesis.

Water on, wet.

Everything said here is false,

said in a false language,

imagined in a bastardized consciousness.

Water off, lather.

Sure, leaving home in itself,

as it turns out,

was not the tragedy you had made it out to be.

Water on, rinse.

But now you write, speak, think, feel and exist

in a borrowed language.

A language in the use of which

you are painfully proficient.

That, and you can’t stop counting the passage of time,

warily watching the scale in your mind’s eye

tipping dangerously on the side that collects the passing years.

Water off, dry.

Language and time: these, rather, are the true tragedies.

You lose language,

only to find time,

and you never quite finish searching for home.

To dress, what to wear?

Strangely enough,

distance never comes up as an issue.

Just language, and time.

Not young enough to not remember,

yet time is warped, and everything is a blur.

What to wear?

Something fancy?

Something blasé?

To approximate experience,

to approximate duration,

is a blur.

Breakfast?

You can’t remember who was there and who wasn’t,

you can’t remember how long it took or didn’t

in relation to this that him her or me.

Forget it,

head on out to bus station and make the big day happen.

“Life: Part B” awaits.

This life is a play.

That life remains to be lived out.

This life is but an adventurous detour.

Hit play.

Act One

Once upon a time,

in house number 523 in the

Bole (bow-lay) neighborhood of Addis,

District 19

2nd in from the main street,

aloe plant to the right of the light grey gate,

with a yard in front and back,

dotted with bougainvillea

three bedrooms, living & dining room,

two baths, two kitchens

garage, garden, service quarters.

Large parts filled with family

come to bid farewell.

They say I cried.

Hard.

I don’t remember.

The day my mother,

though she had never been drunk,

looked blurred to me.

My mother had never been drunk a day in her life,

but to me she looked blurred that day.

But, funnily enough,

 it was I who lost the sense of time.

What I’m trying to say is…

I cried dammit.

Hard.

They say.

Try to avoid all the clichés.

Remember, everything said here is false,

in the wrong language.

What was the place called again, Venice?

Was it months or days of knowing?

The goodbyes at school seemed to happen quickly, in a rush.

Yet there was a long itemized list

of every thing in the house.

Charts indicating

which one had been sold.

Strangers looking inside our home,

in all the rooms.

One day they came during laundry.

Did all that take months, weeks, days?

Couldn’t have been days, weeks, months.

You deserved to know earlier.

I deserved to know earlier.

We deserved to know earlier.

Act Two

The New World.

Shiny and clean!

Like I had always heard it told

by those who had gone “outside”.

The floors in the airport are like mirrors!

Everything sparkles!

In transit.

Dinner is served.

With it my sense of awe

comes to a screeching halt.

Sense of fear

picks up where it left off.

Dinner didn’t sparkle.

Dinner didn’t shine.

Who knows if dinner was clean?

It sat there.

Light, airy, paper-thin sheets of meat

resting atop funny colored lettuce.

Somebody forget the sauce?

Final stop.

So, this is all it’s cracked up to be now?

Kinda quiet, for an airport.

Oh it’s a holiday,

and this is the VIP part.

So, this is home now?

What is our mailing address?

So many letters to be written.

Time suddenly becomes clearly defined

but emotions are elusive.

So, I’m the new kid now?

So, preteen girls wear bras here?

, and deodorant?

, and stockings?

, and boyfriends?

, and crushes?

In a city of white faces

our presence makes some people shift away

ever so slightly in their seats,

or stare,

or become overly friendly.

In any case, it is always an event

of some sort.

Events.

Keeping careful count of the years.

An act of the heart that knows this is not home.

An act foreign to any other heart that, being at home,

would never do such a thing,

Never having considered the possibility of leaving.

Now, time is filled with events.

And soon enough, eventually,

I too become

one of the old-timers.

Over four years spent in a school

intended for the offspring of American missionaries,

I absorb Bake sales, Halloween, Thanksgiving, Sleepovers

and other fine ancient traditions.

I make friends with a girl who,

every time she touches me,

surreptitiously wipes her palms.

A good Christian who hisses

“fuck!”

when she thinks no one is listening.

For my part, my heart wrenching,

well-rehearsed answer to the customary

“So, when did you accept Jesus into your heart?”

approaches divine flawlessness.

Though I couldn’t answer now if my life depended on it. 

On the side, precarious alliances are formed,

cemented by alcohol and a love of fashion,

and slightly similar temperaments,

not to mention skin shades.

Jealousies abound.

But the goodbyes are no less tearful.

That was a place called Vienna.

(approximately)

 

Intermission.

Well, if time was a blur then,

as all things were a blur,

it is only too defined now.

Far too defined.

Years too clearly marked for the counting by seasons,

one unmistakably distinct from the other,

easy to add up when they recur

over and over again.

Each waiting its turn.

Unfortunately, time is too clear now,

all too clear.

Act Three

Same New World, different setting.

So, I’m the new kid again!

This bit isn’t so hard anymore.

I remember how to do this.

I adapt instantly.

Everyone looks different from everyone here.

We’re foreigners of all persuasions.

So, this is what “international” is like.

For two years I gorge myself on

NepaliGhanaianBhutaneseIndonesianJapanese

NigerianChineseBrazilianKoreanGerman

TanzanianIrishDanishRussian

ThaiIranianCosta RicanTurkishScottish and Italian

people.

Tying us all together is Bob Marley

and his steady companion the natural mystic.

Not surprisingly, hearts melt, legs spread, and horizons expand.

That was a place called Geneva.

(approximately)

Act Four

So.

Here I arrive in Canada,

and all everyone ever talks about is,

Canada.

Canada this, Canada that.

As if stopping momentarily

might cause it to vanish.

So,

strangely enough,

an ally is found in a lone…American.

Back to square one!

And we watch all them

Canadians

Practically foaming at the mouth

about

Canada.

Canadian this, Canadian that.

About the need to preserve it all.

About it being our mission.

While puffing on their ultra-light toy cigarettes.

Excuse me?

“I only came here ‘cause America’s too wacky!”

I tell my American friend.

She concurs, though without apology.

And here come the damned September introductions.

Where I, who arrived in Canada via Switzerland, become,

miraculously,

from Switzerland

to collective gasps

and awed expressions.

Acceptably exotic.

A perfect approximation of experience.

I have finally approximated experience!

“I am from Switzerland.”

It is a technical truth.

End of story.

Gawk and move on around the circle,

Canatics – Go Canada!and chain smokers everywhere.

And well it was all a blurry trip downhill from there.

Mister Marley and the Mystic wedded with

Wonderful Whiteness of daily being

in holy chaos.

That was a place called Canada.

(approximately)

 

Act Five

Toronto.

The place you land when

you’re done hovering just at the edge of Yorkdale mall

and finally fall off Campus,

so far confused with Canada.

The place you come home to when

you’re done swimming in the waters of Sameness

and emerge into Diversity-

to date confused with Belonging.

While I remain flung,

body from spirit,

across an ocean crisscrossed countless times

but rarely going back over

the route that follows a jungle,

a desert,

a rift,

and a valley home.

Through it all,

the one constant remains my trip back home

every three years.

When,

retracing that route for the summer,

tragedy strikes again.

A double blow this time.

Leaving home knowing only of home and then

coming home knowing of the “outside”.

Perfectly able to see, with my two new eyes

what has become

of me

and what could have become

of me.

Sensing that I will live to disappoint us

both.

Knowing I can’t stay.

Knowing I can’t go.

 

Act Six

So.

So, I hear I’m a “landed” immigrant now?

Need to exit the country

just so I can turn around and come back in,

making it official,

this time with my head held high.

Because I can’t afford to have blurred vision today.

Landed.

This entails: staying put

like never before.

Taking root,

ending the global gallivant.

Bearing fruit,

girl-boy-girl, but here?!

And making loot,

if that is what it was all about.

So that,

come tragedy time again,

I’ll have something to show for it.

Goodbye stupid questions,

Goodbye visa applications,

Goodbye campus jobs,

Goodbye 9something SIN numbers,

Citizenship, here I come!

 

Act Seven

In 2005, the year of balanced scales,

25 years into my life,

I pay my 25 cents and step to Niagara Falls.

   Application for Landing: $975

Immigration lawyer fee: $3000

Round trip bus ticket to Niagara Falls: $40

Picking up Confirmation of Landing…

25 cents.

To pass through a turnstile to access a bridge

that links the Canadian border with the American border.

A bridge that yawns over Niagara Falls.

Quite similar but pale in comparison to the great Blue Nile Falls,

Tis Isat – the Smoke of Fire … back home…

I wonder if maybe a trace of that has trickled down all the way here

and is to be found, however diluted, in the waters above which I walk.

After all, water            links everything.

 

Maybe the water from Tis Isat

washed down to Egypt,

then into the Mediterranean

then into the Atlantic Ocean

and then into whatever river-

St. Lawrence, duh.

– ends up becoming whatever lake-

Lake Ontario, jeez.

-turns into Niagara Falls.

In that case,

I an’ I are being baptized by fragments of home,

politics and all, as we eagerly make our way

on possibly the cheapest and shortest trip

we will ever have or ever will make to the US.

The Falls are nice bladiblah. Warm day. Also sunny. Waters are…watery. Cars drive both ways. People walk. I walk. It takes longer than I expected. I go into the  US border office. She fiddles with my passport. Sends me back with a document. Says I was “denied entry” into the US. Weird. I guess that is what it is supposed to say. On the way back I want something more to remember it with.            More than a bus ticket stub. I happen to have a camera on me. I think to ask one of the people to take a picture of me. Decide that is too pathetic. So I choose a spot just at the end of the bridge on the Canadian side, and an angle to get both the falls and the border office in one frame. I bring the camera to my eye and through the lens I see

God’s temperate steam bath.

Tis Isat, the smoke of an invisible fire.

Sheet of brown glass exploding into a mass of white cotton fury.

Clouds born of mud.

White shape-shifting angels breathing mist.

Layers of it caressing the skin, even from this distance.

A depth terrifying in its completeness.

A magnificence too great to take in all at once.

It grows on you bit by bit. I heard it before I saw it. The earth beneath my feet became moist and began to give in under my step long before we finished crossing the ancient bridge, climbing the hill dotted with huts out of which poked dusty little children with just a tuft of hair at their temples and the holy string around their necks. On the way to the peak we passed snapshots of it, gentle teases, captured by a frame of leaves, summarizing this marvel of nature in its entirety.

A few more steps to the clearing and there it was across the divide – the Smoke of Fire – performing on its own dignified stage. The humble audience kept at a respectful distance by a gorge of an orchestra pit that thundered its own symphony of mud, mist, water, bones, blood, and history.

 It poured its soul into an abyss that scorched it with its embrace and returned it to the air in a million fragments.

 

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