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8/4/09 Semi-Random Acts of Kindness

This morning, I stopped in my favorite pastry shop in Souqtown. It adjoins my favorite coffee shop, where I planned to camp out and work while waiting for a meeting.

When I walked in, my favorite pastry-shop-girl was behind the counter. Her face lit up when she saw me – as mine did when I saw her – but she was dealing with a difficult customer, so I waited for him to back off before I came up and went through the greetings.

As we were going through the minute-long ritual, an ancient Berber lady came in. She sported the traditional – and increasingly rare – chin tattoo that distinguishes the real, die-hard Tamazightn (Berber ladies) from the modern generation.

Just as we’d finished the greeting ritual, another customer came in, dropped money on the counter, and barked out an order. She hastily got him his bread and then turned back to me.

I took a breath to say, “Khobz b shokolat” – bread with chocolate, aka a chocolate croissant – but before I could say it, the Berber lady rushed the counter and barked out her order.

In Tam.

Which my pastry-lady doesn’t speak. Well, she speaks a little. You can’t live long in SouqTown without picking some up; it’s the street language here. (That’s one of the things I love about SouqTown, actually.) But not enough to follow what this woman had asked for.

So this tiny little old woman turned to me and said, “Explain it to her!”

I looked back at her and said, “I’m sorry, I wasn’t paying attention. What did you say?”

“Explain it to her! She doesn’t know what I said!”

“Yes, but what did you say? I'm sorry, I wasn’t listening.”

And then came the moment I always dread in my Tam conversations: when my knowledge of some Tam, as well as my half-decent accent (only half, but still better than some; despite my headaches with 3in, I really am trying to pronounce this stuff correctly), makes people believe that I can understand anything they say.

Which I usually can’t, even after a year and a half.

These little old illiterate Berber ladies are the worst. I mention the illiteracy not as a dig – they never had any opportunity to learn to read, so it says nothing against them that they can’t – but because I’ve discovered that it actually makes a difference in how you speak.

People who know what words are, how they can be grouped and arranged in sentences, how they can be conjugated into defined tenses – and most especially people who have studied a foreign language, which every Moroccan school kid does from 3rd Grade onwards – they speak differently from those who don’t know. Their words are slightly more deliberate, more separated from each other, just clearer. Or at least, once they realize that I didn’t understand them when they were speaking with the usual conversational slurs, they can speak deliberately and clearly.

These dear Berber ladies, when I ask them to speak slowly, will invariably respond with, “IIIIII saaaaaiiiiiiddddddd, ‘Qtyuiopogfdszxcvb,mnbvcxdfghjko9ytrewe678iokjhgvb.’” The “I said” is drawn out to the point of absurdity, and the rest remains murderously fast. Oh, and have I mentioned that most of them have only a few teeth? Which doesn’t help with the enunciation. My only strategy for these dear ones is to try to pick out key words and infer the rest.

I tried it here.

“IIIII tttttoooollllllddddd hhhheeeerrrrrr,” she drawled through her naked pink gums, “That I want FOUR ertyuiokjhgfdcvbhgfuijgfrtyuiokjhgfvbnkjhgfdtiokjh, with snow.” I totally missed the middle 2/3 of the sentence, but at least I recognized the final idiom – with snow – as being the Berber phrase for “chilled” or “from the fridge/freezer”. I was going to take a stab at it, and tell my pastry-friend that she’d asked for four chilled loaves of bread, but then the feisty little lady called my bluff.

“Did you understand? What did I say? Did you understand?”

“I understood a little,” I admitted.

She cackled a laugh. “She understands a little!” She then gave up on me entirely, and talked to the Arabic-speaking but Tam-learning pastry lady. She repeated her question, and the patissiere responded in Arabic. I have no idea how much was mutually understood, but the Berber laughed again, smiled at me, patted my arm, and walked out of the store.

Given that the pastry shop has no refrigeration, I guess she’d been told that whatever four chilled things she wanted weren’t available.

All three of us were laughing as she walked out of the shop, empty-handed but wreathed in smiles. Toothless smiles, but happy smiles.

I turned back to the counter to ask for my croissant when yet another customer barged in, threw money on the counter, and demanded a puff pastry. No, two. No, not that one, that one over there. She told him that he was a dirham short, so he dropped another one on the counter, then dropped a few more and asked for an olive loaf. (I’m serious – it’s like a loaf of Italian bread, with olive paste baked in. It’s bread that tastes like olives. I like bread and I like olives, but somehow the olive loaf doesn’t do it for me.)

I quietly slid my 2dh onto the counter and waited.

After Mr. Grumpy had swept out, she turned to me with a sigh and a smile. “The usual?” she asked.

I grinned and said, “You know me.” Then I realized that I’d said it in Tam, so I repeated it in Arabic. She probably understood both – I suspect her Tam is better than mine is, though she never speaks it – but anyway, she smiled and reached for a paper bag to put it in.

“Oh, forget the sack,” I said, gesturing to the coffeeshop next door. She set down the paper bag and wrapped my croissant in a napkin before handing it to me.

“And you forget the money,” she said with a smile.

I blinked at her, confused.

“Yup, forget it,” she repeated.

I slipped my dirhams back into my pocket, thanked her, and wished blessings on her parents.

After a few more ritual phrases, I was out the door, into the coffeeshop, another big smile on my face and a free croissant in my hand. :)

PS: I really am that predictable…I meant to ask the coffeeshop guy for a banana juice, but tripped over my tongue and ordered an orange juice. He looked at me and said, “Banana juice, right?” and I just grinned. I mean, I’ve sampled nearly everything at least once – I’m not just sticking with the first thing I tried, but, well, I like what I like. :)

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