Ann George recalls generous hospitality in Jerusalem
I had only been at residence in my ‘apartment’ in the Old City for a few days when I realized that the $500 rent was not simply for accommodation.
As I walked home along the Street of the Prophets in the early evening after a long hot day, I was pondering what there might be in the fridge for my supper. The constant heat suppresses the appetite, but I was looking forward to a quiet few moments over a light meal in the courtyard, cooler and shadowed now, before broaching the ever-present bag of marking I was carrying home. I entered the Old City by the Jaffa Gate, took the road leading to the Armenian Cathedral, then turned sharp left into the series of whitewashed archways, steps up and down and paved paths that led to the courtyard. Then, three steep steps up and I was there, the bulk of the house to my right and the little modern box that contained my kitchen and shower-room to my left. In the kitchen was my fridge, an extremely large, elderly and battered American fridge. I opened the door and was astonished at seeing several covered dishes I certainly had not left there in the morning. I found a casserole full of stuffed vine leaves, another containing small stuffed courgettes, and a third smaller covered bowl of home-made humus. Was Auntie throwing a party? Had she run out of space in that even more enormous, shiny modern fridge she had in her own kitchen? Unusually, she had not come out to greet me, so I couldn’t ask. I scrabbled around the fridge shelves and found some tomatoes, cheese, bread and olives for my supper, added a glass of filtered water and another of dry, white Golan wine and settled down at the plastic table.
Auntie was out within five minutes. She was wearing her going-out clothes: mid-calf length black skirt, black shoes and stockings, black cardigan (whatever the temperature) and a brilliantly white buttoned blouse with a brooch at the collar. She took one look at the table then said fiercely, ‘Why you no eat my good food?’ I explained that I thought she had been storing it in my fridge, but she brushed my excuses away impatiently, ‘Of course for you. I no cook for throw away.’
It took me a week or so to work out the dynamics of the arrangement. There were two issues. The first was that Auntie, an excellent chef, trained from her childhood on a remote farm in the Lebanese mountains to use locally grown vegetables and locally produced meat to cook superb traditional recipes, was employed by the Assumptionist Fathers at the Church of St Peter in Gallicantu to cook the daily lunch-time meal for what was often thirty or so people, as they quite normally had long-term as well as daily guests. The second issue was that her cultural heritage impelled her to provide for the unforeseen guest. No-one visiting Auntie and Uncle would be allowed to walk away without a full stomach. Consequently, Auntie was categorically unable to cook for fewer than six people, but there were only herself and Uncle in the house. Over the two years or so of my sojourn in the courtyard I was royally provided for, eating up Auntie’s left-overs. All I can say in mitigation is that I truly believe that, in Auntie’s opinion, I was doing her a favour!
Ann George, a retired deputy headteacher, is a member of the Council of Forward in Faith.