Met a man yesterday. He told me a story. No idea why. We were total strangers. As I said, we had just met. I was trying to return an espresso machine that I had purchased some months back. It quit working for the second time. And again I was standing at the customer service counter asking if I could exchange it, or possibly get my money back. I communicated what I could through a translation app.
Because I do not speak the language of this country I now reside in, not nearly well enough. I can order a latte. I can say I want it hot, not cold. I can say yes and no and please and thank you very much. I can ask even how much, and if nature calls, I can ask where the bathroom is, but this kind of thing, fuggedaboutit.
Told this uncaring woman at the register that it took a month to service the machine the last time, that I only had it for two days before it want kaput, again. Pointed out the date of purchase. Tried to explain—it was hopeless given our improvised medium of exchange— that the machine had been broken for longer that it had ever worked. I think she understood, she may have, but I think she wanted to make sure I understood that there was nothing she could do, so she went and found a colleague who spoke some English. I did not ask him what his name was.
He explained to me, very politely, that it was not possible to do what I was asking, that they could only send out the machine for repair, again. I restated my case. He was understanding, patient, empathetic even, but eventually we got to the part where he said: I’m sorry sir, there’s nothing we can do.
I signed the service order, and that was that, or it should have been. But then he asked where I was from.
Where are you from? Fifteen years abroad, 40+ countries—I get that a lot. Not speaking the local language is a dead give away. But not the only one. It is frequently the color of my eyes. It sometimes the color of my skin. It is my hair, my hairstyle. It is my clothes and the way I dress. It is in my gestures, in the particular way I use my body to express myself. It is how I walk, or so I have been told. I try to blend in, but try as I might, I might as well be wearing a sign that says: Ask Me Where I’m From.
I told him New York. He replied: I love that city. It’s where I met my first love.
I am from the state, not the city, but I did not mention the fact.
He goes on to tell me that she was a soldier, that he met her during the war—the Iraq war. That he had been a soldier too, sent by his country fight in our war, something to do with NATO. I did not ask him to elaborate.
He told his first love died, that she was killed when a bomb went off, blew up the truck she was driving. Said her name was Samantha. I did not ask which country she had died for.
What to say to what he had said? I said it was a sad story, that I was sorry that he had lost his first love this way. Then I thanked him for helping me, even though did not really help me. We shook hands, and I walked out the door, like any other customer.
I did not ask if she was from New York or what he was doing there at the time. I did not ask how it was they had met. I did not ask him anything at all about her, or why he chose to tell me what he did.
I should have asked more questions. At the very least I should have asked him what his name was.