Somewhere in Addis there is a house as old as me. All I ever had to do with regards to it was just live in there, stay cute, and be on my best behaviour, sorta like this:
Until recently, that is. Decades since I last set foot in the yard, I was tasked with getting a document concerning this house processed at the Ethiopian Consulate here in Toronto. At the thought of handling this guday, I believe most of my body seized up and I found it a little harder to breathe.
It’s not that I was scared of the house, although I’ve heard that it has magical properties. I use “properties” intentionally. According to the land tax office, the size of the land on which the house sits has somehow expanded by some square metres in the past years, give or take a few hundred. Now that’s some supernatural shite.
It’s not that I was scared of tax and suchlike departments either, though I have good reason to be. A long time ago on a summer visit home, I remember mazer went out one morning and was gone for the whole day and came back looking waaay less than pleased. Turns out she’d been at the land tax place. I immediately said that she should have taken me with her, so I could start to learn the ropes of Addis municipal bureaucracy, but she said she never wanted me to see “such a place”, nor “such a side” of our people. Ok then. I safely assumed we weren’t talking about the “side”s that show up on tourism ads.
And nor was I scared of any other back home related stuff. Although, again I have good reason to be. Once, I broached the subject of coning back to Addis long term to fazer. Not even broach, nothing like a serious discussion, just an aside during some other conversation. Something along the lines of “Yeah, maybe I’ll work here sometime.”
His mood sank, like a stone. Clouds rolled in, his face darkened and took on that expression. I can count in one hand the number of times I’ve seen that expression in my life, none of which are times I like to revisit. Instant keremt. No need to continue the conversation. The message was clear: cease this line of thinking, yesterday.
No, what freaked me out about the task was going to the Consulate. Reason: I didn’t know which ‘code’ applied. As in, which code of behaviour: a common nightmare of .5ers worldwide (at least that’s what I like to think, otherwise it’s just me – a craycray majority of one). I can navigate the Canadian system – and by extension the Western one – without a hitch. I know when to be nice, when to bring out the claws. But the Consulate was another matter. To me, it represented a sort of no-man’s land, kinda like an Ethio restaurant, where the back home rules sort of apply but sort of don’t. Except a legal document concerning real estate is not the same as a combo meal. For one, you don’t expect to have to make it up yourself.
Now, logic would indicate that I shouldn’t even blink at the thought of going into a consulate, since I am the proud offspring of a career diplomat. But growing up I always steered clear of his office and staff so that a Consulate office remained as strange, as much an extraterritory to me, as to the average citizen/native-born foreigner.
So, days before it relocated to Ottawa, I gathered all the papers and payment required and found my way to the Toronto Consulate. As the subway inched up the Yonge line towards Lawrence, my stop, my emotional state was something akin to this:
At the front end, with the intake and appointment to pick up the document, it was a matter of 5 minutes tops. At the back end, with the output of desired documents, well…The short version is that I stayed there all morning, rather than come back at zetegn se’at (the original appointment) which, as I was most unpleasantly surprised to learn, did not mean 9am but, rather, 3pm. But hey, who’s counting? Not this diASSporita!
The long version? I had to hand write the whole document – a full page – in Amharic. A little sympathy please, I did not go through the Ethio high school system. Try it sometime, even if you don’t write Amharic, just reprint the characters by hand. After all, each one is an exquisite little picture! Such fun! You’ll get a very good feel for the meaning of long version.
Oh, and if that isn’t enough to remember it all by, I had this very amusing exchange with a Very Unhappy (I’m assuming) Older Habesha Man standing outside the doors of the Consulate when I arrived that morning:
Me (after stepping off the elevator): Selam.
Very Unhappy Older Habesha Man says nothing.
Me: Is the door locked?
VUOHM: I’m standing here. So I guess I don’t know.
Me: They’re supposed to open at 9, right?
VUOHM: That’s what I know. But we’re standing here, as you see, so maybe we don’t know. Try it, maybe you’ll find something I don’t know.
Me: Okkk. I have 9:10 on my watch.
VUOHM: Try it! Try the door! My watch says 9, but what do I know?
Me (hand on the door knob, using the respectful version of ‘you’): Did YOU try the door?
VUOHM: (slightly taken aback, as any 60 year old acting like a 6 year old would be): It is locked. But it’s possible that I’m wrong, right? It’s possible to read the watch wrong. As you see, I’m standing here.
(I turn the doorknob and find it locked.)
VUOHM (like someone who won a major legal battle): So you see! It is locked. That must mean, like my watch says –
At this point I tuned him out. That’s another side effect of not going through the Ethio high school system: one has minimal appreciation of the nuances of Amharic double entendre a.k.a condescension, preferring the simplicity of the latest doings of Kim and Kanye as reported in the free daily. So, I snapped my magazine open and tuned the gray fella out.
I’m going to file all the above under “preview”. I may not have had my back home visits tainted by guday yet, the sort of “matters” that the grown-grown folks (balegudayoch) seem have to do (buy/sell/rent/build a house, argue/win/lose some house-related court case, etc etc.) But I hope that I’ve at least got the necessary “code” embedded somewhere in my DNA and that it comes back to me, like riding a bike (except I never graduated past a tricycle). As far as I know, the code goes more or less like this: argue your case but remain deferential as if the department which is there to serve you is actually doing you a favour. At the same time, be mean and even a little rude about it. Otherwise, goodbye respect. It’s what most of us are in for, sooner or later- the twisty/delicate red tape dance guaranteed to give one muscle tension for days after.
But no worries, there’s a spa on every corner! And for every such place where the c**t of a receptionist turns you away even though, hours earlier, you had practically begged the same *un* of a receptionist to allow you to make an advance reservation, there’s also a fresh juice bar on every corner – with or without wheatgrass – to wipe your tears and smoothie your increased blood pressure away.
It’s like they knew we were coming.