Notes from a fascinating world.
The world is like a bazaar, full of interesting odds and ends, and I've been exiled into it. This is my all-over-the-map (literally and metaphorically) attempt at capturing some of the world's many wonders.
I was just about sick of answering these overtures. They tend to get very excited seeing foreigners in Ethiopia. A chorus of "hello, hello," "China, China," and "how are you where do you come from" had followed me wherever I went. Just as often boys and young men physically followed me for as much as a mile.
So when one more voice asked me where I was from, I mumbled the second most acceptable answer, "Taiwan," then began heading inside. But he heard my American accent.
"But you live in America?" The guess surprised me, and I paused.
I was in Aksum, or Axum, in northern Ethiopia, an area chiefly populated by the Tigray people, an ethnic minority who dominated the Ethiopian government. According to tradition, this small, dusty town hosted not only the palace of the Queen of Sheba but also the Ark of the Covenant.
"Yes," I confirmed, or rather lied. I wasn't about to explain my condition of exile.
"Where?" My interrogator was a lanky young man, late teens, I thought, speaking fluent and eager if accented English.
"Ah, the Empire State."
"That's right." For a second I wasn't sure whether he was referring to the building. Then he made it clear.
"I know lots of state names. You know what Nevada is called?"
"The Silver State. You know what Oklahoma is called?"
"No idea. You know what Connecticut is called?"
"The Constitution State."
"The Constitution State," he repeated after me, as though memorizing it. But he was not eager to have tables turned. "You know New Jersey?"
"That’s right. Kentucky?"
"The Bluegrass State."
"Is he always like this?" I asked his two friends, who had remained quiet and would remain mostly quiet. A kid who endlessly recited American state names — I'd find that very annoying, but perhaps the aspiration implied was shared around these parts. They didn't reply.
"Please, sit with us." My curiosity piqued, I pulled up a chair and sat down. The boy's name turned out to be Asgedom. He was 19 years old and drove a taxi.
"How do you know so much about American states?"
"I visited my cousin in Salt Lake City four or five years ago. Back then I studied a lot, learned all the states' nicknames, and state capitals. Now I forget a lot." He looked practically forlorn. I told him that most Americans didn't know this stuff, but he ignored me. "America is a great country, a great country."
"Yeah? What do you think is great about it?"
"America has beautiful mountains."
"You have beautiful mountains right here." This seemed to embarrass him.
"Americans are very nice people."
"Sure. What about the election? Do you know about the election?"
"I know it's Hillary against Trump. Hillary's vice president is Tim Kaine. And Trump’s vice president is..."
"Mike Pence," I helped him out.
Then it was back to state factoids. "You know where Mohammed Ali was born? In Kentucky."
"I didn’t know that. What other famous Americans do you know?"
"OK, who else?"
"You mean Schwarzenegger."
"Yes, yes, Schwar-ze-ne-gger." He repeated the syllables carefully.
Then he asked me about music. "Do you like country music?"
"I don't listen to much country, I'm afraid."
"My favorite musician is Kenny Rogers."
He took out his phone and started playing songs — but curiously no Kenny Rogers.
"You got any Springsteen?" I asked. He shook his head and pretended that he’d heard of Bruce Springsteen. "How about Bob Dylan?" He shook his head again, this time not pretending that he knew Dylan. "What about the Beatles?" Same look of confusion. "Seriously, you've never heard of the Beatles?" He and the two silent friends looked at each other. "You should really know the Beatles. They weren't Americans, but you should know them."
But now his Galaxy phone was playing "Country Road," and we all started singing along. Then he put on a cover of "Somewhere Over the Rainbow," which I explained to his two friends was an American classic.
Asgedom handed his phone to me. "Look and see if you find something you like."
I put on The Proclaimers' "I'm Gonna Be (500 Miles)." "Oh this is a great song, guys," I said. "You should learn this one." I tried to teach them the chorus, and by the end we were in a grand singalong.
This happened in October. I wonder whether Asgedom still feels the same way about America. I wonder whether he'll ever be allowed to visit again.
Writer, traveler, lawyer, dilettante. Failed student of physics. Not altogether distinguished graduate of two Ivy League institutions. Immigrant twice over. "The grand tour is just the inspired man's way of getting home."