Posts by Miša Bitenc Hernčič

Writer’s block

I’m scooping up the neighborhood cats for vet appintments. I don’t cook much, but we always eat together, and we make time for tea and biscuits every day. I feel like I’m washing dishes all the time. Where do so many dishes come from?

I’m helping out at the cat adoption fair. There, I find myself in an argument with the owner of the location for our event because I had to explain to his daughter rather undiplomatically she was being too agressive with a kitten. Presumably no one had ever said anything to the girl up to this point, so my approach was clearly proportionate to insults and beatings. What followed was a proper cry of course and the tattletale went to daddy. I held my ground, even though things like that pretty much tire me out.

Michelle and I went to the Ministry of Environment one day to report one of the infamous pet shops. From one office to another, then third and fourth, no one wanted to deal with two crazy broads who care too much.

The next day I revisited the ministry with Tamer for additional information and easier communication with an Arabic speaker by my side. Per Murphy law, of course, we were greeted by a ramp and a security guard who refused to even hear about us entering. Obviously, sometimes it’s really better to act stupid and play the “westerner card” to achieve anything.

“Tell him I was here yesterday and that Mr. Mohammed is expecting me,” I blurt out a half-truth with the conviction that defeat is not an option. I didn’t drive for more than 40 minutes for the second day in a row, so that someone at the door would dismiss me with the classic Arabic phrase: “Tomorrow, inshallah.”

The man in the uniform keeps insisting there’s nobody in the office. Do we perhaps have the gentleman’s number?

At this point I am fed up with everything. The dismissal, the ignorance, shifting responsibilities to others. What number, if no one even wants to give you their last name, so nobody can hold them accountable?!

At that moment, I don’t know what was going through my mind. I unfastened my seat belt and opened the car door. I only half heard Tamer’s question of what I was doing … I left the car and walked past the ramp towards the government building. I didn’t even look back, although I could sense people calling out to come back at once.

After the meeting with the said gentleman, who was certainly not among the absent from the office, Tamer and I, who caught up with me soon after (he had to go after his wife, he had no other choice), left the ministry in dead silence.

He was angry. And worried. Mostly angry. “Do you even know how serious this situation was?”

I didn’t really know. Looking back, I don’t know if I would have done the same thing twice. It could have ended quite differently. I was lucky this time.

During all this, however, I am facing a total writer’s block. What should I write about? If I’m so angry, so annoyed. About Arabic customs and cuisine? No way. I can’t be too mouthy either … This little report essay is something I finally managed to put together. Maybe I will find it easier to write about something else now.

Among only ladies again

This time I was invited to a traditional Arabic, more specifically a “hijazi” restaurant. Twice a week, the place is reserved for ladies only. And so 8 of us gathered in colorful seats and sofas: from the USA, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Slovenia.

We were treating ourselves with dates over Arabic coffee and tea, the afternoon turned into evening and the tables around us were steadily filled with other groups of girls and women. From noticeably “western” to a mix of locals, the hall was bursting with life along with a small fountain positioned in center of the room.

There were no scarves and veils between us as one would expect outside in the street. In fact, it is very difficult to guess which of the ladies, for example, wears the niqab, because the latter, together with the abayas and scarves, is left at the reception.

a tall arabic coffee pot with small ceramic cups with oriental sofas in the background
- Among only ladies again
Traditional arabic coffee serving

As we were served our last course on a platter of traditional delicacies from the Hijaz region, which includes the city of Jeddah as well, a blonde woman in an extravagant dress with an animal print walked in. A vivacious lady who I am sure demands and receives all the attention in any room she enters. She greeted her company of friends and every now and then circled the room, sitting down at one table and then the other.

When our time together was almost over, she approached us.

“Do you speak Arabic or English?” She measured us with a smile and curious eyes. Such a diverse company is not something one sees every day even in this vibrant society. But she focused her gaze on me most of the time.

Something piqued her curiosity. Something about me stood out in her book, and she had to uncover this secret.

“Where are ‘you’ from?” She popped the question with her finger pointed at me, right after we explained that we are from all over and that we speak English, and some also speak Arabic.

“From Slovenia,” I answer and immediately notice a smile widening on her face.

“Oh yeah, how are ya? I’m from Montenegro! ”

In an instant, I switch to my broken Serbo-Croatian and turn on that Balkan spark, I get up to hug her without hesitation.

I admit, after such a long time, I was caught unprepared in the social wilderness. I was this close to crying. Luckily I didn’t!

We exchanged a few more words alone and then took each other’s phone number to stay in touch.

“You have to come visit me! I have a pool you know, and another house in Mecca. You and your husband are both welcome!”

What a day! What an adventure.

Cat Corner Stories: Chapter 4

Today I am allowing myself to have a quiet celebration. After a really exhausting month as far as my street cats are concerned, I can look back with content and look forward with hope.

I know there are still difficult moments of pain and disappointment to come. But in a moment of insight yesterday, I said to Tamer, “Do you remember how we started with a small container of food a year and a half ago?”

Today we have a 15-kilo bag of kittle in the hallway. Two cats are resting in the same room, each in his own cat crate.

Tonight we will successfully release the 13th and 14th cat after sterilization / castration.

How far I’ve come and where else can I go on my cat volunteering journey!

(The photo was taken in the beginning of March 2020 when I came back from a 1 month visit to Slovenia. My cats waited and greeted me.)

Magic brew

Today I am drinking Turkish coffee again, in your memory. The kind you taught me to make in that tiny kitchen in your weekend house among the Dolenjska vineyards.

When the magic brew boils, the aroma brings you next to me once more. This cannot have the appellation of an “involuntary memory.” So long ago when I was still just a child, you probably unknowingly entrusted me with a spell for the time when you will no longer be here. This is an invocation! Thank you, Grandpa.

Today marks one year since you passed away. And yet you are still here with me over this cup of coffee.

World camel day

They say a camel never forgets. This highly intelligent animal is so prized for a reason. It can remember the location of a water well in the desert even years later.

Despite the popularity of camel milk and meat, I also heard this interesting saying during my stay in Saudi Arabia:

“Whoever eats camel meat, it turns his heart to stone.”

I haven’t tried it myself yet. After hearing that, I probably never will.

World camel day
Riding a camel in Sudan

Cat Corner Stories: chapter 3

He knew I would find them. That I wouldn’t just look away and would take care of them.

He probably didn’t know I was going to break down and cry. I don’t mean a single stoic tear in silence. It was an ugly cry of despair.

11 or 12 kittens in a pile. Whichever I picked up, there was something wrong with him/her. Malnourished. Dehydrated. With an eye infection. Three or four had their eyelids completely shut. I gently rubbed them with a wet cotton pad, but they did not open. I was howling at home to Tamer that they were blind! “How will they survive? These are walking corpses, their days are numbered… ”

The next day I brought them food and water again, just an extra stop on my daily feline feeding route. One kitten sadly succumbed. The others kept climbing into my lap day after day. So I was able to give them eye drops. None were blind, only a few squinting glances stared at me as I was talking to them.

Tomorrow will be three weeks since they came into my life. 2 sisters already found a home. For others, we continue looking for the right adopters. Everyone is getting better, the orange tigers are already real three-month-old trouble makers.

If the one who threw them out on the street ever looks me in the eye, I will curse him out. But my Arabic isn’t advanced enough. I would spit in his face. But that’s wrong, I’m told. So what else is there for me to do?

I persevere. For the kitties.

Still me

7 years ago:

“Why do you have two last names,” a middle-aged man had a bone to pick with me.

“Yeah, I took one after my mother. She kept hers after marrying my father.”

“And what do you plan to do after you’re married? Have as many as three last names, adding your husband’s or something,” he replies, smirking at me, his eyes sending their own sarcastic message, saying I’ll eventually wear down with my feminist agendas once I get hitched.

“No, I’m not changing anything after that,” I tell him and walk away. He was neither the first nor the last with such ideas.

2 years ago:

“You know, Tamer, I’m going to keep my last names after our wedding,” I open the topic, in which, despite my firm stance, I couldn’t predict the outcome that followed.

“Who said anything about changing surnames? If you took mine, we might be mistaken for siblings on official documents in any Arab country. Where I come from, we do not change surnames after marriage.”

1 year ago:

“What’s your name now?” A third person, who is no longer in my contacts, sneers at me. “Is it Fatima or something?”

“No, I’m still me. Nothing’s changed, ”I write back and repeat the retort quietly in my head. Still me, staying true to myself.

Grain to grain, pogacha bread

“Not everything can be Turkish, ha!” My triumphant exclamation followed an exchange of messages with Tamer as he shared with me what he would be creating in our kitchen this time.

“Poğaça,” he wrote.
“You mean ‘pogača’? But that’s Slovenian! ”

After all, we have the pogacha bread deeply woven in our language from old fairy tales and, last but not least, in the famous proverb: “Grain to grain, pogacha ….” Slovenian, Slavic, it definitely cannot be of Turkish origin.

Of course, I went on an etymological treasure hunt and found in Slovene digitized dictionaries the information that ‘pogacha’ comes from our western border neighbors from the Italian word ‘focaccia’. It is funny that the Turkish etymology claims the same, only that (at least after the first impression searching the web) for some reason they skipped a step with the Slavic Balkan ‘pogača’, even though the Turkish notation is damn closer to it, only their pronunciation ‘g’ is silent.

So pogacha (based on an online Turkish recipe) was on the menu that afternoon. Tamer kneaded the dough, followed the recipe carefully and let it rise. Then I chopped some garlic, parsley and red pepper for the filling, all mixed with fresh local soft cheese (labnah). The head chef skillfully shaped the balls of dough and filled them with the mixture, then coated them with whisked eggs and sprinkled sesame and black cumin seeds on top.

He took a few pieces of pogacha to the office to share with his co-workers’ (from Turkey) the next day, but we kept most of it for ourselves. It was just too good!

Ladies only Cafe

Ladies only cafe. After a year and a half of living in Jeddah, I visited one for the first time.

Saudi Arabia still has it’s infamous separate entrances in some restaurants; this means entrance for families and entrance for singles. According to a basically unwritten rule, only men enter the singles sections, whereas families, couples and women in groups or alone enter elsewhere.

It has been some time now that the separated entrances and sections are no longer legally required. But why change something out of the blue if people are used to something and it suits them? After all, certain amount of money needs to be invested in renovating the buildings themselves.

And let’s not forget, “ordinary” mixed cafes and restaurants have been part of the scene in Saudi for quite a while.

But why shouldn’t there still be spaces only for ladies who, for religious, cultural or other reasons, do not take off their veils, scarves and / or long sleeves in public? Where they can let their hair down and enjoy a cup of coffee with their friends outside of their own homes.

Last week, I gladly accepted the invitation of my American friend Aileen, who has been living in Saudi Arabia with her Egyptian husband for the past 5 years.

How was it, you ask? Pleasant! Relaxing. We drank iced tea, nibbled on vegan chocolate cupcakes and chatted about cats for 2 hours.

Midnight scoundrels

The weather is changing. Daytime temperatures are rising. It is not unusual for the locals to be more active at night. I have mentioned this before in my letters. Playgrounds and parks are full even at late night hours.

After a while I too have succumbed to adjusting my daily rhythm. Going to bed late. Especially in the summer, my husband and I go for recreation only at night, after that I come home soaked from sweat, like walking out of a sauna.

Yet I will never be able to understand the ego and selfishness of some people around me here. For the sake of their comfort, they are willing to sacrifice the serenity of all their neighbors, without shame.

A few days ago I, simply put, “totally lost it”. At one o’clock at night, I couldn’t sleep just because some parents from next door had a brilliant idea to “let their children loose” under our bedroom window. For the record, these parents were outside with them.

Tamer sometimes goes to bed even later than myself, so he was still in the living room that night. The alarm clock for the next (or better said, same day) was set at 5:30 AM because we were planning a trip out of town. So the decision was made that I just wouldn’t suffer this sh*t for another hour, so I opened the window and yelled into the night for them to shut up. There was even a curse word somewhere, because my patience ran out about 20 minutes earlier, when my glass of tolerance was overflowed with countless similar incidents in the past year, and I stayed silent, compliant to the foreign land and culture.

I did not this time and it paid off. Midnight scoundrels who were probably not used to being told off went silent. It is possible they experienced nothing like it before. Perhaps it will stay with them for next time.