Saturday, January 21, 2012


The young man hurries out of the building and comes to my open car window. “Fill it with unleaded?” I say, using modern intonation but obsolete words. He nods. He probably doesn't even know what “unleaded” refers to: it's just a word that old geezers sometimes use for “gas.”

“Regular, I mean,” I say, but he's already moving around the car, taking my debit card with him. He's not the regular morning guy. There are two clans that seem to run this gas station, one Chinese and one... Armenian, maybe? Kurdish? God knows. Portland is a city full of immigrants. I got my hair cut yesterday by a pleasant-looking, wary Ethiopian woman. I asked what her first language was, and she answered “Amharic,” and added firmly that Amharic was really the only language of Ethiopia. (I know how much salt to take that sort of statement with. Americans abroad are apt to make the same claim about English here: what they mean is, they wish it was the only language.) I had a vague notion that Amharic was a Semitic language, but that was as much as I could remember about it. I asked her if she knew any poetry, or children's rhymes, she could recite for me – that's how I like to make my first acquaintance with a language – but she said she didn't know any. I doubted that was true. Does anyone really grow up not knowing any children's verse, even in the modern world? But nursery rhymes were maybe too intimate a matter to share with strangers. I settled for asking her how to say “hair-cutting” in Amharic. She murmured a few sibilant syllables, nothing I could really hear, and I stopped pressing her. We went back to talking about where I lived and what my work was: the standard barber-chair conversation. The shop had six chairs in it, and was empty. I worried about whether she was making it. It's a long, long way from Ethiopia. What happens if you make your big bet here, and it fails? Well, you take a job pumping gas, I guess, if you can find it.

Further up the Valley there's some pretty serious flooding. The second front predicted hasn't rolled in yet – not here in Portland, anyway – so maybe the water will have a chance to subside before it does.


marly youmans said...

We were just talking about children's rhymes and nursery songs and fairy tales at dinner--my daughter being rather shocked at how few of her college classmates know them and so a bit worried about their fate these days.

Patry Francis said...

I love the way you tell this story. Following rather than leading. Observing instead of judging. We need to do that more often.

Mary Witzl said...

Amharic may be the official language of Ethiopia, but it definitely isn't the only one. Your hair-cutting lady might have been confusing 'only' with 'main', but I think you're right: it's more likely she was indulging in wishful thinking.

And speaking of wishful thinking, I wish I could hear people speaking Amharic.

JMartin said...

Amharic! Two Ethiopian women were speaking this gorgeous tongue in a Minneapolis hotel: perhaps the only time that I've interrupted to identify a language.

Not very pertinently, have you seen Rjeily's book Culture Connectives, which details her development of a font to united Arabic and English? How perversely reassuring to learn all the ways in which Arabic dizzies: cursive, read right to left, letters with four morphs based on position, short vowels as diacritical marks and - if you aren't yet winded - solar and lunar consonants. No uppercase! Justified not by inter-word spacing, but elongation of letter connectors!