Communal Jamaica

May 12, 2010

I shifted uncomfortably in my seat as I glanced down one more time at my almost-empty wallet and then back up at the smiling expectant faces.

It was a lovely day and the lunch hour was, as always, warmly welcomed as the nine-to-six mitigator. Sun shinning, tummy grumbling and clock striking one, Aika grabbed her jacket and come-on-ed dina me. With calculated casualness, meant to boast the month-earned familiarity with local cafes and restaurants, I asked, Aspire?

No no everyday Aspire Aspire. Boring. We’re going to Yamayka. Where? Yamayka.

This Yamaka was Jamaica. Café Jamaica. I felt a bit uneasy. It sounded like a fun place – just the kind of fun that affluent people have. As soon as I saw the colourful exterior of Cafe Jamaica and the slightly ritzy, albeit casual, interior with its two big plasma screens, I knew I was right.

Usually we go to Aspire and I can have yummy soup and boiled potatoes with vegetables and meat for an average of 300 Tenge, which is about $2 or 12 LE. Pretty cheap. And usually we’re a group of three or four. Five maximum. Small platoons. And that’s usually the perfect size because then people make an effort to speak in English. Everyone in the office, except for the nice cleaning lady and the nice security guy(s), speaks English. But almost no one is really comfortable with it. I always get the feeling that carrying out prolonged informal conversations is both taxing and tedious for them and as such I never hold it against anyone when they drift to Russian, even though it does sometimes make me feel left out when everyone is doubling over some joke and I’m just sitting there, with a confounded look and a constrained smile  plastered across my face, occasionally emulating the gesticulative gleefulness that others tend to exhibit (tilting forward and snapping back against my chair, slapping my knee, shaking my shouldres).  It’s even worse when someone takes pity on me and attempts to translate the jokes. Oiy the awkwardness. I often don’t get the joke and my attempt at a natural giggle comes out a snicker and less and less people have pity in the future.

In any case, back to Jamaica.

Another thing I liked about Aspire was that each person paid for his or her own food beforehand. You grab a tray, pick what you want to eat, pay, sit down and eat. Like Greco in Egypt. Not the same thing with Yamayca. It was a proper restaurant even though the sign outside said otherwise.  You sat down and there were menus and a maitre d’ to take your orders please, and most importantly, there was a cheque.

Prices per dish were up to 5,000 tenge. My heart pounded as the faster I flipped through the portentous menu pages, the higher the prices were. People must have noticed my growing anxiety as they started pointing out that we were only ordering from the first page because it was the express menu and we were in a hurry. I flopped the thick menu back to its first page.  Once again I was in the familiar zone of below-1000 tenge. Still more expensive than Aspire but reasonably so. In fact, I managed to order the traditional soup, beshbarmak – vegetables in meat broth – and an interesting sounding ethnic dish (blitz I think it was called) – meat and eggs rolled in pita bread, almost like shawerma but seasoned differently, with mashed potatoes on the side. And it came to about 330 tenge. Healthy, filling, and cheap. I was very proud of myself. Until the cheque came.

I was reaching out to grab it to confirm the sum that I already knew was due when someone said 600. I looked around to see if it was actually directed at me.

As it turned out,  it was directed at everyone. Get this: the total sum was equally divided by the number of people, regardless of what you ordered. So for example I don’t like drinking while eating so I didn’t order a drink. Everyone else did, more than one drink even. I eat slow so I didn’t order desert. A bunch of the others did. I wasn’t too too hungry so I ordered soup and the blitz thing. Others ordered salads and hors d’oeuvres and more elaborate main dishes.  Why oh why should I pay as much as the rest when I didn’t order as much?

To slightly aggravate my predicament, I was worried I didn’t have enough money on me. I have made it a point ever since I got here to carry around very little money (around 300 or 400 tenge) so that I wouldn’t even be tempted to indulge myself. Which is another reason why I was trying to have a meal within a certain budget.

It is very important to point out that I’m not stingy, never was, hopefully never will be. Nevertheless. I was – I am – trying to be thrifty. I never really had to worry about money before and have lived, for the most part, frivolously in Egypt. This is a chance for me to prove, to my parents and myself, that I can survive comfortably enough in an expensive city with a low budget. It was a self-imposed test. A social experiment. And I had every intention to pass it.  I did not, however, factor in cheque-splitting conventions.

Personal motivations and agendas aside, the whole communal cheque thing struck me as bizarre. Granted it was a sweet sentiment, endearing even, that you just equally share the expense and that’s that. Sort of an I’ve-got-your-back mentality. But it definitely did not fit with the paradigm I grew up in. In Egypt, and all other places I’ve been to so far, you don’t split cheques equally regardless of who ordered what. You maybe offer to treat others for the whole thing. Usually you just pay for what you ordered and neatly sidestep any social unpleasantness. None of this half-way streamlining mumbo. And I blame it on communism.

I paid my share, counting up the last of my coins – 570, 580, 590 aaand 600. Head held up high with self-indignation, I put on my yellow polka dot sunglasses and walk out of Jamaica – from then on known to my ruminating self  as  Communal Jamaica.

One Response to “Communal Jamaica”

  1. Yehia said

    Dandoun I love your writings though sometimes puzzeled with some mysterious vocabulary
    you can be thrifty but u can always have some extra money hidden in a deep part of your wallet in case of emergency

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