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Mary Terzian, Author and Freelance Writer
Born in the Armenian diaspora, a young girl leaves her birthplace and community for an expatriate assignment in Africa. She seizes the opportunity to travel across three continents to find a niche where she can peacefully pursue her dreams.
Born in Egypt to immigrant Armenian parents, survivors from the great genocide, Mary is not encouraged to pursue higher education considered superfluous for young women then - in the 1950's in Egypt.
Terzian is adamant to realize her dream. She accepts an offer from the World Health Organization to work in Alexandria, away from home, a very bold step in 1957. Five years later she qualifies for an expatriate assignment in Congo, a country in turmoil in 1962. During her home leave two years later she extends her vacation by another six weeks to travel across three continents in search of a niche where she could feel at home and pursue her interests for higher education. Her search spans eighteen countries, some visited for fun, others for serious consideration as a future home.
Terzian's transfer to Lome, Togo, turns sour. She takes refuge in Lebanon hoping for permanent residence. Her passport expiring, her request for residence in Lebanon rejected, her last hope is to apply for immigration to the United States Embassy. To her great surprise, she is given a visa within a few months. On arrival in New York, she makes a beeline to Columbia University and starts working on her degree in Comparative Literature.
The Crocodile Dinner
Since I was at UN Headquarters, I took the opportunity to drop by Angel’s office to bid her good bye. As we shook hands she asked me if I had experienced my assignment to the fullest.
“I think I did,” I said, “I explored the jungle, took a trip on the Congo river, crossed over to Brazzaville several times, and admired their beautiful church that seems to rise from the earth to blend with nature. I made the acquaintance of several interesting individuals at WHO‘s (World Health Organization) regional headquarters there. I did not care to try cured monkey, but I had a sumptuous dinner with snails and garlic sauce, though I couldn’t keep it down very long.” Right then I remembered my violent reaction to it. “And oh! I forgot. My houseboy’s Moambe was delicious.”
“Did you try crocodile meat?” she asked.
“I considered but I couldn’t bring myself to try it. Besides, I wouldn’t know where they serve a crocodile meal.”
“My houseboy is very good at cooking it. Would you like to try?”
“I’m leaving the day after tomorrow, on a commuter flight, for a week in Bukavu. I’m all packed except for final touches. Tomorrow is my last day in Leo. I’ll leave immediately upon my return.”
“Why don’t you come for dinner tomorrow then? We‘ll have a good chat before you leave.”
It sounded like a good idea but what if it interfered with my digestive system, on the eve of my trip?
“Have you ever eaten crocodile?” I asked.”What does it taste like?”
“It’s like veal,” she said.”You wouldn’t know the difference.” On a second thought she added: “It’s somewhat heavier than veal.”
My ex-roommate, Miss Lisette, a veteran of nursing in the Congo, had told me that crocodiles were stripped of their skin and cut to size while still alive. “In the absence of proper refrigeration there was no other way to keep the meat fresh,” she had told me, “they have cold blood, you know. They don’t feel as much pain as other animals.” How did she know? I chose not to believe her. It was certainly a cruel method, if true, but then, in a country where human life was treated with little value the way massacres went, butchering a crocodile was of no consequence.
I hesitated for a moment. Opportunity strikes only once.
“Sounds good. Thank you for the invitation.”
“Call me at the office tomorrow morning,” she said. “Sometimes the meat is not readily available. I’ll know for sure then. Come anyway.”
I felt guilty. I wouldn’t be sorry if the meat were unavailable. Do I really have to do this? Well, since I’m here and it’s a once in a lifetime opportunity . . . turn that voice down! I’ll call it off tomorrow. No . . . tomorrow is too late!
The next morning I lingered somewhat. I waited for a reasonable time to place the call. When I finally did from my neighbor’s telephone Angel confirmed the dinner plan. It was too late to pull back. Reluctantly I retrieved a dress from my tightly packed suitcase for the occasion.
I had misgivings all day. I was not a great animal-lover but the idea of skinning a live crocodile repelled me. Angel had gone to great lengths at short notice to please my palate. I hoped Miss Lisette was wrong but she usually made sense. Cattle were one of the casualties of independence, totally consumed without provisions for reproduction. Goat, chicken and fish were still available. We could purchase frozen beef at the UN Commissary in hunks, but without a label I could not tell from which part of the body the meat came, or even if it did belong to the beef family, or how long it had been frozen. In comparison, crocodile meat rated higher, fresh from the beach. I tried to concentrate more on the experience aspect of it, rather than the consumption, to appease my guilty conscience.
The table was set when I arrived at Angel’s house, elegantly casual for a temporary abode. Leopoldville had remained relatively safe during the secession war in Katanga in the East. Life went on as usual with the regular civilities, white tablecloth, shining silverware, clean glasses and impeccable napkins. The fact that our insecure situation might turn fiery any minute was not given a second thought. One cannot live forever in fear otherwise he/she should not venture out.
We had a drink with appetizers and chatted about the future. Angel was three months pregnant, an occasional hazard in the Congo where reality is somewhat blurred. She would go to England for her delivery. I was going to my assignment in Togo and who knows where else? In the meantime I helped myself to appetizers amply, to make sure I wouldn’t go hungry if the crocodile meat did not suit my taste.
Finally we sat down at the table, my heart pounding until the chef brought in the “pièce de resistance.” I thought it would jump off the serving plate. Instead the meat looked like an ordinary roast for all I knew. The chef served me three slices, then piled mashed potato and boiled vegetables on my plate, mentioning that we would have cheese and fresh fruit later.
I took a bite. It did indeed taste like veal except that the meal was tarnished with thoughts of the carnivore’s behavior, along with the way it was butchered. Much as I tried I could not forget that this animal is cruel, given half a chance. I recalled the popular “you are what you eat” aphorism. I was raised on lamb, goat and chicken, pretty harmless domesticated animals. Would I become aggressive like a crocodile from now on? Wine pushed my meal down. I could not go beyond one slice. I preferred to concentrate on the mashed potatoes and the vegetables on my plate.
My “chef’s delight” was a memorable dinner in every other respect. We sailed through the cheese and fruit to the coffee and I opted to forego the “pousse-café” because my tolerance of alcohol was weak. Angel knew how to put company at ease. Time slid away. It was getting late. I made sure I had her address for future correspondence. I did not have a definite address myself because I was moving to Togo and would have to get established before arranging to have mail sent to my home.