Tastings: Tasting Britain

Fruit Vender in Seoul South Korea (Rosemary Scheibel)

According to Joanna Blythman, an award-winning investigative food journalist and author of Bad Food Britain: How a Nation Ruined Its Appetite, England lives in a fantasy food world. Although cookbooks line kitchen shelves and Jamie Oliver products permeate the grocery stores, this façade obscures reality. Blythman offers some staggering statistics:

In 2003, the British ate more ready-meals than the rest of Europe combined.

69 percent of British people are confused about which foods are healthy.

Only one in five Brits will go out of their way to buy British-produced food if it means paying more for it.

There’s a definite link between the nation’s health and its dependence on ready-made food. The shift from cooking homemade meals to defrosting microwaveable dishes compounds the problem—if the British themselves no longer prepare their own traditional dishes, how can they combat their cuisine’s bad reputation?

In the course “Food, Society, and Culture” that I took in London, I discovered traditional British cuisine. During an in-class tasting, I sampled savory items like pork pies and Cornish pasties, pickled onions and finally sweet treats including digestives, Bakewell tarts, and mince pies.

The classic British crumpet kicked off the sampling. Piping hot and soaked with butter, this breakfast staple resembled a bland pancake. My instructor said the Brits either love or hate crumpets; there is no middle ground. Some of my classmates piled on orange marmalade to add flavor, but this sweet spread still couldn’t compensate for the crumpet’s rubbery texture.

Next up were the pork pies. Their flakey, golden brown pastry shells act as a sealant and preserve the moist meat inside. With this contrast in mind, it’s simple to see why the Brits favor pork pies. To intensify the flavor, most add a dollop of sauce—sweet mango chutney, tomato chutney, or Coleman’s mustard, for example.

Marmite was the curveball of the tasting. High in vitamin B, the sticky spread is made of the waste products (primarily yeast) from brewing beer. Although it looks like thick soy sauce, don’t be fooled. This versatile paste that’s spread on crackers and toast is a bitter, acquired taste. To state it bluntly, I felt like I was ingesting gasoline.

Fortunately, the desserts saved my taste buds. After sampling a sliver of mince pie—which conjured holiday tastes and smells like cranberries, currants, and spices—I realized the British have mastered the art of pairing flavors and textures to complement each other. In the case of mince pies, the pie crust’s understated and rough texture accentuated its sticky and sweet filling.

Two types of digestives—plain and chocolate-coated—came next, and finally, I tried a Bakewell tart. Although small and seemingly angelic, this cherry treat packed a punch. Buried between layers of plain pie crust, the thick confectionary icing and tiny cherry pieces satisfy both sweet and tart cravings.

Based on this sampling, I think some British dishes suffer from undeserved bad reputations—I loved the cockles (small saltwater clams) and pickled onions. Because cuisine is such a crucial component of a country’s culture, I went on to try a variety of traditional Britsh foods, from the sandwiches and scones of a leisurely high tea to a Sunday roast. And I’ve formed my own—favourable—opinions of British cuisine.

—Carrie Stevens

 

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Verse and Vision: Sing of those Days

La Cienaga, Dominican Republic (Hilda Castillo) From Aleph 4

Doh stop de music

Let de banjo play

Beat de tamboo until it cry     (drum)

Give my old bones a chance to dance

one more time to yesterday’s tunes

Sing chantwel of the days of old         (female singer)

Sing of the sweetness…the sweetness of life

When children their parents did obey

when youngsters threw fists

instead of reaching for guns

Sing chantwel, sing it I say

Sing of those days…those days of old

When for a good time all you needed was friends

A good night of krik krak                        (call and response to Creole folk tale)

a good game of mamou poul

right under the Julie mango tree

did the soul just fine

Sing chantwel, sing it again

Sing of those days

oh those beautiful days

when fiksyon and bush tea                (home made ointment)

put doctors to shame

when walking miles to fetch water

invited conversations and built community

Chantwel, don’t you stop singing I say

of the days when there was lanmou in marriage         (romantic love)

not Irene today and Lucy tomorrow

Not show me the money or kiss me goodbye

Sing, Sing, Sing

Sing that beautiful song

Let me feel it once more

river water kissing my toes

and the cocoa tree’s shadow

hand in hand with the light of the flambeau     (torch)

as the crayfish gets away in the stillness of the night

Chante chantwel; chante…chante      (Sing!)

of the taste of roast breadfruit, saltfish and oil

all washed down with some dlo coco                          (coconut  water)

Organic to taste, organic to quality

Sing…sing…sing..sing it chantwel…

sing of those days when fair Helen was blessed

Sing not of tomorrow

don’t you sing that song

sing of today for we live for today

our young bones

tap tapping to the beat of the dancehall

Kissing each moment for it may be our last

No fears…No worries…

Can’t you sing about that?

We live by the sword and we die by the sword

Don’t sing that sad tune of the days of old

when the sun was witness

to old backs toiling all day

Chantwel, change that tune

to a song of today

when liming and theatres                      (hanging out)

is our idea of a date

no time for a gyal

who wants to act like a lady

Sometimes it is best when we just keep it moving

Sing chantwel…sing my song…

Sing of creations

creations by man

sing of machines that

better our lives

and put our brains to rest

Sing…Sing…Sing…Chantwel

Sing of those…those days…those days…

those days when bliss caressed the soul

—Lervan Atticot (Johnny)

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Crossing: Finding Home

Boy riding train across the Öresund Bridge, Øresundsbroen, Denmark (Nicolas Azel)

There I stood at the crossroads of dust and dustier. I stared at the sign once more, “Garage.” Here we would find a car to take us into town, where we could find a bus back to Saint-Louis. I stood helplessly next to my Mauritanian companion Beccro, giving him desperate looks as a stampede of cows came towards us. By now, the idea of a stampede ending this nightmare of a journey seemed strangely appealing. I looked up at the sky for answers but the sun was only a reminder of my current state of frustration as it blistered my face like a cast iron grill. I went and sat under the only tree nearby, but the shade did little to calm my anger.

I had been living in Senegal for a few months when Beccro invited me to his home in Mauritania. The trip had proven to be full of culture clash and confusion. I had made my best efforts to integrate, but being 20 years old with no marriage prospects, I remained a puzzlement. Yesterday he had pulled me aside to explain that his mother was sick and that he had to return with her to Senegal for treatment. Our plans to travel on to Mali were put on hold.

Our travels began early in the morning. I was under the impression it was a simple car ride across the border, but I soon learned that this would not be the case. After hours of stumbling around in the market wasting time, I was quickly herded onto the back of a truck filled with bags of grain and water. Beccro was sitting across from me but had disappeared once again, this time into the market to find his mother. So there I sat, alone on the back of a stranger’s truck, all the while horrified it would pull away with only me on the back…and it almost did. Luckily, mother was found and we continued on our way.

After the deliveries were made, we were left at the side of a river. I was not told where we were, only to get into the pirogue to cross the river. We arrived at a village, where the cattle easily outnumbered the people, and were told our best prospect was a bus that passed by the edge of town. There I sat, confused, scared and angry. Beccro and his mother discussed plans in their native Pulaar while I sat reminiscing about my own home, in my own language.

I ached to be home, to be in Saint-Louis, Senegal, wandering through the back-alley markets looking for vegetables to make dinner, or perhaps a few yards of fabric, all the while the festive Toubab resonating in my ears. I thought about the girls I taught who giggled at the way I spoke, the street marriage proposals, Wolof language class, bottled water showers, all those mundane activities that had stolen into my life. Saint-Louis was the place I had taken to calling home. Everything that had initially irritated me had become the pieces that defined a typical day. Through my sweat, sunburn and sheer exhaustion, I smiled and told myself if I had made it this far, I could make it home.

The sun had started to set when the bus came by taking us to the next town. Here we took a horse cart to a bus going in  our direction. I happily boarded and took a seat. As the bus pulled away, I realized Beccro had stayed behind to help his mother. This little tidbit had gotten lost in our broken communication. I was alone for the last leg of the journey.

Just before midnight I arrived in a town, but it was not Saint-Louis. As I was getting off the bus I felt a rip in the side of my dress. My zipper had broken. A man helped me find another bus going toward Saint-Louis, and, after informing him I was married, he left me to fend for myself.

Alone.

I sat and waited as I choked back tears of helplessness. I saw a girl sitting across from me and I asked, in the best French I could muster, where we were and where the bus was going. I explained I was alone, and she looked me straight in the eye and said, “In Senegal, no one is alone.” She gave me a safety pin for my dress. My dignity restored, she took my hand and guided me to a different bus. This simple act of kindness touched my heart. This girl restored my faith; she is my symbol of goodness. Her kindness is unmatched by anything I have ever experienced.

Finally, around 2:30 in the morning, I arrived back at the university. There I stood, at the door of happiness, at my home—home in Saint-Louis, Senegal.

—Laura Martin

From Aleph 8

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Moments: Anoo, nande ikimasu ka?*

Ha Noi, Vietnam, (Bui Duy Thanh Mai)

*(How will I get there?)

I awake to bright sunshine filtering through the curtains beside my bed. Stretching and allowing myself to sink into the mattress, I grin. I could not have wished for a lovelier homestay: my own spacious room, windows opening up onto rice paddies and the neighborhood below, children laughing in the streets and my own soft bed. My reverie is interrupted by Tamiko-san, my host mother, calling from the kitchen downstairs, “Sutefuanii!” (Stephanie in Japanese).

I leap out of bed and grab my towel and shampoo. The night before (my first in her home), Tamiko-san had briefed me in her rapid Japanese and broken English that we would be going to meet the rest of the family at her grandson’s Sports Festival, a day of competitions and performances put on by the elementary school. I could only imagine how nervous she must have been, trying to speak English and hoping that I understood. My own Japanese still quite minimal, I had nodded and smiled and attempted to make conversation about the meal and about what was expected of me.

Dousing myself under the showerhead, and then dashing up to change, I emerge several minutes later greeting Tamiko-san in the kitchen, “Itadakimasu!”, and the two of us sit down to miso soup, fried egg and salad. One thing had been troubling me since I learned we would be going to the school…how was I going to get there? I feel very nervous, fumbling with my Japanese and my head still foggy from the early rising. Tamiko-san scurries around the house like a bee, with me at her heels trying to help and catch what she’s telling me. Finally, my arms full of clothes and lunchboxes, I ask her, “Anoo, nande ikimasu ka?” (How will I get there?)

She leads me over to the screen and I behold the oldest, most rickety-looking bike I had ever seen. This apparently was the neighborhood bike, and for today I was kindly given permission to borrow it.

Since arriving in Japan several weeks ago, bicycles have been a common sight—everyone seems to ride one, whether commuting to work or school or going to the supermarket. And the Japanese ride with inhuman skill. Dodging in and out of heavy traffic, maneuvering tight corners and crowds of people, I had already begun to enjoy this lifestyle, and it was much easier than waiting for the bus. However, today would be a little different. Tamiko-san disappears to change, putting on a lovely skirt and hat. Then the two of us, weighed down with bags, slip on our shoes and head outside.

Tamiko-san does not own a car. Instead, like many older Japanese, she rides a motorbike. Despite her small frame, she confidently and gracefully maneuvers the bike out of the tight space and through the tiny gate. Having just met her, and unsure what is expected of me, I stand by awkwardly as she loads the bags onto the bike, puts on her helmet, and starts the engine. Glancing at Tamiko-san and looking at “my” bicycle, I almost laugh; here is this tiny woman, dressed to attend a formal dinner, mounting this motorbike as if it were the most natural thing in the world, revving the engine and looking back at me expectantly. I hop on my bicycle and shake my head in resignation, prepared to follow.

And we are off. I think I am going to die. Never in my life have I felt this insecure. My brakes do not quite work, and as we ride through the town, Tamiko-san is speeding ahead around corners and up hills. I keep to the sidewalk believing I will survive this ordeal and will soon be enjoying lunch. However, once we make it out onto the highway with traffic speeding by, my bravery wanes slightly and it takes all of my will to not laugh hysterically. I distract myself with the surroundings slowly materializing before me. I am on the open road, the wind in my hair, bicycling beside breathtaking scenery and having a near-death experience. Taking my eyes off the tiny figure ahead of me on a motorbike, I behold the wilderness. Japan is a beautiful country. Amidst fields of swaying green grass and rice, mountains in the distance, there is a quiet spirituality about the landscape. An awesome majesty, with the expanse of skies overhead feeling so close.

Twenty minutes later, I slide off my bike bedraggled, windblown, and sweaty, my hands shaking slightly as I lock the bike beside Tamiko-san’s. Giving her a quick hug, and gathering the bundles, we hobble together, Tamiko-san with her arthritis and me with my wobbly knees, towards the field behind the school. There I am greeted warmly and enthusiastically by the rest of the family. Smiling, feeling quite safe and contented, I know from this moment on that my stay with Tamiko-san will be special.

—Stephanie Merritt

From Aleph 3

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Reflections of Resistance: Becoming Aboriginal

Atomic Beach, Brazil (Jessica Trotter) From Aleph 6

The island of Tasmania lies off the southern coast of Australia, divided from it by the Bass Strait: 125 miles of ocean that has come and gone with the ice ages. A few hundred miles from the Antarctic, the island teeters on the edge of the known world, making it a natural choice for the British colonizers who established a penal colony there in the early 19th century. Of course, the island had a history, a name and a people before white men came to give it their own. The nearly forgotten echoes of this time before drew me in.  I traveled to this island in December, rang in the new year a few days after arriving and returned home in March with a thesis beginning to form.

Tasmania, despite its bottom-of-the-world mystique, felt comfortably familiar. The roads in the suburb of Sandy Bay, where I resided, were narrow and gently sloped over the hills that bowed into the shores of the Derwent River. Nearing the crest of one of the rolling streets, the sea breeze would sweep up to meet me, carrying with it a wave of cold air. The city lies in the shadow of Mount Wellington, often capped with snow when the seaside is warm. The houses are low and softly-colored, aged well by the sea air and crisp sunlight. The city is over two hundred years old, much of it originally constructed by convicts. Stone churches, cobbled streets, and  white-washed walls glowed in the winter sun.

I lived for over two months with the Edwards family and their rotating cast of offspring that buzzed in and out of the house, as well as their four cats and numerous chickens and ducks in the backyard. I read, wrote and rested in a small room at the back of the house, waking up every morning at seven to feed and change the water for the birds in the yard. On special mornings, I would reach beneath one of the speckled hens, a motion that requires at least the illusion of competence to keep the chicken calm. There I’d find a warm egg—my breakfast.

Before settling into Hobart (the capital of Tasmania), we traveled around the island in two cars that were packed full with coolers, tents and empty soda cans. The land seemed to change with every mile. Stubbly cow pastures burned golden in the late afternoon sun and flowed into thick grasslands which sprouted up into green canopies and high valley walls. No larger than Ireland or West Virginia, Tasmania’s size belies a profundity that draws you in until you forget that the world extends beyond its shores. Trees stand like titans, gripping the earth down to the hot core. Rivulets carve shaded cracks that wind on forever and evade the cartographer’s eye.

Mt. William National Park lies at the far northeast corner of the island. The sand curves around, hugging the edge of the water like an infinitely long white highway. The wind had picked up since our arrival that morning and clouds were roaring across the sky, exploding against the fierce blue. Our teacher, Nels, was just ahead, leaning over the dark, sand-blown body of a penguin. His hand moved down to it, lifting one of the wings and letting it drop. Every few minutes we would see a bird that had died at sea and had been tossed up to the sand by a wave, and every time Nels would walk towards it and kneel as if saying goodbye.

“Just over this dune.” Nels had looked up and was pointing ahead at a great mound of sand, crowned with the pale gold bunches of beach grass that grew where the sand met the dark clay of the island. “We’re nearly there.”

I had first breathed Tasmanian air less than two weeks ago. Some say it is the purest air on the entire planet. A night wind rushed down my collar and up my sleeves and reminded me that the ocean was closer and wilder here than in Sydney. I could almost hear the waves, crashing and churning the air with icy, Antarctic heaves that gave this island its cooler climate. Tasmania was the last verdant outpost before the deserts of Antarctica. Our cab that night wove through the dark hills, softly pushing the night aside with its blue headlights as it went. “It feels like Vermont,” my friend Michael said.

I had known, without really knowing, what I would study here. It chose me more than I imagined it would. On a whim, I had walked to a bookstore the day before I left home and bought a book about pre-Columbian America. I was tired of the same stories of conquest and spice trades and breast-plated Christians. I was sure that my country had a history before it was white, but no one ever talked about it. Every chapter I finished in those long, airborne hours crept into my brain and curled up, tucked so neatly I would hardly notice them until nearly two weeks later. I was about to be caught in the spell of history, and for once, it wasn’t written by the victor, but by the vanquished.

I had my sandals off now and I began to press my toes into the sand faster, climbing the gentle slope towards the dune. Nels was just a few feet ahead and my classmates Cassandra and Jay walked just beyond. We were right up against the dune now, about to turn into the valley behind it, sheltered from the wind and the sea spray. In front of us, coating the narrow way ahead as if bubbling up from the sand, lay a pool of bleached white shells. I bent to pick one up. It was smooth and burning white like bone. Up ahead, I heard Jay gasp and Nels let out a low hum of appreciation. I took three more steps and there I was. The dune rose up like a wall in front of me, at least forty feet tall. Ribbons of white shell traced across the face of the dune. “This is it.” Nels turned towards me, his hands on his hips and his grin beginning to spread, “We’re at the midden.”

The question of a thesis topic worked its way around the circle. What would I devote the next nine weeks to? Before I had an answer, I felt my hand rise up and all eyes turned towards me. I cleared my throat and began. Slowly, but with purpose, one idea after another opened up. The sentences fell out, uncurling like new ferns. My topic: the Aboriginals. I wanted to know everything: What songs did they sing to the half-moon? What roots would they squeeze for water? How did they hunt, how did they move, what did they love and where are they now? I sank back in the seat and the question moved to the next raised hand.

We all sat, spread across the wide seats of the train, as it rocked and sped up through the foothills of the Blue Mountains. I turned to look out the window and I saw past my reflection, past the houses and clotheslines that rushed by, past the rows of orchards. I saw lean, dark men, their hair in thick bunches, carrying burning sticks and loping over the grassy hills. They faded in and out like shadows in the sun. There was more to this country than was shown on the surface. An enduring history was running, like an underground river, strong but muffled by cement and noise. I tried to dig down.

That deep river ran behind the midden, sheltered from the wind. They had lived here. They had gathered and cooked in this very spot and dropped, all around us, the shells their hands had cracked and scraped clean. Shells coated the floor of the valley, bedded in the stiff mud and swimming in the sands as if they had been dropped there a few weeks ago and not a few hundred years ago.

There was no fence, no entrance fee, not even a sign, but here it was, a genuine piece of history. Without the trappings I had come to expect in historical sites, without directions about where to look and what to think, it felt so real and secret, as if our gasps were the first this sand valley had heard in centuries. I could see their dark ghosts, huddled by fires, running to the water, leaning against the shady side of dunes with shellfish, pried open, in their hands. Their history had endured here, tucked back from the beach and not betrayed by signs so that the deep springs could well up and show the careful observer how the world has nearly always been. I was entranced.

I imagined a child, a small girl perhaps, chasing the waves back and forth while her mother and father watch from the side of the dune. They look out past the waves to the dark islands and tell stories about them. They sing songs about their creation and the girl runs up to join them. The sun is low and their bellies full with shellfish gathered along the rocky shore. The father puts his hand on his daughter’s head to hold her near him and together they gaze out to the island that white men would call Flinders, the island that would become the little girl’s last home before she is buried in its rocky soil.

If only for her sake, I thought. If only because to be forgotten is a fate far worse than death and she should not have to suffer both so cruelly. I felt, like the sucking tug before a wave, the change that was all around me. I saw white sails breach the horizon for the first time. I felt the crunch of leather and brass on these old sands. I heard war cries and musket bursts and crying in the night in ten different languages. The deep river sank back, paved over by generations of ignorance and power-lust. Some truth flowed there, deep and dark and nearly forgotten. I could never pull it back to the surface, but if I could only get close enough, I might dip my hand in and understand.

Thus, I became absorbed in the Aborigines of Tasmania. I felt the power exerted by the group’s 40,000–year legacy and wanted to find out where that group was today. Opinions flew fast and tempers often flared when this subject was broached among Tasmanians, so I could be sure there would be no lack of data. Aside from an appreciation of the intricacies of both ancient and modern Tasmanian Aboriginal culture, I learned a great deal about group dynamics in general.

I learned how groups maintain boundaries, how identity is asserted and how membership criteria are formed. All of these seemingly esoteric pieces are instrumental in evaluating the status and the prospects of the Tasmanian Aborigines. What I found was a defiant will to assert identity despite a long-standing public denial of that identity. I found that identity is determined primarily by choice, an alignment of a personal and shared history. I also found a white Tasmania largely inoculated by myth and stereotype, but, contrary to all the accounts I read, there are Aborigines in Tasmania. They were not exterminated.

Tasmanian Aborigines are a people with a history in three parts. In pre-colonial times, they were a nomadic, hunter-gatherer people that inhabited the island in small, scattered tribes. After colonization and the decimation of most mainland Aborigines, the Aboriginal women and their white, male captors populated the islands of the Bass Strait and passed on the Aboriginal bloodline and  way of life. Today, self-professed Aborigines are everywhere in Tasmania.

Historically, colonial government arbitrarily set the standard for Aboriginality by means of a blood quantum, using it as a tool for further oppression and racial discrimination. Generations later, the definition was expanded to include self-selection and community recognition, moving to a more liberal view of identity. Threatened by this influx of new members, the Tasmanian Aboriginal Council tightened membership criteria in a bid to consolidate and secure their power in the Aboriginal community. Today, with more people self-identifying and a high incidence of mixed marriages, Aboriginality is starting to include a much wider spectrum of socioeconomic classes.

Tasmanian Aborigines take great pride in the three major cultural traditions that have survived, namely basketweaving, muttonbird hunting and shell necklace-making. These function as badges of membership and as visible distinguishers from the white majority. Aborigines have recently begun to use language as a means of teaching and asserting identity. While present knowledge of the traditional languages is limited, the goal of this project is to substitute native words for English ones, to subtly affect the worldview of the speakers and integrate Aboriginal identity more firmly into their lives. Exercising sovereignty over land rights and human remains forces the white public to recognize the existence of Aborigines. Finally, identity is powerfully stated and broadcast through visual art and poetry in which notable similarities can be found to other indigenous traditions.

Becoming Aboriginal in the state’s eyes is a process all its own, with required documentation and a review process. Becoming Aboriginal on the personal level does not mean that a new person emerges or that a false mask is donned, but rather that a subtle reorganization of priorities occurs to publicly position the individual closer to their heritage. Aboriginals never left Tasmania but their public presence was vehemently discouraged for many generations. Today, while the struggles are numerous, this ancient ethnicity employs cultural tools of assertion to make their identity known and proclaim their unbroken legacy.

—Andrew Maryniuk

From Aleph Volume 6

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Lesson: Jaay ma Suukër ak Warga*

*(Sell me sugar and tea, please.)

Deirdre Wholly (far left) and Christa Levesque (far right) pose with their Senegalese roommates, Bineta Ndione and Mariama Bodian, during a spring break visit to Dakar, Senegal.

I anxiously walk to Pathé’s room, prepared with warga (tea leaves) and suukër (sugar) in hand. He greets me with the common salutation “Yaa ngi si jàmm?” Do you have peace? I reply, “Jàmm rek, alhomdulilah!” Peace only, thank God! Two months ago these words had no meaning for me, but now they envelop me in peace and happiness. I feel at home.

It is my first time making attaya all by myself. Making tea is about being social. My friends and I talk as I try to concentrate on the art of attaya.

Pour water into the kettle and plug in the hot plate. Wait for water to boil. Add half a packet of warga and wait for the water to boil again. 

“A woman sat on me today!” My friends in the room look at me strangely and I explain my funny story. I was in a car rapide, a common mode of transportation that can sometimes transport thirty people at a time. I was sitting on a bench that usually fits six people, but has a maximum capacity of five when the people are a bit larger. We squished as much as possible and only got about a 6-inch space in between me and a woman sitting next to me. A woman about twice my size got onto the car rapide and thought that she could fit herself in this little spot. I looked up at her, she looked down at me and proceeded to sit right on my lap!! I burst out laughing and then said “Bonjour!” and the whole car rapide burst out in laughter. We had a little conversation in Wolof, eventually a spot opened up so the woman could have her own seat, and then I got off and we went our merry ways.

Add in sugar. About 18 cubes. Pour tea into glasses and pour back into kettlemixing all the ingredients. Let boil.

As the laughter dies down from my story, the subject changes to cultural differences between the United States and Senegal. Here in Senegal, the emphasis is placed on the social. Pathé explains that if a friend comes to visit you, you talk with him or her even if you have a lot of homework. You would never turn someone away because you are in the middle of an assignment. This person chose to spend time with you; how could you turn him or her away? My thoughts turn to HWS and how I am always busy, how I could never take three hours out of my afternoon to make tea. I sigh and wish our two cultures were not so different.

After tea has boiled for fifteen to twenty minutes, pour one glass almost to the top. Attaya can continue to boil as the glass of tea cools. When cool enough, start making mousse by forcibly pouring tea from one glass to another. It takes a lot of practice to make good mousse.

As I sit making the mousse, my friend Demba asks me why I am not married. I wonder why the conversation always turns to marriage. It just seems to be one of those “hot topics” here at Université Gaston Berger. I ask my own questions. What is your opinion on polygamy? After all, polygamy is perfectly legal in Senegal. “I am not opposed to it, but I could never do it,” Demba replies. If you did have more than one wife, would you have them stay in one house or would they have separate houses? “Same house,” he answers quickly. “So the children could all play with each other.” Clearly he has thought about his options. Do you think it is unfair that women can only have one husband but men can have four wives? “No. If a woman had more than one husband, how would you know the father of the child?” Huh. That’s the first time someone has given me a sensible answer to that question.

When the mousse is finished, serve the attaya. Share with friends and neighbors.

They ask me about my teaching in town. I tell them about how I am teaching at an all-girls high school, Ameth Fall. I do not really enjoy teaching English; I have found that I do not have much passion for the language. However, my girls are hilarious. One conversation I had with a class was particularly funny—it was on the topic of marriage. We were talking about traditional marriage ceremonies in Senegal—I learned a lot and they practiced speaking in English. Then we talked about the roles of husbands and wives. The girls thought that roles for a wife included cooking, cleaning, and taking care of children. Roles for a husband included working, sleeping, eating too much, watching tv, and doing nothing! I like teaching in an all-girls school!

Start the second glass—add the rest of the warga and twelve cubes of suukër. Bring to a boil. 

As I start my second cup, I develop this aching feeling that I may never see these friends again. It scares me and I start to tear up. It’s different than with my college friends, who are only a few hours drive away… The Atlantic Ocean divides me and Senegal. Pathé notices my change in mood and starts explaining how Senegalese people do not usually leave their homeland. Families live in the same villages, in the same houses, for years and years. I think about my first days in Senegal with Professor Joseph. We were walking through the busy streets of Dakar, near where he used to live, when he saw the same man who used to clean his car. The man was in the same neighborhood decades later and recognized my professor! I did not appreciate what this meant at the time, but this exchange gives me hope. People never leave Senegal. All I have to do is physically come back and keep the phone numbers of my friends and I will see them again. Insh’Allah, God willing.

Make mousse again. Serve attaya and share with friends and neighbors. 

I talk about the things I will miss about Senegal. The warmth of the people. Taranga—the hospitality the Senegalese show. The cows, donkeys, goats and horses roaming around campus. The call to prayer five times each day. The music. The endless expanse of stars in the night sky. Philosophical discussions with my best friends as we share tea.

I start cleaning up, dumping the used warga in the trash and rinsing the glasses.

I miss the warm smiles that wished me goodbye. I will think of them every time I make attaya in the future. Ba baneen yoon, Insh’Allah. 

—Christa Levesque

From Aleph 9

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Moments: Muddy Boots

“Dame tu mano.” Barrio Flores, Mendoza, Argentina (Brianne Ellis)

“You know what would clear that skin right up?” Still recovering from the act of heaving her large, soft body into the van, the old woman pauses for breath. “Calendula.” She smoothes out the shawl across her broad shoulders, her cheeks becoming less flushed by the second. “Calendula. Right down at any pharmacy. Good for the complexion.” Coughing slightly from the closeness of the air permeated by the scents of twelve other bodies, she nods to the passenger across from her. The young woman beside me, for whom this sage advice is intended, clutches her purse tighter, but flashes a slight smile that passes for polite acknowledgement. It is rare to hear a stranger’s mundane ramblings in this country. I feel an anxious anticipation for the next inappropriate words that might spill forth from her mouth.

Now fully recovered from her prior exertion, the grandmother turns her attention to the glum driver as he speeds breakneck through an intersection. Several weeks ago, this would have frightened me. This morning, I calmly plan out what I will say to the medics as they pull my body out of the wreck. It’s important to have thought of such details beforehand when operating in a language that is not your mother tongue. Grandmother makes a clucking noise in the back of her throat. Her chin wobbles as she extols the orderly streets of this city during her youth. Angling her neck back she explains to the driver a better route he might take in the future. “Just as fast,” more clucking, “Yes, but safer.” The van driver grunts and exhales more smoke into the fetid air. Clearly suffering from craning her head at such an awkward angle for so long, she settles back comfortably into her seat like a very smug mother cat.

A laugh catches in my throat. I force it to emerge as a quiet cough. Immediately Grandmother’s sharp gaze snaps towards me, lingering on my filthy boots. A look of composed displeasure molds her features, but softens as her eyes roll upwards to my face. Foreigner. I sense her recognition and fiddle with my fraying mitten to avoid meeting her stare. Surely my stop must be coming up? I scratch at the iced window. A small, foggy hole reluctantly forms. Increasingly uncomfortable that she has called my poor bluff, I doggedly watch for the familiar line of buildings to emerge out of the snow. Eventually, their silhouette appears through the grey. Aware that her eyes are still upon me, I call out for the driver to stop; the routine words feel strangely clumsy under her gaze. After making my way through packed-in bodies and bags, I leap for the grimy curb. Turning to pay, Grandmother’s watery eyes find mine. “A young lady,” she says in a firm, quiet voice, “should always have clean boots.” With surprising strength, she slides the door shut and the van speeds away. Faintly puzzled by the unlikely kindness of her remark, I remain teetering on the curb before turning towards the path. Trudging away through the slush, I take care to avoid the especially muddy stretches.

—Julia Gibson

From Aleph 8

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