I held up my red Trader Joe's bag and mimed putting produce in the bag. The shop owner nodded to affirm that I could use my cloth bag as a shopping basket at the produce store near the city center of Ramallah. After I'd filled my bag with Romaine lettuce, apples, passionfruit, pears, oranges, and a pineapple, I brought it to the back of the shop where the cashier stood. One by one, I set my selections on the counter, reaching deep into the bag to make sure that there was nothing left in there. "Is your bag empty?" the cashier asked with a friendly smile.
"Yes. I think so." I picked up the bag from the bottom and flipped it over, shaking to make sure no fruits were hiding in the corners.
"No. Don't do that," the man said darkly and with a small cringe.
"Shaking the bag? Is it bad luck?" I asked.
"No… it's a mistake. You think I don't trust you."
"Oh, no, I said. "I shook it for me, for me to make sure there was nothing left. For me."
"Okay. If it's for you, it's okay."
Trust. It seems to be a delicate and tender subject here in Palestine. I've had more than one encounter like the above. Proof offered too bluntly, as if in a hurry to show that one can be trusted is embarrassing in this culture. Perhaps in the U.S., we too feel some sense of slight embarrassment if we ask for evidence that the bag is empty, that we aren't dealing with a shoplifter. Yet here there's a stronger sense of affront, perhaps to a thicker sense of honor, if someone provides too fast a proof of their own honestly. It's almost as if the other person is saying "Seriously, stop trying to prove yourself! I don't doubt your honestly. By thinking I doubt you, you are basically calling me a suspicious miser, and that is highly offensive."
In a similar vein, I've often paid for something with a bill that is too large. When I first arrived, if the change was tiny (1/2 shekel, or the equivalent of 13 cents) I might say "keep the change," only to be meet with a vehement "no, no" and to find the change thrust upon me.
The positive side of this cultural element is generously given trust. Yesterday morning I went down to a martial arts studio-gym that recently opened up not far from our apartment. They offer personal training and gym membership. I had emailed earlier about setting up a personal training appointment, but when I arrived, I discovered that the gym didn't take credit cards, which was the only payment method I brought. The manager of the gym, who had met me only once before, said "That's alright. You can pay next time. Shall we start with some cardio?"
As I relate this incident, another one comes to mind. A shop owner is telling me, "you can pay next time." Since I don't remember anything else about the incident, I'm not sure if I went back and paid him. I hope I did.
Although this extensive trust in customers seems to my American entrepreneurial mind like poor business practice, it does warm my heart to a culture that I haven't always felt warmly towards.
Another heart-warmer is walking around town with our new puppy, Jelly. I was afraid people would be fearful or antagonistic towards her, since it's not a culture that is big on dogs. Instead, some simply ignore her, and others are downright friendly. I took her on her first car trip since the one that brought her from the shelter to our apartment, and when we got out, a group of young men began whistling and making kissing sounds in our direction. Instead of my usual sense of annoyance at young men making kissing sounds at me, I thought "they are talking to Jelly," and they were.
They asked what her name was, and then called her name, "Jelly Jelly Jelly." I went and did my errand, and when I passed by them again, they said "Jelly Jelly Jelly!" They seemed totally absorbed in her charms, and not in my perceived charms, and I was grateful. It occurred to me that this dog is going to change my relationship to men in Palestine. She is my protector (she seems to bark at people who I'm afraid of and to be friendly to people I like) and she is also a friendly diplomat - a sort of buffer zone - who will ease gender relations for me. Yes, it also occurred to me that men here (some, always some, not all) treat dogs the same as they treat women...
But that is another blog post for another time.
Many of you have been worried about me and Prince Charming with the escalating violence here. Thanks for your care, and to those of you who have sent messages our way. We feel safe here, but we are taking precautions to stay away from protests. Charming has been working very hard, and his NGO has been an important voice for peace in the media lately. He's had a vital role in managing the emergency response, and I'm very proud of him. He's helped save lives and will help save many more. If things escalate much further, we may have to evacuate. But for now, we seem to be as safe as we were in Los Angeles.
Finally, for those of you who are excited about my book Minimalism for Grandparents: Decluttering for Health, Happiness, and Connection in the Golden Years, you can like the Facebook page here. I think that those of grandparent age, as well as youngsters, will get value out of it if they have an interest in living a simplified, meaningful life.