Two cultures in a disparate world

“How old are you?” asked the vendor in good English.

“Five,” she answered.

“Then I’ll give you five,” he said, and counted out five hot, sweet patties of bread into a piece of white paper in his hand.

“How much?” she asked.

“Five of those coins,” he answered. She counted out the coins and gave them to him, and he handed her the bread with a bow. His cart was decorated with wooden statues of gods she’d never seen before, bright in the sun, shining with paint and faith.

She and the lady who was paid to be with her ran through the street amongst the swirl of other women’s veils and shawls, crimson and green under a hot blue sky. The ground was red, orange and yellow, churned by many bare feet, rutted with the wheels of the vendors’ carts. The lady’s high heels kept catching in the ruts, and she wore a silly, fussy floral dress and hat. The little girl’s white dress caught patches of the earth as she ran, but she had to keep going and not take time to wipe it away.

“Why are we running?” panted the lady.

“To see the man before we have to catch the train,” shouted the girl over her shoulder.

She’d seen the man just twice before. He was very thin and very old, and he had a very thin and old dog with him. They sat at the white train gate, on the street, near a ragged square of fabric with a few brass saucers for sale at their feet. She’d never seen anyone buy from the man or even look at him. They passed by too quickly, or were beggars who couldn’t afford what little he asked.

They kept running, passing through a sea of languages neither could understand, spoken in high-pitched vendors’ screams or softly through veils and behind windows open to the hot streets. They passed through a cloud of smoke from water pipes. They ran down a flight of steps that led to the station, turned the corner and saw him.

The girl stopped. Shouldn’t she just buy something from him? What would he say to her, a foreigner, a little girl? But instead of asking permission or advice of the lady in the silly shoes, she just decided this was the right thing to do, and walked up to the man and the dog.

She couldn’t tell if he spoke English, and it didn’t matter anyway. She held out the paper of hot bread to him.

He wasn’t as old as she had thought, but just as thin. He was startled by the sight of the little girl in the white dress holding out food to him. He picked up a saucer and offered it to her. She shook her head, and put the bread into his hand.He smiled, picked up one of the breads, tore it in two, and offered her half. She shook her head. He smiled, and ate one half, giving the other to the thin dog. Then he offered the girl another bread. She shook her head again, and he tore it in half, one for him, one for his dog. They repeated this ritual until all the bread was gone.

Then he carefully wiped the crumbs from the still-warm white paper, and in five movements so quick she couldn’t really see or comprehend them, he folded the paper into a beautiful bird, a swan or crane, in flight. He offered it to her.She took it in her tiny white hand, bowed to him, and ran away into the train station, followed by the mystified lady and the sound of the man’s laughter.As she writes this, speaking into her computer 43 years and thousands of miles away, the little girl holds that bird in her hand.