Tuesday, March 9, 2004

Hospitality and Hilarity

We grew up with our home open to all visitors. There was a guest room in the house where our teacher lived, but all persons had three meals a day together at our home. This was sometimes a very trying experience for my mother because Shirley and I were slow eaters and did not find food interesting. At times, one could find crusts under the table. Or, we would excuse ourselves from the table with food in our mouths, which we deposited into the calla lilies. Not having big appetites was one thing, but not finishing the various courses of food, with many people at the table, was another. My Mother came up with a solution. On the wall appeared a large poster with the days of the month marked off. Three meals were marked off each day. One section of the chart was for my sister, and one section was for me. My Mother explained that for each meal that we finished on time, we would be awarded a gold star on the chart. One week of perfect stars would mean a special surprise. We could speculate as to this surprise. Would it be a new dress Mother made for one of our dolls? We never knew, and we never found out. Alas, neither one of us ever achieved a week of gold stars.

The kitchen where the food was prepared for the students and staff might have been the reason our appetites could not be revived. It was here that “Injera” was made. It was a delicate twenty-inch thin, bubbly dark pancake made from tef flour. Pieces of the Injera were dipped into one of the “wat” stews seasoned with berberi. Occasionally, students would prepare “Kolo,” baked corn kernels, or “Dabo,” thick loaves of bread. Even though the aroma of such delicacies was one we dearly loved, these provisions were just too different from the way European food looked and tasted.

All of us loved company. We were all one big family, even if guests only came for one meal or for days or weeks, from Europe or America or from the embassies. We learned at an early age to behave properly. We even learned when and where it was proper to express our views. When Shirley was three, she was in the living room with the President of the General Conference. Just as Mother appeared in the doorway, she heard Shirley say in a most excited voice, “My grandma in America sent us a present. She sent me these lace panties.” As she raised the hem of her dress, my Mother was horrified to hear Shirley continue, “and guess what? My Mother has on some just like these.”

The hospitality of Herbert and Della Hanson was well known, even in the years before they moved from Addis Alem into Addis Abeba. Frequently, I would spend several days with them. Aunt Della would play games and give me piano lessons, and Uncle Herbert would tell wondrous stories of the local wild animals. He could howl like a hyena, and it was realistic and scary.

When I was six-years-old I was staying with them when Mr. Cramp from the American Embassy in Addis Abeba came for dinner. He was a large jolly man and had a magnificent proboscis. It was all adult talk for most of the meal. At one point when there was silence, I though it would be my turn to add to the conversation. In a clear loud voice I commented, “Mr. Cramp, you know if a big bird flew by it could sit on your nose.” There was dead silence until Mr. Cramp broke into a hearty laugh. The Hansons were too embarrassed to say anything. Mr. Cramp gave my sister and me a pony, so all must have been forgiven.

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