Catherine Ann Lombard, M.A.

Articles and Stories


Heron in Flight (photo by Monika Wieland)

English Teaching Confessional

My career as an English language teacher started when I found myself divorced after ten years of marriage at the age of 30. Having just graduated from the University of California in Berkeley, I felt a desperate need to move to a foreign country – anywhere where I could have a fresh start in an unfamiliar environment. It was 1987, before the internet was even imaginable, and so I buried myself in the university’s employment office, searching for letters from international schools that needed native English-speaking teachers.

Unconcerned about my final destination, I applied to more than 100 schools all over the world. People always ask me how I ended up in Japan, and I always say, ‘Japan picked me’. Within six weeks, I had signed a contract to teach in a Japanese juku, or cram school, for one year in the town of Fukuyama, about 400 miles south of Tokyo.

Less than 16 hours after arriving in Japan, I was standing in front of a classroom of 20 straight-backed and attentive nine year olds. After I had introduced myself, they replied, ‘Hello! I’m fine thank you. How are you?’ in a clipped staccato sing-song.

As I had hoped, my US identity immediately began to dissolve. My name was soon twisted into Japanese phonetics and crowned with an honorable title – I was now Kyasarin-sensei. Ironically, sensei (teacher) literally means ‘the one who has come before’. I bore this title gingerly, feeling more like ‘the one who has just arrived’.

My students ranged in age from four to 84, and included a diverse cross-section of Japanese society. In the afternoons I sang ‘London Bridge’ with pre-school children who were trying to pass exams into the best kindergarten. Then in the evening, I would bike to a local bar for my conversation class. Sipping beer, I chatted with a piano tuner, a sculptor, ‘office ladies’ and a World War II veteran who once supplied Japanese troops in Malaysia with food from China. Once a week, I was crammed into a tiny auto and whisked away to the Mitsubishi factory to teach engineers business English. And on Thursday mornings, I smiled and encouraged grandmotherly obaasans who studied English just as my mother might play bridge – for company, stimulation and prestige.

From these diverse groups, I slowly discovered where I was and, within that context, who I was. Examining myself through the prism of the Japanese culture proved to be poignant and humorous at best, startling and confronting at worst. All my students became my guides and teachers, the ‘ones who came before’, and I am forever grateful for their warmth, grace, hospitality and understanding during our brief time together.

Initially, I was surprised at how much Japan felt like America to me. It was strange and yet familiar. People dressed like the folks back home, shopped at department stores, ate at McDonald’s and found themselves stuck in traffic jams. Ever-present TVs blasted nonsense into living rooms, and the moon glistened in the evening sky like a waxed orange.

Despite these reassuring similarities, however, Japan was undeniably different. My first trip to the supermarket left me stunned when I realized I could not read a single package label. And suddenly, at the meager height of 5 foot 2 inches, I became tall and able to reach the highest shelf.

My first cultural challenge as a teacher was to learn how to decipher the subtle body language that marked my students’ incomprehension. But before long, I was able to recognise their look of puzzlement, and instantly knew whenever I was not understood. It always began with a slightly tilted head as they uttered ‘Eto ne…’ (Well, ummmmm ...). The ne was a prolonged neeeeeeey punctuated by the sucking of air through an invisible straw. Then there was a frantic search through dictionaries, as they attempted to coax the right word from its abyss of forgotten vocabulary.

Finally they would shyly mangle a noun. Perhaps if they were brave or practised, a sentence emerged, and their look became one of hope: ‘Will the sensei recognise this strange glob of sound as English?’ I would then smile and nod, repeating the sentence, replacing its words in their proper order, adding a missing article or two. Gratefully, the student would mirror my nod and smile, whispering yes, yes, a hushed ‘hai, hai’. Until it all began again.

One day, Yoshi, an eager seven-year-old boy, belted out a perfect song of ABCs with a finale of ‘Now I know my ABCs. Won’t you, won’t you sink [sic] with me?’. Hayashi-san, an adult student, took great joy in digging inside his book of English-language proverbs for snappy phrases. He would proudly exhume sayings like ‘Butter is mad twice a year’ and ‘It is no sure rule to fish with a crossbow’. All I could do was smile and nod, completely mystified by these archaic maxims.

Along with these unsettling moments were others of startling beauty. When the cherry blossoms started to bloom in early April, I asked my teenage and adult students to write haiku in English. Haiku is an art form that originated in Japan around the 17th century. A haiku poem consists of 17 syllables, usually divided in three lines of five, seven and five syllables respectively. It uses nature to reflect human emotions and must suggest one (and only one) season. I relaxed the rules for syllables, but insisted on three lines focusing on spring.

While some students literally translated well-known haiku, others movingly revealed themselves. One student whose family was from Hokkaido, the northernmost island, touched upon my own homesickness clearly and simply with this poem:

My lonely day
remember my hometown
cherry blossoms tonight.

Other students who hid themselves behind shy smiles were suddenly awoken by this exercise which deeply touched their Japanese identity. One 16-year-old girl wrote:

Cherry buds
spring come here.

These students’ poems, which felt so honest, seemed to reach beyond our differences to unite us in our deeper shared humanity.

In the spring sky
misty clouds embrace
the early evening cherry blossoms.

Without doubt, my most demanding students were the engineers and marketing representatives at Mitsubishi Electric Company. Moving from cherry blossoms to circuit breakers continued to challenge my newly-founded expertise. On Monday evenings after working hours, I spent two hours at the factory with a select group of men and women who were highly motivated to improve their English skills.

Learning that I had spent one summer as an intern for a well-known international computer firm, the Director of Education soon asked me to give a speech in English about the differences between American and Japanese computer companies. I was left open-mouthed. Having only arrived six weeks earlier, I felt ignorant about both the subject and audience. But figuring I’d have time before the actual speech to do some research, I agreed to the idea.

Two weeks later, I was sweating profusely in front of nearly 200 blue-jacketed, uniformed employees. As I unwound the carefully-worded presentation, I felt pressure from all sides as a representative of the juku, my university and my country.

Afterwards, there was a 40-minute question and answer period, where I struggled to shape my answers for my audience. But my final answer proved too challenging for all of us. It seemed to be part of my greater struggle to define myself. I was in Japan as an English teacher, but more essentially, I was searching for my authentic self, beyond the definitions imposed by family, society and homeland.

‘What kind of a name is Lombard and who were your ancestors?’ asked one of the employees. The idea that you could be a blend of different genealogies and cultures was difficult to comprehend for the Japanese people, who take great pride in the purity of their race and celebrate their ancestry during Obon, a national holiday in August. But as a direct product of the melding of European immigrates during America’s early 1900s, I had no real answer.

‘There is a ketchup in the United States,’ I replied. ‘It’s called Heinz 57 because it is seasoned with 57 different spices. That’s what I am. You see, I’m part Italian and part Scottish. One great-grandfather comes from the border of France and Germany. We’re not sure what nationality he was. They called my great-grandmother Pennsylvanian Dutch, but she probably wasn’t Dutch at all, but really German. We’re not really sure.’

‘What? Nani?’ The audience stirred restlessly.

‘Ketsup?’ they said. ‘Your ancestors are ketsup?’

Throughout my entire two-year stay in Japan, my identity continued to be gracefully (and at times ruthlessly) mirrored by a culture different from my own. In the end, these reflections offered me a new spectrum of myself, my past, and what I longed to become. Upon saying sayōnara to Japan, I realized that each and every experience had brought me closer to that inner place called home.


This confessional was published in English Teaching Professional, Issue 76, September 2011.


ArticlesAug 23, 2011

A Heron's Visit

The world outside my window is white. Snow is falling, has been falling for days now. Every twig on every tree is adorned with crystals. The sky is pale, tempered with a haze of blue and all is frozen still. How amazing water is—frozen, steamy, wet. From my window I look upon a meadow where mothers plod pulling sleds laden with their bundled children. Dogs frolic and jump, catching invisible snowballs. A cyclist slips silently by. Occasionally, the northeast wind whirls the dry snow around my garden into spirals of fine mist.

The Christmas emails are arriving in my inbox. From Ireland, Italy, England, the US. I wonder how to respond. Do I write back with an innocuous Merry Christmas and say nothing more? Do I tell of how tired I am, how old I sometimes feel these days, how hard I’ve been working? Do I cover up my fears of never being able to learn either Dutch or German with how great my life is going? Do I tell about my wonderful holiday in Turkey which really was a pilgrimage spent in monasteries in 45C (125F) degree heat without air conditioning or fan? Where does the balance of this past year hang? What is the hope that I hold onto while crossing the threshold of 2011?

Recently, Kees and I were talking about birds. We have a small birdhouse in front of our kitchen window that has become a local diner for robins and sparrows, chickadees and finches. When the yellow-beaked, shiny blackbird overtakes the place, we run outside and chase her away. I was watching these birds flitting from branch to birdhouse, thinking about how much more trust I wanted in my life. “Look at the birds in the sky. They do not sow or reap or gather into barns; yet God feeds them. Can any of you, however much you worry, add a single cubit to your span of life?” (Matthew 6: 26, Luke 12:25-26) This trust has always been one of the points of contention in our marriage. Kees and I have come from such distance places of its understanding. As a Benedictine monk for 19 years, Kees has always flown with the birds with the faith that God will provide everything. As an American, born and bred with the idea that hard-earned money means success, I struggle with being satisfied with just enough. We’ve been together twelve years and are finally reaching closer to this center of trust, and the excruciating balance one must walk between God’s will and our free will.

We sat sipping steamy cappuccinos and mused about this balance, and how our search as individuals inevitably leads us towards our definition of ourselves as a couple. Our lives are but a delicate balance of snow crystals hanging on tiny tree branches. Of relationship. Of knowing and not knowing.

That night around 10 pm while the snow swirled in whirlpools of dusty flakes, a giant heron came and sat on our hedge. Where had she come from? Once I spied a lone heron on the bank of the meandering Dingle River five kilometers from home. Could this be the same bird? She fluffed her feathers fat for insulation and tucked her head under a powdered wing. I watched amazed. Was this a sign? A sign to say that I could trust as much as a heron in a snowstorm far from lake or sea? I watched her stretch her neck and turn a pointed beak first up then back and down again. What did she search for? What could she eat? All fish lay frozen under ice. She seemed to grow bigger aloft my hedge, alone and cold, so far from home. I knew her better from California estuaries; her wings outspread to catch the sun at water’s edge. I feared her death upon my hedge and wondered then what would I do?

But then she flew, a low and wide flight into the blue night and snow so wide and white. What would I do, what could I do … but trust?

Everyone knows the Christmas story of how three Magi followed a star to a poor stable in Bethlehem. Three Kings from the East trusted that the bright Star shining high above would lead them to a King. But they did not know the King would be a Child. Upon leaving that Child, they trusted their inner Wisdom and did not return to King Herod who longed to know where the Child lay, only to destroy him. Trust the Light high above you. Trust the Wisdom deep within.

Come. Take my hand. Hold on tight. The heron is in flight. We have each other and Love is All.

ArticlesDec 31, 2010

Giuseppa's Secret Ingredient

Wherever I go in Italy, recipes seem to follow me. One spring morning I stand with the village women at the meat truck to buy my husband’s prosciutto, raw ham sliced thin. One of the women asks for rabbit and wants to know if it is fresh. “Carissima, they’re from last night,” the butcher announces proudly as she pulls two skinned, earless rabbits from the refrigerator. The limp beasts lie on the counter like newborns, their pink flesh gleaming.

The women exclaim how beautiful and fresh they are and immediately ask if I eat rabbit. I don’t have the heart to tell them I’m a vegetarian. “Well, no,” I say, “but my husband likes it.” Then the recipe follows: Fry the rabbit’s liver with wild fennel and garlic. Then stuff the rabbit with the savory liver. Sew up the rabbit’s belly and cook it slowly over a low fire with a little bit of white wine. Turn it once or twice. It’s ready when the meat falls off the bone.

These are the kind of colorful, yet imprecise recipes that keep following me. One day I was invited for a coffee at Signora Giuseppa’s house, when she offered me a piece of crostata, which means “crust” in Italian. It is a delicious and popular tart which consists of a flour-based bottom crust covered with a thin layer of homemade jam and baked until golden. This particular crostata was decorated with pieces of hazel and walnut which Giuseppa had gathered in the autumn from her eleven trees. On top of the nuts were pieces of golden dough shaped as stars and half moons. It was delicious.

Giuseppa is seventy-eight years old, a round and sturdy widow with small, yet broad strong hands. She is one of the few people I have met in my life who is really present when you are with her. She talks and talks to me in Italian, maintaining her normal speed, even after someone else in the village suggested she slow down so I might understand her better. She knows I don’t always understand, but perhaps what she finds more important is our time together.

While I munched on the delicious cake, she asked if I wanted the recipe which had come from a friend of hers. Giuseppa had added her personal touch of nuts and celestial decorations. I naturally said yes, and she handed me the recipe on a small scrap of paper along with a pen and piece of paper so I might write it down.


2 eggs
4 spoons of sugar
4 spoons of oil
1 lemon
1 vanilla
1 packet of baking soda
300 grams of jam

The recipe, of course, was in Italian. After writing it down, I studied it a moment, and then paused, realizing something was missing. “Excuse me, Giuseppa,” I said. “isn’t there flour in here?”

“Yes, of course.”

“But, then,” I stumbled. “How much flour do you use?”

“Oh, I don’t know. Not too much and not too little. Just when it feels right. When it doesn’t stick too much to your fingers. Quanto basta.” (“When it’s enough.”)

“And doesn’t it have to go in the oven? How long do you bake it? And what’s the temperature?”

“Why, I never look at the time. After all, every oven is different. The oven has to be hot. But not too hot. You cook it not too much and not too little. You just look and see if it’s done. Quanto basta.”

I started to laugh. This was the craziest recipe I had ever seen.

“And the lemon,” she said smiling, knowing what an amateur she now had on her hands. “Of course, you don’t put in a lemon. You grate a lemon peel. And the nuts, well like I said, they were my idea. And the stars and half-moons, well, I just did that because it was entertaining and looked nice.”

What could I say between my laughter? “Giuseppa, next time you make the crostata, please tell me because I want to come and see how you do it.”

“Oh, Caterina,” she said, quite wisely. “Next time you want to make the crostata, you tell me, and I will come and show you how. After all every oven is different and you should know how to cook it in your own oven.”

She then gave me her phone number and I jotted it down below the recipe. This seemed only right. Giuseppa, after all, had become the essential ingredient to making a perfect crostata.

A few days later I decided to ask Giuseppa to come and give me the crostata lesson. I knew that in the afternoon I could find her at her farm where she goes every day after lunch. I wandered down and sure enough she and a companion were sitting in the shade taking a short rest from the hot April sun. She had been planting tomato plants, since the nights had now grown warmer and the plants were safe from frost.

She greeted me and we chatted for a while about the weather and tomato plants. Giuseppa finished her planting and then went to water her lettuce seedlings. Soon she was generously filling a plastic bag with lettuce, new garlic and onion, spinach, and rucola for me. Naturally, recipes followed. “Chop the rucola up fine and mix it with mayonnaise. You can add a little olive oil if you like. Toast bread and spread the mixture. The taste is so delicate! Chop this garlic up fine, mix it with wild mint and a little hot pepper and olive oil. Put it inside the artichoke and cook it slowly. It’s more delicious than meat!”

I then felt the time was right to ask for help the next morning in making the crostata. Giuseppa was free and happy to come. “Have you already made your jam?” she then asked.

Made my jam? Before even starting, I had failed my cooking lesson! Months ago I had purchased a jar of 55-percent-less-sugar strawberry jam at the local supermarket and it had been sitting in my refrigerator ever since. I thought the crostata was a perfect solution to finally rid myself of this jam.

“Oh, Giuseppa, I bought the jam at the shop.”

She looked at me as if I were a small child who tried too quickly to finish her chores. “And do you have nuts?”

This question seemed a bit fairer to me, after all I couldn’t possibly make nuts myself. “No, but I asked Giovanni to buy me some.” Since my husband’s name Kees is impossible in any language but his native Dutch, he has adopted Giovanni as his Italian alias.

“Oh. Don’t worry about the nuts. I will bring you some. And the pan? What kind of pan do you have?”

“I have pans for making pizza. Will they do?”

“I’ll bring my pan. What time should I come? Is nine o’clock fine?”

I kept thinking how I would have to have the kitchen and the rest of the house spotless before Giuseppa arrived. “Nine o’clock is a bit early. How about ten?”

Bene. Bene.” We were set for the next morning at ten.

Right on time, Signora Giuseppa swept into the house the next morning with the energy of a twenty-year-old woman. Inside the bag slung under her arm were her pan and a large bag of nuts. In addition she had brought her own apron, spotlessly pressed (mine hung soiled and wrinkled around me), and her own nut cracker. On the kitchen table, I had laid out all the ingredients and a bowl.

She didn’t waste a moment, whipped on her apron and started cracking the nuts. Crack, crack went the nutshells under her strong tutelage and soon I had six, seven, eight nuts lined up waiting for me to dislodge them from their shells. Giovanni showed up to say hello and steal a nut from the bowl. I protested, but Giuseppa carefully shelled a walnut herself and handed it to him.

Once half of the nuts were shelled and chopped (the other half was a present for me), it was time to start the dough. I gave Giuseppa a clean bowl, but she put it back on the table. She first wanted the flour. I handed her a sack and she poured a large amount through a sieve and onto the table. Then with her hands, she created a hole in the center of the hill of flour and asked for the eggs. Cracking the two eggshells together, she let the eggs drop onto the table inside the middle of the flour. With a fork she started to whip the eggs. I watched astonished to see the flour actually become the bowl.

She continued adding all the ingredients except the jam and then slowly, with her fingers, added more flour to what now looked like a yellow crater in a mountain of snow. The flour began to swirl and thicken the yellow egg paste and gradually, almost magically, she had a round piece of dough sitting on the table before my eyes. She slid the remaining unused flour to one side. I reached out to handle the dough, trying to imprint its consistency into my palm and fingertips.

Of course, all this time, Signora Giuseppa was talking. “When I was a young girl during and after the war, we had to make everything. If you wanted to eat pasta, you had to make it. My mother taught me how to make everything. The bread, the pasta, the pizza. I started when I was very young. You just need some experience. You just need to become used to it. It’s really very simple.”

Well, it looked simple enough, but I had my doubts when left on my own. I could imagine my mountain of flour becoming a blob of sticky glue, with the egg running all over the table and onto the floor.

It was time to light the gas oven. Giuseppa came to inspect the oven settings when I explained that the oven was old and had only two temperatures: high and half-high. She selected high and continued working.

Next she spread olive oil on her large round pan and started to stretch the dough to form the bottom crust. The pizza pan would not have worked after all; its sides needed to be higher. The dough spread perfectly and was just the right amount to cover the pan’s bottom. Next was the jam. At first she thought it might be a bit too thick so she asked me for wine to thin it.

Next came the decorations. Together we pinched and pulled dough into stars and half-moons and decorated the jam filling. Finally, we covered the entire crostata with nuts, leaving the dough decorations free to show. We placed the tart into the pre-heated oven and she suggested we check it after twenty minutes.

I thought we might pause here for a cup of coffee or tea, as we had been standing the entire time, but no. The remaining flour sat on the table and Giuseppa turned to me and said, “Why don’t we make Giovanni some homemade pasta for lunch!”

I actually thought Giovanni should come down to the kitchen and make his own homemade pasta for lunch. Wasn’t the crostata enough for one day? After all, he was bound to enjoy most of the large tart. But what could I say? “Oh, what a great idea!”

Signora Giuseppa moved the small pile of flour back into the middle of the table and added a bit more before once again making a deep hole. She then asked for wine. “We’ll make pasta without egg. White or red wine will do. Red will just color the pasta. But then you have all different color pasta. Spinach will make it green and red wine will make it red. Does Giovanni like pasta without egg?”

Giovanni surely would not refuse homemade pasta, with or without egg. “Of course,” I said, reaching for the opened bottle of red wine. She poured the wine into the “flour bowl” and started to mix the ingredients, once again, with her fingers and hands. Under her care, a round ball of dough once more appeared on the table. I reached out to feel it as she started to knead the dough with her strong broad hands.

“You see, Caterí, my husband was in a car accident when he was only forty-three. For three days he lay in a coma. We didn’t know if he would live or die. He had broken a vertebra in his dorsal spine. My son was only two years old.”

Thud, thud, thud. The rose-colored pasta dough thumped the table. “My son needed his father and I needed my husband to help raise him. Afterwards, of course, I was left to do everything. In the house. On the farm. In those days we raised our own pigs. Everything. It was years before my husband could move again, and, in the end, he had to use a wheelchair.”

I listened and watched closely, the rhythm of the kneaded dough marking her staccato words. “I’d come home tired, and he would be waiting for me. ‘Are you tired?’ he’d ask. And I’d say yes. ‘Are you too tired to make me some pasta?’ he’d always ask. And of course I always made it for him.”

Giuseppa smiled now with the memory of her husband, someone, I had been told, who was kind and generous. “He’d always ask. And I’d always make it. Now, where is your rolling pin?”

Oh, dear. Store-bought jam, dirty and wrinkled apron, and now, no rolling pin. Giuseppa’s head shook as she looked once more at me with a mixture of humor and disapproval. We needed a rolling pin to roll out the dough into a flat sheet. Once it had dried a bit, we could then cut strips of pasta. Instead, we were faced with rolling small pieces of dough into long strings of spaghetti by hand.

“This is the work of patience,” said Giuseppa as she cut off the pinkie-size pieces for us to roll. The crostata had now filled the kitchen with the smell of sweet cake. I checked the oven, but it wasn’t yet brown enough, and I was told to leave it for a few more minutes.

We began to roll dough into long worm-like strings, which we then placed on a tablecloth in the sun to slightly dry. Giuseppa started to teach me all the different names for such pasta. “In Bomarzo, they call this scivolati, because ‘scivolare’ means to slip or glide. Here in Mugnano, we call it rescivole. In Umbria, it’s called strangozzi. ‘Strangolare’ means to strangle, and I suppose these are long enough to strangle someone if you had to,” she laughed.

I kept repeating the names as she said them. Scivolati. Rescivole. Strangozzi.

“In Roma, they call this pasta tornarelli, because you turn and turn the dough to make it. And in Viterbo, they are called umbrighelli. Of course, some people like to call it, strangola il prete.” She stood laughing alone until I took my pocket dictionary and looked up “prete,” which means priest. Some people like calling the pasta “strangle the priest.”

All of these towns are within twenty-five miles of one another, and yet each had their own descriptive name for the spaghetti. By now the crostata was finished baking and sat on the counter as we continued for the next hour rolling the scivolati, rescivole, strangozzi, tornarelli, umbrighelli. I wondered how women fifty years ago found time to do this between making their bread and crostatas, minding their children, watering their hogs, and working in the fields.

“There are pasta machines that you can buy,” I timidly suggested.

“Oh, they are not the same as homemade. They take too much water out of the pasta and leave it dry. There is nothing like homemade pasta,” she said.

I thought about all our sharing that went into the pasta dough. Perhaps while telling her story, some of the love Giuseppa felt for her husband had worked its way into the dough. No machine could have substituted for that.

“Cook this pasta in boiling water until it rises to the top. It doesn’t take long. The best sauce is one with tomato and chili peppers, a little parsley, salt and pepper. It’s too early for basil, but it is also good with tomato-and-basil sauce.”

Could another recipe enter my head? Long strings of pasta covered the kitchen table. Our work was finally finished. Giuseppa flipped the crostata onto a large plate and protested while I insisted on washing and drying her pan. Before placing it back into her bag along with her apron and nut cracker, Giuseppa removed a small item. “I brought you this, Caterí, so you could remember me.” She handed me a crocheted doily that, naturally, she had make herself. The handiwork was fine and delicate, the piece spotlessly white and tidily pressed. “You put it inside a bowl when you want to serve cookies or bread. Do you like it? At night, when I am sitting alone by the fire I make things like this. My hands are always busy.”

What could I say? That I would never forget her cracking the eggs into the pile of flour on my kitchen table. That every time I ate rucola and mayonnaise I would think of her. That her energy and good will astounded me. That I had nothing to give her in return but her clean pan.

“Thank you so much. It’s beautiful. I love it,” I said kissing both her cheeks. “Thank you for coming today and being my cooking teacher. Giovanni will love the pasta.”

It was noon and she bustled toward the door. “We are planting more tomatoes today. I must go home now.” Giovanni came down to admire his promising lunch and to sniff longingly at the tart. We all said goodbye and walked Giuseppa to the gate.

Since that day, I have made the crostata so often that I no longer need a bowl and have grown comfortable with the idea of quanto basta. But, no crostata has ever compared to the one I made that warm April morning with the secret ingredient called Signora Giuseppa.


This story first appeared in The World is a Kitchen edited by Michele Anna Jordan and Susan Brady, published by Traveler’s Tales, Palo Alto, CA, 2006, pp. 82-89.



ArticlesOct 26, 2010

What You Put in Your Glass

The days before Ramadan in Cairo are filled with anticipation. Paper and tinsel streamers appear across small lanes, inner courtyards, and wide roads. Lanterns and miniature mosques made of everything from cardboard to recycled tin and glass are hung and lit at night. The beginning of Ramadan is announced when “one trustworthy witness testifies before the Islamic authorities that the new moon has been sighted.” Everyone waits for the sliver of moon to appear and to hear the official news announcing the start of Ramadan, which started on August 10 this year.

Ramadan is the Islamic holy month (30 days) of fasting, blessings and prayers. It marks the ninth month of the Moslem year, which commemorates the revelation of the first verses of the Koran to the Prophet Muhammad through the Archangel Gabriel.

Fasting during Ramadan is one of the five pillars of faith for Moslems. All adults are expected to fast, unless they are pregnant, menstruating, sick, or traveling. Before the month, I found my neighbor Mona fasting ahead of time to account for her days of menstruation during Ramadan. She also told me that children are often encouraged to fast in a small way to help prepare for when they are older.

I don’t think I could manage such a fast. From 5:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. you are not allowed to eat or drink anything. You are also not allowed to smoke, have impure thoughts, or sexual relations, and many people resist these temptations for the entire month. I admit to wondering what “sexual relations” meant. Could you kiss your husband so long as you didn’t have intercourse? Later a Moslem friend told us that it meant you weren’t allowed to touch your spouse. Needless to say, marriages are rare during this month.

Alcohol, which is available in Egypt, becomes prohibited and removed from shop shelves. Most bars are closed. If you want a drink and look Egyptian, you have to show your passport proving you are not.

Strict Moslems even refrain from swallowing, and many don’t use toothpaste. (You might swallow water and toothpaste while brushing your teeth!) Instead they brush their teeth with a twig of miswak. Among its benefits are that it “clears the brain, generates a sense of well-being, remedies the stomach for the next meal, embraces the prophetic tradition, adds to one’s merit, pleases Allah, and delights the angels.”

Mr. Ashraf was our main guide through the Ramadan season. He is a sincere and gentle man of immense bulk, and we met him one day by the Sphinx when he approached us to see if we needed a cab. At first he appeared a bit frightening, with broad hands that looked as if they could knock your head off. My husband and I hesitated, but then agreed, once Mr. Ashraf pointed to his relatively new, clean Mazda.

He told us during that first trip into town that he had been teaching computer science at the university for $100 per month, but found taxi driving much more lucrative. The year we lived in Giza, we often called on Mr. Ashraf to taxi us through Cairo, and my Dutch husband Kees and he developed a special friendship.

Mr. Ashraf, unlike many Egyptians who rely on tourists for their livelihood, did not pretend to be your great friend while calculating how much money he could possibly wring from your wallet. He was respectful and courteous with regard to securing your business, and yet it was also clear that what he valued most was personal human contact. My husband and he grew to know one another while driving through the snarl of Cairo traffic. While their worlds, experiences, and way of thinking would always make them strangers to one another, their mutual appreciation and genuine liking became stronger with time.

During Ramadan, Mr. Ashraf kept saying, “I hope, insha’allah (God willing), that you come to my home for breakfast.” I kept wondering if “breakfast” meant at 5 in the morning, when most Moslems eat yogurt and dates or a big plate of brown beans seasoned with cumin and lemon to last them through the day.

Later I found out that “breakfast” in Arabic is iftar which is what they call the evening meal during Ramadan, because, in fact, the meal is “breaking the fast.” About one hour before the 5:00 p.m. evening prayers and meal, the streets become full of bustling excitement as people run around buying last minute food. The air becomes electric with the promise of eating and drinking.

This was one thing about Ramadan that struck me as odd, as the 12-hour abstinence is followed by platefuls of meat, rice, vegetables, and sweets – a feast every night. The rest of the evening consists of lulling with full bellies in front of the TV watching special programs prepared for the holiday season.

Right before 5:00 in the evening, you can also see tents where long tables are prepared to seat and feed the poor. Such tables and chairs appear in parking lots, under freeway overhangs, in front of mosques, and alongside downtown office buildings. I kept threatening Kees that one night I was going to sit down to see what might be served, but Mr. Ashraf saved him the embarrassment by explaining to me that the rich people in the various neighborhoods treat the poor every night to meat, rice, vegetables, and fruit juice.

Such almsgiving is also an important part of Ramadan, and many people contribute to these mawa’id al-rahma (meals of compassion). In addition, begging is tolerated and there are even certain areas in town where the disabled and poor gather to beg for alms. This can be quite disconcerting, as you are greeted by every miserable human condition, yet, it gives everyone the opportunity to extend a special kindness to strangers.

Ramadan is also a time for prayer and everyone is encouraged to read the entire Koran. Often, while walking to the market, I would pass men sitting in wooden chairs reading the Koran in the midday sun. The Koran plays from radios more regularly, and one day while buying my cucumbers and tomatoes, the old woman shopkeeper mouthed along with the suras.

Despite not eating or drinking, everyone seemed so happy and at the same time exhausted. Dark circles ringed the eyes on the faces in the subway and when walking into a shop, I would often come upon a clerk, nearly asleep, with his or her head down on the desk. When listening to the English news one day at 2:30 p.m., I heard the woman newscaster fumble tenses and stumble over simple words. “Poor thing,” I said to my husband. “She hasn’t eaten anything since five this morning.”

Throughout the month, people wished each other a Happy Ramadan. As a conversation piece, I went around asking people, “Are you having a nice Ramadan?” They would smile, nod, and insist they were. This started to annoy me, mainly because of my own weaknesses. Nobody seemed to be starving, thirsty, or dying to have sexual relations, which, I admit, would be my whining attitude if forced into such a pillar of faith. The Egyptians are tough people, and, even when Ramadan falls in the summer months, fasting Muslims won’t touch a drop of water.

It wasn’t long, however, before Kees and I had entered the collective consciousness. During the day, we discretely ate our own regular meals inside with the curtains drawn and did not drink our usual bottles of water in public. Any meals out during the day were usually taken at tourist hotels. But the odd thing was some mornings we found ourselves waking up hungry before sunrise! Once at 4:30 we sat in bed eating yogurt marveling at how unconsciously we had tuned into the lives of the hundreds of millions of Arab Moslems fasting around us.

Ramadan in Egypt actually felt to us as if we were on one gigantic retreat. Everywhere we went, people were fasting, giving alms, praying, purifying themselves, singing religious words, and feeding the poor.

Most evenings, we climbed our terrace to watch the sun set behind the pyramids. Camels loped home, horses cantered and donkeys quickened their seemingly careful plodding steps. The sun would slip behind the Sahara horizon and soon the street emptied.

Then the mosques would call “Allah Akbar!” – one, two, three, up to six echoing the evening prayer in a blast of amplified sound. From the terrace we would then turn east and gaze over the city of 18 million people, 16 million Muslims, and imagine each of them home, surrounded by family, eating their dinner. Quiet soon descended and a satisfying stillness. Around 10 p.m. the streets would fill again with people visiting friends or descending on restaurants, nightclubs and bars that had been turned into Ramadan tents where men could enjoy smoking a water pipe and a game of backgammon.

Later, around 2 p.m., I would sometimes hear the musharati, a night caller who walked through the village banging on a small drum. Paid by the mosque, he chanted every morning to awaken the people for their suhoor (the last meal before daybreak). Two in the morning seemed early for him to wake us up for a plate of broad beans, but if you wanted to indulge in sexual relations before dawn, perhaps his timing wasn’t so bad.

Finally the evening came when we would be guests of Mr. Ashraf and his family for iftar. “Ten days eating. Ten days cake. Ten days new clothes. This is what they say about Ramadan,” Mr. Ashraf said that night while driving us to his home.

The night before he had been out shopping until midnight with his son and daughter for their new clothes, and had promised his wife the same. This is because the day following Ramadan, everyone celebrates by enjoying a mid-day meal and afterwards wearing new clothes and strolling through their village.

“You always need two times money during Ramadan. To buy meat. To buy sweets. To buy clothes. You know,” Mr. Ashraf continued, “everybody like Ramadan because stomach takes a rest and every night with family. One night with my mother. One night with my brother. One night with the mother of my wife.

“And you, Mr. Kees,” he said smiling at my husband. “You are like brother to me. Really. I mean this. Tonight we eat with my brother.”

The significance of this statement was not lost on any of us. Only three months had passed since the tragedy of September 11th, and the idea that East and West, Christian and Moslem, might be brothers seemed to be a small miracle in the midst of the world’s fear.

Mr. Ashraf turned down an unpaved narrow street and parked the car. We entered the dark foyer of an apartment building and carefully climbed the unlit concrete steps to the first floor. Mr. Ashraf opened the door and bid us to enter. “You are welcome.”

We walked timidly into the living room which was furnished with gilded chairs and sofa out of a Louis XIV decorating showroom. Everything seemed to glitter with gold. One wall was completely wall-papered with a giant photograph of a river stream. Mr. Ashraf sat us down and then disappeared with great agitated excitement. Soon his 15-year-old son, Wusem, appeared through the same door that had swallowed Mr. Ashraf. “Welcome to Egypt,” he said and as quickly disappeared. It all seemed like magic, as Wusem was a perfect miniature of his father, only without the mustache.

We sat listening to the television blaring Ramadan tunes in the next room and the busy shouts of preparation from the entire family. Mr. Ashraf had worked as a chef in a tourist hotel for four years and the meal promised to be gourmet. He had taught his wife, Huwayda, all he knew and liked to boast how she had become a better cook than he.

We were soon invited to enter the dining room, which also had one entire wall papered with a series of waterfalls. It was there we met Mr. Ashraf’s wife and nine-year-old daughter, Chulut. The room was sparsely furnished with a dining room table, cabinet, and TV.

We all took our places at the table which was beautifully set with individual portions of half chicken, rice, peas and carrots in a tomato sauce, and a dish uniquely Egyptian called molokkia. This green slimy soup-like broth is made of minced Jew’s mallow (a leafy herb) and chicken stock. Tablespoons of molokkia are poured over rice to flavor it.

We started with a hot bowl of “bird’s tongue soup” so named for the pasta that floats in it has the shape of what you might imagine birds’ tongues to look like. Mr. Ashraf, whose size easily fills any space, sat next to me and his wife directly across. Her hair was completely contained under a chic head wrap and her smooth skin was the color of café latte. Our eyes met across the table and we each seemed to approve of the other. She spoke little English but understood more. “My wife say you bring light into our house,” Mr. Ashraf translated for us.

We used our fingers to devour the tender chicken. Mr. Ashraf kept smacking his lips and saying, “Eat. Eat. The chicken is very good.” In fact, that was his ploy all evening, telling us how one thing or another “was very good” which any polite guest would have to agreed with and then prove by eating all the more.

Both children were studying in private English schools, and his son was happy to answer our questions of how old he was, what time did he go to school, what time did he return, and so forth. His younger sister noted everything and spoke less, frustrated with her brother’s dexterity and the attention it brought. Throughout the meal, Mr. Ashraf translated for the rest of us, between English and Arabic.

After the meal, our fingers saturated with chicken grease, we were ushered into the bathroom to wash our hands. On the floor in one corner swimming in a basin was a catfish, saved by the little girl from death the other evening. It had narrowly escaped being part of the feast of fresh fish. We then returned to the living room while everyone else became busy with the cleaning up and preparation of the tea and desert. Every so often, Wusem would appear in the doorway, beaming, “Welcome to Egypt.”

Soon the children came to show us with great solemnity their new clothes for Ramadan. I noted the matching pink bows on Chulut’s jeans and jacket and we balked at the size of Wusem’s new sneakers. His huge hands and feet exposed his immanent growth into manhood. Then the children retired to the room they shared and their parents returned with mint tea and a plate piled high with katayef, a sweet delicacy of fried dough filled with hazelnuts.

“The katayef are very good,” Mr. Ashraf said pointing to the 20 or more sweets that sat in front of me. What could I do? Of course, I had to over indulge. Everything in the end was washed down with two glasses of freshly squeezed orange juice, the second glass only appearing after I agreed that it was “very good.”

After all this gorging, Mr. Ashraf returned the conversation back to sacrifice. “You know. Fasting is good. You learn that you can control many things. Everything is for only looking, but no touch. Water, food, your wife. And after, you learn that you can make this.

“This is like my life now. I work sometimes 16 hours in one day. I try to buy my children the books they need for study. My wife the things she needs for house. My working, il-hamdu-l-illah (thanks be to God), makes for beautiful things in my life and the life of my family.

“My mother learned me one thing. What you put in a glass, that is what you drink. You put in sugar, you drink sugar. You put in tea, you drink tea. You put in something not good, you drink that. It’s the same with your children. It’s the same with your life.”

And so with that, we said our thanks and good byes. Their kindness and welcome extended to us was something we would never forget. We felt blessed for such an evening with a family who are trying to build a life with human dignity under the auspices of their own Islamic traditions. Ramadan, in this way, seemed to reflect all that is human - piety and gaiety, charity and ostentation, sacrifice and indulgence.


A shorter version of this story appeared on the Inter-Religious Dialogue website.

ArticlesAug 10, 2010

Luck and Longing - Learning to Play Italian Cards

They say “It’s all in the cards,” and in Italy that is probably more true than elsewhere. During the afternoons, village bars, including the one in our town, are full of retired men gesticulating wildly, shouting at each other, or frowning in defeat as they play one card game after another. Even in our modern times, these card games remain dominated by men. No woman would dare to sit at a table, but, more than likely, no woman would want to sit at a table. In the winter, the rooms fill with tobacco smoke as well as the passion of the players, and the blare of the television only adds to the furore. I am told there is money at risk, as small wages are placed, but certainly not enough to cause all the commotion that besieges anyone walking in to the cafe for an espresso.

Kees and I had our own taste of this excitement recently when our neighbors invited us to their house to learn how to play Scopa.  Angelo and Pina are originally from Sicily, and, since Angelo has retired from his job in Roma, they spend the warmer months in our village. Pina is a typical mamma italiana: once petite, now full and fleshy, chatty, full of advice, a good cook, and with tender grace can easily place her hand on your forearm while talking to you. Angelo is trim, with thinning white hair, slow to smile, but has the ability to elude a grand wit at the most surprising and opportune moments.

So when they offered to teach us how to play Italian card games, we readily agreed, anticipating an evening’s fun. But we had one problem: my husband. If ever there was a handicap for card playing, he is it. Despite being brilliant with languages, Kees is absolutely hopeless at cards. On our bookshelf sit eight volumes of Plato’s Dialogues in the original Greek. But don’t worry, if you have trouble reading the Greek, you can always check the German translation that runs alongside it. I call these our “show-off books,” even though I know my husband has seriously read them. I myself enjoy pulling Volume One out whenever we have guests, opening it up casually, and saying, “Yes, I was just reading Plato’s discourse on democracy. Quite fascinating really.” I then point randomly to some section, and pout pensively, “What do you think about what he says here?”

So you would assume that a person who can read Greek and German along side one another could manage to figure out that 6 + 3 = 9. But then life and marriage is full of surprises.

Granted, things didn’t appear that simple at first, as we faced a completely foreign deck of cards.  Scopa (which means “to sweep”) is played with an Italian deck, which has 40 cards divided into four suits: denari (coins), coppa (cups), spada (swords), and bastone (caveman-like clubs). Each suit has values from one (or ace) to seven with three picture cards: fante (infantry), cavallo (cavalier), and re (king).

All this seems straightforward enough except that the cards are so elaborately decorated that you feel as if you’re looking at Renaissance frescos. For example, the six of swords has so many swirling curves winding around the blades, that you need a few seconds to know that you are looking at six swords and not five or seven. All three picture cards are so brightly colored with the man prominently displayed, that it can take a while before you discriminate the tiny crown on the king’s head or the cavalier’s horse . And the ace of coins appears as a huge eagle that can barely fit on the surface of the card with a big white hole in its stomach. This deck is said to be at least 700 years old, so I can only suppose they kept adding more festoons, swirls, fringes, and color as the years went on to make the cards more interesting. But for a novice they are a bit of a nightmare, especially when one is pressed to quickly decide on which ones to keep and which to throw.

Still, vermouth and whisky were poured as we bent over the new deck of cards to learn the rules of the game.  You play as a couple, sitting across from your partner, and the idea is to capture cards that are left face up on the table by matching them with what is in your hand, trying to win especially the sevens and coins. If you can clear all the cards on the table, that is called “scopa” as you are sweeping the table clean, and it counts as an extra point. At the end of each game, points are counted, and the team that reaches 21 first wins.

I was paired with Angelo and Kees with Pina. The first few hands were played with all cards showing so they could explain the various strategies to us. Finally, we agreed to play for real, and the cards were dealt. That’s when things became serious.

Angelo was so impassioned about the various hands that his face would flush red and I worried that he might have a heart attack. After I made a mistake, he kept screaming across the table, “Fai attenzione! Fai attenzione! Pay attention! Pay attention!” You’d think I was about to drive a 18-wheel truck into a stone wall, not mistakenly leave a potential “scopa” on the table for our opponents.

Meanwhile, Kees was proving himself to be completely lost in the numbers. “Now, let me see. Umm. Seven and two. Uh, is that a seven?” he’d ask in all innocence pointing to a card on the table. “So, let’s see, that’s nine, isn’t it? And which card is nine? A horse or a infantry man?” After taking what seemed like forever, even for me, he’d inevitably make some mistake. Pina, despite hating to lose to Angelo, was kind. “Non fa niente, Giovanni,” she’d say gently, “It’s nothing. Never you mind.” All the while her upper lip trembled.

Sometimes, I didn’t know which card to discard, and intuitively, I’d be lucky and guess right. Angelo’s face would then change from stern concern to glee. “Ah, Caterina è troppa buona. Troppa buona,” he’d say as he gathered up our winnings. “Catherine is too good. Too good.” And I wondered how quickly and easily I had entered into grace.

Counting points at the end of each hand was equally dramatic. Angelo and Pina would rapidly shuffle through our respective piles, sorting out coins and sevens and counting total cards. Angelo would slam cards down on the table so loudly that I nearly jumped out of my chair. “Culettone!” Pina yelled at him, and Kees’ ears perked up.

Culettone? Well, this is where you learn real Italian,” he said, as Pina blushed. Apparently, culo, is the vulgar word for arse, and whenever you add “one” (pronounced OH-NEY) to an Italian word it means “big.” So culettone literally means “big arse” but it is used to refer to someone who is extraordinarily lucky, someone who wins against all odds.

Meanwhile, Pina and Kees would tally in with zero points while Angelo gloated over our five. Angelo was scorekeeper, and he kept track of each team’s points in a specially bound book where they record all their card games. “Look, Caterina! We have five, and they have zero SPACCATO!” As he said spaccato (which means “split”) the word seemed to spit out of his mouth, and, holding up the book so everyone could see, he dramatically drew a line through their zero. “Ha, ha. Zero SPACCATO!”

“Oh,” said Pina in return, “you are nothing but un bambino. You should see how mad he gets at me if we are losing. Mamma mia! He gets so mad. And now, look at him, how he is when he is winning. Un bambino.” She then turned to Angelo and said in English for my benefit, “Baby - you.”

“You are a big baby,” I said as if correct her, but really more in agreement.

“I’m maddest at myself when I make a dumb mistake,” Angelo admitted as he shuffled the cards, thwacking them down on the table for Kees to cut.

And so we continued. After one hour, Kees was completely numb and even Pina was losing her patience. “But why didn’t you use the six of coins?” she asked Kees despondently, as Angelo and I kept sweeping the table clean, leaving them with nothing but zero SPACCATO!

“Oh, me...” Kees smiled and shrugged his shoulders. “I just like the company. After one hour, these cards don’t make sense anymore.” (As opposed to Plato’s discourse on Truth in Greek and German?)

“Oh yes,” Pina finally admitted. “You are an intellectual. You don’t have a head for cards. You know,” she continued. “Angelo and I have played a lot of cards over the years. We’ve played with lots and lots of people, some of them very, very good. And you know something? The one’s who don’t care about the cards never win. It always seems to happen that way. When you don’t care about the cards, the cards, they never come. And that’s the truth.”

With that, we tipped our glasses empty, kissed each other goodbye twice, once on each cheek, and said good night.


This story first appeared in Italy Magazine

ArticlesAug 1, 2010


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