It wasn’t long ago that I met up with Ibrahim, a tall, slender man born in Niger, at Cafe Fresco on Paxton Street. We’d met through a French meetup.com group, a Harrisburg-based social group, made up of everyone from former French teachers to disillusioned college graduates, who met one evening a month to converse in French. But one day over coffee and without the group, Ibrahim faced me with a request I did not respect. He hesitantly slipped a thick handful of handwritten notes, swirled in delicate French penmanship, from a folder and across the table. “Pouvez-vous traduire ça?” he asked — could you translate this?
Eventually, I would translate for Ibrahim one fable as well as two versions of a political screenplay, but it was nothing compared to what he shared with me.
His friendship first came in food: fish roasted whole with the heads still on and eye intact, delivered to my door with slivered tomatoes and onions in an aluminum foil pan; a platter of a dark, roasted meat that I did not recognize, handed to me along with a draft of our project. (When I asked him about the meat, c’est quelle type de viande, ça, his response was a beaming smile: “La coeur du mouton” — lamb heart.) Ibrahim slow-roasted chickens for my boyfriend and me which we ate with our hands and washed down with bitter north African tea; I handed him a tin of Christmas cookies. Around Thanksgiving, he bought me a turkey for the family, the largest in the supermarket — not believing that Grandma Grove had already purchased one, as she always does, weeks in advance — but he did allow me to freeze it until January when my boyfriend and I could cook it and invite friends over for a mid-winter holiday. When school let out in June, Ibrahim cooked me lamb dusted with an African spice, and with an overenthusiastic “mange, mange, Sylvia!” we gnawed at the bones until they were bare. But by that time, I had understood that the food was a pretense for conversation — that sharing meat and fat and tea opened the venue to talk about philosophy, politics, and culture in kind of a heart, trustworthy way; that two people sharing food meant that we could share life.
Once, when we met at the buzzing African joint called Mariam’s African and Jamaican Cuisine on 150 S. Cameron St. in Harrisburg, where Ibrahim knew everyone including the owner and cook, I forked into a platter of lamb with a ground peanut sauce served over white rice and asked him the same question I ask to anyone from airplane seatmates on international flights to French exchange students: what are the best and worst aspects of America. It’s a pointed question, one where I always try to anticipate the recipient’s reaction but never can. Over the past few years, answers I’ve heard for the positives include our general wealth (as compared to Africa), the structure of the medical systems (as compared to China’s), Duncan Donuts (from a teenage Frenchman), our friendliness (as compared to Montreal). Negatives include the lack of respect for authority, our inability to recognize our privileges, our lack of public transportation, our views on alcohol and gun possession, and our racial tension.
Ibrahim and I have talked at length about what he likes about the US — our educational system — so today I focus on the negatives. Ibrahim sips water and pauses, looking at the ceiling. The hum of African-accented French rises around us and falls. “I dislike that, here, you always have to have a Plan B,” he says finally.
This is not at all what I’m expecting. “A Plan B,” I say. “Yes, of course.” I love Plan B’s. My daily planner is full of them. If a friend is late for coffee at Little Amps in Harrisburg, I will have essays to grade. If I get stranded on a standby flight from Miami to Santiago, Chile, I will have a couchsurfer lined up. I like to know the destination of my attempts to stretch myself, a safety net in case I fail.
Ibrahim continues, “In America — if you take someone out to lunch, like this — ” he gestured to my plate — “you must have at least $40 in your pocket: $20 for today’s meal, $20 for tomorrow.”
I nod, wondering if I’m missing the point. “That’s called being responsible.”
“No,” Ibrahim says, and now I feel mildly insulted.
“Well, what do you call it?”
Ibrahim continues. “In my country, if you take someone out to lunch, you only need to have $20 in your pocket, because you know that tomorrow, if you are lacking, someone else will pay for your meal.”
I’m writing this blog post because this conversation happened a year ago, and I still cannot get the philosophy out of my mind. If a stranger pays for your meal, do you eventually have to pay them back? What if you can’t? Do they get angry if you find you cannot reciprocate? Or is there just a greater brotherhood among people who understand that money comes and goes, for they know that eventually it will be they who must survive by relying on the kindness of strangers? I can barely imagine this.
I was taught very pointedly that I was not meant to be a burden on anyone, overstay my welcome in another person’s home, to replay what I borrowed and to return what was due, but this is type of foresight and responsibility is, for better or for worse, the problem of a developed country, one where we have the luxury of borrowing and returning, hoarding what we feel we have earned. Rather than distinguishing the merited, Ibrahim sees this philosophy has separating our similarities.
Most of us cannot live fully without a Plan B in modern American society, for our system rewards the self-sufficient. Many Americans tire quickly of supporting those who have less — think of the wide-spread criticism on welfare, for example.
But when I traveled to Alaska this summer and spent an unexpected overnight in Phoenix with a friend I’d never met, his response was, “I figured you’d do the same someday.” And when a friend was stranded in Harrisburg from Montreal en route to Tennessee, I was cheerful when he stayed an extra two days. And I think of Ibrahim as I prepare to go to grad school this fall and try to construct myself an escape route in case all goes wrong — I could still change my profession, I could always transfer — and I wonder, maybe I can figure this out tomorrow. Maybe, for once, I can just be.