Wednesday, September 9, 2015

An Oasis

I recently moved to a new place. It is a nice garden-level apartment with plenty of space for me right by the river where I like to walk.  I am close to some shops, a nice restaurant, and the library where I spend much of my time.  The neighbors around me are very friendly.  They show me their dogs because they figured out I like the canines. The couple upstairs brought me a housewarming spaghetti dinner. They have also helped me a few times when I got locked out because I am more used to garage codes and not keys to enter and exit my home. They have showed me the ropes of this particular apartment living, such as where I use the laundry, how I find my storage space, and who are the best people to meet if I ever need help.  I chose this place because it is indeed a garden level which means I don’t have handle a lot of stairs. It also has a lot of white brick walls and other features that appeal to my bohemian gestalt and besides, it fit my budget.

Recently, on one of my walks by the river I met a man, named Barone. He is an extremely fit man in his late sixties.  He talks with a very thick Italian accent. Turns out he lives in the same complex as me and has for many years.  We chatted a bit, and he advised me to visit a shop across the street I had never been into called the Mediterranean Oasis.  He said that I would find it very interesting and charming. 

One rainy day I didn’t feel comfortable driving, so with my umbrella I took a walk across the street and visited the Oasis. The first thing that struck me when I went in was all the smells that were entrancing.  There were so many different kinds that you had to sort them out in your brain.  I found that the Oasis is not was not just a small mart as I thought it was based on its exterior.  It is actually a pretty spacious grocery, meat market, delicatessen and café.  They cater primarily to people of Indian, Pakistani, Lebanese, Greek, Italian, Hebrew, North African and Spanish ethnicity. They also have some really good-looking corned beef, which appeals to a guy like me of pasty white Anglo-Irish descent. I watched as a young father and his children bought an entire full leg of lamb and instructed the butcher how to cut it. They also sell a lot of goat. That’s not something I have ever tried but someday I just might, if someone can tell me what the hell to do with it. 

On my first visit as I walked around looking at the wares they have to offer which is pretty comprehensive (including an impressive selection of hookahs, if you like that), I noticed the prices were very fair and the customers were very helpful in explaining what different things were because I couldn’t always read the multi-lingual labels. While looking around, a young Indian man approached me with a tray full of very small steaming cups and said, “Would like some tea?” I accepted and it was very good. D8fferent fr4om any tea I had drank before. It was rich, deep and comforting.  In subsequent visits I learned that the serving of complimentary tea is one of the hallmarks of the Oasis.  What also impressed me is that they also sell books. Not just any books. They specialize in copies of the Quran, the Christian Bible, and volumes of the Torah.  I find that interesting. 

To be polite I bought some feta cheese and went outside to walk home. It was around three in the afternoon. The Oasis has an outside sidewalk patio.  The rain had stopped and there a group of men sitting around tables playing mancala, backgammon, cribbage and chess. They were of all ages from teens to elderly men. They were all of various ethnic origins. They all were sipping tea, talking and laughing. It made me smile but I did not engage. I went home and sorted through some old photographs.

I used to have to travel a lot for work when I was in the corporate world. It was mostly in continental North America but sometimes I would be assigned to the UK, Western Europe and a bit in the Middle East.  I don’t travel anymore. Maybe that is why there was a certain allure about the Oasis. There I can get to have a small taste of where I used to be able to go and engorge myself in different cultures.  Perhaps the Oasis fuels good memories of London, Frankfurt, Alexandria and other places.

One day when I was at the Oasis, buying some taco meat and some garlic, I ran into Barone again. He challenged me to a game of mancala.  I was good with that because although not terribly good at chess, I played hundreds of mancala games with my children through the year when they were young and I’m good at that. As we squared off he told me a story about how his family was insistent that he go back to Rome every year for a family visit. I asked him why that was a problem.  In his deep husky voice, almost impossible to understand sometimes, he said “I have been in this country for a very long time, almost 40 years.  I love visiting there and being in Rome and Florence, but this is my home; this is my country. After a few days of seeing people, letting my children and grandchildren see where their papa came from, engage with some relatives; I just want to get back home.”

Since that day I go to the Oasis once or twice, sometimes three times a week, at around 3 pm because I know that is when tea is served and the men, and the women, with embroidered dashikis, beautiful turbans, saris and headscarves (as well as high current Western fashion) will be around.  There are a lot of English and Scots men and women there as well. They keep trying to trying to explain cricket to me, which I still find highly confounding. (A game played with paddles and wickets that can last days….Really?). Still it’s a nice break from a mostly isolated world. They smile and wave when they see the Irishman on a cane come limping up the walk. That feels nice. 

One thing though that has bothered me is that many of the nice people I meet there give me their name but it is not their name. They all have complicated, long names I could never begin to pronounce or God forbid spell. Instead they call themselves “Jerry,” “Ivan,” “Ann” in hopes of making things a little easier for them. They change their names in order to do business, to assimilate, and to make friends. In some ways I think this is criminal. No one should have to give up their true name to fit in as a citizen. My name is precious to me and I’m sure it is to them too. What a horrible forfeiture. I’m sure among their families and loved ones they go by their original names, or family nicknames, but still…

I am not going to get into the immigration debate because I think immigration is far more complex than the media and others portray it, and I also think it is a bit of a political smokescreen. I no longer, after years of being involved with it, have a taste for politics. What I do know is that I have had the benefit of meeting a lot of eclectic, nice, and kind people, who are very human and humane. They do hard work; love their families and their homes; chose to be here because it represents a better life for them than maybe they once had before. They chose to be citizens of this country because of hope. They make a contribution to our country. They should be welcomed because as Americans and humans that is what we are supposed to do. Read the inscription on the base of that French girl who stands in a New York harbor.

Accepting cultural diversity can be a touchy thing for some people but it’s not for me.  I think it is tough to engage when you join a new community and despite good intentions you are discriminated because you still follow pride and traditions, even the food, from where you came from or grew up with. 

The reason I like the Oasis is that I find the workers, the game players, my fellow shoppers, the people who are becoming my friends, and the tea indeed offers an oasis to many who might feel a bit disenfranchised coming to a new country, or just settling in to a new neighborhood. They may need, once every now and then, to find comfort and a sense of joy and belonging among others who feel the same way. I  also like that it’s not a bad thing for them to have that pale guy on the cane come around now and again, sip some tea with them, smile and shake their hands, try to learn about cricket, and get beat in chess but never in mancala.  I hope they enjoy my company too, because I know I learn a lot from listening to their stories and they enlighten my life. I’m glad to know them. When I go in there now, “Sam” behind the counter always says, “Hello, T.S.! Welcome home!”  That always makes me smile.

I suppose with all of the changes in my life lately, in some ways I need an oasis every now and then too.