Ann George finds a stranger sitting on her doorstep

I was continually being amazed at the number of languages that Auntie had at her disposal. Apart from her native Lebanese Arabic, she was also fluent in Jerusalem Arabic (a very different form) and French; her English was improving daily and, as well as a smattering of Hebrew, she could make herself understood in Italian, which she used to communicate with a young woman from Milan who was renting a room round the corner by the etrog tree. She had even more linguistic skills, however, as I realized when I came home one day to find her sitting on her sofa inside the house with the door open, comforting Maria, a Greek lady who spent half the year trawling remote villages in Greece for homemade lace and embroidery, and the other half of the year selling it (probably very profitably) in towns and cities in Syria, Lebanon and the Holy Land. I had previously met Maria at the Melkite convent when I was renting a room from some Syrian nuns, and where we habitually spoke French. Here in the courtyard Maria was very much at home, holding and patting various parts of her waist and abdomen, moaning in Greek, and Auntie had her arm round her shoulders, murmuring consolatory Greek phrases into her ear. After Maria left, I popped in to greet Auntie and to ask her why Maria was so upset, was she very unwell?

Auntie looked at me in surprise, and then laughed. ‘No, no, she eat too much and now she cannot wear best Sunday dress,’ I joined in the laughter, little knowing that I would soon be only too glad of Auntie’s prowess in Greek.

On the Thursday before the Orthodox Easter that year I returned to the courtyard at dusk, and found a heavily-built woman dressed in a long black skirt, a bundle of multi-coloured cardigans and a headscarf sitting on the doorstep that led to my kitchen and bathroom. She had set a large, bulging plastic bag next to her and her eyes were closed. I took a deep breath, opened the door to my living/bedroom and put my work bag inside. I then took another deep breath and went out to try to find out what was going on.

Auntie was in her kitchen, working on the various delicacies that she was going to have to provide for the feasting in a few days’ time. She had no idea that we had an unexpected visitor, and bustled out to greet her.

It was indeed a blessing that Auntie could speak Greek. At her ‘Kalispera’ the woman opened her eyes and immediately, it seemed, stated her business in a positive flood of Greek. After quite a while, Auntie managed to get in a word or two, then she turned to me. ‘She is pilgrim from Greece, come for Feast. Walking and bus, she come. She stay and pray in church. She late, so no place in church here. She say stay and pray here tonight, tomorrow night, then go.’

I was very impressed that this pilgrim had come all by herself to Jerusalem by bus and on foot through several countries, but not so impressed that she was planning to stay the night on my doorstep, particularly as I would have to disturb her every time I needed to go to my kitchen or bathroom. Auntie then offered her the bed just inside her door where Uncle would often stretch out during the day, but the woman would not have any of it. We finally persuaded her to move to the doorstep of one of Uncle’s cousins, George, who was abroad for a few months. So, with much grunting she got to her feet, picked up her plastic bag and moved to the doorstep behind the loquat tree, directly opposite my front door. Auntie wanted to give the pilgrim some supper but she refused. Horrified by the thought that she might die of hunger in the courtyard during the night Auntie took off her apron and went round to the local Armenian Tavern where they donated a plate of chips. For some reason the woman was ready to eat these.

Our pilgrim stayed the night on Cousin George’s doorstep, but by the time I got up to go to work the next morning she had gone, presumably to the Church of the Resurrection, which opened at daybreak. Friday evening I could see her dark, still shape every time I crossed the courtyard, but she had disappeared by the time I got up on Saturday morning and we didn’t see her again. She was, presumably, starting back on her long journey home immediately after the ceremony of the New Fire.

In the usual way Auntie was always very hospitable, but she was quite put out by our unexpected guest. ‘Only eat chips’, she grumbled. ‘Why she not eat my good food?’