As I mentioned before, I lived 30 seconds away from a small bakery. It’s a privilege to collect the just-cooked day’s supply of flat bread each morning. But almost every time I go there, housewives do their best to push in front of me. In Syria, it seems that if you wait calmly behind the person being served, you will never get served. The goal is only to attract the shop keeper’s attention, and the best way to do this is to squeeze in to the front person’s left or right. However, if there is a particular teenager working in the bakery, he always seems to notice me and serves me first, no matter how many women or men are standing in front. When this happens, the other customers turn round and stare at me – I smile as if to say, “I don’t know why he does it either”.
Occasionally, someone is so blatant about pushing in that I say, usually in English, “Excuse me”? Of course, I am just forcing my expectations on them, and they usually seem surprised that I’m making it into a problem. A the bakery’s window this morning, one particularly pushy woman this morning replied to my tap on her shoulder with a pleasant non-apologetic shrug, and said something like, “I’m only buying a little”. I waved the ten lira coin I was holding, attempting to communicate that I was also only buying a little, yet had been waiting before her.
She nodded, and called to the man behind the counter – “He wants ten lira’s worth”! She strode off, probably to tell her friends about the rude foreigner she met at the bakery.
You may laugh when I say this, but buying food in Damascus gives me the sense of being more connected to nature than I ever got in London or Taipei. The quality of vegetables ebbs and flows: some days the aubergines in stalls across town look worn and shabby; some days their black skins shine with beauty. Tomatoes are equally variable: some days everyone is offering only the obviously unripe; other days every vendor is sitting over blood red specimens that are practically oozing into their polystyrene containers. And the bread I buy from my bakery oxidises with remarkable speed. If I leave a wheel of it out in the open air of my kitchen for any time at all, it turns brittle.
If any readers know about baking, my question is: what is it about supermarket bread that keeps it fresh for so long?