The 101 year-old Man

I know I complain about Spanish Bureaucracy on this blog. A fair bit. But I am also aware that it could be much, much worse. And I know this because I have experienced it myself.

At the tail end of the Civil War in Lebanon – the one that mostly ended in 1992-ish, I was there for the summer. And, as you do, I had a document that needed a stamp. It couldn’t be put off as it was the difference between me getting my Lebanese passport or not. Stamps in Lebanon, at that time, were powerful things. And they were controlled by families and handed down, like royal titles. Essentially, if you had a stamp that was your job. People came and paid you for the stamp. Your job was to ensure that they had the correct documents, etc. Then you affixed your stamp and they gave you money. Simple.

But in the village in Northern Lebanon, where I was staying for the summer, the stamp was controlled by the 101 year-old man. The oldest man in the village. I never knew his actual name. That’s just what we called him. And where were we going to get this stamp? Not the town hall or a municipal building. Nope. We went to his house where he held court in his sitting room. But, of course.

Being an American, we go at things head on. We don’t like to waste our own time. And we don’t like to waste anyone else’s. It’s considered rude in the US. Time is something that is measured in my country. Time is money. Or Time’s a wastin. Something should only take as long as it absolutely must take. And we have University degrees to cut time wasting. We call it Industrial Engineering. How can we make something take less steps, and thus less time? It’s a cornerstone of our culture. But not every culture is like this. And it’s something I need to remember.

Back to the village on that very very hot August day in 1990, I made my way to the home of the 101 year-old man. We were greeted by a crowd of relatives and friends who were having coffee served by the 101 year-old man’s wife, who was herself ancient. That summer in Lebanon, we had less than four hours a day of electricity. Usually in the middle of the night. If the bulb came on you hopped up from a sound sleep, and started ironing, or doing something else that required electricity. People didn’t sit around watching TV all day (there were maybe three channels, anyway) for entertainment, they visited each other. All the time. So walking into a home filled with people was not unusual. We kissed cheeks, heads were bowed in acknowledgment of my village newcomer status. Then we were invited to sit.

I knew I was in for it when more and more plates came out of the kitchen. Nuts, sweets, and cigarettes were passed around. And pots of Turkish coffee began to be drunk, in copious amounts. We were there for seven hours.

‘Seven hours?!?’ You might exclaim. ‘Preposterous!’ But its really not. They all knew we were there for the stamp. But there is a certain way things are done, and it takes time. Politics were hotly debated, at volume. Village gossip. Some matchmaking of someone’s cousin in America or Canada or France. We ran the gamut. As you would expect during all of this, even though my Arabic was pretty good back then, I got antsy. I don’t smoke, but I smoked that day. Out of boredom. The coffee kept me awake. Maspahas are like the fidget spinners of the Middle East. They were spun on fingers and beads were counted. And we drank arak. It’s sort of like Pernod in France. Served with ice and water, it turns a cloudy white in the glass and tastes like gasoline and anise. And it kills anything residing in your body that might be causing you discomfort. Like intestinal parasites. No kidding. After a few hours, I started to whine quietly. You can take the girl out of America, but you can’t take America out of the girl. We were wasting time! I was like a toddler. ‘Why is this taking sooo long? We just need to ask him for the stamp.’ But that is not how it was done.

Finally, we all got up and made to leave. I started to panic. Where was my freaking stamp?!? More cheek kissing and saying our farewells. And then, as if it were an afterthought, and not the only reason I was there in the first place, a sentence was uttered. ‘Forgive me, Amo. I almost forgot. We need to have a stamp on this document for Kelli.’ My document is promptly taken up by one of the male members of the 101 year-old man’s family. It is reviewed and handed to the next male family member. Finally, it makes its way to the 101 year-old man himself. He looks it over. Honestly, he may have been blind. I have no idea. His son whispers in his ear and he looks up at me. ‘You want to be Lebanese, like us?’ I say that I do, and he nods. Satisfied. Then his son goes to the desk and brings him his stamp. He is helped in opening the ink pad and the son aims his hand over where it should be pressed, then with great flourish the stamp is affixed and the deed is done. At that moment, the room breaks out into furious talking and self congratulations, as if any of these people had anything to do with it. And yet, it seems, this is a moment of great import and should be remembered for posterity.

So, after all that, I got my stamp. And I try to remember that day, so long ago, when I want to blow an American gasket over the bureaucracy in Spain. Don’t be so impatient, I tell myself. Things could be so much worse. But they do require more time than I am used to. And there is a lot less tackling of things head-on here, and more cultural niceties that must be respected and adhered to. In the US, we are bulls in china shops by comparison. But this is an opportunity to slow down. Until it’s not.

The other day we were speaking to friends. Jeff was telling them how our electricity has been going out 5 or 6 times a day. We are not always sure why. It makes it difficult for him to work some days. But they had some insight.

‘The electrical lines on your road are notorious. Everyone knows. They were put in 70 years ago and have never been touched again. Imagine. I am surprised you have any electricity, at all.’

We were shocked and said so. ‘How is this possible?’

They shrugged, but then they had an idea. ‘If you want to do something, and be a hero to your neighbors, you will write a letter to the public utility. Tell them you are Americans and you are appalled by how bad the electricity is on your street. And demand they do something about it.’

I frowned. ‘I don’t want to do that. That seems like a bad idea. Throwing the ‘I’m an American’ around.’

She just laughed. ‘You don’t understand. You tell them you moved to Galicia from America, and you want to live here but working is impossible. Like a third world country. In America, no one would stand for this. They will be ashamed that an American is having to put up with such a shoddy electrical line. Believe me, they will come out and string new lines.’

‘No way!’ said Jeff.

‘Yes. You have some power, as Americans. You should use it for good.’

I have whiplash. My eyes are spinning in my head. Suddenly, coming at things head on isn’t such a bad thing? And we can help our neighbors out in the process? She made it sound like a piece of cake, yet I’m still not so sure. We will see. But, no matter what, getting the power company to come out and put in new lines couldn’t be as hard as getting a stamp in a small village in Lebanon from the infamous 101 year-old man.

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