The Neighborhood Phone

As often happens in my life, gifts, the things I wish for, always materialize when I am thinking of throwing in the towel, when I give up and let life pass through me.

For seventeen years I had dreamed of what my return to my country would be like, the places I would visit, the people I would meet, how I would feel, and certainly that indescribable smell of home that would sweep through me.

Instead, nothing was as I had imagined it would be.

I spent the first fifteen days in the company of good old Zeggu. Zeggu lived in Kechenè, a small neighborhood among the poorest in Addis Ababa where, at night, hyenas prowled and during the day medicine women robbed passersby of their energy. Where Zeggu lived there was only one family that owned a phone, and, luckily for me, everyone could use it, including Zeggu. Every morning I woke up early and called the house, where a woman with a sleepy voice would answer:

—At your service

—Good morning, this is Gennet, Zeggu's friend, could you please call him for me?

—Certainly, just a minute.

I heard her slow steps fade away in the room, a window opening and then the sleepy voice would change to a yell:

—Call Zeggu, someone!

"Just a minute" normally lasted twenty minutes, during which over the phone I could hear fragments of life: bursts of laughter, noises, the sound of a radio, children playing …

After that endless wait Zeggu would answer, gasping for breath, "I'm coming, I'm coming…" which meant another forty-five minutes.

I could see him climbing up the hill that led to my hotel, with that ambling gait, stopping now and then to greet someone. He was so slow, he irritated me to no end. I would walk toward him grumbling:

—Couldn't you walk faster, it wouldn't cost you anything.

He looked at me with his shrewd eyes, eyes that were far-seeing.

—I only let you treat me like this because I can feel your pain . . . and then he would embrace me.

I forced him to accompany me on my wild pilgrimage, in search of my old life that in some way I expected to have been preserved intact, in some corner of Ethiopia, but I never found it. One day, exhausted, with blisters on the soles of my feet, I sat down on the steps in the square, took off my shoes and socks, and said to him:

—That's it, I've had it, I don't want to look for anything any more . . . this is just too painful for me.

Zeggu gave a little satisfied laugh:

—About time! . . .You see—he took a deep breath—you need to lead with your heart, not your mind.

—What do you mean?

—Your heart lets life happen, your mind, on the other hand, wants to control things. Up to now you've been on the wrong track. Let yourself go.

—If only it were that easy, what do you suggest?

—Come to Kechenè tomorrow, everyone knows about you, you know… only one phone but many mouths, lots of chatter. People are curious; everyone would like to meet you. You'll see, your heart will certainly find something there.

I wasn't very convinced, but he had been so kind and I didn't want to offend him so I agreed to go.

The following day he came to get me all dressed up, all smiles. It took us a long time to find a taxi. No one was willing to drive to Kechenè without charging us an exorbitant sum. The only cab driver who very grudgingly agreed to a reasonable fare, dropped us off at the bottom of the hill to the famous neighborhood.

A little girl in a turquoise dress and a white turban ran toward us with a small cardboard box in her hands. She put the box under my nose and, flashing a contagious smile, said: "Chewing gum." I looked at her beautiful eyes and then inside the box. Scattered over the bottom were pieces of lemon and cherry gum. I bought one for ten cents. Beaming with satisfaction she went and sat on a stone. Her dress slipped up, revealing the fleshy labia of her small sex. I looked at her in embarrassment. She kept smiling at me. I went on, passing in the middle of shacks, rivulets, open sewers. The smell of red chili peppers drying in the sun and of freshly toasted coffee filled my nostrils. Old memories came to my mind, images of women chatting around the coffeepot on a brazier, embraces, the sound of water being poured into the coffeepot, the stone floor of the room that led into the kitchen of my old home. All at once, I felt a lump in my throat.

The road widened; there was a clearing where some children were playing soccer kicking up clouds of dust. Behind them, like a jarring note, stood a little house, with pale green walls and a tin roof. Two purple bougainvilleas wrapped around it and under a window some little girls were hugging and laughing. On the other side of the clearing there was a small store that doubled as a café and two eucalyptus trees with a few beat-up chairs underneath that were, in fact, the café.

—That's the house with the telephone, Zeggu said, pointing to the small villa.

We climbed the steps and crossed the veranda. Zeggu knocked on the door. The sleepy voice shouted:

—I'm coming, just a minute.

I looked at my watch. Ten minutes went by and then the door opened. I could finally put a face to the voice that all those mornings had answered the phone. A small head covered with a brightly colored scarf peaked out. When she looked up, her sharp eyes caught me by surprise.

She smiled and, throwing open the door wide, invited us in.

The house was beautiful, with wooden floors and a blue living-room set arranged in the shape of a horseshoe in front of a large fireplace.

Zeggu pointed at a big woman with a rolling gait who was coming toward us.

—That's the owner of the house, Mrs. Ascalech.

We made ourselves comfortable on the couches. In front of us, on a small table, was the famous neighborhood phone.

One by one all the woman's daughters arrived. They sat near me and began to ask me about Italy and my life there.

The phone rang. The sleepy voice went to answer. The same ritual that I had heard every day with my ear glued to the phone … the slow steps, the window opening and the yell:

—Mrs. Abeba is looking for the medicine woman.

I gave Zeggu a questioning look. The lady of the house started laughing and, slapping me on the knee, said:

—Watch this!

Her clothes fluttering and her hair all messed up, a woman erupted into the house like a tornado. I tried to see her face. Her eyes looked like threatening slits, they scared me and I immediately looked away. Brushing aside all formalities, she picked up the phone.

—What is it this time? she thundered

Every now and then we could hear the caller's voice. It sounded like the voice of an insignificant, whimpering woman.

—Tough luck, she answered. —You'll just have to make do, you aren't beautiful, you aren't wealthy, you aren't even fun to be with, and, what's more, you are old, too. That man is all I could come up with for you, if he is not what you want, find yourself another medicine woman—and she slammed the receiver down.

She quickly checked things out, looked at the lady's daughters, and pointed her finger threateningly at each one of them.

—If I ever notice that there is even the slightest chance that you could become like her (and she pointed at the phone) I will immediately give you the evil eye so that you can die in peace … RIGHT NOW. She came toward me:

—Hello Gennet, welcome home. She pinched my cheek and went out into the courtyard.

—Lazybones! Good for nothing … if it weren't for me …you, how would you ever save souls? You only know how to drown them in the Teggh.

—Who is she yelling at? I asked Witzerœ Ascalech.

—The neighborhood priest, he's always drunk!

We ate and the phone kept ringing. In the afternoon we moved to the veranda to drink coffee.

Several women arrived. Some were really poor, dressed in worn, colorless rags, holding their children who had runny noses and were full of fleas and lice. They sat down with us to drink coffee and eat hambasha. Some of them were waiting for phone calls. The children ran, played, and hugged anyone who came within their reach. Anyone except me. I was looking at them with an air of slight disgust … they were so dirty. The women realized I was uncomfortable and they discreetly sent them away so that they wouldn't bother me. The phone rang, a woman jumped up. The sleepy voice answered and yelled to a child playing soccer:

—Choni's fiancé from America. The child pulled ten cents out of his pocket and gave them to another child who ran to call Choni.

The woman sat down.

A few minutes went by and then a girl appeared, as beautiful as a flower, with long, muscular legs and eyes like a wild cat. She took the steps in one leap.

—Good evening, everybody, she greeted some children and ran to the phone.

She started talking softly and now and then let slip a giggle. She had her elbows on the table and her head was resting on her free hand. She took her shoes off and with the front part of her foot she started stroking her calf; then she shook her head, making her little braids bounce up and down, and started laughing.

She was a real knockout, she would have blown away any man. Her phone conversation over, she came toward the veranda with a dreamy air, stumbled at the door. Witzerœ Ascalech looked at her.

—Choni, you were more awake when you walked in. They both laughed.

As if decreed by fate, everything in Kechenè passed through that house and that phone. Waits, job offers, marriage proposals, love, deaths, the arrival of the vet that had to examine the cows that had been attacked by hyenas, marble contests, the birth of children. Even small accidents, cuts, bruises.

And so the rest of my vacation also ended up passing again and again through that house, over that phone.

At times the life of the neighborhood seemed like a painting, it was almost motionless; only slight indications, half turns of the wheel, hinted at the passing of time, at the evolution of events.

Choni managed to obtain a visa to go to the United States to be with her love, the little girl with the turquoise dress sold all the pieces of cherry gum.

The witch started to dedicate part of her precious time to sitting on the chairs under the eucalyptus trees trying to banish the demons of alcohol from the body of the poor priest, with such shouts and cursing that the frail walls of the church shook along with everything inside, including the saints' souls and I, I found the way to soothe my restlessness by letting myself be lulled by afternoon chatter, in the company of ragged women and children.

During one of these afternoons a child stumbled and fell on me, smearing my pants with half of the egg yolk he had in his mouth … my stomach turned.

Witzerœ Ascalech started laughing.

—Why don't you ever let these children hug you? The love they give you is sincere, it remains forever inside of you. Dirt can easily be removed with soap and water, she looked at me to see if she could go on, she sighed. —You know I have spent a lot of time watching you. You are more relaxed compared to the first few days, I don't deny it, but it is hard for you to change your rhythms. Your heart is still closed, you always have your useless plans on hand. Look, she lifted my wrist, —even after a month you still go around with a watch, you measure time. You're not in Italy, haven't you realized? What you came to look for you will only find here, among your people, in the rhythm of your own land. That's what you lost in Europe, that slow, extended rhythm that opens all the doors. It will make you cry, rejoice, thank your homeland. Only this way will you find yourself again.

That evening, on my way home with Zeggu, I stopped on the bridge before my hotel and I threw my beautiful Swatch into the river.

Within me, with that gesture, I accepted and opened those famous doors.

I cried all of the following days, in front of my old house with the abandoned garden, at my father's grave, whenever the phone rang, when I saw the witch. I cried and I washed the anger of such a long separation out of my heart. Finally, I felt light in my heart and I no longer minded the waits by the phone, the buses that never seemed to leave, the lines to buy sugar, haggling with taxi drivers, the hugs of dirty children. My land was once again familiar to me.

My vacation ended. I had to return to my other home, to Italy, to Bologna.

The day before leaving I said good-bye to all of Kechenè. Witzerœ Ascalech hugged me.

—You did it, you really found yourself again ... my phone makes miracles happen, doesn't it? And she laughed.

Zeggu was the one who took me to the airport, Zeggu, my faithful old friend.

Shortly before my check-in Zeggu motioned me to look behind me. I turned around and found the witch and the priest in front of me. They came closer, she was pushing him.

—Go on, speak!

—Leave me alone, you ugly old witch…

He reached over and touched me.

—God bless you, may you find happiness, and he placed his wooden cross on my forehead.

His eyes were misty.

He turned around abruptly.

—Now it's your turn, he said, turning to the witch.

—Here's a little soil from Kechenè … and some other things that I added… they will protect you.

She handed me a small bag and they left.

I arrived in Italy and I was immediately besieged by the fast pace of life: news, alarm clock, work, dinners, friends, theater, but with peace inside of me. In that sacred place where I preserved the rhythm of my land everything was still, even when there was suffering. Now I could be anywhere on this planet, home was inside me… and if ever I lost my way, there was always that telephone.

Copyright Eks&Tra Association for Publishing, www.eksetra.net. Translation copyright 2008 by Giovanna Bellesia and Victoria Offredi Poletto. All rights reserved.