Monthly Archives: February 2012

Leggings and lemmings

“You’ve had a fantastic year with those stretch leggings, didn’t you!”

I’m eavesdropping on the high speed train from Paris to Amsterdam. Seated across from me is an elderly woman. She is meticulously dressed in a glitter top, glitter legging and gold colored shoes. On the table in front of her is a matching golden handbag. She chews gum and winks at me every time I look up from my book. Seated next to her is her son who digs a nonchalant, effortless style and sports Birkenstocks, a tribal tattoo and bleached hair. Mother and son both wear a red string Kabbalah bracelet like Madonna and Paris Hilton have. When a couple walks by, the sparkling lady addresses them. They evidently know each other from the fashion business.

“Did you stock up today? Is the leather branch doing well? I find customers ever so leather minded. There’s a lot of washed leather this year, from Dolce for example. But we dropped Burberry. That year when they had the pilot jackets, Burberry was top. Top! But now… it’s nothing.

When you see something nice, do you buy a sample to take it apart? No, I thought so, that kind of leather is too expensive for your customers anyway. You sell to the middle incomes don’t you?”

The couple frowns. The sparkling lady continues.

“Hmm, yes, maybe to the middle incomes and some of the rich. Well we still have a styling team and an office team. And Mario does personal styling. At least for leather.

There’s a lot of lemming fur for the winter again. A lot of fur in general. Fur sales are fantastic. Fur has ponem [slang for face]. It gives such a luxurious charisma. But it has to be reasonably priced. Like fur from a longhaired rabbit. We don’t need red foxes and Canadian foxes anymore. Customers don’t know what they’re buying anyway.

Did you see the new Tom Ford collection? Don’t make the effort. It’s a load of crap. Well we’ll see you around. Bye!”

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The Basket Wars

I bought our dog Sugar a new basket. The cats immediately conquered it.

In the end, a treaty was obtained. With the cold weather, the cats saw the advantage of sharing the basket with a hot dog.

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On a mission in Ethiopia

Never in my life I have been offered as much chewing gum as in Ethiopia. Admittedly, street vendors wanted to sell me other things as well: fake gems, guided tours and colorful baskets the size of a small elephant. But above all, they sold gum.

Some people had a more intricate plan to gain access to my money. Piedro introduced himself to me in Addis Abeba, the country’s capital. Could he please practice his English? So I asked about his age (probably 16, but he’s not sure), his background (a refugee from Eritrea) and his family (he’s an orphan). Then Piedro invited me to a party where everyone would be dressed in folk costumes. I declined politely: invitations of this type are a well-known way to get robbed.

Like me, most westerners visit Ethiopia on behalf of a development organization. They bring financial and human capital to help fight poverty, diminish hunger and improve health. Subsequently, many Ethiopians have come to confuse westerners with a walking dollar sign. This seemed to stand in the way of acquiring what Mark Twain called the “broad, wholesome and charitable views of men and things” that I usually get in a different country. Only with the medical doctors I met for work I could actually talk about matters beyond money like religion, food and relationships.

I was brooding on this when I was boarding my plane back home with 17 young Americans. They turned out to be missionaries who had spent six weeks in a remote part of Ethiopia. Assuming they volunteered for an organization, I asked what kind of development work they had done. Nothing, they replied: their sole aim had been to spread the gospel. When a local man bitten by a snake came to them for help, the only thing they offered him was prayer.

Looking at the munching missionaries, I realized I now knew who buys all that gum in Ethiopia. I also understood my trip had been a success. For most Ethiopians, I might be just another rich westerner but for sixty medical doctors and their patients, my visit had made a difference.

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Ethiopia’s future

Two five-year-olds in Gondar, Ethiopia, who insisted on being photographed and giggled incessantly when they saw the result.

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