I almost choked on my pineapple-cheese casserole when my friend Maggie's mother asked me, "What's it like, not to have to worry?" It took me a minute to figure out from what sort of worry she thought me free, since I'm fairly pessimistic overall. She was referring to my weight, as if I were some lissome creature, rather than the ordinary middle-aged mortal who occasionally has trouble zipping her jeans. I don't pig out, but I do have to watch what I eat, and as much as I might have enjoyed a glass of wine at the Christmas party where we were chowing down on heaping plates of good home-cooked food, I knew I couldn't afford to have it and dessert--refined sugar wins over alcohol every time. I did have two helpings of the casserole--whoever made it deserved a knighthood. And it was all I could do to resist a second helping of butterscotch cornflake clusters.
The Christmas party was so much fun that when Maggie's mom began pulling on her coat and saying it was late, both of us realized we hadn't looked at our watches once all evening. It was 10 PM, and we hadn't thought we'd be there past 8:30 or 9. Her family, large, Irish, half-Catholic and gregarious, had welcomed me into the fold (I was initially mistaken for a cousin), and I had a wonderful time getting to know an assortment of relatives and watching a trio of two year old boys giggling and running around among the adults. Santa came early for photos, and after we all ate (and some had consumed considerable liquid courage), the men stood up in the living room and sang carols lustily for more than 20 minutes, while the women snapped photos and applauded. One of the older guys looked like he'd just stepped out of a pub in central Dublin, while a young fellow (who, like me, was a non-relative) wearing a dress shirt with the top two buttons undone, proved to be a Miami-based fashion model.
"He's fifteen years old, blind in one eye, and missing an ear, and so we don't want to leave him at home alone," my friend Maggy's cousin explained while he, she and I stood in the doorway, carefully avoiding the ball of faux mistletoe. Neither she nor I knew who he was talking about at first, and hoped it wasn't his absent brother; it turned out to be the elderly family dog, with whom the brother and his fiancee were staying, having a quiet evening away from all the family revelry.
Maggie said that I'm good at talking to people, which isn't a skill I was born with. Working at Georgetown, with the estate sale company, and at the Arlington Market all helped to foster this ability, which I still find sadly lacking, as often my introductory sallies leave people confused rather than inspired. But the last couple of days, at least, I've interacted with charitable souls who have been inclined to talk, notwithstanding my awkwardness. For instance, after church this evening, I met the parents of a Jordanian-born acquaintance, both of whom used to teach Arabic at the Defense Language Institute in California. His mother and I had a great time talking about market bargaining, how in the Middle East (as at street markets in Eastern Europe) it is expected that the merchant will ask more for an item than you are willing to pay, that you will offer less, and that you will eventually settle somewhere in between. Bargaining is a skill I was born with. I remember my mother being very surprised when I began collecting antiques at age 10 or 11, and was relentless in my wheedling the store owner for discounts, eventually talking her down from $300 for a large lot of depression glass to just over $100. In the US, the only acceptable places to do this are at antique markets, and estate and garage sales. Frankly, I am glad that shopping for staples is straightforward, priced as marked, but in other cultures it seems even these things must be bargained for. Maggie, who was also with me tonight, said that sometimes she wished she could bargain for staples, as it's really obnoxious to be forced to pay so much for things like toothpaste, so I suppose there are trade-offs for convenience.
I am applying for a teaching job in Ukraine with an IT company. The FBI background check I requested in preparation for Korea (South!) still hasn't come back, but it may be of use after all, if these technology folks want to hire me to assist their programmers with their English. I would most definitely be taking a large quantity of long underwear with me if I got the position--it's cold there, and although Ukraine has significant coal deposits, the Russian Federation's supply of natural gas to the country for its winter heating needs is even less predictable than usual.