As quarantine drags on and casual human contact becomes increasingly scarce, I find myself compensating for the persistent, searing solitude by seeking moments of connection with passersby – however fleeting – as I go about my routine errands. I’ve always been talkative to a fault, but these days I catch myself striking up conversations with strangers even more than before.
This evening, in the middle of my nightly TV date, I suddenly remembered that I had run out the 14-ingredient fresh fruit salad that is part of my daily breakfast ritual, and also out of oranges for my fresh-squeezed juice, so I headed out to Safeway to stock up on fruit. Grocery shopping in one’s pajamas has become an established social norm in Berkeley, so I didn’t bother to change.
As I wheeled my cart around the produce section, I noticed a young man in his early twenties – shorts and sandals, fancy headphones resting just off of his ears – circling the cut flowers display. When he reached the roses, he stopped and nervously picked up a cellophane-wrapped bouquet, inspected it, put it down, and picked up another. Then another, and another. As he did so, a shy smile flickered across his face, revealing his restless delight at the scene he must have been silently planning and at the role these roses would play in it. I watched, loading my last box of berries into my cart, then proceeded to the checkout line. He followed, a respectful six feet behind me.
We took our places on our designated red circles and waited. After a few seconds, I turned around to face him, and spoke.
“Those roses are the perfect choice,” I said.
“Thanks,” he replied, not quite concealing a twinkle. I returned the smile, then turned to check the line ahead of me.
A few more seconds passed. I turned back to him and caught his eye.
“When you give them the roses,” I said, “be sure to say what’s in your heart.”
His subtle twinkle became a full glow. “You sound like you know exactly what’s going on,” he said, now smiling broadly.
“Dude, look at me,” I replied. “I’m old. Of course I know what’s going on.”
Before he could reply, his phone rang, he took half a step back, turned away, and answered, speaking almost in a whisper. I was confident I recognized the foreign language he was speaking, but because of the distance between us, the Muzak, and the mask that muffled his speech, I couldn’t quite be certain. I turned and started to unload my cart onto the conveyor.
When he had finished his call and the bagger had placed the last bag in my cart, I turned back to him. “Do you mind if I ask you what language that was you were speaking?”
He paused and seemed guarded for a moment. “It’s … Moroccan dialect,” he said, with just a hint of a hesitant stammer.
And then I did what some who know me call “That Thing.”
“Oh,” I said and smiled. “`Arabiyya mughrabiyya!” [“North African Arabic,” in North African Arabic.]
His eyes widened. “Na`m!” [“Yes!”], he replied almost automatically, and then, in English, “Wh… How… Where did you learn Arabic?”
I told him about my keen interest in languages, and that there are several I can just barely speak, and that Arabic is one of them. I asked if he was from Casablanca.
“No, Fez,” he replied. “Have you been to Morocco?”
“No,” I said, “but my sister-in-law is from Marrakech. Je suis sûr que tu parles aussi français.” By this point my new friend was beyond trying to make sense of the situation, all barriers were broken, and he responded naturally in French.
We spoke a while longer, still in French, until it was time for him to pay. I caught his eye again, looked down at the roses, and then back up at him. I pointed to my heart.
“Min qalbak” [“From your heart”], I said, switching back to Arabic.
“Min qalbi” [“From hy heart”], he replied, pointing to his own and smiling pensively.
“Good luck,” I said, and he nodded. I turned and headed out the automatic doors to the parking lot.
Perhaps he thought he had been visited by an angel. I certainly felt as if I had.