Who Are the People in Your Neighborhood?

It was January when I arrived in Jordan, and it was cold, colder than I expected – nights frequently sank to freezing, days were in the 40s (F) to low 50s. Many of the old houses on Jabal Amman were built in the 1920s and 1930s, before central heating. Combined with the terrazzo tile floors, plaster walls, and ten-foot ceilings, walking through the living room could feel like walking through a restaurant-sized cooler. Victoria’s house had double-glazed windows, but it was still quite cool.

There were three options for heat: the wood stove, the expensive electric space heater or the much less expensive space heater fueled by gas. The wood stove didn’t work for me — wood stoves, especially non-airtight wood stoves, require being present to be useful. Using the electric space heater was not only expensive, but hurt Fatoush the Cat when it came on suddenly. He was sitting very close to it when the heating elements came on suddenly. It didn’t burn him, but the sudden heat and flash apparently hurt his eyes. He was okay after a few minutes and a lot of meowing and blinking, with no lingering ill effects. The gas heater gave a steady flow of heat that Fatoush was able to adjust to, and the gas came in bottles (8JD or about $11) that I paid for on delivery, so no bills at the end of the month.

Hani was the local gas bottle delivery guy. I would call when the gas bottle, which was steel not glass, was empty. He would ask when I wanted delivery, “When?” Then I would respond, “Today, please, to ‘Rakkam Sitteen Othman bin Affan,'” per Victoria’s instruction, and he would be there within the hour.

I am not Wonder Woman, but I am not a weakling. In my New York house I carried forty pound bags of wood pellets up a flight of stairs from the garage to the stove in my living room on a regular basis, and I am used to moving heavy things when necessary. It’s part of solo living. So, after I called Hani the first time, I was going to move the empty bottle out of the way, because I’m a nice person, right? That’s what I thought, however, I discovered that steel bottles are really, really heavy. I didn’t move it.

I mention this only because Hani would carry the FULL bottles on his shoulder, and walk down the steps to the house. Here is a photo of “the steps:”

There are a few more between the gate and my house. The sidewalk is up at the top where you see the branches. I’ve never counted the steps.

Hani would carry the bottle down the steps, into the house, and exchange the bottles in silence because he spoke no English. Two minutes later, he was gone, taking the empty bottle with him. I always thanked him (“Shukran”) because he was so prompt. I guess in his business, they know you’ll be cold while you’re waiting. I don’t have a photo of him, and I’m kind of sorry about that because the weather is warm now and I won’t see him again. I didn’t want to ask because he was so shy.

But sitting huddled around the gas space heater was not why I came to Jordan, so I used Google Maps to find places like Cafe@Books, and then Cafe Strada. Cafes and coffee shops in Amman are places that attract writers and students, people who appreciate coffee, food, and central heating. In both places, the tables near the power outlets were claimed early, and the occupants did not give them up for at least a couple of hours.

The people there were generally quiet, absorbed in their laptops, but they also used the space as an “open concept” office, making phone calls, holding meetings with cohorts, and even holding job interviews. (You don’t have to speak Arabic to know.) A few people spoke English, but most spoke Arabic. One time, I helped a gentleman who had been making phone calls at the next table. He was working on a deal to buy some retail pharmacy stores – he was emailing someone and asked me to check his English. Another time, I had an interesting conversation with an older gentleman who had been a captain in the Jordanian Air Force and traveled with King Hussein (father of the current King Abdullah II.) Each coffee shop had their own social circle, it seemed.

People still smoke in cafes here, in fact, smoking is very common. Cigarettes are frequently used because they are portable, but in the cafes, people would use these tall devices. There was a small container of water at the bottom, and the top had a kind of tray where the tobacco-type of stuff would burn. You can see the chunks of tobacco, which apparently comes in small bricks, in the photo. The smoker would use a mouthpiece attached to the tall device by about three feet of hose. The smoker would draw on the mouthpiece/hose, pulling air and smoke from the burning tobacco through the water to their mouths and lungs. (Yes, they wash the mouthpieces between customers.)

As a reformed smoker, I hated to see it, but for young Jordanian men and, especially, women, it has an attractive, mild element of rebellion.

The photo above is from Cafe@Books, a cafe that sits on top of a bookstore. English-language books are available in Jordan, but the inventory is old. I have visited several local bookstores, and I conclude that publishers ship remainders to foreign booksellers. When the titles are part of a series, there may be several of one title, or one or two from a series, but that’s all. Lonely Planet guidebooks, for instance, are piecemeal, generally more than four years old, and sometimes from very off-beat places. I bought four titles by Alexander McCall Smith, a Scottish fiction writer, which I enjoyed reading and would buy more, but I’ve never seen any since. This seems to happen even in large chain stores like Virgin Atlantic, although there may be specialty bookstores that are more current. The age and inconsistency of English-language books doesn’t make them less expensive, in fact, they recently became more expensive because Jordan has started to tax purchases for many things, including books.

The Cafe Strada is run by two young men. It has a small but very good menu and serves espresso drinks. (I also like that people don’t smoke inside there.) I have been there often enough these last few months that they recognize me as a regular customer and we’ve become friendly. At the beginning of February, I began taking lessons in Arabic, and so I began using words I knew. It is hard to describe how thrilled Jordanians are when foreigners try to learn their language. So now when I have a question, they are happy to help me, and they teach me new words when the opportunity arises, in addition to knowing how I like my coffee!

At the house where I am staying, the landlord’s name is Anton. He is married and has two sons, Costi and Kevin, who attend a local Catholic school. Anton’s brother, Frank, is staying with them right now, but he has lived in Brooklyn for a lot of years and one day will return there. Costi is high school age, and Kevin is in 7th grade and is studying English. I learned this when he came one day to ask for help. Kevin had been given a list of vocabulary words and he was supposed to practice pronunciation. It was fun to get to know him a little better, and my help has expanded to listening to him read the essays from his English workbook. He has helped me with my Arabic as well! I have enjoyed getting to know the family. When Costi called to me by name from a car full of friends the other day, I knew I had become part of the neighborhood. Kevin had just gotten his hair cut when I took his photo. I asked him if he liked it – he said no, his father had instructed the barber. Some things, like children looking forward to growing up, are universal.

I thought I would be leaving Jordan at the end of March, but Victoria won’t be returning until the end of April, so I will have a few more weeks here. The weather has warmed, and I am looking forward to April.

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