A Boléan by any other name...
by Yirgalem Indezih
I met my first Boléan (pronounced BolEyan) a few months ago at a café in Paris (she insisted on calling it Paree, pulling her lips back to reveal a perfect row of white teeth). I approached her because I thought she was, like me, Ethiopian, and asked her so, but I was quickly corrected in my erroneous (and I do believe she also subtly managed to indicate arrogant) assumption. My routine afternoon espresso outing turned into a cultural education that I feel privileged – nay, impelled – to share. I have detailed the content of my brief yet lobotomizingly educational conversation below for the slow and careful consumption of my readers.
It was a beautiful day in Paris (Paree) and the sky was an azure blue, that is if you can manage to peer beyond the cigarette haze of the average Parisienne’s 3-pack-a-day-of-the-most-acrid-cigarette-brand-they-can-find habit. Americans may drop like flies because they jog too much but the Parisienne (to paraphrase the publicity folks at Timex) can’t stop smokin’, but keep on kickin’. I bobbed and weaved between the scent of a cheroot and the septum-warping aroma of a Cuban cigar and practically slammed into her as she sat, her neatly crossed knees protruding ever so perfectly into the narrow passageway between the tratoria tables.
“Pardo’,” I said automatically, reaching out to steady myself.
“C’est pas grave,” the lady said, expertly removing her Prada-shod feet from being trampled by my Nike clodhoppers.
I glanced into her familiar eyes, felt a kinship with the perfect complexion of her brown skin and admired the wavy curls of her “natural” do.
“Abesha nesh?” The question came out on auto pilot. I know, I know! We live in a day and age where tripping over an Ethiopian napping under the protective overhang of a mountainside in the Andes is hardly worth a mention, but you can’t help yourself when you meet someone you are sure speaks your language and knows how to expertly roll a pharynx-clogging gursha. You ask. They smile. You smile back. You’ve made a new friend.
Ah, yes, I miss those days!
“Non,” said my new almost friend.
I did a quick mental rewind and heard myself again posing the question in Amharic. Had my accent gotten so bad then that this woman with the typical Abesha eyes actually thought I was asking her if she wanted more…of whatever green goo she was sipping at from that impossibly tall and slim glass?
“A-be-sha nesh?” I asked again, careful to enunciate my words, arching my eyebrows just so, smiling winningly. Surely, this time….
“Non,” she said again, matched my raised eyebrow and raised the second one in what I took as some weird form of challenge.
“Really?” I said. “Well, I could have sworn…because…you know…you understood…never mind.” I was intrigued. Here was a mystery draped in a pretty Dolce and Gabbana écharpe and I wanted to unwrap the mystery and find out if there was anything of interest in the package. “May I?” I asked indicating the wrought iron chair and pulled it out and sat down before she could voice the refusal poised on her moistly rouged lips. Her hands flailed in what I’m sure was an unfamiliar gesture of defeat, but to her credit she stretched her lips into an almost gracious smile and said nothing.
“So…where are you from, then?” I asked.
“Bolé,” she said and (I swear) preened a little bit and sat up even straighter.
Bolé? I thought. Bolé? Surely she meant….
“Bali?” I asked.
“No, Bolé,” she said and allowed a smidgen of irritation to mar her unlined forehead with a faint wrinkle.
“Bali?” I said again, reaching up with my pinky to smudge the kook in my ear.
“No, Bolé,” she said and this time the irritation was quite clearly there. “ ‘Bo’, as in Bo Derek, and ‘lé’ as in…laissez faire, not ‘li’ as in Bruce Lee! Get it?”
“Bolé?” I said. Were I a character in a cartoon cell, my eyes would be saucer-wide and I’d be staring at the reader with a huge question mark above my confused head. As it were, I felt as though I’d walked in, stage right, onto the stage of a bad play and felt compelled to stay for the duration of my scene. I smelled a story here – if not good enough to print, then good enough to regale my friends with over a cold glass of beer. Beer. I thought beer would be good just then. Or a shot of something…helpful…in my espresso.
“So,” I said, deciding to step deliberately into the quicksand, “where is…Bolé?”
“It’s near A’dis,” she said.
“A’dis?” I asked feeling the quicksand give under my feet.
“A’dis, yeah….as in A’dis A’ba?” she said and I heard the implied “Duh!” and tried not to grit my teeth.
“Addis Abeba…as in the capital city of Ethiopia?” I asked.
“So, wait a second. I don’t understand. Your country is in the capital city of another country?”
“Technically speaking,” she admitted, and shrugged her slim brown shoulders relaying to me just how inconsequential she found this small detail. “But actually, Bolé is not a country (what an unfashionably gauche word, her tone implied). Bolé is a principality…like, say…Monaco – lots of money, it’s own distinct culture, an international airport, but no standing army and, of course, no skiing.”
Principality. Stop the presses. I leaned in as the student of a slightly more blonde Socrates might have done eons ago under an olive tree on Crete, which is not a principality…last I checked…and may actually belong to Greece, but I digress.
“I see,” I said, and felt exactly how a blind man may have speaking to the deaf. “And in Bolé you speak…?”
“guramaylE, of course,” she said.
“Naturally,” I agreed. The quicksand was beginning to feel…well, rather comfortable. I’ve heard it’s easier when you move with it rather than struggle against it. “So, were you born in…Bolé?” I asked.
“Well,” she began and the reluctance rose off her skin like steam off fresh ibet. “I was actually born in A’dis.”
“So, how did you become a …a Boléan?”
“Like, we actually moved there! (Duh! )”
“Ah…I see. So, can anyone become a Boléan by just moving there?”
“Oh, no! Huh-uh. No way.”
“But you did? You moved there and became a Boléan.”
“Because,” she said and rolled her huge eyes, “I was always a Boléan. I mean, I may have been born in A’dis, spoken, like, Arada, growing up, but I’m a true blood Boléan. It’s, like, very hard to explain,” she said and again, her French-manicured hands thrashed the air, “because it’s not something you can see. It’s more like something you feel, deep, deep down inside your Boléan bones.”
“So, when did you first feel…er…it…that you were a Boléan?”
She paused in thought and this beatific expression glazed over her eyes and I truly was not certain whether she was having a flashback or whether she had spotted a pair of hand-tooled Italian leather boots smacking the cobblestones and was having a footwear-related leather fantasy.
“The first time I felt the essence of the Boléan being in the marrow of my bones,” she began dreamily, “was the first – and last - time I shopped in Merkato.” She shuddered delicately and I, entranced by her complete immersion in the story, shuddered along with her. “I felt increasingly foreign amongst the street riff-raff. The sight of the grossly unorganized produce littering the muddy sidewalks left me wanting to retch…and I would have, too, but for fear of what the backsplash may do to my favorite pair of Gucci sandals. The array of blindingly uncoordinated colors hanging from korenti wire displays…the little boys wearing rags held together by rubber bands and worn thread…(shudder!) - that level of organized fashion faux pas was enough to shred my soul out of existence. But, I made it back home, Sehai-Sehai iyeshetetku, and promised myself, never again. You can be assured that I’ve kept my word to myself.
“But to be honest with you,” she continued after taking a moment to recover from memories better left buried under the debris of happier times, “I think I knew, even as a child. I remember when my mother sent me to a Qes temari-bet for God knows what reason, and I came home with a splitting headache, my little behind sore from having to sit on a makeshift slab of brick on the Parquet-less floor in that dark, dank, airless room. My God!” she invoked with a reverent shudder and I felt her pain.
“So, that was your first clue?” I asked
“Sign, my first sign,” she corrected me.
“I take it then all members of your family are from…er… Bolé?”
“Oh no. No. Not at all.”
“You have relatives who are not Boléan?”
She paused. Her eyes evaded mine. She rubbed at an invisible hangnail and said, “I…uh…I don’t like to talk about that.”
“I’m guessing,” I continued, “that you have trouble explaining to people who may have never heard of Bolé (as hard as it is to believe) where it is.”
“You’re quite insightful,” she said, smiling at me again. “There was discussion at one point, of coming out to the world. Someone suggested a t-shirt: We’re Here, We’re the Boléans, Get Used to It! Catchy don’t you think?”
I glanced down at the prosaic yet painfully true slogan on my own t-shirt: Dangerous When Uncaffeinated, and crossed my arms over it, hoping she hadn’t seen it yet. But I shouldn’t have worried because she was launching into yet another narrative.
“I was on a plane once, coming back from Genève after a weekend shopping spree with my girlfriends, and this fellow – who should have known better than to address me directly – asked me if I were from A’dis. I was like, ‘No, I’m from Bolé.’ And he’s like, ‘Isn’t that the same thing?’
“Can you believe it!? The gall. The utter gall!! You can be sure I railed at him for a good minute in guramaylE. I told him how we were separate and distinct from the A’dis A’bans and how we would never be caught dead in rubber flip-flops and a neTela. We are way more fashion conscious, I told him. Way more sophisticated. We have benefited from extensive travel on company expense accounts and, dammit!, we’re Boléans – the few, but the very, very proud…and fashionable.
“He was about to drivel on about something when, out of nowhere, a fellow Boléan came to my rescue with a resounding, ‘ai-de-le!?’ Oh, I could have kissed her. I knew right away she was a Boléan…just by looking at her.”
“So, you can tell Boléans apart just by looking at one?”
“Well, of course we can. The first thing you’d notice about your typical Boléan – not that there’s really anything typical about us - is that we’re very melke-melkam. And the second thing is – and this is by far more important – our sense of fashion sophistication. We’re trend setters. If you go back in history, I’ll bet that you’ll discover that the first person to have an Afro on the African eastern seaboard were the Boléans…and the…”
“But, wait a second,” I cut her off. “I have a picture of my grandmother from the second Italian invasion and she had an Afro and she was most definitely not a Boléan.”
“Oh, my dear,” she drawled, patiently, “I’m sure she didn’t have an Afro. She couldn’t have. She probably had a goferE,” she enlightened me, rolling out her American ‘R’. “See, a Boléan would never mistake one for the other!
“But, as I was saying,” she continued, “our sense style and our penchant for trend-setting will always mark us as distinctly Boléan. For example, I’m sure you shop at discount stores,” she said letting me know her Boléan eyes had not missed my wrinkled t-shirt nor my old-school Nikes. “But I…we shop at DAVG.”
“DAVG? Is that like BCBG?”
“Oh, for Bolé’s sake!” She snapped. “DAVG stands for Dior, Armani, Versace and Gucci. As a university student, I practically lived at the Yves St. Laurent Rive Gauche Women’s Boutique on Place St. Sulpice here in Paree. I was president of Friends Of Fashion Windows two years running. I mean,” she said, looking meaningfully into my dazed eyes, “I’m not just a Boléan by name, I live the life.”
I believed her. I could see the truth in her eyes. She believed her. Before me sat a Boléan – there was no mistaking it. It was in the way her Pradas dangled off her manicured toes, in the arch of her salon-waxed brows, in the point of her French-tipped pinky as she raised her graduated cylinder for a sip at her green goo.
“And it’s not just about looks and fashion,” she continued mistaking my near trance for the devotion of the freshly converted. “Although, God knows, that keeps us busy enough. I mean, we’re talking about the essence of the identity of the quintessential Boléan (try to say that fast three-times!). We’re not all about poise and self-pampering – two fundamental aspects of the Boléan life, of course – but we’re also about fomenting a reason and a way to break away from the masses…the ill-mannered, plaid-and-stripes-wearing, under-deoderized masses who hover all around us in such an oppressively real manner. I mean, really, if they had any manners at all, they’d have moved on…”
“Where?” My tongue, on auto-pilot again, formed the word and spat it out while she was sucking in cigarette-smoke-based air to continue her vitriol.
“Where? What do you mean where?” She looked - yes, there it was, behind the sheen of annoyance and quivering irritability – confused.
“You said that the…er…masses should move. I’m wondering where to?”
She rolled her eyes and my eyeballs followed the huge orbs up in an unintended mimicry, as though our eyes were strung together on a thread of mind-numbing illogic.
“Must we Boléans think of everything?” Her slender hands punctuated her question while at the same time waving away the details of her idea like one might an irritating fly. “Don’t we have enough to do keeping our cultural walls high, our manners rich and our cash cleverly diversified in overseas investment ventures? People immigrate everyday, don’t they? I mean, look at me – I went from A’dis to Bolé.”
Indeed. I was nearly out of espresso, and soon, very soon, I was going to be out of my rapidly dwindling synapse and dendrites. The vats of alcohol I had willingly consumed while still in college had done less damage to my brain than this conversation. I was squinting against the smoke and the growing ache in the back of my head. There was a certain level of patently selfish logic to her argument and, in my own ineffectual way, I was fighting to keep my head above the flood of her droning verbal quagmire.
“A-ny-way,” she continued on a protracted sigh, “we Boléans feel that it is only once we are free of the masses, that we can begin to fashion and rule Bolé as and how we want, how our founding mothers and fathers intended. We can proudly fly our flag high above…”
“Hang on. You have a flag? I mean, Bolé has a flag?” I interrupted her verbal diarrhea, despite the fact that I could feel the quicksand at my neck, immobilizing me further.
“Of course we have a flag. It’s kinda’ cute, actually. Initially, some of the more psychologically co-dependent citizens of Bolé wanted a sort of connecting theme to the old green-gold-red color scheme. But those of us who despise anything ancient and…well, let’s face it, overdone, put our feet down. No way! We may have given in on the delicious idea of building city walls around Bolé, but dammit, we were not going to knuckle under on the whole flag issue.
“So, we presented our design…a really cute, and I mean really, really cute, fuchsia design with unum fascionum credato printed ever so slightly off-center, giving the lettering the illusion of bas relief.” She paused here, delighting in her memory of the moment when they had unfurled the ghastly cloth before the flag committee. “The bas relief was my idea,” she said. “I really do believe it’s what got me elected to the Committee for Fashion and Good Taste.”
“I’m sure it was,” I mumbled. My chin was in my hand, my mouth was dry and my soul was tired. “unum fascionum credato?” I asked. “I’m sorry but my Latin is…well, non-existent.”
“Of course,” she agreed. “It means in fashion we believe. Catchy and true.”
“Oh yes,” I said.
“We may simply be a principality now with an obscure newsletter, Today, in Bolé!, which circulates only to Boléans, but eventually, we can grow into…into… something more formed…like a nation, a nation of impeccable dress and manners, finishing schools and expensive hotels, outrageously handsome homes, manicured lawns, perfectly paved roads…oh, I could go on and on!”
“If I may ask,” I ventured bravely, “do you now live in Bolé or in Paris?”
“Well, in Paree – but only temporarily. I have every intention of going back and helping Bolé become what it was always meant to be.”
“And that is…?”
“Free…free of all the things that make it less than it is.”
“And how do you mean to achieve this…freedom?”
“There’s a fledgling but quite strong underground movement. You must have heard of the LLB.”
Dear God! I thought. If she’s about to tell me they’ve named their movement after a chain store with fashion ideas for the weekend warrior, I’m going to tear her Bo from her lé!
“The LLB?” she repeated searching my eyes for a trace of recognition. “Our movement is called Long Live Bolé.”
“Long Live Bolé?” I murmured.
“Indeed,” she said. “We wanted to set ourselves a bit apart from the LF’s of the world so we quickly nixed the idea of BLF, although someone did point out one could read it as belief which is what has gotten us this far – a staunch, unwavering belief in our uniqueness, our need to stand apart and be counted in the world as the unique Boléans. It is our secret hope that guramaylE will one day be taught at the best universities around the world. With a lot of effort and perseverance, who knows, guramaylE may one day succeed in replacing English as the international language.”
She went on to say more. I could see her lips moving through the haze of my benumbed mind. The only thing I knew for certain anymore was that, in her presence, I felt distinctly, patriotically A’dis Aban. Maybe we A’dis A’bans needed our own clique, too, our own soccer team, our own language and identity and maybe even our own newsletter: Still in A’dis A’ba!
Sometime later, as I stood up to wave her off, I realized that…wait a second! We did have all of that!! Our own flag, even, in all it’s green-gold-red glory. Mollified, I sat back down and raised my finger.
“Garçon!” I called out. I was gonna need that shot of something lethal in my espresso – post haste! The grit of sand was bitter on my tongue.
[The author is Seleda’s Paree correspondent and now insists on being called Yiyu.]
Click here to view past Backpage features