March 18, 2010

Her mother tongue is English

Meet Sara. Her mother tongue is English.
We met
at a bus stop in Tel Aviv last week.
And, we have become good friends.

I was running late to meet another friend named Sara (her mother tongue is Bulgarian). We had big plans. Lunch at Cafe Yafo in Jaffa’s Ajami neighborhood south of Tel Aviv, and then a slow crawl through its streets. I had recently watched the film Ajami (which felt more about horrors of the poverty cycle than of the specific place — though that, too). Sara, a local longer than 40 years, agreed to be my guide.

Searching signs for Bus 18 to Jaffa from Allenby Street, I ran from Balfour to Montefiore Streets, and then in reverse as passersby pointed me up, and then down Allenby. Yet all I saw along those half dozen blocks were signs for other bus numbers and a new oddly nontraditional glass-domed bus stop absent any sign. 

And, that's when I met Sara. She was sitting on a bench at this stop, her long black pony tail striking a lovely contrast with her bright pink jacket and gaily-printed backpack. I asked, in Hebrew, whether she knew where Bus 18 stopped. She replied, Right here, and immediately shifted languages, declaring (with a British-sounding lilt that I learned within minutes was from her South African birthplace), My mother tongue is English. So you can speak English with me. I have spoken it all my life, and I love it. This bus stop is new, and they haven't put up the sign yet. It's very annoying to people, but I know this is it. My school is on Balfour Street, and I ride this bus every day.

A person after my own heart. Someone who knows her mind, speaks it without hesitation, is keenly interested in her surroundings, and knows her way around people and places.

And then, Bus 18 arrived. Sara quickly found a pair of empty seats and within minutes, told me that her mother had a fresh fish store, which was, I assured her, exactly what I had been seeking a long time. Specifically, I wanted fresh salmon. My mother sells fresh salmon, Sara practically shouted with joy. And from fish, we shifted to how we both came to be in Israel (a common opener between new friends here), and then to her experience on how people treat children in Jaffa (kindly) and in Tel Aviv (rudely).

I told her my name, asked hers, offered my card to give her mother, and asked whether she had permission to give me her mother's phone number (yes), and that I would call about her watery wares.

Me: May I take your picture? I always ask permission.

She: Yes, it's fine.

And moments later, Sara announced her stop, thanked me for my company, and told me she had very much enjoyed our conversation and hoped we'd meet again.

And we did. Four days later. With her mother's consent, I met Sara at school, where she immediately put her hand in mine while we walked to Bus 18, boarding it to her mother's fish store. There, we three chatted until Sara's mother closed the shop (to go home and shower, then start her next job giving private English lessons). Sara walked me to my bus home though not before leading me to the most cost-friendly greengrocer where she was elated to pose (shown in the photo at the top of this post) next to a box of mini-cantaloupes — Only one shekel, she squealed with glee.

We have another date tomorrow, when we will meet after school again; this time, we'll go to Steimatzky where Sara will choose two books, her Pesach gifts from Aunt Tamar, the name she has asked permission to call me.

Each time our encounters end, I am transported to images of the remarkable eponymous heroine of J.D. Salinger's exquisite short story, For Esme with Love and Squalor, in which the author has a brief, entrancing conversation with the precocious 13-year-old Esme, sparking a human connection that neither will ever forget.

At Balfour School, waiting
for the security guard to unlock the gate