Paper towels take the cake, as far as most outrageous “can you bring me [fill in the blank] from intina?” request that us diasporas get from our friends and family back home when word gets out that we’re going over for a visit soon. On the scale of one to ten, the top secret status of such a travel plan should be a twelve, if you have any hope in hell of keeping your luggage somewhere in the vicinity of the maximum weight allowance. And yet, containing the information is next to impossible. Often, you yourself are to blame because you just couldn’t keep mum about your excitement re: your upcoming trip. It’s like the first time every time.
Add to that the “can you take [fill in the blank] for my intina?” requests that you get from your own friends and family on this side of the water, and it’s a miracle if you can find a little corner of luggage space for maybe a change of socks and your toothbrush. But it’s hard – impossible – to say no. Equivalent to scrunching up your face and turning away when the priest comes at you with his cross outstretched at just enough of a low level so that you have to bow deep to execute the holy headbutt-kiss-kiss.
The flow of goods west to east can involve just about any manufactured good on the face of the earth, down to the most ridiculous (see above). But when it comes to the flow of goods east to west, it’s pretty standard: food ingredients, prepared food, semi-prepared food, herbs and spices, décor, and of course habesha kemis. In sum, just about anything that might be needed for those big life moments, (excepting death, unless you’re particular about a brand new netela in which to dispatch your beloved modestly into the afterlife): births, weddings, and the biggie that (ideally) precedes them all: graduation.
I have long lost the desire to come back with what I will call habesha munchies n’ paraphernalia. And I’m pretty good at keeping my mouth shut when it’s my turn for ET 503 (501 if you’re D.C.). Gone are the days when, returning to Toronto, I used to pack enough of everything to open a little souvenir store. And I have finally solidified my line of defense against the munchies category of import – mainly on the grounds that it doesn’t come with that other essential: someone to transform what’s in all the little packets and containers into actual food, whether or not it resembles the real deal. This was after it became known that what I was forced to take back lived in my freezer for years. (Now I make two exceptions: beso and kinche. But as of my last journey, kinche has been knocked off the list on account of my having discovered that it’s just plain old bulgur wheat. Beso stays, on account it is easy as Quaker Instant.)
This being the (just ended) graduation season, I have been reminded of the one time when I put in a specific, special order from back home. That big ask was for my own pompous and circumstantial walk down the academic aisle “several” years ago.
I had had a dress made, and not just any common dress, but a habesha kemis, and not just any habesha kemis, but one with the Queen Saba design (which was hot at the time, don’t know if it still is). It was accessorized – also courtesy of the mucho proud parental units – with a set of banging gold bling and a watch (which since then I frankly haven’t been able to bring myself to wear more than a handful of times, on account I am neither a corporate lawyer or Wall Street sharkette).
On the big day, I had assumed that everyone I had spent the last four years with would also be doing some version of such transformation. I was gobsmacked, therefore, to see my classmates shuffling off to the marching lineup in exactly the same jeans and t-shirts and tangled hair that I had seen them shuffle to lecture all year. In a past post, I’ve mentioned FOB-4-Life moments, when you realize how deeply different you remain from the people you eat, bathe and breathe with. Graduation time definitely qualified as an FOB-4-Life moment.
That memory came back recently. On my daily to-and-fro to the gainful employment (with desktop computer and phone extension and filing cabinets and all) which I have somehow weaseled my way into despite my higher education, I pass through the campus of the appropriately leafy antique University of Toronto (the place I wish I had attended so that it wouldn’t have taken me four years to discover downtown Toronto). As I made my way through the graduation hubbub, I began amusing myself by guessing how fast and with how much certainty I could spot immigrant families of the graduating visa students. It turned out to be too easy: immigrant/visa mom and dad, or the oldest members of the group, will be gazing up and all around with the sort of awed expression that most people reserve for when visiting historic sites or cathedrals on Europe trips, their faces fixed in bliss, with a look in their eyes that says it’s all been worth it. And, guaranteed, the graduates are wearing traditional garb, or some aspect of their traditional garb. If not, then they are at least really really really dressed up like they are going to a wedding. The Africans are likely to do one better and actually coordinate their outfits family-wide.
Of course, other families looked nice too, but just a casual, dinner party nice, not a We’re making history nice. And that’s just it. It’s too easy to forget that our generation is, if not the first, only the second to finish university. Often, we are also the first to do so in the West. That quietly (and not so quietly) happy mood on which the parents/elders float through the graduation day is about that. For some, I imagine it also has something to do with living out a graduation day that they never got to experience for themselves. If they went abroad to earn second degrees, as my parents did, it was often after they had married. They would have left little ones (my generation) at home in the care of spouses and extended family, so staying an extra month or two after all the coursework was completed, just to attend a graduation day at which no family could be present was neither desirable nor an option. They returned home right away and their degrees followed in the mail. Walking that grass on the day of roses and framing stalls and big white tents must be a double, delayed satisfaction for them. And the extra care taken with appearance for themselves as much as for us.
That day when I had my own delayed culture shock, I had a good time feeling culturally more evolved than my soon-to-be-former classmates. Now, looking back from my current place of weaving through the fancy-frocked on the University of Toronto’s wide open green, I kind of find it a little ironical, a little chuckle-worthy, that those scruffy graduates probably got more mileage out of those very same t-shirts and jeans than I ever did out of that custom-made habesha kemis, and definitely out of the assorted bling, all of which have, for years since, been stored deep in one or other “safe place”. The strappy kitten-heel shoes I wore, also specially purchased for that day and mighty impractical, never made it back on my feet again. My hair, which had also gotten a very special ‘do and/or fancy product application, well that hair has gone and come and gone and come more times than I can remember. The only thing that remains of that day, in fact, is just regular old me, chewing on all kinds of thoughts as I do, and not always from the best places with regards to safety. My fridge constantly rotates nationalities and, looking around at my humble home, you’d have to be a FBI caliber profiler, a true detective, to figure out where I’m ‘from’. And that’s just fine by me. Bring only yourself, I say, ‘cause you can be sure that’s all I will be packing.