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Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Strangers No More

Last Saturday night Brandon and I took a trip to the grocery store.  We had to pick up a few things for dinner the next day, along with staples like dried fruit, nuts, sweetened condensed milk and butter.  I never know when I'm going to the store next, so whenever I go I pick up at least four or five frozen saran wrapped logs of butter.  Because you never want to run out of butter.  I could probably get along without flour or eggs or maybe even milk, but butter is an essential.

While cruising the aisled of Poitacht at eight o'clock on a Saturday night, "Girls Just Wanna Have Fun" came on the tinny grocery store speakers.  I don't know why foreign grocery stores love American music, but it's been ubiquitous in every country we've lived in.  One grocery store in Cairo was having sound system problems and so every song was sung by Alvin and the Chipmunks.  I almost lost it when the Macarena came on.

Brandon and I danced past the soap and deodorant and continued to the spice aisle.  As we exclaimed over the Iranian dates - the best dates I've ever had are from Iran - a man came up to us.  "Excuse me," he asked in an American accent that matched his boots, hiking shirt, and backpack, "you look like you know what you're doing.  Do you know where the salt is?"

We showed him the salt and then fell into conversation.  Tajikistan is such a small, out-of-the way country that stumbling across another American is always fascinating.  Last Saturday we were driving back from a hike and saw a man on a bicycle loaded with panniers, wearing a Smith t-shirt.  He was so American, I wanted to stop and ask him how many countries he's been through in his cycling through Central Asia journey.  Because who else does such a crazy thing?  Once when Brandon and I were out shopping I saw several college-age girls dressed as locals enjoying ice cream cones, but just as American as me.  What are you doing here, I wanted to ask.  Because who comes to Tajikistan?

So we chatted with our fellow American and after awhile it was past nine o'clock and the store was looking like it might want to close.  After we parted ways, I sent Brandon chasing after our new friend to invite him for dinner.  He was traveling alone and trying to cook food in a practically unfurnished apartment, so I thought he might enjoyed something other than salt-less soba noodles for the next three days.  He accepted and I went home wondering what had possessed me to invite a complete stranger - one who had never been married and never had children - over to enjoy a family dinner with all five of our children.  Culture shock in Tajikistan is nothing compared to culture shock at our house.

When we got home, I realized we didn't even know his name.

Brandon and I figured it was a fifty-fifty chance that he would show up - after all who goes to dinner at the house of a random stranger that you met the night before in the spice aisle - but at 3:15, he was at our gate and ready for dinner.  We had warned the children that our dinner guest - by this time we had looked at his website and found out his name - wasn't here to watch the antics children and listen to an endless list of impossible what if questions.  Everyone sat (mostly) quietly at the table and excused themselves to play while the adults talked.

Martin had traveled to over 150 countries, so we swapped stories about traveling and driving and eating in foreign countries.  He told us of spending several days in a Georgian hospital after being beaten badly.  We told him about being evacuated from Cairo during the Arab spring.  He talked about spending four years in India growing up and how his family had never been the family anyone would have wanted.  We talked about religion and eternity.  He talked about a Great Spirit, or God, or Someone or Something that filled the world.  We both talked about existence and what we're doing here and what we can do to make our piece of the world better and more beautiful.  He watched the children play and wrestle and chase each other around the room as we tried to get them to be quiet.  We finished dinner, cleared the table, ate dessert, and sat.  Finally around nine, we said goodbye.

We exchanged contact information, and promised to help if anything was ever needed, and then returned to our normal lives.

If we had passed each other in the spice aisle of Safeway in Falls Church, nobody would have ever said a word to each other.  America is filled with Americans and nobody ever looks twice at each other, or if they do, it's surreptitiously.  We all go about our lives and our business encased in the bubble of our own existence and only let people in under the right circumstances.  Because there are so many to choose from, we have to be choosy.

But in Tajikistan, all Americans are like extended family.  We smile at each other on the street, make friends at parties, and reminisce about the things we miss most - Krispy Kreme doughnuts or large parking lots or neighborhoods with lawns and trees.  Because we are adrift in a sea of people so unlike ourselves, we cling to any accent that reminds us of home and familiarity.  It doesn't matter if we aren't the same religion or political affiliation or race or class.  We're American and so we already have more in common than with 99 out of 100 faces we pass on the street here.

And so, when we come across someone who is far from home and without family, we take him in to ours.  I don't know if we'll ever meet with Martin again, at least in this life, but he will always be part of our story.  One Sunday in late spring we will have always shared sushi and soba noodle soup, mulberry cobbler and ice cream, six hours of food and friendship and pondering on the universe.  And we will have one more person gathered into our thoughts and hearts, all because of the spice aisle on a summer Saturday evening.

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