“My wife thinks you don’t like her food,” he said. “You’re not supposed to return the plate empty!”
Tone Delin Indrelid recalls how being corrected on a social blunder in Damascus turned into a wonderful relationship of exchanging food and learning about others through food.
It took me some time to get used to having a driver. At first, it made me feel awkward. I’d hired someone to carry out a task I was perfectly capable to doing myself. I felt embarrassed and self-conscious, being chauffeured around town with my kids in a shiny expensive car, when there were local children on the streets selling toilet paper after school.
At some point of our second year in Damascus, though, I realized I’d come to truly appreciate both having a driver, and the driver himself.
Hamed slowly became an important person in our lives, in his own way.
I was pregnant for the third time, with two kids under three. Damascus was a vast city, where getting hold of cash could mean visiting several ATMs and possibly the bank, where filling petrol likely involved long queues, where traffic was insane (or fun, depending on who you ask) and where parking could be a challenge. I was tired. So, so tired. And car sick. Hamed took it all in his stride. He effortlessly drove us around while allowing me to practice my wobbly Arabic, entertaining the children, opening paths to hidden treasures in Damascus and acting almost like a father figure to my constantly exhausted and nauseated self. Slowly, taking over my most time-consuming tasks, he allowed me to keep my sanity through the pregnancy, and I loved him for it.
One day, Hamed brought me a plate of food from his wife - "just some leftovers from yesterday’s dinner for you to sample." The plate was filled with kibbeh. I thanked him, my husband and I ate the wonderful food, and I returned the plate, cleaned. Another plate appeared. And another. I kept returning them, cleaned and with compliments for his wife.
Eventually, he looked at me, sternly, and said, “my wife expects you to return the plate with your food on it! She thinks you don't like her food and that you’re nothing but a rude foreigner.” “But don’t worry,” he added, looking pleased with himself, “I have of course told her you simply don't know better.”
I can still remember the feeling of shame. “My goodness, what must she think of me? How could I be so ignorant, so absorbed in myself?” Writing this now, years later, I still feel warm with embarrassment.
That night, I baked a cake for Hamed and his family and placed it on a plate to give him in the morning.
My social blunder turned into a lovely (though sometimes time consuming) plate exchange. Some foods Hamed’s family liked, some not so much. Some plates would come back with strong suggestions for improvement, while others came with a request for the recipe. Sometimes, Hamed would ask permission to pick oranges from our garden, or grape vine leaves - two days later a plate would appear, with jam, or stuffed leaves for me. The family was curious to learn what kind of food I sent them, and what occasions it was eaten at. We, of course, were curious in return, and that way, we all learned about each other.
My Damascus plate exchange is one of my fondest memories, from a city my family experienced with so much love and happiness. Given Syria’s ongoing state of civil war, destruction and suffering, it is also a bittersweet memory. I don’t know what Hamed and his family eat now; or if they have much to eat at all.
Perhaps we both recall our happy exchange of food occasionally. I like to hope so.
About the author
Tone Delin Indrelid describes herself as an introverted anthropologist walking the expat trail. She currently lives in Oman with her husband, three global nomads and two cats.
Note from the author:
I have spelled the words in the headline as I remember them being said. Other variations are certainly found.
Hamed is not our driver’s real name.
Find other stories of the series "What you wish you would have known earlier..." here.