Saturday, December 20, 2014

My Last Espresso in Asmara

Leaving the neighborhood of Alfa Romeo behind me, I wander along the gently sloping street, and once I step onto the larger avenue, the oval-shaped roundabout to my left and the surrounding buildings come into view. I cross to the other side of the street. Tucked in the base of the blue-and-gray old Insurance building, Latteria Awet is brimming with the usual crowd of men in work overalls who have stopped by for sweet tea and brioche, and the occasional cyclists in their colorful tight lycra suits helping themselves to yogurt-topped fatta after some strenuous training. I pause briefly to look in the direction of the setting sun. The iconic ocean-liner-shaped Zilli building appears silhouetted against the setting sun, itself half hidden behind patches of fiery clouds. A quintessential Asmara dusk. Am I really saying goodbye?!

I quickly turn eastward and continue my walk. I need to cover as many of my favorite places as possible before darkness takes over. My eyes strain to behold for one last time those pastel colored, rain washed facades and my lungs are craving the riveting mix of scents peculiar to these streets.

Soon, having negotiated the winding alleys of the little hillside quarter known as Enda Finjal, a cluster of single story houses huddled around the ceramic factory, I find myself at the top of the stairs that join the neighborhood with the southern fringes of Geza Banda – an ideal location for a wide vista of the city center. I linger a while gazing intently as if willing my mind to etch in its deepest recesses the view in front of me.

My mind flashes back to another goodbye nearly three decades ago and another town I love. The sight of a sun-drenched Keren gradually receding and finally disappearing in the haze, as our little convoy made its way through Megareh that July afternoon, is still vivid in my mind. Sure enough, I was sad to leave my family, friends and childhood hangouts behind, but, whether it was my tender years, or the general air of profuse optimism of that time, or the mere excitement that I was about to venture for the first time deep into the Eritrean rural hinterland (my mother’s village), my heart was not as heavy as it is this moment.

Half an hour later I am walking past Bahibeishi building and a moist breeze caresses my face. A blanket of slow-moving fog, usual to this time of the year, has descended on the city from the direction of Bet Gergish, covering the entire eastern hills and eucalyptus woods. Only the twin spires of the church on the hilltop are visible above the white shroud.

I ramble on. More familiar streets, buildings, store fronts, intersections, sidewalks, bars, old cars, street lamps, vendors, faces. The evening Maghreb prayer has just ended and groups of men are trickling out of the big mosque. Some of them linger in the front yard to catch up on the day’s news. Farajet, animated as ever, is standing beside one of two half-walls flanking the open space in front of the mosque, surrounded by half a dozen admiring young men and boys. Surely, he is in the middle of one of his spectacular recitals of Eritrea's colonial history. A couple of blocks down the street two elderly women, grocery baskets in hand, and a bunch of kids, are rushing towards a bus. Through the glass front of a café, I see mimed gestures of a group of middle-aged men playing billiards. I can already smell the familiar aroma of fresh roasted beans.

Bar Vittoria looks as welcoming as ever. Will Memhir be there? It would be nice for one of my last memories of Asmara to be one of those friendly chats with Memhir (yet, I feel little pangs of guilt for not being able to share with him my impending plan).

I pay the customary 5.50 Nakfa at the cashier, receive my ticket and robotically head towards my favorite (and coziest) spot on the counter – the corner where the bakery meets the coffee bar. I stand leaning on the gray marble counter-top and nod to the bakery girl who, without thinking, plucks a piece of cake out of the glass-covered case, puts it on a small plate, half-wrapped in a thin layer of napkin paper (napkins here are meticulously shredded into little pieces before use), and smilingly hands it to me over the counter. Lettezghi, the bartender (who has operated the coffee machine for as long as I can remember), is already set on preparing my yet unspoken order. I hand her the ticket. In no time, my steaming dark macchiato is sitting gloriously beside its longtime companion – Vittoria’s famous cake, known locally as zebib, ostensibly for the little raisins dotting the fleshy cake.

The after-work visit to Café Vittoria has become a daily pilgrimage for me. I hardly remember a day, except when I was out of Asmara, in which I didn’t end up in that homely relic of Asmara of the sixties. The only slight change to this routine happens on weekends when my visit to café Vittoria takes place in the morning rather than at the end of the business day. Then it is the turn of the delightful little pizzetta, which comes in two shapes – round and rectangular slice – to keep my macchiato company.

No sign of Memhir. The weather outside is starting to chill. I feel melancholy. Not so much on account of the weather or the darkening sky, but for the realization that this was my last cup of coffee in the city which for the last fourteen years had become part of my existence. The pain I feel at the thought of departing is almost physical. How long will it be before I see Asmara again?



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