Unexpected heroes

When my car broke down in West Virginia, I had visions of myself hunting down a toothless backwoods mechanic. As I stood at a gas station counter, buying every quart of 5W-30 synthetic oil the station had, I told the lady, “My car hates West Virginia!”

“We all do,” she remarked dryly.

A man stood behind me, 12-pack of Coors Light in hand. He looked a bit like Gimli, the dwarf of The Lord of the Rings—a bit pudgier and balder, but not much taller. He caught my glance. “You’re looking pretty today,” he graveled.

Apparently, I was being appraised just as I had been appraising. Apparently, he hadn’t noticed my frumpy traveling clothes. “Thank you.” I turned away from him and slipped outside as soon as I had my change.

I ducked under the hood of the car, carefully re-checking the oil and wondering how I would ever make it to my destination. My dad was helplessly 10 hours away while my car reeked of hot oil.

A man walked past. “Problems?” He studied the car. “This is a new car! It should still be under warranty.” And then he walked away shaking his head.

Thanks. Even if it had been under warranty—which it wasn’t—how would that solve my immediate problems? I was stuck in the middle of the West Virginia mountains. He may as well have said, “Be warmed and filled” before going on his way.

But suddenly Gimli and his equally rough-looking companion were standing under the hood with me. “Problems?” Gimli set down the Coors Light. The men listened to my description of the symptoms, filled the engine with fresh oil, and looked around under the car. Last, they started the car and listened to the heartbeat of the engine. And just as dusk was approaching, they sent me on my way.

No, my car wasn’t miraculously healed, but I limped along with the mighty reassurance that God was looking out for me, even if it was through unexpected heroes.

Happy birthday, Albert

The way he oohs and aahs over simple pleasures. The way he slobbers out motor sounds while he drives his cars and tractors across the carpet. The way he points at things with an excited gasp, expecting you to look in wonder. The way he giggles with Eskimo hugs. The way he “dances” when he hears bouncy music. And the way he sings in church– “Aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa.”

We met only a few months ago, but he has already managed to steal my heart.

Happy first birthday, Albert Harris.

A morning of sounds

What does my typical North African morning sound like?

  • Mourning doves cooing outside of my window and a lonely rooster penned in someone’s courtyard
  • Slated shades being pulled up from various apartments
  • Water running, the electric kettle steaming, my own munching and slurping
  • A few mumbled “Good morning”s and “Have a good day”s
  • The bang of the door as I pull it shut behind me
  • Clomp, clomp, clomping down two stories of steps and the banging the apartment building door
  • The murmur of passing cars from a perpendicular street
  • A few snatches of conversation between school children and university students
  • A cat meowing as it digs through leftover garbage
  • “Bonjour!… Bonjour! Hola! Hello?”
  • Horns honking around a busy intersection as other cars and pedestrians assume the right-of-way
  • Motorcycles, buses, trucks, cars, bicycles weaving in and out of each other—the screech of brakes and more horns and perhaps some yelling
  • A jackhammer of busy men working on the street
  • “سلام”
  • The scratching of a stalk broom on a sidewalk
  • The buzz of the Arabic school’s call button and consequently the opening of three heavy doors
  • “صباح الخير. لا باس؟”  “لا باس الحمد لله.”
  • The sharp sound of chairs on a bare floor and the rumble of moving wooden tables as we all pile in and settle down for a long Arabic session

A day of smells

What does a typical day in North Africa smell like? Well, this is my day in smells:

  • the cold of the morning outside of my blankets
  • the bathroom: a strange mingling of soap, wet, and a scent that creeps up the drain overnight
  • the sweet of a clean kitchen until I open the refrigerator and catch a whiff of leftovers with a hint of aged dairy
  • outside the front door, there is a deeper cold smell mixed with the trash that cats have been sorting through during the night
  • and speaking of cats, their odor lingers despite their absence–not overwhelming, just there
  • walking past several men’s cafes guarantees a pair of lungs full of cigarette smoke
  • exhaust fumes from cars, taxis, and buses
  • the smell of used taxi seats partially covered by an air freshener and the cold
  • trash, fumes, and the sweet citrus of the orange trees on the walk from the taxi to school
  • the faint smell of gas from the lounge heater
  • wood smoke seeping out of a nearby house
  • food cooking in the cafes mixed with the ever-present cigarette smoke and the scattered trash
  • rotting fruit rolling along the sidewalk, kicked and trodden upon by passersby
  • garlic and chicken for lunch and consequently garlic on my breath after lunch
  • exhaust fumes and the sharp stench of urine on my walk to the park
  • the lovely freshness in the sweet acres of green and water: herbs, damp dirt, falling leaves
  • drifting in the open taxi window on my way to teach English is cigarette smoke, meat cooking on open grills, smell of humanity, and exhaust fumes
  • the pungent scent left over on the school desks of my classroom: what I imagine to be from unwashed hands
  • dry erase markers
  • mixed scents emanating from my junior high students: perfume, body odor, energy
  • and as the darkness falls, so does the cold, again suppressing the daytime scents
  • but there is still a damp that hovers in the air
  • and there is still the soap scent lingering on my sweatshirt as I cuddle up to study Arabic before bed

Photo by Brian Jimenez on Unsplash