Worlds Colliding: Alice

ALICE: Want to meet for lunch?
ME: On way back from Namus. Guess what they sent home w me?
ALICE: Olives?

Here is what you need to know about Alice: in the wild, I don’t think we would have been friends. In her early 20s, she exuded a tough, cynical kind of confidence that I envied in people but with which I never felt comfortable. And we didn’t appear to have much in common, on the surface. In our three pre-deployment days in Washington, she talked proudly of her time as a head waiter, seeming competent and put-together in a way I definitely didn’t feel. And she traveled carrying a huge book of CDs, one of the really expensive books with a really big capacity, because her CDs were the one thing she couldn’t live without. When she unzipped the book, I didn’t recognize most of the names… but the quieter, more wary-looking guy in the hipster jeans did, and gave Alice a look of reappraisal. It was clear from day one that Alice was too cool to like me, even if that was nearly entirely in my head.

Fate, however, had other plans. Alice was assigned to my training village. Better yet, she was sent to live in the home of Um Shakur’s sister, Um Ali. Um Ali had had volunteers for three years running at that point but my year was Um Shakur’s first time hosting, and it was a competition from day one. There was constant analysis and comparison of the relative speeds at which Alice and I learned Arabic, learned to make tea, learned to sew. In the meantime, whether Alice and I might have been friends in the wild or not, she was around, and she spoke English, and she was having the same bizarre Twilight Zone life I was. And we saw each other so much more often than either of us saw the other two volunteers in Namus. Inevitably, we developed a kind of closeness both shallower and deeper than a friendship.

Fate intervened again at site assignment time and Alice and I found ourselves staring at each other on the huge painted map of Jordan with the city of Irbid between us. There were other volunteers nearby, but by that point I think we knew we were going to be seeing lots of each other. Only a few weeks after we were sent off to try surviving on our own, my principal called me into the school office and told me I had a phone call. I was more than a little pleased to discover that my caller was Alice, wondering if I’d like to spend the weekend together, at either her place or mine. We met in Irbid, checked our e-mail, stocked up on pasta and tomatoes, and then went back to Dir Edis in what was the first of many, many weekends spent together like that. Eventually even the Tea Ladies came to know Alice, and my neighbors no longer startled to see two Americans where before there was only one.

In retrospect, so many years out, I think Alice was a really valuable experience for me. In many ways our relationship was parallel to our cultural adjustment in Jordan. The difference was that we were at least a little prepared for the difficulties of culture shock as it related to living abroad. I don’t think twenty-somethings are, in general, very good at relating to profound differences in the personalities and backgrounds of people who initially appear to be just like them. So Alice and I annoyed each other. I actually can’t tell you very much about how I annoyed her, and in the end that’s exactly the problem: I was utterly incapable of seeing her point of view. Or if I was capable of doing it, I was too tired and frustrated by the massive, heavy-lifting cultural adjustment I was doing everywhere else in my world. I’m sure she chafed at me as much as I chafed at her. It just didn’t mean much to me at the time.

So this chapter is my introduction to Alice, and my expression of mild surprise that I’ve managed to tell over a dozen Jordan stories so far without mentioning her. I can’t tell too many more that way, as she figures in so many of them. And a dozen years later this is actually a very good thing. I can’t even remember exactly why Alice and I were not speaking to each other by the end of our service, but we weren’t, and we went our separate ways. Then Fate intervened once again and Alice and her new husband moved to my city. Because Alice has always been, in some key ways, much braver than I am, she reached out to me and asked me out for coffee. And I discovered that adult-Alice and adult-I had more in common than we might have thought, and could quite pleasantly have lunch now and then. And when she and her young family moved away some time later, I was very sad.

Rene Bartosh/Wikimedia
Rene Bartosh/Wikimedia

Alice is still out there, and I know she reads my occasional scribble (Hi, “Alice”!). Social media has given us a new kind of space in our evolving relationship, and I am pleased and amused by the fact that she is among the closest of my leftover volunteer-friends. Better yet, she kept a wicked diary. I don’t want to read it — I’m entirely convinced it’s all about me and how horrible I was at 22. But she’s able to check my stories with hers, tidy up my details, and remind me of things I’ve forgotten entirely. And in the end, having someone else who was there, every single step of the way, is hugely, hugely important.

So as I process these memories out “loud,” I’m taking a moment to think about how weird it is to be thrown into the maelstrom of culture shock with a bunch of other dumb kids from such incredibly diverse backgrounds and to have to see these total strangers as your “safe” space. I think we really gloss over and minimize how important the volunteers around you can be to your ultimate survival or demise. I wish we’d had more help and tools to deal with each other and help each other be better instead of looping each other into our personal dramas.

But as the saying goes: it is what it is. And Alice was there. And on that day, when I found myself on a bus from Namus heading north to Irbid with 10-year-old Reem sitting beside me vibrating with excitement and tension, there was only one person who would get it. Fortunately, we both had phones by that point and communicated often via text. And when Alice asked if I wanted lunch, I knew she would understand exactly how silly a predicament I’d gotten myself into.

ALICE: Seriously?
ME: For a week. Help!
ALICE: Hahahaha. I'm coming in to Irbid. Let's take her to Pizza Hut!

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